Yearning – Wang Wei

Red berries born in the south

Whose branches are full in the Spring

A gentleman wishes you gather many

As a symbol of our love

Wang Wei

Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) is regarded as one of the three most admired poets of the Tang dynasty, the other two being Li Bai and Du Fu. But Wang has the distinction of also being a recognized painter and musician. Rising to the position of Chancellor of the Tang court, he fell in disfavor during the An Lushan rebellion.

What are we to make of this poem?

Surviving the rebellion, and grieving for the death of his wife and sister, he retired to the family estate along the Wang River. I think we may gather that this poem was written there, that it was an epitaph for his dearly beloved wife for whom he still longed.

The title of the poem, 相 思, Xiāngsī, is most often translated as yearning, but it is also the Chinese symbol for love-sickness. Wang fittingly concludes his poem with the same characters to emphasize the emotion. I simplified this to “love” in my translation.

adzuki beans

Red, red beans

For some reason Neil Diamond’s silly song Red, Red Wine comes to mind. Its repetitive lyrics are somehow relevant.

“Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart”

Line one, 紅 豆, hóngdòu, the red berries that Wang refers to are Azuki beans, which make into a red paste commonly used in Chinese treats. Red is a symbol of joy and happiness, but also the color of ink for writing the names of the dead in China. I have found a reference to “red beans” as missing someone. This comes from an ancient story of a Chinese wife who missed her warrior husband. He never returned and she cried tears that watered the ground, hardened into red beans, and grew into vines that produced still more red beans, 紅 豆, hóngdòu.

In China today, red beans still symbolize love and fidelity. So, a husband would be happy and lucky for his loving wife to serve a steaming bowl of red pinto beans.

French

Baies rouges nées dans le sud
Au printemps, les branches sont pleines
Un monsieur, vous souhaite glaner de plus
Symbole de notre amour

Original Chinese

相 思
紅 豆 生 南 國
春 來 發 幾 枝
願 君 多 采 擷
此 物 最 相 思

Pinyin

Xiāngsī
hóngdòu shēng nánguó
chūn lái fā jǐzhī
yuàn jūn duō cǎixié
cǐ wù zuì xiāngsī

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Bamboo House – Wang Wei

Bamboo House

In quiet bamboo, I sit alone
Plucking the zither, repeating its song.
In the forest deep, quite unknown
The bright moon shines and comes

Original Chinese characters

竹 里 館
獨 坐 幽 篁 裡
彈 琴 復 長 嘯
深 林 人 不 知
明 月 來 相 照

Pinyin

Zhú lǐ guǎn
dú zuò yōu huáng lǐ
tán qín fù cháng xiào
shēn lín rén bù zhī
míng yuè lái xiāng zhào

Wang Wei

Wang Wei was and is highly regarded as poet, painter and musician.

The 琴 referred to in line two is a Chinese zither, a stringed instrument that is plucked. The English/Chinese translation is more correctly “guzheng”.

Late in life, Wang became a devout Buddhist. His poems and this one in particular refer to emptiness and the lessons of silence. The poem was composed during the An Lushan Rebellion, when Wang’s fortunes with the Imperial Court fell and rose again. The poem was likely composed at his family estate near the Wang River in Shaanxi province.

The challenge with translation is to try and keep both the cadence and meaning of the poem intact. Wang composed his poem in four lines of five characters.

wang wei Scenery of Snow and Creek

Wang Wei, Scenery of Snow and Creek, wikiart

French translation

Seul dans le bambou tranquille, je suis assis
Tapoter de la cithare, répéter sa chanson
Dans la forêt profonde, tout à fait inconnu
Brille la lune brillante, va et vient

Alternate translation

Sitting alone, in the hush of the bamboo
I strum my zither, and whistle a tune
Deep in the woods, no one can hear
Still, the bright moon comes to shine on me

Deer Park

Deer Enclosure
Deep in the mountain forest, not a soul to be seen

Yet I hear a sound stirring, a voice
And as the setting sun looks back at the deep forest
Shining back at me reflecting off the green moss

Version Two

No one is seen in the empty mountains, and yet
A voice is heard, no more.
In these deep dark woods, setting sunlight
Shines on green moss, rising up at me.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei’s life spanned the years 699–759 AD.

