Poems of Bai Juyi
Saying Farewell on the Grasses of an Ancient Plain
The grass upon the plain is overwhelming.
A single year. A single withered blossom.
But those wildfire flames are still burning
And spring winds' voices rise up once again.
A distant fragrance rolls across this ancient track
And verdant green returns to desolated walls.
These bring me once again my prince's leaving,
These endless grasslands of our farewell.
According to a book I have from China, 赋得古原草送别 was written in 787 when Bai Juyi was 16. they seem to know even the month it was written. I believe this is because it was part of his Imperial exam. I can see two reasons to think this is a young man's poem. Not that I doubt anyone's word here. I'm just historically cautious.
The first reason comes from the beginning of the title: fude (赋得) or "poetic-essay about." The yuefu had been banging around, according to some, since the Han or around the turn of the Christian Era, more or less. Clearly, the yuefu of the Tang in the 8th Century was not the yuefu of the Han. It was a new kind of yuefu, which explains the New Yuefu Movement that Bai Juyi was to be a part of. It looks like, by the time he was 16, Bai Juyi was identifying with the New Yuefu Movement if it was around. Or helping to gestate it if it wasn't. Either way, as a young man, he wanted people to know which side he was on. Hence the title beginning with 赋得. Even if a fu-style piece was required by his examiners, we can still see him pushing this poem beyond an imitation of the Han form.
The second reason is the use of wangsun (王孙). This is usually translated as "My Prince." The image it was supposed to conjure was of a woman, left behind, longing for her life's version of "my prince." A husband. A lover. Someone she no longer sees who she wishes had been her husband or lover. You get the idea. But this is a Chinese literary convention. So the woman isn't a woman. She's a man. And he's missing his best friend. Or, in times of cultural decline, his male lover. I'm not saying homosexuality is part of cultural decline. But it tends to stay out of sight when cultures are stamping about, conquering things and preserving appearances. It comes to the surface when cultures are old and tired of caring about how they look and just want enough money tucked away safely for their retirement. Tokugawa Japan, Weimar Germany, and Reagan America come to mind.
I'm not saying Bai Juyi was gay. He can be gay or bi or straight. It's not for me to judge. And certainly not for me to know. We have less evidence about his personal life than we do for Henry David Thoreau, who some call gay because he wrote a poem, idyllizing (idyll not idol) his dead brother in the classical fashion, in a book dedicated to his dead brother. Oh, please. Let's just peacefully be ourselves and not drag dead people, willy-nilly, into our camp.
I seem to have wandered off into the weeds here. Anyway, if Bai Juyi is sweet sixteen and yearning for his 王孙, he is probably staking out his claim in classical poetry territory in the same way as his raising the banner of 赋得 on the summit of the title. These kinds of sympathies are the immature seeds of real sympathies. So this poem could have been made in imitation of Bai Juyi's young ideals through a Han form. Most translators play it this way -- straight and classical and calculated to pass an exam. Yawn. I've tried to show a more New Yuefu here, making the first verse more explicit and emotional.
For those of you still thinking about sex, of whatever kind, chunfeng (春风) is the sexual act. You can write 春 and you're talking about spring. But write 春风 and you know that your Imperial exam-passing audience will catch the double entendre and begin puzzling out whether you have other coital entendre in there for them to feel smug about. And perhaps Bai Juyi was hoping this would happen because he was fretting about his virginity. Of whatever kind. Which makes three reasons, actually, for thinking he was just a kid when he wrote this.
[Later] Hmm. I have learned that Bai Juyi did not take his first exams until 797, when he was 26. This by his own admission in a letter to Yuan Zhen. So he was a young 26 when he wrote this, if it is indeed a test piece. It is good to be historically cautious.