Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Praise of Bai Juyi and Su Shi

In Praise of Bai Juyi:

Lately, some perverse comments on June 4th on the internet and as reported in the Hong Kong media so sickened me that I tried to find temporary refuge in graceful classical Chinese poetry. I accidentally stumbled across a moving story about Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (白居易) and would like to share it.

During the time when Bai Juyi was a Qian Tang Jiang (in Hangzhou) government official (it was the latter part of his officialdom career), one day he passed by the Green Creek Bridge and saw a crowd gathering before a Buddhist monk and hearing him talk. He thought it strange that people would come to such a remote countryside to listen to a monk. The monk must be very learned, he reckoned. So he rode his horse in the direction of the crowd.

When Bai came face to face with the monk, he said: “Master, the place where you are seated is quite dangerous.” The Buddhist monk was the famous Bird’s Nest Monk. Just one glance at Bai, he knew that this man was an arrogant and conceited elitist. So Bird’s Nest said to him, “It is your position that is in danger.”

Bai was quite thrown off by this remark and said, “My position is one that is rooted in the country. How can it be in danger?” The monk replied, “Worries and pressures alternate with each other and the conscience is put to an unending test. Neither the body nor the soul can get any rest. Isn’t that dangerous?”

Then Bai asked Bird’s Nest, “Please tell me, Master, what is the essence of Buddhism?” Bird’s Nest decided to let him learn a moral lesson: “Do no evil deed and engage in deeds of kindness.” Bai, who knew a little about Buddhism, immediately retorted, “I’ve known this for a long time. Not only I know it, even a three-year old child knows it.”

Seeing Bai disparaging Buddhist teachings, Bird’s Nest said to him, “A three-year old child may well know the Way. But an eighty-year old man may no longer have the energy to practice it.”

When Bai heard that, he could read between the lines and knew that Bird’s Nest was right. He felt ashamed of himself. Then he said to Bird’s Nest, “You’ve opened my mind. I hope to learn more about Buddhism from you. One day I will come again to be your follower.” And he left.

Bird’s Nest knew that Bai had a receptive heart towards Buddhism. But after almost a year, Bai still did not turn up for his lectures. So one day Bird’s Nest paid a visit to Bai’s residence but found that Bai was out on an appointment. He took a pen-brush and wrote down this poem for Bai:

You have penned your thoughts in court for forty years,
In the company of boundless rights and wrongs.
One household fares well while thousands more are woebegone;
Half your life brings fame but invokes gripe in many a netherworld.


When he finished writing the poem, he left Bai’s place.

When Bai came home and saw the poem written on the wall, a strong sentiment suddenly took hold of him. It dawned on him that all these years he had always wished to take up Buddhism, but somehow had never got round to doing it as he was always bogged down by the daily humdrum of administration affairs and contentions. He was constantly overwhelmed by unending work-related conflicts. The poem awakened him to his cherished wish and so he decided to quit his job to become a secular follower of Bird’s Nest’s.

 - End of Story -

Bai Juyi (“白居易”) was one of the most loved poets from the Tang dynasty because of his integrity and sense of justice while he held official posts and because of his compassion and kindheartedness as a human being.

He was known for his interest in the “yuefu” form (“樂府”) of poetry, which was a folk ballad genre from the Han dynasty, collected or written by the Music Bureau, and was typically used to convey social grievances. In fact, writing poetry to promote social progress was explicitly one of his objectives.

Two of his most famous long narrative poems are “The Song of Everlasting Regret” (“長恨歌”) which tells the story of Yang Guifei (“楊貴妃”), the beautiful consort of Tang Emperor Xuanzong (“唐玄宗”), and “The Song of the Pipa Player” or “Pipa Xing” (“琵琶行”). (Note: “Pipa” is a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument). I love both these poems but I am not up to the task of translating these!

When Bai Juyi was sixteen years old, he wrote a poem as a submission piece in a scholars’ examination, which brought him immediate fame and honor and later led to a successful career in the officialdom. He could never have imagined at the time that the poem could remain famous for over a thousand years after his death.

The poem is called “Farewell on the Ancient Grassland” (賦得古原草送別):-
[The first two characters ‘賦得’ refer to the specific format in which the poem must be written in the exam.]

The Original (“Farewell on the Ancient Grassland”):


My Translation:-

Yonder sprouts a field of grass;
One season it dies, in the next it revives;
Wild fires try in vain to wipe it out,
Spring breezes bring it back to life, no doubt.
Its scent wafts from afar to fill this ancient path,
The lush verdure stretches to the old town.
Many farewells are said on this grass,
By royal travelers in spirit downcast.

