Li Bai’s Ballads of Four Seasons: Spring

Yang Guifei, painting by Hosoda Eishi, British Museum

Oh, the lovely Lo Fo from the Land of Chin
Picking green mulberry leaves by the riverside
Her red lips bright and fresh
Sir, she says, my silkworms must eat, so I must go
Prince, I pray
, tarry not with your coach and five.

子夜四時歌春歌,
李白


秦地羅敷女
采桑綠水邊
紅妝白日鮮
蠶飢妾欲去
五馬莫留連

Zǐyè sì shí gē chūn gē,
Lǐ Bái


Qín de luó fū nǚ
Cǎi sāng lǜ shuǐ biān
Hóngzhuāng bái rì xiān
Cán jī qiè yù qù
Wǔ mǎ mò liúlián

mulberry leaves

The Story of Lo Foh

Li Bai’s poem is a retelling of the popular ballad of Lo Fo (Lo Foh), a story of a wife’s loyalty, devotion, and honor to her husband when approached by a high official. It is based on a much longer ballad that goes like this:

In the southeast, the sun rises where two walls meet.
And shines on the house of Master Chin.
Master Chin has a lovely daughter, Lo-foh her name.
Lo-foh feeds her silk-worms well.
She picks mulberry leaves south of the city.
Her basket is carried by a cord of blue silk,
And a hook fashioned from a laurel branch.
Her hair is dressed in pretty knots of Wa-doj
Sparkling moonstones hang from her ears.
Her petticoat is yellow silk, her jacket purple silk.

The Lord Governor comes from the south,
His five horse coach stops and stays.
The Lord Governor bids his men to ask.
And they ask: “Who art thou, little maid?”
“I am the fair daughter of Master Chin, “Lo-foh is my name.”
“How old art thou, Lo-foh?”
“Less than twenty.”
“But more than fifteen, yea, much more.”
The Lord Governor entreats Lo-foh,
“Wilt thou ride with me?”
Lo-foh sweetly replies: “My Lord Governor, how foolish, indeed! My Lord Governor, you have a lady of your own,
“And Lo-foh, she has a man of her own.”

The Land of Ch’in (Qin)

In this, Li Bai’s first ballad of spring, we return to the China’s first imperial dynasty. This is the Qin Dynasty, which we know better as Ch’in or Chin. The dynasty was short-lived, lasting only 15 years from 221 to 206 BC. Its importance, other than the fact that it was the first imperial dynasty, is that it is the source from which Europeans derived the name China.

In the ancient Warring States Period (475–221 BC), the Land of Qin lay to the west before conquering the other states.

Lo Fo, or Lo-Foh, is a legendary figure, a young girl who is either married or engaged to be so. Her bright red lipstick might indicate the later. She is picking fresh mulberry leaves for her silkworms when she is approached by a coach drawn by five horses, a sign of a high official, perhaps even the governor of Chin. Lo Fo quickly deflects his attention and remains chaste.

Making Silk
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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.

To One Unnamed 3, 无题之三

Time was, long before I met her,
but longer still, since we parted,
The east wind is powerless, for it has come

and a hundred flowers are gone,
And the silk-worms of spring will spin until they die
And every night candles will weep their wicks away.
In the morning mirror she sees her temple hair

changing the color of clouds
Chanting poems in the chill of moonlight.
Oh, it is not so very far to Penglai
O blue-birds listen, bring me what she says.

Penglai, , Yuan Jiang (袁江) 1680-1730

Interpreting Li Shangyin

This is the third of five poems Li Shangyin wrote to one unnamed.

Line one describes the difficulty of poet and the object of his poem in meeting. Time being the greatest obstacle to two lovers(?). Powerless is the East Wind 东风 Dōngfēng of spring because all its flowers have come and gone. Life will go on like the silkworm spinning, until it dies. And each night the candle wax weeps as the wick fades away.

The poet’s unnamed muse sees herself in the mirror. She sees the silver hairs growing at her temples. Still she chants her poems in the chill of moonlight 月光 Yuèguāng .

