The sky is light gray, there is a dampness on the road, a bit of wind but no rain – it is just such a day and the wild plum in the backyard is almost in bloom.
Li Qingzhao: Song to the tune of “Pusaman”
Translation and artwork: Lena Tan, 2006
Li Qingzhao (c.1083-aft.1149) was the daughter of a respected scholar and official in Song dynasty China. Her husband was often traveling on official business, perhaps accounting for the recurrent theme of aloneness in her poetry, although the loneliness of women was a common subject for this form of poetry written to the tunes of popular songs. In 1126, the Song capital fell to northern invaders and the court retreated southward to establish a new capital in Hangzhou. Li’s husband died at this time and she was left on her own to relocate her household.
Li Bai was born in Central Asia to a family outside the Tang artistocracy. He created a
rebel persona by exaggerating his eccentricities and writing a flamboyant poetry that has been called “strangeness on top of strangeness.” He was never accepted by his contemporaries in the capital, though his prodigious talent got him an appointment in the emperor’s court, from which he was eventually dismissed for frequent transgressions on the social conventions.
Du Fu came from a family of distinguished scholars and officials. In his youth, he showed a talent for poetry and calligraphy. All his life he longed to serve his emperor and country but failed to secure a stable role in officialdom, which consigned his family to a life of relative poverty. He observed the extravagance of the emperor’s court, the suffering of the people, and the ravages of war, and wrote about that in his poetry.
Du Fu is an acknowledged virtuoso in technique and language, master of the perfect couplet while innovative in style and content. Another Tang poet, Yuan Zhen, inscribed on Du Fu’s tomb: “Since there have been poets, there has never been Du Fu’s equal.”
Born into an established family, Wang Wei enjoyed a position in high society, serving successfully in government. He was well-schooled in poetry, calligraphy, music and painting, and was sophisticated and innovative in his art. He became a devout Buddhist and wrote meditative poems of great simplicity and understatement. Yet his work reflected an ongoing discord between his sense of public responsibility and a private desire for renunciation.
This poem by Zhang Ji (張繼 c.800, Tang Dynasty) is a seven-character quatrain, consisting of two pairs of parallel couplets. It has long been regarded as a masterpiece in that genre.
Gusu, now part of the modern city of Suzhou, was the capital of the ancient state of Wu in southern China.
Around 500 BCE, the states of Wu and Yue contended for supremacy. According to the legend, the King of Yue presented the King of Wu with the beautiful Xi Shi. The King of Wu was so beguiled with her that he was unprepared when the King of Yue attacked and defeated him. Part of the melancholy of the poem is the evocation of the well-known legend in the name of the old city.
The first Cold Mountain (Hanshan) Temple was built in the Liang Dynasty (502-557).
These ATCs have been traded but are available as 4″ x 6″ prints.