A flower is no flower – Bai Juyi

A flower is no flower
mist no mist
that which comes at midnight
leaves at dawn,
arrives like a spring dream – for a while
leaves like a morning cloud – nowhere to be found

On the meaning of life

Perhaps because his mother died, caused by falling into a well while looking at some flowers, or because Bai overstepped himself as a palace official and was exiled to to Jiujiang (Xun Yang), Bai Juyi chose to write this lovely poem about the fleeting nature of life.
Poets and songwriters have long written about the ephemeral nature of life. No one has done it better than Bai Juyi, though one can try (and lose the poem’s simplicity and rhyme):

“Like the flower that fades and dies, like the morning mist, that which comes in the darkness of night, departs at first light, life that comes in spring like a dream, leaves like a morning cloud, and then is nowhere to be found.”


Not a cheery view, indeed. And perhaps contemptuous of the Tang dynasty, because in the last line, Bai’s makes an ambiguous reference to the imperial court, 朝 cháo, meaning morning, but also “dynasty”.

It has been said that man is a being in search of meaning.

What’s yours?

Original Chinese

花非花,霧非霧
夜半來,天明去
來如春夢, 不多時
去似朝雲, 無覓處

Pinyin

Huā fēi huā wù fēi wù
yèbàn lái tiānmíng qù
lái rú chūnmèng bù duō shí
qù shì cháo yún wú mì chù

Notes on translation

花 huā, flower. A flower is a symbol of beauty, perseverance, love, and most of all the transitory nature of life.
霧 wù, mist or fog.
天明 tiānmíng, dawn, first light, break of day.
春夢 chūnmèng, literally spring dream, figuratively a brief illusion.
朝雲 cháo yún, morning cloud, cháo can also be a subtle reference to the imperial court, since 朝, means “morning”, but also “imperial court”. This was the kind of language that got Bai Juyi in trouble.
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Li Bai, The Four Seasons, Ballads

Li Bai has created a series of four love ballads set to the four seasons. The subject is women, the theme is love, devotion, and longing.

12th c. copy of work by zhang xuan, detail
Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk, Zhang Xuan (12th c. copy)

The Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Fo of the western land of Chin plucks mulberry leaves by the blue waterside, her white arms gleam against the green boughs… In Summer, On Mirror Lake spread out for miles and miles, blossoming lotus lily flowers teem… In Autumn, a crescent moon hangs over Chang’an, and ten thousand wives are pounding clothes…In Winter, she’s told the courier departs next day, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

Spring

The ballad of Spring is an abbreviated version of an earlier Yuefu poem (樂府, folk song) “Mulberries along the field” (陌上桑). Li Bai pays homage to the chaste and loyal Lo Fo (Lo Fuo) of the Land of Chin (Qin) . “The land of Chin” in mid-western China is the ancient state and short-lived first imperial dynasty (221 to 206 B.C) from which Europeans created the name China.

Summer

Summer’s ballad, tells the tale of Xi Shi (西施), literally “(Lady) Shi of the West”, 506 BC – ?).

One of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China, Xi Shi became a pawn in a plan by King Goujian of Yue to seek revenge over King Fuchai of Wu. Fuchai had previously defeated Goujian and made him a prisoner before releasing him. Now free, King Fuchai offered Xi Shi as a gift to King Goujian. Her beauty bewitched the king and he neglected his duties. Eventually, King Goujian had his revenge and defeated Fuchai. After the fall of Wu, King Goujian’s minister Fan Li retired and, according to legend, lived in the misty waters of Lake Taihu.

Autumn

Autumn ballad, takes us west to the Gate of Yumen, Yumenguan (玉門 關).

This dry and dusty pass at the far western frontier served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. It derives its name from the jade that passed through its walls. It came under control of the Han Dynasty (China’s second imperial dynasty, 206 BC – 220 AD, following the Qin Dynasty).

Winter

Winter’s ballad is finally here.

Perhaps, Li Bai has taken us to the present.

The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) has broken out. Northern tribes rebelled against the authority of the Tang Dynasty and invaded China. The rebels are advancing on the Tang capital of Chang’an.

A doting wife is told the courier departs next day for the north, so she sews a warrior’s gown all night.

zhou fang, ladies playing double sixes, freer gallery of art
Ladies playing double sixes, Zhou Fang

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Spring

Yang Guifei, painting by Hosoda Eishi, British Museum

Oh, the lovely Lo Fo from the Land of Chin
Picking green mulberry leaves by the riverside
Her red lips bright and fresh
Sir, she says, my silkworms must eat, so I must go
Prince, I pray
, tarry not with your coach and five.

