Friday, June 29, 2018

Captain of the Team

This seems like a good poem for World Cup season. It is one of a group of poems relating to sports.

The primary meaning of mumuhu is apparently a kind of leather ball, but looking at the 1771 Qianlong dictionary it seems this can also refer to someone who plays with such a ball:
sukū be muheliyen arame ufifi dolo fuka teleme sindafi fesheleme efirengge be mumuhu sembi
“one who sews leather to make a ball, stretches it around rings within, and plays with it by kicking it, is called mumuhu
This poem is apparently intended to invoke both meanings of “ball” and “player,” since it starts out describing a ball, and ends up describing a person. According to, the Chinese title 行頭 (pronounced háng tóu) was a term for the captain of a squadron in ancient times, and I have tried to incorporate this sense in my translation of the title.

The word mumuhu also has a derisive meaning, perhaps because a person who spends his time playing ball was considered idle and aimless. If the derisive sense is intended in this poem, it is not overt, but there might be a bit of a joke here anyway. Suppose we read the entire poem with the vision of a ball in our mind, end then the last line hits us like a punchline and we realize it is not the ball but the handsome player who is being called mumuhu.

mumuhu [行頭],    Captain of the Team
Staatsbibliothek 11.53 (View Online)
tor sehei,    Spinning,
aimaka biya,    like the moon,
pio seme,    floating,
wesihun ya,    so high.
5 fahara sain    Good at throwing down,
alire mangga,    and difficult to withstand,
karahai geren yasa,    all eyes are looking on,
oihori saišacuka,    exceedingly praiseworthy,
yalake,    truly,
10hojo haha.    a handsome guy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Clay Daughter-in-Law

There are two Staatsbibliothek poems titled The Clay Daughter-in-Law, a term that refers to a type of doll (sometimes a magical figure, also called 魔合罗, mó hé luó). They praise the doll as the ideal daughter-in-law: Serious but pretty, and adored by children, exemplifying motherly love.

The two poems are closely related, and this is made clear by the use of the word dacan. This term does not appear in my dictionaries or anywhere else in the SBJ poetry, so I have had to make a guess at its meaning from context, yet it appears in both of these poems in connection with the question of who will marry the doll. It seems quite likely that one of these poems is a response to the other.

The opening line of the second poem suggests an interesting subversive alternate reading. The word boihon means “clay,” but it can also be a variant spelling of boigon, “property,” and the two words were probably pronounced the same. If we read this line as “fated to be property” then the second poem takes on a subtly different tone. However, I cannot tell whether I want to read it this way because of my own cultural values, or whether the poet intended to invoke this ambiguous meaning.

The first poem is to the tune Celebrating the Sacred Dynasty:

boihon urun [泥媳婦],    The Clay Daughter-in-Law
Staatsbibliothek 11.86 (View Online)
urun buyakan,    The daughter-in-law is rather small.
abai dacan,    Whither is she destined?
yaka ini hojihon,    Who will be her groom?
banjinjiha ya aniya,    In what year did she come to live here?

sohon ihan,

    In the Yellow Ox year.

hehei doro giyan,    The right way of a woman
dulin yongkiyan,    is to be perfect in halves.
jingji dade hocikon,    Serious, but also pretty.
buya juse niorokoi,    A motherly love
10aja jilan.    that charms the little children.

The second poem is to the tune Heavenly Spice:

boihon urun [泥媳婦],    The Clay Daughter-in-Law
Staatsbibliothek 11.51 (View Online)
boihon hesebun,    To be clay is her fate,
yala unenggi gūnin,    indeed she is sincere,
heni oilohon akū,    not the slightest bit frivolous.
urun,    For a daughter-in-law

ujen jingji hon sain.

    to be grave and serious is very good.

dacan talihūn,    Her destiny is undecided,
tusuhengge ya eigen,    to what husband will she be given?
ainci nairahūn dere,    Presumably she is gentle.
gosin,    Compassion,
10buya juse haji ten.    for little children, is the height of love.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The New Moon

ice biya [新月]    New Moon
Staatsbibliothek 14.10 (View Online)
mudanggai faitan,    A curved eyebrow,
ijifun    a comb
oncohon,    on its back,
gu-i gohon bokšokon,    the elegance of a jade hook,
5hitahūn mudan,    the curve of a fingernail,
fatha toron,    the mark of a talon,
bulekui jerin saliyan,    the bare edge of a mirror,
hon hihan,    most precious,
juhei weihu –    a canoe of ice —
10 hiyotohon saikan.    crescent-shaped and beautiful.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Diagram of Official Advancement

This is one of a series of four poems about different games. It is similar to the poem Weiqi of Political Advancement.

hafan wesire durugan [升官圖],    Diagram of Official Advancement
Staatsbibliothek 11.29 (View Online)
nirugan gese,    Like a picture,
hafasa,    the officials
faidame,    line up,
ilhi anan-i tolo,    score them rank by rank.
5 wesici ne je,    Now they rise,
wasici ne je,    now they fall,
dele wala andande,    suddenly on top or at bottom.
naka joo,    Stop! Enough!
tongki ton bi,    There is a score—
10ume bodoro.    Don’t calculate it!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Crows, to the tune Drunk on the East Wind

gaha [烏鴉],    Crows
Staatsbibliothek 11.56 (View Online)
ya gasha,    What are crows?
kara boco,    Their color is black.
ai jilgan,    What is their call?
lurgin hele,    Rough and raucous.
5 hiyoošunggai banin,    Like filial people,
gulu hing seme,    they are plain and sincere.
amasi,    Henceforth
ulebure,    feed them.
feniyen feniyelerede,    When they form up in flocks
10sasari,    together,
hūwangga uhe.    they’ll join you on good terms.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Bound Foot Lantern Poem

This dense and complex poem about bound feet touches on themes of beauty, loneliness, pain, forbidden love, suicide and injustice, all in 15 enigmatic lines.

