To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting – Meng Haoran

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting

In August (the eighth lunar month), the lake is peaceful,
Boundless waters blend with the sky and
Over the Cloud-Dream Marsh a damp mist rises and
The waves are breaking against the walls of Yueyang City.

I wish to cross the lake, but there is no boat
For me to live an easy life, I would disgrace our brilliant master.
I sit watching the angler cast his line,
Envying him for fishing.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Meeting Meng Haoran for the first time

In our last poem, we heard from Meng as he was leaving political life.

Here we meet Meng at the beginning of his political career. He is arriving at Lake Dongting on his way to the city Yueyang where he will meet with minister Zhang Jiuling.

Meng’s stint in politics was brief, beginning at the ripe old age of 39 and ending within a year.  Although politics was not his forte, poetry was and Meng managed to make friendships with younger poets such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Bai. Indeed, the collection of Tang poems has two written by Li Bai addressed to Meng Haoran.

Meng’s poem gives us some insight into why his career was brief.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting (洞庭湖) in northeastern Hunan Province is well-known as a flood plain of the Yangtze River. In August, the lake water and blue sky combine in an airy mist. In the morning and in the evening, the sun shining on the watery crystals hanging in the air presents an other worldly view.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling (張丞相) was a minister to Emperor Xuanzong, and himself a noted poet. In line six, Meng explains that living an easy life would bring shame and disgrace on Zhang who is after all a brilliant master 聖明.

Literally the title of the poem is Gazing at Lake Dongting, a gift, 贈, to Prime Minster Zhang, 張丞相. The Pinyin translation reveals the rhyme of the characters (Zèng zhāng chéngxiàng).

Rhyme

aaba baba

Chinese

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽城

欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Pinyin

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng

yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

architecture China, wood roof

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To Minister Zhang While Gazing at Lake Dongting

Note. Minister Zhang Jiuling held several important posts under Emperor Xuanzong, including head of the imperial library, minister of public works, and commandant of various prefectures. The ancient reader of this poem, acquainted with the history of the imperial court, would know that Minister Zhang fell from favor with the emperor and was dismissed.

Thus, a brilliant master like Zhang could not always count on a life of ease.

Zhang was himself a noted poet. Five of his poems are included in the anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems. See for instance Orchid and Orange I.

To Minister Zhang while gazing at Lake Dongting 

The lake is full in the eighth moon,
The water blends with the sky
The march mist rises in a cloud-like dream,
While waves pound against Yueyang’s walls
Alas, I have no boat with which to cross.
A brilliant master is shamed with a life of ease
Still I sit and watch an angler release his hook,
And envy those the fish they catch.

fog and mist and rolling waves

Notes on the Meng Haoran’s translation; or what is wisdom to a hungry sage?

August is a rainy month in most of China. Meng does not mention this, but it is also the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Yueyang (岳陽) is both a city and a prefecture located in Hunan province on the eastern shore of the Yangtze River bordering Dongting Lake in the south. Dongting Lake is a shallow flood basin whose size depends on the time of year. Yueyang Tower is a well known site, standing at the west gate of the Yueyang city wall, looking down at Dongting Lake, and linking the Yangtze River to the north with the Xiangjiang River to the south.

Line six, 聖明, may be translated as enlightened sage, august wisdom, and brilliant master, this last choice probably applies to Minister Zhang, the person Meng is addressing. Meng wrote at least three other poems in which the name Zhang appears. From the poem, To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, and other poems, we may conclude they shared fish and a drink or two.

Original Chinese and Pinyin

望洞庭湖贈張丞相

孟浩然

八月湖水平
涵虛混太清
氣蒸雲夢澤
波撼岳陽
欲濟無舟楫
端居恥聖明
坐觀垂釣者
徒有羨魚情

Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

Mèng Hàorán

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng
yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

Other translations

I am intrigued by the wide variation in translations of Tang poetry. Here is a translation for comparison. There are others.

An English translation by E. C. Chang

lake china