Bai Juyi never visited Japan, nor did he ever meet any Japanese, however his works circulated in Japan during his lifetime. Indeed, records of Japanese elites’ encounters with Bai Juyi, even though only in their dreams, appeared in literary works. Takashina no Moriyoshi recorded that he had dreams in which he travelled to China and met Bai Juyi. He composed several Chinese poems to commemorate his dreams … Ōe no Asatsuna has a dream in which Bai Juyi appears in front of him. Overjoyed by the encounter, Asatsuna asks the Chinese poet if he came from heaven. Bai Juyi reveals he has come to tell Asatsuna something. At that very moment, Asatsuna awakes from his dream.
—Leo Shingchi Yip, China Reinterpreted: Staging the Other in Muromachi Noh Theater
Flower Yet Not
arrives midnight departs daybreak
like a spring dream how long can this
to be found
Dear Mr. Bai,
Honestly, I didn’t know about your poetry until my trip to Xi’an with my good friend H—. For years I had been taught and instructed that the masters of Tang poetry were names like Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei and Meng Haoran. Perhaps even more pertinently, my Chinese wasn’t and still isn’t all that good. I did decently enough at Higher Chinese, in a school where failing Chinese was often seen as a badge of honor. But certainly not good enough to fluently read and interpret Tang poetry, though I am pretty adept at ordering from the caifan stall. (I wonder how many dishes, if any, you would find familiar at a caifan stall.) Although I have made an attempt to translate and render some of what I’ve found are the most moving and resonant of your poems, I have really relied a lot on mediation through English. I wish I could say it’s regrettable, but it is mostly a relief. Without that supporting apparatus of previous translators and scholars, I doubt I would have developed an appreciation of your work.
I’ve digressed. During that holiday in Xi’an, we visited the Huaqing Springs, the famous site of the doomed romance between the Tang Emperor Xuanzong and his consort, the legendary beauty Yang Guifei. It was only then, while browsing the books at the bookstore, and picking up a book of your poetry, that I realized you had written a whole long poem of the saga, the Song of Everlasting Regret or Chang Hen Ge. What struck me as I read your poems, and in particular the Chang Hen Ge, was how easily I understood it. H—‘s Chinese was and still is better than mine, and she helped me out with the more difficult words.
We became obsessed with the poem, perhaps the most famous and widely read of your works. Back in our hotel room, I insisted on recording videos of H— reading the poems, and posting them on Instagram (Instagram’s going to be difficult to explain to you, along with the whole concept of the internet, but imagine being able to let your friends see what you’re doing right now, in an instant). The sheer drama of it leapt off the page: how the Emperor, captured by the beauty of Yang Guifei, neglected the affairs of state, leading to the An Lushan Rebellion. Eventually, Xuanzong is forced, by his own men, to put Yang Guifei to death (“The emperor covered his face, for he could not save her/as he looked back, he saw a stream of blood and tears intermingled”). But the Emperor remains haunted by the memory of his favorite consort, and eventually contacts her in the afterlife with the help of a Taoist priest.
H—and I read the lines out loud, late into the night, with their pleasing rhyme scheme, sharing a bottle of cheap Chinese beer. And that was when I first read your poetry.
In White Cloud Spring
clouds float free
why rush down the mountain
and bring more ferment
to the world below?
One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground and it was so cold that the lattices had all been closed, I and other ladies were sitting with her Majesty, chatting and poking the embers in the brazier.
‘Tell me, Shōnagon,’ said the Empress, ‘how is the snow on Hsiang-lu peak?’
I told the maid to raise one of the lattices, and then rolled up the blind all the way. Her Majesty smiled. I was not alone in recognizing the Chinese poem she had quoted; in fact all of the ladies knew the lines and had rewritten them in Japanese. Yet no one but me had managed to think of it instantly.
‘Yes indeed,’ people said when they heard the story. ‘She was born to serve an Empress like ours’.
