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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Tang Poem - 山居秋暝 Mountain Living In An Autumn Night by Wang Wei

This was orignally written on 10 Sep 2010 but I had forgotten to post it until now...

This picture was extracted from BBC's tribute to Beijing's Summer Olympics

空山新雨後, Mountains afresh with passing rain,
天氣晚來秋. With crispness filling the air of an impending autumn night.
明月松間照, Moonlight shining brightly upon pine forests,
清泉石上流. Clear brook waters flowing across pebbles.

竹喧歸浣女, From bamboo groves came giggling of returning silk washing maidens1,
蓮動下漁舟. And lotus leaves2 swaying from returning fishing boats3,
隨意春芳歇, Even when flowers of spring yield their fragrance last,
王孫自可留 Certainly someone4 will always be here.


1. It is more likely that the women are washing newly made silk to remove the extra dyes etc. One can still see this happening in rivers of rural Japan where bolts of silk are anchored and let the river current do its job. The silk are then hung and let dried. This certainly would take the entire day! Imagine taking an entire day to wash one's family clothes.

2. As any botanist worth his salt knows that by this time (autumn) all lotus blooms would have been spent with only leaves remaining on the plant.

3. Can be deduced that the fishing boats are returning from their daily catch because twilight is approaching and washer maidens are going back to their homes.

4. Originally 王孫 meant noble or aristocratic scions. Later it meant “descendants of hermits who were former high officials tired of their political life”. Delving into Wang Wei's life we indeed find that he was born into that privilege class. Before the An Lu Shan rebellion, he held the post of the director of the Imperial Music Academy. Thus it is really a play on the semantics of the term. No matter how you slice it whether he meant aristocratic scions or his own descendants (since Wang Wei's surname means king, prince or nobility) it can be translated in either way.

However at the age of 30 his wife died childless and did not remarry. Hence there can be no descendant of his to enjoy the place. Most probably what he meant was that no matter how the world changes, there will be people sharing his compassion of having a life of quietude who will always find a place like this. Also in employing such ambiguity he prevented his enemies from clutching any pretext to implicate him in any excuse to get him into trouble. Indeed he was demoted and banished after the rebellion was crushed but in the end he was promoted to be the Right Premier of the Imperial Secretariat.

Who says translating classical Chinese poems is easy. One has to understand not only the allusions in the poem but also the life of the poet and the times he lived in.

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