Po Chu i

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Contents  

Introduction  

The Dragon of the Black Pool 

The Grain Tribute 

The Dwarfs of Tao-Chou 

The Old Man with the Broken Arm 

Kept Waiting 

The Philosopher [Lao Tzu]

The Red Cockatoo

Drunk Again

A Lament for my Son Ts’ui

A Forsaken Garden

Golden Bells

Remembering Golden Bells

Planting a Lichi Tree 

The Almond Blossoms of Chao Village

On Being Stricken with Paralysis

Night on the West River

Sources

 

Introduction

 Po Chü-i (772-846 CE), a poet and a government official, was one of the great writers of the Chinese Tang dynasty. He was born at T’ai-yuan in Shansi, settling later at Ch’ang-an near the north-west frontier.  The held the post of palace librarian and several provincial governorships. He was banished a number of times for arguing against government policies. In 832 he retired to the Hsiang-shan monastery a few miles from Lo-yang, the eastern capital. As one of his poems explains, he suffered from paralysis at the end of his life, one leg becoming useless.

In much of his poetry, Po Chü-i appears easy-going. But he had a caustic view government’s effects on the lives of ordinary people and used satire and humor to draw attention to the rapacity of  minor officials, to social problems, and to questionable religious practices. In an early protest he wrote a long memorandum criticizing the prolonging of a war against an unimportant frontier tribe. In his lighter poems he mused on events in his daily life, his own experiences, and aspects of himself.

In the following extracts from Po Chü-i’s work, his puzzlement about the beneficence foxes receive is a comment on religious sacrifices in general, and one can guess that foxes may represent certain human individuals. His view on paying grain tribute reflects sadly on his work as a public official; but his history of the dwarfs of Tao-Chou suggests that the law can be on the side of humanity. I am told that this was a historical event in 789 CE and that the Chinese subtitle of the poem is "Beautiful Subjects Encounter Their Wise Emperor." The military satire that follows draws attention to the joy of being alive and the futile waste of human beings in war; while the next poem notes how precious time is when one is old. The short satires on philosophy and on the valuation of learning are examples of his humor.

In "Drunk Again", Po Chu’i reflects on how circumstances weaken our resolve, particularly with regard to wine. His sorrow at the death of his little son is evident in the poem that follows. In the poem after that he uses a figurative approach to lament the loss of a wife or friend. He is honest about the unworthy thoughts that enter his mind at the birth of a daughter, and about the grief he unsuccessfully tries to suppress after her death. In planting a tree he faces the realization that many people have—that the tree will outlive him; and he questions why he should be planting it, since he will never see its maturity. In his visit to view almond blossoms he feels death getting closer. At a later time, he puts a cheerful face on his experience of paralysis and urges his friends not to pity him. Sitting by the river at night, with the dark expanse of water lit by a single light, he thinks of loneliness.

 

        1  The Dragon of the Black Pool

 

Deep the waters of the Black Pool, colored like ink;

They say a Holy Dragon lives there, whom men have never seen.

Beside the Pool they have built a shrine; the authorities

have established a ritual;

A dragon by itself remains a dragon, but men can make it a god.

Prosperity and disaster, rain and drought, plagues and pestilences—

By the village people were all regarded as the Sacred Dragon’s doing.

They all made offerings of sucking-pig and poured libations of wine;

The morning prayers and evening gifts depended on a “medium’s” advice.

When the dragon comes, ah!

The wind stirs and sighs

Paper money thrown, ah!

Silk umbrellas waved.

When the dragon goes, ah!

The wind also—still.

Incense-fire dies, ah !

The cups and vessels are cold.

Meats lie stacked on the rocks of the Pool’s shore;

Wine flows on the grass in front of the shrine.

I do not know, of all those offerings, how much the Dragon eats;

But the mice of the woods and the foxes of the hills are continually drunk and sated.

Why are the foxes so lucky?

What have the sucking-pigs done,

That year by year they should be killed, merely to glut the foxes?

That the foxes are robbing the Sacred Dragon and eating His sucking-pig,

Beneath the nine-fold depths of His pool, does He know or not?

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

        2  The Grain Tribute

 

There came an officer knocking by night at my door

In a loud voice demanding grain-tribute.

My house-servants dared not wait till the morning,

But brought candles and set them on the barn-floor.

Passed through the sieve, clean-washed as pearls,

A whole cart-load, thirty bushels of grain.

But still they cry that it is not paid in full:

With whips and curses they goad my servants and boys.

Once, in error, I entered public life;

I am inwardly ashamed that my talents were not sufficient.

In succession I occupied four official posts;

For doing nothing—ten years’ salary!

Often have I heard that saying of ancient men

That “good and ill follow in an endless chain.”

