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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Where Clouds Are Born

It all started when I was doodling at my brush writing when I nonchalantly wrote,

雲間生處仙境洞 Where clouds are born, there is a fairy grotto,

千年一瞬烟水夢 A thousand years is like a misty dream of a moment

I was stuck and knew further progress was not possible. Later at 3am, I was awakened by a dryness in my mouth. After quenching my thirst, I came back to bed but was unable to sleep. My mind's activity was escalating exponentially. In the end, with one character changed, I morphed the first line into,

白雲生處仙境洞 Where white clouds are born, there is a fairy grotto

and use the second line as the concluding one. Completing the second and third lines would now be the task at hand. But before I can do so, "Where white clouds are born", looks like a familiar friend. It did not take me long to realize that it is the second line from Tu Fu's 山行, Mountain Wanderings.

遠上寒山石徑斜 The long stony path is steep and cold is the mountain,
白雲生處有人家 Where there is smoke of white, houses will there be.
停車坐愛楓林晚 My carriage stopped -- by the beauty of the evening maple forest,
霜葉紅於二月花 Even the frosted leaves looked redder than those of apricot blooms.

Let me digress for a moment for some footnotes...

1. Because of the rhyming rules, the Mandarin pronunciation of 斜 (xié) is pronounced as xiá to match that of 家 and 花.

2. In some versions, 生 in the second line is replaced by 深 (deep). However, in my opinion, this makes no sense. The mountain is steep. It would be extremely inconvenient to have a horse carriage drawn up there. At the same time, once in the mountain, how could the splendor of the maple forest be viewed most effectively? I am sure that the poet was not in the mountain but at a distance away. He was describing the scenery from this vantage point. He saw white plumes of smoke rising and hence deduced that there are human dwellings. Poetic licence is taken here. In some interpretations, the poet was said to be visiting his friends. It would be very callous of him; being a high official to break his engagement. There is no cell phone back then!

3. At the first glance, the third can be translated as "stopping the carriage and sit down to 'love' (enjoy) the maple forest in the evening. Has anyone ever see anyone standing in a carriage even for a short drive! If one consults a dictionary, there are many meanings to 坐. As a preposition, it means 'because'.

4. To translate 二月花 as 'February blooms' is misleading since the Gregorian calendar is not used until Imperial Rule has ended. "Blooms of the second month" is acceptable but I find it more poetic to use the flower representation of month instead. Apricot flowers are often orange in color but tinged in pink. So it makes sense that even frosted red maples leaves would look redder.

Now back to my poem...

Since my first line is borrowed from the classics, I might as well do the same for the second line, or at least in some variation. What would be poetic enough to match "white clouds" and fits into the scheme of things? All I could think of, is the first line of Li Shan-yin's Sui Palace, 紫泉宮殿烟鎖霞. Mists enshrouding the Palace of the Purple Spring and obscuring the evening clouds,. Later did I found out from further research that the 'purple spring' is a place where immortals quench their thirst.

I was tossing left and right in bed, racking my brains to come up with something for the third line to tie everything together. Finally, I had the answer. Two nights ago, I watched a Japanese classic, Kwaidan (怪談) on a Blu-ray. It was not the content of the movie that inspired me but by the ethnicity of the movie. It popped the tale of Urashima Taro into my mind...

A young fisherman saved a turtle and out of gratitude, it took the fisherman to the Dragon Palace under the sea where he was entertained and eventually married to the Princess. After sometime, he grew homesick and wanted to return home. The princess entreated him to stay, but of no avail. Finally she gave him a box, telling him never to open if he ever wanted to return. Upon his arrival, he found everything in his hometown had changed. The people he knew were all gone. Everyone he saw or talked to was a stranger. In the end, he learnt the truth that three hundred years had gone by, or in some versions, 33 generations had passed. As there is nothing there for him be nostalgic of, he decided to return to the ocean. He called out to the turtle and as he waited, he thought of the forbidden box. Temptation proved too great for him and upon opening it, a purple butterfly flew out. He was immediately turned into an old man and died.

Using a Japanese story is not well suited in a Chinese setting. No fear! I know of a similar Chinese Rip Van Winkle version...

There was a young woodcutter who one day ventured deeply into the woods than he had ever been. There he espied two men playing chess. Being an avid player himself, he put down his axe and bundle. He stood quietly as an observer to the game. After awhile, he noticed that whenever a black chess piece was placed on the chessboard, plants would grow; and flowers would bloom. A white piece placed -- plants would wither and die. The game was long and the moves were unexpected. He learnt much from the game. At last when the game drew to a close, he thanked the gentlemen for letting him observe the game. They in turn thanked him for not disturbing their game. As he was about to leave, the woodcutter noticed that his axe had rusted; the handle rotted away and his bundle nowhere to be seen. Everything was unfamiliar to him when he reached his village. On further inquiry, he found that a hundred years had passed. He had been watching a game of life played out by the God of the Hours and the God of Longevity. Unlike the macabre Japanese version, nothing was said about the physical state of the woodcutter. Perhaps a cautionary tale to warn that time is precious and never be squandered away.

This story perfectly fits into my poem's theme but I have added a twist. The concluding line was also changed because "a thousand years" is too much an exaggeration. To spare my readers from the boredom of my polishing the poem, here's the result.

白雲生處野仙踪 Where white clouds are born, will there be traces of wild faeries,
清泉紫霧烟鎖紅 Pure are the spring waters where purple fog rises; tingeing in misty red.
若見二者棋即離 And when upon two at chess espied, depart with all haste,
莫待百年瞬一空 Wait not for a hundred years vanish in a blink of an eye.

The second line can be interpreted in two ways,

1.  The waters of the magical spring are purple colored and so the emanating fog looks purple but as it rises higher, it becomes mist and so it looks more reddish. 

2.  The purple fog is masking the implied surrounding red flowers.

I like the first interpretation better.


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

尋道 - Seeking The Path*

The title can also be translated as Seeking Tao  (Immortality).

飛霜雨後雪衣新 New are the white robes after a snowfall,
隱隱古道隔外塵 An ancient path hardly revealing itself to the outside world.
曾經鶴鳴不知處 Once I know not where the cranes are calling from,
唯獨青松酒伴人 Nevertheless the green pines are my drinking attendants.

Friday, December 1, 2017

飛霜雨 Rain of Fluttering Frost

As of 01 Dec 2017, I had written fifty-one Chinese poems but mostly not of worth or interesting enough to put online.  Also in part due to my laziness and my addiction in playing Throne Rush which I had recently weaned myself from.

This poem was the result of now having more time for myself as I practised my Chinese brush writing.

風過方知秋夜涼  The wind passes that I realized the cold of the autumn night,
樓空人情更無常  Empty are the towers, such is the impermanence of relationships.
忽視飛霜雨幾片 Suddenly I espied a few frosty flakes fluttering down,
醉醺紅塵夢一塲 Inebriating and perfuming this world of mortals to let me dream awhile.

The last two sentences are interesting as the meaning changes depending on how they are parsed.  The translation above was done by parsing the characters in groups of two-two-three where and are verbs and treating the third line not as a question.  As a question, the translation would be, Suddenly I espied frosty flakes, how many are fluttering down?

If the lines are parsed as groups of two-three-two, then and act as nouns of the adjective phrase.  So we have 飛霜雨 flying frost rain and 紅塵夢 red dust dream. With this, the third line grammatically can no longer be a question.

Suddenly I espied a few flakes from a rain of fluttering frost,
Inebriating a dream of the mortal world

Friday, December 01, 2017

Monday, December 19, 2016

Updating an Old Friend

I look into the river.  I see my reflection standing still in this fast moving world of flowing waters.  There are fishes swimming against the current.  They move and yet they remain where they are.  I wonder if I am a fish in this rat race of the human world. Go with the flow and you will go far.  To the river's end and then what? I am tired, worn out byt he abrasion of time.  I need but to seek shelter in the quiet pools with no eddy surging round and round.

This was written on a summer's day of 2013.  As a translation exercise in semi-classical Chinese,

河中水, 速流而我映仍然留停不動.水界魚族逆流, 只見移動不見進. 疑問在此快度人世間中是我一條魚? 隨水而去當然有成就. 但到了河盡又如何? 疲倦的我, 精力經已被時間靡費.要尋找一個靜池安棲, 沒有旋渦團團轉.

The other day, as I was digitizing all the physical copies of my handwriting that I came across it again.  This time, I rewrote it solely from a Chinese viewpoint.

Each line is restricted to four characters. Some minor differences with the original ensure due to different cultural argument forms. Hopefully, my Chinese had improved. Also the style used as new material for my brush writing practice.

流水速速,  Waters flowing fast,
去而不復. Going, going but return not.
影動不去, The reflection moves but going nowhere,
鼎立如浮. Solidly it stood, flimsily it looked.
魚族逆水, Fish swimming upstream,
有移無進. Movements but progress made not.
心中自疑, Self-doubt in my heart,
我魚實也. A fish that I must be.
人界逆流, Swimming against the current in the world of men,
禍從己賜. Catastrophes are self-given.
順水者往, Those going with the flow,
前程錦繡. The road ahead, a success.
河終頭盡, At the river's end,
安焉何用? Of what use is there then?
精力疲倦, Tired are my physical and mental prowess,
時光所廢. Crippled by the passage of time.
覓尋安棲, Safe haven I seek,
靜池無渦. A quiet pond of no eddy.
團轉莫須, Swirls not required!
瑤池乎耶? Hark! 'tis the Jade pool of Paradise is it not?
風過漪缺, Ripple not as the wind passed by,
清風明月. A life of serenity led.
世外不必, Real paradise need not,
紅塵非惹! Just that the vulgar world be no longer courted!

Friday, July 22, 2016

A Poem For A Friend's Painting

On, 25 Jun 2016, an italki friend, Julius Ku sent me a marvellous Chinese painting that he did and asked me to pen a classical poem for him to complete his work. Below is the version that appeals to me most.

After studying the painting for awhile, I came up with a draft of to describe the painting. I liked the way how to boats are depicted simply.

山雲接海迎小舟 The cloudy mountains receive the ocean and welcoming the little boats.
松峭参天拜          Pine cliffs bowing to heaven.

With this idea, I can take my time to work out the mechanics in composing a classical Chinese poem. The idea was to compare human life with the seemingly eternal mountains and heavens. After much doodling, I came up with the following,

松冠峭壁参蒼天       Pine trees crowning the cliffs paying respect to heaven
人生蜉朝一日過       Life is like a mayfly day
自然依舊待/侍千秋 As nature remains waiting/serving for a thousand autumns.

I was stuck and had to fallow my mind. The next day, as I explored different words and rhyming schemes, a different version materialized,

千山白雲小舟臨/逢          White clouds of a thousand mountains, the little boats arrive/meet
松冠峭壁/敬蒼天/蒼天敬 Sheer cliffs crowned in pines pay respect to the vastness of heaven
桃源何處曾一見               Where had I once seen the source of peach (paradise)
迷離境界在水邊/              The blurry realm (of the paradise) is at the water's edge/
無意不識入仙境               Unintentionally and unknowingly, I stumbled into the fairyland.

Although the result is solidifying, I still think the poem is too contrite; words not too elegant and the flow of sounds not too smooth. 


1. Pine trees are longevity symbols but still has an end. The sky doesn't.

2. The peach source is an allusion to a story when a fisherman inadvertently stumbled into paradise filled with blossoming peach trees. He spent a day there before returning home. However, he could not find his way back the next day. This is a frequent theme in Classical Chinese poems.

I always have said -- "give oneself a good night's rest and things will look better the next day". Sure enough, after my daily jog, I came up with this:

千山白雲碧/滄/海迎 White clouds from the thousand mountains welcome the blue/cold ocean
松冠峭壁青天敬        Sheer cliffs crowned in pine trees paying respect to the green sky
桃源此處曾一見        The peach source is here where I saw once
心空愰惚入仙境        My heart is empty and suddenly the fairyland I entered.

Being very satisfied with this version, I stopped the fine tuning. However, five days later, I used this poem to practise my brush writing. As I wrote, fresh ideas and words came into mind. This is the final version as one can go on eternally fine tuning things...

千山白雲滄海迎, White clouds from a thousand peaks welcoming the vast ocean,
松冠峭壁参天敬. Sheer cliffs crowned in pines paying respect to heaven.
桃源此處曾一會, This is the place where Paradise I once had been,
必是心愰入仙境. Must be in my absent-mindedness that I stumbled into the immortal's realm.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Classical Chinese Painting Demonstration By A Friend

Today -- a typical Sunday afternoon of Southern California; cloudy but bright though, with occasional beams of sunlight shafting through the clouds. West Hollywood --  Raucous laughter and rounds of merriment overfloweth out onto the streets as we drove by Hamburger Mary's.  Nothing unusual.

We missed our destination.  At Crescent Heights, we made a left turn.  Our first time to Vinadore Studio & Cafe.  We have not been regular WeHo visitors since the night we met up twenty years ago.  Much has changed.  It was a great respite to see this place of tranquility and quietude greeting us as we drove into the parking lot...  Reminding me how the Abbey was once upon a time: a cozy place where meaningful conversations could be carried out over a cup of coffee or a sandwich as lustful eyes gazed into the limpid pools of one's potential trick, mate or whatever...

We came to WeHo from the Long Beach Area to show support for a friend.  He was to demonstrate how traditional Chinese painting is executed.  We were early. We met our friend, the artist, and people we had never seen before.  Pleasantries exchanged and introductions made.  The place was filled with artwork of western painting decorating the walls.  In the forefront were some mounted and framed Chinese artwork adding further elegance to the place.  Another reason, we knew Andre Ting from other social gatherings and also as an artist but not to the extent of his talents.  Today, we are much educated.

The ambience nurtures an air of elegance as wafts of coffee permeate throughout the place. Along with the sight of treats ordered by others tempting our senses to no end.  We were getting hungry but more eager to see Andre demonstrating his talent.

As more had arrived,  it was time to begin.  Andre introduced some rudimentary information on Classical Chinese Painting after he had taken a few moments to clear his mind...  

Andre in comtemplation to clear his mind before demonstrating his talent

The simplicity of his stroke; seemingly a black mark on the paper soon grew fluidly into an elegant curve of an eagle's crest.  Simply amazing.  

Jokes were cracked; surrounding chatter competing with his explanations -- none could take away the steel-like concentration of Andre in maintaining his brushstrokes.

One astute observer remarked that one has to amortize the time spent in training...  True to a certain extent.  But without talent, no matter how much practice there is, a black mark still remains as such.

Without further ado, thanks to modern technology, mere words can do no better justice than these photos of the artist at work.

Someone asked why there is no outline of any sort.

One big difference between Chinese and Western art is that all pre-planning and penciling are done in the mind.  

Only when the artist is ready, will the swift strokes of the hand descend and begin its graceful dance on the paper.  

Practically speaking, the penciling will show up on the paper no matter how much erasing or hiding is done.

Almost done - in less than five minutes!

"Finished" - Almost...

For demonstration purposes, it is considered complete.  In the strictest sense of fulfilling the traditional requirements, it is yet to be.  First, the artist's signature in form of a real seal had to be placed.  Nowadays, signing in English is fine, but loses the Classical Chinese charm.  Finally, an accompanying poem and the date the piece is completed must be present. 

Painting is the child of calligraphy.  In the old days, painting was not taught until the mastery of calligraphy had been achieved.

To many Western art critics, it is considered graffiti in having the many seals of the painting's past owners stamped on it. To the Chinese, not only do they enhance the beauty but a testament to its importance. Many masterpieces were "extended" solely for this purpose.  There are times when the calligraphy is more important than the painting itself! "Study of a Mountain Engraving" (研山銘) is one such example.

Start of another style in eagle drawing.

Chinese paintings are highly symbolic and can be a rebus.  Thus the theme must suit the occassion as a gift, otherwise a heinous social faux pas is unwittingly committed.

For the uninitiated, it is a road laced with landmines.
For example, two butterflies fluttering delicately in the gentle breeze amongst peony tops makes a beautiful subject. However, as a gift to newlyweds; couple in a relationship, etc is highly inappropriate!  A pair of butterflies represent ill-fated lovers from a Chinese Romeo & Juliet story!

Even if are more than two butterflies, it is best to avoid from being misconstrued.

A crouching tiger showing its ferociousness is most appropriate for a military official, a school teaching Kung Fu, and in the modern day, an attorney, a tax accountant or a judge.

For a genteel profession, it is highly ominous as the pronunciation for tiger in Chinese also sounds like the word for hardship!

Demonstration complete but not the entire composition even by Western standards -- the eagle is too lonely.  A finishing touch of a pine tree branch was added to the bottom right to "weigh" down the subject.

However, to the traditionalists, this is not enough.  This will be seen as an eagle flying to nowhere, in other words, no ambition.

The pine tree represents longevity and endurance in the mortal world.  A red sun on the top left shining over distant mountain tops would be very traditional indeed.  The sounds for "red" and "eagle" are similar to that for "hero".  Thus the composition tells the viewer to "leave the vulgarity of the world behind and aspire to the lofty heights of heroism"

The rooster is Andres's final demonstration for the day.  Its proud stance gives a sense of self-assuredness in its strut.  The paper on which it was painted on is of great quality and had to obtained in China as one cannot find it in Los Angeles. If you look closely, the gold flecks in the paper brings out the liveliness of its tail.

This final painting inspired me so much that a classical styled poem was born into my mind. After much revision, I humbly include it here with a  rough translation.

梧桐高枝鳳凰貴,  Noble is the phoenix high on the boughs of the Wutong tree,
地上群立獨我尊.  Of all standing on this earth, I am the most revered.
紅冠一頂朝日召,  With a red cap, the morning sun I summon,
天下萬事就此傳.  Under heaven, all matters henceforth be decreed.

In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is considered to be the queen of birds, thus the empress' imperial insignia. It is said the phoenix will only alight on the boughs of the Firmiana simplex, commonly known as the Chinese parasol tree.

All in all, it was an afternoon very well spent.

14 Mar 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

Happy Chinese New Year - 2015!

Happy New Year Everyone!


Quickly goes the Horse! Slowly comes the trotting Ram. Another year arrives.
Winter departs, red blossoms obscure my eyes.
Envy not the distant white clouds and the mountains green,
With drunken eyes, I welcome the flowers in my slumber of spring.