Poems of Meng Jiao
An Exercise in Escorting Li Ao
The practitioner's strength is elegant
As he leaves for the far southeast.
I gift you two trustworthy shoes
To see you over High Bridge.
High Bridge road meanders.
On blue waters, you float on fresh breezes.
Early fall, you pick lotus blossoms
Which respond delicately in Wu.
A thousand paths crisscross the clear waters.
In every direction surges the grassy tide.
You will row with graceful ease upon the lakes.
But the wineshops are regretably rare.
Shortly, your clogs will wear blisters
And in places you will almost disappear.
Old memories will rise like misty stars
And mad visions will appear in your dreams.
As a writer who sets hearts on fire,
I really shouldn't be teasing you.
In a lonely home along a river,
You'll play your harp, get drunk, and sing.
Our best years are all far behind us
And here, we're all concerned for you.
I grasp your hand again and again
As the only way to see this through.
Li Ao is a friend of Han Yu who also promotes the practice of old-style writing (古文之习). He has been sent (banished?) to the far southeast marshes where the people are Wu and not Han. The High Bridge road is best translated as "the least wet path through the great marshes." And road is a euphemism if you have to wear mud clogs when you're not using a boat.
The poem is Meng Jiao's attempt to lighten Li's heart before he goes. Lots of puns here of which I can only give you one slice in the above translation. The harp Li takes with him is an ancient-style konghuang. The waters will be anything but clear. The wineshops will be non-existent. Both Meng and Li know that this trip is no joke. The final line is really "Only way without withering." But he survives this journey.
We know this because Li Ao wrote the "Record of Coming South" ( 来南录) which is one of mankind's earliest diaries. Li Ao made this trip, with his pregnant wife, from Luoyang to Guangzhou, in 809-810. The journey, passing through the modern provinces of Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Guangdong, took over nine months.