—From the translation by Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon.
by cold pillow &
the window flashes
dark night but I know
the snow falls heavy
as the bamboo snaps
Night Walk in the Light Rain
Out of the mists rise
the night’s chill grows
All I feel are
my damp clothes
not the raindrops &
not a sound
Dear Mr. Bai,
What is it that draws so many of us to translation? To that space between the languages, and that seductive and impossible task of converting the hard, glittering gems of Tang poetry into the promiscuous, easy and endlessly evolving language that is English. Writers like myself, with Chinese ancestry, seem particularly drawn. I am friends with an elderly poet from Malaysia, Mr. Wong Phui Nam. Ours is an unlikely friendship but perhaps one you would have approved of. He is 85 this year, while I am 30. Over messages, we speak about the Tang poets and he tells me, as he is confined to his home because of the pandemic that rages across the world, that he is still trying to get to grips with Chinese still, like many of us English-speaking descendants of Chinese immigrants (he is fluent in Cantonese, though, and tells me many of the rhymes of Tang poetry are preserved in Cantonese). Yet despite his struggles, he has rendered some of the most striking renditions of Tang poetry I know, creating versions that transmute the essence of the poetry into something else, similar yet wonderfully different.
That famous poem of Du Fu’s “Spring View” begins in the original with something like “The country is broken; the hills and rivers are still here,/Spring in the city: the flowers and trees grow thick”. In Mr Wong’s rendering, instead of trying to preserve the brevity of the Chinese, he commits fully to exploiting the verbosity of English, to fill in what Du Fu left to the imagination:
At the death of great houses,
the waste of cities,
the land returns to desolation
of its rivers and its hills.
The high walls under a mild sun
lie fissured, opened in great wounds
to the ravening tide of spring.
I don’t really know what you would have said about this method of translation. Or indeed the way I have translated some of your poems. In modern English, words flow too easily into each other, and we are too quick to fit ourselves into that flow and ease, consuming each word and moving on to the next. The world we live in, with that internet I spoke of, encourages this. Language is cheap, grubby and easily processed, and we seem less and less concerned with language and more with images and graphics. This is why I have tried to put space between characters, to let the reader feel the gravity and significance of each word, and to let the significance sink in more fully.
grows the grass on the plain
each year wilting
to consume them
spring winds rouse them to life
their fragrance overwhelms
the old road
sunlit green gives way
to the grey city
goodbye again my friend
like this plain
my heart is full
After nine years, growing weary of living in the city, I moved my dwelling to the vicinity of the Fukagawa River. “Chang’an was, since ancient times, a place for fame and profit, a place difficult for those who are empty-handed and penniless to live.” I found the person who said this to be very wise, and I wondered if this was because I myself was poor. — Bashō
—From Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai
Dear Mr. Bai,
I mentioned Du Fu in my last letter: I know you admired Du Fu’s work. Like you, he was deeply concerned with social problems: the corruption of the court and officials, and the suffering of the people, the lao bai xing. A whole new style, called the xin yuefu, arose from your satirical and political writings, which you developed with your friend, Yuan Zhen. In your exile in Xunyang, in a letter you wrote to Yuan Zhen, you poured your heart out, and told him that despite your banishment you were content: after all, Du Fu was an official of low rank, and was destitute to the very end. Meng Haoran and Li Bai didn’t even manage to get official posts or keep them for long. What you wished for then was for your poetry to benefit the country and its people. You wanted to write popular poems so that the problems of the people would reach the ears of the emperor:
I don’t seek lofty euphony,
I don’t strive for strange diction.
I sing only of the problems of the people,
wanting the Emperor to learn of them.
During the Tang dynasty, it was believed the yuefu, the Music Bureau in Chinese bureaucracy, descended from institutions that collected popular songs so that the emperors could learn of social ills and the abuses of their officials. And it seems your poems were truly popular. The Tang magistrate Li Kan complained that your poems had spread among the common people and were written on screens and walls. Your “lewd words and indecent talk are like winter’s cold and summer’s heat. They enter into men’s flesh and bone and cannot be expelled”. I think you wouldn’t have thought this an insult at all.
