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by Alex Stone
Copyright 2016 Alex Stone
All rights reserved
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“. . .This or that way but we always
Learn from them, the poets of old—
They are infinitely precious for us;
And young men are absolutely right
Of being interested in their wisdom,
Which is neither dry nor out-of-date." --Alex Stone
These collected poems have been inspired by the works that the Tang-period poet Li Bai (701-762 CE) left after him as a great cultural heritage, and of whom I will have more to say on the pages below. It was with him that this book began; without him, none of what follows after this essay would have been written.
Fortunately or not, but I am not alone in this regard, as there are so many famously known creative figures in the West who have also been inspired by the poetic works of Li Bai who lived and created on the other side of the world around twelve hundred years ago, but whose influence in some inexplicable way continued to grow in China and abroad.
(a short essay in place of preface)
Li Bai is so influential in the West partly due to Ezra Pound’s versions of some of his poems in the collection entitled “Cathay,” the name by which China was known to medieval Europe (Pound transliterated his name according to “Rihaku” in Japanese, which is “Li Bai” in Chinese). Li Bai’s life in the flourishing period of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ in China’s history and his interactions with nature and friendship, his love of wine and his acute observations of the old society enriched his best poems. Some of them, like “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” as Ezra Pound entitled it from a word-for-word translation largely based on the work of Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), which recorded the hardships and emotions of common people, were the striking examples of the liberal but poetically influential adaptations of Japanese versions of Li Bai’s poetry expressed through the talent of American poet in the 20th century.
There is another musical setting of Li Bai’s verse by composer Harry Partch, whose Seventeen Lyrics by Li Bai for intoning voice and adapted viola (an instrument of Partch’s invention) are based on the texts in “The Works of Li Bai” translated by Shigeyoshi Obata. In Brazil, the songwriter Beto Furquim included a musical setting of the poem named “A Quiet Night Thoughts” (see my retranslation below) in his album “Muito Prazer.”
In 2013, Gareth Bonello (aka the Gentle Good, which is one of the Buddha Gautama’s name) released a Welsh-Chinese folk album “The Immortal Bard,” whose lyrics were inspired by and based on Li Bai’s biography. The album was partly recorded in Chengdu, Sichuan, with local musicians.
Australian composer Stephen Whittington’s second string quartet work composed “From a Thatched Hut” is based on Li Bai’s poetry (a detailed study of it, including history and analysis, has been made by the composer himself).
The ideas underlying Li Bai’s poetry has a profound impact in shaping American Imagist and Modernist poetry throughout the 20th century. Also, Gustav Mahler integrated four of Li Bai’s works into his symphonic song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde.” These were derived from a free German translation by Hans Bethge published in Anthology named “Die chinesische Flöte” (Chinese Flute). Hans Bethge based his version on the pioneering translation into French by Saint-Denys.
It would be enough to name Derek Walcott, Charles Bukowski, Charles Wright, James Wright, Hermann Hesse, John Steinbeck, Simon Elegant, Guy Gavriel Kay, MacDonald Harris, Philip Jose Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Annie Dillard and many other authors whose works this or that way refer to the Chinese poet, his irrepressible lifestyle and transcendent creativity. As I know, a number of poetic works of Mao Ze-dong were written under the living influence of Li Bai’s poetry; even a crater on the planet Mercury has been named after him.
In China, some four centuries later after Li Bai’s death, just regarding his poem “Drinking Alone under the Moon,” for example, the Song-period poet Yang Wan Li wrote his long work alluding to this title (as well as to two other Li Bai’s poems translated below) implemented in the same ‘gu-feng’ or old-style of versification.
It sounds obvious but, again, we learn more about the world literature by studying the evolution of poetry through the centuries; as a result, we find out more of the world’s history, evoke our interest and understanding of the ancient writers and of humanity in general.
The following three poems of Li Bai translated and represented herein as the preface to my collection of poems are unfolded around the common subject of the Chinese literature -- the moon and its imagery. Together with the reader, we are going to unveil some unnoticed (if not to say 'misunderstood' or even 'wrong interpreted') moments of the poet's legendary life.
Poetry analysis and its translation from the language like archaic Chinese, which is the foreign language for the contemporary Chinese as well, is not scientifically exact, it is somewhat subjective to how it affects the translator’s academic knowledge and daily experience. Yet, I find it very difficult to put a lot of credit on those representatives of the Old School (most of them are the famously known scholars of the academic elite) who do not try to dig deeper about the poets of antiquity, and to reveal their motivations and find out those who affected them.
But before offering my translation and give a conceptual explanation of the presented poems, it is necessary to make a fairly brief digression in order to brush through some milestones in the lifespan of one of the most well-known and at the same time semi-mythical personage in the cultural history of China.
Li Bai (701-762 CE), also known as Li Tai Bai (his courtesy name translated as “Grand White,” literally Venus) or Qinglian Jushi (the literary pseudonym which means “a resident of the Blue Lotus Town,” as long as his growing years he spent in the place called ‘Qinglian’) or his many nicknames, such as Immortal Poet, Poet of the Transcendental, Wine Immortal, Poet-Knight-Errant, Poet-Hero, or simply Li Bai (he generally referred to himself as ‘Bai’ meaning ‘white’ or ‘clear’). He was born somewhere in present-day Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, or, probably, in Tiaozhi, a state centred near the modern Ghazni, Afghanistan. These areas extended along the ancient Silk Road and the Li family were likely merchants there; and, according to some researchers, their trading was quite prosperous.
Legends say that while Li Bai’s mother was pregnant with him, she had a dream of a great white star falling from the sky. This seems to have contributed to the idea of his being as a banished immortal (one of his nicknames) who arrived in the world for a certain mission. The fact that the Grand White Star is synonymous with Venus helps to explain his courtesy name of Tai Bai.
When the boy was five years old or so, the family under the lead of his father, Li Ke, moved to Jiangyou, the place near modern Chengdu in Sichuan province, the cradle of the Daoist sect of Heavenly Masters (tian-shi dao) with the notable Daoist centre in the Maoshan Mountains. It is not a secret that throughout his lifespan Li Bai was a devoted Daoist and a member of a few small groups of Chinese poets and freethinkers. As one of the greatest poets of the Tang-period China (618-907 CE), he had the commitment to traditional poetic forms, taking them to the new heights. Together with Du Fu (712–770) he was a romantic and the most prominent figure in the flourishing of Chinese poetry during the ‘Golden Age’ of China famously known with the so-called “Three Wonders” (san-jue) of Tang referred to Li Bai’s poetry, Pei Min’s swordsmanship and Zhang Xu’s calligraphy performed in the ‘kuang-cao’ or wild cursive script.
Li Bai was also engaged in some other activities, such as taming wild birds and fencing under the direction of his master, General Pei Min who transmitted his precious ‘soaring dragon sword’ method (teng-long jian) to the poet, adding some closely guarded secrets to his arsenal of the sword techniques. He loved riding, hunting, travelling, aiding the poor or oppressed by means of both money and warm shoulder of a friend. Eventually, Li Bai seems to have become quite proficient in the martial arts. According to his autobiographical confession, which both testifies to and also helps to illustrate the wildlife that the poet led in his youth when he was fifteen, he was fond of swordplay and with that art he challenged quite a few great men.
Before he was twenty, Li Bai had fought and killed several opponents, apparently for reasons of chivalry, in accordance with the knight-errant tradition “you-xia” or dueling.
In 720, he was interviewed by Governor Su Ting who considered him a genius. Although he expressed the wish to become an official, he never took the civil service examination to become a ranking officer. The reason why he never took what would seem to have been the logical step toward his stated desire apparently was for some personal reasons of the freethinker.
At age 24 he left home for a period of wandering, after which he married and lived with his wife’s family in Anlu (present-day Hubei province). He had already begun to write poems, some of which he showed to various officials in the vain hope of becoming employed as a secretary. During the first year of his wandering, he met celebrities and gave away much of his wealth to needy friends. By perhaps 740, he moved to Rencheng city in Shandong province. It was at that time that he became one of the group members known as the “Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook,” an informal group of like-minded individuals dedicated to literature and wine, including Kong Chao Fu, Han Chun, Pei Zheng, Zhang Shu Ming and Tao Mian who lived on Mount Chulaishan and were constantly dead drunk.
Li Bai wandered about the area of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, eventually making friends with Wu Yun, the venerable Daoist priest who in 742 was summoned by the emperor to attend the imperial court where his praise of Li Bai as a poet was great. Wu Yun’s praise of Li Bai led Emperor Xuan-zong (born Li Long Ji and also known as Emperor Ming-huang) to summon Li Bai to the court in Chang’an. After another nomadic period, he arrived at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the Tang capital, hoping to be given a post at court. No official post was forthcoming, but he was accepted into a group of distinguished court poets. Li Bai’s personality fascinated the aristocrats and common people alike, including another Daoist and poet by the name of He Zhi Zhang who bestowed upon him the name of Immortal Exiled from Heaven. After an initial audience when Li Bai was questioned about his political views, the emperor was so impressed that he held a big banquet in his honour. Eventually, the emperor employed him as a translator, as Li Bai knew at least one Asian (non-Chinese) language. Then Emperor Ming-Huang gave him a post at the Hanlin Academy that served to provide scholarly expertise and poetry for the imperial court. Leaping ahead, it is good to mention here that if, as some people haste to conclude, Li Bai’s aim was drunkenness itself, he would stick to his position at the imperial court for doing this in comfort under the emperor’s auspices, but he didn’t.
One day, when the emperor was sitting in the Pavilion of Aloes Wood, he had a sudden stirring of heart and wanted Li Bai to write a song expressive of his blue mood. When Li Bai entered in obedience to the summons, he was so drunk that the courtiers were obliged to dab his face with water. When in a short while he came to his senses a little bit, he seized a brush and, without any visible efforts, wrote a composition of flawless gracefulness. The emperor was so pleased with Li Bai’s talent that whenever he was feasting or drinking he always had the poet to wait upon him.
Li Bai wrote several poems about the emperor’s beautiful and beloved Yang Gui Fei, the favourite consort. A story, probably spurious, circulates about his relationships during this period. Once, while drunk, he had gotten his shoes muddy, and Gao Li Shi, the most politically powerful eunuch in the palace, was asked to assist in the removal of the shoes in front of the emperor. Eunuch Gao took offense at being asked to perform such a menial service and later managed to persuade Yang Gui Fei to take offense at Li Bai’s poems concerning her. At the persuasion of Yang Gui Fei and Gao Li Shi, the emperor reluctantly but politely, and with wealthy gifts of gold and silver, sent the poet away from the court.
After leaving the court, Li Bai formally became a Daoist, making his home in Shandong, but wandering far and wide for the next ten years, writing poems. Once he went by boat with Cui Zong Zhi from Bianshi town to Nanking. He wore his embroidered court cloak and sat as proudly in the boat as though he were the ruler of the universe.
Thus, in the autumn of 744, he began his wanderings again. Much of his life is reflected in his poetry: places which he visited, friends whom he saw off on journeys to distant locations perhaps never to meet again, his own dream-like imaginations embroidered with shamanistic overtones, current events of which he had news of, descriptions sliced from nature in a timeless moment of poetry and so on. However, of particular importance are the changes in the times through which he lived. His early poetry took place in the context of internal peace and prosperity in the Golden Age Empire of Tang dynasty under the reign of an emperor who actively promoted and participated in the arts. This all changed suddenly and shockingly, beginning with the rebellion of General An Lu Shan when all of the northern China came to be devastated by local wars and famine. Li Bai’s poetry as well takes on new tones and qualities. The emperor eventually fled to Sichuan and abdicated. During the confusion, the crown prince opportunely declared himself emperor and head of the government.