The 3rd and 4th lines “火燒不盡 , 春風吹又生” have become an often-used adage to give encouragement to the oppressed and the downtrodden (like grass), bidding them never to give in when faced with adversity and dire circumstances (like wild fires) in their strife for survival or quest for justice, as their tenacity and perseverance, as well as help from the heavens (like spring breezes), will ultimately bring them victory.

In Praise of Su Shi:

Like Bai Juyi and other talented, high-principled and patriotic Chinese poets, Song dynasty poet Su Shi (aka “Su Tung-po”) (蘇軾) started off an impassioned, full-of-ideals officialdom career at a young age, only to become totally disillusioned as it progressed amidst peer jealousy, betrayal and back-stabbing, which led to his incarceration in mid-life and later to forced exile. Su has been one of my favorite poets not only for his extraordinary literary and artistic flair but also for his compassionate, noble and forgiving character.

The Song dynasty was renowned for a less rigid style of poetry than Tang poems, which includes prose-poems (“fu” “”) and lyric poems (“ci” “”).

For a literary comparison of Tang poems and Song prose-poems (“fu” “”), here is an excerpt from an essay by Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書), written primarily as a foreword to C. D. Le Gros Clark’s translation work “Su Tung-po’s Prose-Poems”:-

Chinese poetry, hitherto ethereal and delicate, seems in the Song dynasty to take on flesh and becomes a solid, full-blooded thing. It is more weighted with the burden of thought. Of course, it still looks light and slight enough by the side of Western poetry. But the lightness of the Song poetry is that of an aeroplane describing graceful curves, and no longer that of a moth fluttering in the mellow twilight. In the Song poetry one finds very little of that suggestiveness, that charm of a beautiful thing imperfectly beheld, which Westerners think characteristic of Chinese poetry in general. Instead, one meets with a great deal of naked thinking and outright speaking. It may be called ‘sentimental’ in contradistinction to the Tang poetry, which is on the whole ‘naïve’, to adopt Schiller’s useful antithesis. The Song poets, however, make up for their loss in lisping naivete and lyric glow by a finesse in feeling and observation. In their descriptive poetry, they have a knack of taking the thing to be described ‘sur le vif’: witness Lu You (陸游) and Yang Wan-li (楊萬里). They have also a better perception of the nuances of emotion than the Tang poets, as can be seen particularly in their lyric poems “ci” (“”), a species of songs for which the Song dynasty is justly famous.

Indeed, one of Su Shi’s lyric poems that I particularly like, 定風波 , is one that describes superbly the nuances of his feelings when his life was at a low point: at once vulnerable and courageous, both resigned and resilient, sad but forgiving. The lyric poem was written shortly after Su got out of jail, where he spent over a hundred days for having written poems that were disrespectful of the emperor (which was a fraudulent charge that his peers maliciously laid against him, deliberately presenting his writings out of context to the emperor). The incident was called the “Crow Terrace Poetry Trial” (烏臺詩案) and it happened when Su was forty-three years old.

While in jail, Su got very nervous about his fate, fearing he might get a death sentence any time, as expressed in several poems that he wrote to his brother Su Che (蘇徹) and his wife. Somehow those deeply emotional poems reached the emperor’s hands, and the latter was so touched that he ordered a pardon for Su Shi. His days of nightmarish imprisonment profoundly changed his attitude towards life in general, in particular towards his career as a court official.

Had he not been a big-hearted soul, he would have carried a big chip on his shoulder and become a bitter person and would have sought revenge. But, as evident from his lyric poem “定風波”, he took his ill fate in stride and determined not to let bitterness ruin his outlook on life. Though he was demoted to a low rank in a poor and remote district after he was released from jail, he chose not to wallow in self-pity or nag about the hardship but instead actively sought peace of mind and acceptance of life just as it was presented, without fear or presumption.

It is the poet’s philosophical aplomb and panache that I admire most in this lyric poem (“ci” “”) of his.

The Original “定風波“ (“Calming Wind and Wave”):-

莫聽穿林打葉聲, 何妨吟嘯且徐行;
竹杖芒鞋輕勝馬, 誰怕?  一蓑煙雨任平生;
料峭春風吹酒醒, 微冷, 山頭斜照卻相迎;
回首向來蕭瑟處,歸去, 也無風雨也無晴。

My translation:-

Stop listening to the rain pattering on leaves,
Why not enjoy a stroll, and sing your heart out?
Giving up the horse for sandals and a cane – who would mind?
A straw cloak may be all I need in misty rain.
The spring breeze wakes me up from drowsiness – a bit chilly.
The setting sun warms me though with embracing rays.
Turning back, still mindful of that cold and wretched place.
Now that I have arrived – home at last,
Nothing stirs me any more, the glaring sun, the wind or the rain.

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