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
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Return to Furong Mountain 归人 山主人

Seeking Shelter During a Snowstorm on Furong Mountain

“Day turns twilight and the dark green mountains are behind me
The cold thatched cottage is needy
I knock on the wicket gate, a dog barks
Everyone sleeps at night in a snowstorm”

Return to Furong Mountain 归 人 山主人

I have been here before, to be exact, March 6, 1019, not too long ago, when I first translated Liu Changqing’s poem.

The title has changed, it is more more alliterative. For the better, I think. One could also translate the title as “Lodging on Furong Mountain During a Snowstorm”, and that would work. One could substitute Hibiscus for Furong (for that is the meaning of 芙蓉, furong), and that would please some, not me.

As I said, I have been here before. Here is Furong Mountain.

In summer, the green mountains are covered with lovely hibiscus flowers. There is much to see – Furong Waterfall, which dazzles the eye with its droplets reflecting in the sunlight, the ancient streets of the city filled with shops of the Tujia people, Tusi Palace, Xizhou Bronze Pillar and Tujia Cave Ancestors’ Relics.

Ah, but it is winter, there is a snowstorm, everyone sleeps. Everyone, but one, the host who rises to greet his guest.

Question?

It remains for to ask why Liu Changqing is traveling to Furong Mountain in winter. Furong is far to the south in the province of Hunan. Therefore it is neither close to Suizhou, where Liu served as governor for spell, nor northern Hebei Province, Liu’s ancestral home.

One hint as to the reason for his trip comes from another poem, Looking for the Taoist monk Chang of the Southern stream. Southern stream often meant the Yangtze, and poets like Liu often made pilgrimages to the southern mountainous regions to obtain deep insight, a spiritual experience. Liu might have been seeking the monk Chang or following in the footsteps Wang Wei to whom he wrote a farewell poem on the occasion of his exile to the south.

It is important to note that the journey is the goal, not the destination. Along the way many experiences happen and a transformation begins. Perhaps Liu has been this way before, perhaps not.

Either way, we are constantly seeking a truth which is elusive, and therefore certainly worth a return trip.

Chinese Characters and Pinyin

雪夜宿芙蓉山主人

日 暮 苍 山 远,
天 寒 白 屋 贫
柴 门 闻 犬 吠
风 雪 夜 归 人

Xuě yè sù fúróng shān zhǔrén

rìmù cāngshān yuǎn
tiān hán bái wū pín
cháimén wén quǎnfèi
fēng xuě yè guī rén

Snowy Night’s Lodging, Furong Mountain, My Host

Snowy Hut on Hibiscus Mountain

A snowy lodging, Furong Mountain, my host

In the twilight, the ashen gray mountains are far away
The day is cold, my hut snowy white.
At the wooden door, I hear the dog bark,
Amid the wind and snowy night, someone returns.

雪夜宿芙蓉山主人

日 暮 苍 山 远,
天 寒 白 屋 贫

柴 门 闻 犬 吠,
风 雪 夜 归 人

Xuě yè sù fúróng shān zhǔrén

rìmù cāngshān yuǎn,
tiān hán bái wū pín
cháimén wén quǎnfèi,
fēng xuě yè guī rén

Around the age of 70, our poet Liu Changqing (刘长卿, Liú Zhǎngqīng, circa 709–786), was appointed governor of Siuzhou in Henan province.

Furong Mountain (芙蓉山, Fúróng shān, literally Hibiscus Mountain) is found in Henan province. Puji Temple, a Buddhist temple is located at the very top of the mountain. Apparently, lodging was provided for visitors like Liu Changqing.

Isn’t it Pedantic?

My wife says I overthink things. My daughter says I obsess on trivial detail. And sometimes, we one relies on the possibly apocryphal statement by Sigmund Freud that sometimes, “A cigar is just a cigar.”

Still one tries to suck all the marrow from the bone, to find meaning that is not at first apparent, sometimes projecting thoughts never intended. But isn’t that the intent of poetry. It is a word picture and work of art. If any good, evoking feelings and emotions.

Our poet finds himself in a snow covered hut on Furong Mountain along with his dog. It is not his lodging for we learn in the last line that someone, the rightful owner, returns ( 人 归 ) as the wind howls, the snow blows, in the darkness of night (风 雪 夜 ).

Who is the owner and how will the trespassing Liu be greeted? Is not the mountain the true host (主人) ?