In 756, Li Bai became unofficial poet laureate and staff adviser to the military expedition of Prince Lin of Yong, Emperor Ming-Huang’s 16th son who was far from the top of the primogeniture list, yet named to share the imperial power as a general after the old emperor had abdicated. The prince was soon accused of intending to establish an independent kingdom and was executed. Li Bai was arrested and imprisoned at Jiujiang. In the summer of 758 he was banished to Yelang; before he arrived there, he benefited from a general amnesty. He had only gotten as far as Wushan when the good news of his pardon caught up with him in 759. He returned to the Eastern China where he died in a relative’s house, though popular legend says that he drowned when, sitting drunk in a boat, he tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water. The truth may be that he contracted his last illness as the result of falling into the water while drunk. The actual cause appears to have been natural enough, although perhaps related to his lifestyle of a pilgrim and freethinker. Nevertheless, the legend has a place in Chinese literature and mythological culture, which frequently reflects what lies beyond biographical facts and events recorded in annals.
Afterwards, the new Emperor Dai-Zong (reigned 762-779) named Li Bai the “Registrar of the Left Commandant’s Office.” It happened in 762; when the imperial edict arrived in Dangtu, Anhui province, the poet, at age 61, became critically ill and his health would not allow him to fulfil the imperial assignment. His last years were devoted to the deep study of Daoism. It’s good to say of a mysterious figure mentioned in his poems by the name of High Priest of Peihai in Shandong from whom the poet received an initiation into the Daoist proficiency in 746.
Li Bai was a romantic in his view of life and poetry. Around a thousand poems attributed to him are extant, and thirty-four of his poems are included in the “Anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems,” which was first published in the 18th century. In the same century, translations of his works began to appear in Europe; however, only a few of them have been translated into English. The selected poems were models for celebrating the pleasures of friendship, the scenes of Nature, solitude and the joys of drinking wine. Among the most famous are “Drinking Alone under the Moon,” “A Quiet Night Thoughts” and “How I Was Waking from Drinking Bout in a Spring Day” retranslated below. In the West, multi-lingual translations of Li Bai’s poems continue to be made at different levels of interpretation; fortunately, the Old School of Sinology gives way to the new trends, and Li Bai’s poetry has even taken on a new legendary aspect, including the tales of a true meaning of his drunkenness and chivalry. Li Bai has become a favourite among translators for his seemingly simple style. Later translations are too numerous to discuss here, but an extensive selection of Li Bai’s poems translated by various scholars can be viewed in John Minford and Joseph Lau’s “Classical Chinese Literature” (2000).
One of the most notable wine drinkers in China’s long tradition of imbibers, Li Bai frequently celebrated the joy of drinking alone with his regular practice in swordsmanship. He reached a higher level of mastery to create his own style of fencing named “Tai Bai zui-jian” (Li Bai’s Style of Drunken Sword). As legends run, his elusive art of drunken sword he picked up from one drunken beggar who once walked into an inn located deeply in the mountains. That man was ugly and covered with filth. He went from table to table, begging for handouts. Everyone was disgusted by him and tried to ignore him. The inn owner and the barmaids all denied him for service except for Li Bai who just checked-in to overnight. He took pity on the beggar and brought him to a back room to avoid the jeers of the others. He offered him a drink and, much to his amazement, the old man magically transforms into one of the eight immortals who also was the godhead of drunken swordplay and who rewarded the poet with a blessing.
Everything the poet did was tuned to the passage of time and the joys of Nature with brilliance and great freshness of imagination. The poem “Drinking Alone under the Moon” is likely from the post-court period of his life. Some other subjects that he studied in his poetry were swordplay, friendship and solitude constructed around the everlasting image of the moon with its multiple tints and mythological riddles. His imagination and humorous characteristics of a freethinker are apparent here in full. The following translation of the poem looks to give a line by line Chinese-English account.
月下獨酌 (Drinking Alone under the Moon)
花間一壺酒；A pot of hot liquor under the blooming trees I heat up time and again;—
獨酌無相親。Alone I feast as none of the intimates is nearby me.
舉杯邀明月；Raising my cup, I ask the bright moon to drink;
對影成三人。With him, my mime shadow, we make a good companionship of three.
月既不解飲；The moon, alas, has never understood wine,
影徒隨我身。While indisputable shadow follows me in all.
暫伴月將影；Yet with the moon as a tactical ally and the shadow as the general’s aide
行樂須及春。I must be in high spirit, no less than that of the first spring flowers.
我歌月徘徊；For that, I sing my combat march, and the moon nods in time with its pace;
我舞影零亂。I square up with my sword, but my halting shadow tangles in moves. . .
醒時同交歡；While slightly tight, all the three observed the decencies,
醉後各分散。But upon getting deadly drunk, each goes his own way of gaiety.
永結無情遊；Then, setting off from the booze straight into a long voyage of oblivion,
相期邈雲漢。We make an appointment far away, drifting downstream along the Milky Way.
Drinking Alone under the Moon
A pot of hot liquor under the blooming trees
I heat up time and again;-- alone I feast
As none of the intimates is nearby me.
Raising my cup, I ask the bright moon to drink;
With him, my mime shadow, we make
A good companionship of three.
The moon, alas, has never understood wine,
While indisputable shadow follows me in all.
Yet with the moon as a tactical ally
And the shadow as the general’s aide
I must be in high spirit, no less than
That of the first spring flowers.
For that, I sing my combat march
And the moon nods in time with its pace;
I square up with my sword, but
My halting shadow tangles in moves. . .
While slightly tight, all the three
Observed the decencies,
But upon getting deadly drunk,
Each goes his own way of gaiety.
Then, setting off from the booze
Straight into a long voyage of oblivion,
We make an appointment far away,
Drifting downstream along the Milky Way.
“Drinking Alone under the Moon” encompasses several characteristics that define Li Bai’s personality. As a devotee to nature, wine, solitude, swordplay and humour he reveals much of himself in this piece of poetry. Therefore, the importance of this poem in understanding his other works is obvious. Let’s begin from the beginning.
“A pot of hot liquor under the blooming trees
I heat up time and again;-- alone I feast
As none of the intimates is nearby me.
The first two original lines speak of repeated heating the wine pot as he stays alone, without his friends from the founded by him association of like-minded companions known as "The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup," including He Zhi Zhang, Li Shi Zhi, Mr. Jin, Prince of Juyang, Cui Zong Zhi, Su Jin, Zhang Xü, and Jiao Sui. In his days at court, very soon the poet realised himself that he was unsuited to the imperial court life, allowing his conduct to become more and more reckless and unrestrained. He begged persistently to be allowed to retire from court. At last, the emperor gave him gold and sent him away. Li Bai roamed the country in every direction. The initial part of his poem shows a progression from the realistic into the imaginative and from the sober state to that of being slightly tipsy -- just notice the developed change in presentation of the next two lines:
“Raising my cup, I ask the bright moon to drink;
With him, my mime shadow, we make
A good companionship of three.
Now, in the lack of the real company, we start to see Li Bai’s imagination sparkling with wit and a cohesive involvement of wine in this scheme of “three-in-one.” He does not seem to be drunk yet, just warmed-up before the main action he expects to be involved into as the logic development of the whole situation. This means that drunkenness is not his goal while he celebrates the seasonal flourishing he utilizes as a leap, upon which he is going to reach something “above his head.” For this, he needs to forget of himself for awhile; therefore, his loneliness is not a problem for him. His playful treatment of Nature at this point is unmistakable: raising his cup together with the rising moon, he greets the flow of changing marked by appearing of his loyal shadow. For him, this is perfectly natural progress, as all things are mutual in the ways of Dao he used to appreciate most of all.
“The moon, alas, has never understood wine,
While indisputable shadow follows me in all.
These two lines are evidence of Li Bai’s rich experience in drinking under the moon, with which he is on friendly terms and which is very good at shadowing, but not at boozing or making a good company. When the shadow shows off, Li Bai conducts as its real master, without further ado; hence, his ‘manservant’ follows him in all, attaching itself to one and only master.
“Yet with the moon as a tactical ally
And the shadow as the general’s aide
This line proves the strategic thinking awakened in the poet’s mind after a few drinks: the wine is starting to rouse his bravery and morale, as well as the keen insight of a true strategist, at least.
“I must be in high spirit, no less than
That of the first spring flowers.
Here, the poet stimulates himself, pumping with wine in order to be no less than the brave wild plum trees that are among many others but who are the first to throw the winter a challenge of being the herald of springtime. Wild plums have a very special place in Li Bai’s writing; he often resorts to them in order to enhance his imagery.
“For that, I sing my combat march
And the moon nods in time with its pace;
I square up with my sword, but
My halting shadow tangles in moves.
Upon becoming quite tipsy, it is the right time for Li Bai to expose himself as a warlord. Here, most probably, he pretends to be like General Pei Min, his tutor of swordsmanship. However, a plenty of drinking wine starts to speak itself loudly. He tells us of his clumsy movements by bringing to the scene the picture of his aide, the halting shadow, which he blames for clumsiness, not himself. What a witty move we witness here! The reader can imagine utterly the picture which these two lines present. And then:
“While slightly tight, all the three
Observed the decencies,
But upon getting deadly drunk,
Each goes his own way of gaiety.
The following two lines depict the declining process unfolded from the very beginning till the end, summing up toward the final part of the poem. By now, he is plainly the worse for the drink, but, I should admit, he is still drinking. From now on, the poet retreats into himself, forgetting of his silent ‘companions.’ Becoming alone, he points out at the oneness with his own self, the pitch darkness at the bottom of his heart in contrast to the moon’s brightness, his only temporary ally he has welcomed for producing the shadow, his devoted aide. This threefold scheme has been mapped out in advance in the previous lines or even further before the party was launched. This moment is very interesting and somewhat unique to Chinese art of war worked out and developed by forefathers of the Chinese way of strategic thinking, including Lao-zi, Guigu-zi, Sun Wu, Sun Bin, Cao Cao, Zhuge Liang, Zhang Liang and many others famously known and unknown strategists of old. It also shows that Li Bai lives the life which was destined for him by Heaven since his birthday. Being styled as “Poet of the Transcendental,” he has now reached a point of becoming unconscious. In such a state between reality and what is beyond its virtual gates, he leaves his ‘boon-companions,’ the moon and his shadow, to have his own fun, which is revealed to him by means of drinking to excess. These two lines lead us into the line next to last, which is the actual aim of his over drinking in order to reach the state outside the limits of the human world. As a carrier, the wine just aids him in getting the state of oblivion and becoming one with the astral dust around him, the true diamonds in the sky.
“Then, setting off from the booze
Straight into a long voyage of oblivion
This line indicates that the aim has at last been achieved and the poet is soaring above all the worldly conventions. We don’t know what may have been in that realm but it seems that the space in this poem goes beyond the bounds of human imagination. If the ordinary people think of the categories within the terms of “wan-wu” or ten thousand things to be generically called “the myriad things,” in another poem entitled “Difficulties on the Way to the state of Shu” Li Bai operates with the number of forty-eight thousand years, getting in the eyes of commoners the status of “Immortal Banished from Heaven,” or more simply, an extraterrestrial. This is how people estimate his poetic works and extraordinary behaviour. But why did they call him like this? Is it just an exaggeration or objective reaction on a real phenomenon? Suppose that Li Bai was immortal or an alien and people happened to guess his identity. His way of thinking, which people are not accustomed to, can be accepted by only other aliens, as this seems more in line with the scale of the cosmic time system. Therefore, his subliminal is now directed at the heavens and heavenly bodies of Galaxy as indicated by the last line, which runs like this:
“We make an appointment far away,
Drifting downstream along the Milky Way.”
