04 April 2016

于謙 Yu Qian: 石灰吟 The Limestone Rhyme

Today, I am posting my rendition of a quatrain by the 15th century Ming 明 dynasty poet Yu Qian 于謙 entitled "The Limestone Rhyme" 石灰吟.  The poem is simple enough.  It uses the analogy of limestone turned lime to whiten the world (even at the expense of one's own life) to air one's noble aspirations to serve his country  

The last 2 lines of the poem have recently been used by the University of Hong Kong's "Students' Strike Organising Committee" to entitle their 29 January 2016 statement in Chinese made in response, inter alias, to the University's governing Council's refusal to accede to their demands at the Council meeting on the 26th and to the Council Chairman Prof. Arthur Li's accusations made at a press conference on the 28th. http://www.inmediahk.net/node/1040315 

Their version of the 2 lines 粉身碎骨渾不怕 但留清白在人間 differs slightly from my 粉骨碎身渾不怕 要留清白在人間, but the message is the same: "My bones be crushed, body severed, /shall brave it all, and more, //To leave behind an impeccable white /to remain with humankind."  My young friends, I salute you. 

I am not here to discuss the rights and wrongs in this controversy.  But there is a saying which goes: "The road to hell is often paved with the best of intentions."
I am inclined to ask: given the best of intentions, have you, young students, ever considered that your demands and actions may not be right?  Similarly, but much more importantly (as power and duty commensurate), I am asking: given the best of intentions, have you, Chairman and Members of the governing Council, ever considered that your views and decisions/actions could be wrong?  My older friends, is it really so hard to admit that, as no man is infallible, one could be wrong?

I pray we will all take the right actions to whiten and brighten our tomorrow. Here goes my rendition of the poem:- 

Yu Qian (1398-1457): The Limestone Rhyme

1  Pounded, chiselled myriad times, deep in the hills I was mined;
2  Be burned and blazed in raging fire is but nothing, to my mind.
3  My bones be crushed, body severed, shall brave it all, and more,
4  To leave behind an impeccable white to remain with humankind.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
12 February 2016 (revised 14.2.16; 15.2.16; 16.2.16; 17.2.16; 18.2.16; 19.2.16; 18.3.16; 21.3.16)
Translated from the original - 于謙: 石灰吟

1  千錘萬鑿出深山
2  烈火焚燒若等閒
3  粉骨碎身渾不怕
4  要留清白在人間


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 7-character quatrain with a rhyme scheme of AAXA.  This English rendition is in heptameter (7 feet or beats) with the same rhyme scheme.  The end rhyme of “mined” and “mind” in lines 1 and 2 respectively is less than perfect as the sound is identical.  I have dropped all the “I’s” and “my’s” in this rendition, making it possible to read the poem as in the first person (referring to oneself as “lime”), or in the third person (describing/praising him/her as such), or even in the second person (presenting the lines to the “you” for being such) .

*Line 1:  “hammer, hammered” is rendered as “Pounded”.  For “chisel”, I have considered “dug”, “drilled” and “wedged”, and have decided for “chiselled”.  I have translated their respective adjectives “thousand” and “ten thousand” in combination as “myriad times” as both words refer not to numbers but simply mean “numerous”.  “come out, produced” is rendered as “mined” (“quarried”) for the rhyme .

*Line 2:  烈火 is translated literally as “raging fire”, and 焚燒 also literally as “burned and blazed”.  I had considered using “baked” for “blazed”, but have decided against it because of its food connotations.  It must be pointed out that what is blazing is not the limestone, but the furnace fuel.  (Lime is made by heating limestone or sea shells in a kiln to a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Celsius.)  For 若等閒 “I see/regard as unimportant/no big deal”, I had considered “is a trifle, to my mind”, “is a matter I care not mind”, “is a trifle I hardly mind” and “is a trifle I just don’t mind”, but have decided for “is but nothing, to my mind”.

*Line 3:  “crushed/ground into powder” “bones” is rendered as “My bones be crushed”, and “cut up” “body”, as “body severed”.  There exist versions of this poem which feature these 4 words as 粉身碎骨 (with “body” preceding “bones”) which is the more common formulation of this proverbial saying.  However, I venture to suggest that the more popular version of the proverb is a corruption of the original 粉骨碎身 (with “bones” preceding “body”) which had been in use as early as the Tang dynasty.  For (which means) “all” 不怕 “not afraid of”, I had originally penned “I fear not, O not at all” but, in order to bring out the very active and positive meaning hidden behind the expression渾不怕 and the word “want to” in the following line, I have decided for “shall brave it all, and more”.

*Line 4:  For 要留在人間, I had considered “To leave (or give or bring) to the world … for the sake of humankind” and “To paint (or wash) the world … for the good of all mankind”, but have decided for the more literal “To leave behind … to remain with humankind”.  For 清白 “clean (or pure), white”, I had originally considered translating it literally as “to leave … the clean, the white” or “to paint … all clean and white” as this poem was written by Yu Qian when he was purportedly just a teenager long before he was accused of disloyalty and executed by the Emperor Ying Zhong 英宗 whom he helped re-instated and, hence, any suggestion of “innocence” could be out of place.  However, the idea of “innocence” is ever present even in words such as “clean”, “pure” (even “white”).  I, therefore, moved on to consider “stainless”, “taintless”, “immaculate”, “unblemished” as alternatives to “clean” and “pure”, and have decided for “impeccable”.  The whole line 要留清白在人間 is now rendered as “To leave behind an impeccable white to remain with humankind”. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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