Poems of Bai Juyi
Speaking Freely was written when Yuan Zhen was in Jiangling, a formal poem with a high rhyme-scheme, five verses, seven-character lines. Its ideas are original. Its schemes are new. Every time I chant it, it delights me. Older generations of poets, they could not have written it this way. But the poet Li Qi wrote: "The muddy Yellow River merges with Clear River. The wise Duke of Zhou met with the madman of Chu." This is how I see this poem. I am on my way to Xunyang but have not yet taken up my position. I have leisure to spare on this boat and I chant this poem upon the river. The five verses weave together and impress their meanings on my ear.
Who can distinguish true morning from false dawn?
Ancient times until now, our efforts amount to nothing.
But we love that Old Zang could cheat the wise.
All he had to do was pretend to be stupid.
Fireflies glow with no fire inside them.
No one mistakes the round dew on the lotus for pearls.
Sacrifices to Heaven and treasures don't mix.
Too bad. But what difference does splendor make?
Life's experiences vary, nothing is ordained.
The world's net binds us all. We die without relief.
Fortune and disaster, turn and turn again.
Bloom and fade, repeat, repeat. No explanation given.
A sacred turtle can't avoid his intestines' bloody fate.
Horses that shake their riders still risk a broken leg.
If you doubt my judgment, please observe in this chessgame
How win and loss must calmly wait the logic of events.
If I gave you a solution, you would be right to doubt.
No need for turtle's intestines or yarrow stalks cast down.
Testing jade requires a full three days of heat.
Judging timber, one must wait for seven years to pass.
The Duke of Zhou feared even to appear to do the wrong.
Wang Mang was polite and modest, until he usurped the throne.
If from the beginning, life is on the verge of death,
Who, in a brief lifetime, can sift the false from true?
Who lives in a mansion once it's been destroyed?
Where do favored guests answer tears with song?
Last night our homes endured disaster.
Today, outside our gates, life still goes on.
Ancient kings are unaware they sleep on barren land.
Whenever did the narrowest sea have the highest waves?
Don't laugh when the undeserving boast of wealth and fame.
We all end up as corpses, good and bad the same.
Mount Tai is unwilling to be smaller than a hair.
And poor Yan Hui never envied ancient Peng.
Pine trees rot only after a thousand years.
Hibiscus blooms and withers in a day.
No need for life's lovers to fret over death.
No need to curse the body for being full of life.
Life goes. Death comes. And both are as a dream.
Joy and sorrow are only felt by those who are awake.
This poem is one of those which make me feel my ignorance. Yanzi (颜子) is Yan Hui, Kongzi's favorite disciple who died young, at 29. And Peng (彭) is Peng Zu, the Chinese Methuselah. Those weren't too hard. But I have a problem still with this line: 马失应无折足忧. We have [horse][to miss or lose][ought or should][without or nothing][break][foot][worry]. So we get: "Horses losing should nothing break foot worry." That reads nicely.
The problem is 应无 or ying1wu2. I went searching for yingwus. Thinking it might be an ancient name or other reference, I searched against ctext.org which is full of classical texts. A fluent reader of classical Chinese would need a kalpa or two to sift the results. So I tried other searches. One page was a translation with something like: "You can break your foot dismounting from a horse." Quite a stretch. Too stretchy even for me. But better than a popular online translation engine had to offer. I let the two of them keep each other company and looked for something better.
I tried pretty hard for an hour or more to find something helpful. The only interesting result was a page with this very poem which also included the pinyin but no English. The page had "yingmo" not "yingwu." Mo2 is an alternative for wu2 when used in some names or transliterations. It occurs in the mu of the Chinese version of "namu amidha butsu." So all I could (speciously) nail down was that yingwu was (probably) a name pronounced "yingmo." Let's pretend it's the name of a rider who was thrown from some (possibly) famous horse in some ancient Chinese anecdote. Problem "solved."