Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan, (South of the River) – Du Fu

Meeting Li Guinian at Jiangnan

Often we met at Prince Qi’s Palace and
Many times I heard you at Lord Cui’s home and
Just now, at Jiangnan, when the earth is its finest
When blossoms are falling, we meet again, by chance

street-performer-guitar.jpg

Notes

Poetry, calligraphy, music and art all flourished in the Tang dynasty.

But then, glory and flame are fleeting. And chance plays a major part in whether we end up rich man or poor man, poet or recluse, court musician or street performer.

Du Fu was one of the Tang dynasty’s greatest poets. He was also a prominent civil servant who unfortunately found his star falling at the close of his life.

Li Guinian was a famous musician of the same time. Likewise, his fortunes, fell during the An Lushan Rebellion, and so he ended up as a street performer South of the Yangtze River, where the encounter described in the poem took place.

Title

A literal translation of the title is At Jiangnan Meeting Li Guinian. Jiangnan also translates as South of the River, but it is also a place name. Du Fu intended both meanings.

The poem’s date

A fateful event triggered a change in fortune. This was the An Lushan Rebellion, which began in 755 and ended 8 years alter.

The poem, therefore, can be dated after this and before Du Fu’s death in 770. It would not be too far a stretch to spot the time of the meeting between poet and musician to after 765, when Du Fu and his family sailed down the Yangtze, with the intention of making their way to Luoyang, Du Fu’s birthplace.

Prince Qi and Cui Jui

Prince Qi, named in the poem, likely refers to a brother of the Tang Emperor Xuanzong. Cui Jiu likely refers to a member of the Cui clan of Qinghe, and chancellor to the emperor. I confess to confusion in the translation of Cui Jui. Jui means 9th, but I doubt that Du Fu is referring to a 9th son. Rather, it is likely Cui Jui was a prominent person in the emperor’s entourage. Exactly who is a mystery. Other Tang poets like Pei Di have referred to Cui Jui, (see A Farewell to Cui Jiu), so one suspects there is more to the passing reference.

Jiangnan

Jiangnan (South of the River) is generally described as the to lands immediately to south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Most translations of Du Fu’s poem use the literal English South of the River, rather than the geographic place name, Jiangnan. There is an argument either way, Jiangnan is more sonorous, South of the River has a better implied connotation. Crossing the river and south of the river might both be metaphors for a tragic but happy or sad change in one’s fortunes.

Original Chinese

江 南 逢 李 龜 年
岐 王 宅 裡 尋 常 見
崔 九 堂 前 幾 度 聞
正 是 江 南 好 風 景
落 花 時 節 又 逢 君

Pinyin

Jiāngnán féng lǐ guī nián
qí wáng zhái lǐ xún chángjiàn
cuī jiǔ tángqián jǐdù wén
zhèng shì jiāngnán hǎo fēngjǐng
luòhuā shíjié yòu féng jūn

French

Li Guinian et moi, nous nous rencontrons
Au Palais du Prince Qi, souvent, nous nous sommes rencontrés
Chez le maître Cui, plusieurs fois, je vous ai entendu
Tout à l’heure, à Jiangnan, quand la terre est son meilleur
Quand la floraison tombe, on se retrouve, par chance

streets-guitar

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River Snow

I confess to being fascinated by the imagery in Liu Zongyuan poem River Snow (elsewhere I and others have used the translation Sn0w Covered River, but now I question its accuracy).

river-snow-crop

river snow

 

A thousand mountains and not a bird to be seen. The wintry landscape is smooth and pristine. And there in a boat on a snow-covered river sits a lonely fisherman clad in a cape of sea-grass wearing a bamboo hat.

Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819) lived in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. China was in the midst of rebellion and invasion, famine and flooding. The Tang dynasty, weakened by these calamities, would however go on, ending almost a century later in 907 AD. Surely, Liu had a foretaste of the end and a sense of the fragility of life. This “existentialist” poem more than hints at man’s isolation in the world and his struggles to survive against all that nature can throw at him.

Liu’s title is 江雪, literally River Snow.

Most translations are River Snow or Snow Covered River. There is a third possibility. River snow like lake effect snow is a specific atmospheric condition. One observes water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground in a thin white layer. The effect is quite ethereal and poetic and untranslatable.

That said, here I go again at translating Liu’s poem.

A thousand mountains, and not a sign of a bird in flight
On the wintry-white land, not a footprint in sight
But here on a frozen river, in a boat
Clad in my cape of sea-grass and bamboo hat
I sit and fish
Alone

Yes, I have translated Liu’s characters differently elsewhere. After all, the Chinese characters and the English words they represent are nothing more than images of the mind. We do not see words when we look at the world, we see images. Liu understood this. His setting is sparse – a thousand mountains covered in snow, not a single bird, not a trace of mankind but for this solitary fisherman, alone in his boat. Is the river snow-covered or frozen? And does it matter? Liu thought it important to clothe our fisherman only in cape of sea-grass and a bamboo hat. This implies that our fisherman is the lowliest of the low.

We are observers of this scene, unable to penetrate his thoughts, and yet, somehow we know.

Notes.

Elsewhere I have concluded that 千山, the Thousand Mountains, Liu refers to in the first line is Qianshan National Park in Liaoning Province, China.