Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Autumn Cicada, another grumpy poem

This poem is the second in the series of poems about lowly life forms, set to the tune Double Tune Celebrating the Sacred Dynasty, which included the Frogs of the last post.

Interestingly, the line jooci jooki bai suggests that the poem is directed at the cicadas, rather than being a complaint to a sympathetic listener. Verbiest explains the -ki suffix as follows (translation by Pentti, 1977): “When we are speaking to our equals or superiors, however, we have to add the suffix -ki to the second person imperative in order to express and invitation and not a command.”

bingsiku [秋涼兒]    Autumn Cicada
Staatsbibliothek 11.38 (View Online)
eimede,    Repugnant!
jamarangge ai,    What is this commotion?
arkan teni nakafi,    You barely stop and then,
baji geli hūlahai,    soon you are calling again.

jaci muritai.

    How stubborn!

eyoyo,    Ugh.
jooci jooki bai,    If you’re going to stop, then please just stop!
erin hahi dulekei,    As the hours rushed by,
geli ainu bošohoi,    why did you drive them on?
10dembei yangšan kai.    You’re so exceedingly noisy!

Translation Notes:

eyoyo. I could not find this one in dictionaries, but from context I think it is most likely onomatopoeia.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Frogs, an unhappy poem to a suspicious tune

SB 11 has a group of four poems that take lowly forms of life as their subjects: Frogs, Cicadas, Dragonflies and Praying Mantises. Each of these poems casts the subject in a negative light, as in the poem below, where the frogs keep the poet awake all night with their incessant noise.

These four works are all set to a tune called Double Tune Celebrating the Sacred Dynasty (双調賀聖朝). There is a  tune attested in the Táng, Sòng and Yuán with a similar name (examples of which can be found on Sou-Yun).

Is there any significance to the fact that these derogatory poems are set to a tune that, from its name, would be expected celebrate the current dynasty?

wakšan [蝦蟇]    Frogs
Staatsbibliothek 11.37 (View Online)
dobonio,    All night,
ulu wala ya,    oh, the murmuring,
kunggur kunggur gūwaššame,    the grumbling, rumbling, throbbing,
corgin corgin kaicara,    the chattering, nattering, shouting

mudan hahiba.

    in rapid tones.

fuhali,    It seems like
tungken urangga,    the resonance of drums
jilgan uhei šašahai,    sounding all together
tolgin gemu tookaka,    have delayed all my dreams.
10jaci ubiyada.    So very detestable!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Flowers, to the tune of the Black-Naped Oriole

There is some kind of dialog between the Black-Naped Oriole poems in SB 11 and the Wind in the Pines poems that follow them. The Black-Naped Oriole poems are fun-loving, while the Wind in the Pines poems use many of the same words and themes to produce a more profound and bittersweet effect.

The following is the Black-Naped Oriole pair to the poem in my earlier post about A Flower. The last line of a Black-Naped Oriole poem often has a surprising twist on the theme of the poem, and this one is a good example of that. After describing flowers in glowing terms, the poet ends by suggesting the scene might be strange and unearthly.

ilha [花]    Flowers
Staatsbibliothek 11.6 (View Online)
hojo fayangga,    Beautiful spirits
yoo tai [瑤台] ci,    from White Jade Terrace
wasika,    descended.
booci jalan šanggaha,    From that home, finishing in this world,
5hocikon sasa,    lovely together,
gincihiyan baba,    shining everywhere,
fiyangga fiyan jai,    a flush blush and
wangga wa,    a fragrant scent.
agu tuwa,    Brother, look,
10kumungge ten –    the height of festivity –
hode faijuma.    perhaps it is unearthly.

Translation Notes

yoo tai. Yaotai is an abode of immortals. My translation of 瑶 as “white jade” comes from the fact that 瑶 can mean, by extension, brilliantly and purely white (zdic: 光明洁白).

faijuma. The word faijuma apparently has a negative connotation. The Qianlong dictionary explains it as follows: baita hacin sain akū jalin jobošome hendumbihede faijuma sembi, “When people talk about being distressed by things and affairs that are not good, they use the word faijuma.” I think the poet does not mean to say that flowers are creepy or unsettling, but at the same time I think he doesn’t want the reader to be completely comfortable with these strange and beautiful things that seem to have descended from some other realm.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Song on Forsythia to the tune of Wind in the Pines

About 18 of the SBJ poems are about flowers. I’ve previously posted A Chrysanthemum at the End and A Flower, which used the aging flower to talk about human life. In A Song on Forsythia the flower is still used to talk about people, but in a different way.

The name okdori ilha could refer to forsythia or winter jasmine, both yellow flowers that bloom in late Winter or early Spring. This poem showers the flower with backhanded praise, acknowledging its beauty but deriding its simplicity and eagerness.

okdori ilha-i [迎春花] uculen    A Song on Forsythia
Staatsbibliothek 14.4 (View Online)
manggai buyasi sure,    Merely simpleminded,
sahiba teile,    only fawning,
niyengniyeri de tosohoi,    as it ambushes Spring,
bucetei saišabume,    and flatters it to death.
5 guwele mele saikan,    Furtively, stealthily pretty,
dede dada hojo,

    frivolously lovely.

dembei dedenggi boco,    The silliest color,
baibi gicuke,    simply disgraceful,
halukan ici kani,    in league with the warm weather,
10te uthai kūwasa cokto,    so now boastful and arrogant,
banjitai oilohon,    superficial by nature,
funiyagan ajige.    of little forbearance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Flower, to the tune of Wind in the Pines

A lot of the SBJ poems are about flowers. Since it’s now Spring, it seems appropriate to start working on some of these. This one is in the same style as Wind and Snow, which use the tune Wind in the Pines and make heavy use of alliteration.

This poem uses many different words for “beautiful,” and in teasing out the different nuances I benefited enormously from being able to look up these terms in Hu Zengyi and Qianlong through the online dictionary at

The first stanza talks about the fresh blooming of a flower, and the second stanza talks about the flower’s decline, a powerful contrast reminiscent of the Moon. This flower was young and shapely once, the center of attention for a cloud of butterflies, but then fades, and longs for that former desire when all the admirers have gone away.

All of the SB poems are anonymous, and perhaps we will never know who wrote them, but the SB 11 poems to the tune of Wind in the Pines seem very sympathetic to the emotional lives of women, and I wonder if we will ever learn that the poet was a woman.

ilha [花],    A Flower
Staatsbibliothek 11.18 (View Online)
ice icebuhengge,    A new thing stained,
boconggo boco,    with colorful colors,
fiyangga fiyan fiyen, wangga wa,    a flush blush and rouge, a fragrant scent, 
yangsanggai yaya yangse,    every shape is shapely,
5hojo kai hocikon,    lovely, indeed, and beautiful,
yebken ni yebcungge.

    fine, oh, and striking.

geren gemu gefehe,    All settled and thick
noroko noho,    with butterflies.
fayangga ai farapi,    But alas, the spirit faints away,
10buyenin buyecuke,    the desire is longed for,
tuhen tuhekede,    when what falls has fallen,
gegese genehe.    and the ladies have gone.

Translation Notes

boconggo boco and fiyangga fiyan fiyen. While boconggo and fiyangga may seem to be nearly the same in meaning, in poetry it seems like the latter is used more often to describe bright pink, orange and red colors, like autumn trees, sunsets and a person’s complexion, while the former is used more broadly. The Qianlong Manchu dictionary gives cira boco sain, beye ambalinggū be fiyangga sembi, “A good color of the face, or a stalwart body, are called fiyangga.” I chose “flush blush” as my translation for fiyangga fiyan to reflect this nuance.

hojo kai hocikon and yebken ni yebcungge. For these words Norman gives a set of overlapping meanings in the range of cute, attractive, likable, beautiful. A look at the Qianlong dictionary suggests that the former represents a specifically feminine type of beauty, as hehesi umesi hocikon be hojo sembi, “when women are very beautiful (hocikon) it is called hojo.” It is tempting to assume the latter is a more masculine type of beauty, but that is almost certainly not the case. Hu Zengyi gives an example sargan jui i arbun yebken saikan bisire fon i adali, “like the time when a girl’s appearance is yebken and saikan.” QL gives us getuken dacun niyalma be yebken sembi, “a lucid and shrewd person is called yebken.”

Sunday, January 28, 2018

In Praise of Snow, by Jakdan

Jakdan’s poems tend to be longer than the Staatsbibliothek poems, and full of literary allusions that need to be tracked down, so they are not easy to work on. This one has taken a few weekends to complete, and in the end I needed the help of my Manchu reading group to understand parts of it—and even then I am not to certain about parts of it.

