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

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Autumn

Chang’an is lit by a crescent moon and
From ten thousand homes comes the sound of cloth-pounding
While an autumn wind blows endlessly,
For those who guard the Gate at Yumenguan.
Who knows when peace will be made with the northern Hu?
So good men may return from long marches.

Yumenguan, Jade Gate

長安一片
萬戶搗衣聲
秋風吹不盡
總是玉關情
何日平胡虜
良人罷遠征


Cháng’ān yīpiàn yuè
wàn hù dǎo yī shēng
qiū fēngchuī bù jìn
zǒng shì yù guān qíng
hérìpíng hú lǔ
liáng rén bà yuǎnzhēng

Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons

In Spring, the lovely Lo Foh picks mulberry leaves for her silk worms while she disarms the advances of a Prince. In Summer, Xi Shi, China’s Beauty gathers lotus blossoms in May. In Autumn, a sliver of a moon hangs high over Chang’an while soldiers guard Yumenguan Pass. In Winter, a loving wife can hardly hold her needle and thread while she stitches a warm cloak for her warrior husband.

These are the Four Seasons and the Four Ballads of Li Bai.

In this poem, Autumn, Li Bai returns to Chinese history, hearkening back to the reign of Emperor Wu, seventh emperor of the Han dynasty who ruled from 131- 87, a record of 54 years, not surpassed for almost 1,800 years. Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion. At its height, extending the Empire’s borders north and west to Mongolia and modern Kyrgyzstan, Korea in the east, and Vietnam in the south.

In the North, Emperor Wu faced off against the northern “barbarians”, but this term did not exist in China. Instead, Li Bai refers to he Hu people 胡虜, Hu lu. This ancient people were also known as the Xiongnu. Wu used varying policies of appeasement, marriage, and ultimately war to fight them off.

Li Bai wrote this series of Ballads during the insurrection of General An Lushan, whose rebellion against the Tang dynasty began in 755 with disastrous consequences.

Yumenguan

Every Chinese reader of Li Bai’s poetry, then and now, was and is familiar with Yumenguan, 玉門關, the Jade Gate. This remote post marked the western extent of Chinese control. The name derives from the precious jade carried through its gate. 遠征, yuǎnzhēng, I translate as a long march, also an expedition, campaign would also fit.
Li Bai resting
Li Bai

Crescent Moon

Li Bai hangs a crescent moon, 一片月, Yīpiàn yuè, over Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. One could have used the literal translation, a piece, or the poetically assonant “sliver” with shines, but I like the image of a crescent moon over Chang’an. It conveys the dire image that Chang’an and the Tang dynasty were hanging on by a thread during An Lushan’s rebellion.
crescent moon Chinese 一片月
Crescent moon, Chinese, 一片月

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.

Mother’s Day Again

Mother’s Day is one day away, so I reprise Meng Jiao’s Song of the Wandering Son. The poem is like a multi-faceted gem, viewed differently from different angles.

The thread in the hands of a loving mother
Making clothes for her wandering son;
Carefully she stitches and sews,
Fearing delays that will keep him from home.
But how does inch-long grass
Repay the sun for three months of sunlight in spring?

pine tree on rocky mountain

The wandering son

Our wandering son is most likely a soldier called up by the emperor to campaign in the spring and the summer against the Tibetans in the far west or the Mongols to the north. The weather is bleak, the spring and summer short, winter is long and cold. The soldiers travel to a faraway land of high, grass plateaus, steep ravines, and snow-capped mountains. The sparse rains fall, gathering and forming the three of the great rivers of Asia – the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong.

The Tang soldiers confront tribesmen who are fierce warriors and splendid horsemen born to the saddle. They live upon herds of yaks, cliff-dwelling sheep, horses and the plunder they take from the caravans bound to and from China.

A loving mother

Our mother silently goes about her work closely stitching the warm coat he will need, knowing and fearing the long delay before he returns.

Notes on translation

How does the high plateau grass repay the sun for its sunlight, how does a son repay a mother for her nurturing love?

The last two lines of Meng’s poem which begins with 谁 言 Shéi yán, who said, has become a metaphor for a mother’s love.

