Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou – Du Fu

Lost, all is lost, I keep thinking. Still, life goes on, and yet…

Translators have given Du Fu’s poem the name Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou. Du Fu simply called it, 華 州 or Hua Zhou, the city in Shaanxi Province where Du Fu had taken a short-lived post as Commissioner of Education.

Lost, all is lost.

What is lost in the translation is the complexity and beauty of the rhyming pattern and the several allusions that make this poem mysterious and inviting.

The overall rhyme is aaaabaca. There is also a significant amount of internal rhyme that adds to the musicality of the words and emotions. For instance, in the first three lines we have these characters:

line one: 昔, xi, meaning past or former times.
line two: 西, xī, meaning West, referring to western regions
line three: 至, zhi, a verb, meaning to arrive

Now, relate these three sounds back to the poem’s title 華 州, Hua Zhou, and the poet’s name Du Fu.

Repetition, the key to meditation in Tao philosophy, and the very soul of poetry.

Alas, it is lost, lost in translation.

 

華 州

此 道 昔 歸 順
西 郊 胡 正 繁
至 今 殘 破 膽
應 有 未 招 魂
近 得 歸 京 邑
移 官 豈 至 尊
無 才 日 衰 老
駐 馬 望 千 門

Huazhou

That was the way I chose to flee
At the west of the city, a fool in the crowd
To this day, the memory of panic makes me sick
Should my soul not return
Now, the court has come back, the city is full
But the emperor sends me away again
Old and useless, my day is done, alas
For one last look at the thousand gates

Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was called the city of a million people and a thousand gates.

Du Fu’s official posting came late in life, from 758 to 759. This was in the midst of the An Lushan Rebellion. The rebels approached the capital from the west and the government fled. In 756, the capital fell, and panic, famine, and destruction followed. The success of the government forces against the rebels allowed a return, but Du Fu’s advice to the emperor was short-lived and in 758, Du Fu was made Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, a demotion which he resented. Soon, he moved on to Qinzhou, where he wrote approximately 60 poems, likely including this one. This stay was also short, six weeks.

There is an accompanying note to Du Fu’s poem:

In the second year of Zhide, I escaped from the capital through the Gate of Golden Light and went to Fengxiang. In the first year of Qianyuan, I was appointed as official to Huazhou from my former post of Censor. Friends and relatives gathered and saw me leave by the same gate. And I wrote this poem.

Zhide is reference to the honor shown him by the emperor, but it is also a play on words, a triple entendre.

值得
zhí de
to be worthy, deserving

只得
zhǐ dé
to have no alternative but to, obliged to

至德
zhì dé
splendid virtue, majestic moral character, great kindness

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Meeting a Messenger on his Way to the Capital

Meeting a messenger headed east

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

Or,

I long for the east, I have been gone for years,
The imperial bell sounds, I find my sleeves are wet with tears.
On horses we meet, and I no paper, nor brush.
So, I am relying on you, 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 Can Cen

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 Can Cen 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 Can Cen

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…