03 April 2015

陳子昂 Chen Zi'ang: 登幽州臺歌 Song on Ascending the Youzhou Tower

Today is Good Friday 2015.  Some 2000 years ago, when Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross, He cried out, "Eloi. eloi (My God or Father), why have you forsaken me?" Here, I am not attempting to compare Chen Zi'ang to Jesus, even less, to explain why Jesus said what he said in his last words.  But on Jesus' human side, He must have felt lonely, desolate and forsaken, particularly because, on His divine side, He was to, through His death, bear the sins of humankind for our salvation and had to do it alone.

Chen Zi'ang was no divinity; he was all human.  He wanted to serve his country and the people.  Whether or not this poem is to be regarded as sentimental and, hence, inferior should best be judged in his being a gifted patriot relegated to a junior post in Youzhou.

Chen Zi-ang (661-702): Song on Ascending the Youzhou Tower

1       Ahead, I see no ancient sages,  
2      (Nor behind, the sages yet unborn.)  
    Nor behind, those sages yet unborn.  
    (revised 14.4.15)
3    (So, on and on, heaven and earth shall roll,)  
      While, on and on, heaven and earth shall roll,  
      (revised 14.4.15)
4    (Left all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn.)
      Alone I stand, tears a-falling, forlorn.  
      (revised 14.4.15)

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)   譯者: 黃宏發
25th March 2015 (revised 26.3.15; 28.3.15; 30.3.15; 31.3.15)
Translated from the original - 陳子昂: 登幽州臺歌

1        前不見古人
2        後不見來者
3        念天地之悠悠
4        獨愴然而涕下


*Form, Meter and Rhyme:  This poem is classified as a “七言古詩 7-Character Old-Style Verse”, a fairly loose classification which admits lines of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or even 10 characters in poems whose lines are predominantly of  7 characters.  This poem is rare in that no line is in 7 characters.  It is a quatrain of two 5-character lines followed by two of 7 characters.  This English rendition uses the tetrameter (4 beats) for the 5-character lines and the pentameter (5 beats) for the 6-character ones.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original where  and rhyme (上聲馬韻 rising tone “ma” rhyme) although they do not sound like rhymes in current Chinese.

*Lines 1 and 2 re. 前後 (in front/behind, before/behind, past/future, ahead/aback, before/after): I had considered Witter Bynner’s “before me/behind me” (p. 10 of his “Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty 618-906” 2005, first published as “The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, Being (as stated above)” 1929) but have decided for the simpler “ahead/behind” for which, I am grateful to Innes Herdan (p. 120 of her “300 Tang Poems” 1973, 2000) and 施穎洲 (p. 27 of his “中英對照讀唐詩宋詞 Tang and Song Poetry: Chinese—English” 2006, 2007).

*Lines 1 and 2 re. 古人 (men of the past):  I have interpreted “men of the past” to refer to “great men” or ”men good and wise” or “sages” of the past (in line 1), of the future (in line 2) and of the present (the poet counting himself as one from the way the 2 lines are written).  This allusion to sages is apparent in the title.  Youzhou Tower, near present-day Beijing, was the 黃金臺 Golden Tower built by the Lord of the State of Yan in the Warring States 戰國 Period in China (475-221 BCE) to recruit the good and wise to serve Yan.

*Line 2:  I had considered “yet to come” to translate (to come) (men to come), but have decided for “yet unborn” to create a rhyme for “forlorn” in line 4.

*Line 3:  To translate and to capture the repetition of in 悠悠 (long, remote, infinite), I had considered such repetitions as “long, long lasting” (the word “long” and the “l” sound), “vast and everlasting” (the “-ast-” sound), “lasting, everlasting” (the word “lasting”), and ”immense, immortal” (the “im-” sound), and have decided for “So on and on, heaven and earth shall roll” with the word “on” repeated in “(roll) on and on”.  I had originally penned “go (on and on)” but have decided for “roll on and on” to convey the passage of time and the ups and downs in the world and in life.  To translate (think, muse, brood) I have used the less than literal “So” which, I hope, is adequate in the context of the line.  The inversion of ending the line with “shall roll” instead of “on and on” is intended to avoid, in line 3, the “on” sound which is too close to the rhyme of “unborn” in line 2 and “forlorn” in line 4. 

*Line 4:  I had originally penned “Steeped in tears, alone I stand, forlorn”, then considered “Tears a-dripping, alone I stand, forlorn” and “While all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn”, and have now decided for “Left all alone, in tears I stand, forlorn” which is less sentimental and better echoes the situation of the poet given in the first 2 lines.  


