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

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Spring Night, I hear a flute – Li Bai

Draft…

flute-silver

Spring Night, I Hear the Flute

From whose house does the sound of a jade flute flies
Scattered by the Spring breeze filling Luoyang?
In the middle of the night I hear the willow unfolding
Who does not feel these old garden feelings

In 725 or thereabouts, while in his mid-twenties, Li Bai left his home in Sichuan, sailing down the Yangtze River, beginning his wandering days. He returned back up river, married, and briefly settled in before resuming his wanderings. In this first year, like Buddha , he gave up much of his wealth to his friends. Five years later, he found himself at Chang’an, the capital. He tried to obtain a position at the court, failed, and sailed on to Luoyang where we may assume he wrote this poem, before going back home to Sichuan.

Li Bai would eventually achieve much fame. He would also become acquainted with the poet Du Fu who would later include Li Bai in his list of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.

The poem

Poems always raise questions.

The first is the significance of a flute that is jade, and not a simple one of bamboo.

I have no real answer for this other than the phonetic similarity of the compound characters 飞 声and “fei-sheng”. This is one of the Taoist steps to attain immortality,  (ascending to heaven in daylight). It may also mean to make a name famous. All cultures believe music is heavenly inspired. Li Bai is perhaps, just perhaps, saying that the sound of the flute is heavenly sent, and carrying it on the spring breeze might confirm this.

Question two – what’s up with the unfolding willow? To part from a willow tree, to stand under a willow tree is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The willow is also symbolic, one symbol being solitude, another the return of spring.

Question three, those old garden feelings.

There I am at a complete loss.

Not much is said of Li Bai’s marriage to his wife. They had a child, then another, he left her, she could hardly make ends meet, then died, and the children went to live with someone else.  More to the story elsewhere.

French Translation of Spring Night, I Hear a Flute

Printemps, j’entends la flûte

Ou est la maison de qui sons la flute
Dispersé par la brise de printemps s’étend sur Luoyang?
Dans la nuit j’entends le saule se dérouler
Qui ne ressent aucune ces sentiments de jardin

Original Chinese

春 夜 洛 城 闻 笛

谁 家 玉 笛 暗 飞 声
散 入 春 风 满 洛 城
此 夜 曲 中 闻 折 柳
何 人 不 起 故 园 情

Pinyin

Shei jia yu di an fei sheng
San ru chun feng man luocheng
Ci ye qu zhong wen she liu
He ren bu qi gu yuan qing?