Li Bai’s ‘Q&A in the Mountains’ and Du Fu’s ‘Spring Evening’
An interpretive translation of classical Chinese poetry from the Tang
Editor’s note: This is a series of translations of Chinese poetry from
the Tang Dynasty being published on The Epoch Times website. Each piece will be accompanied by its Chinese
original, an interpretive English translation, and a small essay of introduction,
contextualization, and appraisal.
It’s been a while since I have published a translation of a Tang poem here in
the pages of The Epoch Times. In part, that’s because I’ve been very busy the
last few months with other work. In fact, Lan Hua has been tending to an
altogether different part of the garden.
Now I want to get right to the main idea of my column and
today’s news about Tang poetry. I am here to inform you that there is one Tang
poet whose work stands head and shoulders above all others. That is the poet Li
Bai-Du Fu. His work is so great, it spans all seasons and terrains and moods,
from the somber to the lyrical, poems full of sunny equanimity, to those full of
regret. This poet’s range is so vast, it’s helpful if you actually think of it
as encompassing two very distinct identities, while nonetheless bearing in mind,
that if you really want to know either of these separate identities well, you
must also understand how they relate to each other.
Perhaps I should
explain further. Li Bai-Du Fu is really two different poets – Li Bai and Du Fu.
They were roughly contemporaries in the middle Tang period, although Li Bai rose
to prominence first (during the late-early Tang) and Du Fu came along shortly
thereafter (at the beginning of middle Tang), like a younger brother, with
something of an awe-struck love for his predecessor and mentor. But beholding
them together, they are the true twin giants of this incredibly creative period,
and they shine all the brighter because standing as one, like Castor and Pollux,
they grab and hold one’s attention in the night sky.
And since it’s
almost always easier to tell a story chronologically, I’m going to start today
with a translation of a poem by Li Bai, who came first in time, with a burst of
bright glory. From an early age, his genius was well recognized. But he followed
an unorthodox path, as a romantic wanderer, he spurned service in the Imperial
bureaucracy. In fact, it’s something of a sore point among traditionalists — for
whom poetic talent has always been strongly associated with service to the state
— that perhaps the greatest of all classical poets never bothered to take the
civil service exam. Lacking official appointment or title, what Li Bai has is a
pure lyric voice. He was a great nature poet. And he speaks about weighty
spiritual matters with a light, easy touch. As I hope you can tell in
mytranslation of his poem below, he could easily wrap the natural and spiritual
together in a few brief stanzas as well or better than any other man of his or
any other time.
* * * * *
Now, after that grace note of balance and contentment, let me give you swift
introduction to the counterpoint temperament, in the person of Du Fu, who springs to life with a voice that couldn’t be any
more different. Sorry if the contrast is a little jarring, but that’s how things
went in the Tang period, from the free-spirited, Taoist older brother, Li Bai,
to the anxious and Confucian-minded younger brother, Du Fu. Where Li Bai
disdained service in the Imperial bureaucracy, Du Fu, plodded through a
bureaucratic career, struggling through a variety of low-level appointments,
frustrated by his lack of advancement and consumed by worry that his true
talents remained overlooked. Here is a poem he wrote working late one spring
night, sitting up at his desk, fretful and ill at ease.
Hua is the pen name for a New York-based writer and translator. The name means Blue
Flower, both in tribute to Red Pine
(who towers above him as the greatest living translator of the Poems
of the Masters)
and the broader lyric tradition in which he tries to participate.