Sitting Alone on Jingtingshan – Li Bai

In the distance, a flock of birds flying high
Above, a lonely cloud drifts idly by
Fondly looking (相看) at each other, neither one growing tired,
And all there is, is Jingtingshan.

jingting mountain detail

Beauty is its own reward

Have we not all experienced the glory of nature, a mesmerizing view of the Grand Canyon, the spectacular Yosemite, a moment when the breath is taken away watching Mt. Hood or Mt. Bachelor?

The world contains many such splendid spots.

Li Bai and Jingting

Li Bai made many trips to Jingting Mountain in Anhui Province, west of Shanghai. The area is known for its low-hanging clouds, ancient granite rocks, and twisted pines that have been the subject of many painters and poets. In this poem, Li Bai expresses the opinion that the beauty of Jingtingshan (敬亭山) would never bore.

The title, 獨坐敬亭山, translates as sitting alone on Jingting Mountain. Jingting (敬亭) is a compound and place name. 山 (shan) is the Chinese character for mountain. I prefer Jingtingshan rather than Jingting Mountain, though it appears in translations both ways. Within the poem I inserted the original characters 相看, another compound word which expresses the sentiment of gazing or looking at each other. I added the adverb fondly, but that is pure fancy.

This poem came late in Li Bai’s career when he was on the wrong side of the political fence. Sentenced to death for treason, then reprieved and exiled, Li Bai was on his way down the Yangtze when he stopped to visit for the final time Jingtingshan (Jingting mountain). Fortunately, for Li Bai, his uncle Li Yangbing was governor of Anhui province and so could provide him refuge.

Death of Li Bai

I imagine that Li Bai saw himself in the poem as the lonely cloud drifting off while the world, represented by the flock of birds, moved on.

In fact, Li Bai was ill and near death when he wrote this poem. Legend has it that Li Bai drowned in the Yangtze River after falling from his boat when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection.

 

Original Chinese characters

獨坐敬亭山

衆鳥高飛盡
孤雲獨去閒
相看兩不厭
只有敬亭山

Pinyin and rhyme scheme

Zhòng niǎo gāofēi jǐn
gūyún dú qù xián
xiāng kàn liǎng bùyàn
zhǐyǒu jìngtíng shān

Jingting Mountain in autumn, 1671, by Shitao, Musée Guimet, Paris

jingtingshan

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Spring Night, I hear a flute – Li Bai

Draft…

flute-silver

Spring Night, I Hear the Flute

From whose house does the sound of a jade flute flies
Scattered by the Spring breeze filling Luoyang?
In the middle of the night I hear the willow unfolding
Who does not feel these old garden feelings

In 725 or thereabouts, while in his mid-twenties, Li Bai left his home in Sichuan, sailing down the Yangtze River, beginning his wandering days. He returned back up river, married, and briefly settled in before resuming his wanderings. In this first year, like Buddha , he gave up much of his wealth to his friends. Five years later, he found himself at Chang’an, the capital. He tried to obtain a position at the court, failed, and sailed on to Luoyang where we may assume he wrote this poem, before going back home to Sichuan.

Li Bai would eventually achieve much fame. He would also become acquainted with the poet Du Fu who would later include Li Bai in his list of the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.

The poem

Poems always raise questions.

The first is the significance of a flute that is jade, and not a simple one of bamboo.

I have no real answer for this other than the phonetic similarity of the compound characters 飞 声and “fei-sheng”. This is one of the Taoist steps to attain immortality,  (ascending to heaven in daylight). It may also mean to make a name famous. All cultures believe music is heavenly inspired. Li Bai is perhaps, just perhaps, saying that the sound of the flute is heavenly sent, and carrying it on the spring breeze might confirm this.

Question two – what’s up with the unfolding willow? To part from a willow tree, to stand under a willow tree is a common theme in Chinese poetry. The willow is also symbolic, one symbol being solitude, another the return of spring.

Question three, those old garden feelings.

There I am at a complete loss.

Not much is said of Li Bai’s marriage to his wife. They had a child, then another, he left her, she could hardly make ends meet, then died, and the children went to live with someone else.  More to the story elsewhere.

French Translation of Spring Night, I Hear a Flute

Printemps, j’entends la flûte

Ou est la maison de qui sons la flute
Dispersé par la brise de printemps s’étend sur Luoyang?
Dans la nuit j’entends le saule se dérouler
Qui ne ressent aucune ces sentiments de jardin

Original Chinese

春 夜 洛 城 闻 笛

谁 家 玉 笛 暗 飞 声
散 入 春 风 满 洛 城
此 夜 曲 中 闻 折 柳
何 人 不 起 故 园 情

Pinyin

Shei jia yu di an fei sheng
San ru chun feng man luocheng
Ci ye qu zhong wen she liu
He ren bu qi gu yuan qing?