Li Bai is reaching the state which allows him to simply observe life from the height of immensity, becoming one with the stars of Galaxy, the equivalent of what is known as “wuji” or the Absolute. Finally, the last line proves that he has gotten there deliberately to become united with the fathomless universe around him. He visualizes his drifting downstream along the starry Milky Way; he simply follows Heaven’s way of his own accord to make the final line essential in understanding his Daoist views. What the Daoist views in principle are? In so many words, they reduce to the notion of running one’s affairs along with the ways of Dao, the process of daily decreasing one’s ambitions for the sake of naturalness and effortlessness; hence many effective activities and good productions that the adepts of Daoism implement in life. Everyone’s goal is to be one with Earth, not fight against its elements, running one’s affairs within Heaven’s will.
Translating the works of Chinese poets of olden times, we can better understand the history of cultural development in general. What may seem a light and not so sufficient before, now becomes important for correct perceiving a foreign cultural heritage and understanding the evolution of traditional values. Historically, this piece of Li Bai’s poetry is considered to be an important literary achievement. It is obvious that his secret is concealed behind his strong sense of himself as a part of the poetic tradition. The genius of Li Bai, says one recent account, “lies at once in his total command of the literary tradition and his ingenuity in bending it, without a break, to discover a uniquely personal idiomatic form of his realization.”
Scholar B. Watson, comparing him to Du Fu, says that Li Bai’s poetry “is essentially backward-looking, that it represents more a revival and fulfilment of past promises and glory than a foray into the future.” This is, actually, what has formed the way of Chinese mentality in general.
For the modern readers in the West, hopefully, the poem “Drinking Alone under the Moon” can now be available for some deeper understanding of its spiritual content.
Another famously known verse of Li Bai is entitled “A Quiet Night Thoughts” (jing ye si). In a mere five-character-a-line quatrain the poet uses the vivid moonlight and the frost imagery to convey the feeling of life transiency. There are several editions of this short verse; the present one is translated from the 17th-century Kangxi’s edition and goes like this:
靜夜思 (A Quiet Night Thoughts)
床前明月光，The moonbeam lies in front of my seat;
疑是地上霜。I doubt it can thaw the frosted ground before the dawn.
舉頭望明月，Holding up, I look into the cool moon hung over my head;
低頭思故鄉。With head bowed, I deep in thoughts of my remote kinsmen.
A Quiet Night Thoughts
The moonbeam lies
In front of my seat;
I doubt it can thaw
The frosted ground
Before the dawn.
Holding up, I look
Into the cool moon
Hung over my head;
With head bowed,
I deep in thoughts of
My remote kinsmen.
With regard to the poet’s marriage, in 730 he wrote to his friend: “The land of Chu has seven swamps. I went to look at them. But at His Excellency Xü’s house, I was offered the hand of his granddaughter and lingered there during the frosts of three autumns.” He then seems to have abandoned Miss Xü, who was impatient at his lack of promotion. He afterwards married successively Miss Lin, Miss Lu, and Miss Song. These were, of course, wives, not concubines. We are told that he was fond of “going about with the dancing-girls of Zhaoyang and Jinling.” He had one son who died in 797.
Besides, there is some deeper meaning in this very much popular piece of his poetry translated here. The poet liked to regard himself as belonging to the imperial family and, most probably, not without good reasoning.
As we know from the “New History of Tang” completed in the 11th century, Li Bai was descended in the ninth generation from Emperor Xing-sheng. Since one of his ancestors was charged with a crime at the end of the Sui dynasty (581-618 CE), he took refuge in Turkestan, a region of Central Asia. Two accounts made by contemporaries Li Yang Bing (the Li family member) and Fan Chuan Zheng state that Li Bai’s family was originally from what is now the south-eastern region of Gansu. Li Bai’s ancestry is traditionally traced back to Li Gao, the noble founder of the state of Western Liang (502-557). This provides some support for Li Bai’s own claim to be related to the Li dynastic royal family of the Tang dynasty, as the Tang emperors also claimed descent from the Li rulers of Western Liang. Evidence suggests that during the Sui dynasty, Li Bai’s ancestors (at that time for some reason classified socially as ‘commoners’) were forced into a form of exile from their original place to some location(s) further westward. During their exile in the far west, the Li family lived in the ancient Silk Road town of Suiye (Suyab, now an archaeological site in present-day Kyrgyzstan, and perhaps also in Tiaozhi, a state centred near modern Ghazni, Afghanistan. These areas lied on the ancient Silk Road traffic, and the Li family were likely merchants; their trade was quite prosperous.
Critic James Liu notes that Chinese poets seem to be perpetually bewailing their exile and longing to return home town. This may seem sentimental to the western readers, but one should remember the vastness of China, the difficulties of communication in the remote past. The sharp contrast between the highly cultured life in the capital cities and the harsh conditions in the distant regions was aggravated by the importance of family relationship; so, it is hardly surprising that nostalgia and, what’s more, filial piety should have become permanent and hence conventional themes in Chinese poetry.
The last point to which I shall refer is the extreme allusiveness of this poem. This characteristic (which is very common to most Chinese poetry of old) is carried to an extremity in Li Bai’s fifty-nine old style poems (gu-feng). Not only do they bristle with the names of historical personages, but almost every phrase is borrowed from the Classics, in which the poet was well-versed from childhood. Yes, Li Bai is very good at the so-called ‘traditional education’; however, none of the modern readers could understand them without pages of commentaries to each of them. Chinese poetry, with a few exceptions, has been written on this principle of ‘backward-looking’ since the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). One Tang poet alone, Bo Jü Yi (772-846), broke through the restraints of pedantry, erasing every expression that his manservant could not understand. Translators have naturally avoided the most allusive poems and have omitted or generalized such allusions as occurred. They have frequently failed to recognize allusions as such and have mistranslated them accordingly, often turning private names into romantic sentiments and suchlike.
In the sense, there is even deeper meaning in this short verse. In the broken bottom line of the Zhou Yi’s hexagram “Kun” (2), we see its subject “treading on frost in the late autumn; the strong ice will come soon, by and by, where he sets foot on as the cold breath of Yin begins to take its form. Allowing his course to go on smoothly, according to his preconceived plan, and the frost (symbol of a plan termed ‘sheng’ 生) will come to be strong ice (implementation termed ‘cheng’ 成), so he has to be timely prepared.”
In the "Wen-yan" commentary to Kun (2), we read: "The family that accumulates goodness is sure to have superabundant happiness; and the family that accumulates evil is sure to have superabundant misery. The murder of a ruler by his minister, or of a father by his son, is not the result of the events of one morning or one evening -- the causes of it have gradually accumulated through the absence of early discrimination. Therefore, the first saying of Kun (2) in the "Circular Changes" goes like this: 'He treads on the frost; the strong ice will come, by and by, where he sets foot on.' This saying shows that the true way of the subject of the weak Kun (symbol of Earth) is in following after the strong Qian (1), the symbol of Heaven."
In other words, the poet queries whether he is prompt enough to leave more or less appreciable contribution in the national literature and poetry of Tang in such a short period of time remained at his disposal before he meets with his grand ancestors in the world beyond.
Li Yang Bing, the governor of Dangtu and the poet’s kinsman, gives the following account of Li Bai’s death: “When he was about ‘to hang up his cap’ (an euphemism for “dying”) he was worried at the thought that his numerous rough drafts had not been collected and arranged appropriately. Lying on his deathbed, he gave over to me all his documents that I might put them in order.”
In addition, in the Great Appendix (Xi-ci Zhuan; Section 1, Verse 4) of the “Zhou Yi” we read:
“The sages, looking up, contemplate the brilliant phenomena of the heavens,
And, looking down, examine the definite arrangements of the earth;
Thus, they know the causes of darkness on Earth and light in Heaven,
What is obscure, but what is bright. They trace things to their beginning
And follows them to the very end; -- thus, they know what can they say
About the ceaseless inquest of life and death. They perceive how the union
Of vital substance and breath can form all things and disappearance
Or wandering away of the soul produces the change of their constitution;—
They know the characteristics of all things, distinction between men
And beasts; the distinction between the gods, spirits and evil ghosts. . .”
Bowing his head, the poet thinks of his grand ancestors, the meeting with whom is not far off from now. For whatever reason, this poem is considered as a famously known and broadly popularized work of Li Bai, which still appears in school textbooks in China; but for the westerners, hopefully, it has now much more significant content.
It has been generally understood, I believe, that Li Bai’s point of strength lies not on the formal level of his versification, which is quite a monotonous recurrence of certain reflections about the impermanence of human beings as opposed to the immutability of Nature, but in the stylization of his poetry. Above all, Li Bai was a songwriter. Most of the poems translated previously are songs, not verses. It is noteworthy that his tombstone bore the inscription, said, “His skill lay in the writing of archaic songs.” His immediate predecessors had carried to the highest refinement the art of writing in elaborate patterns of tone. In all his works there are said to be only a dozen of poems in the strict seven-character-a-line metre. Most of his short poems are in the archaic style, which neglects the formal arrangement of tones. Therefore, the value of his poetry lay in the beauty of word coinage (the Chinese graphs), as he was an outstanding wordsmith, not in the beauty of thoughts. A good half of his poems contains some reference to the fact that the mountain streams do not return to their springs, and that all rivers run to the east while a man changes with every ‘quarter of an hour’ or ‘ke’ (the Daoist term of time reckoning on earth). Again, due to the universal beauty of Chinese characters, for the modern Chinese and all Chinese speakers, his poetry exists more for the eye than for the ear.
As it has been mentioned earlier, Li Bai’s poetry was ranked as the national treasure of Tang along with General Pei Min’s swordsmanship and Zhang Xu’s calligraphy performed in the wild cursive style (kuang-cao).
Curiously enough but true that swordplay and calligraphy are akin in nature, the solid ground of both is based on a line drawn in the air by a double-blade sword, or by the brush which outlines the cursive strokes on a sheet of paper. Li Bai, who succeeded in his swordsmanship to the height of creating his own fencing style, was also a skilled calligrapher. Regrettably, we have only one extant piece of his work made in his own handwriting.
This piece of written in semi-cursive script is titled “shang yang-tai” (上陽臺 or “Climbing Up Yangtai Terraces”). This is a horizontal scroll of 380.1 by 280.5 mm (15.0×11.2 in.) with the later addition of the title performed by Emperor Hui-zong of Song (reigned in 1101-1125) and a postscript added by Emperor Qian-long of Qing (1711-1799). Today the scroll is housed in the Palace Museum (gu-gong) in Beijing.
As for Zhang Xu’s calligraphy, here are some samples of his cursive script.
Zhang Xu’s formal name was Bo Gao; he was born in Wuxian district (present-day Jiangsu, Suzhou) in 675. He was acclaimed as the originator of the wild cursive script (kuang-cao) who enjoyed considerable fame in his own day; he was counted among the poets Li Bai and Du Fu as one of the members of the association entitled “The Eight Drunken Immortals.” All the venerable members were intimate friends and absolute geniuses in their own fields of creativity.
Although wild cursive script seems to break radically from all past traditions, Zhang Xu based his style on the more prominent earlier calligraphers. It is believed that he was further influenced by the Daoist practice of blind writing by a bamboo stick in the sand. His wild style is widely praised, especially by later scholars, yet one of the by-products of his style is a pronounced deformation of graphical structures to resemble us a great gap between the classical ballet and its modern reformation.
