12 September 2019

李清照 Li Qingzhao: 烏江/ 夏日絕句 River Wu/ Quatrain Written on a Summer Day

Today, I am posting a quatrain by Li Qingzhao which was probably written on a summer day when travelling pass River Wu where was located a shrine in honour of the Grand Lord of Western Chu, Xiang Yu (after the fall of the Qin dynasty) who lost the empire to the Lord of Han, Liu Bang.  The struggle between the two is immortalized on the Chinese chess board with the words 楚河 Chu River, 漢界 Han Boundary.  Here goes my rendition:

Li Qingzhao (1084-1151): River Wu/ Quatrain Written on a Summer Day

1    In life, among men, be a leader;
2    In death, of the dead, a hero be.
3    Till now, Lord Xiang Yu is still remembered:
4    In defeat, he’d rather die than flee.

Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa)    譯者: 黃宏發
16th June 2019 (17.6.19; 18.6.19; 19.6.19)
Translated from the original - 李清照﹕烏江/ 夏日絕句

1    生當作人傑
2    死亦為鬼雄
3    至今思項羽
5    不肯過江東


*Form, Metre and Rhyme:  The original is a 5-character quatrain or “jueju” 絕句 which is a 4-lined short poem.  This English rendition is in tetrameter (4 beats or feet) largely iambic in metre.  The rhyme scheme is XAXA as in the original.

*Lines 1 and 2:  These 2 lines are exhortations.  I have taken in line 1 and in line 2 to mean “in living” and “in dying” (not “when alive” and “when dead”).  They are, therefore, rendered as “In life” and “In death” respectively.  (should) (be) (men) (outstanding) in line 1 is rendered as “among men, be a leader” (= be a leader of men), and (also) (be) (ghosts) (strong hero) in line 2 is rendered as “of the dead, a hero be” (= be a hero of the dead).

*Line 3:  至今 is translated literally as “Till now”.  I have taken (think) in this context to mean 思念(remember, in this case, the dead) and have, therefore, translated it also literally as “is still remembered”.  項羽, being a name, is transliterated with the word “Lord” added to hint at the fact that he was the Grand Lord of Western Chu 西楚霸() vying against the Lord of Han 漢王 Liu Bang 劉邦 for the Qin dynasty 秦朝 Chinese empire.  Although it was Xiang Yu who crushed the Qin army and ended the Qin dynasty in 206 BC and was the strongest of all lords, he was in the end defeated by Liu Bang, the Lord of Han, who successfully established the Han dynasty 漢朝 on Xiang Yu’s death in 202 BC.

*Line 4:  不肯(refuse) (to cross/go to) (river) (east) is rendered as “In defeat, would rather die than flee” with (a) “In defeat” added to give the context, (b) “he’d rather … than …” used to render 不肯, and (c) “(rather) die” and “(than) flee” introduced to tell the story of his refusal to take the escape boat to return to his homeland east of the river.  According to history, in defeat, Xiang Yu retreated to River Wu 烏江 (a tributary of the Yangzi River) where an escape boat was waiting; but he refused to board the boat, and took his own life by the riverside. 


Classical Chinese Poems in English


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