Like the earlier Snow poem that was set to the tune of Wind in the Pines, this one invokes the imagery of scales falling from dragons fighting in the sky. This imagery is used in Chinese poetry at least as far back as the late Sòng or early Míng, as in these lines by Yè Yóng (葉顒):

庚子雪中十二律 其十一    Number 11 of 12 Poems amid the Snow of the Year 1120
攪碎銀河戰玉龍,    Breaking up the Milky Way, jade dragons are fighting,
紛紜鱗甲舞天風。    many scattered scales dance on the wind of Heaven.
江山浩浩芳塵逺,    Fragrant powder is spread far over vast rivers and mountains,
宇宙茫茫醉眼空。    the boundless universe makes the eyes drunk with emptiness.
春老不香雲樹裏,    The bygone Spring no longer perfumes the clouds and trees,
鶴歸無影月明中。    the cranes return without a shadow in the brightness of the moon.
霜橋驢背尋詩罷,    On the frosty bridge, a donkey carries what will end my poem:
自爇寒爐榾柮紅。    Red kindling and wood to fire my cold stove.

Jakdan’s poem below mentions a lady Daoyun, who must be the Eastern Jìn female poet Xiè Dàoyùn (謝道蘊). Her uncle Xiè Ān is supposed to have been talking with his nieces and nephews about similes that could describe the flying snow, when Xiè Lǎng said “One could more or less compare it to ‘salt sprinkled in the sky’” (撒鹽空中差可擬). At this, Xiè Dàoyùn responded, “That’s not as good as ‘catkins rising on the wind’” (未若柳絮因風起).

The poem also references Lan Kiyoo, perhaps the “Blue Bridge” mentioned in the following lines from Táng poet Yuán Zhěn (元稹). In this poem, the ‘flour market’ describes a village dusted with snow. Thanks to Keith Dede and Steve Wadley for helping me understand the that the ‘flour market’ in this poem describes a village dusted with snow.

西歸絕句十二首 其十一

    Number 11 of 12 Quatrains on Returning West
雲覆藍橋雪滿溪,    Clouds cover Blue Bridge and snow fills the creek,
須臾便與碧峰齊。    suddenly it has become like the jade peaks.
風回麵市連天合,    The wind returns, and the ‘flour market’ melds into the sky,
凍壓花枝著水低。    encasing ice presses the blooming branches down under water.

I have not yet been able to track down the Yan Qi of line 23.

nimanggi be maktahangge    In Praise of Snow
Jakdan 8.12
nimanggi kai nimanggi,    Snow, it’s snow!
terei tucin aibici,    Where does it come from?
geli ilhai moo akū,    There are no flowering trees,
ainu fiyentehe canggi,    how can there be petals on their own?
5mere juhe nicuhe,    Ice pearls like grains of buckwheat,
labsan suku inggari,    snowflake fuzz on the thickets.
beri beri samsitai,    They sprinkle bit by bit,
siran siran urkuji,    one after the other without interruption,
buru bara bitele,    till everything is hazy,
10šanyan šeyen bengneli,    then suddenly white, pure white,
ekisakai singkeyen,    and quietly frigid.
jalutala šarapi,    Everything is full of white,
tugi sisere manda,    and the clouds sift slowly,
edun bošoro hahi,    but the wind presses them on.
15šeyen muduri aise,    Perhaps it is as though white dragons
becunure adali,    are fighting each other,
maka esihe huru,    maybe their scaly shells,
gari mari garjafi,    have been broken asunder,
hūrgirengge hon garsa,    and their nimble spinning,
20maksihangge ten faksi,    their skilled dancing,
tuweri erin-i ferguwen,    are the auspicious sign of winter time,
bayan aniya-i serki,

    the harbinger of a rich year.

saisa yan ki-i dalba,    The scholar next to the Yan Qi,
amban lan kiyoo-i ergi,    the official beside the Blue Bridge,
25yaka boode deduhei,    Someone who has passed the night at home,
eici guyoo fehumbi,    now may tread on green jasper.
ba na heni ni akū,    There isn’t even the slightest bit of ground,
ne je amba gu bini,    right now it is just a giant jadestone,
gehun gahūn bolokon,    shining bright and clear.
30aide toron buraki,    Where is the dust and grime?
acan ninggun giyalan juwe,    The whole universe and both realms,
bolgomire samadi,    is locked in fasting meditation,
niša soninggai tuwabun,    an intensely interesting scene,
gu-i efin unenggi,

    a game of jade made real.

35erei muke cai fuifu,    Boil its water to make tea,
abkai wa su be omi,    and drink the scent and gusts of Heaven.
terei jafu nisihai,    With his directive,
tondo amban-i empi,    the nonsense of a loyal minister,
murui duibulen hojo,    [produced] a beautiful simile,
40doo yūn tere gege i,    [from] lady Daoyun herself,
gubci jalan saišacun,    and the praise of the whole world:
šuwe gūwa akū damu si,

    Only you are utterly peerless.