As for Li Bai’s versification, rapt with wine (rice wine) and the mysterious moonlight, he was acclaimed as “Wine Immortal.” Meanwhile, critics have focused on the poet’s strong sense of continuity of poetic tradition, his glorification of wine and frank celebration of drunkenness, the use of persona, the fantastic extremity of his imagery, his mastery of formal poetic rules and his ability to combine all these factors with a seemingly effortless virtuosity to produce inimitable poetic works. Other themes in Li Bai’s poetry, noted especially in the 20th century, are sympathy for the common folks and antipathy towards waging wars even when conducted by the ruling house. As a good warrior himself and an excellent sword player, he had learned very well Sun-zi’s precept which stated that “to fight and conquer the enemy in all one’s battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
As Sinologist John Wu observed, “While some may have drunk more wine than Li Bai, none has written more poems about wine.” Chinese poets were often associated with drinking wine and Li Bai was part of a group of Chinese scholars and poets in Chang’an who were united under the roof of “The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup.”
The ancient Chinese generally did not find the moderate use of alcohol to be immoral or unhealthy. What’s more, in the eyes of the ancients, ability to drink much without becoming tipsy proved one’s personal ‘gong-fu’ or a high level of physical and mental resistance associated, first of all, with the psychic training and the sound state of mind.
James Liu noticed that the world “zui” (drunk) in poetry did not mean quite the same things as “intoxicated,” tipsy” or “inebriated,” but rather “being mentally carried away from one’s regular preoccupation.” He translated the term “zui” as “the rapt with wine.” It is interesting to mention here that the graph “zui” consists of two parts: liquor and an infantryman (the lowest rank in the army, food for powder), meaning ‘steeping in liquor to death’ if without some special skill and training termed ‘gong-fu.’ The Eight Immortals, however, drunk to an unusual degree, though, due to their special state of mind and intellectual capability, were viewed as the pleasant eccentrics. Most critics concluded that nearly all Chinese poets celebrated their joy of wine, but none so tirelessly and with such a note of genuine conviction and self-cultivation in this line of “training” as Li Bai himself.
One of his famously known poems is named “How I Was Waking from Drinking Bout in a Spring Day” is translated by the author of this essay as follows:
春日醉起言志 (How I Was Waking from Drinking Bout in a Spring Day)
處世若大夢；The idea of winning the world is but a big dream;
胡爲勞其生。So, why should I go for broke to implement it?!
所以終日醉；For this reason I got drunk at the end of that day,
頹然臥前楹。Lying as a lord on the threshold of my doorway.
覺來盼庭前；When I came round I longed for the garden-lawn;—
一鳥花間鳴。A lonely bird was singing amid the blooming trees.
借問此何時；I asked myself: What time of the day is it? In reply,
春風語流鶯。The spring wind put in my bad head the oriole’s trill.
感之欲嘆息；Moved by that song, I almost burst into a groan, and
對酒還自傾。As a whole pitcher of wine was there, I clung to it. . .
浩歌待明月；Then, wildly singing, I was looking at the rising moon;
曲盡已忘情。Before my sword routine was over, I let myself go mad.
How I Was Waking From Drinking Bout in a Spring Day
The idea of winning the world is but a big dream;
So, why should I go for broke to implement it?
For this reason, I got drunk at the end of that day,
Lying as a lord on the threshold of my doorway.
When I came round I longed for the garden-lawn;—
A lonely bird was singing amid the blooming trees.
I asked myself: What time of the day is it? In reply,
The spring wind put in my bad head the oriole’s trill.
Moved by that song, I almost burst into groan, and
As a whole pitcher of wine was there, I clung to it.
Then, wildly singing, I was looking at the rising moon;
Before my sword routine was over, I let myself go mad.
An important characteristic of Li Bai's poetry is the fantasy and note of childlike wonder and playfulness that pervade so much of it, brimful. This fantasy attributes to a fascination with the Daoist recluses who practiced alchemy with their own bodies and ascetic living in the deep mountains in the aim of becoming immortals. There is a strong element of Daoism in this work, both in the sentiments they express and in their spontaneous tone, as well as many of his poems that deal with the moon, often described as its rising to be modulated into realm of imagination through passing from the actual moonlit scenery to a mad vision of deities and immortals of the Daoist pantheon. This is another affirmation of Li Bai's affinity with the imperial past, his continuity with traditions of old ballads and archaic songs in 'gu-feng' old style characterized by the use of hyperbole and the playful personifications of the moon, stars and other celestial objects, to one of which, and we should keep in mind that fact, he was connected by his name of 'Tai Bai' or Venus -- the grandiose planet and the most beautiful embodiment of his distant in space grand ancestors of his supernatural lineage.
The whole poem runs for the sake of its last line, in which the term ‘wang-qing’ sets the tone. What does it actually mean? It means that the poet “gets outside the limits of the human world” to be truly free from its fetters to produce his mysterious transcendence through the imagery and word coinage. The whole poem is just a preparation for what remains outside of our viewing; we can only conjecture what has happened then with this inimitable master of illusiveness and transformation.
The last line tends to raise more questions than it answers. Perhaps, that’s just the way Li Bai would like it. According to legend, a Daoist hermit once asked the poet about his swordplay style, which was renowned for its power to vanquish demons “in their own territory.” For this, the poet should enter into the state of madness to be face to face with the evil. Li Bai viewed his sword as more spiritual than a drunken play, replying the hermit this way, saying, “My sword is used to cut off chaotic thoughts of the mind that block cultivating the ways of Dao.” The hermit did not understand the lesson by the merest hint, so Li Bai threw his sword into the air and, before the hermit had the time to come to his senses, vanished himself without a trace, baffling the poor Daoist even more with the magic trick he just viewed by his own eyes.
The art of feint is fundamental to the drunken swordplay. A swordsman relies on a rich arsenal of feints to defeat an opponent. Tricking his enemy into revealing an opening, he takes advantage with full knowledge of his own ruse, of what has been left exposed for the sake of trapping. Fakery is even more central to the drunken-sword style, which is wholly based on attempting to fool the opponent. Of all the imitative styles, it is the least faked so long as the drunken stylists are the only practitioners who can directly experience their own spirit. An animal stylist can never really be a tiger or a dragon which one imitates in one’s exercising; so, ultimately, it all relies on visualization and imagination. But a drunken stylist can get really drunk, letting oneself go to extreme (nevertheless, there is a style of the drunken monkey so far; yes, you read that correctly, a kind of “a double trick” to entangle the opponent in the fullest). Yes, the drunken stylist has to drink and drink enough in order to overload oneself. It can hurt one’s health, and that’s counter to all martial artists, in principle, who have not reached a certain grade of mastery. It can be likened to a masseur: the beginner exploits a lot of one’s own energy but a mature expert knows how to treat this or that patient without exhausting oneself.
I would imagine that this poem is the beginning of a long night of exercising with the drunken sword (zui jian). Most ‘gong-fu’ masters, at the beginning of their routine performing, stand out with their erect posture and alert eyes, but not so for Li Bai’s style: he stands askew; hence the term ‘qu’ (bent, crooked) used in the last line regarding his swordplay, not for the ‘wildly singing’ as in the previous line. His eyes seem almost sleepy; his head cocks to one side with an attitude of laziness or cockiness, it’s hard to be sure. Li Bai is one of China’s foremost drunken sword artists, so you never know where he is coming from exactly, whether he is wasted or coiled to strike into the opponent’s opening, his weak point.
As it has been mentioned earlier, the drunken method is a form of imitative ‘gong-fu.’ Most of the martial styles imitate animals: tiger, crane, snake or even the mythical dragon. Imitative styles are shamanistic in nature; practitioners connect with the spirit of an animal and express themselves by embodying that spontaneously burst vigour. In many ways, the animal ‘gong-fu’ echoes animal movements performed by shamans both in Asia and America. The adepts of ‘gong-fu’ and shamans act as a medium between the worlds; they accrue their power in the real world from their connections to the animal spirit and inhuman realms. Regrettably, this so much interesting theme is the subject of very few researchers who have tried to address an underlying connection between shamanism and imitative style of martial arts. On the other part, there are other forms of imitative ‘gong-fu.’ These fighting methods mimic failings in the human bodily condition, such as being manacled or having only one arm or being blind. And the most popular among them, again, is the drunken style which, instead of bonding with an animal, represents an altered state of consciousness tapped for empowerment through the visible weaknesses and unpredictability. Many shamans use alcohol and other illicit substances like mushrooms or anuran poisons to enter a state of trance. For shamans, such a state is the source of their magic, which enables them to forecast the future, control the elements and perform acts of healing known as Exorcism. Extending this to the drunken swordplay, one might ask whether it is a trick to get an opponent to drop his guard or it might be something more. For Li Bai, I think, his drunken sword became his calling. He was born into a family, in which its leader, Li Ke, his father, was well-versed in the Classics and familiar with the so-called ‘polite arts,’ among which fencing was favourable along with archery, chariot driving, versification and calligraphy so far.
Just as it is hard for a virgin to pretend to be otherwise, it is hard to act drunk without experiencing insobriety. The drunken master appears to be out of control, but only until the opponent drops his vigilance to attack him at his weak point by surprise. It’s a way to fool the opponent, in between, getting drunk and being clear. When completely drunk, you are dead without your capability to have the upper hand; if you are totally drunk, you cannot perform drunken sword properly even if you are an experienced practitioner who imitates the form and spirit, but awaits the attack, suddenly becoming widely open in a counterattack. When you are tipsy you are braver than usual; you can exceed your limitations to be above your normal conduct. Besides, the warmed-up by alcohol energy reach every part of your body to make it act and react spontaneously faster. It is for this very reason that intoxicants are often connected with the Daoist (shamanistic) practical experiences.
Sometimes, when the sober logic fails, a drunken magic can take over to point out of the truth. One possible explanation is that the sword player is actually some form of ‘mudra’ oneself, a relic of shamanistic sword practices. The Hindu “Prana-mudra” or “a life-giving-force-mudra” is the most similar, even balancing in the Yin-Yang’s way if the sword is interpreted as a symbol of leading to death. However, it would be a stretch of trying to show an evolutionary connection between the military and civil arts.
While the use of intoxicants for spiritual growth was well established in ancient spiritual practices, it always was so, the razor’s edge. It can cut off the chaos or it can cut out the heart, depending on the steadiness of the hand of the wielder. And a steady hand is just what a drunken stylist should wield. Accordingly, it would be as incorrect to interpret the drunken sword practice as some sort of consent to drink to excess.
Regarding the poet’s skills at his swordplay, definitely, there are not so many talks about his style of fencing known as “Li Bai zui-jian” (Li Bai’s Drunken Sword), but some information we can get from his poetry (see the poem “Fighting,” for example). In addition, from “The New History of Tang” we know that Li Bai mastered his swordplay with General Pei Min, the greatest Tang-period master of swordsmanship and a true treasure-trove of ancient China.
As is said, “sword is the king of weaponry”; he who masters his sword is treated as a true warrior. From the viewpoint of swordsmanship, a sword is a kind of cold weapon; from the standpoint of personality, it is a sort of influence on the societal environment.
General Pei Min lived during the Kai-yuan ruling period of Tang (713–741). According to official records, he was the first fencer among all generals in all under heaven. He was so good at it that together with the other two geniuses, Li Bai and Zhang Xü, was acclaimed as a national patrimony. All the three were bosom friends and true masters of their trades.