As H— and I travelled back to Xi’an city from Huaqing Springs on the bus, we were reading your poems. We started conversing with the bus attendant, checking in with her on some of the more difficult words (she was probably wondering why this pair—who looked ostensibly Han Chinese—needed so much help with reading). After some time, she asked if she could borrow the book, just to read it on her own for a while. Astonished, we said yes. At the end of the trip, she handed it back to us and thanked us with a smile, her face notably brighter.
Moored at Night
Darkness on the riverbank
frosty air it is very very
Looking back at the moored boat
amid the reeds
a point of light
Forty & not yet utterly
these white hairs
by the water unworried
by the white strands
off their heads
Dear Mr. Bai,
Last night I think I dreamt of you, but you were Japanese. I had seen a Japanese woodblock print of you from the Edo period, where you are on a cliff, surrounded by attendants who are unfurling a piece of Chinese calligraphy; it appears to be a couplet, though I can’t make out the words. You are looking into the blue and oddly calm sea. Behind you is a ship. Yet further behind are some pillar-like rocks, reminiscent of karst formations. The proportions and spatial arrangements are certainly off.
Your popularity in Japan, and how you became an integral part of the culture, is an astonishing story of cultural exchange. The Tale of Genji, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, Matsuo Bashō’s poetry—they all make reference to you. Sei Shōnagon makes it clear that your poetry was necessary knowledge for ladies and courtiers in the Heian court; it was the basis of word games, associations, riffs and demonstrations of erudition. Not knowing your work would be tantamount to not knowing which knife to use for steak—a failure of basic etiquette. Japanese writers dreamt of you too. Others wished to be rid of your influence, and wanted to send you back to China. Though you had never been to Japan nor met any Japanese person in your life, you became a spectre hanging over Japanese literature. Meanwhile, some Chinese critics had decided that your poetry was too su: too common, too vulgar. As your star rose in Japan, it fell in China.
The Japanese connection reminds me of a Singaporean poet, the late Arthur Yap, who took inspiration from Japan in his poetry, especially in the collection man snake apple. Some of your poems and some of his have that remarkable and restrained stillness I find difficult to achieve in my own poetry, and perhaps actively avoid:
two arms run a path in the garden,
draw up sparrows, dun squirrels, still as stone
near columns of grass, green as spring tea.
the rain the shower, the sun a hot towel.
the tiled pate on top knows, holds all
to an entire point.
Arthur was notoriously private. An account describes him turning up for a reading, reading a poem and declining to join other writers for drinks. Yet the same account says Arthur had an “alertness… a curious eye for observation”. Some of this reticence has been put down to his homosexuality, a thing many kept private—and many more wanted it kept private—in Singapore in the 70s and 80s (I have no idea what you would have thought about homosexuality). Arthur is certainly someone I wish I’d met. You too, of course, and I am glad I have.
In the dream, you tell me: I have said enough.
In the play, an envoy of the Chinese court named Hakurakuten (Bai Juyi) travels to Japan to assess the wisdom of the people. He encounters an old fisherman; the fisherman knows Hakurakuten’s identity, is able to comprehend a couplet of Chinese poetry Hakurakuten recites, and uses the couplet to create a verse of waka poetry. The fisherman, at the end of the first act, reveals himself to be the Sumiyoshi deity, the patron deity of waka poetry. In the interlude, a lesser deity from a branch shrine recaps the events of the first act and presents waka poetry as consolation to Hakurakuten. The second act opens with the Sumiyoshi deity in his true form coming out to dance for Hakurakuten; he summons other deities to play music for him and as he dances, he summons a wind that blows Hakurakuten back to China, bringing the play to an end.
