To One Unnamed – Li Shangyin

Hurriedly I translate Li’s poem, no doubt I make mistakes, is liulang (line 7) young liu, Master Liu, or have I let my homeless thoughts wander far beyond Pengshan mountain? Who writes this quick note, I cannot quite read the faded words, is it she or he?

Li Shangyin’s poem paints a picture of pleasure and grief, desire and failure, of the bitter sweetness of togetherness and loneliness. It is not known to whom these love poems refer and that is part of Li’s magic.

To one unnamed

Yes come, you said, and still you vanished without a trace
Than the moonlight glancing off the tower
At the bell-sounding of the fifth watch hour
To dream so far apart and as I cannot call, I cry
As hurriedly I write these lines, in ink not quite dry
A flickering candle palely casts its light
That shines from its blue green and gold cage
A hint of deer musk gathers on the lotus embroidered curtains
Homeless I am, wandering beyond Peng mountain
You on the other side, ten thousand peaks away

Original Chinese characters

無 題 之 一
來 是 空 言 去 絕 蹤
月 斜 樓 上 五 更 鐘
夢 為 遠 別 啼 難 喚
書 被 催 成 墨 未 濃
蠟 照 半 籠 金 翡 翠
麝 熏 微 度 繡 芙 蓉
劉 郎 已 恨 蓬 山 遠
更 隔 蓬 山 一 萬 重

Notes on the translation

Twelve centuries have passed since Li Shangyin composed these lines to an unnamed beauty. To get a sense of the meaning is not an easy thing. In English, the task would be comparable to translating the Venerable Bede’s 7th century Saxon into modern English. (“For þam nedfere | næni wyrþeþ” gives one a taste of the task, from Bede’s Death Song). The meaning of words change, grammar changes, cultural and historical context is misplaced or lost.

Still we labor on, hoping to find a light in the dark.

The poet’s unnamed muse has gone and the poet writes from his room in the flickering light of a candle, hurried words, trying to catch her before she is gone to far, and yet, it is to late. Some translators say she writes. Some translators call Peng Mountain the Enchanted Mountain, who knows.

Pinyin

Wútí zhī yī
lái shì kōngyán qù jué zōng
yuè xié lóu shàng wǔ gèng zhōng
mèng wèi yuǎnbié tí nán huàn
shū bèi cuī chéng mò wèi nóng
là zhào bàn lóng jīn fěicuì
shè xūn wēi dù xiù fúróng
liú láng yǐ hèn péng shān yuǎn
gèng gé péng shān yī wàn zhòng

light-lantern

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The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl, Meng Jiao

The Song of a Pure-hearted Girl

As Wutong-trees, live life as one
As Mandarin ducks, mate til death
As a virtuous woman loves only her husband
I swear in life, to be faithful forever
For a billowing wave cannot stir
A water-like-spirit in a timeless well

concentric waves

Original Chinese

烈 女 操

梧 桐 相 待 老
鴛 鴦 會 雙 死
貞 婦 貴 殉 夫
捨 生 亦 如 此
波 瀾 誓 不 起
妾 心 井 中 水

Pinyin

Wú tóng xiāng dài lǎo
yuān\yāng huì shuāng sǐ
zhēnfù guì xùn fū
shě shēng yì rúcǐ
bōlán shì bù qǐ
qiè xīn jǐngzhōng shuǐ

Meng Jiao

May I introduce you to Master Meng, the latest poet in my list of Tang poets.

One could say that Meng Jiao had both the good and bad fortune to be born in interesting times. Meng Jiao was born in 751 in the Chinese province of Huzhou. Soon after his birth, the Tang dynasty experienced major military defeats on its western and southern borders. Shortly thereafter followed the An Lushan Rebellion, which laid waste to the Chinese population and economy. Floods followed further devastating the land and population.

Meng Jiao lived out much of these times as a Zen Buddhist recluse and poet in the south. Then at the age of forty, his wandering ways ceased and he settled in Luoyang, which was considered the “Eastern Capital” of the Tang Dynasty, with a population that approached one million, second only to Chang’an, the capital,which, at the time, was the largest city in the world.

Meng Jiao settled in as an impoverished and unemployed poet. Unwillinbg at first to take the imperial examinations, he eventually did at the urging of his mother, and at the age of 50 passed the test, after which he received a minor post.

After Meng’s death, the poet Han Yu wrote an epitaph saying:

“He had no sons. His wife, a woman of the Cheng family, informed me. I went out and stood weeping, and then I summoned Chang Chi to mourn with me…

As for his poetry, it pierces one’s eye and impales one’s heart. It cuts to the point like a thread parting at the touch of a knife. His barbed words and thorny sentences tear at one’s guts. His writing ability is spirit-like or like that of a ghost, glimpsed in between and over and over again. He cared only for writing and cared not what the world thought.”

