Figuring Out Bai Juyi in Suzhou

Leaving a place comes with a complex stew of emotions. This is something I have come to know a lot over a lifetime of travel from one place to another. Even if you have plans set in place, the future is uncertain. Even more, you are leaving behind people and friendships that you have emotionally invested time in. While looking at some verses by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi, I have had to think about this.

百年愁里过,万感醉中来。
惆怅城西别,愁眉两不开。

bǎi nián chóu lǐ guò , wàn gǎn zuì zhōng lái 。
chóu chàng chéng xī bié , chóu méi liǎng bù kāi 。

A lifetime in sadness —

Ten thousand drunken feelings hit me.

I leave the city going west,

And my weeping eyes will not open.

As translations of poetry go, I’m not even going to claim this is particularly good.  Poetry can be impossible to translate correctly, and the best one can ever hope for, sometimes, is a rough approximation. What does one hope for? An exacting, meaningful translation, or something that strenuously remains true to the prosody in which the poet was intending? Bai Juyi is using end rhymes in the original Chinese, and I didn’t even try to attempt that.  In fact, I feel like I have taken a lot of liberties in just trying to understand Bai’s meaning.

What I do know is that the title of 寄别韦苏州 jì bié wéi sū zhōu mentions the city of Suzhou. It may also be a reference to Wei Yingwu — also a Tang Dynasty poet. He, like Bai Juyi, was once a governor of Suzhou; however, my Chinese language net searching skills are sorely lacking.  One of the rules of elementary translation I have told university students goes like this: “If you’re not absolutely sure, leave it in Chinese so that you avoid creating Chinglish.” So, ultimately frustrated, I’m leaving the title in Chinese.

However, the substance of the poem itself intrigues me.  Bai Juyi is clearly writing about the sadness of leaving a place. In poking around the net in trying to learn more about him, I did find a mention of how the people of Suzhou were upset to see him go. Apparently, crowds lined the street and cried as he departed. This is believable in a way that during his lifetime, he had achieved a popularity other Tang Dynasty poets had not.  Also, as governor, he had achieved a significant feat. Under his watch, the Shantangjie Canal was excavated and created in order to connect the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal to Tiger Hill — which to this day is one of Suzhou’s major scenic spots. Even centuries ago, Tiger Hill was a tourist attractions that merited travel by canal boat.

Personally speaking, learning about this is all part of the happenstance, down-the-rabbit-hole approach I take to traveling sometimes. I was in Suzhou with a friend, we were at Shantangjie, and we just walked into a memorial hall without knowing what it or its purpose was. None of the signage was in English. My non-Chinese-very-much-did-university-in-Virginia pal, however, claims his Chinese skills are bad — while reading the signs, telling me the guy’s name, and giving me the gist of some of what I we were looking at. It’s like modesty is his bragging point.  We collectively said “interesting” and then went off to seek out lunch. I had a plate of rice with bits of duck in it. It was most delicious.

However, the more I started to read about Bai Juyi, the more perplexed I got. He was born in Shanxi Province. Much of his life was definitely not spent in Suzhou. Like so many other Chinese poets, he had a penchant for making enemies within the imperial court and was subsequently sent into exile. At a first and very ignorant glance, it seems a bit random that there would be a memorial hall built to him at Shantangjie. However, history is sometimes in the footnotes.

His time in Suzhou was fleeting — about two years based on what I have read. However, playing a major role in the creation of Shantangjie is a “minor” career achievement that would outlive him by more than 1000 years. So much so that a couple of Americans blundering and bumbling through one of Suzhou’s major tourist attractions end up looking at a statue of him. Think about that. It’s staggering. If we take his poem noted above at face value, he very was sad to leave Suzhou. However, he did leave something of consequence in his wake.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *