Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Collection and Li Qingzhao translations

Matthew Flannery

Li Qingzhao (1084-1151)

Tune: “Zhi Gu Tian”

Cold sun hisses through the window lattice;
the wu tongs will hate this evening’s freeze.
After last night’s wine, bitter tea is good once more;
fumes of Precious Brain soothe broken dreams.

Autumn done
yet daylight lingers.
Cold, sad, again this Wang Can stares at the distance.
Facing the cup, I follow my fate and drink
not forgetting the chrysanthemum hearts that yellow beneath the eastern hedge.

Line two: wu tong: a deciduous tree.
Line four: Precious Brain: incense.
Line seven: Wang Can’s (177-217) “Fu [Prose Poem] On Climbing Upstairs” recounts the loneliness of gazing toward his distant home.
Line nine: as in the previous poem, a reference to the line, “Plucking chrysanthemums beneath my eastern hedge…” in “Drinking Poem V” by Tao Qian (365-427).

Tune: “Yi Jian Mei”

Red Lotus: fragrance fading. My jade cool mat.
Parting my gown, gently
I board the orchid boat alone
for no one sends me love notes from the clouds
though flocks of geese return like flying words
and moonlight floods my western hall.

Petals fall. Water flows.
We share one hurt
from two places. Idle moments flood with longing.
How disperse such loneliness?
It falls from my brow
to rise in my heart.

Line one: Red Lotus: incense.
Lines five, six: geese and the moon are common metaphors for messengers from distant friends, loved ones. The V-formation of geese resembles the word for “person.”
Line nine: the artist’s husband, Zhao Mingcheng (1081-1129), government official and important collector-cataloguer of antiquities, traveled frequently.

Tune: “Fenghuang Tai Shang Yi Chui Xiao”

In the metal lion, incense cools.
A red wave, I twist in my quilt.
Too listless to comb my hair, I rise….
Dust deepens on the toilet box.
Sunlight gleams over the curtain hooks.
Fear of parting makes me bitter.
I start to say — then I stop.
I grow thin
but not from drink
or autumn=s sorrow.

Let it go. Let it go.
He went too far this time.
A thousand, ten thousand pleas could not have made him stay
as if he dreamed of paradise.
The mist cuts off my house.
Beyond the door, the river runs.
All day I stare. This river should remember me:
the place I watch
adds, each day, a length of grief.

Line one: metal lion: a censer.
Line fourteen: paradise: literally, “Wuling’s paradise.” Refers to a lost land in Tao Qian’s (365-427) prose-poem (fu) “Peach Blossom Spring.” The artist mourns her husband’s death as he traveled on government business. Separation from him before and after his death is the principal topos of her work.

The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.