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

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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

The golden gown

frames_gold

The golden gown

Cherish not your gowns of golden threads
Cherish your youth instead
And pick the blossoms as they bloom
Delay not, too soon they will be gone

金 縷 衣

勸 君 莫 惜 金 縷 衣
勸 君 惜 取 少 年 時
花 開 堪 折 直 須 折
莫 待 無 花 空 折 枝

Du Qiuniang

Some say, Du Qiuniang (杜 秋娘) was a concubine of Emperor Emperor Xianzong (born 778, rule began 805 – death, 820) and a political advisor. She was also a skilled poet and beautiful. After the emperor’s death, she tried to counsel the new and young emperor, but found herself embroiled in palace intrigue for favor and power. She was forced out and fortunate to return to her native Zhenjiang 鎮江 in Jiangsu Province.

Others say she was the wife of another poet.

If you are searching, also look for Du Qiu Niang and Du Qiu-Niang.

One can see from the original Chinese text that Du Qiuniang employed constant repetition of words and phrases.

The title is itself repeated in the first line. Also, the admonition to cherish not and to cherish begin lines one and two. The symbol for blossom is repeated in lines three and four. So too, the symbol 折 which may be translated as broken or gone. The poem ends with the two rhyming characters 折 枝, zhe and zhi, leaving us with the image of a broken branch and vanished blossom. 折 枝 may also be translated as a broken word or promise, giving the poem a subtle context.

Du Mu supposedly wrote a poem about her titled, The Song of Du Qiuniang.

Whoops, got to go, hope to come back…