谁 言, 寸 草 心, 报 得 三 春 晖
Shéi yán, cùn cǎo xīn, bào dé sān chūnhuī

green grass hillside solitary tree

Li Bai – Ballad of Four Seasons: Winter

“The messenger rides, she’s told, at first light
So, she sews a warrior’s cloak throughout the night
Her fingers tired, the needle cold
How can one hold the scissors tight?
Now the coat is done, she sends it away, and says,
‘How many days to Lintao?’ “

The poem explained

In the fourth and last of Li Bai’s seasonal ballads, the poet places us in a woman’s chamber in Chang’an, the Tang capital. The woman is sewing a warm cloak (征袍) for her warrior husband. He is serving with General Geshu Han in mountainous Lintao County (臨洮) on the Tibetan border. The messenger leaves at first light ( 明朝 ), so she must hurry to complete her task in spite of the cold.

Li Bai manages to capture the three emotions of love, devotion, and worry in this simple poem.

The original Chinese poem, as seen by the Pinyin translation, is more poetic, that is rhythmic and rhyming, than the English translation.

Enjoy!

Original Chinese and Pinyin

明朝驛使發
素手抽針冷
一夜絮征袍
那堪把剪刀
裁縫寄遠道
幾日到臨洮

Pinyin

Míng cháo yì shǐ fā
yīyè xù zhēng páo
sùshǒu chōu zhēn lěng
nà kān bǎ jiǎndāo
cáiféng jì yuǎndào
jǐ rì dào líntáo

General Geshu Han

General Geshu Han was of Turkic descent. He is famous for two events.

In 747, he achieved fame in western Lintao near Qinghai Lake, suppressing Tibetan raids on wheat farms and defeating Tibetan armies, and so restoring order to the western frontier of the Tang Empire.

The second event occurred during the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. General Geshu Han was sent to the strategic Tong Pass (Tongguan) to guard against the invading rebel forces. Though outnumbered, he followed orders and engaged the rebels, suffering a devastating defeat that led to his capture and the fall of the Tang capital at Chang’an.

General Geshu Han refused to cooperate with the rebels and was later executed.

Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762.

Li is a common surname in Chinese and means plum. The personal name Bai means white. Li Bai (701–762) was one of the superstar poets of the Tang dynasty. His career took a decided turn for the worse during the An Lushan Rebellion. He was captured by the rebels and held captive in the capital of Chang’an, but managed to escape a year later.

He died in 762, shortly before the rebellion was put down. Legend has it that he drank and drowned after falling from a boat, attempting to catch the moon’s reflection in a river.

Beyond the Border – Wang Zhihuan

tibet mountain qiang

Beyond the Border

Where the Yellow River in the far white clouds is arising,
A walled fortress stands alone amidst the vast peaks abiding,
Under a willow tree, the Qiang flute is sighing,
That Spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.

Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem

In 710, the young  Princess Jinching, adopted daughter to the Emperor Zhongzong, passed through Yumen Gate on her way to marry the Tibetan emperor. She would never return to her home in China. With this poem, Wang Zhihuan answers the emperor’s request for poems in her honor.

The princess is not named specifically in the poem, but her name appears phonetically in the last characters on the first two lines (Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān, yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān). We can speculate further that these two characters 间 (jiān) and 山 (shān), represent the ideas of separation and mountains.

More about Princess Jinching…

flute

Yumenguan

The setting for the poem is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass), so named because of the jade caravans that passed through the opening in the wall.  The pass was located on the ancient Silk Road.

It represented the border between China and Tibet.

At home in China, Wang Zhihuan could see the distant clouds in west. He  understood that the Yellow River (黄河) was formed by the rain that fell on the high Tibetan Plateau, in the midst of ten-thousand foot mountains, before it coursed through China to the Yellow Sea and the currents of the Pacific Ocean.

The wall’s opening surely reminded Wang of the hole on a flute. The Qiang people who live in the area have a unique two-reeded flute that plays a sound that recalls the emotion of missing someone.