子夜四時歌春歌,
李白


秦地羅敷女
采桑綠水邊
紅妝白日鮮
蠶飢妾欲去
五馬莫留連

Zǐyè sì shí gē chūn gē,
Lǐ Bái


Qín de luó fū nǚ
Cǎi sāng lǜ shuǐ biān
Hóngzhuāng bái rì xiān
Cán jī qiè yù qù
Wǔ mǎ mò liúlián

mulberry leaves

The Story of Lo Foh

Li Bai’s poem is a retelling of the popular ballad of Lo Fo (Lo Foh), a story of a wife’s loyalty, devotion, and honor to her husband when approached by a high official. It is based on a much longer ballad that goes like this:

In the southeast, the sun rises where two walls meet.
And shines on the house of Master Chin.
Master Chin has a lovely daughter, Lo-foh her name.
Lo-foh feeds her silk-worms well.
She picks mulberry leaves south of the city.
Her basket is carried by a cord of blue silk,
And a hook fashioned from a laurel branch.
Her hair is dressed in pretty knots of Wa-doj
Sparkling moonstones hang from her ears.
Her petticoat is yellow silk, her jacket purple silk.

The Lord Governor comes from the south,
His five horse coach stops and stays.
The Lord Governor bids his men to ask.
And they ask: “Who art thou, little maid?”
“I am the fair daughter of Master Chin, “Lo-foh is my name.”
“How old art thou, Lo-foh?”
“Less than twenty.”
“But more than fifteen, yea, much more.”
The Lord Governor entreats Lo-foh,
“Wilt thou ride with me?”
Lo-foh sweetly replies: “My Lord Governor, how foolish, indeed! My Lord Governor, you have a lady of your own,
“And Lo-foh, she has a man of her own.”

The Land of Ch’in (Qin)

In this, Li Bai’s first ballad of spring, we return to the China’s first imperial dynasty. This is the Qin Dynasty, which we know better as Ch’in or Chin. The dynasty was short-lived, lasting only 15 years from 221 to 206 BC. Its importance, other than the fact that it was the first imperial dynasty, is that it is the source from which Europeans derived the name China.

In the ancient Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the Land of Qin lay to the west before conquering the other states.

Lo Fo, or Lo-Foh, is a legendary figure, a young girl who is either married or engaged to be so. Her bright red lipstick might indicate the later. She is picking fresh mulberry leaves for her silkworms when she is approached by a coach drawn by five horses, a sign of a high official, perhaps even the governor of Chin. Lo Fo quickly deflects his attention and remains chaste.

Making Silk

To One Unnamed 3, 无题之三

Time was, long before I met her,
but longer still, since we parted,
The east wind is powerless, for it has come

and a hundred flowers are gone,
And the silk-worms of spring will spin until they die
And every night candles will weep their wicks away.
In the morning mirror she sees her temple hair

changing the color of clouds
Chanting poems in the chill of moonlight.
Oh, it is not so very far to Penglai
O blue-birds listen, bring me what she says.

Penglai, , Yuan Jiang (袁江) 1680-1730

Interpreting Li Shangyin

This is the third of five poems Li Shangyin wrote to one unnamed.

Line one describes the difficulty of poet and the object of his poem in meeting. Time being the greatest obstacle to two lovers(?). Powerless is the East Wind 东风 Dōngfēng of spring because all its flowers have come and gone. Life will go on like the silkworm spinning, until it dies. And each night the candle wax weeps as the wick fades away.

The poet’s unnamed muse sees herself in the mirror. She sees the silver hairs growing at her temples. Still she chants her poems in the chill of moonlight 月光 Yuèguāng .

It is not far to Never-never land

That is how one would translate 蓬莱 Pénglái . In Chinese mythology it is a mythical island, home to the Eight Immortals, where there is no pain and no winter; where rice bowls and wine glasses never become empty no matter how much people eat or drink; and where enchanted fruits grow that can heal any ailment, grant eternal youth, and raise the departed.

Chinese

无题之三

相见时难别亦难
东风无力百花残
春蚕到死丝方尽
蜡炬成灰泪始干
晓镜但愁云鬓改
夜吟应觉月光寒
蓬莱此去无多路
青鸟殷勤为探看

Pinyin

Wútí zhī sān

xiāng jiàn shí nán
bié yì nán dōngfēng wúlì bǎihuā cán
chūncán dào sǐ sī fāng jǐn
là jù chéng huī lèi shǐ gàn
xiǎo jìng dàn chóu yúnbìn gǎi
yè yín yīng jué yuèguāng hán
pénglái cǐ qù wú duō lù
qīngniǎo yīnqín wèi tàn kàn

Part 3, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, I sigh,
Turning to my wine, I pour
Awaiting the moon with a grand song, I sing
Singing to the end, unmoved

Li Bai, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day, third and final verse

Life, a story in three acts

Is this the way life ends, with a song, then silence?

