Some Views on Existence in Old Cathay

I Run my Carriage through the High East Gate
(From the Chinese: Anonymous, 1st / 2nd centuries BC)

I run my carriage through the high East Gate
and see, afar, the grave-mounds by the northern wall
white poplars whisper desolate and drear
and pine trees line the whole expanse of road…
Beneath are the dead of elder times.
In the dark beyond, arrived at the longest night.
In hidden sleep beneath the barren earth,
a thousand years, and they will never wake.
In a never-ending tale, the cosmic cycles shift;
a life’s duration’s as the morning dew.
A human life is like a short sojourn;
it lacks the fixedness of metal or of stone.
Ten thousand years may come and go again;
the wise and wealthy cannot vie with them.
With philtres and with potions some seek ‘life’,
but many suffer poisoning through such means.
Better be it by far to drink good wine,
And dress in garments silken, white, and fine.

Note: Line 1, ‘carriage’: The ancient Chinese carriage was typically a lightweight vehicle drawn by a single animal. It might be open (chariot-fashion, and on certain occasions sporting a  large, fixed, shallow-pitched umbrella), or more often enclosed by an open-work wooden box-frame and fabric canopy. The two, spoked wheels were high (large in diameter), often with substantial, heavily-straked felloes and rims. This type, of which examples survive, persisted into the twentieth century.

Line 7: ‘the barren earth’ has, for a Western audience, been substituted for the original ‘the Yellow Springs’ (= the ancient Chinese Netherworld).

Lines 10 and 11: ’a life’s duration’s as the morning dew. / A human life is like a short sojourn;’  –  a universal theme which has, naturally, often been treated with in literature, ancient and modern. A well-known example from 7th century Europe is the story which, according to Baeda / ‘Bede’ (Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation) was supposed to have been told by a counsellor of King Edwin of Northumbria at the Synod of Whitby in 664CE, in which the life of man, compared to all that comes before and which continues after, is likened to the swift flight of a sparrow from out of the winter night at one end of the king’s fire-warmed mead-hall and directly out into the vast cold night again at the other. The name ‘Bede’ I take to be something of a literary conceit in order to elevate the venerated cleric in the Latin fashion (as in Livius = ‘Livy’, and Plinius = ‘Pliny’). 

Those Passed Away Fade Day by Day
(From the Chinese: Anonymous, 1st / 2nd centuries BC)

Those passed away fade day by day.
Those with us day by day feel closer.
Through the city gate the immediate view
is solely one of mounds; of burial mounds;
of ancient tombs ploughed into fields;
of pine and cypress axed for their wood.
White poplars rustling in the wind…
their constant sighing, a sadness that kills.
I long to return to my old village home.
I long to return, but there is no road.

Note: This is essentially a continuation of the previous poem. In lines 1 and 2, the fading away and the feeling of closeness refer to the inevitable lessening and strengthening of past and present in personal relationships. There is a similarity, from another perspective, in Sam. Johnson (Rasselas, Ch.XXXV): ‘Distance has the same effect on the mind as on the eye, and while we glide along the stream of time, whatever we leave behind us is always lessening, and that which we approach increasing in magnitude’.

The Weary Road Sequence
(From the Chinese of Pao Chao, ?421-?465AD)

Haven’t you seen how the riverside grass
will wither in winter, and how it will die –
but in spring will envelop the road?
And haven’t you seen how the sun on the wall
will decline and then vanish completely each evening –
yet each morning appears again?
Now how can we get what is best in our time?
Once gone we are gone, forever and ever, to enter
through one set of Gates or the other.
Life offers much anguish, but is meagre with gladness;
and only in youth are we full of its zeal.
So to get what is best make firm friends, and retain
enough cash at your bedside for wine day by day.
Recording one’s ilk on bamboo or silk
should not be our foremost endeavour.
As for life, or for death, disappointment, success –
just leave the whole business to Heaven.

Note: Lines 8 and 9: ‘to enter / through one set of Gates or the other’
has, for a Western audience, been substituted for an original phrase    
in the Chinese which I cannot at present locate in my notes – but the
sense is maintained.

(From the Chinese of Ts’ao Ts’ao, 155-220 AD)

The wise old tortoise might live long,
but in the end must die;
and dragons, through time’s mists, rise up –
but dragons too must turn to dust.

Yet in his stall the ancient steed
will dream of miles to go.
And heroes, though their end is near,
show grit, and face the foe.

And all that we would wish to attain
runs not to Heaven’s decree:
for strength of spirit, heart and mind
bring worth that seems to transcend time.

Note: Ts’ao-Ts’ao (155-220 AD) was the ruler of the kingdom of Wei. This type of poem is from the transitional phase between that derived from the oral / folk tradition and that of the literati. The final two lines are not an especially exact rendering of the Chinese characters, but one which in a case of particular translational difficulty retains both their sense and spirit.

Gold-threaded Garments
(From the Chinese: Attributed to Du Ch’iu Niang, early 9th century AD)

I caution you – don’t value greatly
clothes of woven gold.
I counsel you to cherish more
the hours of your youth.
When flowers bloom they may be picked,
and should be, straight away.
Don’t wait until the bloom has passed,
and just an empty stem remains.

The Contentment of Solitude
(From the Chinese: Anonymous, c.600BC)

By my rough wooden door
I take ease as I please.
By this rippling spring,
though hungry, I’m free.
Why must we, for dinner,
have bream from the river?
And in choosing a wife
seek a trophy to woo?

Note: This example of early old-style poetry, which has had differing interpretations, is from the Shijing (The Book of Songs), ‘Airs of the States’, No.138. It has been slightly simplified for a modern audience, and to avoid a good deal of characteristic repetition has been condensed from three four-line stanzas to a single stanza of eight lines. It is an early representative of the theme of Eremetism / Solitude / Reclusion.

To Cheer Oneself
(From the Chinese of Lo Yin, 833-909AD)

When things are good I sing, carefree;
when things go wrong, I stop.
And there’s many and many a sad thing
to keep me in sorrowful thought.
But today I drink. And today I get drunk.
If tomorrow’s wine brings sorrow –
then let it be for tomorrow.

From ‘Beneath the Silver River: Translations of Classical Chinese Poetry’

5 thoughts on “Some Views on Existence in Old Cathay

  1. An interesting collection of poems Dafydd, sombre yet celebrating the pleasures of this earthly life and honouring the memories of those who have gone before. A considered balance between life and death.. not so very different to our lives today.


  2. An interesting collection of poems Dafydd, sombre yet celebrating the pleasures of this earthly life and honouring those who have gone before. A considered balance between life and death.. not so very different from our lives today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, trouz49. Yes, I tried to make the selection as balanced as possible, to reflect a number of points of view, and that could only be done by providing a fairly large number of poems at one time. As you say, what is expressed could be said to echo what many of us feel today. And this – such very personal thoughts as these – in poems of such antiquity.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jacydo. It still leaves me with a sense of wonder … how such personal thoughts as these were penned as poetry so many thousands of years ago – some of them BC.

      Liked by 2 people

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