I still haven’t figured out what the “lantern poems” are. Were they riddles written on lanterns at the New Year festival? Were they poems that ostensibly used decorated lanterns as the inspiration for describing something?

In this post I’m going to take the poem apart because I think that’s the best way to understand what is going on.

giogiyan bethengge dengjan [小腳兒燈],    Bound Foot Lantern
Staatsbibliothek 14.29 (View Online)

The Shoe

harha fulgiyan,    The shoe leather is red,
eldengge saikan,    bright and beautiful,
cece nilgiyan,    the silk is shiny,
yasahangga hihan,    with small holes and rare.

The poem opens with a description of a beautiful shoe, no doubt one of the tiny shoes that adorned bound feet. Just as the first thing you saw with a bound foot was the beautiful shoe, so the first lines the poet gives us are beautiful.

Loneliness and Isolation
5can o [嬋娥] suhe fon,    Cháng’é, when she takes them off,
duruhai lakiyan,

    having grown old and weak, she hangs them up.

biya-i argan,    The crescent of the moon,
gu tanai ujan,

    is a jade pearl boundary.

Turning from the beautiful shoe, the poem then invokes the goddess Cháng’é, who lives alone in the vast cold palaces of the moon. It is not strictly clear whether the goddess or the shoe grows old and weak, but in this season of waning the shape of the moon resembles a bound foot. Compare the lines in the Jīn Píng Méi describing Xīmén Qìng’s first intimate encounter with Pān Jīnlián (in Chinese original and Manchu translation):

lo-i wase be ten tukiyefi, juwe gohon-i ice biya be meiren-i dele sabubuha
Having lifted the gauze stockings up, the two-hooked new moon could be seen over his shoulders.

The poet then goes on to describe the shrinking moon as a beautiful but confining boundary for the goddess. The same idea that the goddess is trapped within the confines of the moon was expressed in Moon, to the tune Wind in the Pines. Like the shoe around the foot, the confines are beautiful, but sorrow lies within it. Like the limited sphere of the moon, the bound foot constrains a woman.

tuwa-i haksan,    The cruelty of fire,

šu ilhai okson,

    is the lotus step.

The phrase tuwa-i haksan is a double entendre. The word haksan can mean a golden or reddish brown color, or else it can mean “cruel, brutal.” On the one hand, this could be describing the bound foot in a red shoe, or perhaps the dried blood on the wrapping of the foot, or else the cruel pain of walking with bound feet.

The reason I have chosen the word “cruelty” for my translation is that the poet could have used a less ambiguous word like jaksan to describe the red color, but instead opted for the ambiguous word haksan, a choice that I think was motivated to capture the meaning of cruelty.

Forbidden Love
lo fei mukei on,    The path of concubine Luò across the water,
suman-i toron,    is a trail of mist.
sabu ne da an,

    The shoes are now as they have always been.

These lines turn from the burning of fire to the cool of feet passing over water. The name “concubine Luò” [洛妃] refers to Lady Zhēn, but the description of her crossing the water is an allusion to the Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luò River [洛神賦] by Cáo Zhí [曹植], which contains the following lines describing the vision of the goddess on the surface of the river:

She walks in decorated shoes for distant journeying, trailing light garments of misty silk.

By using the name “concubine Luò” [洛妃] for the goddess of the river, the author of this Manchu poem is invoking a well-known story that Lady Zhēn had a secret affair with Cáo Zhí, who was said to have written the Rhapsody about Lady Zhēn after she was forced to commit suicide.

Surely the poet must have known that Lady Zhēn lived long before the practice of binding feet, and the description in the Rhapsody of shoes made for distant journeying [遠遊之文履] could not possibly be understood to mean a shoe that contains a bound foot. The first two lines seem to evoke a temporary sense of freedom and relief, but this is crushed by the third line: “The shoes are now as they have always been.”

Unjust Death
abai yang ioi hūwan [楊玉環],    Where is Yáng Yùhuán?
15weri suinggai maiman    It was someone else's wicked business. 

The poem ends by invoking the memory of Yáng Yùhuán, another imperial concubine and one of the four great beauties of Chinese tradition, who was strangled as a result of her cousin’s involvement in the An Lushan rebellion. Clearly the poet believes this death to have been unjust, because the crime was someone else’s, not hers.

What do all of these images and allusions mean when they are put together in a poem? It may be that only the intended audience would fully understand the hints, but to me this could be the arc of a tragic story in a particular woman’s life: Her feet are bound, she experiences loneliness, isolation, confinement and pain, then a secret and forbidden love and a momentary feeling of freedom, but ending in an unjust death.