The poet’s meaning

The title, 烈 女 操, one could replace “chaste” or “virtuous” for the words pure-hearted, but why, a pure heart employs better imagery. A modern day translation might be “an exemplary woman”.

The poem places a value on the fidelity and loyalty of a wife to her husband, and, can one assume, the reverse? So, perhaps Han Yu is too harsh in his assessment of Meng Jiao’s complete detachment from the world.

Line one, 梧 桐, (Firmiana simplex) the Chinese Parasol tree, a flowering tree whose wood was used for soundboards in Chinese musical instruments like the guqin and guzheng.

Line two, 鴛 鴦, Mandarin ducks yuan and yang, male and female, which mate for life.

The meaning of the poem lies in its final two lines – a billowing wave cannot stir the water like spirit in the deepest well. Han Yu elsewhere has given us an understanding of the effects of nature’s interactions with man, “Trees have no sound but cry when the wind stirs them, water has no sound but sounds forth when the wind roils it, and thus the heavens move men to speak when their spirits are troubled.” Master Meng is suggesting jut the opposite here, the steadfastness of the devotion of a pure-hearted wife.

There is a complementary Latin phrase that “still waters run deep” meaning that a quiet exterior may hide a passionate heart.

Let me leave you with Lao Tzu’s observation that “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.” Master Meng would say the same is true of love, which is soft and yielding, but firm in its devotion over time and tragedy.

Shall I return and translate this poem into French? Time will tell.

mandarin ducks pair

A Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret)

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌) by Bai Juyi (772-846) retells the love story of the beautiful Yang Guifei (719-756) and Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and the cause of the An Lushan Rebellion that began in December of 755.

Beautiful Yang Guifei is said to have had “a face that put all flowers to shame”. The story is told that the young Yang Guifei, locked in the palace, lamented to the peony and the rose, flower, flower full of bloom when shall I see the light of day? The flowers and their leaves, either in sorrow or shame, drooped as she passed.

There are over 100 verses, and so I must come back from time to time to complete the translation.

Yes, there are many, many translations.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌)

A Chinese Emperor longed for a beauty to match his kingdom
Looking, ever looking, without finding until
In the family Yang a young girl was growing and maturing
Kept well-hidden and unknown, yet one
Who is naturally beautiful cannot hide their own beauty, thus
One day she met the emperor and
Returned his look with a smile, so beginning one hundred beautiful lives,
As the girls of six hundred houses lost their luster

長 恨 歌

漢皇重色思傾國
御宇多年求不得
楊家有女初長成
養在深閨人未識
天生麗質難自棄
一朝選在君王側
回眸一笑百媚生
六宮粉黛無顏色

Pity the Farmer (Peasant)

Pity the Peasant
Hoeing cereal in the midday sun
His sweat drops and nourishes the grain and the earth
But few people know his supper
Is nothing but hard work

Li Shen’s poem is usually titled Pity the Farmer. Parents teach this poem to their  children to remind them to eat everything on their plate. Sound familiar?

agriculture-china

Original Chinese

悯 农

鋤禾日當午
汗滴禾下土
誰知盤中飧
粒粒皆辛苦

Title

The original Chinese title is:

悯 农

And it is often translated as Toiling Farmers. This does not seem to me an adequate translation. First of all, , is literally the Chinese character for “pity” and Li Shen, the poet, is using his poem as a supplication. Take sorrow on, or take pity for the peasant who puts food on your table. The second character , translates as either farmer or peasant. I like peasant for obvious social and phonetic reasons. Then again, Mao’s Communist Revolution extolled the peasant, so maybe farmer is the better choice.

Rhyme

The rhyme is aaba.

The pinyin translation:

Chú hé rì dāng wǔ
hàn dī hé xià tǔ
shuí zhī pán zhōng sūn
lì lì jiē xīn kǔ

The verse

is the Chinese character for cereal grain. The character is used in both the first and second lines, but I have chosen to vary the word selection because Li Shen intends to convey the meaning of all cereal grains and not just one type of grain like rice or wheat.

Literally, the last line should be “each and every granule is hard work.” It begins with the repetition of  , which suggests to me that the peasant struggles mightily to grow and harvest each and every granule. And ends with 辛 苦, which can be interpreted as bitter work or hard work.

I suppose the child gets the point that the peasant does not always eat or that the fruits of his labor are sometimes bitter.

French Translation

 

Goose, goose, goose

Ode to the Goose

By Luo Binwang

Goose, goose, goose
Neck bent, singing to the sky
White feathers floating on green water
Red feet paddling clear waves

goose

Luo Binwang

One of the first poems learned by Chinese children, Ode to the Goose was written by Luo Binwang at the age of seven. His goose is the domestic goose that is found about the household and on the village pond.

