念奴娇.赤壁怀古 Meditating on the Past at the Red Cliff
中英旧版: 戈登.奥赛茵, 闵晓红, 黄海鹏(1990)
Meditating on the Past at the Red Cliff
- to the tune of Niannujiao
written by: Su Shi (11th Century)
First En. trans. by: G. Osing, J. Min & H. Huang (1990)
En. revision by: Julia Min (2023)
To the East Sea flows the Yangtze River,
washing away forever, in tides of times,
all the heroes of the past we remember.
On the west side of this slopy stronghold,
some say, in Three Kingdoms’ chaotic era,
Zhou Yu won his Red Cliff Battle on water.
What a splendid picture was unfolded across --
walls of rolled waves crashing on craggy rocks,
great bursts of snowy foam pervading the shore.
So many noted warriors came forth and fought.
Long before, the younger Qiao, a girl of virtues,
married Gongjin, a youth of valour and values.
With silk bonnet on head, a feather fan in hand,
he chatted at ease while achieving his daring feat.
The tides had turned, sailed his burning boats over,
Cao Cao’s fleet jammed in smoke, doomed in fire…
Where am I standing amid the streaming heroes?--
just an old man, simpering in his sick humour.
It’s such a dream, life or death, loss or success.
I’d pour out wine to honour the Moon, the River.
1. ‘some say’: the poet’s playful pretending that the original battle took place at this Red Nose Rock at Huangzhou while attributing the belief to the local people. This is not the first time Su Shi did it. If you know his stories, he did it during the Imperial Exam too. It’s a narrow escape with his naughty humour that only a character like his has the privilege of doing it without being misunderstood.
2. ‘Zhou Yu’: the registered official name, his social name being ‘Gongjin’; He was a famous general commanding a troop of 20 thousands during Red Cliff Battle.
3. ‘the younger Qiao’: one of the two sisters from a local gentry family. The older sister was married to Sun Quan, the king of the Wu State.
4. ‘a silk bonnet on head, a feather fan in hand’: a popular image of learned scholars of the time, particularly associated to the wise man Zhuge Liang, the prime minister of the Han State;
If you ever read the English poetry on the times of glory and duties, you could have likely tasted the heroic poem “Battle of Malden” on the fierce battle ( 991 AD, England). It’s about the Saxons against the Vikings, and there’re lines like: “ Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,/courage the greater, as our might lessens.” Well, similar pictures are shown in Chinese poetry, with The Red Cliff Battle being one of the most remembered. Interestingly, whenever people mention the famous battle on the Yangtze River, the first association coming to the mind of the Chinese readership could be Dongpo’ s Red Cliff in this heroic poem “ Meditating on the Past at the Red Cliff” (《念奴娇.赤壁怀古》).
This celebrated poem was written in 1082, the 3rd year of Su Shi’s exile life at Huangzhou (in today’s Hubei Province). His famous meditation site was the Red Nose Rock overlooking the Yangtze River then. The battlefield was deliberately conjured for associating thoughts supporting his theme. It actually took place in 208 AD at Red Cliff in Puqi (today’s Red Cliff County of Xianling on Yangtze River, also in Hubei Province) where Sun Quan and Liu Bei joined forces together having merely 50 thousands of warriors to fight against the mighty Cao Cao’s 200 thousands at Red Cliff on the Yangtze River. It was a huge win thanks to General Zhou Yu’s profound experience on river battles over the ignorance of Cao whose troops were more familiar with battles on land. The battle witnessed the most important turning point in remapping the military forces, starting a new era -- the Three Kingdoms.
Again, Su Shi was on his cup in the moment of composing, grieving that he was nothing before the heroes in the historical epics, hinting he was unappreciated by the Throne. This had been a common theme of his works throughout his downturn periods. His works at Huangzhou have been regarded as of the highest artistic value of his whole collection, including his narrative prose, calligraphy and paintings, greatly admired even by the emperors of the Song and of later dynasties. So it’s not hard to understand why Huangzhou’s Red Nose Rock was changed to ‘Red Cliff’ after this poem was released. Later generations have called it ‘Dongpo’s Red Cliff’.
This Ci poem has been regarded as the representative of the heroic school in ci poetry. It’s actually the very first and best ever written, and could be the most quoted. The critics of his time and later times including Li Qingzhao commented that Su Shi was writing ci for his poem theme, implying he misplaced his poem in the ci form, and he was not good at ci’s musical patterns and metres – the elements of prosody. Li insisted that heroic style should be only for poems, while ci should focus on the elegant, the clever, the pretty and delicate sentiments for the saloons and drawing rooms of the gentry class. Her works can indeed stand as the best evidence of her theory. It’s like what the English would define song lyrics and poetry where the main difference is that the lyrics are set to music. “Once words have begun to be accommodated to music, they display … not only lilt and balance, but tone and quality … They are more carefully chosen than other words” ( C.M. Bowra, Primitive Song) Nonetheless, a great mind like Su Shi can’t be expected to be controlled by contemporary rules and etiquettes, as the then Prime Minister Wang Anshi once said: “ Rules and etiquettes are not meant for you or me.”(“礼岂为我辈设哉”). For him, the theme was his primary concern, everything else served only as supporting devices; And if an existing one didn’t serve the purpose, he’d create one that did, hence the birth of heroic school of ci poetry, or you may understand it as the heroic school as against the sentimental school.
1. Blooming Alone in Winter by Gordon Osing, Julia Min and Huang Haipeng，published by the People's Publication House Henan Province in 1990 (《寒心未肯随春态》戈登.奥赛茵，闵晓红，黄海鹏)（"Eastward flows the River, washing away in waves /Forever all the Heroes of the past. /On the west side of this old fortress, some people say, /General Zhou fought his Red Cliff Battle, in the time of Three Kingdoms./Roiling clouds are cut by savage cliffs, walls of water destroy the shore,/Throw up mist thick as a blizzard. /The River and the mountains make a magnificent scene! /How many heroes from the past are lost to us! // Long ago, when Gongjin was young, /And had just taken Little Qiao to wife… /Heroic, brilliant, with feathered fan and black silk, striped kerchief, /He laughed and talked on as the enemy’s warships’ smoke and ashes flew windward. /Visiting this old world now, how Zhou would laugh at my simpering, /Me, with grey hair far too soon from thinking. /It is such a dream. /I pour out my cup to honour the moon in the river. "）
2. The original calligraphy by Su Dongpo himself;
3. painting by Luo Zhenxian (罗振贤）from google；