—Adapted from LeRon James Harrison, “Staging Poetic Balance: A New Introduction to and Translation of the Noh Play Hakurakuten”
(misattributed to Bashō)
an early cricket chirps & stops
a dying lamp goes out
by the window I sense the night
the banana leaves caught wind of it
But when I think about it all, I realize that I am just a man from east of the pass. Other than being the bookworm that I am, I am totally ignorant of anything else. When it comes to calligraphy, painting, chess, and other board games that everyone loves to play, why, I don’t know the first thing about it! You can tell how stupid and clumsy I really am! When I first sat for my Jinshi examinations, I did not have even one distant relative working in the court; I did not even know anyone that had ever become a court official. As for striving for my scholarly honor, I was not good at running about currying favor with influential people, so I went out for my battle at the testing grounds bare-handed. Yet in the space of ten years, I passed all three examinations, my reputation spread down to the ears of the masses, and my footprints had begun to get noticed by officials in high and honorable positions. Outside of the Imperial Court I was in correspondence with other worthy and noble gentlemen. Within the Court I was in service to the Emperor. It was in the beginning that I made a name for myself through writing; and it was in the end that I was incriminated by my works, as well I should be. – Bai Juyi’s letter to Yuan Zhen
—From Jordan Alexander Gwyther, Bai Juyi and the New Yuefu Movement
Dear Mr. Bai,
It would be easy for someone reading these letters to read it as a tale of rediscovering roots, of retrieving supposedly ancient wisdom, or even as making claims of Chinese chauvinism. Yet Tang China was never a monoculture, just as China now is most definitely not. In your time, the Chinese capital was Chang’an (now Xi’an), where you lived and worked. Chang’an was a bustling city of traders and the eastern starting point of the Silk Road, an entry point into China for foreign food, ideas, religions and all manner of influences. This is evident if you enter the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an today. The heavy presence of lamb, cumin, fennel and other spices in the food is living history, the result of influences from Central Asia and the Middle East. I went mad for roujiaomo, meat sandwiched between a certain type of bread (known as mo)—in some places it’s pork, but of course in the Muslim Quarter it’s beef or lamb, laced heavily and gorgeously with fragrant cumin. H— absolutely loved this desert, liang gao, made with rice cakes, honey, sesame seeds and rose sauce. Again, the rose sauce seems to me to hint at a Middle Eastern origin. We visited the Great Mosque of Xi’an, finally finding it after going down many winding roads, and marveled at the buildings, which blended Chinese architecture with beautiful Islamic calligraphy. One of the worshippers came up to us, curious about where we’d come from. He was formidably knowledgeable about Singapore and the region—no surprise since for him Southeast Asia was a region populated with his brethren. Midway through our conversation, the call to prayer, the azan, sounded, and the worshippers began to stream into the main hall. The man left us, bidding goodbye, reiterating his previous expressions of admiration for Singapore.
In one of your poems, you write about hubing (a type of sesame seed bun) being sold in Zhongzhou, where you were governor, and how you’re reminded of Chang’an, where these snacks were widely sold. You proceed to then send some to your friend, asking him if they were as good as the ones in Chang’an. Hubing (known in China today as shaobing) came from Central Asia, believed to have been brought back by the Eastern Han general Ban Chao from his campaigns against the Xiongnu in Tarim Basin, in the southern part of modern-day Xinjiang. After all, hu is the Chinese word for foreigner or barbarian. I read a paper that claimed your family had Central Asian roots, originating from Kucha, which is also in Xinjiang. Kucha was actually an ancient Buddhist kingdom, and you were a fervent Buddhist. You would have known that Buddhism, though it was at its zenith under the Emperor Daizong, never lost the taint of being a foreign religion. In the last years of your life, the Emperor Wuzong began a campaign to purge China of supposedly foreign influences, destroying thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines and defrocking monks. This happened in 845. You died in 846, in a monastery in Longmen, famous for its Buddhist statues carved out of rock. Did you die of a broken heart, as your brethren were ruthlessly suppressed? H— and I visited Longmen, two hours away, using China’s incredible high-speed rail network. Dwarfed by a giant and awe-inducing statue of the Buddha, we were thankful that Wuzong didn’t completely have his way.
Feeling Sorry about the Peonies
about the red peonies
before the steps
by evening : just two dying branches
morning’s winds will surely
holding a light