Ray Heaton said...

In two parts due to length restriction...

Chen Zi'ang believed himself to be of the ancients in both his dealings with the court and in his poetry; he seemed to have been rather scathing with his contemporaries in both areas. Chen was perhaps unfortunate to have been involved with the temporarily favoured Wu Youyi, (also known as Fu Youyi and Fu Yauwei), a relative of Empress Wu Zetian. According to X L Woo, both Wu and Chen supported Wu Zetian's efforts to become Empress, although both lost the Empress's favours when neither were needed any more. Chen losing more favour when his defence proposals to protect China from the Khitan tribal invasion were dismissed. I'm sure Chen must have suffered under the Empress's process of eliminating rivals, the temporary interruption of the Tang Dynasty with the Zhou, the growth in the secret police and persecutions by Wu Sansi must have produced mistrust between officials, the advancement of Buddhism over Taoism, much of which had by 697 led to the wholesale demotion, exile and killing of aristocratic families and scholars. Even the Empress's opening up of the route to the establishment by enfranchising wider groups to take the imperial examinations perhaps reducing the aristocratic Chen's regard for such qualifications .

In poetry Chen favoured a return to his "music of metal and stone", valuing "authentic expression over performance, directness over elusiveness and substance over design" (see Paula Varsano writing in "How to Read Chinese Poetry"), advocating a return to the way of the ancients, to a purer less ornamental poetry, perhaps echoing his experience of corruption and manipulation at court and his desire to follow the Dao (Tao, the Way).

An awful lot to fit into a short poem; even more challenging to attempt to bring this into a translation of this apparently simple poem!

Ray Heaton said...

Despite Chen's desire for spontaneity there are patterns in this poem, most especially evident in the parallelism evident in the first two lines which Andrew maintains and translates as "ahead"/"behind", "I see no"/"nor" and "ancient sages"/"sages yet unborn"; although I find that translating 念 as "so" in line three detracts from the "seeing" in the first two lines (translated in line one, but implied in line two) being countered by the "thought" (念) of the barrenness of heaven and earth, rather than gazing upon the landscape from the tower, he imagines it, with its emptiness, devoid of companions worthy of Chen's abilities, emphasising his feelings of being "lonely, desolate and forsaken". Using "so" rather than introducing the poet's thoughts, neglects these opposites; seeing (or rather not seeing) the ancients from before or those yet to come contrasting with thinking of the breadth of heaven and earth (something that could be seen from the tower but is imagined instead) shows that Chen's inner vision is far greater than something that can be simply observed.

Although Chen is "no divinity" and does not "bear the sins of humankind", his personal vision is far greater than most mortals, he expresses his solitude in lines three and four, it's as if the sages have forsaken him. He contrasts the immensity of creation, his all-encompassing solitude with the intimacy of his reaction, his shedding of tears. And it's here that I think the translation missed an opportunity in the interpretation of 悠悠, "So, on and on".

I think the repetition here is being used to emphasise a deep sadness, similar to how Buddhist monk Wang Fanzhi uses the same coupling in his poem 悠悠世事, "The melancholy of worldly things" and why Jiang Wenye repeats Chen's lines in his poem "Rhapsody of the Temple of Heaven" where poets are "reciprocating one another's musings over the vicissitudes of human destiny and the desolation of history" (see David Derwei Wang's "The Lyrical in Epic Times"). Andrew's translation to "So, on and on, heaven and earth shall roll" reads to me of timelessness, a world never ending, rather than one of emptiness, a future devoid of the sages as companions for Chen.

Andrew has rightly discarded sentimentality in the last line, though I find the addition of "Left" as in "Left all alone" unnecessary (other than to support the metric structure of the last two lines and perhaps echoing Jesus's cry "Why have you forsaken me") and purely from a purely personal view I would rather see the poem unrhymed and unstructured metrically than it having to support such a construct, to me this and the use of "forlorn" adds an ornamental flourish despised by Chen and doesn't support Chen's prosaic simple style.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

I thank Ray Heaton for providing, in his comment #1, a background to the life and poetry of Chen Zi'ang and, in particular, for pointing out that "(i)n poetry Chen favoured a return to his 'music of metal and stone' ... advocating a return to the way of the ancients, to a purer less ornamental poetry ....."

