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, hear the Qiang flute sighing,
That spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.

Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem

In the woeful tune of a Qiang two piped flute, Wang Zhihuan hears the human emotion of missing home at a distant fortress wall.
flute

The Yellow River

The Yellow River (黄河) is formed from the rain that fall on the Plateau of Tibet in the midst of towering ten thousand foot mountains, then crossing seven provinces and two autonomous regions in its course to the Yellow Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Out there in the distant Tibetan Plateau is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass) which once served as a strategic fort along the ancient Silk Road. Having seen the opening in the wall which reminds Wang of the hole on a flute and hearing a Qiang flute play its sad tune, Wang is inspired.

Chinese Tibetan Relations

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. 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” with Tibet.

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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Resentment – Li Bai

Resentment

Yes, she is beautiful, as she opens the pearl curtains,
But, oh how troubled she looks,
Whose tears leave tracks upon her face.
Do you not know a heart that hates?

fashion-chinese-girl-curtain

The heart of a beautiful woman

Li Bai’s poem 怨 情 has been variously translated as Bitter Love, Resentment, or Lament. Literally, the two characters translate as blame the situation. This points out the difficulty of translation as compound character often become metaphors for single ideas.

In the case of Li Bai’s poem, we have a beautiful woman (蛾眉, éméi) who lives in a rich apartment.  One can imagine Li Bai wandering the streets of Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. It is night. Li Bai has had too much to drink. Perhaps he is returning home, or on his way to an encounter.

There, above the street, he spies a beautiful woman at the window of her apartment as she unfurls her pearl curtains (珠 簾, pearl or pearl-like, beaded). Li Bai observes the troubled face – fresh tears stain her complexion, as he imagines the hate in her heart (心 恨 誰, I have used hate, but resentment could be substituted) for her lonely situation.

Whether she feels resentment, or lament, or hate, or bitterness is an open question.

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

At some point in Li Bai’s career, Yang Guifei would take offense at Li Bai’s poetry and he would be banished from the royal court.

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

Li Bai’s poetic inclusion of pearl or pearl-like curtains is no accident. Immediately, the reader knows that Li Bai is speaking of  a woman who is not only beautiful but rich and well-kept, perhaps a courtesan, which in Li Bai’s time was an honored profession, but not without its obvious drawbacks. The pearl is a symbol of many other things, including the moon, which, itself, is 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…