And to-day it ought to set my heart at rest

To return to others the corn in my great barn.

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

 

        3  The Dwarfs of Tao-Chou

 

In the land of Tao-chou

Many of the people are dwarfs;

The tallest of them never grow to more than three feet.

They were sold in the market as dwarf slaves and yearly sent to Court;

Described as “an offering of natural products from the land of Tao-chou.”

A strange “offering of natural products “; I never heard of one yet

That parted men from those they loved, never to meet again!

Old men—weeping for their grandsons; mothers for their children!

One day—Yang Ch’ëng came to govern the land;

He refused to send up dwarf slaves in spite of incessant mandates.

He replied to the Emperor “Your servant finds in the Six Canonical Books

‘In offering products, one must offer what is there, and not what isn’t there’

On the waters and lands of Tao-chou, among all the things that live

I only find dwarfish people; no dwarfish slaves.”

The Emperor’s heart was deeply moved and he sealed and sent a scroll

“The yearly tribute of dwarfish slaves is henceforth annulled.’’

 

The people of Tao-chou,

Old ones and young ones, how great their joy!

Father with son and brother with brother henceforward kept together;

From that day for ever more they lived as free men.

The people of Tao-chou

Still enjoy this gift.

And even now when they speak of the Governor

Tears start to their eyes.

And lest their children and their children’s children should forget the Governor’s name,

When boys are born the syllable “Yang” is often used in their forename.  

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

        4  The Old Man with the Broken Arm

 

At Hsin-fëng—an old man—four-score and eight;

The hair on his head and the hair of his eyebrows—white as the new snow.

Leaning on the shoulders of his great-grandchildren, he walks in front of the Inn;

With his left arm he leans on their shoulders; his right arm is broken.

I asked the old man how many years had passed since he broke his arm;

I also asked the cause of the injury, how and why it happened.

The old man said he was born and reared in the District of Hsin-fëng;

At the time of his birth—a wise reign; no wars or discords. 

“Often I listened in the Pear-Tree Garden to the sound of flute and song;

Naught I knew of banner and lance; nothing of arrow or bow.

Then came the wars of T’ien-pao  and the great levy of men;

Of three men in each house—one man was taken.

And those to whom the lot fell, where were they taken to?

Five months’ journey, a thousand miles—away to Yiin-nan.

We heard it said that in Yiin-nan there flows the Lu River;

As the flowers fall from the pepper-trees, poisonous vapors rise.

When the great army waded across, the water seethed like a cauldron;

When barely ten had entered the water, two or three were dead.

To the north of my village, to the south of my village the sound of weeping and wailing,

Children parting from fathers and mothers; husbands parting from wives.

Everyone says that in expeditions against the Min tribes

Of a million men who are sent out, not one returns.

 

I, that am old, was then twenty-four;

My name and fore-name were written down in the rolls of the Board of War.

In the depth of the night not daring to let any one know

I secretly took a huge stone and dashed it against my arm.

For drawing the bow and waving the banner now wholly unfit;

I knew henceforward I should not be sent to fight in Yün-nan.

Bones broken and sinews wounded could not fail to hurt;

I was ready enough to bear pain, if only I got back home.

My arm—broken ever since; it was sixty years ago.

One limb, although destroyed—whole body safe!

But even now on winter nights when the wind and rain blow

From evening on till day’s dawn I cannot sleep for pain.

Not sleeping for pain

Is a small thing to bear,

Compared with the joy of being alive when all the rest are dead.

For otherwise, years ago, at the ford of Lu River

My body would have died and my soul hovered by the bones that no one gathered.

A ghost, I’d have wandered in Yiin-nan, always looking for home.

Over the graves of ten thousand soldiers, mournfully hovering.’’

So the old man spoke,

And I bid you listen to his words.

Have you not heard

That the Prime Minister of K’ai-yüan, Sung K’ai-fu,

Did not reward frontier exploits, lest a spirit of aggression should prevail?

And have you not heard

That the Prime Minster of T’ien-Pao, Yang Kuo-chung

 Desiring to win imperial favour, started a frontier war?

But long before he could win the war, people had lost their temper;

Ask the man with thy broken arm in the village of Hsin-fëng!  

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

  Kept Waiting

 

White billows and huge waves block the river crossing;

Wherever I go, danger and difficulty; whatever I do, failure.

Just as in my worldly career I wander and lose the road,

So when I come to the river crossing, I am stopped by contrary winds.

Of fishes and prawns sodden in the rain, the smell fills my nostrils;

With the stings of insects that come with the fog, my whole body is sore.

I am growing old, time flies, and my short span runs out,

While I sit in a boat at Chiu-k’ou, wasting ten days!  

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

        6  The Philosopher [Lao Tzu]

 

“Those who speak know nothing;

Those who know are silent.”

