Poems of Bai Juyi
Living with the Emptiness We are Born into
Jian Yi would weep to see our times.
Ruan Ji would mourn the road we've taken.
Born into this emptiness, I also weep.
But other ages have known this sorrow.
Who are these people born into emptiness,
These fifty years of cold and hunger?
They do not mourn the mouth without food.
They do not mourn the body without clothes.
They mourn the loyal and the just.
And then they mourn the ones who weep,
The great men broken in these days of thieves,
For History itself, shouted down by common bandits.
The best are killed by vicious criminals.
Speak up and you are banished or destroyed.
Everyone you meet is trapped in emptiness.
They shout. They weep. And then they go along.
Fresh evil news arrives on every wind.
Some popular noble is said to have done wrong.
It will be some pitiful white-haired gentleman
Whose unfailing ideals bring him to a dead end.
I am also one who believes in gentlemen,
Those who remain refined no matter where they are.
You won't hear them murmur or weep
Unless they put it in a poem like this.
We write and write and never an empty word.
Still all those phrases show the limits of our thoughts.
Those who do their best are cheated by our prose.
And poets words are really just a pain.
We cannot look for justice from the palace
Or waste our time on all this pretty writing.
Only songs, born of the people's sadness
Can hope to reach a distant Emperor's heart.
But all their common singing cannot reach him.
He hears their common sweetness and he scoffs.
Real medicine would have a bitter odor.
And the peaceful sound of a lute these days is rare.
You cannot fear the anger of the mighty.
You must accept the ridicule of friends.
Because there's nothing you can do
But scream at all the madness of these men.
Each time the common people dare to breathe,
There's a chance that all this fog will roll away.
Then if we can only sing loudly enough,
Maybe Heaven will hear our humble voices.
Singing is only weeping by another name.
The feeling comes from the same place.
If you live in this, our life, as it is written,
The only real words you can add are tears.
Yes, "tang" (唐) is the character for the Tang dynastic name. But, as we have seen, there are many layers to any use of the Chinese language. And I doubt Bai Juyi was unaware of his choice of characters in this title. Let's talk a little bit about this "tang." It can mean "empty" or "emptiness." But it also means "exagerrated." So when we think about "tang," we must think about these as one and not as separate, disparate options. "Tang" is "exagerrated emptiness" and is used in bigrams for "pretender," "con man," "tenement house," and "mongrel." So we could say that the exagerrated emptiness here could just as easily be translated as "this big overblown bunch of nothing" or as "this complete and total bullshit" without too much of a stretch. I think this is what Bai Juyi intended.
Bai Juyi is 28 years old here. He's an idealist. So he's a young 28. He's been married three years, trying to make ends meet with his official salary. But big city life tends to quickly use up your big city salary. On top of his own struggles, the Empire is a wreck. Or in the midst of wrecking. Emperor Xianzong is trying to hold things together by putting down little rebellions everywhere and keeping the barbarians at bay. But for a man like Bai Juyi, the writing is on the wall. And it makes him sad.
I particularly like his mild irony of self-awareness in the sixth stanza. Here he is writing about the elegance and stability of the true gentlemen, who neither murmur nor weep -- except in poems like this. And this is where the poem turns interesting. It turns from being a rather ordinary commentary on the times to a poem of heartfelt sympathy.
Having caught his gentleman self murmuring in his own poem, Bai Juyi realizes the uselessness of words. Words of government. Words of poets. All useless. The only real words are in the songs that erupt from the people's suffering. And even these words, full of hope for justice and salvation, are also useless. Real medicine will have to be more painful than words.
And, by the way, in this uselessness, the peaceful music of the gentlemen is not heard. This last is very Chinese. Because in Chinese, the poem is not a revelation in time, but of space. And in this space of useless words and scoffing emperors, no gentle music of the lute is heard. There is an empty space, in the painted space of this poem, where the lute music should be. Bai Juyi tells us so.
And the rest of the poem needs no help from me.