Poems of Bai Juyi
Such a Sad Profession
So sad to be a scholar.
Study so hard, you don't know when you're exhausted.
Reading books when you just want to close your eyes.
Holding your pen until hands are calloused and raw.
Ten times you try to climb to the top.
But making a name for yourself is slow and bitter.
If you do finally succeed in getting a position,
The hair on your temples will already be white.
A pity, that your years of strength and youth
Are forced to be a time of lowly poverty.
Then, as a sick old man,
How are you supposed to enjoy your success?
Deep within red-gated mansions,
One comes upon the most childish of men.
Looking just like old married women,
Their fat and greasy skin shines bright.
Their hands never bother to unroll a scroll.
Their bodies can't be squeezed into their own uniforms.
At twenty, they inherit their titles and
Their houses, filled with their fathers' wealth.
Spring comes and the days pass and
Their rich clothes conceal their easy morals.
Morning are passed in idle drunkeness.
Evenings are spent with a dancer in the tower.
They grant each other titles to pay off drinking debts
And hoard their coin to afford the prettiest women.
Lots of sex and song. Plus dogs and horses too.
Their excess boggles comprehension.
Mountain seedlings, pines along the mountain streams,
The earth itself rising and falling.
It's the way of the world, no matter what we do.
And you are not the only one whom it saddens.
I'm beginning to think that Bai Juyi is the God of Poetry, not because he is sooooo Zen, but because, like God, or the weather, he is completely unrestrained by convention and the world's expectations. Translating 悲哉行 was kind of like getting ambushed and beaten up and left, sitting dazed, on the sidewalk, wondering what just happened.
The title and the first three stanzas were all of a piece. Poor scholars. They work so hard and get so little for it. And then, wham, rich guys behind vermillion gates. What? Not just any rich guys. Not the kind you'd want to be if you were rich. These are fat, greasy, spoiled rich guys. For two stanzas we get these appalling rich boys. And then...
"Spring returns, and the days pass, and" we'll just make a little feint to let you recover. Then Bai Juyi clobbers us with more appalling rich guy stories. These spoiled brats are alcoholics. And gropers. Drunkenly gambling away their inheritance in the middle of a high-priced lap-dance. Alright. Okay. I can find you sixty of these guys right now in any major city in the Western World. Or China. But what happened to the poor scholar?
Well, the scholar was just part of this picture. And so were the rich guys. The final sucker punch comes with pretty little alpine sprouts and majestic pines along high rock-bound streams. And the "earth itself rising and falling." The line "古来无奈何" breaks down into "古来" or "From time immemorial" and "无奈何" or "there's nothing you can do about it." The scholars. The trust-funders. The pretty little flowers. It's all there, everywhere you look. And it's all here in this poem. And it makes you sad.
Chinese gentlemen were supposed to master 琴棋书画 or "zither, Go, calligraphy, painting." Bai Juyi didn't care for painting. He had no taste for it, really. Probably because he couldn't have fit as much onto a painted scroll as he could into a poem. Maybe he pitied the artists of the brush. I feel sorry for any painter who thinks he can compete with the God of Poetry. And I like painting. The Gods of Painting are like Rembrandt who can show the immense interior of a single person with a limited pallette or a stub of charcoal. The God of Poetry can reveal an immense slice of the world in the flash of a thunderbolt. Best to take cover when you hear him coming.