A Selection of Tang Dynasty poems

(actualisé le ) by Ray

The Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) was a period of extraordinary flourishing of the Chinese civilisation in all domains, notably art and literature.

No other civilisation has ever placed poetry on such an elevated pedestal in its scale of values: everyone with an education wrote poetry from the Emperor on downwards, and the most famous poets were honoured in the streets and in the palaces like the stars of popular culture are today.

A thousand years later, when the Qing dynasty published in 1707 a 900-volume anthology of the Tang poems that had survived until then, that Great Anthology of the Poems of the Tang Dynasty contained 50,000 poems by 2200 authors.

Four Tang poets in particular stand out, four giants of Chinese and world literature:

- Li Bai (701-762) aka Li Po [1], generally considered, with Tou Fou, to be the greatest Chinese poet of all time. An eternal exile of exceptional force and dynamism, he flashed through the life of his contemporaries like a meteor;

- Tou Fou (712-772) aka Du Fu [2], companion of Li Bai and the reference for classical purity of style and form;

- Wang Wei (699-761): the greatest painter of his time, of whom it was said that his paintings were like poems and his poems like paintings;

- Bai Juyi (772-846)] aka Po Kiu-yi [3], author of two of the most famous Tang poems, The Song of Eternal Regrets and The Guitar, was the poet with the most number of poems in the The Great Anthology, with 2800 works (!).

In the Anthology of Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty published on 1751 by a Qing scholar and constantly re-edited since, these four poets were by far the most represented.

Here you will find a brief selection of their works, transposed into the language of Shakespeare and Little Richard from the elegant French of the Belgian sinologist and poetess Georgette Jaeger [4].



LI BAI (701-762)

Li Bai

Saying Good-Bye to a Friend

To the north of the town, below the blue mountains
Where the water white with foam surrounds the city walls
We stopped to say good-bye
You are going away like a blade of grass floating on the current
Drifting clouds, thoughts of the traveler...
The setting sun, emotions of old friends ...
A final parting gesture of the hand
And the neighing of our steeds at the moment of departure

Why I Live in the Mountains

Why have I gone to live in the green mountains?
I laugh and do not reply, I am happy
The peaches are in bloom, the water flows endlessly
My soul dwells in regions unknown to men

Solitary Dreams in the Moonlight

Among the flowers, a glass in my hand
I wander alone in my solitude
I raise my glass in a toast to the moon
There are three of us, the moon, my shadow and me
Although the moon doesn’t drink
And my shadow just follows me
For the moment they both keep me company
Let us rejoice while the spring lasts
I sing and the moon dances in the sky
I dance and my shadow tries to follow me
Let us grow old together, let us rejoice
Later, drunkenness will separate us
Let us swear to an eternal friendship
That extends up to the clouds



TOU FOU (712-772)

Tou Fou

Stranger in the Night

The grass on the riverbank is swaying, the light wind is playing there
My boat glides in the night, all alone, with its great mast
The canopy of stars covers the infinite countryside
While the moon rocks to the rhythm of the river.

Will my name one day be celebrated among the poets?
At present, old and ill, I must think of my retirement
Balanced to and fro by the winds, am I not like
A little gull lost in the immense universe?

On Contemplating the Mount Tai

How can I describe the Mount Tai?
It dominates Qi and Lu, bathing in an ocean of greenery…
Nature has bestowed it with a sublime beauty
That the Yin and the Yang divide into shadow and sunlight
Clouds rise up its vast flanks
I watch the birds in the distance returning to their nests
I must climb up to the summit
To embrace at a glance all the other mountains, so small!

Spring Rain

The benevolent rain knows the rhythm of the seasons
It only arrives in the springtime
The wind brings it secretly in the night
Delicate, silent, it moistens everything

Paths, clouds, everything is black
On the river a boat’s lantern gleams, solitary
At dawn the humid earth is all red
The weavers’ district is inundated with flowers.

The Plain

I contemplate the limpid springtime in the distance
Layers of fog are rising on the horizon
The river merges into the pure sky far away
An isolated town is covered by a cloud of smoke
The wind is still tearing away some branches
Behind the hill the sun is going down
A solitary crane flies off late in the season
At dusk the forest is already full of crows.



WANG WEI (699-761)

Wang Wei

Poem

You have come, sir, from my home village
You know all that is going on there
Tell me, in front of my window
Are the plum trees already in bloom?

An Autumn Evening in a Hut in the Mountains

Rain has fallen again on the lonely mountain
The evening freshness already announces the coming of autumn
Moonlight filters down through the fir trees
A limpid spring flows over the stones
Shouts and laughter in the bamboos – the washerwomen are returning home
Water lilies are swaying after the passage of the fishing boats
What does it matter if the spring grass has faded
Because you are here with me, king of friends!

Response to the Sub-prefect Zhang

In the evening of my life, I like nothing but calmness
The echoes of the world no longer penetrate here to me
When I meditate, I have no clear plan
Nothing but the desire to return to my ancient forests
The wind blowing through the pines loosens my belt
The mountain moon shines on my lute
You question me about success and failure?
Listen – in the distance, on the estuary, a fisherman is singing!