The Qiang People

During Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese and Tibetan forces battled often. Between the two super-powers lay the ethnic Qiang people. During the border struggles, the Qiang went one way and then the other, subjects of Chinese or Tibetan control.

Like Wang Zhihuan, one can imagine a lonely flutist lamenting his misfortunes underneath a willow tree wondering why the winds of spring never reach his home.

The Qiang people make a unique flute made up of two bamboo pipes with two sets of holes. It is said that the sound of the flute is special, reminding one of the emotion of missing home. Popular Qiang songs include “Breaking off a Willow Branch” and “Missing You”. The third line of the poem begins with the characters 羌笛 – Qiāngdí, which clearly to me is Qiang flute. Nevertheless, some modern translations do not identify the Qiang flute, but generally of a flute played by a Tartar or Tibetan soldier. The verb in this line is 怨, literally, blame or complain, but lament or sigh sounds better to me. The willow tree – 杨柳 literally, willow tree / poplar and willow / or, a reference to the name of traditional tune that I cannot identify.

For a song that uses the willow tree as a metaphor see The Song of Everlasting (Unending) Sorrow, a long narrative poem by Bai Juyi (772 – 846). In the fifth scene, the imperial concubine is a little drunk. Her swaying figure resembles that of a willow branch dancing in the spring breeze.

The Title – 凉州词

The title also presents somewhat of a challenge. The original Chinese characters are 凉州词, literally Discouraging, Provincial, Word, or word from a cold province. Generally, modern translators use Beyond the Border, and so will I, but it would be more accurate to say, “At the Border” or “A Word from the Border,” or “word from a cold province”.

These alternate titles, however, lack the alliteration of “Beyond the Border”.

This is the second of two of Wang’s six existing poems published in the anthology of  300 Tang Poems. The other published poem is Ascending Stork Tower.

More about Wang Zhihuan (王之涣)

Original Chinese Characters

凉州词

  黄河远上白云间
一片孤城万仞山
羌笛何须怨杨柳
春风不度玉门关

Pinyin

Liáng zhōu cí

Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān
yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān
qiāngdí héxū yuàn yángliǔ
chūnfēng bù dù yùménguān

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, like blue silk threads, the grass grows
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

Yan and Qin

A soldier’s fate rests on the outcome of a battle; a nation’s fate rests on a war.

A soldier travels to Yan Province (present-day southwestern Shandong and eastern Henan), one of the nine provinces of the ancient Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). Li Bai does not identify the battle. Perhaps, it was the Battle of Yan, or one of a series of battles that took place between 194 and 196. Back home in western province of Qin, a wife awaits news of the battle and the war.

Notes on translating Spring Thoughts

The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).

From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.

In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.

Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.

燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)

By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.

Rhyme

In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

Chinese Characters

春思

燕草如碧絲
秦桑低綠枝
當君懷歸日
是妾斷腸時
春風不相識,
何事入羅幃

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi

A Wilderness View – Du Fu

china mountains snow

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world

Setting for Du Fu’s Wilderness View

In the far west, the Tang imperial forces are hard pressed to keep out the Tibetan army. The poet Du Fu, old in years, approaches the three forts that guard China from the invaders. Astride his horse he stops for a moment to gaze at the snow on the western mountains to compose this poem.

The Jin River (Jinjiang) begins in the western province of Sichuan, that boarders Tibet. I can not find a bridge named Wanli on the Jin River and it may be that Du Fu is using the two Chinese characters 萬 and 里, to mean a thousand miles, or a long bridge, rather than as a place name, wan meaning a thousand, and li being a unit of measurement often equated with a mile.

One Chinese frontier city was Songzhou (松州, in modern Sichuan). Phonetically this is similar to chéng shù of the first line, but this interpretation is a stretch. The characters also sound like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternate translation of line 2: To the south it is clear to where the the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River. The similarity in structure of the two characters 浦 and 清 is obvious, but the significance is not.

Line four, edge of heaven is often translated in English as the end of the world.