Generally speaking, there is a list of totally fourteen masters in the history of China who have reached the divine level of mastery in their particular fields of creativity. They are: Du Kang of wine, Confucius of Classics, Sima Qian of history, Du Fu of poetry, Zhang Zhong Jing of medicine, Guan Yu of martial arts, Wang Xi Zhi of calligraphy; Zhang Xu of the ‘kuang-cao’ or wild cursive script, Wu Dao-zi of painting, Lu Yu of tea ceremony, Sun Wu of the war art, Zhang Liang of strategy, Zhang Heng of carpentry and applied science, and Sun Si Miao of pharmaceutics. If you want to find a deity of swordsmanship, the master No.1, certainly, is General Pei Min who completely deserves his honourable title. According to “The History of Tang-period Arts,” when his mother passed away, Pei Min addressed a request to the famously known artist Wu Dao-zi to paint the walls in the Tian-gong Temple to mark his mother’s salvation. Wu Dao-zi said: “I have not painted for long, and if I have to draw for General Pei, he has first to perform his swordplay I could be inspired. . .” Upon hearing this, in no time Pei Min drew his sword and rounded to the left and to the right, like a galloping fine horse, absolutely unstoppable; all the space around was filled up with his vortex motion and his sword cutting the air into pieces. Then, all of a sudden, he threw his sword upright into the air, a whole hundred feet high and, as though a lightning stroke, the sword dropped down from that precipitous height straight into the general’s sheath he held in his outstretched arm. Flop! The swordplay routine was finished with such a skilful feint. All onlookers who presented there in many were shocked by such an amazing move. Wu Dao-zi was so deeply moved that a momentum of inspiration immediately burst in his mind about the design of the painting. That was like a true revelation which fell on him from above.
When the story reached Wang Wei’s ears, another greatest poet of Tang, he wrote a dedication to the general, from which we know that Pei Min was also an excellent archer who, as the legend runs, was famously known due to his fighting against the numerous tigers crawled all around the area of ancient Beijing. One day, it has been recorded, he shot thirty-one of the fiercest beasts. Wang Wei’s poem goes like this:
Dedication to General Pei Min
By Wang Wei (699-761)
He wears at his waist
The treasured blade—
The Seven Star Sword,
The glitter of the Dipper.
His arm is armed with
A richly decorated bow
To win in all the battles
He has been involved into.
They say his sword
Is to pierce Heaven’s roof
Concealed from eyes
Beyond the cloudy skies.
From the very beginning
The world has got it straight
That the heavens bring up
The warlord of a great valour.
By Alex Stone
As is said, ‘Men do not look into
The running waters as a mirror
But into still water' --
It is only the still water that can
Arrest the men’s heed
And keep them in contemplation
Of their true selves.
Of things which are what they are
By the influence of Mother Earth,
It is only the pine tree and cypress
Which are the best instances --
In winter as in summer vividly green.
Of those which are what they are
By the influence of Lord Heaven,
The most striking examples
Are certainly the sun and the moon --
Fortunate in thus maintaining
Their constant brightness and so,
As to illuminate the lives of all beings.
As a verification of the power
Of the original endowment,
When it has been preserved,
Take the result of fearlessness --
How the heroic spirit of each fighter
Has been thrown into victorious action.
Most people, following their thought,
Once seeing an egg, look out for a cock
Which is to be hatched from it;
When seeing a gun, in no time
They look out for a duck
That is to be brought down by it,
For being roasted with relish.
But how could anyone,
Standing by the side of the sun
And moon, hold under one’s arm
All space and all time at once?
Such a tough question only means
That a wise man and worthy leader
Keeps his mouth shut and puts aside
All queries that are uncertain and
Quite hard for understanding.
Making all his inferior capacities
United with him, he honours thus
The worldly wholeness he lives in.
While men in general bustle about and toil,
He seems stupid and to know nothing of life.
He blends ten thousand ages together
In the sole concept of time; a myriad things
All use to pursue their spontaneous routes
And they all are before his eyes as running so.
Some like to drink strong tea,
Like aghada herb,
But some like drinking weak tea --
A sort of evening drink
Made from the cypress needles
Or pine nuts; and some prefer
To drink just pure spring water
Also called ‘the spring bubbles.’
Strong tea is like the scorching sun
In summertime and loud thunder
Out of a clear blue sky;
Weak tea is like the autumn moon,
Full in size but hidden behind the clouds.
As for the spring water, it is no sun,
No moon and no rain to be neither night
Nor day but clarity and brightness of mind.
Strong tea stimulates and excites people,
Weak tea quenches their thirst,
While pure water is to replenish the body
With enough liquid, and that’s it.
In fact, most people are busy and prefer
Drinking strong tea to counteract
Their exhaustion from toil --
They dare not to fall asleep or indulge
In a roaming or scattered thoughts.
And only some drink weak or diluted tea
To relax their body and mind --
It gives them opportunity for idleness
And sighting the reality before their eyes.
Those who only drink water are really few.
Roses in my garden
Are so much rose,
And violets there
Are no less violet.
The moon’s disk
Is like a silver dollar,
Whereas the sun
Is never on the wane.
Light breeze is soft,
But storm lasts never long;
This 3-D space, oh yes,
Is my temporal home!
Everyone is honoured to be familiarly acquainted
With Its Majesty Time and the way It reigns
In the world since Adam was a little kid.
There is in It pure sincerity and fervent desire,
But, actually, It does nothing, whether it be
In the slow way or in rapid, having no body’s shape.
It can be served but not made a bid for sympathy.
It may be handed down by the teacher,
But may not be received by his pupils;
It may be apprehended by mind,
But It cannot be seen so far.
It has Its root and ground of existence in Itself;
Before there were Heaven and Earth,
There It was, securely existing for Itself.
From It came all the mysterious existence
Of the gods and spirits; It produced Heaven,
It produced Earth, and yet could not
Be regarded higher; It was below all space
And yet could not be considered deeper.
It was produced before the world and yet
Could not be examined to have existed long.
It is older than the highest antiquity
And yet cannot be considered old.
Creator got It and by It adjusted the entire universe;
Cognition got It and by It penetrated to the mystery
Of the maternity of the primary matter;
Silence got It and from all great age has made
No eccentric movement; the sun and moon got It
And from the ancient past have not intermitted
Their bright shining; the Hostess of West got It
And by It became Mistress of Mt. Ulugh Muztagh.
The King of Clouds got It and by It enjoyed himself
As Ruler of the World Ocean; the Lord on High got It
And by It ascended beyond the seventh heaven;
The King of Night got It and by It dwelt in the Dark Palace;
The Host of North got It and by It was set on the North Star;
The Chief of Light got It and by It had his central seat
In the South Palace of Brightness. This is how
All developed, follow its customary routine.
No one knows Its beginning; nobody knows Its end.
From of old one who followed It could live for long.
Thus the sage kings got It and by It became in a trice
The worthy rulers of the world. And those of them
Who mounted to the Eastern region of the Galaxy,
Where, riding on Sagittarius and Scorpio, and lashing
The fire steeds of their thunderous chariots, they took
Their place among the other stars and constellations
Unveiled for ages and all generations by Its Majesty Time.
My last remembrance --
What will it be?
The vernal heat of the sun,
The nightingale’s song in July,
A landscape bathed
In the midfall moonlight,
Ashberries fallen down
To the frost ground? . .
O how boundless is the state of serenity!
How transparent is the moon’s reflection
Shot in the ripples of the water wisdom!
At such an instant, what else need we get?
Since the truth infinitely discovers itself
As a solid clod of mud on the dusty roadside,
Neither evaporated nor liquefied,
It makes the core of our body and Dharma’s eye!
In vain I have tried to repair
My old tub, my leaky boat,
Which brought me awhile ago
Some bread. Since then,
The planking has already
Gotten deformed and is about
To lay itself out
Until the bottom rots through.
From now on, no more
Bottom water, no more
The moon’s disc smiling at me
My ankle-deep limbs.
So, I am back to square one
In my attempt to cross
The stream of life, . . unwetted.
A true poet is one
Who treats oneself
As a sentient being,
Who only regards the truth
As the bright moon’s disc
Reflected on the water mirror.
He is like a magician
Who regards all people
As creation of magic;
He is the Mind himself—
The round Perfection,
Like an antique vessel
For sacrificial offerings.
For all men he is like Oasis
In the middle of desert,
A sound of an echo bounced
Off the steep slope, a mass
Of milky clouds gathered together
Around a high peak, an appearance
And disappearance of the sun,
A bamboo with its empty bole,
A flash of lightning across the sky,
A young dragon’s emerging
In the field for inexpiable fighting,
A sprout budding from a rotten seed,
A pair of the hare-horn boots,
A piece of the tortoise-fur coat,
A ridicule, especially for all those
Who’d like to be stabbed on a murky night.
My mind is soaring above the path;
Here, in the deep mountains,
Year in year out, my temples
Turn snow white.
Day by day I cherish my tiny orchard
And earth my vegetable patches up;
My hut I sweep diligently by pine twigs
At sunset, once, before bed.
Burning incense, I open my only reference --
The Oracular Book of Circular Changes,
And the current things spread before my eyes
In the sacred numbers, images and signs.
Drawing the curtain back, I contemplate
Thru the thick mist above the jagged cliffs,
And the moon’s disc stares in the pool
Just underneath my thatched wicket. . .
Amid my friends, how many of them
Can afford observing Nature at such ease!
Last day of winter --
Leafless wild plums
But form their buds,
Challenging last frost.
First day of spring --
Still violet pall but
Of the sunburst in full.
Ten thousand forms,
But sunset is perplexed
With the moon on the wax.
How come that each
And every occurrence
Is like a dream,
An optical illusion --
The mountain spring,
Long shadow of a tree,
A lunar eclipse,
The moonlit silver lane
On the face of a creek,
A morning dewdrop,
A flash of lightning
And a crashed thunderbolt
Into one’s harrowed soul. . .
Just in this sequence
We have to view them all,
One by one,
To become insightful
For a short while. . .
And this is a serious thing
That happens to all those
Who read these lines
And do not kid around.
To what shall I
Liken this world:
The shine of stars
Is out in full force,
The pale moonlight
Glittered in the pond
In the middle of which
A heron prinks, standing
On one leg amid croaking,
Buzzing, humming, teeming. . .
The entire world
Can be depicted
As a moonlit night,
An early dewdrop
Shaken from a tip
Of the tall sedge,
A piece of a twig
In the stork’s beak,
Which hurries its nest
At twilight. . .
And as something else,
Which is better to leave
Veiled and unpictured
On the scroll of experiences.
It happened that a burglar
Dropped it behind him
While scrambled out
Of the window --
That was a moonbeam
Filled the windowsill
With its dazzle of fine silver. . .
That was funny! Such a slip
Never happened to him,
As he was a thief for a living.
Thus, all of a sudden,
At the very end of his ‘career’
He got his share of illumination!
Reflected on the ocean surface,
I perceive the emptiness of Mind.
As the open night sky, I come to be
Drawn by the magic of the moon’s disc,
Losing myself in the silver lane it casts off.
When I see the moon’s reflection
Flickering in the ripples of waters
I believe in its reality down there,
Not upstairs, in the fathomless air,
Where the Galactic Ocean legislates
Its laws and ordering dimmed to me,
A son of the soil who sows and crops
In full accordance with the lunar phases.
Lying on the crumbled floor,
A broom said to a figurine
Of the sitting buddha who
Found room for himself
Right on the upper shelf:
“Darkness is falling,” he said,
“We, saints, should sleep.”
The sitting buddha replied
From the top of bookstand,
“The bright moon is rising;
We, poor folks, must sweep.”
Oh, poor leaders of the world!
Most of them, inwardly,
Stuffed full as a hole for fuel
Fast bound with cords
When they look quietly round
From out of their bondage
And think they have got
Anything they could want,
They are no better than
Whose arms are tied together
Or than lions and tigers in cages
And yet thinking they have got
Absolutely all they could long.
Ceremonies, media, briefings,
Offshore accounts and
Currency indicators, . . with all
The loopholes of jurisprudence,
Are the trivial matters
In the chaotic establishment.
Rewards and penalties
With their advantages and sufferings,
And the inflictions of punishments,
Are but the trivial elements
Of regulative norms and instructions.
As opposed to them all, oh boy,
I mount on the clouds of the air,
Rides on the sun and moon’s spheres,
And ramble at ease beyond
All the seven seas. And all this
I can reach due to the absence
Of a second thought and
In the presence of the Pure Mind
Which I have cultivated so much
In the remote wilderness.
Neither death nor life
Makes any change in me,
And how much less
Should the considerations
Of advantage and loss do so! Amen.
I can see it with half an eye that
Grand music does not penetrate
The ears of the country bumpkins;
However, if they hear Beethoven’s
Moonlight Sonata, or Violin Concerto
Of Tchaikovsky, or Bach’s Cantata,
Would they roar then with laughter?
Is it true that lofty words do not remain
In the minds of the multitude, and that
Perfection of phrases is not heard
Because the vulgar words predominate?
By earthenware instruments like pots
The music of a bell will be confused,
And the pleasure that it would afford
Cannot be obtained by the subtle ears.
Now the world is under a great delusion,
And though I wish to go in a right way,
How can I succeed in doing it my way?
Knowing that I cannot do so, however,
If I were to try to force my proper way,
Would that be another delusion on top of that?
Therefore, my best course is to let my target go
And no more pursue it. If I do not pursue it,
Whom shall I have to share in my bitter remorse?
How ceaselessly does Heaven revolve?
How constantly does Earth abide at rest?
And do the sun and moon contend
About their respective placements?
Who does preside over and direct all things?
Who does bind and connect them together?
Who is it that, without trouble and exertion
On one’s part, causes and maintains them forever?
Is it, perhaps, that there is some secret spring,
In consequence of which they cannot be but
As they are? Or is it, perhaps, that they move
And turn as they do and can’t stop of themselves?
Then how do the clouds become rain? And how
Does the rain again form the clouds? Who does
Diffuse them abundantly? Who is it that produces
This elemental enjoyment and seems to stimulate it?
The winds rise upwards to blow then to the west and
To the east, while some rise uncertain in their direction.
By whose breathing are they produced? Who is it that,
Without any strain of oneself, affects all their waviness?
In vain I venture to search all these phenomena true cause.
Wherever an old wolf is howling
Addled amid the moonlit herbs --
Exactly like a petty dog,
A poor gipsy, lighted up
By the flame of campfire,
His well-worn fur coat
He wears year in year out
Throughout the winter cold
And summer’s scorching glow.
In the city I’ve passed through
There is a maiden of arched brows;
Pearls at her waist --
How they tinkle and jingle
While she treads!
She plays with her pet
In front of the blooming orchard;
She strums her lute
Under the full moon’s height.
Her long song resounds
For months of running;
Her belly dance is to be seen
By a thousand of men. . .
There is no need
For such a long tarrying --
A heat-loving hibiscus, I’m sure,
Cannot withstand the winter cold.
Being a man of wisdom,
You ignore me by all means;
When you’re playing a fool,
I try to ignore you, too.
In order to be neither stupid
Nor wise, from now on,
Let’s cease to communicate,
Even if for a while. . .
With the longsome night I sing
At the bright moon;
With the long-awaited dawn
I dance amid the pink clouds.
But how can I manage
To keep my cool and sit tight
With my sparse hair
Volitated in the chilly air
Of the frozen autumn season!
My mind is like the full moon in autumn,
Or a pool -- clean and transparent like a jade.
There is nothing to be comparable with this;
So, teach me a word I can use to describe it.
The weeping willows are hazy,
Like in a thick smoke;
Flying in wind petals --
Whirling about like sleet.
The husband lives apart,
Leaving his wife’s district;
The wife resides in thinking
Of her husband’s remote region.
Each one is at the opposite bank
Of the Heavenly River;
Who knows when will they meet,
Standing on the Celestial Bridge?
I am sending these words
To the Bright Moon Tower --
You will find no more
The flying together mated sparrows.
The peach bloom is truly desired
To weather thru the heat of summer,
But the winds and moons
Of the early fall urge on --
They will not yield even a short.
You may search for kind men all around,
From of olden times none of them
Is still staying with us, and it’s verified!
Day by day, it cannot be helped,
The flowers alter and fall;
Year after year people run thru change,
Transmuting all their looks and souls.
Today, where we use to raise the dust,
In old days the sea lapped against the rocks.
To retaste our old delights
We have to turn over some new strata.
As tradition states, Heaven’s way is like a perfect compass,
Correlation of the number 3, while Earth’s way is similar
To a perfect carpenter’s square, correlation of the number 4.
The compass in motion describes a complete circle
Whereas the square brings things to the state of rest,
Securing them in their proper places -- in the four corners
Of the universe. What converts Heaven (3) and Earth (4)
Is the number 5, correlation of the Centre, the Pole Star
In the starlit sky. In the sense, we can contend that 3+4=5,
Symbol of the pivot, spiral development, increase
And complete upgrowth. The number 5 underlies
Both numerical diagrams: one is 55, another is 45
To total round 100, resume of the five generations.
All things are contained within the womb of the universe
Arranged around the Pole Star, the pivot of all existence.
The sun and the moon establish the boundaries of spheres
Of their influence to the left and to the right of the pivot.
The Yin and Yang natural forces in secrecy make contacts;
The four seasons sneak up without being noticed by others --
By stealth they take their appropriate periods; five phases
Conceal their motives until the right time makes them come.
Once all the six directions: up and down, north and south,
East and west become cohered with no apparent separation,
The four seasonal divisions revolve in succession
Around the Dipper constellation, as if the heavenly dial plate.
To stick to the axis of the universe means
To be born in spring, grown up in summer,
Cropped in autumn and preserved in winter.
This is the order defined by Heaven, once and for all.
When the dynamic odd numbers represent the static
And even-numbered spaces, the spiral development
Takes place as the earnest of progress accomplished victoriously.
Therefore, one who follows Heaven’s will survives,
But one who contradicts it will surely die despite initial progress.
Similar, a man of wisdom has firm axis within his heart/mind,
Also known as the Clay Crystal, which enables all things
To rotate around his intents and which is similar to the Pole Star
In the midst of the sky, the universal axis for keeping
The powers of both primal entities, Heaven and Earth, linking.
A mountain dweller --
His mind is calm and quiet;
His only care is about the chain
Of months move fast.
He works hard picking funguses
And herbs of eternity;
Can all these searching
And sorting make him immortal?
His yard cleans up once the clouds
Start to roll up and rack;
The forest is bright
Under the perfectly round moon’s disk.
Why does he always
Postpone his return to the world beneath?
The cassia tree which grows
On the other side of the moon
Attaches him to this retirement for good.
The green brook -- the spring waters
Are crystal clear;
The moon’s disk over a snowy peak
Is flashily white.
I am silently aware that my spirit
Is initially bright;
I am staring in air -- the scene
Is even more serene.
The old scroll is enriched
With the brilliant poems of remote times;
My pot is flushed with the brew wine
I’ve made from the fruits that I picked
In the Grove of the Eighteen Divines.
Walking around, I delight in watching
The wild deer’s calves; sitting down,
I keep them close to my thighs;
Some of them cling to the left of my side,
Some of them stick to the right.
Frost and dew come through
My thatched brims; the moon’s disk
Shines through the hole
In my earthen pitcher for a long time.
At such hours as these,
I use to sip slowly a couple of cups,
Reciting my verses -- a round number,
I put them all in a random row,
Just as they cross my mind.
If you want to know what my poems
Are all about, they depict the human lives,
One hundred years long, in which
A true sympathy is alike a wild deer --
It always set to flee into the thickets
While an angry look can be likened to a bandog --
Even if you banish it from sight,
It won’t run away, adhering to you at both sides.
Once you decide to subjugate the naughty ape --
Your inflated Self, it’s best to start from listening
To the lion’s roar of your Pure Mind!
Clouds pile up about the rocky cliffs,
Touching the bluish azure of eternity;
A lonely path gets tangled among the hills—
Not a single stranger threads it up steep slope.
In the far off I gaze at the heavy sphere
Hovered in the falling down twilight
And the orphaned toad gives a wink at me
With its third eye on the other moon’s side.
Yes, its perfectly round face smiles at me,
Grinning from one absent ear to another,
And my mind becomes illuminated for awhile.
I’m hearing warbling of a single nightingale --
Tweeting away, it sustains a note and
Sustains it again, filling in holes in my soul.
I sit stiff, soaring above time and space --
Kaleidoscope of images and symbols,
Following the beating of my heart and
Breathing technique of my vital points,
Passes in endless train before my glance
To drive me away, and only the deities
And spirits know the terminal point
Of my journey up to the next morn.
Lodging up on the peak of my cloudy cliff,
I idly live in my hut with a hedge
Under two lofty pine trees. I let my life
In retreat to end smoothly its course
By bringing this lump of clay to its yellow source.
Having a sigh, I think over my past up tonight
And the rest of my innocence,
For the umpteenth time, like a mountain brook
Springing out its fathomless womb,
Flows east to merge with ever violent ocean
Of timeless ups and inescapable downs
That, as before, grip me from taking a leap
High into the bluish azure of eternity. . .
The birds chirp -- I can’t really bear my feelings,
At such hours I prostrate in my thatched shelter --
Two yards on two yards, having no vigour to rise.
Cherries and peaches red with lustre and shine;
Maples and ash-trees are shaggy in their crowns.
The setting sun merges with grey slopes of cliffs;
Thin clouds bathe clean in the mountain springs.
After a long day of toil in the mulberry field I feel
The full moon’s sneaking up to take its central part
In the red-and-black sky. . . After so many years
Of self-extension and extreme alchemical efforts,
Who’s found the way of getting out of dull routine
And country pains and driving up the western slope
Of the Werewolf Mountain scale its peak, on which
The witches and shamans hold the yearly sabbath!
There is great disorder in the world
And the guilt of it is because
Of that fondness for knowledge.
Thus, it is that all men know
To seek for the knowledge
That they have not attained to;
And do not know to seek for that
Which they already have in themselves;
And that they know to condemn
What they do not approve in others,
And do not know to condemn
What they have allowed in themselves --
It is this which causes the world’s disorder.
It is just as though above
The brightness of the sun and moon
Were darkened; as though beneath
The productive vigour of the hills
And streams were dried up; as if
In the mid the operation of four seasons
Were brought to an end, in which case
There wouldn’t be a single wriggling insect,
Nor a plant that grows up,
Which would not lose its appropriate nature.
Great indeed is disorder produced
In the world by the love of knowledge.
From the olden times it has been so.
The plain and honest-minded men are neglected
While the plausible representations
Of the restless spirits are received with pleasure;
The quiet and unexciting methods
Of doing-no-ado is put away while pleasure
Taken in all ideas wordily expressed. Hence,
Each candidate for the high-ranking office
Should mark it well that it is garrulity of speech
Which puts the world in disarray and disorder.
To win the world means to take the subtlest influence
Of Heaven and Earth and assist with them the growth
Of the five cereals for the better nourishment of people.
It also means to direct the operation of opposite forces,
So as to secure the comfort of all the human beings.
How should one proceed to accomplish these objectives?
According to governing the world, the vapours of clouds
Before they were collected, would descend in rain;
The herbs and trees would shed their leaves
Before they became yellow; the light of the sun and moon
Would hasten to extinction at sunset and at dawn. . .
The mind is that of a flatterer with one’s plausible words --
It’s not fit that should be told as the way to win the world.
Once I went to seek an interview with a recluse
Who resided in his solitary hut with thatch walls
And straw roof, and who spread in it a mat of hay --
Ascetic life he lived. I found him lying down
With his head to the south. With an air
Of deferential submission, I stepped forth
On my knees, twice bowed low with my face
To the ground, and asked him a question, I said,
“I have heard that you, sir, are well acquainted
With the best way of life; so, I venture to ask
How one should rule the body, in order that
It may continue for a long time?” In a while
He quietly replied: “The bodily essence
Is always surrounded with the deepest obscurity;
Its highest reach is in darkness and silence;
There is nothing to be seen and nothing to be heard.
When it holds the spirit in stillness, then
The body itself will become perfectly correct.
Therefore, you must be still, you must be pure,
Not subjecting your body to toil, not agitating
Your vital force, then you may live for long.
When your eyes see nothing, and your ears hear nothing,
And your mind knows nothing -- your spirit
Will keep your body well, and the body will be in health.
Watch over what is within yourself, shut up all channels
And links that connect you with what is external to you
Because much knowledge is unsaved and puts obstacles
In your way to the Summit of the Supreme Brilliance
Where you come to the source of the bright
And expanding element; you will enter the Gate
Of the Deepest Obscurity where you come to the source
Of the darkness and repressing element. There Heaven
And Earth have their controllers; there the entities
Of Yin and Yang have their Sanctuaries.
Watch over and keep your body whole and all things
Will of themselves then give it their vigour.
Once you maintain the original unity of the elements,
You will dwell in the harmony of them. In this way
You have to cultivate your Self for one hundred years,
And your bodily shape will undergo then no decay.”
Upon hearing this, I bowed low twice with my head
To the very ground and said, “We have an example
Of what is called Heaven, but. . .” In no time
He interrupted me, saying, “I know, you want to ask
About the external manifestations of life. Come out,
And I will show you the heavenly way of life,
Which is something inexhaustible, and yet
People think it has an end; it is something unfathomable
And yet people think its extremity can be reached.
He who attains to it, if he is in a high position,
Will be one of Heaven’s sons, and in a lower region,
Will be an ever-youthful Prince. One who fails
In attaining it, in one’s highest attainment
Will see the light, but will descend to be of the earth.
From of old, all things are produced from Earth
And they all return to the ash and ground. Therefore,
I will leave you alone in order you enter the Gate
Of the Unending State to enjoy yourself wandering
In the Dale of Illimitable. You will blend your light
With that of the sun and the moon, and endure
While Heaven and Earth endure. If you agree with this
And adopt my conception for good, you will become
Integral with it forever; if you keep far apart from it,
Still, you will be unconscious of it; for you,
It may all die, and you will stay alone, of your own.
That is the whole point and profound secret
Of what is known as the Best Way of Being. . .”
When the sun and moon have come forth,
If illumination have not been put out,
Would it not be difficult for them
To send down their light sufficed to all?
When the seasonal rains are coming down,
And if we still keep watering the ground,
Would not our toil be labour lost
For all the good it will do?
Taking a position of responsibility,
Shall we not be doing so for the sake
Of fame and the name? But the name
Is but the guest of our reality;
So, shall we be playing the part
Of the guest instead of the host?
A tailor-bird makes its nest in the thicket,
But only using one single twig;
A mole drinks from the great volume
Of the ground waters, but only taking
What fills its stomach, and that’s it.
When the chief cook is not attending
To his kitchen, the scullions dare not
To leave their own stands and pots,
For taking the place of their boss. . .
He who does not plant himself
Deeply enough in the right position,
Has no chance to get on in life,
As his place in the world will definitely
Become indifferent to him,
Preventing him from success available
In accord with the Law of Equality.
A seven-day week is designated
As the five elements
Plus the sun and moon to intimate
Tuesday as the day of the superior
And therefore always warring Mars
That has a cardinal Fire classification;
Wednesday, as related to the god
Or the planet Mercury, representing
Virtuous waters of the Celestial Lake;
Thursday, as the giant Jupiter,
Associated with the flexible, supple
And everywhere penetrated Wood;
Friday, as the planet Venus which
Rises in the early morning to embody
The spirit of slightly demonic Metal;
Saturday, as the influential Saturn,
The kingdom of Earth with its peaks
High to the sky and immense dales;
Sunday, as the incomparable sun;
And Monday, as the mirror-like moon.
Without doubt, the central part herein
Pertains to Saturday, which is Sabbath,
And which have the upper hand to reign
All the rest elements and celestial bodies,
Whose influential part in our appointed lot
And everyday life cannot be ignored.
One man once teased me, saying:
“I laugh at the way you compose
Your poems, sir, like a blind man
Who sings the praise of the sun!”
At that, I retorted: “A blind man
Is mostly diligent and searching;
So, how can a blind be afraid of
His bad fortune?” A blind man
Has no perception of the beauty
Of graceful and elegant figures,
Nor a deaf of the sound of tunes.
But is it only the bodily senses,
Of which deafness and blindness
Can be predicated? There is also
A similar defect in the intelligence;
And in these poetic lines of mine
An illustration in itself supplied.
Yes, eyes are all of the same form,
I do not know any big difference
Between them all, yet the blind,
Alas, have no power of eyesight.
Ears are also all of the same form;
I do not know any big difference
Between them all, yet the deaf,
Alas, have no power of hearing.
Minds are all of the same nature,
I do not know any big difference
Between them all, yet the mad
Cannot make the minds of others
Their own. My good personality
Is very like yours, but something
Seems to separate between us, as well.
I would wish to find in myself
What there’s in you, but I am not
Able to do so. You now say to me,
“Keep your body and soul tight
And complete, hold your life
In your close embrace, and do not
Let your intents and thoughts
Keep working anxiously, that’s all.”
With all my efforts to learn
Your good method, your words
Reach only my ears, and
There is nothing better to be said,
Pure and simple. I’d also retort:
“Have you not heard
How a true man deals with himself?
He forgets that the liver is
On the right side of his stature,
While the spleen is on the left.
He takes no care of ears and eyes;
He seems completely lost
And aimless beyond the dust
And dirt of the mundane world,
Enjoyed himself at ease
In occupation untroubled
By affairs of businesses and trades
Run all around him by others,
Not by himself. He may be
Described as acting and yet
Not relying on what he does,
As being superior and yet
Not using his superiority
To exercise any sort of control,
Dwelling on it for his private end.
But now you’d make a display
Of your wisdom to astonish
All the ignorant; you’d cultivate
Your personality to make inferiority
Of others more apparent;
You seek to shine as though
You were carrying the sun
And the moon in your both hands.
That you’re complete
In your well-built frame,
With your soul and flesh firmly tied
And with all bodily nine openings,
And that you have not yet
Encounter any serious damage
And calamity in the middle
Of your age, such as deafness
Or blindness or lameness
Or HIV-positive, Heaven forbid,
And can still take your place
As a man among other men --
In all this you are goodly fortunate.
What leisure you have
Putting yourself above other men
And lecturing them to no purpose?
Now grab your stuff and
Wend your way to do what you do,
As I am going my way to do
What I have to do there and then.
These mountains hide many secluded wonders—
All climbers always come to be struck with awes.
The moon’s disc shines in the transparent waters
Of the mountain brooklets, the rapids are vying
With each other in telling the cock-and-bull tales;
The winds blow, waving and swaying the sedges.
When the season passes the aged withered plums
Become bloomed over again with snow; bare trees
Are filled with pink clouds for their shaggy crowns.
After the rain touch everything around is refreshed
And vivid; if it is not a sunny day, no one come up
To see me in mid air. My life stands still between
Climbing up and climbing down, my delights and
My woes, a nightingale’s warble and a tiger’s roar.
Late at twilight I passed the grey slope
Of the verdant hills, and the moon’s face
Followed me hotfoot, dogging my heels;
Her eyes were fixed on me devotedly and
In her eyes I discerned irredeemable woe --
There were only a couple of small hours
Till daybreak cut off our visual contact.
A fair lady from my sweet
And slightly childish dreams,
Upon smartening herself up
Near a window, looks out thru it
To feel sad in the dying sunset.
In the shade of the glossy willows,
Just outside her window,
She fears the wind might arise
And tousle her lofty hairstyle.
Before she speaks, she reddens,
Like a cherry ripe-broken,
Like an ice statue, molten;
But in a moment she moves her lips --
A string of notes -- scented,
Tremulous and golden -- busts out
To fill up the air with fragrance.
When she turns sideways
Her beauty may be a subject
Of the following verbal painting:
Sideways is inclining,
Her jade hair-pin is declining;
The dark arc of her brows curves,
Like the new moon reclining and
Into her velvet temples resigning.
When she walks, her grace
May be depicted in the following
Parlance of delight:
She moves her steps, cunning
And pretty; her soft skin sounds,
Like a babyish ditty;
So gracefully tender
And so helplessly immature,
Like a weeping willow long twigs
Before her twisting in a soft
And gentle breeze giddying.
Lightly dipping her gauzy scarf,
The breeze entwines her slender waist
With its caressing touch. . .
Still, reddened and naked
She shows herself
When she’s sure of being alone,
Soaring in mid air and beyond
The fathomless azure of space.
When cuckoo had cried the fourth chilly watch
Into these small hours of the dawn, then I rose,
Lest the silkworms, short of the mulberry leaves,
Hunger might. Lighting up then my way back,
Who’d think that those young ladies and nobles
Weren’t yet through with their all night dancing.
I looked at the sky and the silver moon shone
Thru the willows under their mansion’s windows
That dropped the bitter sap into the ditch beneath.
As usual, at my little pool’s edge I drink
Illumined by the pendulous moon’s disc;
A pot of wine sinks into the thick grasses
Because this evening hour alone I drink
Without a boon companion of mine --
My good compotator from the nearby
Daoist Temple named ‘Bamboo Grove’
Who often shares my booze with me
Once dropping in at my place to drink.
Tonight, Her Majesty Moon,
Reflecting brightly into the pool, I see,
Does not drink from the wine-pot
Whilst my shadow silently follows my hand,
Now up, now down, pushing me forward
A fit of my loneliness and blues.
I am going to keep this silent company
For some more time and then
Wend my way to the nearby village
To have a real gaiety throughout the night
In high gear of the Mid-Autumn Festival,
As only joys shared with the other men,
They say, are more enjoyable, my friend!
So much of life is merely a farce!
It’s sometimes as well as to standby
And look at it and smile, better,
Perhaps, than to take part in it.
Like a dreamer suddenly awakened,
We usually see our life, not with
The romantic colouring
Of last night’s dream but with
A saner viewing. We are more ready
To give up all the dubious, glamorous
And mostly unattainable but
At the same time to hold on
To some few things that we know
Could give us some happy moments.
We always go back to Mother Nature
As an eternal source of beauty
And of the true and deep and
Long-lasting fortunate state.
But once deprived of any progress
And of internal power, we yet
Throw open our windows
And listen to the chirr of cicadas
Or to falling autumn leaves
And inhale the fragrance
Of the yellowish chrysanthemums,
And over the top there shines
The autumn moon's pendent brow --
We are content for a poised while.
For we are now in the late summer,
The height of our farcical life.
There comes a rare time in our routine
When, as individuals, we’re pervaded
To the brim by the spirituals
Of early autumn tune, in which
The greenish tints are mixed
With gold but sadness with joy,
And all hopes are mixed with
Reminiscences of the olden days,
Stirring up the eerie affection for them.
Inevitably there comes a time in our life
When the innocence of spring is a memory
And the exuberance of summer -- a song
Whose echoes faintly remain in mid air;
When, as we all look out on our life,
The problem is not how to grow but
How to live truly; not how to strive but
How to enjoy the precious moments;
Not how to squander our energy but
How to conserve it in preparation for
The coming winter, without dissipation.
A sense of having arrived somewhere,
Of having settled and found out desired;
A sense of having achieved something
Is also precious little compared with
Its past plenty, but still it is something,
Like an autumn mountain slope shorn
Of the summer glory but retaining as it is,
And what’s more, will firmly endure.
