Poems of Bai Juyi
One Night in the Village Below Purple Pavillion
One morning, when I was an official, I went up to Purple Pavillion.
That night, I stayed in the village below the mountain.
This village had always seemed delightful,
Especially after opening a good bottle of wine.
The drinkers used to salute you before each drink.
But sudden death had come within their gates.
In purple robes, they carried knives and axes
As they rushed about in groups of ten or more.
They seized me as I sat there drinking wine
Dragging me off in the middle of my dinner.
Their leader moved back then to stand behind them,
Held out his hands, as if I were his guest.
In the courtyard stood a wonderful old tree,
Planted then some thirty years before.
This leader could not cherish beauty and
With his hatchet he had severed beauty's roots.
You can say you stand for building up your homeland
Yet come together in a spirit of destruction.
This destroyer was careful not to say anything
That would give his henchmen a reason to show mercy.
This poem comes from around 809, when Bai Juyi was a minor official. He's been appointed to the Brushwood Court and his mother is still alive. I recently learned he's married by now but I'll deal with that in about three poems. The poem shows what kind of a mess the empire was in, even under Emperor Xianzong, before Muzong completely trashed it. Vigilantes and bullies hold the small towns and only barely acknowledge the power of the court. From this poem we gather that this local bully backed off when his men brought him Brushwood Scholar Bai Juyi wearing his robes of office. Maybe this was because Bai Juyi was such a nice guy. But it's more likely the bully was a coward. The poem is a comment on these times, critical of what the common people's faults can be.
This might be a good time to mention the license one takes in translating Chinese poetry. 宿紫阁山北村 is not "One Night in the Village Below Purple Pavillion." It's 宿 "spending the night" 紫阁 "Purple Pavillion" 山北村 "village north of the mountain." Purple Pavillion was on top of a mountain or hill, probably near Chang'an. So my title is only a minor cheat.
A bigger cheat is my title for 赠元稹, which I called "Putting Off Lord Money." The actual title is 赠 (to give as a present) 元(money, primary, first) and 稹 (to accumulate). Yuan (元) became a common word for money in the 18th Century. During the Qing Dynasty (清朝), 1644 to 1912, it was a round silver coin. Maybe it was a word for money from way back. Which is why I would like a Chinese dictionary which, like the OED, gives first known occurence dates for each entry. If we can't legitimately use "money" for yuan, the best I can get is "The Gift of Primarily Accumulating (Wealth)." The text would bear me out, with irony, for such a title. But it makes a lousy title, no matter how you twist it. I know what it's like to lose a big salary, even to give a big one up voluntarily because the job sucked. So the title kind of came to me as I translated the poem.
This sort of "poetic license" happens frequently in Chinese translation. My opinion is that it is completely legitimate. Necessary, even. Chinese possesses layers of meaning: from history, from idiom, from the roots of the characters. You can't convey five characters of Chinese in anything like five words of English without sounding like Magua in Last of the Mohicans. My approach is to pick a layer of meaning which is consonant with the rest of the poem. The result is my showing you a slice through the poem with a consistent point of view. Even with my modest abilities in Chinese, it would be easy to translate each poem three times and show three different slices. I pick the layer that most appeals to me and leave other approaches for other translators. For those who contest my method, I can only point out that it was first used by the Yellow Emperor.