The Style of Du Fu

Du Fu liked to write in a structured poetry of balancing couplets, a style called Lu Shi (律詩). This can be observed in the Pinyin translation below, particularly in the last two lines.


kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáo

Original Chinese and Pinyin

野 望

西 山 白 雪 三 城 戍
南 浦 清 江 萬 里 橋
海 內 風 塵 諸 弟 隔
天 涯 涕 淚 一 身 遙
唯 將 遲 暮 供 多 病
未 有 涓 埃 答 聖 朝
跨 馬 出 郊 時 極 目
不 堪 人 事 日 蕭 條

Yěwàng

Xīshān báixuě sān chéng shù
nánpǔ qīngjiāng wànlǐ qiáo
hǎinèi fēngchén zhū dì gé
tiānyá tìlèi yīshēn yáo
wéi jiāng chímù gōng duō bìng
wèi yǒu juān āi dá shèng cháo
kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáoDu Fu’s Laments from the South

History of Chinese Tibetan Warfare

The history of Chinese warfare with Tibet is beyond my understanding. One source is China’s Golden Age. Another translation of this poem with background material is found in Du Fu’s Laments from the South by David R. McCraw.

china mountains river

Du Fu – The Evening Council Chamber

A poem is never done, it is left unfinished or abandoned, but never done, and, what is more, never fully understood.

The Evening Council Chamber

While the winter curtails the daylight
At the end of the world the frost and snow swirl in the night
At the fifth-watch the drums and bugles sound their sad song
O’er the Three Gorges pours the Star River (Milky Way)
From a distance women wail of war and
At dawn fishermen and woodcutters go to work
Wolong and his Leaping Horse are the Yellow Earth
A man’s work makes a letter unfettered, sound lonesome and alone

Dating the Poem

During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Du Fu (杜甫, 712-770) was captured by the rebels and then escaped, and he later sought refuge in the wilds of the Gorges. It is likely that he wrote this poem then. In particular the date of this poem may be placed between the spring of 766 and the autumn of 768, when Du Fu and his family stayed in nearby Kuizhou. Chapter One, Rising From a Placid Lake, China’s Three Gorges

Caveats

This poem is a translator’s nightmare.

Translation that are literal miss the mark because they do not take into account compound words, place names, and pseudonyms for famous Chinese figures. Modern translation also miss subtleties of language.

The Title

The English title of the poem seems to wander from Du Fu’s intention. I have seen the title both as From the Watch Tower and as Night in the Watch-tower. The first character translates directly as council-chamber, not watch tower. And the intent of the poem is discuss the affairs of the day among those who make war and cause death. The second character in the title is “night” but “evening” works as well.

The Poem

Line 1. Du Fu uses the characters 陰 and 陽, yin and yang, to represent the opposing forces in nature.

Line 2. 天 涯, Tian Ya, at the border of heaven, at the horizon.

Line 3. The Fifth Watch, from 3 to 5 am.

wang shimin landscapes inspired by dufu  qing dynasty 1665 wikipedia

Line 4. The line identifies the place as today’s scenic Three Gorges. In the heavens above shines a River of Stars which we know as the Milky Way.

Line 6. Wolong (臥龍) is an alternative name for Zhuge Liang, Chinese general, statesman and strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 -280), which began with the dissolution of the Han Empire. The kingdoms were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are. Wolong, also called Sleeping Dragon,  was a general for the Shu Han. His death ended a strategic threat to the Chinese Kingdom.

Line 7. Begins with 人事, a man’s work, or human affairs, but also a homophone to 詩 or 诗, Shi, the Chinese word for all poetry generally.

Du Fu compares man’s work with a letter 書, Shu.

Du Fu had in mind the deaths of his good friends Li Bai and Yan Wu. What happens to poetry that is not collected? Will his story be different than Wolong?

There is a common belief in China that the dry dusty yellow earth (loess) of north China is made up of the remains of the millions of dead soldiers.

Original Chinese

閣 夜
歲 暮 陰 陽 催 短 景
天 涯 霜 雪 霽 寒 霄
五 更 鼓 角 聲 悲 壯
三 峽 星 河 影 動 搖
野 哭 千 家 聞 戰 伐
夷 歌 數 處 起 漁 樵
臥 龍 躍 馬 終 黃 土

This poem is unfinished… Recheck the last two lines.

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