And so dies Wen Jian, consort to an emperor and so-called most beautiful woman of the age. This scene is from Under Heaven published in 2010. Written by Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay, it’s a historical fantasy modeled on the Chinese T’ang Dynasty.
The death of Wen Jian is made more poignant when a witness, the book’s main protagonist, asks “Should there be birdsong?” His friend, a poet based on noted T’ang poet Li Po answers: “ No, and yes. We do what we do, and the world continues. Somewhere a child is being born and the parents are tasting a joy they never imagined.” And later the poet says: “We will pick our way through the shards of broken objects folly leaves behind. And some of what breaks will be very beautiful.”
(A quick note on the anglicizing of Chinese names: the old so-called Wade-Giles system has been replaced by the Pinyin system. But what makes it confusing is that many of the best-known Chinese poets still are known by their Wade-Gilles names and in some cases had a few different Wade-Giles names! For example, Li Po, who is now officially Li Bo or Li Bai under the new system, was known under the old system as Li Po, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po and Li T’ai-pai. But since he is perhaps still best known as Li Po I will stick with that name in this post! The other great T’ang poet featured in this post is best known as Tu Fu but in the new system he is called Du Fu.)
Although Under Heaven is set in an imagined empire it’s based on 8th Century T’ang China at the moment when the empire was about to descend into a civil war (the An-Lushan rebellion 755-763). This war ravaged the country with estimates of up to thirty-six million killed or displaced making it one of the worst man-made disasters in human history. (Wen Jian is modeled on Yang Kuie-fei, infamous and extraordinarily beautiful young concubine to the far-older emperor Hsuan Tsung. By all accounts her influence over the emperor, who was besotted by her, played a major role in the events that led to the catastrophic rebellion.)
In his book Great Big Book of Horrible Things – The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, Mathew White quotes a more “modest” figure of 13 million dead for the An Lushan rebellion, still ranking it number thirteen among his so called top one hundred disasters. White also calls it the Poets’ War because two of their [China’s] greatest poets lived and wrote during this time. He is referring to Li Po (701-763) – and Tu Fu (712- 770).
Think of that: the Poets’ War. The poems written by these men are a fine reportage of the inner and outer reality of that devastating time. And so revealing that it can be named after their telling of those dark days. When critics say poetry shouldn’t be a documentary art I can point to these poets and say: really?
These two poets and their poems come alive in Under Heaven, especially Li Po, the so-called Banished Immortal, (named Sima Zian in the novel). He is a central character in the book. And Tu Fu (called Chan Du in the novel) is referenced. especially, through his poem Overnight in the Pavilion by the River. The excerpted version of that poem in Kay’s book stopped me cold in my first reading. In a wonderful moment Kay has Sima Zian (Li Po) recite an excerpt from Tu Fu’s poem. Here it is:
Full moon is falling through the sky.
Cranes fly through the clouds.
Wolves howl. I cannot find rest
Because I am powerless
To amend a broken world.
Here is a full version translated by David Young:
Overnight at the River Pavillion
Evening is walking
up the mountain paths
I lie in the high chamber
here at the River Gate
rest against the cliffs
a lone moon
swims among the waves
some cranes fly past
far off, a pack of wolves
howl as they chase their quarry
I lie awake
worrying about war
I have no strength, I know,
to set this world to rights.
Tu Fu from Du Fu – A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
In Under Heaven Sima Zian responds to the poem this way:
I love the man who wrote that. I told you before, but there is so much burden in Chan Du (Tu Fu). Duty, assuming all tasks, can betray arrogance. The idea we can know what must be done, and do it properly. We cannot know the future my friend. It claims so much to imagine we can. And the world is not broken any more than it is always, always is.
To try and understand the intricacies of translating Chinese poems into English is a hard task. I found a number of versions of Tu Fu’s poem in my library but the version in Under Heaven (not attributed to a translator) moves me the most with it’s last lines: ..I cannot find rest/ Because I am powerless/ To amend a broken world.