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Wang Wei--First Essay (Fall 2019)


The multi-faceted genius of Tang Dynasty statesman and artist Wang Wei (699-759) has often been noted. A painter of landscapes and snowscapes, an accomplished diplomat, a memorable poet with brilliant descriptions of land and sea, descriptions often suffused with a Buddhist philosophy of his middle and later years, Wang Wei and his poetry is increasingly capturing attention of Western scholars and poets. One of his most famous poems, on Red Beans (known in Chinese as 相思), appeared in my collection (with Eurydice Chen) of 25 Classic Chinese Love Poems: Translated and Interpreted.

We see the broad range of his descriptive skills in the poem “Wei River Farmhouse,” written as the sun fell on a poor and insignificant community on the Wei River.  Several competent English translations of this poem are available online though, surprisingly, the most comprehensive book introducing Wang Wei’s poetry to an English audience (Pauline Yu’s, The Poetry of Wang Wei, 1980) doesn’t present it. About 400 of Wang Wei’s poems survive, with 150 presented in Yu’s work.

Yet, every one of these online translations gives a misleading or incomplete rendering of the final line of the poem.  The purpose of this essay is not to defend or argue for a certain translation of the rest of the poem; rather my focus will be on a proper understanding of the last line.  The text, with a

serviceable English translation (except for the last line), is as follows:


"Sun tilting/going down illumines the countryside/old graveyard
The cows and sheep return down the shabby lane
In the field, the old man recalls/thinks of the herd boy (son)
Leaning on a staff, waiting by the chaste tree gate of his cottage
Pheasants call in the wheat stocks about to sprout its grain; 
Silkworms sleep in half-eaten mulberry leaves
Farmers bearing hoes on their shoulders return to the village
They see each other and chat, reluctant to leave
I so much envy the life of idleness and leisure"

The rendering of the last line is problematic in English translations.  Here are three attempts: 

“Sighing, I can’t help but sing “Oh to be Young Again”   OR
“One despairingly hums the poem Wei from the Odes”   OR

“Regretfully chanting this little poem, ‘Ah to Go Back Again.’”

None of these translations clarifies the meaning of the last line or gives us a hint at what the poet is actually humming or chanting.  What the line actually says is that he “Dejectedly chants the 式微,” or the shi4wei1.

What might that mean? Only the middle one of the three English translations just given even hints at a helpful answer, but even that doesn’t tell us anything.  But when we realize that the last phrase of the poem, 式微, is the title of Poem 36 in the 诗经, or Book of Songs, we are set on a helpful path. We need to turn to that poem to understand it if we want to know what Wang Wei’s mood is as he completes the Wei River Farmhouse poem.

Before looking at Book of Songs 36, however, we should note that Wang Wei is playing with us through three “Wei’s” here–his own name (维), the Wei River (渭) and finally the title of the Book of Songs poem (微).  If we wanted to be a little flip, we might say to Wei, “WAY to go!”  But now that we have our key, we turn to the difficult-to-render Poem 36.

The Chinese text of Book of Songs 36, with an English translation by Fu-shiang Chia, is:


"It’s late, its late, why don’t you come home?  
If not for my love of you, I would be wandering the roads alone.
It’s late, it’s late, why don’t you come home?
If it were not for my love of you, I would not be struggling in the muddy mire." 

Chia’s translation is not universally accepted.  Rather than looking at the second and fourth lines as pointing to a love poem, Arthur Waley, nearly 100 years ago, rendered the second and fourth lines as follows:

“Were it not for our prince and his concerns, what should we be doing here in the dew?”  AND
“Were it not for our prince’s own concerns, what should we be doing here in the mud?”

That is, Waley focused his translation of 诗经 36 on the duty owed to the prince by a loyal subject, rather than the love that one has for the beloved. Waley’s translation lies behind the only recent complete translation of the 诗经 in a European language, Rainald Simon’s Das altchinesische Buch der Lieder (2015). He sees the “debt” due to the prince as the subject of lines 2 and 4.

If we were to adopt the Waley/Simon translation of 诗经36, we would have in it an expression of frustration by a servant of the prince because he has to work long hours in the field.  Even though it is very late in the day, he still has to be working in the dew and in the mud.  Thankless work, even when another life would probably be so much more alluring.

Now we can understand Wang Wei’s final line of the Wei River Farmhouse.  He has just witnessed the vibrant life of a village just before sunset.  All are rushing to finish their tasks before turning to the intimate life of the evening at home.  How much Wang Wei says that he longed for this kind of simple life! It was a life not of service at the court, where your time was not your own at all, but a life where he could retreat into the self and sing his beautiful poems.

But, he can’t do that. The second to last line of the poem tells of his envy of the simple farm people. The reason he envies them is that instead of returning to the silent spaces of his home, he must “dejectedly chant the 式微.”  That poem, as we just saw, was all about work, even when he would much rather be doing something else.  His song is “more work” while the peasants now have rest from their labors.  诗经 36 tells us that work is his fate.  We now know why he dejectedly sings that song at the end of Wei River Farmhouse.

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