He must be included in anyone’s list of superstar poets of the Tang Dynasty. He was also an accomplished painter and musician.

Wang Wei’s poem Deer Park  (Deer Enclosure, Deer Hermitage…) stands on its own as a poem of nature’s beauty, but it has an underlying story. Most scholars agree that 鹿柴, Lù Zhài, Lu Chai, is an allusion to the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, where Buddha first preached.  Beneath the famous Bodhi Tree, Gautama Buddha became enlightened, an event that took place in the 6th century BC.

 

tree in a forest

Interpretation of Deer Park

Buddha taught the four noble truths: that we crave and cling to impermanent things, that these things are incapable of satisfying us, that this suffering ends with the freedom from these wants, that freedom is achieved through the right way.

Line 1, Wang Wei’s setting, 空山 translates literally as empty mountains, its literary meaning is serene mountains. 空 which is generally translated as empty may also mean: hollow, in vain, sky, air, or free, another allusion to Buddha’s teaching of the noble truths.

Line 4, the light of the sun that shines back at us is a mere glimmer of complete understanding. It is nevertheless, something, and like the will o’the wisp, as we approach it, it fades, ever receding from our grasp.

road-forest-fall

Original Chinese and Pinyin

空 山 不 見 人
Kōngshān bùjiàn rén
但 聞 人 語 響
Dàn wén rén yǔ xiǎng
返 景 入 深 林
Fǎn jǐng rù shēn lín
復 照 青 苔 上
fù zhào qīngtái shàng

French Translation of Deer Park by Wang Wei

Nul n’est vu dans les montagnes serenes, mais
Une voix est entendue, et pas plus.
Les bois sombres profonds, la lumière du soleil
Brille sur la mousse verte, se lève sur moi.

Notes

This poem is an endless source of study for scholars and translators. Here is one such study of thousands. Lichtung and Luchai, by Toming Jun Liu. Enjoy.

Deer Park

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountains_detail

 

Deer Park

A lonely mountain keeps its secrets
And yet, I hear someone softly speaking
Where light shines in the forest deep
And the sun delights in seeking green moss

鹿 柴

空 山 不 見 人
但 聞 人 語 響
返 景 入 深 林
復 照 青 苔 上

Rhyme: abab

Meaning

Words fail me. They most always do for transcendent emotions are incapable of human description. Trying to capture the meaning and sound of the poem Deer Park by Wang Wei (王維 699–761) is an impossible task. Better to stand alone in the forest and listen to the silence.

Twenty characters in a rhyming pattern – abab. In the dark forest, the silence is profound. The poet is alone, and yet he hears a voice. Streaming through the pine trees is a ray of sunlight shining on a mossy grove where a deer has slept the night before.

The muse of poetry speaks.

Wang Wei

Wang Wei is a Tang poet who is equally well known for his painting and calligraphy. This particular poem is part of the Lantian collection, written after the An-Shi Rebellion (variously spelled, Anshi or An Lushan, 755–759) and Wang Wei’s fall from grace. Wang Wei then retired to his ancestral home in Lantian County in the province of Shangxi.

The title of the poem 鹿 柴 (Lu chai) translates best as Deer Park. The second character literally translates “to fence; to surround and protect with a wooden fence,” so sometimes the poem is called Deer Enclosure.

Wang Wei was a student of Buddhism. Therefore, he may be alluding to Deer Park in Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh India, the site of the sacred Bodhi Tree where Gautama Buddha received his enlightenment and preached his first sermon.

French translation

Une montagne solitaire garde ses secrets
Seulement et doucement, un parle, j’entends
Et le soleil recherche la mousse verte
Où la lumière brille dans la forêt profond

German translation

Ein einsamer Berg behält seine Geheimnisse
Allein man spricht, etwas höre ich
Wo die Sonne sucht nach grünem Moos
Wo das Licht im tiefen Wald leuchtet

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountainsa

Mixed Verse – Wang Wei

Mixed Verse

You, who come from the old country
Tell me what is happening
On that cold day you left, did you see my silken paintings, and

Were the first plum flowers blossoming yet

English translation of Wang Wei’s poem 雜 詩

The title, 雜 詩, is variously translated as mixed verse, mixed lines, miscellaneous poetry, and sometimes, simply as lines.

Wang_Wei_left

Wang Wei was famous for both his poetry and his paintings. And three hundred years after Wang Wei wrote these few lines of poetry, fellow Chinese poet and artist Su Shi wrote, “Wang Wei’s poems hold a painting within them.”

Well said, Shu Shi.

In a few short lines, Wang Wei has given us an image of the old country, a cold day, silken paintings, and a vision of plum flowers forever waiting to blossom.

But is Wang Wei worried for the paintings he left behind or the uncertainty of his life?

Wang Wei’s wrote this poem during during the An Lushan Rebellion. The emperor necessarily fled the capital of Chang’an, and Wang Wei, sick and ill was caught by the rebel forces. He managed to escape the following year and make his way south to rejoin the emperor, but was charged with treason for remaining behind.

Wang Wei eventually made his way back into the good graces of the emperor. Family connections helped. So too, did his poetry.

Original Chinese characters

君自故鄉來
應知故鄉事
來日綺窗前
寒梅著花未

The Chinese characters 來日 which begin the third line represent the future. In the third line, Wang Wei also uses the characters 綺 which phonetically is qi, the Chinese word for life force.

The first character of the last line is 寒. Used here it means cold, but the phonetic pronunciation is Han, the major ethnic group of China. Could it be that Wang Wei is giving us yet another image of China as a group of people threatened by the instability of the rebellion.

I must leave this and other questions to better scholars.

The last character of the poem 未 is phonetically the word Wei, also signifies the uncertainty of what is to come, leaving us no doubt that Wang Wei was writing these miscellaneous lines when the emperor was still deciding his fate.

French translation of mixed verse

Versions diverses
Monsieur, qui venant de l’ancien pays
Dites-moi ce qui se passe là-bas
Ce jour-là froid vous avez quitté, sur mes toiles soyeuses
Ont encore été les premières fleurs de pruniers fleurissent

German translation of mixed verse

Verschiedene Verse
Sie, die auch aus dem alten Land kommen
Sag mir, was dort geschieht
An diesem kalten Tag verlassen Sie, auf meine seidenen Gemälde
Waren die ersten Pflaume Blumen blühen noch?

Wang_Shimin-After_Wang_Wei's_Snow_Over_Rivers_and_Mountains

Wang Shimin imitating Wang Wei

Farewell – Wang Wei

At the suggestion of a comment, I have rewritten this poem. The rewrite is considerably different from the original translation, proving that I am a bad translator, was in a hurry, that translations are difficult, or all three. One of the many pitfalls of translations is to translate phonetically similar words on the basis of sound and not meaning. This problem occurs in all languages, including English, my dear (deer). Consider, we must polish the Polish furniture.

Also, in looking further into the matter, I discovered that Wang Wei wrote several farewells or adieus to friends. This poem is one of the shorter farewells. I hope to get around to the others in time.

Wang_Wei_left

Farewell

On the mountain slope, we stop and bid farewell
Until the dusk descends, and I close my wooden gate
In Spring, the grass will again turn green
But will you my friend return?

Notes

First line, one has to appreciate the musical sound of the title, Sòng bié, and the end of the first line, sòng bà.

Second line ends with 柴 扉. I translate this as a wooden door, and to be more specific a door with one leaf, suggesting how poor the hut is that Wang Wei lives in.

Last line, Wang Wei ends the poem with the three characters 歸 不 歸, literally return or not return. Sounds like Shakespeare’s to be or not to be. The second character 孫 is Wang, the poet’s family name, and also “king”. 孫 (sun, phonetically) is Chinese for grandson. Wang Sun is a mystery. Perhaps a proper name or a reference to a nobleman or one of Wang Wei’s relatives.

Original Chinese

送 別

山 中 相 送 罷
日 暮 掩 柴 扉
春 草 明 年 綠
王 孫 歸 不 歸

Pinyin

Sòngbié

Shānzhōng xiāng sòng bà
rìmù yǎn cháifēi
chūncǎo míngnián lǜ
wáng sūn guī bù guī

Wang Wei, 王維

Wang Wei was a Tang dynasty Chinese poet, musician, painter, and statesman. One could say he was a “man for all seasons” having enjoyed the imperial court’s favor, he was equally happy when that favor left him and he departed for the seclusion of his Lantian estate, as a sometimes Buddhist hermit.

winding-river