In part one we find our poet lying in a drunken stupor outside the palace door. Morning dawns, he awakes clutching a porch column, to see the beauty of the garden flowers. In part two, he hears the song of a warbler and is entranced. Poets like prostitutes sing and dance when the moon is out, but what does it mean?

In part three, we conclude.

Touched by the beauty of the bird’s song, he turns to his wine and drinks. Awaiting the evening and moon, he sings a great song, until the end, emptied of sentiment, he remains unmoved.

Let this be a poem lesson. Drinking all night will put you outside with what’s left of your wine, a song, and then, nothing.

Hao Ge, 浩歌

Our third verse presages 浩歌 Hao Ge, a poem by the Tang poet Li He (circa. 790–791 – 816–817), who likewise found wine and women irresistible and died at the early age of 26 or 27. Hao Ge, literally means “grand song”, one addressed to the universe. Max Ehrmann’s popular 20th century example “Desiderata” is a comparison that comes to mind.

Li Bai’s life ended, the story is told, when he fell from his boat, alone and drunk, trying to grasp the moon’s reflection in the water.

moon, boat, water, Li Bai

Notes on translation

感 Gǎn, touched, sensing
感之 Gǎn zhī, a sense of it
嘆息 tàn xī, breathe a sigh
酒 Jiǔ, wine, spirits
浩歌 Hao Ge, compound word meaning song of the universe, grand song
歌 ge, sing, song, praise
忘情 wàngqíng, unmoved, lacking sentiment

Chinese and Pinyin

感之欲嘆息 對酒還自傾
浩歌待明月 曲盡已忘情

Gǎn zhī yù tànxí duì jiǔ hái zì qīng
hào gē dài míngyuè qū jìn yǐ wàngqíng


Part 2, Waking from a Stupor on a Spring Day (春日醉起言志) Li Bai

Yesterday, we left super-poet Li Bai alone on the porch, drunk, clutching a column, lying in a stupor after a night of revelry and wine. Morning breaks and he comes to his senses, or does he?

Yesterday’s verse

a yellow leaf warbler

Coming to my sense, I see the courtyard
In the midst of the flowers a bird sings
Is it time to ask this question,
In Spring, why does the warbler sing to the breeze?

Li Bai

Words matter

Li Bai, if words matter, and I am told they do, you are playing with us like a musician plays a zither, a sound may mean many things.  Imagine Li Bai plopped outside the door as morning comes, pear blossoms are dancing in the wind, a warbler sings.

What does he think?

Poets, like brightly colored prostitutes and whores, ply their trade. They dance and sing, and when the morning comes they rest in bed. Still, a lonely warbler sings, to whom and what?

Yesterday is far away, in fact its gone. Li Bai, our super-star, once the darling of the Imperial court, finds himself on the outside, staring in, singing to the breeze, surrounded by the flowers.

Notes on translation

庭, ting, courtyard
鸣, ming, cry or sing
春风 chūn fēng, as compound word, spring wind; singularly, in spring, the wind
时, shi, the season, or time; a homophone for poem or verse, 诗
莺, ying, a warbler, also possibly a golden oriole
柳莺, liǔyīng, willow warbler; leaf warbler, a colorful bird with yellow markings that nests in spring; literally a prostitute.

Chinese and pinyin

觉来眄庭, 一鸟花间鸣
借问此何时, 春风语流莺

Jué lái miǎn tíng, yī niǎo huā jiān míng
jièwèn cǐ hé shí, chūnfēng yǔ liú yīng


Spring Morning 春晓 – Meng Haoran

Spring, I am half asleep and do not feel the dawn
But everywhere black birds are crying
Last night I heard the howling wind and rain
Do you know how many blossoms fell?

Spring Morning – Meng Haoran
Spring Morning, Birds Singing on a branch with Cherry Blossoms
Spring Morning, Birds Singing

Previously translated about 2 years ago. A favorite poem with children the world over. Worth a revisit.

Thoughts on Meng’s Spring Morning

Good poetry, like all good art, should evoke an emotion as this one does.

A lovely word picture, not of what one see, but what one feels. It was written by Meng Haoran (circa 689–740) during his time at a temple retreat on Lumen Mountain in Hubei Province. The temple is located a short distance southeast of the city where Meng was born and died, Xiangyang.

