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
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Li Bai’s Ballads Of Four Seasons: Summer

Li Bai, 夏歌

Ballads of Four Seasons: Summer, 子夜四時歌

For three hundred miles along the banks of Mirror Lake
Lovely lotus lilies blossoms flower.
In fifth moon, a smiling Xi Shi gathers them,
As lowly peasants look on from the bank at Yuoye Stream.
Her boat turns back without waiting for the moon to rise
To the Royal House of Yue to warmhearted sighs.

鏡湖三百里
菡萏發荷花
五月西施采
人看隘若耶
回舟不待月
歸去越王家

Jìng hú sānbǎi lǐ
hàn dàn fā héhuā
wǔ yuè xīshī cǎi
rén kàn ài ruò yé
huí zhōu bùdài yuè
guī qù yuè wángjiā

The Summer Period

This is the third of Li Bai’s four seasonal ballads.

Historically, we are at the tail end of the Spring and Autumn Period (771 to 453 B.C.), immediately preceding the Warring States Period. Li Bai sets the poem in the fifth lunar month (which we designate as May) and the start of summer.

The poem picks up with the conclusion of the war between the Houses of Yue and Wu, omitting the fall and rise of King Goujian (勾踐, 496–465 BC). Instead, the poem tells of the aftermath and the fate of the lovely Xi Shi.

Xi Shi by Zhou Wenju (AD 907-960)

Xi Shi

The well known story goes like this. The State of Yue, where Xi Shi and her family lived, was defeated in a war with its neighbor State of Wu and Goujian (520-465 BC), the king of the Yue was captured. Made prisoner, Goujian was made a servant of the king of Wu. Three years later, he was set free. Remembering the many humiliations he suffered, Goujian plotted his revenge. All the meanwhile, living simply as a peasant, eating their foods, and tasting the bile of an animal each day as memory of his suffering at the hands of the king of Wu.

The fair Xi Shi was one of the renowned Four Beauties of ancient China. She was recruited by Goujian and his minister Fan Li to go to King Fuchai of Wu and distract him from his duties of state. Bewitched by her beauty, King Fuchai killed his best advisor and then began a series of disastrous political moves that eventually resulted in the killing of the king’s son and the destruction of the kingdom. King Fuchai himself, committed suicide when King Goujian surrounded his capital and demanded his surrender.

Li Bai’s ballad picks up after the defeat of Wu.

The victorious King Goujian kills all the scholars of Wu. King Goujian’s advisor Fan Li, seeing Goujian’s paranoia and taste for revenge, retires. In the legend recounted by Li Bai, Fan Li and Xi Shi live on a fishing boat, roaming like phantoms on the misty mirror-like waters of Lake Taihu, rarely seen.

Li Bai’s choice of the lotus blossom for Xi Shi is intentional. Because the flower rises from the mud and blooms in exquisite beauty, it symbolizes perfection and purity of heart and mind. It also represents long life and honor.