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

Thoughts on a Silent Night – Li Bai

Poetry is meant to be read and reread. The retelling changing the meaning ever so slightly. So, I am rereading and retelling Li Bai’s famous poem, Thoughts on a Silent Night.

moonlight

Thoughts on a Silent Night

Moonlight falls at the foot of my bed,
Seeming like frost on the frozen ground.
I look up and see the bright moon,
And look down, reminded of my hometown.

Li Bai (701-762) was perhaps the most famous Chinese Tang poet living in what has been described as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He was friend and drinking companion to Du Fu, another well-known poet.

Tragedy often mythologizes a life. Li Bai wrote several poems about the Emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Guifei, but she took offense to the tone, and caused his dismissal.

Li Bai chose to become a Taoist priest, and might have lived out a long and happy life but for the rebellion of the general An Lushan in 755. Li Bai became a staff advisor to a member of the the imperial family who took to feuding with the prince who eventually became the new emperor. Sentenced to death, Li Bai’s life was spared. Sentenced to exile, he wandered, writing poetry along the way, reminiscing about family and friends.

Perhaps, that is why he wrote this poem.

One must add one final comment, popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to grasp the moon’s reflection on the water.

French translation of Li Bai’s Thoughts on a Silent Night

Pensées sur un nuit silencieuse

Le clair de lune tombe au pied de mon lit,
Semblant comme le givre sur le sol gelé.
Je lève les yeux et vois la lune brillante,
Et regarde en bas, a rappelé de ma ville natale.

 

Original Chinese

静夜思
Jìng yè sī

床前明月光,
Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

疑是地上霜。
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.

举头望明月,
Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,

低头思故乡。
Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

Note the rhyme. Also note the interplay of the title Jìng yè sī and the last three characters of the poem, sī gù xiāng, literally, remember your hometown. Li Bai’s hometown was Jiangyou, near modern Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province.

 

 

moon-window

A Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret)

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌) by Bai Juyi (772-846) retells the love story of the beautiful Yang Guifei (719-756) and Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and the cause of the An Lushan Rebellion that began in December of 755.

Beautiful Yang Guifei is said to have had “a face that put all flowers to shame”. The story is told that the young Yang Guifei, locked in the palace, lamented to the peony and the rose, flower, flower full of bloom when shall I see the light of day? The flowers and their leaves, either in sorrow or shame, drooped as she passed.

There are over 100 verses, and so I must come back from time to time to complete the translation.

Yes, there are many, many translations.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Regret) (長 恨 歌)

A Chinese Emperor longed for a beauty to match his kingdom
Looking, ever looking, without finding until
In the family Yang a young girl was growing and maturing
Kept well-hidden and unknown, yet one
Who is naturally beautiful cannot hide their own beauty, thus
One day she met the emperor and
Returned his look with a smile, so beginning one hundred beautiful lives,
As the girls of six hundred houses lost their luster

長 恨 歌

漢皇重色思傾國
御宇多年求不得
楊家有女初長成
養在深閨人未識
天生麗質難自棄
一朝選在君王側
回眸一笑百媚生
六宮粉黛無顏色

Bring on the Wine

“Draft…”

Li Bai’s impassioned request to good friends, Cen Can and Dan Qiu, to drink wine, celebrate life, and make merry. I will let the reader decide if it should be “bring on the wine” or “bring in the wine”.

Li Bai’s 將進酒, is usually translated as “bring in the wine.” Phonetically, it is pronounced “jiāng jìn jiǔ” which might be hard to say if drunk, and maybe that is the point. Li Bai often drank alone or with the moon as his only companion. He must have relished this opportunity to drink with friends.

Sir, have you not seen
The waters of the Yellow River falling from heaven
Rushing to sea, not to return again?
Sir, have you not seen
In the Great Hall, the mirrors that grieve for grey hair
That once, in the morning, like black thread, by evening becomes snow
One’s small accomplishment is one’s joy in life
So, let not a golden goblet be empty and face the moon
Friend, if heaven made me, I must have a use
While I have squandered a thousand pieces of gold, and wait their return
Boil a lamb, butcher an ox, be of good cheer
Three hundred cups, drunk at once
Master Cen,
And you, Dan Qiu
Bring on the wine
While I sing you a song
The cups cannot stop!
All I ask is that you lend me your ear
Bells, drums, delicacies and jade are not expensive enough
Oh, how I wish to be drunk and never sober again
Since the beginning of time, a sage is a single thing
Leaving to those who drink, to leave their names behind
A story is told, how the Prince of Chen held feasts at Pingle
With ten thousand cups, wild with joy
So, why does your host speak of having no money?
Because you must buy it, now directly go, I’ll drink with you
Take my lovely horse
And my furs worth a thousand
Better yet, call the boy let him swap both for the finest of wines
And together we three will erase the cares of ten thousand ages.