These words, as I am told,

Were spoken by Lao Tzu.

If we are to believe that Lao Ttzu

Was himself one who knew,

How comes it that he wrote a book

Of five thousand words?

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

 

        7  The Red Cockatoo

 

Sent as a present from Annam—

A red cockatoo.

Colored like the peach-tree blossom,

Speaking with the speech of men.

And they did to it what is always done

To the learned and eloquent.

They took a cage with stout bars

And shut it up inside.

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

                                                                                      

 

Drunk Again

 

Last year, when I lay sick,

I vowed

I'd never touch a drop again

As long as I should live.

 

But who could know

Last year

What this year's spring would bring ?

 

And here I am,

Coming home from old Liu's house

As drunk as I can be!

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

  

A Lament for my Son Ts’ui

 

You were a pearl

In the palm of my hand,

My tiny baby boy.

 

Why is it that I,

A white-haired man of three-score years,

Am left behind,

And you, a child of three,

Must by Heaven's silent, stern decree,

Precede me

To that strange and far-off land

Of death?

 

My heart is wounded sorely,

But not with a blade of steel;

My old eyes are dimmed and dull,

But not with the dust of earth.

 

These arms

That held you closely to my breast

Are empty now,

And I mourn, as did Teng Yu of old,

My only son.

                                    Translated by Henry Hart  

  

10  A Forsaken Garden

 

I enter the court

Through the middle gate

And my sleeve is wet with tears.

 

The flowers still grow

In the courtyard,

Though two springs have fled

Since last their master came.

 

The windows, porch, and bamboo screen

Are just as they always were,

But at the entrance to the house

Someone is missing

You!

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

        

        11   Golden Bells

 

When I was almost forty

I had a daughter whose name was Golden Bells.

Now it is just a year since she was born;

She is learning to sit and cannot yet talk.

Ashamed—to find that I have not a sage’s heart:

I cannot resist vulgar thoughts and feelings.

Henceforward I am tied to things outside myself:

My only reward—the pleasure I am getting now.

If I am spared the grief of her dying young,

Then I shall have the trouble of getting her married.

My plan for retiring and going back to the hills

Must now be postponed for fifteen years!

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

 

        12  Remembering Golden Bells

   

Ruined and ill—a man of two score;

Pretty and guileless—a girl of three.

Not a boy—but still better than nothing:

To soothe one’s feeling—from time to time a kiss!

There came a day—they suddenly took her from me;

Her soul’s shadow wandered I know not where.

And when I remember how just at the time she died

She lisped strange sounds, beginning to learn to talk,

Then I know that the ties of flesh and blood

Only bind us to a load of grief and sorrow.

 

At last, by thinking of the time before she was born,

By thought and reason I drove the pain away.

Since my heart forgot her, many days have passed

And three times winter has changed to spring.

This morning, for a little, the old grief came back,

Because, in the road, I met her foster-nurse.

                                                 Translated by Arthur Waley  

 

 

13  Planting a Lichi Tree

 

The red fruit of the lichi

Is as precious as the pearl.

 

Here I stand,

An aged, white-haired man,

And plant a lichi

In my courtyard!

 

How can I know

Who will be here

When ten more years

Have come and gone ?

 What a fool I am!

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

 

 

14  The Almond Blossoms of Chao Village

 

For fifteen long years,

Times without number

I have come

To see the red almond-blossoms

Open in the spring.

 

Now I am growing old

I am all of seventy-three,

And it is hard for my old legs

To come thus far.

 

I fear that this time

Is the last,

And I have come

To bid the red blossoms of the almond

A long farewell.

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

 

   

15  On Being Stricken with Paralysis

 

Good friends,

Why waste your time in wailing

And in sympathy for me?

 

Surely, from time to time,

I shall be strong enough

To move about a bit.

As for travel,

On land there are carrying-chairs,

And on the water there are boats;

So, if I can but keep my courage,

What need have I of feet ?

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

 

 

  16  Night on the West River

 

No moon

To light my way upon the stair,

Cold comfort

In the wine I drink alone.

 

Black clouds,

Rain,

The hurried flight of birds,

Water flowing grayly

In the dusk.

 

A rising storm,

Boats tugging at their mooring ropes.

Or s ails full-spread

To take advantage of the wind.

 

A moving point of fire

In the dark,

The distant lantern

Of a passing boat.

                                    Translated by Henry Hart

 

Sources

1-7, 11,12  From  A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1919.

8-10, 13-16  From The Hundred Names: A Short Introduction to the Study of Chinese Poetry with Illustrative Translations  by Henry H. Hart. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1933. Copyright © 1933 The Regents of the University of California.

The information about the Dwarfs of Tao-Chou was provided by Patty Kennedy, quoting a Chinese friend.