bai juyi: bemoaning my old age (1)

Today’s poem is going up late because of a couple of problems I had with the translation. These problems were exacerbated by the fact that it’s apparently pretty a obscure poem: I happened upon it in my copy of 白居易集 The Collected Works of Bai Juyi, which has no explanatory annotations, and searches online and in annotated collections of Bai Juyi poems didn’t turn up anything at all, much less anything that’d answer the questions I had. So there are a couple of footnotes at the end in which I confess my befuddlement.

This is the first in the set 叹老三首 “Bemoaning My Old Age: Three Poems.” The other two may follow.




Bemoaning My Old Age: Three Poems


At dawn, I rise and check the silvered glass,
And find man and reflection both alone.
My youth has long-since gone away from me:
White hairs fall out with each stroke of my comb.
All transformations come so gradually,
So stealthily, that none see them take place.
I fear the mirror, fear its silvered face
Will show me older now than yesterday.

It’s few who reach a hundred years of age,
And anything that waxes must then wane.
He who unites his heart, Heaven, and Earth *
May gain long life like tortoises and cranes.
I heard a man who knew his medicine —
— The man, they said, could cure you of all ills. +
He said that any sickness could be cured —
Except old age; for that he had no pills.

* I’m just guessing at this line; I admit it. The difficulty arises in the function of 会, which in this context seems to be used to mean “unite, combine, reconcile.” In Modern Chinese, it usually means “to know (how),” but as far as I know, it didn’t have that meaning at the time of the poem’s composition.
At any rate, after asking around and looking for explanations of this line, I’ve gone ahead and fudged it. If anyone can explain it, please do.

+ The original line compares the doctor to Bian Que, a Chinese ur-doctor who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. I was tempted to use “Aesclepius” as an equivalent, but decided that it was too jarring, and so instead I’ve translated loosely in order to communicate the sense of the line and to rhyme with the final line.

I took a few other liberties: the line I translated as “anything that waxes must then wane” is really just “no joy can last forever,” or (as I translated it in an earlier draft) “all good things must come to an end.” Again, I’ve translated loosely to provide a rhyme for “…tortoises and cranes.”

Comments (11)

  1. richard wrote::

    Beautiful writing. Were the Chinese verses written in a form resembling iambic pentameter, or did you choose that metre for another reason?

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 8:56 pm #
  2. Brendan wrote::

    The original was written in five-character verse, so iambic pentameter kind of makes sense. Mostly, though, iambic pentameter is a more natural form for English verse to take. (This reminds me; I need to pick up my copy of John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason from my parents’ house.)

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 8:58 pm #
  3. Brendan wrote::

    (Also, I’m basically uncreative, and iambic pentameter was the first thing that came to mind.)

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 9:03 pm #
  4. zhwj wrote::

    So I got out of the habit of checking your page, and suddenly there’s a whack of translations up. An enjoyable addition to my morning routine.

        About your first problem line: Why not take 天地心 as 天地之心 rather than three separate units? 《礼记·礼运》 has the line 人者,天地之心也, while 《易经·復卦》 (Hex. 24 “Returning”) has 復其見天地之心乎. I’d say the second reference might be applicable here; 王弼 has:


    Especially the last line there.

        For 会 meaning 懂得, see 池畔二首 in your 白居易集.

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 11:19 pm #
  5. oli wrote::

    Could this be
    ‘Who can reconcile his heart with the ways of the world? Only thousand year old tortoises and cranes’

    I dont think the use of 会 is a problem. You can certainly have 会意, to understand, in classical chinese. Is a 天地心 some daoist state of mind?
    Also, about 谁; isnt the question-answer phrasing possible?

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 11:44 pm #
  6. oli wrote::

    oops, yeah.. what he said.

    Monday, November 22, 2004 at 11:48 pm #
  7. Brendan wrote::

    Oli – It looks to me like 谁 is being used here to mean “someone,” but I could be wrong there.

    zhwj – I just ran a search on “天地心” and found the sentence ‘道乃天地心.’ It’s in a wuxia novel, so I don’t know how reliable that is, but it seems to make sense in this context. As for 会 – I was going by what my 古代汉语常用字字典 had to say. “Understanding the Dao” is certainly more coherent than “uniting heaven, earth, and mind.” I’m still not sure about this line, though…

    Tuesday, November 23, 2004 at 12:39 am #
  8. Matt Waters wrote::

    Just a wild guess here, but could that first one you mention- 谁会天地心- be a reference to the emperor? The emperor was supposed to be kind of the interface between heaven and earth,and in this sense he could have a heart of both heaven and earth. It might also make sense in that the emperor would get the best medical treatment (perhaps using methods only known to a select few),etc. and has a better chance to live for a long time.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2004 at 1:34 am #
  9. zhwj wrote::

    The Daoist interpretation does seem to go right along with the subject of old age, although I’d be a little wary about interpreting Tang poetry using wuxia fiction as a reference. That doesn’t mean the interpretation is wrong. In fact, taking the 易经 “復” as representing 天地之心, we can draw a connection to the working of the 道 through Laozi (40): 反者道之动. In other words, if you really understood the root of heaven and earth, you’d understand returning [change/repetition/regeneration] and live forever.
    You’re right about the entry in《古代汉语常用字字典》 lacking something; you’d expect it to at least have a 后起意义 note there for something after 魏晋.

    Tuesday, November 23, 2004 at 4:58 am #
  10. Kun wrote::

    I agree with zhwj on the meaning of 会,I found this in my <<学生古汉语词典>>: "会心,领悟别人意图." Put 天地 in between 会心, it could still mean the same. As to 天地心, could it be the idea of life?

    Tuesday, November 23, 2004 at 5:20 am #
  11. A.Z. Foreman wrote::

    To render the term, I’d go with “fathom, understand.” Also the phrase 天地心 should not be understood as “heaven, earth and heart” but rather “the cosmos (the world around) and the heart (the world within).” 天地 as a merism for “the universe” is quite common in all periods of the Chinese literary tradition.

    Friday, October 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm #