Perhaps he was a student away from home for the very first time, or a diplomat on his first foreign posting, there is a chill in the air, the room is dark and and our poet is lying in bed. Through the window the bright moonlight enters his bedroom and casts a silvery light on the floor at the foot of the bed.
He thinks, this same moon shines on my home far away.
Our poet, Li Bai (701–762) was, along with Du Fu, considered to be a Rock Star of Tang Dynasty poetry. In his mid-twenties he began what are called his wanderings. He left home in Sichuan and floated up the Yangtze through Dongting Lake to Nanjing. Perhaps, this initial homesickness inspired this poem, but we don’t know. Li Bai had many occasions on which to reflect of the emotion of being far from loved ones and far from home. This feeling of separation is one experienced by many students who go away to school, and this probably accounts for its continuing popularity today.
Li Bai lived during the tumultuous An Lushan Rebellion. He found himself on the wrong side of an internal struggle for succession and power, was condemned to death, then exiled, then pardoned, but before being recalled to the imperial court, died in 759.
A poem the Second time around
A poem the second time around can be better than the first. You’re older, presumably wiser. You know yourself a little better.
This is not your first rodeo.
A poem, like a cup of tea or a glass of wine, should be sipped and savored. The process repeated giving the poem new meaning. So I return to have a second look at Li Bai’s Quiet Night Thought.
Not a native Chinese speaker, I mouth the syllables, I hear the rhyme, notice the constant repetition of the glottal “g” sound. I am enamored with the second line, Yí shì dìshang shuāng, I am aware of the subtle meaning of Yí shì, and that sleep is but a thin veil between the conscious and the unconscious, that a thought is both real and unreal, that homesickness is a longing for a place we want to be.
That place is home, gùxiāng. Dītóu sī gùxiāng, bowing, which I prefer to lowering, my head, I recall the my parents, my family, the place I call home. Gùxiāng has a broader meaning of both home and homeland, making this poem applicable to one who is traveling in a distant land.
A constant rumble of war carts And never ending horse whinnies Soldiers with bows at their waists Fathers and mothers, wives and children rushing to see them In the dust and dirt one cannot see Xianyang bridge Pulling clothes, stamping feet, blocking the way and weeping The sound of weeping rising above to heaven Along the wayside a passerby asks a soldier The soldier’s simply replies, we are called up often Some of us, at fifteen, were sent north to guard the river And then, til forty, went west to farm for the army Each time we left, the village head wrapped our heads in cloth Coming back our hair was white, still we manned the borders At the border outpost, the flow of blood fed the ocean waters Emperor Wu’s desire to conquer more had not yet ceased Sir, have you not heard, that in the Han empire there are 200 prefectures east of the mountains And now a thousand villages and ten thousand hamlets are overgrown with briars and thorns And even there are women healthy enough to plow The crops planted in the fields are in disorder Since the dynasty of Qin, how can a soldier endure such bitter warfare Driven on, no different than like dogs or chickens You sir may ask But a soldier dare not state his resentment For example, this winter At Guanxi, soldiers have not yet been relieved While county tax officials seek new taxes But where will these taxes come from? It’s true, I know, to bear a son is bad Bearing a daughter, I can marry her to a neighbor Bearing a son, he will be buried in the midst of a hundred grasses Sir, have you not seen the shores of Lake Qinghai Where white bones lie and no man comes to collect them Where new ghosts are troubled by the cries of the old The sky is gray, it rains, it’s wet, and all about, the sound of constant wailing
The history behind Du Fu’s Ballad of War Carts
This rather long poem by Du Fu tells the story of the common peasant who is conscripted into the Chinese army and sent away for years to serve the emperor. Wisely, Du Fu has chosen to place this story in the Han dynasty during the 54 year reign of Emperor Wu, 武皇 (157 BC – 87 BC). It was a time of expansion to the west, the north, the south, and into the Korean peninsula. Obviously, this increased the prestige and power of Emperor Wu, but only at the expense of the peasant who was conscripted for years on end, and saw his land ruined by taxes and neglect.