I am also truly grateful to Ray for his critique of my rendition in his comment #2 to which I will now respond:-

Lines 1 and 2 不見: 前不見古人/後不見來者, with the repetition of 不見, is strictly speaking no parallelism in Chinese poetry where the same idea must be
rendered in different words. The 2 lines are prosaic, or even vernacular. I have therefore not attempted to render them in English uniformly as "I see not" or "I do not see". I take this opportunity to revise the word "the" in line 2 to read "those".

Line 3 悠悠: There are a total of 13 definitions for the expression 悠悠 in the 漢語大詞典 and only one means "worry" or miss" and is somewhat related to "melancholy". The early Tang dynasty Buddhist monk 王梵表 Wang Fanzhi's 悠悠世事 is from his poem "世事悠悠/不如山丘/青松蔽日/碧澗長秋" in which, to me, 悠悠 does not mean 'melancholic" but "multifarious", hence, "bothersome" and "troublesome". I have yet to read 江文也 Jiang Wenye's 天壇賦 Rhapsody of the Temple of Heaven and will supplement as soon as I have done so. In the mean time, I will stick to my interpretation of "heaven and earth going on for a long time"

Line 3 念: Thanks to Ray, I agree my "So" is far less than adequate. I have now decided to revise it to read "While" or, alternatively, "Thus".

Line 4 愴然: I did not pen "forlorn" as a "flourish". The Shorter Oxford defines it as "A. 4. abandoned, forsaken; desolate" and is preferable to the alternative "heart torn". The line is now revised to read "Alone I stand, tears a-falling, forlorn."

These revisions are now effected in the post. I have insisted on the rhyme scheme (and metric structure) partly because most peop[le have failed to find 者 (line 2) and 下 (line 4) rhyme.

Andrew W.F. Wong 黃宏發 said...

This morning I borrowed from the library David Wang Der-wei's book "The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis"; on pp. 230-2 is found Wang's discussion of Jiang Wenye's poem "Rhapsody of the Temple of Heaven" (賦天壇, sorry, not 天壇賦) insofar as Chen Zi'ang's poem is concerned. In Chapter 1, Section 5 of Jiang's poem, lines 1 and 2 of the Chen poem (Wang's translation: "I see no ancients before me;/ I see no followers after me") are quoted verbatim, line 4 is drastically changed from 獨愴然而涕下 to 起不了愴然而淚下底感情 (Wang's translation: "no feeling to evoke desolate tears") to, perhaps, say he does not share Chen's feelings, but lines 1 and 2 are then quoted again verbatim as if to conclude that he at least understands Chen's "grave sense of loss and loneliness across time, however different the context." (Wang's words)

Noticeably missing is Chen's line 3 in the Jiang poem, probably because the meaning of 悠悠, in the context of 天地悠悠, is quite clear: it can only be either "longevity" or "immensity of heaven and earth (Wang p. 231)" or both. I hope my choice of "(shall roll) on and on" has done Chen justice.

Again, my tribute and gratitude to Ray Heaton for his learned and well-considered comments.

Ray Heaton said...

I am somewhat envious that you have such a good library Andrew, to be able to borrow David Wang Der-Wei's book! Living on a small island off the North Wales coast leaves me rather bereft of such cultural directness (and hence why sometimes my comments are less than timely, as I may need to travel for research purposes..see how long it took to comment on the last poem for example!)

I appreciate your responses to me comments, and am truly glad that you see them as positive...I sometime worry that I come across negatively; the reality is I find your translations inspiring and I'm always full of anticipation for the next "adventure" you provide for me in exploring more deeply into the poem, poet and historical context.

I remain unsure about the use of "forlorn"; I equate Chen's prosaic style with the vernacular, and hence using what I consider to be a rather archaic and uncommon word runs counter to Chen's stylistic ambition. However, Andrew, as you have identified a rhyme scheme missed by others which perhaps would require a major change in line two to maintain if "forlorn" was modified then despite my personal "non-rhyme" preference , "forlorn" is better left as is.

Alex said...

Hello! Some personal research led me to this page. Would anyone happen to have an english translation of this Chen Zi'ang poem? https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/%E6%98%A5%E6%97%A5%E7%99%BB%E9%87%91%E5%8D%8E%E8%A7%82. It would be wonderfully appreciated.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

This is very helpful, but I think one problem with the translation is that in English, when ahead and behind are used to talk about time, ahead always refers to the future and behind to the past, which is the opposite of temporal meaning of 前 and 後. Thus, this translation makes it sound as if Chen is asserting what is true by definition: that there are no "sages of old" in the future and no "sages yet to come" in the past. Instead, I would strongly recommend before and after (which etymologically do refer to the front and back, respectively, as do the corresponding Chinese words).