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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,
清泉紫流烟鎖紅 The Purple Spring flows pure 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.


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