It is not far to Never-never land

That is how one would translate 蓬莱 Pénglái . In Chinese mythology it is a mythical island, home to the Eight Immortals, where there is no pain and no winter; where rice bowls and wine glasses never become empty no matter how much people eat or drink; and where enchanted fruits grow that can heal any ailment, grant eternal youth, and raise the departed.

Chinese

无题之三

相见时难别亦难
东风无力百花残
春蚕到死丝方尽
蜡炬成灰泪始干
晓镜但愁云鬓改
夜吟应觉月光寒
蓬莱此去无多路
青鸟殷勤为探看

Pinyin

Wútí zhī sān

xiāng jiàn shí nán
bié yì nán dōngfēng wúlì bǎihuā cán
chūncán dào sǐ sī fāng jǐn
là jù chéng huī lèi shǐ gàn
xiǎo jìng dàn chóu yúnbìn gǎi
yè yín yīng jué yuèguāng hán
pénglái cǐ qù wú duō lù
qīngniǎo yīnqín wèi tàn kàn

Clearing Rain, Du Fu (杜甫)

In Tianshui, the autumn clouds are thin,
The western wind having blown ten thousand li.
This morning’s view is clear and fine,
Long rains do not harm the land.
A row of willows trees begins to green,
The pear tree on the hill has little red buds.
Upstairs, a hujia pipe plays a tune ,
One goose flies high into the sky.

Du Fu, Clearing Rain
spring blossom

Cai Yan, daughter of Cai Yong

In 759, for the brief period of six weeks, Du Fu stayed in the city of Tianshui in Ganshu Province.

While he was there, it is likely that he heard the haunting hujia (literally, reeded pipe of Hu people) and the story of the beautiful Cai Yan (c. 178 – 249, daughter of Cai Yong). She was abducted by the western Xiongnu, married to a chieftain, and held captive for twelve years, bearing two children. Eventually ransomed, she returned to China, but was forced to leave her children behind.

In captivity, while riding on a cart, she heard the mournful reed of the nomads’ pipes, and was moved to compose this poem, which inspired Du Fu, who incorporates the similar sound “yi yan” (一雁, one goose) in the last line of his poem:

Nomad reed pipes softly blowing,
Horses whinnying on the frontier.
Above a solitary goose turns its head,
Its cry is heard, “Ying, ying.”

Chinese characters and pinyin

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

yǔ qíng(yī zuò qiū jì)
tiān shuǐ qiū yún báo
cóng xī wàn lǐ fēng
jīn zhāo hǎo qíng jǐng
jiǔ yǔ bù fáng nóng
sāi liǔ háng shū cuì
shān lí jiē xiǎo hóng
hú jiā lóu shàng fā
yī yàn rù gāo kōng


a solitary goose

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, grass grows like the bluest silk thread
In Qin, mulberries hang low on branches of green
My Lord, why do you think of coming home?
Now, when I am heart-broken and sad
Oh Spring Breeze, that I do not know
Why part the silk curtains of my bed?

Translating Li Bai’s Spring Thoughts

” In spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So said Lord Alfred Tennyson a thousand years after Li Bai. And anyone who has felt a gentle breeze in spring and felt the stirrings of love knows the feeling well.

Li Bai’s tells the story from the girl’s perspective. Alas, the rhyme does not translate into English.

Yan and Qin, 燕 and 秦

The story takes place in the ancient Chinese states of Yan and Qin, and dates to the time of the Warring States (somewhere around the 5th century BC). Yan, in northeastern coastal China, lies on the Bohai Sea. Qin lies to the south and west of Yan. Qin grew to be the strongest of the warring states.

Boy and girl, 君 and 妾

The relationship of our boy and girl is 君, lord (informally ‘you’) and 妾, concubine.

Concubine is not a term used in Western culture. In Chinese it means, a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife or wives. Mistress or lover is a better alternative. She may not be his wife, but she certainly has a claim on his heart.