I would prefer spring, but it’s too young;
I’d like upgrowth of summer, but, alas,
It’s too proud of itself; therefore,
I like best of all autumn, its starting phase,
Because its leaves are readily yellowish,
Its tone is mellower, its colours are richer,
And it is tinged a little bit with sorrow,
Granting us premonition of untimely end.
Its golden ripeness and surplus richness
Speaks not of the innocence of springtime,
Nor of the power of summer but
Of the mellowness and sagely wisdom
Of approaching ageing and imminence --
It knows the limits of life and is fully content.
From a knowledge of those limitations
And its wide experience, in the ascendant,
A symphony of tints and colours emerges,
Which is richer than of any others;
Its green speaking of vigour and strength,
Its orange speaking of its golden contents
And its purple indicating on decease
And unquestioning obedience to fate.
And the pendent moon’s disc shines over it,
Its perfectly round brow seems maize yellow
With reflections, but when the setting sun
Touches it with the evening glow,
It still laughs, and does it cheerfully,
With great enjoyment from within.
When an early mountain breeze brushes thru
The willows and sends its trembling leaves,
Dancing gaily, to the very ground,
You don’t even get your poor head around
Whether the song of the falling leaves
Is the song of laughter or of the farewell tears
At the very moment of departure. From of old
This song is merely known by the name of
“The Charm of Early Autumn” and it sings
About the spirit of calmness, material ripeness
And a subtle wisdom of reaping a harvest;
And it smiles at sadness itself and praises
The coming day of exhilarating environment.
I’d want at least a pair of clean shirts,
As usual, with seven buttons, to start
And finish my week safe and sound;
But if can have only one shirt, I shall
Not mind, either. Unlike anyone else
I want also a good show, and I would
Give myself up to the full enjoyment.
But if I must go without that, I shall
Not be too sorry. I’d want some lofty
And shady trees in my surroundings,
But if I cannot have them, a sapling
In my yard will give me the same fun.
I’d want many kids and a housewife
Who personally prepares delicacies,
And if I’m wealthy, then a good cook,
And a pretty housemaid in gauzy dress
To tend the incense while I’m writing
Or painting in my study. Yes, I’d want
Some intimate friends and a woman
Who understands, ideally to be found
In the person of my spouse; if not, then
Maybe in one of the sing-opera divas.
If I’m not born with ‘a voluptuous luck,’
Then I shall not be much worry, either.
I'd want a filled belly -- rice and pickles
Are not so costly in my region; I’d want
A jug of good wine, but the moonshine
Is often home-brewed, or I can pay only
A limited cash for a bottle at a wineshop.
I’d want leisure, and leisure I can have,
And I’m as happy as a bird if I have met
An old monk in a bamboo-covered grove
To talk to him of Dharma and enjoyed
Another of life’s leisurely half-days. . .
I’d want a secluded hut, if I can’t have
An entire pleasure garden sited amidst
Deep mountains with the coolest spring
Running past my hut, or in a lower vale
Where before sunset I can saunter along
The river bank and observe cormorants
Catching fish for their master-fisherman.
But if I can’t have that luck and must live
In the dusty city, I’ll not be sorry, either.
For I’d have, in any case, a cage bird and
A few potted herbs and the moon’s disc
Shined in my tub, for I can always have
The sole lamp of my utter enlightenment --
A strong resolve to get the best out of life,
A desire to enjoy what I’ve got at hand
And no repentance if I fail in the end
To start over from scratch. . . So be it.
Tonight we are going to meditate
A full moon dazzled on the ripple
In my little pool. How about
Getting a painted houseboat and
Bringing along a few musicians
Raise a cup or two of them in a toast
To our long collaboration, sir?
Would you be so much kind
As to come and spend a night with me
At this summer solstice? Then
I’m going to have a recluse’s gown,
And when my resignation
Will kindly be accepted, I’ll be a sole
And carefree son of the mountains
Who spends the rest of his lifetime
Released and at ease. . .
To turn the other cheek no more!
Idling away my time, I seek
For the venerable master
Who lives amidst the misty peaks,
A hundred of tiers upon tiers.
The hermit points me out the way
To return to myself;
This moonlit night --
A single lantern of enlightenment.
In this life, what matter
Is the most pitiable from all?
It’s nothing but the three paths
That create a whole raft of faults.
Putting learning aside, in a mist
At the foot of the cliff I reside;
One single piece of ragged robe --
This is the whole my stuff.
Once the autumn comes,
Let it drop leaves in the thick woods;
Then the springtime arrives,
As you wish, to bloom up the trees.
All the three realms I lay across to sleep,
At leisure and carefree;
The bright moon's disc and soft breeze --
This is my home indeed!
The myriad stars spread out
In the heavenly darkness --
The night is deep and serene;
The jagged cliffs are outlined
By a solitary lamp --
The moon’s disc has not yet sunk.
Round and full, brilliant
And blazing -- no need to polish
This priceless pearl which
Hangs down in the black-blue sky
And which is truly my mind.
On the top of the age-old boulder
The ancients left their footprints;
On the front of the bottomless pit
Gapes a round spot of black hollow.
When the wheel of moon shines,
It becomes clean and bright --
No need to seek anyone to ask
Where’s the west and where the east.
I do enjoy my daily living amid the mist,
Vanes, stones, streams, caves and cliffs.
My wild nature finds a use in the wilderness;
My constant companion is a white rack of cloud.
There’re some roads, but they don’t put me thru
To climb down to the world; I have got
My no-minded-mind -- who can climb up
To this level of mine? On my stone bed
Alone I sit deep into the night while
The moon’s disc slides up toward the dawn.
Standing alone, I view the world
From the top of the jagged cliffs --
I tower above a mass of raging waves.
Flapping in the wind, the pines trees
Rhyme me in accord; the moon’s disc rises,
The sea tides roll in a monotone beat.
But what is under the surface --
Morays and dragons, a myriad of species,
Taking turns, they gobble up each other,
Lumping together in one gross of water-floaters.
Below I look over the edge of bottomless abyss;
To white clouds I confide my internal thoughts.
My wild nature fits these rocky cliffs and the sea;
My will is to be ever matched with the elements.
Since your mind is not yet
False thoughts still arise
Like smoke on the water.
The moon’s nature
Is to be clear and bright;
Far and wide, it is shining
With no boundaries, at all.
I take delight in my staying
In the deep mountains;
I wander about at leisure,
Relying on none for support.
Day after day I clean and purify
My decrepit body’s channels
And think my idle thoughts --
Here’s nothing else I have to do.
At times I unroll some
Of my age-old scriptures,
And frequently climb up
To my stone altar on top.
From there I look down
Over a thousand feet high cliff;
Above me -- the Celestial Lake
Set up beyond the milky clouds.
Cold moon is so crispy bright!
My airy body is like that of
A lonely flying crane which
Hovers over my soul in circles.
My wild life is so precious to me!
All seven wonders of the world --
How can they be compared to it?
The moon's disc faces thru the pines --
Crisp and chilly its brightness.
White and rosy clouds --
Tier upon tier they arise.
Walking around, I surmount
A few piles of mountains;
Making the trip back, I cover
A certain number of miles.
Nearby the mountain stream
I feel myself quiet and refined;
My joyful tarrying in this place
Knows no end. Sh! In a quiet way
I announce my everlasting happiness.
My primary will
Is to be ever matched
With the way of naturalness;
As being a spontaneous man,
One obtains one’s true self.
At times I run into those who
Shut up the source of knowledge;
Quite often I have those with whom
I can freely talk of Contemplation (Chan).
Chatting of the profound values
All the moonlit night long,
We all agreed thereon,
Just before sunrise.
When the myriad controversies
Vanish into the morning air
Without a trace, you realise
The original nature of Man.
In front of the cliff all alone
I quietly sit -- the moon's disc
Illumines the night surroundings.
The myriads of shapes sink
Into the gray of half-shades,
Leaving absolutely nothing
The full moon couldn’t light up.
Unbounded and straight,
My spirit refines itself keenly;
Hugging the hollow,
I cave myself into Profound.
Following the pointing out finger
I see the bright wheel of moon --
It is the moon wheel’s hub
Which is the pivot of my mind.
Higher and higher I climb
On the top of the peak;
In all the four directions
No confines I can see.
I sit alone; there is no one
Who could know me;
The orphaned moon
Reflects in the cold spring.
But in the spring, in truth,
It is not the moon --
The moon sets itself
In the black-blue skies.
Though I have sung away
One single song of mine,
What’s at the end of it
Is not the essence of Chan.
There are the rosy clouds
Flocked around this peak:
Still and quiet, they’re cut off
From the worldly dust and dirt.
A seat of straw --
That’s all what I have
At my mountain home;
My sole lamp is the moon’s wheel.
I set my stone bed by side
Of the emerald pond;
Tigers, boars and deer
Are my companions at watering.
I truly admire the joy
Of this secluded spot
To be a man who stays away
From all occurrences for long.
Amid the many-tier cliffs
A breeze walks back and forth.
My fire-fan is unmoved --
The cold comes up on its own.
The bright moon’s disc shines;
White clouds cage my body in.
Sitting alone by myself,
I am already an old man.
Alex Stone is the pen-name of Alexander Goldstein, a graduate of the Far-Eastern University in Sinology, lived and worked in mainland China for a period as a translator/interpreter, a manager, and a martial arts’ practitioner. A certified instructor of ‘Chang-quan’ (external-style boxing) and ‘Taiji-quan’ (internal-style boxing), he is a lecturer of Chinese culture and traditions at the Open University in Tel-Aviv. He also is the constructionist of Lao-zi’s “Dao-De Jing,” the commentator of “Zen (Chan) Masters’ Paradoxes,” “The Illustrated Canon of Chen Family Taiji-quan,” a Chinese novel and some other editions, which are available in print and electronic publishing at most online retailers published in English, Spanish and Russian. What makes his books so appealing is profound analysis and authority, with which various strains of the vigorous Chinese culture are woven into a clear and useful piece of guidance for a business person who conducts the affairs with far-eastern counterparties and for a counsellor who develops strategies that enable leaders to position their organisations in the Asia-Pacific region effectively.
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These collected poems has been inspired by the works that the Tang-period poet Li Bai (701-762 CE) left after him as a great cultural heritage, and of whom I will have more to say on the pages below. It was with him that this book began; without him, none of what follows after the short essay would have been written. Fortunately or not, but I am not alone in this regard, as there are so many famously known creative figures in the West who have also been inspired by the poetry of Li Bai who lived and created on the other side of the world around twelve hundred years ago, but whose influence in some inexplicable way continued to grow in China and abroad. The following three poems of Li Bai translated and represented herein as preface to my collection of verses are unfolded around the common subject of the Chinese literature -- the moon and its imagery. Together with the reader, we are going to unveil some unnoticed (if not to say 'misunderstood' or even 'wrong interpreted') moments of the poet's legendary life. It sounds obvious but, again, we learn more about the world literature by studying the evolution of poetry through the centuries; as a result, we find out more of the world's history, evoke our interest and understanding of the ancient writers and of humanity in general. Poetry analysis and its translation from the language like archaic Chinese, which is the foreign language for the contemporary Chinese as well, is not scientifically exact, it is somewhat subjective to how it affects the translator's academic knowledge and daily experience. Yet, I find it very difficult to put a lot of credit on those representatives of the Old School (most of them are the famously known scholars of academic elite) who do not try to dig deeper about the poets of antiquity, and to reveal their motivations and find out those who affected them. Everything Li Bai did was tuned to the passage of time and the joys of Nature with brilliance and great freshness of imagination. The subjects that he studied in his poetry were swordplay, friendship and solitude constructed around the everlasting image of the moon's disc reflected in the pool with its multiple tints and mythological riddles. His imagination and humorous characteristics of a freethinker are apparent in his poetry in full to be a powerful incentive for many others throughout the ages, and your humble author is not the exception.