šumin sahangge fe ya,    Deep knowledge is ancient, oh,
niorokongge manggai bi,    what is profound is difficult to attain.
45tanggū jeku-i simen,    The essence of a hundred foods,
tumen ilha-i šugi,    the nectar of ten thousand flowers,
jing cak sere šahūrun,    is presently freezing cold,
emhulehe niyengniyeri,    and the Spring season which lays claim to them,
nenden ilha gaibuha,    has made the plum flower take them,

maise antaka kesi,

    and shown such mercy to the grain.

juhe secen-i gucu,    Friends of ice and frost,
tugi aga-i fusi,    under clouds and rain,
gaha bulehen duwali,    are the confederation of crows and cranes
jakdan cuse-i hoki,

    and the society of pines and bamboo.

55na-i dolo a weihun,    Yang is alive in the earth,
ba-i oilo e fempi,    and yin envelopes the land,
fuserengge jing luku,    thick in its propagation,
gingkarangge hon beki,    very powerful in its stifling grip,
ton akū-i sain ba,    but numberless are its good points,
60šošorongge hoošan fi,    what it heaps up are paper and brushes.
saikan kai nimanggi.    Beautiful, indeed, is snow.

Translation Difficulties

mere juhe nicuhe. This is more of an observation than a difficulty. Norman has mere nimanggi, “snow that has frozen into small beads the size of a grain of buckwheat.” I think that must be what is intended here.

tugi sisere manda. Literally it seems like this means “the sifting of the clouds is slow.” Though this line feels unnatural to me (why not tugi mandai sisembi?), I suppose the poet chose this phrasing to parallel the next line, edun bošoro hahi.

acan ninggun giyalan juwe. This feels like a calque of a Chinese chéngyǔ, but I can’t find the exact original. There is 六合之内, “all within the universe,” and it’s easy to imagine a coordinate phrase like *六合二世, so that is how I have read it for now.

terei jafu nisihai / tondo amban-i empi. These lines present multiple alternate readings, and in the end I’m not convinced I have found the right one, but what I have here makes more sense than the others I have tried.

  • jafu may mean “directive” or “blanket.” I originally wanted to read this as “blanket” to parallel the prior couplet, thinking that tea and a blanket would make a pair of comforting elements in winter. However, with that reading I couldn’t make sense of the whole couplet, so I abandoned it in favor of “directive.” Given the word-play that Jakdan has engaged in elsewhere, it is possible he intended both meanings simultaneously.
  • empi. This word is attested with the meaning of “artemesia,” but what is the “artemesia of a loyal minister?” Tom Larsen suggested the reading of “nonsense” for empi, based on empirembi, “to speak nonsense,” which looks like it could be formed from a noun like *empi(n), together with the deverbal morpheme -rA that appears in words like gisurembi < gisun, nikarambi < nikan, manjurambi < manju. Since “nonsense” and “directive” both fit into the semantic domain of spoken things, I decided to use that reading.
  • tondo amban. This is not a translation problem so much as a problem of reference: Who is the loyal minister? Since the following couplets refer to Xiè Dàoyùn, perhaps this refers to her uncle Xiè Ān, and maybe the “directive” is the one he gave to his nieces and nephews to produce similes for snow.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Sled

I’ve been laboring over a Jakdan poem on snow, but needed to take a break, so here’s another fun Staatsbibliothek poem. As it happens, this weekend I went sledding in the mountains, so it’s seasonally quite appropriate.

This poem is composed of four couplets with seven-syllable lines and an A-rhyme. The sled portrayed in this poem seems to have wooden struts (mooi bangtu) and iron runners (selei siren), perhaps something like the sleds shown in the image below, which comes from an article at

huncu [冰床] be irgebuhengge    Verses on the Sled
Staatsbibliothek 14.2 (View Online)
sejen jahūdai waka    Neither cart nor boat,
mukei oilo icangga,    but comfortable on the surface of the water.
tecenduci jalupi    We sat together and filled it up,
yaburede hahiba    and when we went it was quick.
5 mooi bangtu garsa nio    Aren’t the wooden struts clever?
selei siren nilhūn ya    The iron runners are slick indeed!
jugūn akū yun akū    With neither road nor track,
elemangga hafu ja.    it nonetheless gets through easily.