Thursday, November 15, 2007


My constant readers will no doubt forgive me if I briefly veer into one of my other modes.

The first poem in Chinese I ever memorized was this one by Zhang Zhi (張繼): 楓橋夜泊
[Night Mooring at Maple Bridge]


Yue luo wu ti shuang man tian,
Jiang feng yu huo dui chou mian.
Gu Su cheng wai Han Shan Si,
Ye ban zhong sheng dao ke chuan.

Translation (paraphrasis):
"The moon lowers crows caw frost fills the sky,
Maple trees and fishermen's lights meet my melancholy gaze;
From beyond Han Shan (Cold Mountain) Temple outside the city of Gu Su (Su Chou),
I hear the sound of the midnight bell as it reaches this traveler's boat. "

I memorized it first, because it was the first one in the bilingual edition of the famous anthology. It is one that many Japanese of a certain age have also memorized, as well as people who have been to old-fashioned high schools. The man who wrote this was on his way back from failing the metropolitan exams. Little else is known about him.

One of the most evocative poems that I remember is probably Ba Shan Yeh Yu - Evening Rain on Ba Mountain (巴山夜雨) by Sun Shan Qi (孫善齊).


Jun wen gui qi wei you qi,
Ba shan yeh yu zhang qiu chi;
He dang gong jian xi chuang zhu,
Que hua Ba Shan yeh yu shi.

Translation (paraphrasis):
"My lord asks me the date of my return yet there is no date,
On Ba mountain the rains fill the autumnal pools;
When again in each other's company shall we trim the wicks at the western window?
All I can say is that it will be when the rain on Ba mountain (again) fills the autumn pools. "

While this poem could be and probably is about the temporary separation of a couple, she perhaps on an extended visit to her relatives in a different province due to a family emergency, the choice of pronoun (Jun 君) speaks in modern Japanese usage AND in T'ang dynasty Chinese usage of male equals. One can therefore also imagine two literati, study partners, who spent much time swatting the classics together. A chavruso relationship, in other words.

Such a relationship was by no means unusual among people of the literate class, especially as maintaining literacy generation after generation was a shared effort by many people. Lifelong friendships were founded upon it.
And it also occured not infrequently among a man and wife - an illiterate woman could not effectively encourage and guide the growth into literacy of her children, nor impart the scholarly values.

A particular favourite poem speaks of a scholar who has given up on the pursuit of success.

[Sheilos u'teshuvos mittn grinne bergen]
by 李白
[Li Taai Baahk - Li Po]


Wen yu he yi qi bi shan,
Xiao er bu da xin zi xian;
Tao hua liu shui yao ran qu,
Bie you tian di fei ren jian.

Translation (paraphrasis):
"Ask me why I stay in the green mountains,
I smile but do not answer - my heart is at ease;
Peach blossoms and flowing water go towards the horizon,
There is another world beyond the human bustling.

The allusion is to the tale of Peach Blossom Spring (in short: a traveler discovers a hidden paradise by following a rivulet that comes out of a mountain wall. He discovers a wonderful place, where people seem youthful, happy, unconcerned. When he returns to his own village, no one believes him. And when he tries to find that place again, he cannot).

The sense is of a literatus who keeps deliberately separate from the world. Peace and tranquility achieved by deliberately ignoring the mundane hunt for official glory that characterized the environment of the Chinese literati. Avoiding the pollution of the bureaucratic life in times of corruption was also one of their strongest ideals.

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Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. BOTH,

There has been a terrible misconception among Orthodox Jews. They understand the verse "ve hagisa bo yomam va laila", And thou shalt delve in in by day and by night, to refer to the Torah. And therefore, they study Torah all day, every day. But in fact, it refers to the Sexual Fantasies of the Nazis. It is davka the Sexual Fantasies of the Nazis that one is supposed to study all day.

I expect a post from you on this topic, forthwith.


Lawrence Cuttleworth

Spiros said...

I believe you mean "swotting", not "swatting".

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

very interesting, especially the hhevruta parallels... is Chinese poetry frequently defined by an even number of zi in each line?

The back of the hill said...

Steg, the short and long answer to your question is here:

Have a good yawm ha hoddu birdy.

The back of the hill said...

Note: link given above here in clickable format:

Feedback on either this post or that much appreciated.

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