The pinyin for goose is a long “e” which would mimic the sound of the goose to a child’s ear. The Chinese character for clear is 清, which may also translate as pure, clean, or still, giving a deeper meaning to the poem that does not readily translate to English.

Again sadly, poetic resonance is lost, as shown by the pinyin translation:

É, é, é
Qū xiàng xiàng tiān gē
Bái máo fú lǜ shuǐ
Hóng zhǎng bō qīng bō

Original Chinese Characters

鹅 鹅 鹅
曲项向天歌
白毛浮绿水
红掌拨清波

Compare the English with the French translation.

French Translation

Oie, oie, oie
Cou plié, chantant au ciel
Plumes blanches flottant sur l’eau verte
Pieds rouges, pagayer, clair, vagues

too young to know what sorrow is

horse

in her quiet window

wang changling

too young to know what sorrow is, and
dressed for spring, to her bedroom chamber she climbs, and
as the budding green willow wounds her heart
she wonders why, just for a title, she sent him to war

The actual title is, in her quiet window, but I like too young to know what sorrow is.

A young wife encourages her new husband to join the Tang army and go off and fight the enemy at the border. The expectation is that he will return with honors. Most likely, the enemy were the Tibetans at the far west of the Chinese Empire or the Tartars to the north, but there were other enemies both foreign and internal with which the emperor had to dear with.

Wang Changling, the Tang poet, deals with the contradictory emotions of love and pride. The young wife’s pride in the rank and title her husband achieves if he is heroic is balanced with the risk in his death.

I have played around with the words and the rhyme and though incomparable with Wang Changling’s poetic gift, I hope I conveyed some sense of his meaning. Wang’s use of the willow is symbolic. In China, the willow branch is used to ward off evil spirits. More ominously, mourners carry willow branches with them on the way to the cemetery during the Qingming Festival, which, like our poem, takes place in early spring. It is a festival that loosely translates as Tomb-Sweeping festival.

Then too, in Mandarin, “willow” sounds the same as “to stay”.

Does she care?

Original Chinese

闺怨

王昌龄

闺中少妇不知愁
春日凝妆上翠楼
忽见陌头杨柳色
悔教夫婿觅封侯

Read French translation of in her quiet window

Thoughts on New Years Eve – Cui Tu

The end of the old year, the beginning of a new one, a new poet, Cui Tu. What will the new year bring?

The road to Ba is a long, long, long way
Still, I am making this fearful journey of ten thousand li
At night in the melting snow beneath the jagged mountains
A stranger alone in a strange land
Gradually growing more distant from family and friends
Becoming closer to my companions instead
How does one bear moving from place to place
When tomorrow will be the New Year?

The Chinese Lunar New Year will fall on Friday, February 16, 2018. So, I am ahead of myself if I am trying to keep pace with Cui Tu, but on track if one uses the Gregorian calendar.

State of Ba

Cui Tu’s destination was the state of Ba in eastern Sichuan, China. Ba borders the states of Pu, Chu, and Shu. Cui’s final destination is not given. He could have been traveling to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the northern Daba Mountains, or the Yungui Plateau to the south, or, just as well, all three. Cui Tu loved to wander.

Chinese mile, Li

The li is a Chinese unit of distance, about 500 meters or 1640 feet.

Other translations

No translation is ever exact and I have taken a liberty or two. American poet Witter Bynner included Thoughts on New Year’s Eve in his translation of Tang poetry, Heng-tʻang-tʻui-shih, The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (New York: Knopf, 1929.

Original Chinese text

除夜有懷

迢遞三巴路
羈危萬里身
亂山殘雪夜
孤獨異鄕人
漸與骨肉遠
轉於僮僕親
那堪止漂泊
明日歲華新

farmhouse on the Wei river

Farmhouse on the Wei

wang-wei

While fading light falls on the land
As the cattle and sheep trail down the country lane
An old man stands at the door of his thatched cottage
Leaning on a staff with thoughts of his son, the herd-boy, thinking
Of fluttering pheasants amongst sheaves of wheat
Of silk worms asleep, among half-eaten mulberry leaves
Of farmers returning with hoes hoisted on shoulders
Exchanging words of hello
Oh, how I long for the simple life
And sigh, as I sing the old song,
Oh, to be young again!

Wang Wei spent much of his adult life in seclusion. For a period of time he retreated retreat to the mountains, just south of the Tang capital, Chang-an. The Wei River that he writes about here was was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization, a tributary of the Yellow River, an obvious play on Chinese characters for the poet.

