HOKKU ROOTS: BAI JUYI’S SIXTY-SIX

Today I will talk briefly about a poem by the Chinese writer Bai Juyi (772 -846, also written as Po Chu-yi).

You may recall from previous discussions of Chinese poetry here that most Chinese poems  are written in couplets (pairs of lines), with five characters to a line in some poems, seven in others.

Layered Mountains and Dense Woods, by Zhuran, ...

I will translate the first two pairs of couplets very literally, so you may see how Chinese poems work.  Keep in mind that literary Chinese is not the same grammatically as modern spoken Chinese; literary Chinese tends to be much more compact and telegraphic, rather like the telegraphic nature of old Japanese hokku.  Another thing to keep in mind is that Chinese characters have no inherent phonetic significance.  That is why the same character can be pronounced quite differently by people in northern China (Mandarin Chinese) and southeast China (Cantonese), by people in Korea and people in Japan.  One could even read Chinese entirely as English words, but of course it would not be English grammatically; it would be English words in old literary Chinese grammar.

Each word in the lines below represents one Chinese character, so it is easy to see that this is a five-character poem.

The poem is called Sixty-six:

Ill know heart power decrease
Old perceive light shade swift
Five ten eight return come
This year six ten six

In the first line, “heart” in Chinese actually encompasses both heart and mind.  In Buddhist texts the translation “mind” is generally preferred.  The Chinese generally viewed heart and mind as the same.

In the second line, “light shade” is composed of characters meaning “bright” and “Yin” — the same “Yin” as in Yin and Yang. Together, as light and shadow, they are used to indicate the passage of time, somewhat reminiscent of these lines from H. G. Well’s excellent story The Time Machine:

As I put on pace, night followed day like the flapping of a
black wing. The dim suggestion of the laboratory seemed presently to
fall away from me, and I saw the sun hopping swiftly across the sky,
leaping it every minute, and every minute marking a day.”

In the third and fourth lines, “five ten eight” is the Chinese way of saying “fifty-eight” — five tens and eight; six ten six, then, is of course six tens and six — sixty-six.

Now here is my rather loose version of the poem:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.
At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.
All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.
My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.
I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.
It is only the sound of water flowing,
But now it never wearies me. 

We see in this poem of Bai Juyi (pronounce it like “By Joo-ee”) the kind of objectivity that is also characteristic of good hokku.  He does not give us lots of thinking and commentary.  He just tells us the situation, tells us what is happening.  Even when he is obviously talking about himself, he does it the same objective way in which he speaks about the plants greening around the pond, or the tall rock against which he leans to look at the distant hills.

It is not hard to see why such Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty  had a very strong influence on hokku.  We have already noted the objectivity characteristic of good hokku.  But did you also notice the sense of the passage of time, the feeling of constant change and impermanence, the transience that is also a major characteristic of hokku?  And, of course, there is the very strong feeling of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, which is the subject matter of hokku.

Then too, of course, we see the progression of the Yin-Yang process.  Bai-Juyi feels the Yang in his body decreasing, the Yin growing stronger as his body and mind age and weaken.  And he has watched the cycle of Yin and Yang each year since he returned to his old home, as he tells us through the annual greening of the pond grasses in spring.

Hokku differs from such poems, obviously, in its brevity.  It also uses irregularity — a long part and a short part — whereas Chinese poetry is very regular; it is composed in sequences of equal-length couplets, as we saw in my literal rendering of the first part of Bai Juyi’s five-character poem, Sixty-six.

Now here is a little more information, for those of you who like to write poems in the Chinese manner, the kind of nature poems I like to call “Dao” poems, after the Dao of the old Chinese sage Lao-Tze, author of the Dao De Jing — the “Way-Virtue Classic.”

If we look closely at the structure of Bai Juyi’s poem, we can see how the two lines of each couplet relate to one another; for example:

Ill, I know my mind has weakened;
Old, I perceive the passage of time.

See how the sequence of the first matches the sequence of the second?  Look at the pairs

ill/old;   I know/I perceive;   mind weakened/time passing.

Now look at the next couplet:

At fifty-eight I returned home again;
This year I am sixty-six.

He tells us in the first line what happened at age 58; in the second he tells us what is happening now.

Let’s go on:

All the hairs of my head have whitened;
The pond grasses greened eight or nine times.

Notice how he pairs the whitening of his hair in the first line with the greening and sprouting of the pond grasses in the second?

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

In the first line his children have grown to adulthood; in the second thicket shrubs have grown into trees.

Now see what he does in the next two lines:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

In the first line, we can think of him looking up; note the hills and high rock (Yang elements — remember “high” is Yang);
In the second line, we can think of him looking down; he sees the stream (water and other low things are Yin) flowing (downward flow is Yin) through the bamboos.

I hope that gives budding writers of Dao poems — Chinese-style Nature verse — some hints about how to join two lines in a couplet by linking them through meaning.

If you give this some thought — and if you are a regular reader here — it will probably remind you of the system of internal reflection in hokku, the technique in which we use combinations of things that reflect one another in some way.   We also see examples in Bai Juyi’s couplets of the same principles of harmony we find in hokku.  You will recall that hokku uses harmony of similarity, which we see in Bai Juyi as, for example:

My children have all become adults;
The garden thicket is half grown to trees.

As already mentioned, the growing of the children matches the growing of the trees — harmony of similarity.

We also find the technique of harmony of contrast, which we see also in hokku:

I watch the hills while resting against a high rock;
A stream has been made through the bamboos.

You will recall those “looking up/looking down” lines.  We can think of them as having this feeling:

Looking up, I see the distant hills; looking down, I see the stream through the bamboos.

One line gives us the “high” (the hills and rock), the other the low (the flowing water of the stream at the base of the bamboos).

Those familiar with old Chinese poetry — or at least translations of it — will recognize the same technique in the last couplet of the well-known (almost too well-known, in fact) poem by Li Bai (Li Po):

Raising my head, I see the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of my old home.

Bai Juyi was more subtle in his use of “up/down,” but then Bai Juyi was a better poet than Li Bai.

Keep in mind that a Chinese-style poem is just a sequence of couplets, and the length of the sequence — how many couplets are used — is entirely up to the writer.

David

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s