Spring Breeze, 春風

Spring Breeze, 春風 , referred to in line five also has a sexual connotation, meaning sexual union.

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
dāng jūn huái guī rì shì
qiè duàncháng shí
chūnfēng bù xiāngshí
héshì rù luó wéi

Princess Jinching

Princess Jinching (金城公主, 699-740) was the great-granddaughter of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wu Zetian. She was adopted by the ruling Emperor Zhongzong.

During peace negotiations between the Chinese and Tibetans, it was agreed that she would become the bride of the Tibetan emperor in a marriage alliance between the two powers. In 710, she departed Chang’an, the capital, accompanied by the Emperor Zhongzong to a city he later renamed Jinching in her honor. She was 10, 12, or 16 years old at the time, depending on the source.

The young princess continued on escorted by a Chinese general. And the trip would take them to the furthest reaches of Tang China, through Yumen Pass, named for the many jade caravans that passed though the fortress wall. The spot is dry, often windy, and in the summer scorched by heat.

The wind howling through the gate makes a mournful sound.

When the young princess reached Tibet, the Tibetans convinced the Chinese general escorting her to recommend that China cede the border land of Qinghai, home to the Qiang people. It was supposed to be a bathing fief for the princess but hostilities between the two countries continued and the area became a staging area for Tibetan attacks on China.

The princess’ life in Tibet was not a happy affair. In 723, she requested asylum with the King of Kashmir, but was dissuaded from going. She remained active with the Chinese community in Tibet, was responsible for building temples, and continued to correspond with her adopted father, the emperor.

After the princess’ departure, the emperor, saddened by her leaving, ordered that poems be written on her behalf.

Wang Zhihuan responded with the beautifully written “Beyond the Border”.

Qiang flute

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

Resentment – Li Bai

fashion-chinese-girl-curtain

Resentment

A beauty appears through a curtain of pearls,
With a deep frown on her beautiful face,
I see the tracks of her tears on her beautiful face.
But not the man she hates

 

Resentment

The two characters of the title 怨 情 can be translated as Bitter Love, Resentment, or Lament. Separately, the characters convey the meaning of “resent” the “situation”. A well-known idiom uses the same two characters, 心甘情愿, I’d be delighted to help.

We see but do not know. We can only feel, but not know why.

Perhaps, our poet has been out on the town, and now returning home he spies a beautiful woman (蛾眉, éméi) at the window of her apartment as she unfurls her pearl curtains (珠 簾, pearl or pearl-like, beaded). Li Bai sees the troubled face, but can only imagine the hate in her heart (心 恨 誰).

Yang Guifei

Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor Xuanzong’s beautiful and beloved royal consort, Yang Guifei. This could not be one of those without exposing Li Bai to her wrath.

Original Chinese

怨 情

美 人 捲 珠 簾

深 坐 蹙 蛾 眉

但 見 淚 痕 濕

不 知 心 恨 誰

Pinyin

Yuàn qíng

měirén juǎn zhū lián

shēn zuò cù éméi

dàn jiàn lèihén shī

bùzhī xīn hèn shuí

Pearls of Wisdom

The pearly curtain hints at a rich and well-kept woman, a courtesan, an occupation which, in Li Bai’s time, was an honored profession, but not without drawbacks. The pearl may also symbolize the moon, itself a lonely object of beauty and contemplation.

painting in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China
early 19th c. painting of Li Bai in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China

Song of the Spring Palace – Wang Changling

Princess Pingyang of Tang Dynasty

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior of the Tang Dynasty

Song of the Spring Palace
Last night,
The first peach blossoms were revealed by a warm wind
And the moon shone high above old Weiyang palace
Where Princess Pingyang danced and sang
Then asked for a silk gown for a cold spring

春 宮 曲

昨 夜 風 開 露 井 桃
未 央 前 殿 月 輪 高
平 陽 歌 舞 新 承 寵
簾 外 春 寒 賜 錦 袍

Chūngōng qū

zuóyè fēng kāi lù jǐng táo
wèiyāng qián diàn yuè lún gāo
píngyáng gēwǔ xīn chéng chǒng
lián wài chūnhán cì jǐn páo

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior

Princess Pingying (598-623), daughter of Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, raised an army of women, to help overthrow the Sui Dynasty and capture its capital Chang’an. She died in childbirth at the age of 23, celebrated as warrior, dutiful daughter, and devoted wife.

