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前赤壁赋 A Moon-Night Drink on a Boat by Red Cliff (Part One)--A prose poem

前赤壁赋


原作: 苏轼(字子瞻, 号东坡居士; 11世纪北宋)

英译: 闵晓红(2024.05)


壬戌之秋,七月既望,苏子与客泛舟游于赤壁之下。清风徐来,水波不兴。举酒属客,诵明月之诗,歌窈窕之章。少焉,月出于东山之上,徘徊于斗牛之间。白露横江,水光接天。纵一苇之所如,凌万顷之茫然。浩浩乎如冯虚御风,而不知其所止;飘飘乎如遗世独立,羽化而登仙。(冯 通:凭) 

 

于是饮酒乐甚,扣舷而歌之。歌曰:“桂棹兮兰桨,击空明兮溯流光。渺渺兮予怀,望美人兮天一方。”客有吹洞箫者,倚歌而和之。其声呜呜然,如怨如慕,如泣如诉;余音袅袅,不绝如缕。舞幽壑之潜蛟,泣孤舟之嫠妇。

 

苏子愀然,正襟危坐而问客曰:“何为其然也?”客曰:“‘月明星稀,乌鹊南飞。’此非曹孟德之诗乎?西望夏口,东望武昌,山川相缪,郁乎苍苍,此非孟德之困于周郎者乎?方其破荆州,下江陵,顺流而东也,舳舻千里,旌旗蔽空,酾酒临江,横槊赋诗,固一世之雄也,而今安在哉?况吾与子渔樵于江渚之上,侣鱼虾而友麋鹿,驾一叶之扁舟,举匏樽以相属。寄蜉蝣于天地,渺沧海之一粟。哀吾生之须臾,羡长江之无穷。挟飞仙以遨游,抱明月而长终。知不可乎骤得,托遗响于悲风。”

 

苏子曰:“客亦知夫水与月乎?逝者如斯,而未尝往也;盈虚者如彼,而卒莫消长也。盖将自其变者而观之,则天地曾不能以一瞬;自其不变者而观之,则物与我皆无尽也,而又何羡乎!且夫天地之间,物各有主,苟非吾之所有,虽一毫而莫取。惟江上之清风,与山间之明月,耳得之而为声,目遇之而成色,取之无禁,用之不竭。是造物者之无尽藏也,而吾与子之所共适。”(共适 一作:共食)

 

客喜而笑,洗盏更酌。肴核既尽,杯盘狼籍。相与枕藉乎舟中,不知东方之既白。


A Moon-Night Drink on a Boat by Red Cliff (Part One)

--A prose poem


Chinese original: Su Shi (11th AC, social name 'Zizhan', art name 'Dongpo')

English translation: Julia Min (My. 2024)

 

It was in 1082, at the following night after July’s full moon when I took my friends and guests for a drink in a boat, rowing upstream from the Red Cliff. The Yangtze River seemed dosing off into a peaceful slumber in the cool breeze under the cosy moonlight. I raised a toast and soon we started reciting together the famous moon poems from The Book of Song Lyrics, and picking up the tune of the first lyric on Her charming beauty. By now the fair Moon, cloudless, had ascended well above the musical skyline of the east hills, taking her pace between the Dipper and the Hunter. We floated on a sea of gleaming waves that joined the sky beyond. Before long, our chemistry ran boiling high and we felt breezy like wings riding the wind, roaming in the dome of firmament, as if entered the dream world of Heaven.   

 

On and on we toasted with drinks while tapping the boat sides to the rhythm, on and on we sang many of the famous romantic hymns:

 

“On a cinnamon boat with magnolia oars we row and row.

Floating on the moonlight ripples, upstream we go and go.

My yearning has been soaked in the song, so deep and long.

Roaming in poetry motion, my beauty’s above and beyond.

… …”

 

Then someone started echoing the tune with his flute. The music deepened the sentiments, weaving them with intense love and desperate longing for reunion, and an untold sadness confessing regrets. When we finished, the rhymes and vibes lingered on, rippling in the air across the dreaming river. Should there be a dragon living in a deep valley under the River, it would fly out and dance to the music in the sky. Should there be a widow on the boat, she would be moved and cry.

 

I was a bit lost in the change of mood, becoming curious at the same time. So I sat up straight and asked the guest why on earth picking such a sad tune for such a beautiful night. He looked up and replied: “Just look beyond, in the expanse amidst the waters, --‘To the south the black crows fly,/ Through dimming stars in moonlit sky.’ Is this place a perfect match for the verse of the great leader Mengde (Cao Cao’s social name)? And over there, west and east, are Xiakou and Wuchang facing each other, with lush green hills rolling down both banks of the River. If this is not where Mengde was trapped by General Zhou, then where could it be? The great and mighty leader, who came and conquered Jingzhou, took Jianglin city, and followed Yangtse’s flow down to here. His great fleet was said to cover hundreds of miles end to end, like a moving great wall holding up the sky with flags and sails. There he stood by the River, wielding a long spear in one hand, holding wine in the other. He toasted to the River with his Short Verse Lyric. … …. However, as powerful and heroic as he was, where is he now? If he could lose his mark in the running waves, where could you and me stand amid the streaming river? We are just a bunch of fishermen enjoying a drink on a leafy boat, and leading a life by the river with elks, fish and shrimps, with a lifespan short like a mayfly compared with the ever-present Nature, and a role as teeny tiny as a drop in the ocean. I can’t help but grieve for our short lives in this world where the Yangtse River has been running as if forever. How I wish to be a celestial, roving the earth to the end in the company of the fair Moon. But it’s a dream that will never come true, so here I am sending all my regrets and yearnings through my flute to the cool wind.”

 

  “Do you really know the truth of the running water and the bright moon?” I said. “Time passes by like the water flowing out of our sight, but still exist somewhere in the river. The moon’s waxing and waning, but does not really wax nor wane. The changing cycle of waxing and waning is constant. A dynamic perspective would take you to a world that never stops changing, whereas a static point of view would take you to the constant nature of the universe, the source of which is nothing but energy. This energy, while giving birth to matter forms that would change, remains constant, even, and fulfilled in nature, never in need for less or more. So why should we hunger for anything beyond our means? The world changes but the rule of change doesn’t change. Every experience in our lives is governed by this rule, defining each individual’s fate with an accurate touch, not a penny more, not a penny less. Nevertheless, the breeze on the river becomes cool breeze when your ear and body sense it. The moonlight is bright and soothing as your eyes pick up her pleasant beams. Such treasures of Nature are boundless since ancient, and forever free for every living soul to enjoy. Do you agree?”

 

The guest broke into an understanding smile, starting to wash his wine cup in the river for a new round of rice wine. The party carried on into the night till all the food and fruits were finished, leaving messy tables with empty cups and plates. Before long, the Moon saw us reclined on each other, sinking into an oblivion of sleep, while the morning dawn is about to break in the east.


Notes:

1.     The Book of Songs: the first collection of lyric poems printed in China, I’d translated into ‘The Book of Song Lyrics’.

2.     “On a cinnamon boat …”: a lyric with the subject and expressions from the poems by Qu Yuan (339 BC – 278 BC), a great patriotic politician of the Chu State during the Warring States period.

3.     ‘in the expanse amidst the waters’ : An expression I borrowed from Genesis 1:6-8 “God said: Let there be a firmament made amidst the waters:…” 

4.     ‘To the south the black crows fly,/ Through dimming stars in moonlit sky.’: verse from Caocao’s heroic poem “Short Verse Lyric”. Cao Cao, social name Mengde, wasborn 155 CE, Qiaoxian (today’s Bozhou, Anhui province) and died 220, Luoyang (a city in today’s Henan province) was one of the greatest of the generals at the end of the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) of China, according to Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cao-Cao). 

5.     General Zhou,  (175–210), social name Gongjin, was a military general under the warlord Sun Ce in Eastern Han dynasty. Please refer to Su Shi’s famous poem “Meditating on the Past at the Red Cliff”(《念奴娇.赤壁怀古》)https://www.rhymesandvibes.com/post/meditating-on-the-past-at-the-red-cliff-1

6.     Jingzhou … Jianglin: Jingzhou(荆州), a state of eight districts ( covering areas in today’s Huanan and Hudsbei Provinces; Jianglin City (江陵), the administrative office governing Jingzhou (a county today).

7.     Xiakou and Wuchang: Xiakou is today’s Wuchang(武昌), while The Wuchang is today’s E’zhou (鄂州), both in Hubei Province.

8.     a drop in the ocean: from the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi – "you are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop."

9.     not a penny more, not a penny less: borrowed from Jeffery Archer’s novel: Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less (Localization in translation)


Appreciation:

This is a travelogue in the form of prose poem. Su Shi’s original calligraphy is still well-preserved and open to the public in Taiwan, at the National Palace Museum. There are many sources available online today introducing this famous piece of work, both the prose poem as well as the calligraphy, since both have been regarded as landmark works in the history of prose poem writing and Chinese calligraphy.

 

I’d only touch upon the philosophical insights in the concluding paragraphs. It’s clearly an influence from Zhuangzi’s Daoist ideas, or you may also understand it as that Daoism worked best for Dongpo during his days of banishment in Huangzhou, Huizhou and Danzhou. His literature during these periods highlighted the unconventional detached mindset to go with the flow for a natural balance. In Daoism, everything is nothing but energy. So whatever happens in your life is generated by your energy flow. There’s no life or death, loss or success in the ultimate understanding, just energy flow like the river. By following the flow, you’d lead a happier life and become easily satisfied, because you accept whatever coming along is your own doing. Dongpo went to the roots of this dynamic and static world for a deeper exploration of the natural rules behind, that govern every phenomenon we know of. Humans are just a living form of Nature, by Nature, and for Nature before we value ourselves as social beings of the people, by the people and for the people.

 

Reference:

1.     other version of translation for your reference: https://ajmccready.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/translation-su-shi-meditation-on-red-cliff/

2.     扬子https://www.zhihu.com/question/4302386

3. pictures from Google;

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