Poems of Meng Jiao
Escorting Master Bland
Yan's roots were bones of ice and snow.
Yue's blandness was a lotus wind.
Five word lines are precious double swords,
Resembling the sound of distant flying geese.
When literary circles are gathered masters,
Written lines ring like the god of thunder.
Know the roots. Avoid the blandness.
Lift your voices in one long sigh.
Pure repentance gives birth to true depict,
Overturning young men's false dream treasures.
Go often and sit amid the cold bamboo and
Speak together bluntly of true meanings.
In lofty Luoyang, there is right desire enough.
Study the river if things are hard to bring together.
If you don't get better soon,
I'll play the old fever-doctor myself.
How can I undercut this mind
So that you can study emptiness?
Sit lovingly on the fresh grass and
Cherish the deep sea's shore in thought.
From a distant past, observe the river and
In this remoteness ask nothing of other men.
In the mirrored waves, wash your soiled hands and,
With sharp flowers, cut into the heart of spring.
Although you defend yourselves from influence,
You are still helpless against all new fashions.
Your role is to interpret culture.
Take comfort here and attend my song.
Beat the gongs. Drink the river wine.
Clap hands. Beat gongs. Sing.
I am the clapping of the waves.
Drinking, I bow to Grandmother Ocean.
Feet planted in the prow of my bark.
Then, alone, I sprightly dance in my straw cape.
I smile because I grasp the ancient kingdom.
Empty, I rely on the abundance of culture.
Idle, leaning on a green bamboo pole, in
Broad daylight -- this is what I do.
In my grass cape, I don't fear rain, as
Little herons jostle up in flight.
Oar strokes brush wild rice and rushes and
Return strokes finish fine-written characters.
I smile at my fight with the river's heroes,
Waves that struggle, striving for the light
And even more when, from beyond good and evil,
I shoot the ducks with my bamboo bow.
Each time I shoot for duck,
They fly up, shaking the heads of wild rice.
Then mallards, colorful beyond asking,
Also rise in their confusion.
I am a pure wave and, with each step,
I go where pure waves go.
I smile because my country's best young men
Tread down the dust, praising freedom.
What if the old men could imitate the young
And arrive at death with a mind still open?
We must master Heaven's culture
If we would know each other's hearts.
If we, in Luo, would work together long enough,
All at once our people would flow right.
Our people have their ancient villages
Where our daughters sing like birds.
I am grieved we do not know each other,
That it is hard to nurture harmony.
I was fortunate, in my plain kesa and
Guided by the command to meditate,
That in meditation blessed words came to me
Urging me to come back to the west.
Because Luoyang's spirit is weak
And our people's culture strong,
I sit up where I can watch them flow by
And learn to know their fresh bright waves.
Beat gongs. Wander in your raincapes and
You can't help but find new words.
From this will come impassioned words
Instead of thoughtless verses.
Be governed by your near environs.
Don't force pretense of larger ways.
Our capital's best temple is enough
To illumine the surrounding craggy heights.
As master, books are your broad walls.
Lift your voice in verse to pass the time.
Linger in your yearning heart and
Let old tears flow forth in torrents.
Jiangnan's city temples are peaceful places
Giving birth to mighty mountains.
Kaiyuan's Wu-speaking monks chant
Modern verse that is high and free.
Return to the panacea of peaceful streambanks
Lined with wand-like laurel trees.
Strive together with the rocks and trees
Where every hue of color has its differing face.
Wind is fragrant with old memories and
New wonders when we master lonely heights.
Repay kindness and repay virtue.
In temple and on mountain, renew yourself.
Northern luxuries are only cages while
Southern nature is contemplation manifest.
In classics we find the finest verse,
Windchimes of pure, clear flight.
Too many masters caught up in strange emotions.
Our memories of the past make a longer road.
Who knows how many thousand heartbeats
Take us into death's endlessness.
I view my world through Yue's mirror,
Separating what I see from nostalgia.
Mirrored weeds, step by step more green.
Mirrored rivers, day by day more deep.
There are other temples beneath this blue sky,
Ancient fragrances, chill laurel-covered peaks.
Clearly, it is vain to dwell on the past
In writings that neglect today's fullness.
Happy fate, that leaves blown west
Turn into words in the east wind's chants.
Falling ill, upon my pillow, this comforts me
And I float above an overwhelming sadness.
Obeying my master, I put off the kesa.
Master gone, I wear it once again.
I asked my master why parting was so bitter.
He said, When you suffer, let your words be few.
I was afraid of my hunger for poetry and
Wanted to live in, and experience its depths.
So in my cottage, I was killed by ancient words
And died of my hunger, as you already know.
I couldn't bear to see you go and
Would cry for you, but it wouldn't be right.
Poets struggle bitterly with poetry but it's
Better than trying to fly and falling from on high.
We spend our lives like wild hens, crying
In the wild, avoiding mockery and criticism.
Our withered remains, hanging from cold branches
Are abandoned like flecks of spit.
Step by step, we struggle, pleading and
Always only half-way clothed.
Relying on poetry to make a living
Has from ancient times been fruitless.
No one mourns the starving poet.
Yet in our weeping numbers, we march on.
Meng Jiao writes shorter poetry to express poetry. But when he writes a long poem, it is to influence how poetry is done. Five character poetry (五言诗) stands in between old-style poetry (古体诗) and the regulated poetry (律诗) of the Tang. It is the style espoused by Meng Jiao's younger friend Han Yu, a harkening back, but not a return to, ancient, old-style poetry. Yan and Yue were kingdoms of the Warring States. Yue fell early. Yan was one of the last to fall. It is clear in this verse that Meng Jiao considers poetry a social pursuit. The power of poetry comes from one's associating with other like-minded poets. You may write your poems alone. But you are a poet in terms of others.
What interests me here is that Meng Jiao doesn't encourage others to necessarily wander as he has done. He says, sit down right here on the grass and with a right mind consider the ocean's shore, the rivers with their ancient roots, and in this immediate remoteness, right here on the grass, rely upon yourself alone. It is the consideration of others and what you hold in mind of what you think they are thinking that opens your mind up to the ephemera of fashions of thought. How can you reach the roots from the shifting non-thought upon the surface?
This is a pretty joyous poem for a man in the midst of war and chaos and, in his mind, the destruction of culture. I don't doubt for a second that, in his fifties, Meng Jiao is able to dance a boatman's dance in his little boat. He is, to me, indomitable, leaning on his bamboo pole, his mind empty, peaceful in the ocean of culture. Yuyang (渔阳), here "ancient kingdom," is literally the old capital of Yan during the Warring States, now Beijing. Yan returns here after its appearance in the first line of the poem.
It is wonderful to have these details of his wanderings. I've wondered what else he carried for provisions besides wine. Perhaps nothing, living on wild rice and duck. But he lives on plain brown duck and leaves the lovely mallards to their life. Meng Jiao seems very happy in this poem. Perhaps he is out in the wilderness as he writes it. Lines 3 and 4 in this verse are playing with the image of calligraphy in the movement of his paddle in the river. The "beyond good and evil" is a pretty literal translation. One should consider that the killing of a duck to eat is indeed beyond the good and evil of all the strife and killing of Meng Jiao's time. A peaceful and natural act. As Thoreau points out, good hunters take the best care of the wilderness. I'd join them but I'd rather starve to death than take another life to live. Besides, three Cliff bars a day are enough to keep any man alive and well in the wilderness and then two weeks of food then weighs no more than a gun and ammunition.
The motif of this verse is Jianghu (江湖) which can mean "rivers and lakes." It is also the "world of the wanderers." Here it is "all around the country" which I take as "those all around the country" or "our people." The metaphor then is the unending flow of the people's culture. So here we have Meng Jiao as perhaps the first advocate of letting the people's voice be heard in literature.
And we learn another detail of his earlier life. He returned from his years in the far reaches of the southwest to the "west" (Luoyang) because it came to him to do so while meditating in the form of a verbal command. As one who sits in sitting-forgetting every day, I suspect that people in my own time, if they pray at all, spend that effort more in making requests of a limited idea of "God" instead of in following the command to "be still and know that I AM THAT I AM." One doesn't hear much if one is talking all the time.
Kaiyuan (开元) is the period of Emperor Xuanzong up to the An Lushan rebellion. Wu (吴) is the dialect still spoken in the southeast, containing Suzhou. Meng Jiao is pointing poets away from the capital to where the strength remains, in the part of China untouched (relatively) by upheaval. He wants the poet to turn to his own place in the world, to rely upon himself, upon nature, and (in an independent way) upon the Buddha.
The "northern luxuries" are citrus fruits and gold. "Southern nature" are bamboo and banana groves. In this verse, Meng Jiao is pointing the poet at nature again, simplicity, the treasured past. And here again, he speaks from a Buddhist context. But the private practice of "religion" is a constant in China. Many of the Communist leadership have been, and are, practicing Buddhists. In this period or that, it has been natural for Buddhism or Daoism to be naturally incorporated in people's lives. By the period of the Tang, both ways are ones of established churches and ecclesiastics. But the tradition of independent "worship" has always been a constant. I use the quotes around these terms to indicate that the ideas are deeper than their common present usage.
I don't know what the Kingdom of Yue signifies to Meng Jiao. In this poem, perhaps, he is relating Yue's decadent weakness to that of his own time, seeing the Tang in Yue's mirror. I like his eschewing nostalgia which I think of as one of mankind's oldest enemies of thought. The first half of this verse points poetry at what is real and enduring. The second half seems to become another self-revelation of how, as a Buddhist acolyte, he struggles with the place of Buddhism and the place of poetry in his life. It is possible that the "master" he refers to here is the Master Bland in the title and that this is a mixture of personal history and metaphor. I think this is the case. But this verse's second half is a difficult translation. Is this irony and sarcasm directed towards blandness? Or is this a sad memory of a spiritual master who helped him on his way? Or elements of both, in layers?
And then here, in the end, Meng Jiao comes fully into this poem. Clearly, he understands that in this only world, real poetry is done only by poets and for poetry's sake.