Chinese Temple


Returning Late on Pingquan Road in Winter – Bai Juyi

The mountain road is hard going, now the daylight wanes
In a smoky hamlet crows land on frosted trees
Never mind that I don’t make it by nightfall
Three warm cups and I’ll feel at home

Bai Juyi

Our poet, Bai Juyi (772-846) was seemingly born fully-formed. When he arrived in the capital of Chang’an for his civil service examination, he presented his examiner with a book of poems. Opening the book, the examiner read the first line, 離離 (Li Li)原上草 一歲一枯榮, The grass spreads across the plain, it withers each year, then flourishes again.

Bai Juyi was, no doubt, fully aware of his choice of language. The first character ( 離 Li) alludes to the surname of the Tang emperors and the most common Chinese surname. The repetition of the characters 離離 suggesting longevity of the dynasty and the Chinese people.

Pinquan 平泉

Pingquan is seven miles south of Luoyang, the eastern capital of the Tang dynasty. In 755, an event that predates our poem, Luoyang was captured by northern rebels during the An Lushan Rebellion.

Pingquan has been known as one of the Eight Scenic Spots of Luoyang What put this mountainous place on the cultural map was a villa built there by Li Deyu (787–850), an important political figures of late Tang dynasty. Other high officials built villas there as well, and Bai Juyi spent much time traveling to and from there. Scholarly articles have been written about Bai Juyi’s connection to the spot.

Original Chinese Characters

冬日平泉路晚歸

山路難行日易斜
烟村霜樹欲棲鴉
夜歸不到應閑事
熱飲三杯即是家

Bai Juyi – Night Snow

Confused that my pillow and covers are cold as ice
I turn to see the window and door are bright.
It was then that I knew a deep snow had come in the night
When I suddenly hear the bamboo crack

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi (772–846) lived in the aftermath of the An Lushan Rebellion, living though the reign of eight or nine emperors. He occasionally found himself in trouble because of his criticisms of things he believed were wrong. Nevertheless, he managed to walk the tightrope of imperial politics and he held important positions as head of several prefects. In 832, at the age of 60, he retired to a Buddhist monastery and worked on collecting his numerous poems. He died in 846.

More…

Making sense of Night Snow

What are we to make of this short poem?

It conveys the sense of a moment when suddenly (讶, surprised) our poet is awoken from sleep and, finding his covers cold and the room bright, realizes that a deep snow has come in the night because he hears the bamboo crack (竹 声, the sound of bamboo) under the weight of the snow.

Stuffier poets like Du Mu (803–852) criticized Bai Juyi’s simple sensual style, observing that the common people write them on walls as graffiti, and mothers and fathers teach them to their children.

Bai Juyi’s style greatly influenced Japanese poetry, especially 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō. Indeed, the poem of reminiscent of Basho’s “The Sound of Water”.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

夜 雪

已 讶 衾 枕 冰

复 见 窗 户 明

夜 深 知 雪 重

时 闻 折 竹 声

Ye Xue

Yi ya qin zhen bing

Fu jian chuang hu ming.

Ye shen zhi xue chong

Shi wen she zhu sheng.

Memories of Early Winter – Meng Haoran

Memories of Early Winter

The leaves are falling, the wild geese flying south
The water is cold here, the wind from the North.
I remember my home, where the Xiang River bends
Hidden by the clouds of Chu.

I weep for my village, ’til my tears are spent
I spy a lonely sail that stares at the sky
Indulge me, where is the delta ferry?
The lake is peaceful and boundless.

Meng Haoran

Death comes to us all. For poet Meng Haoran, it came at the age of 50. Meng was born in Xianyang, Hubei in the ancient Chinese state of Chu, living most of his life there. He received his only official posting three years before his death, but left after less than a year.

meng-same

China’s Superstar Poets

By date of birth, Meng Haoran preceded Li Bai and Du Fu by 10 and 20 years. These three along with Wang Wei made up the pantheon of poetry superstars of the Tang Dynasty.

Until the age of forty, Meng Haoran lived  in his native Hubei province. When he finally traveled to the capital to seek fame and fortune, his poetic talents  came to the attention of  contemporaries. These included the likes Wang Wei, as well as poet and minister Zhang Jiuling. Through their efforts, Meng was recommended directly to Emperor Xuanzong. Unfortunately for Meng, his penchant for wine, a disdain for pomp, and the fact that one of his poems included a sentiment that did not look kindly on official life, gave the emperor pause and he decided Meng would be best left to wander and write.

Place Names

The River Xiang flows into Lake Dongting from the south, where it joins with the flow of the Yangtze. Beginning in late summer, flood water from the Yangtze also flows into the lake, enlarging the lake’s surface area. Dreamy cloud formations result from the increase in moisture.