Line two, 未央, Weiyang Palace, literally, endless or never ending, the palace at Chang’an, called the “Endless Place” because of its size.

Wang Changling

During the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Wang Changling (698–756),  was  minister of Jiangning County, which included the important city of Nanjing on the Yangtze River. His death in 756 is not explained.

The Title 春 宮 曲

The title is straight forward, 春 spring, 宮 palace, 曲 song.

Poetical Paradox

Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act of Creation, observed that new ideas are the juxtaposition of paradoxical concepts.

Peach blossoms and warm winds signify the spring season, the renewal of life. In China, the peach is a symbol of immortality. Yet, the beautiful and young Princess Pingyang will soon die. In line three of the poem, the princess sings and dances, 歌 舞, then receives as a favor, 承 寵, chéng chǒng, a silk gown, which we know know, could not fend off the cold touch of death.

The rhyming association of the princess Pingyang and the palace Weiyang is more than coincidental. The transitory beauty of the immortal peach tree and its beautiful blossoms, the forever Weiyang Palace, and our heroine Princess Pingying, all symbolize the fragility of beauty and life itself.

In real time, rebel forces were destroying the Tang capital at Chang’an along with its many palaces including Weiyang.

Wang Changling did not know it, but spring would return to the Tang dynasty. The rebel forces would eventually be defeated, the rule of the Tang Dynasty would continue, but not forever.

Wang Changling by Kanō Tsunenobu (1636-1713)

 

Yearning – Wang Wei

Red berries born in the south

Whose branches are full in the Spring

A gentleman wishes you gather many

As a symbol of our love

Wang Wei

Wang Wei (王維, 699–759) is regarded as one of the three most admired poets of the Tang dynasty, the other two being Li Bai and Du Fu. But Wang has the distinction of also being a recognized painter and musician. Rising to the position of Chancellor of the Tang court, he fell in disfavor during the An Lushan rebellion.

What are we to make of this poem?

Surviving the rebellion, and grieving for the death of his wife and sister, he retired to the family estate along the Wang River. I think we may gather that this poem was written there, that it was an epitaph for his dearly beloved wife for whom he still longed.

The title of the poem, 相 思, Xiāngsī, is most often translated as yearning, but it is also the Chinese symbol for love-sickness. Wang fittingly concludes his poem with the same characters to emphasize the emotion. I simplified this to “love” in my translation.

adzuki beans

Red, red beans

For some reason Neil Diamond’s silly song Red, Red Wine comes to mind. Its repetitive lyrics are somehow relevant.

“Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart”

Line one, 紅 豆, hóngdòu, the red berries that Wang refers to are Azuki beans, which make into a red paste commonly used in Chinese treats. Red is a symbol of joy and happiness, but also the color of ink for writing the names of the dead in China. I have found a reference to “red beans” as missing someone. This comes from an ancient story of a Chinese wife who missed her warrior husband. He never returned and she cried tears that watered the ground, hardened into red beans, and grew into vines that produced still more red beans, 紅 豆, hóngdòu.

In China today, red beans still symbolize love and fidelity. So, a husband would be happy and lucky for his loving wife to serve a steaming bowl of red pinto beans.

French

Baies rouges nées dans le sud
Au printemps, les branches sont pleines
Un monsieur, vous souhaite glaner de plus
Symbole de notre amour

Original Chinese

相 思
紅 豆 生 南 國
春 來 發 幾 枝
願 君 多 采 擷
此 物 最 相 思

Pinyin

Xiāngsī
hóngdòu shēng nánguó
chūn lái fā jǐzhī
yuàn jūn duō cǎixié
cǐ wù zuì xiāngsī