水調歌頭 – Lyrics to ‘Melody of Water’

This is just for the occasion, but also because this is probably Su Shi’s most famous work – partly due to it being covered by Faye Wong and Teresa Teng. An ode to the moon written during the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1076 AD, when Su Shi had been exiled to the south, its charm perhaps lies in its ambiguity – is it about frustration at a career thwarted, family distanced, a life astray? Or perhaps Su Shi, ever energetic, was simply making a statement of his own irrepressibility?

Either way. Here we go. Again, since this is a lyric and not a poem, the ‘title’ is not in fact its title; this poem is often known by its first line.

Preface

丙辰中秋,欢饮达旦,大醉,作此篇,兼怀子由。

In the Mid-Autumn of the bing-chen [1] year, I drank until the dawn, got completely hammered, and wrote this poem in memory of Ziyou [2].

Poem

明月几时有?把酒问青天。

At which time shall the bright moon appear? Wine in hand, I ask the blue-green sky.

不知天上宫阙,今夕是何年。

And up in the celestial palace towers, who knows which year it is tonight?

我欲乘风归去,

I’d fain return to heaven, borne on the winds;

又恐琼楼玉宇,高处不胜寒。

But fear that the jade towers [3] high as they are, might yet be cold beyond my endurance.

起舞弄清影,

Yet here I dance and play with moonlight’s shadows,

何似在人间。

How could heaven compare with the human world!

转朱阁,低绮户,照无眠。

Rounding the red porch, hanging under silk blinds, the moon illuminates my sleeplessness.

不应有恨,何事长向别时圆?

If the moon bears no grudge against men, why is it round when departures are at hand?

人有悲歡離合,

Man’s lot is joy, sorrow, to part and to unite;

月有阴晴圆缺,

The moon’s is to wax and wane, in cloudy or clear nights.

此事古难全。

Such things we can never steer, try as we might.

但愿人长久,

I can but hope that men may ever be,

千里共婵娟。

And though separated, ever the same moon see.

[1] Bing-chen – everyone knows about the twelve celestial animals by now, and I wager many also know about the Ten Heavenly Trunks; bing-chen is simply a coordinate of a heavenly ‘trunk’ and an earthly ‘branch’, the latter corresponding to one of the twelve animals – in this case the dragon. Yeah it’s a bit complicated. I’ll say more about it in another post.

In any case, the year corresponds to 1076 – and you can tell it is a dragon year because 2012 is a dragon year, and 2012 – 1076 = 936, which is divisible by 12 – the two years share an animal!

[2] Ziyou is the courtesy name of Su Zhe, Su Shi’s younger brother. While in exile (actually more like administrative leave cum demotion cum local county assignment), Su Shi had petitioned to be given a county near where his brother was, so they could at least hang out more; but that had been rejected when he wrote the poem. It’s a pretty hard blow, not hanging out with your family on Mid-Autumn. *sigh*

[3] The moon in Chinese legend contains, among other things, a palace of jade where the princess Chang’e 嫦娥 resided.

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One thought on “水調歌頭 – Lyrics to ‘Melody of Water’

  1. Pingback: Vacant Mountain 空山 | An Explanation of ‘Lyrics to the form of _______’, along with three translations of 忆江南 ‘Remembering the South’

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