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Monday, September 18, 2017

In the Moment and Beyond

This morning I faced up to one of the challenges that I have been avoiding for a long while – I finally translated Qing Ping Melody, which is one of Li Bai’s most famous poems.  There are a number of legends surrounding this poem. It was written in tribute to Yang Guifei who was the chief consort of the Emperor Xuanzong and regarded as the paragon of beauty during the Tang Dynasty, much as Helen was among the ancient Greeks.  Supposedly Li Bai wrote the poem on the spur of the moment, upon being roused from a drunken slumber by the Emperor's messenger, who came to request a new poem about his favorite mistress.  Composed in the moment, the poem thus epitomizes an important part of the Tang aesthetic, being a prime example of what I like to describe as spontaneous verse.

Long as I have planned to translate this poem, when I finally got around to tackling it this morning, I tried to work quickly, hoping the translation would stay as true as possible to the spirit (if not the letter) of Li Bai’s original undertaking.  Here’s what I came up with:

 Qing Ping Melody (by Li Bai)


Clouds recall her clothing
The flowers recall her grace
Spring breeze upon the threshold
Brings a fragrance beyond fresh

If not for the crowd on Jade Mountain
Perhaps you would see her standing
Atop of the jasper platform
In the moonlight bathing


A branch laden with gaudy blossoms
Where the nectar’s aroma collects
Clouds and rain shroud Wu Mountain
As the heart strains to the breaking

Go and ask at Han Palace
Is there anyone who compares
Pity the poor swallow flying off
To make herself afresh


A flower of renown
A kingdom overthrown
Both take equal delight as
The sovereign lord gazes
With a smile of longing

How to explain
The spring wind
So unbounded with yearning
At Sandalwood Pavilion facing north
Leaning on the railing

*  *  *


云想衣裳花相容       春风拂槛露华浓
若非群玉山头见       会向瑶台月下逢

一枝秾艳露凝香       云雨巫山枉断肠
借问汉宫谁得似       可怜飞燕倚新妆

名花倾国两相欢       长得君王带笑看
解释春风无限恨       沉香亭北倚阑干

 *  *  *

 One of the reasons I love this poem is the way it illustrates the subtlety and complexity that a poet can achieve from simply being in the moment; the present, as such, ends up being far from a simple thing.  In that sense, it's hard to imagine any greater contrast between the mode and subject of Li Bai's poetic composition – in the rush of being rudely awakened, he nonetheless shows the presence of mind to fully grasp the truth of beauty that is unattainable.  Thus, he seems almost effortlessly able to capture one of the great paradoxes that lies at the heart of the Tang aesthetic, being very much in the moment and yet transported far beyond it at the same time.

A Tang painting of Yang Guifei surrounded by her attendants

Please click here to subscribe to the Tang Spirit Newsletter if you would like to read more of my translations of Chinese poetry.  This fall I'll be starting a new series of essays that explore the central themes that animate Tang poetry, and make it such a vital alternative to our own sometimes woefully inadequate modernist aesthetic.   

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