Imagines a day in early spring 春, the trees full of blossoms. A child lies in bed, the covers pulled over his or her head. Unable to sleep during the night because of the wind, thunder, and rain, our child is half awake.

Everywhere 处 处 birds are crying 啼. Not singing, but crying, crowing, weeping. Literally, cawing, like a crow. Why the sorrow?

花落知多少, Huā luò zhī duōshǎo?

How many blossoms fell?

Read French translation

春晓

春眠不觉晓
处处闻啼鸟
夜来风雨声
花落知多少

Chūn xiǎo

Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
chù chù wén tí niǎo.
Yè lái fēng yǔ shēng,
huā luò zhī duō shǎo

Seeing Meng Haoran off to Guangling – Li Bai 李 白

“You left me, old friend of the West, at the Yellow Crane Tower,
In Spring, going to Yangzhou, in a cloud of flowers;
Your lonely sail, a speck against blue sky, disappearing
Until now I only see the Yangtze and the sky.”

yellow crane tower, wuhan, china
yellow crane tower, wuhan, china

In the third lunar month of the New Year (middle March by modern calendars), Meng Haoran took leave of his friend Li Bai to make a 400 mile journey down the Yangtze(長江, chángjiāng) to Guangling and Yangzhou.

The place of their parting was the Yellow Crane Tower (黃鶴樓, Huánghè Lóu) in Wuhan, Hubei Province. It is a sacred site of Daoism, considered to be one of the four great towers in China. The symmetrical eaves on each floor are said to resemble a yellow crane soaring in the sky and clouds, reflecting immortality and wisdom.

Meng Haoran was born in 689 in Xiangyang, far western Hubei. Li Bai, ten years junior to the older Meng, was born in Suyab, on the Silk Road. For this tenuous reason, Li Bai refers to Meng as his old friend of the West (西 Xi). In the second line of the poem, Li Bai uses a metaphor 煙花 (flower and mist, together “fireworks”)* to describe the peach and cherry trees then in full blossom. Flower (花, Huā) has many symbolic meanings, also conveying a sense of magnificence and splendor.

The poem may date to the years 730-733, when Meng Haoran failed the imperial examinations for a second time and took to traveling to assuage his disappointment.

Li Bai wrote a second homage to his friend Meng Haoran.

Chinese Characters

送孟浩然之廣陵

故人西辭黃鶴樓
煙花三月下揚州
孤帆遠影碧空盡
惟見長江天際流

Pinyin

Sòng mènghàorán zhī guǎnglíng

gùrén xī cí huáng hè lóu
yānhuā sān yuè xià yángzhōu
gū fān yuǎn yǐng bìkōng jǐn
wéi jiàn chángjiāng tiānjì liú

Notes

*The exact date of the invention of fireworks is unknown. Therefore, this may be only a combination of the characters for flower and cloud, Anyone who has walked along a path of cherry trees in full blossom will understand splendor and the airy cloud-like feeling.
Yangtze River
Yangtze River

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, grass grows like the bluest silk thread
In Qin, mulberries hang low on branches of green
My Lord, why do you think of coming home?
Now, when I am heart-broken and sad
Oh Spring Breeze, that I do not know
Why part the silk curtains of my bed?

Translating Li Bai’s Spring Thoughts

” In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So said Lord Alfred Tennyson a thousand years after Li Bai. And anyone who has felt a gentle breeze in spring and felt the stirrings of love knows the feeling well.

Li Bai’s tells the story from the girl’s perspective. Alas, the rhyme does not translate into English.

Yan and Qin, 燕 and 秦

The story takes place in the ancient Chinese states of Yan and Qin, and dates to the time of the Warring States (somewhere around the 5th century BC). Yan, in northeastern coastal China, lies on the Bohai Sea. Qin lies to the south and west of Yan. Qin grew to be the strongest of the warring states.

Boy and girl, 君 and 妾

The relationship of our boy and girl is 君, lord (informally ‘you’) and 妾, concubine.

Concubine is not a term used in Western culture. In Chinese it means, a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives. Mistress or lover is a better alternative. She may not be his wife, but she certainly has a claim on his heart.

Spring Breeze, 春風

Spring Breeze, 春風 , referred to in line five also has a sexual connotation, meaning sexual union.

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
dāng jūn huái guī rì shì
qiè duàncháng shí
chūnfēng bù xiāngshí
héshì rù luó wéi

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, the grass grows like threads of blue silk
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

Notes on translating Spring Thoughts

The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).

From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.

In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.

Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.

燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)

By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.

Rhyme

In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

Chinese Characters

春思

燕草如碧絲
秦桑低綠枝
當君懷歸日
是妾斷腸時
春風不相識,
何事入羅幃

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi