Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.

moon-crescent

Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text

秋歌

長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Note:
Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.

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Border Songs, 1 of 4, revisited

A poet plays over in his mind the words and images of his poem. So too, does the translator. Let us then revisit Lu Lun’s Border Songs beginning with number one of four.

Hawk feathers flutter from his golden arrow
His woven silk flag waves like the tail like a swallow
One man rises to gives the order
Thousands follow as one, shouting, HU!

Lu Lun’s Border songs recount the exploits of General Li Guang (died 119 BC) .

From Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐjì 94 BC), General Li Guang was a man of great build, with long arms and good archery skills, who on one occasion, legend says, was able to shoot an arrow deeply into a stone which resembled the shape of a crouching tiger. To China’s northern enemy, a tribe called the Xiongnu (generally associated with the Mongols),  he was known as a determined opponent who would willingly face armies of superior numbers. He was haunted by bad luck in battle and committed suicide after a loss at the Battle of Mobei (Gobi Desert).

 

The English Translation

In writing this series of poems, Lu Lun was no doubt mindful of the Tang dynasty’s troubles during the An Lushan Rebellion. General An Lushan was from the northern tribes and fought for the Chinese emperor before rebelling. For an extended period of time, he and his armies wrecked havoc on the Tang dynasty. These troubles were the subject of many Tang poets. Lu Lun’s ancestral home was Fanyang, modern day Beijing, on the northern extreme of the Chinese Empire, where An Lushan began his rebellion.

First line, the characters for golden arrow are 金 僕 姑, literally golden servant girl. The pinyin translation of last two characters (servant girl) rhyme (pú and gū). In Chinese military history, armies relied heavily on archery and the general in command would carry a golden arrow with feathers to signify his authority.

Second line, the war flag of embroidered silk is woven, a metaphor for the army itself which is woven to together with individual soldiers. Like the swallows of the air they will then move to and fro in unison.

Third line, even in the flight of the swallow, one bird makes a movement and others follow. The general raises his arrow and gives the order to advance.

Fourth line, thousands raise their voice and shout. The Chinese character for shout is 呼 and also the sound of the wind. If you have ever stood in a field and heard the sound of a flock of swallow changing direction, you will have the sense of the imagery.

The rhyme scheme is aaba, gū, hú, lìng hū.

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

Original Chinese Characters

鷲翎金僕姑
燕尾繡蝥弧
獨立揚新令
千營共一呼

The Title

The title is almost always translated as Border Songs. For border, Lu Lun chooses the Chinese characters  塞 and 下, sāi and xià, literally beneath the pass. He picked these characters, no doubt, because they work together poetically.

French Translation

Des plumes faucon palpitent de sa flèche en d’or
Son drapeau soie ondule comme la queue hirondelle
Un homme se lève pour donner l’ordre
Des milliers suivent comme un, en criant, HU!

Border Songs, 4 of 4, Lu Lun

Let our victorious feast in camp begin
Let the Quiang, our friends, proclaim, the war is won
Let us drink to harmony, and in golden armor dance until the night is done
Let us thunder on the mountains and rivers with our drums

Literally, the the poem’s 20 characters go something like this: In our camp we feast, the Qiang Rong (a friendly tribe on China’s western border) praise the toil of our triumphant soldiers. Full of wine, we dance in golden armor, while drums thunder over the rivers (valleys) and mountains.

The rhyme scheme is aaba. There is also internal rhyme that is missing in this translation. For example, the poem ends with the characters 山 川 (Shān chuān), mountains and rivers. Sichuan (四川) Province in China’s southwest province includes the eastern plateau of Tibet.

野 幕 蔽 瓊 筵

羌 戎 賀 勞 旋

醉 和 金 甲 舞

雷 鼓 動 山 川

Pinyin (phonetic)

Yě mù bì qióng yán

Qiāng róng hè láo xuán

Zuì hé jīn jiǎ wǔ

Léi gǔ dòng shān chuān

Notes.

Shuo Wen Jie zi (Shuowen Jiezi), the 2nd century Chinese dictionary says: “Qiang are shepherds of the western tribes, hence, the character 羌 is developed from 羊 (sheep) and 人 (human) meaning they are shepherds.” The Rong were a branch of the Quiang. Early in the Tang dynasty, the Tubo, a poweful Tibetan tribe, made war against the Tang. The “enlightened” Tang Emperor Taizong defeated the Tibetans in 638. The Qiang had to handle pressure from both sides. Historical texts referred to the Qiang then as “two-faced Qiang”. Other texts suggest the Quiang merged with the Chinese people. Today, they are a minority people, recognized as such by Mao Zedong.

The title. The first three characters of the title, 塞 下 曲, literally translate as “at the strategic pass, song” from which comes the more popular rendition “border song.” Then, the character for the number four. This is followed by the remaining three characters, 首 之 四, thus we have “four of four.” Phonetically, the last four characters are full of sibilance, like a snake hissing – sì shǒu zhī sì.

Border Songs, 3 of 4, Lu Lun

Lu Lun Border Songs

Lu Lun Border Songs, 3 of 4

Three of four, border songs of the leader, by Lu Lun.

The title – 塞 下 曲 四 首 之 三

The first two Chinese characters, 塞 下, rhyme, sài and xià, denoting the critical juncture where civilization ends and one passes into foreign lands.

The poem falls in the genre of border songs or frontier songs. These poems take place at strategic passes, on the western border with Tibet or on the northern borders with Turkic tribes. The scene might be a mountain pass or underneath the wall built to keep out the invaders.

The third character is the Chinese equivalent of song, qū.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth characters are beautifully fricative assonants, sì, shǒu, zhī.

The poem –
月 黑 雁 飛 高
單 于 夜 遁 逃
欲 將 輕 騎 逐
大 雪 滿 弓 刀

Rhyme: Gāo, táo, zhú, dāo (aaba)

A dark moon, the wild geese fly high (gāo)
At night, the Mongol chieftain escapes and flees (dùn táo)
Wishing, willing, lightly clad, we hunt the enemy
In snow piled high to our bows and swords (dāo)

The battle is with the nomadic Xiongnu tribes to the north of China. Generally, they are identified as Mongols, sometimes Huns, sometimes Tukic tribes. The chieftain has fled and while the wild geese scatter underneath a dark moon, the enemy flees, hunted down by lightly clad Chinese cavalry. They carry bow and arrow and the dāo, a single-edged Chinese sword, convenient for slashing and chopping at close range.

French translation

La lune, c’est noire, les oies sauvages volent haut et loin
La nuit, les Turcs s’échappent et fuient
Souhaitant, désireux, légèrement vêtus, nous les chassons
Avec la neige jusqu’à nos arcs et couteaux

Lu Lun

Lu Lun, was a poet of the Middle Tang Dynasty, who was born circa 737 in Fanyang, and died circa 788. The An Lushan Rebellion (755-763) affected his career path as it did many of the poets. Though the Tang Dynasty withdrew from Central Asia after the rebellion was put down, the interest in earlier military success on the frontier remained strong.  The frontier landscape was harsh, the mountains tall and desolate, the rivers cold, the desert dry and unforgiving, the garrison troops were, in the main, lonely and suffering, but by will and successful generalship, they overcame the Tibetans at the western frontiers and the Turkic nomads on the north.

More…

Border Songs, 1 of 4, Lu Lun

Within the benefit of time, further research, and thought, I will rewrite this poem.

It appears now that the poem is about the exploits of General Li Guang (Western Han dynasty) who fought against the northern Xiongnu tribe and died 119 BC.

 

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

General Zhang Yichao’s victory over the Tibetan Empire, 848. Wikipedia image

Border Songs, One of four

Eagle feathers hang from his golden arrow
His silk flag flutters like the tail of a swallow.
One man, arising, gives a new order and
A thousand battalions, with one shout, Hi-yo!

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

鷲 翎 金 僕
燕 尾 繡 蝥 弧
獨 立 揚 新 令
千 營 共 一 呼

Lu Lun was born around 748 in Shangxi Province. The one-character abbreviation for the province is 晋, Jin. This is also the fifth character in the title that precedes the poem. Thus, this may be a subtle reference to Lu’s home or to Lu Lun receiving his Jinshi degree.

The genre is called Frontier Poetry or Border Songs, which hearken back to happier times, when the Tang dynasty subjugated the Göktürks in the north or defeated the Tibetan armies in the west. China was at the height of its glory. The inclusion of the character 晋 (Jin) suggests that this is about a life or death struggle with the Göktürks.

This is the first in a series of four border songs by Lu Lun.

The Title

塞 下 曲 四 首 之 一

I confess to being stymied by the title. It seems to begin with the two characters, 塞 下, meaning at the border, or underneath the border wall. Then, the next two characters, 曲 四, suggest the characters for song of four, which may be an allusion to an ancient Chinese board game and a life or death struggle. A simpler explanation is that there are four Beyond the Border Songs included in the Tang 300.

I do know that it ends with the two characters:

之 一, zhī yī, One out of a multitude.

Most anthologies of the Tang 300 poems give the title as “Border Songs” with the appellation of its number in the series. That seems unfair.

Lu Lun stresses the importance of one man out of a multitude.

An unnamed army general is mounted on his horse, and holds in his hand the golden arrow, the emblem of his authority from the emperor. Nearby, a servant holds the campaign flag. It flutters in the wind like the swallow tail. The two images – eagle and swallow – represent the general and his army.

The warriors wait expectantly. The general, gazing upon the enemy and then back at his warriors, gives his battle command, and thousands of warriors respond as one.

“Hi-yo. Go all out!”

The rhyming pattern of the poem is aaba (Gū hú lìng hū), but there is also a significant amount of internal rhyme. This is important to convey the poets meaning that an army must fight in unison.

Little is known of his career.

Lu Lu’s death is variously reported as circa 788 to 800.
More…

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

Lost, all is lost, and yet, life goes on…

The title of the poem is usually translated as, Taking Leave of Friends on my Way to Huazhou. Du Fu simply calls it Huazhou (華 州), a city in Shaanxi Province, where Du Fu would take a short-lived post.

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

Clearing Rain by Du Fu

In Kansas, half way though June. Summer is not yet here, but the day time temperatures already approach 100 degrees.

Last night a violent storm blew out of the west. The news reporters spoke of straight-line winds approaching 90 miles an hour. Tree limbs fell and cars and trucks were blown off the highway. But, it rained and the farmers are grateful; for a long rain means the knee-high corn will survive the coming summer season.

In another time and place, Chinese poet Du Fu watched a similar storm and wrote a poem the following day.

lightning-2

The rain clears
(One becomes less angry in autumn)

The rain fell and the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind has blown ten thousand li.
The morning view is good and fine,
A long rain has not hurt the land.
The willow’s leaves are turning emerald green,
On a distant hill a pear tree blazes red.
Upstairs, a flute plays,
And outside, a goose flies in the sky.

Original Chinese

雨晴
(一作秋霁)

天水秋云薄
从西万里风
今朝好晴景
久雨不妨农
塞柳行疏翠
山梨结小红
胡笳楼上发
一雁入高空

Meaning of Du Fu’s Clearing Rain

In the summer of 759, Du Fu spent about six weeks in the city of Tianshui (天水) where he wrote this poem.

Du Fu had survived the worst of the rebellion. Captured by the rebels in 756, he escaped the following year and rejoined the emperor in the south. The emperor forces recaptured the capital Chang’an. Du Fu was accused of treason for remaining behind, but cleared of the charges. Back in the emperor’s good graces he received a post as Commissioner of Education in Huazhou, which was not to his liking. It was then, in the summer of 759, that he moved on to Tianshui where he spent a short six weeks and wrote over sixty poems.

The first two Chinese characters of Du Fu’s poem translate as “sky” and “water” or combined as “rain”. The two characters also name the city Tianshui where this poem was written.

Making sense of Du Fu’s poem:

It is now the autumn of my life.

It rained last night. The skies have cleared leaving behind only a few clouds. The western wind which once overpowered the east wind has blown ten thousand miles away. The long rain has not destroyed the country. The leaves of the willow trees, though sparse, are still green. On a distant hill the leaves of a pear tree blaze red. The wars though distant still consume lives. Somewhere in the house, a single flute plays its mournful tune and above a goose flies away.

To be continued…

Back in Kansas

The morning after the storm, a cup of coffee in hand, I go outside on my back porch and survey the damage. A few weak branches have fallen from the oak tree that towers above and green leaves are scattered about. The robins are busily gathering up worms.

Inside, on the television news reporters talk of nothing but tweets.

French translation

La pluie est tombée et les nuages d’automne sont peu,
Le vent de l’ouest a soufflé dix mille li.
La matin est bonne et bien,
Une longue pluie n’a pas blessé la terre.
Les feuilles du saut tournent vert émeraude
Sur une colline éloignée, une poire flambe rouge.
Une flûte joue en haut,
Et une oie flotte sur le vent.

Jetzt auf deutsch, German translation

Der Regen fiel und die Herbstwolken sind dünn,
Der westliche wind hat zehntausend li geblasen
Die Morgenansicht ist sehr gut,
Ein langer Regen hat das Land nicht verletzt.
Die Blätter der Weide machen Smaragdgrün,
Auf einem fernen Hügel bricht ein Birnbaum rot.
Eine Flöte spielt oben,
Und eine Gans fliegt in den Himmel.

Spring View, Du Fu

In December of the year 755, the An Lushan Rebellion began.

Thus, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are let loose on the Chinese Nation. Inappropriate allusion, but accurate since conquest, famine, war, and death swept the country.

Quickly, General An Lushan and his army swept down from the north and moving rapidly along the Grand Canal. Within a year later, rebel forces were at the gates of the capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an). The emperor decides to flee. Du Fu attempts to join him, but is caught by the rebels and taken back to Chang’an, where, it is said, this poem was written.

Du Fu’s view of the coming spring is conflicted. The 45-year-old Du Fu had removed his family to safety and a son was born. He certainly wanted to hear that they were safe. He was also fearful of his standing with the court in exile.

The beacon fires Du Fu speaks of were an ancient method of passing military information. In Europe, beacons were used by Romans and throughout the Napoleanic wars. The modern telegram rendered them obsolete.

fire

Spring View

A nation is broken by war, yet mountains and rivers exist
Spring comes to the city walls, where grass and trees still grow
This season it feels like blossoms are splashing like tears
I hate to depart, for the birds are scared in their hearts
Three months now, the beacon fires of war have burned
And one letter from home is worth ten thousand pieces of gold
While I scratch my white hair that has grown thin
Darken my desire not to be able to use a hairpin

Original Chinese

春望

國破山河在
城春草木深
感時花濺淚
恨別鳥驚心
烽火連三月
家書抵萬金
白頭搔更短
渾欲不勝簪

Poem explained

Du Fu had reason to fear the future. He was a married man with children to support. In 755 he received an appointment as Registrar of the Right Commandant’s Office of the Crown Prince’s Palace, a heady title but a minor post, but a start. The rebellion, the abdication of the emperor and his replacement, along with Du Fu’s capture was not a good omen. Though Du Fu was able to escape from the rebels, he was at first treated as a traitor. Though vindicated, he did not enjoy the new emperor’s full favor.

The hairpins in the last line of the poem are a metaphor for the union of two souls. Both men and women used hairpins and it was the custom in a Chinese marriage for husband and wife to exchange a hairpin.

Chang’an was taken by the rebel forces of An Lushan in 756 and much of it was destroyed. Tang forces retook it in 757. This dates Du Fu’s poem to the spring of 757, shortly before he left the city to rejoin the emperor.

French translation

Vue du printemps

Un pays brisée par la guerre, mais des montagnes et rivières existent
Le printemps arrive aux murs de la ville, et l’herbe et les arbres poussent encore
Cette saison, il semble que des fleurs éclaboussent comme des larmes
Je déteste partir, car les oiseaux ont peur dans leurs coeurs
Trois mois, les feux de guerre de la balise ont brûlé
Une lettre chez-soi vaut dix mille pièces d’or
Alors que je gratte mes cheveux blancs qui ont grossi
Obscurcir mon désir de ne pas pouvoir utiliser une épingle à cheveux

German translation

Frühlings-Ansicht
Eine Nation gebrochen, noch Berge und Flüsse existieren
Der Frühling zu den Stadtmauern kommt, wo Gras und Bäume noch wachsen
In dieser Saison es wie Blüten fühlt sich tummeln wie Tränen
Zu verlassen Ich hasse, denn die Vögel in ihren Herzen Angst haben
Drei Monate jetzt, das Feuer des Krieges verbrannt
Und ein Brief von zu Hause wert zehntausend Goldstücke
Während ich mein weißes Haar kratzen, die dünn ist gewachsen
Verdunkeln mein Wunsch, nicht in der Lage sein eine haarnadel verwenden

Du Fu

Du Fu