A Master of Classical Allusions

Talking about literary allusions reminds me of a Chinese poet who is a master of this technique. He has made such an art of indirect reference through classical allusions that he became the model of a school of Chinese poetry called West K’un Style (西昆體). He is none other than the Chinese poet of love par excellence: Li Shang Yin (李商隱). One of his most famous poems is called 錦瑟 which I will now translate:
            錦瑟                                                                                                    Brocaded Harp 
     錦瑟無端五十弘                                                                        The brocaded harp suddenly springs fifty strings                        
     一弘一柱思華年                                                                        Each string each bridge reflecting a glorious year  
     莊生曉夢迷蝴蝶                                                                        Master Chuang mesmerised by the butterfy in his dream at dawn.
     望帝春心托杜鵑                                                                        King Wang’ s heart  commneded to spring azaleas 
     滄海月明珠有淚                                                                        The bright moon over the green sea adding tears of pearl 
     藍田日暖玉生烟                                                                        The Blue Field’s jade turning to smoke by the sun’s warmth
     此情可待成追憶                                                                        Such sentiment may be treated as fleeting memory
    只是當時己惘然                                                                         Only that even then t’was already hazy.
The ancient Chinese standing harp normally had between 5 to 25 strings each supported by its own bridge. But here the poet said it suddenly and without any apparent reasons got 50 strings, as if in a dream! He wrote the poem when he was 50. By comparing each string to a year of his life, he might be implying that his life was a muscial instrument, still waiting to be appreciated by those who had the ears to hear him. At the same time, he seems to be suggesting that it was not true or could not believe that he had really become so old in such a short time. Perhaps, he was prompted to write this poem when he heard the sound of the harp which suggested to him various feelings about the blows of fate life dealt him: first the death of his mother, then the death of his wife and then the death of his godfather and the  general lack of recognition of his talents by high offcials.
The poet then made a reference to the famous story of Chuang Tzu’s ( 莊子) waking up from a dream not sure whether he was dreaming about a butterfly or whether he was then a butterfly which was dreaming about seeing the human world. Next he alluded to the legend of King Wang (望帝) an ancient king of what is now Szechuan, who lost his kingdom and was said to have been tranformed into a blood red azaleas which blooms each spring as if he were vomitting the blood of sorrow. Impliedly, he was comparing his position to that of the ancient king. In the next line he made reference to a third Chinese legend of a pearl being lost in the sea, implying that he has been a talent which was lost or passed over in the sea of officialdom. Finally he impliedly that he was a piece of precious jade but in the heat of the sun, it was vaporised into streaks of smoke.  Perhaps he was implying that in the heat of the notroious political struggle in late Tang dynasty between the two cliques headed on one side by Niu Tsang Yu (牛僧孺) and on the other side by Li Tak Yu (李德裕 ) , known as the "Niu Li Political Feuds" in the gaps of which he was caught. He had become a shadow, a ghost, a spirit, unreal, like smoke. He was caught because when he was young he was on very good terms with one Ling Wu Tu (令狐綯), the son of Ling Wu Chor (令孤楚,) an important member of the Niu clique but unfortuately, he fell in love with the daughter of a one Hwuang Yuan Mou 王茂元, the latter being a member of the Li clique. He married his daughter. Later Li Tak Yu became the prime minister of Emperor Tang Wu Chung 唐武宗 for 5 years and he got an official appointment but only as a minor government official because Li was suspicious of his earlier connection with his arch opponent who belonged to the Niu clique. Later the Niu clique obtained political dominance as Niu became the prime minister of the next Emperor, Tang Suen Chung 唐宣宗 and he was not promoted. He was caught between his connections with the family of his childhood buddy (to whom he wrote numerous letters of entreaties which were ignored) and that of his father-in- law and was distrusted by both! He never rose to the kind of official position he was hoping for because of his connections. So he devoted himself to writing poetry. It’s such an irony of history that we got such a fine poet as the unintended consequence of the political feuds plaguing the late Tang dyansty!
In this poem, his imagination drifted from the string of a harp to his life, then from his life, he jumped to various analogies and comparisons. He compared himself next to one of the premier Chinese philosopher of freedom, Chuang Tzu, one of the most lively minds of ancient China, who was not sure if life was not a continuous dream. The thought of life quickly jumped to its opposite, death. The dream image is then succeeded by the allusion to King Wang who turned into a blood red azaleas after death, who had previosuly lost the most important possession in his life, his kingdom. Then he compared himself successively to a "lost" pearl and then a piece of jade which got vaporised in the heat of the sun, according to the legends of jade diggers in Blue Field Mountain in Shenxi which by that time was no longer producing jade, leaving only the legend of how when the sun came out, jade diggers could follow the lines of mist to locate where there might be that kind of precious stone. 
Alternatively, the poet could be thinking about his wife when he wrote the poem. If so, then the harp would become his wife and the poem could be treated as an ode to his wife. In this interpretation, he would be suggesting that he has been thinking about her, with a little bit of poetic exaggeration for 25 years, doubling the number of years since she was gone, he presumably marrying his wife at the time when he was 25 . Alternatively, in Chinese customs, a "broken string" may mean the death of one’s wife. The harp originally has 25 strings. When a string breaks into two, the total number of strings would double into 50!  If so, the pearl and jade should then be references too to his wife, he comparing his wife to precious stones.With regard to the pearl in the green sea, there was also another legend to the effect that in the green sea, there existed some half-fish half-human man  called 鮫人 or literally "eel-man" whose tears would turn into pearls when they cry. If so, then the fifth line should be read as the eel-men crying tears of pearl when they look at the moon, which they longed for but could not reach. The moon then would be a symbol of his beautiful wife. But just as the "pearls" might merely be the reflection of the full moon on the surface of the tiny waves of sea and just as "unreal", such reflections were as fleeting as the movements of the waves and would last as briefly. The reference to Chuang Tsu could then be interpreted as himself and the buttefly his wfe. If so, he would be thinking about her so much that he would imagine himself having been transformed in his dreams into her, a butterfly. Then the reference to King Wang could be compared to the enormity of his sorrows when he lost her, as the King lost his kingdom. At the time he wrote the poem, he was staying in Szechuan. So the image of King Wang turning into azaleas sprang into his mind. But whether he was talking about his wife or himself, from that point on, he deepened the unreality of the dream image even further by his final conclusion that his life appeared to him like a dream not only at that late point but that it had been a dream from the very beginning! Nothing seemed real any more.  Everything appeared to be dreams, memories and illusions. 
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2 Responses to A Master of Classical Allusions

  1. sai says:

    Good attempt. Coincidentally, I am in the process of translating曹操\’s 短歌行, one of my favourite short poems . But as you know my English is only 1/5 as proficient as my Chinese so it\’s five times not as easy. But I will bear in mind your translation principles: keep it lean and succinct and without undue “creation”. I will post it in my blog later after my Japanese examination coming up on Dec 22.

  2. el says:

    It\’s nice to know that you\’ll be doing so. Good stuffs should be shared and not left to rot or gather mould. To me, some Chinese poetry are really tops in terms of brevity and emotive power.

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