Wang Wei was well known for his shanshui, or mountains and rivers, poetry and his poems were often written to be presented with his art work.

The title, 渭 川 田 家, literally, Wei River farm house.

The penultimate line, 悵 然 吟 式 微, a play on word for Wang Wei’s capture in the capital Chang’an by the An Shi rebels. The first two characters, literally respectfully correct, by a homophone for Chang’an, the capital city that the rebels captured.

The last two charcters, 式微, shì wēi, the poetry of Wei or, to decline, again a play on word, which describes his trouble with the imperial court.

The conclusion, 又作至, literally, to do it again.

Meeting a Messenger on his Way to the Capital

Meeting a messenger headed east

As I look down the road, I long for my home far to the east,
A clock sounds, my sleeves are wet with tears
On horse we meet, and I no paper, no pen
So, I rely on a gentleman’s word, tell them all is safe and calm

Or,

Gone for years, I long for my home to the east
The imperial bell sounds, my sleeves are wet with tears
On horses we meet, and I no paper, nor brush
So, I am relying on you to say, all is calm, have no fear.

horse

Original Chinese by Cen Can, 岑 參

Rhyme aaba.

逢 入 京 使
故 園 東 望 路 漫 漫
雙 袖 龍 鐘 淚 不 乾
馬 上 相 逢 無 紙 筆
憑 君 傳 語 報 平 安

Notes on Cen Can

Cen Can or Cen Shen, also called Cen Jiazhou (715–770).

Translation is an imprecise and uncertain task.

Line one contains the characters for garden  and east (園 東), for which most translations  substitute the word homeland. In line two, the characters for imperial clock (龍 鐘) are often ignored. Line three is straight forward, “We meet by chance on horse, but I have no pen no paper.” Line four is also clear, “I rely on a gentleman to announce that all is calm and at peace.”

Can we come up with a better sense of Cen Can poem?

Far, far out at the western edge of the imperial empire, the morning sun rises in the east, the imperial clock sounds, signalling all is still well, though the poet knows trouble to be stirring.

Mounted on his horse and busy making his rounds, the poet chances to meet a messenger heading towards the capital. The poet has been shedding tears, whether for fear or longing, we do not know.

Having no pen, no paper, he asks that that the messenger say all is calm and peaceful.

Cen Can held a military assignment in the Northwest Territories. For this reason, perhaps he is speaking of the Tibetan threat. But it is also possible he is speaking of a threat from the north. During the revolt of General An Lushan and the An Shi Rebellion (755 through 763), Cen Can remained a loyalist throughout almost decade long rebellion, the capture of the capital, its recapture, and the defeat of the rebels.

Cen Can was friend to Gao Shi and Du Fu, both of whom he mentions in separate poems; as well as Li Bai, who mentions Cen Can in one of his poems.

French translation, Meeting with a messenger headed east, by Cen Can

Rencontrer un messager dirigé vers l’est 

Loin d’ici, dans l’est j’aimerais soit,
La cloche impériale sonne, mes manches sont mouillé de larmes
Chez les chevaux, nous nous rencontrons,
Et je n’ai pas de papier ni de pinceau.
Je compte sur vous, pour dire, tout est calme, ne craint pas.

The golden gown

frames_gold

The golden gown

Cherish not your gowns of golden threads
Cherish your youth instead
And pick the blossoms as they bloom
Delay not, too soon they will be gone

金 縷 衣

勸 君 莫 惜 金 縷 衣
勸 君 惜 取 少 年 時
花 開 堪 折 直 須 折
莫 待 無 花 空 折 枝

Du Qiuniang

Some say, Du Qiuniang (杜 秋娘) was a concubine of Emperor Emperor Xianzong (born 778, rule began 805 – death, 820) and a political advisor. She was also a skilled poet and beautiful. After the emperor’s death, she tried to counsel the new and young emperor, but found herself embroiled in palace intrigue for favor and power. She was forced out and fortunate to return to her native Zhenjiang 鎮江 in Jiangsu Province.

Others say she was the wife of another poet.

If you are searching, also look for Du Qiu Niang and Du Qiu-Niang.

One can see from the original Chinese text that Du Qiuniang employed constant repetition of words and phrases.

The title is itself repeated in the first line. Also, the admonition to cherish not and to cherish begin lines one and two. The symbol for blossom is repeated in lines three and four. So too, the symbol 折 which may be translated as broken or gone. The poem ends with the two rhyming characters 折 枝, zhe and zhi, leaving us with the image of a broken branch and vanished blossom. 折 枝 may also be translated as a broken word or promise, giving the poem a subtle context.

Du Mu supposedly wrote a poem about her titled, The Song of Du Qiuniang.

Whoops, got to go, hope to come back…