BAI JUYI (772-846)

Bai Juyi

The Pines in my Courtyard

There are ten pines at the bottom of the slope
In front of the reception hall
Disorderly, poorly aligned
Some are tall, others small
The tallest are over thirty feet high
The smallest less than ten feet
They seem to have been sown by chance
No one can say when they were planted
They brush against the green roof-tiles
Plunge under the white sand of the terrace
Breezes and moonlight visit them morning and evening
Whether it is sunny or rainy, they are neither dusty nor muddy
In autumn, their murmur is soft and soothing
In summer, their shade is fresh and even cool
In the middle of spring, the light evening rain
covers their needles with a coat of pearls
At the end of the year, in times of heavy snowfall
Their branches are loaded with white jade
In all seasons they conserve their charm
Among the trees, none are nobler
Last year, when I acquired this house
A lot of people made fun of me
Why, when one has twenty mouths to feed,
Move into a new home for the sake of a few pines?
What have I gained by their presence?
They have just opened the door to new worries
However, these friends have brought me something:
They fulfil my need to frequent the wise
When I think that I am just an ordinary civil servant
Roaming in the dust with my official bonnet and belt
I find myself unworthy to be the master of these pines
And, sometimes, I feel full of shame.

Invitation to Liu 19th

I have some new wine, green and frothy
On a little red-clay heater
The sky announces snow at the approach of evening
Would you like to have a drink with me?

On Reading the Poems of Yuan Kieou on a Boat

I have taken up a reel of his poems and am reading them in the lamplight
I have read them all, the lamp has gone out, it isn’t dawn yet
My eyes burning, I remain sitting in the dark near the extinguished lamp
Listening to the waves breaking against the sides of the boat.

The Guitar

That evening I went to say good-bye to my friends
On the banks of the river at Siun-yang
The maple leaves and the bullrush flowers
Were murmuring in the autumn wind

When I dismounted from my horse
My friends were already on the boat
We drank a few cups of wine together
Without any music to soften our separation

The wine didn’t make us joyous
We were about to separate with sadness
One could vaguely distinguish the reflection of the moon
Rocking gently on the surface of the river

Suddenly we heard the sound of a guitar
I no longer thought of leaving, my friends lost track of the time
We searched in the dark, calling the musician
The music stopped, but she remained silent

We went towards her in our boat
We invited her to show herself
We relit the lamp, poured some more wine
And began to celebrate again

A hundred times we pleaded with her
Before she decided to appear
And even then, behind her guitar
She partly hid her face

She tuned the instrument, adjusted the keys
Played two or three arpeggios
She still hadn’t played any melodies
And we were already under the charm

Every chord, every note
Translated a profound thought
She seemed to be able to express
All her feelings and anguishes

Letting her agile fingers run free
Her eyes lowered, she played and played
She gave free rein to her emotions
That sprang from the bottom of her heart

Light arpeggios, slow notes
A vibrant sound, an abrupt stop
She played “The Rainbow Dress”
And then a well-known melody

tsao, tsao... the low chords
Evoked the heavy rainfall of a storm
tsie, tsie... the upper chords
Made a light whispering

Bass notes and treble notes
Alternated and mixed together
Like large and small pearls
Falling on a plate of jade

At times the music became penetrating
Like an oriole skimming among flowers
At times it stood out like drops of water
Flowing from a spring onto the strand

Under this cold, hard wave
The chords seemed to be snapping
Frozen, the sound seemed paralysed
And little by little it died down

A new mood was sketched
Secretive, full of melancholy
Then the silence became
More eloquent than the music

Like water spurting and spreading out
When a silver vase is broken
Like the appearance of iron-clad steeds,
The clinking of swords and lances

The melody ended — the musician
struck a chord in the heart of the guitar
The four strings rendered a single sound
Of delicate silk being torn asunder

On all sides, silence reigned
Not a sound was heard on the boats
Only the autumn moon could be seen
Shining, white, on the river

Sighing, she set the plectrum between the strings
Composed her face, smoothed her dress and stood up
“I was born” she said, “in the capital
My family lived at the foot of the South Hill

At thirteen, the guitar had no more secrets for me
I had studied with the finest musicians
When I played, my masters came to congratulate me
The greatest beauties envied me my dresses

The young men strived for the honour of offering me gifts
A single song brought me numerous red silks
I broke my silver combs beating the measure
I spilt wine on my blood-red skirt

Life was nothing but a continual celebration
Spring breezes and the autumn moon passed over my carefree head
Alas, my brother left for the army and my mother died
As the days passed, my freshness lost its bloom

Carriages and cavaliers became rarer
I was already aged when I married a merchant
Eager for gain, he often left me alone
He went away last year to buy tea in Feou-liang

Since then I keep to the boat, alone on the river
Drifting between the moonlight and the icy water
In the deep of night I dream of my youth
And my tears, mixed with powder, redden my eyelids

I had already sighed hearing her play
But when she had spoken like that, I replied:
“We are both wrecks on the shores of the sky
We have met by a chance encounter

Since I left the capital last year
I have lived in exile in Siun-yang
I fell ill in this ungracious land
All year long I have heard neither guitar nor flute

I settled here on this swampy riverside
Yellow reeds and bitter bamboos surround my home
The song of the mountaineers, the village pipes
Have no meaning for me

Tonight I have heard the song of your guitar
This music of the Immortals enchanted my ears
Please be seated again and play another air,
And I’ll compose a song for you.”

Moved by these words, she long remained immobile
Then sat down, lightly brushed the cords and began,
In the minor mode, even more poignant music;
All those present covered their faces and wept.

And who among them versed the most tears?
The sub-prefect of Kiang-tcheou, whose green gown was all wet!

Footnotes

[1Li Bai was formerly written in English as Li Po, before the recent standardisation of the transcription of Chinese names.

[2Tou Fou was formerly written in English as Du Fu, before the recent standardisation of the transcription of Chinese names.

[3Bai Juyi was formerly written in English as Po Kiu-yi, before the recent standardisation of the transcription of Chinese names.

[4the French-language translations of these classical Chinese texts can be seen elsewhere on this site.