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.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ice Skates

A couple of weeks ago I went ice skating for the first time in my life, so now seems like a good time to post this poem.

What I like about this one is that its topic is fun and everyday. I have searched the Sou-Yun database for any similar Chinese poem on ice skates, but I have not found one.

I wrestled with whether the poet was the skater, or whether it was addressed to another person. The important difference, to me, is whether the poem was intended to mock another person or to be humorously self-deprecating. I decided to read it as the latter because of the uttu at the beginning, “like this,” which seems like it would more likely have been tuttu if describing another person.

nisukū-i [冰鞋] uculen    A Little Song on Ice Skates
Staatsbibliothek 14.3 (View Online)
hūdun ai uttu,    I am so quick,
garsangga,    agile,
ildamu,    elegant,
sururengge ben fulu,    most capable at amusing people,
5sain ubu,    first-class,
bonggo uju,    the pinnacle of excellence,
anahūnjan jai akū,    and second to none in modesty.
gelesu,    Careful!
tuhekede —    When I fall —
10amba injeku.    it is very funny.