赠孟浩然 – Gift to Meng Haoran; 下江陵 – En Route to Jiangling

The previous post introduced the ‘Buddha of Poetry’, so here’s another part of that great literary trinity, and probably the most famous part – the ‘Immortal of Poetry’, Li Bai 李白 (701 – 762). If you are into the Western literary tradition of romanticism, Li Bai is probably the poet for you – as it was, of course, for many modernist and romantic European poets who actually translated his poetry. (Ezra Pound did some of his poems, IIRC.)

Part of Li’s appeal is his rather more distant relationship with the Tang court and bureaucracy than many other contemporaries. Wang Wei, as introduced previously, was a court official whose business trips often provided inspiration; Du Fu (I’ll get on him later) was even more of an official in his fretting about world affairs. Li Bai hardly gave a rat’s arse about world affairs – a sort of literary superstar, he travelled around the world, meeting fellow poets, exchanging pointers, and even occasionally killing people he didn’t like. In fact, he was so famous that when he reached the Tang capital of Chang’an, he was given a post as court poet without having passed any Imperial Examinations.

The following two poems both capture some elements of a life deliberately lived freely – the journeys, the felicitous encounters, and a certain, very Chinese attitude towards the corruption and follies of government.

To Meng Haoran (Meng 孟浩然 (691 – 740) was himself another great Tang poet, and probably a sort of elder figure to Li Bai)

吾爱孟夫子,风流天下闻。

How I love and respect Master Meng, whose spirit and talents are known throughout the world.

红颜弃轩冕,白首卧松云。

Red-cheeked, he spurned carriages and headdresses fine[1]; white-haired, he withdrew to the clouds and pines.

醉月频中圣,迷花不事君。

Under the moon, he would be sage-struck and drunk[2]; Loving nature, he would reject imperial service.

高山安可仰,徒此揖清芬。

How could I admire this spirit, mountain-high? I hereby salute his virtue with a sigh[3].

[1] Carriages and headdresses – the accoutrements of an official, and the signs of bureaucracy.

[2] We don’t quite expect sages to be drunk (or to strike), but this is a literary reference. A scholar named Xu Miao of the Three Kingdoms Period (184 – 280 CE), who was quite into tippling, called clear liquor ‘sage’; to get smashed on clear liquor is therefore to be ‘sage-struck’.

[3] The sighing bit is actually not in the poem, but part of the poem’s context. Meng Haoran was already a well known poet before Li Bai, and one of Li’s stops on his wanderings was Jiangxia, Meng’s hometown. As it happened, though, Meng was on a trip himself, which is probably why Li wrote this slightly disappointed tribute instead of just getting smashed with his idol.

En Route to Jiangling (Jiangling is another city along the Yangtze, that superhighway of southern China)

朝辭白帝彩雲間,

This morning, amidst coloured clouds, we bade farewell to Baidi [1];

千里江陵一日還。

In a day we are to Jiangling sped, carried down a thousand li [2].

兩岸猿聲啼不住,

The cries of apes along both banks hardly have time to subside,

輕舟已過萬重山。

But our light boat has passed those hills, and ten thousand more besides.

[1] Baidi City is a city in the east of what is modern-day Chongqing; it literally means White Emperor City after its founder, a man who claimed imperial title some six centuries before Li Bai’s day.

[2] Baidi is in modern-day Chongqing; Jiangling is way downriver, in modern-day Hubei. This downriver journey passes plenty of hilly terrain, and most importantly the Three Gorges.

I personally have no idea if one could make that journey in a day, but this line is a paraphrase from the Classic of Waters, an ancient Chinese river directory – which makes a statement about how fast the Yangtze flows at that early part of its course. (And these days it’s dammed. Sigh…)

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