Unfinished…

Original Chinese characters

君不見
黃河之水天上來
奔流到海不復回
君不見
高堂明鏡悲白髮
朝如青絲暮成雪
人生得意須盡歡
莫使金樽空對月
天生我材必有用
千金散盡還復來
烹羊宰牛且為樂
會須一飲三百杯
岑夫子
丹丘生
將進酒
杯莫停
與君歌一曲
請君為我傾耳聽
鐘鼓饌玉不足貴
但願長醉不復醒
古來聖賢皆寂寞
惟有飲者留其名
陳王昔時宴平樂
斗酒十千恣欢谑
主人何為言少錢
徑須沽取對君酌
五花馬
千金裘
呼兒將出換美酒
與爾同銷萬古愁

wine-cellar

Grasses

Living in the Great Plains in the state of Kansas, it is appropriate that I tackle the poem Grasses (草) by Tang poet Bai Juyi (白 居 易 ).  The English translation is followed by French and then the original Chinese.

Grasses

From year to year, the withered grass
In all its glory lies on the plain
Wildfires burn but do not exhaust as
Spring wind blows and once more it’s green

A distant fragrance travels the ancient road
And like a bright emerald joins the city wall
Dear friend, once again you are gone
And the lush grass is full of farewell

French

Les Herbes

Année après année,  l’herbe fanée
Dans toute sa splendeur se reste sur la plaine
Furieux les feux brûlent mais n’épuisent pas
Le vent du printemps souffle et une fois de plus en vert

Un parfum lointain parcourt l’ancienne route
Et comme une émeraude brillante rejoint le mur de ville
Cher ami, encore une fois vous êtes parti
Et l’herbe luxuriante est pleine d’adieux

Chinese

离离原上草 一岁一枯荣
野火烧不尽 春风吹又生

远芳侵古道 晴翠接荒城
又送王孙去 萋萋满别情

Bai Juyi

Bai Juyi (772 – 846) described himself as a self made man, who studied hard to pass the imperial exams, gave honor to his parents, then duty and service to the imperial family, and care and love to his wife and child.

During his long career, he was the governor of three Chinese provinces. His postings included governor of Zhongzhou (818), Hangzhou (822), and, later, Suzhou. In 829 he was appointed mayor of Luoyang, the eastern capital, retiring in 842.

His insightful observations include this one: “If a Fleeting World is but a long, long dream, it matters not whether one is old or young.” At the end of spring.

Notes

I translate wangsun (王孙), the Chinese characters from the last line of the poem as dear friend. Much time could be spent interpreting these characters. They also represent a surname, a plant that tastes somewhat bitter, and literally, sun king, or grandson of the king.

 

sparrow-crop

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.

Take pity on the Farmer – Li Shen

This is the second of Li Shen’s poems on the dire conditions of Chinese farmers during the Tang dynasty.

Li Shen served as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Wuzong, and the question has been asked, why he did not do more to alleviate conditions for the peasants. Rebellion, floods, famine, and bad governance all played a part in the eventual dissolution of the Tang dynasty which occurred roughly 50 years after Li Shen’s death in 846.

Take pity on the farmer
Li Shen
In Spring, a single grain of millet sown
Come Autumn, a million off-spring makes
In all China, not a field lies fallow
So why do farmers starve to death

Original Chinese

悯农
春種一粒粟
秋收萬顆子
四海無閑田
農夫猶餓死

agriculture-china

Li Shen’s other poem has more resonance.

Pity the Peasant
Hoeing cereal in the midday sun
His sweat drops and nourishes the grain and the earth
But few people know his supper
Is nothing but hard work

Pity the Farmer (Peasant)

Pity the Peasant
Hoeing cereal in the midday sun
His sweat drops and nourishes the grain and the earth
But few people know his supper
Is nothing but hard work

Li Shen’s poem is usually titled Pity the Farmer. Parents teach this poem to their  children to remind them to eat everything on their plate. Sound familiar?

agriculture-china

Original Chinese

悯 农

鋤禾日當午
汗滴禾下土
誰知盤中飧
粒粒皆辛苦

Title

The original Chinese title is:

悯 农

And it is often translated as Toiling Farmers. This does not seem to me an adequate translation. First of all, , is literally the Chinese character for “pity” and Li Shen, the poet, is using his poem as a supplication. Take sorrow on, or take pity for the peasant who puts food on your table. The second character , translates as either farmer or peasant. I like peasant for obvious social and phonetic reasons. Then again, Mao’s Communist Revolution extolled the peasant, so maybe farmer is the better choice.

Rhyme

The rhyme is aaba.

The pinyin translation:

Chú hé rì dāng wǔ
hàn dī hé xià tǔ
shuí zhī pán zhōng sūn
lì lì jiē xīn kǔ

The verse

is the Chinese character for cereal grain. The character is used in both the first and second lines, but I have chosen to vary the word selection because Li Shen intends to convey the meaning of all cereal grains and not just one type of grain like rice or wheat.

Literally, the last line should be “each and every granule is hard work.” It begins with the repetition of  , which suggests to me that the peasant struggles mightily to grow and harvest each and every granule. And ends with 辛 苦, which can be interpreted as bitter work or hard work.

I suppose the child gets the point that the peasant does not always eat or that the fruits of his labor are sometimes bitter.

French Translation