Poems of Bai Juyi
Our capitol sure has a lot of big houses.
They line the streets, East and West.
Most have vermillion gates, leading into
Rooms and corridors of emptiness on emptiness.
Owls cry out from their pine and cassia trees.
Foxes hide in their thickets of orchids and chrysanthemums.
Their dark green moss is strewn with yellow leaves
That rise up as evening's little whirlwinds pass.
First come the houses of generals and ministers.
They offend, in their abandonment, longing to be used.
Beyond, are those of the Imperial court,
Lying there sick, full of the dead.
Further still, are four or five great villas, their calamities
And misfortunes following each other down the generations.
All across these last long years,
Great houses show the failures of their masters.
Wind and rain have spoiled and cracked these eaves.
Snakes and rats have pierced once-sturdy walls.
One doubts these homes will ever find a buyer.
Time's ruin on these structures is accomplished.
You can hear the sighing of the common people's hearts
At how these homes are such a stupid waste.
They view them as a portent of disaster, not knowing
That our calamity has come and gone.
And so I write this poem today,
Wanting to understand this confusion in my heart.
Mundane were all these old officials.
Cash and grain but made them seem sublime.
Their power but maintained a long disaster.
Their high positions traded wealth for exhaustion.
Their arrogance, a surplus of mere things.
Their old age, an enumeration of their dying years.
The owners of these houses were like bandits.
Day and night, they ever brought us grief.
If these are the houses of "the most fortunate dust,"
Why could they not preserve the life within them?
Few of those on high rely on understanding.
And so, these wrecks are a metaphor for our nation.
If former dynasties' ruins show us their disorder,
We can see that selfsame message written here.
Everything flourished for eight hundred years.
It died and we look down on the ruins left behind.
Send out the word to home and nation:
Such men and not their homes are wretched.
凶宅 was written around 809 when Bai Juyi was about 37. So this might be a good time to describe the arc of his life up to this point. He was born in 772 in Taiyuan (太原), Shanxi Province (山西省). His family was poor but educated. Bai Juyi's father had passed enough of the Imperial exams to be a minor magistrate. Bai Juyi moved, as a child, to Zhengyang, Henan Province. When he was ten, war broke out and he was sent to live with family in the South.
In 800, he passed his first exams and moved around this time to the capital, Chang'an (长安). In 804, his father died and he spent the traditional mourning period along the Wei (渭) River. In 806, Bai Juyi took further Imperial exams and was appointed to a minor position in Zhouzhi (周至) near the capital. The scholar who took first in these exams was Yuan Zhen (元稹), a home-schooled scholar and poet. He and Bai Juyi were both part of the New Joyful Essay (新 乐府) group of poets.
New Joyful Essay is not the usual translation of 新乐府. Translators have different perceptions of what the 乐府 were about. To me, the point was to break free of the rules governing things like non-repetition of characters which governed the accepted styles of poetry such as Five Character Regulated Verse (五颜律诗) and Old-Style Verse (古体诗). Yuefu were to be topical, almost conversational, like the essay was to be for Montaigne.
凶宅 is such a poem. It is also an early example of those poems of Bai Juyi's which were critical of those in power. Perhaps it offended those in power. But note that Bai Juyi is criticizing dead men-in-power here. So if those in current power were offended, it was a case of "If the shoe fits, wear it." Also note that even when he is critical, Bai Juyi is a gentleman (君子). A gentle man. Unlike the Japanese Zen poet Ikkyu, who was plenty critical of the powerful, Bai Juyi does not descend into rudeness. Bai Juyi stands on principle and refuses to stoop.
And unlike the also critical Hakuin, who came after Ikkyu, he does not romanticise the system of the powerful and tell us everything would be okay if the bigshots would only conform to some notion of social virtue. Bai Juyi does point out the failure of arrogance and greed, venality and stupidity. But the only solution he offers is a reliance on understanding. And no one has ever achieved understanding through conformity. Understanding is part of that eternal individuality that Bai Juyi embraced.
On a different note, we know that Bai Juyi and Yuan Zhen became close friends. They even made a pact to retire together as Daoist recluses -- as soon as they could afford it. Yuan Zhen was seven years Bai Juyi's junior. So these two thirty-somethings were still a bit childlike at heart in thinking that one needed to save up in order to be hermits immersed in poverty. I think this is kind of sweet of them. Their mutual retirement never happened. But this sidelight does make one think that, at 37, Bai Juyi had not yet encountered, let alone embraced, Chan Buddhism and had not yet met his Chan master, Foguang Ruman.