The River, line 10, (河, hé) the Yellow River (huáng hé 黄河), considered the cradle of Chinese civilization.
Xianyang and Xianyang bridge in line five refers to the city of Xianyang, the capital of the Qin dynasty that preceded the Han dynasty. In 1974 farmers digging wells east of Xianyang, found a buried vault containing a terra-cotta army of life-size figures, including warriors, horses, and wooden chariots. The mention of 200 prefectures east of the mountains refers to the fact that the majority of Han Chinese lived east of the capital.
In 2012, the 2,000 year old remains of the largest wooden bridge in the world was discovered at ancient Xianyang. This may have been the bridge that Du Fu refers to (China People’s Daily, July 30, 2012).
Han and Qin Dynasty – The Han dynasty was China’s second imperial dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), preceded by the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). Much like the Tang dynasty, the four centuries of the Han emperors was considered a Golden Age in China.
Guanxi (關西) – the area west of Hangu Pass, separating the upper Yellow River and Wei River valleys. I was the site of many battles, thus the earlier reference to blood that flows into the ocean.
Lake Qinghai (青海) – a shallow alkaline lake on the Tibetan plateau. The province of Qinhai is the source of the Yellow River. During the Tang dynasty an area contested by Tibetan and Chinese forces. Alkaline lakes bleach bones white.
Every translator takes some liberties with translation. I have done so with the title, Ballad of War Darts. Du Fu’s original title, 兵車行, Bīng chē xíng, obviously rhymes. The first two characters, 兵車 are a compound which in modern parlance translates to an armored personnel carrier, but in the era of the Tang dynasty, a war cart, pulled by horses, transporting supplies. To this Du Fu adds the character 行, xíng, which does not mean ballad as many translators choose. Actually, it is a verb meaning go.
For this reason, one could choose the title, As War Carts Go, and remain closer to the Du Fu’s original meaning.
Increasingly remote are the three roads to ancient Ba Dangerous and strange for one who has traveled ten thousand li. At night, in the midst of the jagged snowy mountains, A lonely man is isolated and faraway from kin. (A lonely man so different from the Xiang people) Gradually, grows distant from his blood relations; Time and time again, growing closer to his servants. How, I dread to drift so far when Tomorrow, the new year comes.
Little is known of the Chinese poet Cui Tu other than his date of birth – 854, and the fact that only two of his poems are included in the Anthology of 300 Tang Poems, a book which was first compiled in 1763.
We do know that the Tang dynasty collapsed in 907. We are also aware of a rebellion lasting a decade (874–884) that resulted in the sacking of both capitals at Chang’an and Luoyang.
Needless to say, the times were turbulent. Cui Tu was possibly fleeing for his life to the relative security of mountainous Sichuan. Something, the imperial court did in times of danger. The mention of Ba in the first line, and the prefix of three, (Sanba 三巴 ) is throwback to the ancient State of Ba, which was located in eastern Sichuan. The literal meaning of ba is to cling, which describes the position of the dynasty at that time in history.
I have given an alternate translation to line four since Xiang may also refer to the Xiang people.
Piāobó,漂泊 in line seven is interesting as it suggests that Cui Tu will take on the life of a wanderer, drifting from here to there.
What will the New Year Bring?
Good question. Since the Tang dynasty was on its last legs, the answer is likely, not much.
New Year’s Eve is all about ringing out the old and ringing in the new, or, if you like, bringing in the new, throwing out the old. Old friends die, we make new friends, and Cui Tu must of found himself clinging to his servants not only to survive, but for comfort.
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.
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.
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’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.
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).
Seeking Shelter During a Snowstorm on Furong Mountain
Night falls 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, on 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.
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.
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) ?
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
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.
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.
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 (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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.