At a distance to the south and east of the lake, lies the southern Chinese state of 楚 (Chu). This ancient state encompasses most of present-day Hunan, as well as Hubei, where Meng was born and raised.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

早寒有懷

木落雁南渡
北風江上寒
我家襄水曲
遙隔楚雲端

鄉淚客中盡
孤帆天際看
迷津欲有問
平海夕漫漫

Rhyme: abab

Pinyin

Zǎo hán yǒu huái

mù luòyàn nán dù
běifēng jiāngshàng hán
wǒjiā xiāng shuǐ qū
yáo gé chǔ yúnduān

xiāng lèi kè zhōng jǐn
gū fān tiānjì kàn
míjīn yù yǒu wèn
píng hǎi xī mànmàn

china ferry boat willow tree lake

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.

Note to Self

Note to Self

Looking at my wine, I did not catch sight of the dark night coming
Or the flowers falling down on my gown
Tipsy, in the moonlight I walk along the stream
The birds have yet to come and few are the people

Note to self

Li Bai’s (李白) poem 自遣 is usually translated as “Amusing myself”.

I prefer “note to self” since the first character 自 can be translated as a prefix for self and the second character 遣 is dispatch or letter. Taken together as a compound word, the two characters take on the meaning “Cheer up!” which is close to “Amusing myself”.

Taking the translation of 自遣 as amusing myself as intended, an English language student might wonder if Li Bai meant something sexual. Probably not, probably mere coincidence, but I did come across an alternative meaning of the compound word as defecate. My Chinese is not good enough to confirm this, but it would explain the poet’s need to talk a walk down by the stream.

Why is that Tang poetry so innocent and simple in its beginning, becomes a bit lost on the way to the poet’s meaning?

Poor Li Bai, discharged from his administrative duties, sentenced to death, then spared and exiled, disgraced, Li Bai finds himself on the way to Sichuan and his hometown. Literally and metaphorically, it is the winter of his life. No one is there to accompany him on the way to exile. Winter and the birds will not keep him company. Caught up in his loneliness and wine, he does not notice the dark night as it comes. Then noticing his old friend the moon he goes for a walk down to the stream, a little tipsy, alone, but for the moon.

I leave it to the reader to decide why

 

Original Chinese

自遣

对酒不觉暝
落花盈我衣
醉起步溪月
鸟还人亦稀

Rhyme

Duì jiǔ bù jué míng, luòhuā yíng wǒ yī, zuì qǐbù xī yuè, niǎo hái rén yì xī

moonlight

River Snow

I confess to being fascinated by the imagery in Liu Zongyuan poem River Snow (elsewhere I and others have used the translation Sn0w Covered River, but now I question its accuracy).

river-snow-crop

river snow

 

A thousand mountains and not a bird to be seen. The wintry landscape is smooth and pristine. And there in a boat on a snow-covered river sits a lonely fisherman clad in a cape of sea-grass wearing a bamboo hat.

Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819) lived in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. China was in the midst of rebellion and invasion, famine and flooding. The Tang dynasty, weakened by these calamities, would however go on, ending almost a century later in 907 AD. Surely, Liu had a foretaste of the end and a sense of the fragility of life. This “existentialist” poem more than hints at man’s isolation in the world and his struggles to survive against all that nature can throw at him.

Liu’s title is 江雪, literally River Snow.

Most translations are River Snow or Snow Covered River. There is a third possibility. River snow like lake effect snow is a specific atmospheric condition. One observes water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground in a thin white layer. The effect is quite ethereal and poetic and untranslatable.

That said, here I go again at translating Liu’s poem.

A thousand mountains, and not a sign of a bird in flight
On the wintry-white land, not a footprint in sight
But here on a frozen river, in a boat
Clad in my cape of sea-grass and bamboo hat
I sit and fish
Alone

Yes, I have translated Liu’s characters differently elsewhere. After all, the Chinese characters and the English words they represent are nothing more than images of the mind. We do not see words when we look at the world, we see images. Liu understood this. His setting is sparse – a thousand mountains covered in snow, not a single bird, not a trace of mankind but for this solitary fisherman, alone in his boat. Is the river snow-covered or frozen? And does it matter? Liu thought it important to clothe our fisherman only in cape of sea-grass and a bamboo hat. This implies that our fisherman is the lowliest of the low.

We are observers of this scene, unable to penetrate his thoughts, and yet, somehow we know.

Notes.

Elsewhere I have concluded that 千山, the Thousand Mountains, Liu refers to in the first line is Qianshan National Park in Liaoning Province, China.