Translation Thursday: 赋得古原草送别 Bidding Farewell on the Plain, by 白居易 Bai Juyi

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I actually drew a blank for this week’s translation and had to ask a friend, who immediately suggested Bai Juyi. The only surprise is that I didn’t think of that myself, honestly. 

Bai Juyi (772 – 846) belonged to a later generation than many of the writers previously featured, such as Du Fu and Li Bai, and his life was also… different, if not necessarily more comfortable. While there might not have been a civil war on, the way Du Fu suffered from the An-Shi Rebellion, Bai’s Tang Dynasty was a pretty fragmented place, with warlords (many of whom had helped the imperial side during the rebellion) and short-reigning emperors. In his 75 years, Bai Juyi lived through nine reigns. 

Coming from a family with some political background – his grandfather was a county magistrate, his father a general and inspector – he too made it quite smoothly through the imperial examinations, becoming a jinshi (imperial degree holder) on his first try in 800. His career would become quite rocky in later decades, but that’s not the period covered in the poems to come. (He had some seriously, seriously long poems in his later, bitterer years.)

The first of these poems is one of the pieces many kids learn when they dip their toes into Chinese literature; it is also a good expression of how Tang poetry had evolved by Bai’s time: still strongly impressionist, but with a stronger narrative thread running through it. 

 

赋得古原草送别 – Bidding Farewell on the Plain

This poem sounds like it was a farewell gift for someone, but it was in fact an examination piece that Bai wrote when he was just 16. The words 赋得 fu de literally mean ‘derived from’, and was used to denote that the topic or first line of the poem was derived from an existing poem – something like English poets writing ‘with apologies to’ whoever they were imitating. 

 

离离原上草, 一岁一枯荣。

How luxuriantly the plains grass grows, 

Wilting and rising again once every year. 

 

野火烧不尽,春风吹又生。

Wildfires burn, but they are never exhausted;

Spring breezes blow, and up they spring again. 

 

远芳侵古道,晴翠接荒城。

Ahead, wild growths overrun the ancient path,

And surround the old fort under cloudless skies. 

 

又送王孙去,萋萋满别情。

Again I’m sending the royal grandson [1] off, 

My sorrow at parting is rich as the grass richly grows [2].

 

1 Royal Grandson – Not actually a royal grandson in this case; a respectful term for a personal friend. (Or, in this case, a hypothetical personal friend.)

2 My sorrow at parting… – this bit is the derived bit, coming from a poetry compilation which was already a thousand years old in Bai’s time, known as the 楚辞 chu ci, or Verses of Chu. In there, there’s a reference to an actual royal grandson out on his travels: 

 

王孙游兮不归,春草生兮萋萋,

‘The royal grandson is travelling, he is not returned; 

The spring grass is growing, how luxuriant;’

 

So once again the luxuriance of the grass is there to match the concern for someone going off on a long trip. 

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