苏轼 Sū Shì, also known as苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō, was the best-known poet from the Song Dynasty. Like the Great Tang poet李白Lǐ Bái, he loved to drink! Again, like 李白 Lǐ Bái, he was also ill-fitted to court politics. It might be his fortune or misfortune that he obtained the title of imperial scholar while he was quite young and rose in the bureaucratic ranks quickly. As he was more committed to Confucianism than 李白 Lǐ Bái, he felt an obligation to become a sagely minister to assist the emperor to develop and implement beneficent policies to the people. When the reformer 王安石 Wáng Ān Shí started his reforms in 1069 AD, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was deeply involved as an opponent to radical reform. However, in 1079, at the height of the Reformists’ power, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was framed and imprisoned by some of the reformist officials. Because of 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō’s huge influence among the scholar officials, these reformists intended to execute him, so they lobbied the emperor to put him to death. It was the leader of the Reformists 王安石 Wáng Ān Shí who pleaded with the Emperor 赵顼 Zhào Xū, saying that a wise emperor would not sentence a literary genius to death even if he committed outrageous crimes! The Emperor pardoned 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō and sent him to exile at 黄州 Huáng Zhōu in today’s 湖北 Húběi province. The whole saga of framing 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō and attempting to kill him was a huge scandal during and after the Song Dynasty.
The poem translated here was composed in 1082 AD, the third year after 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was exiled to 黄州 Huáng Zhōu. The title of this poem is 临江仙 Lín Jiāng Xiān 夜归临皋 Yè Guī Lín Gāo. 临江仙 Lín Jiāng Xiān or ‘An Immortal by the River’ is the form of the poem just like 长相思. The form had been in use for many years by 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō’s time and it often had nothing to do with the content. So 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō also give the poem a real title: 夜归临皋Yè Guī Lín Gāo or Return to Lin Gao at Night. 临皋 Lín Gāo is a small village outside 黄州 Huáng Zhōu town where 苏东坡Sū Dōng Pō was given a few acres of land to grow food for himself and his family.
A scholar official 叶梦得 Yè Mèng Dé, who was from a generation later than 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō’s, compiled a book by the title of《避暑录话》 Bì Shǔ Lù Huà or ‘A Collection of Conversations during a Summer Holiday’, which recorded what happened at the time when this poem was composed. According to 叶梦得 Yè Mèng Dé, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was sick with an eye condition, so he did not go out with friends for over a month. Some friends thought he was suffering a serious illness, and some people passing the area thought that 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō had died and spread the news. Someone told one of 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō’s friends 范景仁 Fàn Jǐng Rén, who lived in 许昌 Xǔ Chāng, which is some five hundred kilometres away. 范景仁 Fàn Jǐng Rén was so devastated that he started howling and gathered his sons to prepare the long journey to go to 黄州 Huáng Zhōu to pay tribute to the Su family. One of his sons gently said to 范景仁 Fàn Jǐng Rén, “we haven’t checked out this news yet. Maybe we can send a letter first to ask how Mr. Su is. When this news is confirmed, then it would not be late to go and pay tribute to his family.” 范景仁 Fàn Jǐng Rén quickly sent a servant rushing to 黄州 Huáng Zhōu and was relieved once the news proved to false. This story shows how much 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was loved by his friends and fellow scholar officials. His wellbeing was the concern of many people. Even the fake news of his death spread very quickly and caused such commotion!
The book also recorded how this poem was composed and the disturbance caused by this poem! 叶梦得 Yè Mèng Dé reported that after 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō recovered from his eye condition, he was out drinking on the river again with friends. Once he composed this poem, he chanted “from this time on I’d like to be on a small dinghy, floating off to rivers and oceans for the remainder of my life.” and then bade farewell to his friends. The next day, a rumor spread out like wildfire that “苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō had composed this poem last night, hung up his official cap and robe by the river, and taken a boat, and sailed away whistling!” The then state governor 徐君猷 Xú Jūn Yóu heard the rumour, and thinking he had lost an important prisoner under his watch, rushed to the Su house, only to find that 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was sleeping and snoring loudly.
At this time, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was under house arrest. However, due to 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō’s reputation as both an excellent scholar official and poetic genius, the then 黄州 Huáng Zhōu governor 徐君猷Xú Jūn Yóu treated him like a friend. He not only did everything to help the Su family with their accommodation and food supplies, despite the strict order from the capital to make 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō suffer, 徐君猷Xú Jūn Yóu also socialized with 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō and invited him to every social occasion he hosted. The reason that he rushed to the Su house after hearing the rumor was not that he worried that he might be implicated if 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō escaped, but out of concern for 苏东坡Sū Dōng Pō’s wellbeing as a friend. That is why he was so relieved when he heard 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō snoring at the Su house!
It was during his time at 黄州Huáng Zhōu that 苏轼 Sū Shì took on the name of 东坡居士 Dōng Pō Jū Shì, or a Lay Buddhist Practitioner from the Eastern Slope which was shortened as 东坡 Dōng Pō or Eastern Slope. This name came from a poem by 苏轼 Sū Shì’s favourite Tang Dynasty poet 白居易Bái Jū Yì. Here is the poem from which Su Shi got his name:
I climbed up the eastern slope for a walk in the morning,
I am up here again in the evening.
What do I like about the eastern slope?
I love the newly planted trees here!
This simple poem reflects 苏轼 Sū Shì’s feelings perfectly at this time. As I mentioned in my earlier videos, 苏轼 Sū Shì was basically an easy-going and happy person. No matter what life dealt him, he would always find a way to cheer himself up. After barely getting away alive, even when he was still under house arrest苏轼 Sū Shì managed to befriend the local officials and even get a piece of land to grow food and build a cottage for his family.
Chinese text and translation:
I sober up from drinking on the eastern slope and get drunk again,
arriving home sometime around three bells at midnight.
The boy servant’s nose is already thundering,
I knock and there’s no answer.
Leaning on my cane, I listen to the sounds of the river.
For a long time, I’ve hated this body not my own,
When would I forget about running hither and thither?
Late at night the breeze is still, the river waves a fine weave.
From this time on I’d like to be on a small dinghy
floating off to rivers and oceans for the remainder of my life.
更 jīng refers to the hours during the time. One 更 jīng is two hours, the night hours starts by 7pm.During the first two hours, a night watchman would ring his bell once; the second two hours, he rings two times etc., until the night hours end at five 更 jīng, that is between 3 to 5am.三更 sān jīng is the two hours around midnight.
营 yíng literarily means to construct as well as the structures constructed. For example,营 yíng also means military camp as in 营地 yíng dì or military camp; when the character is doubled up as 营营yíng yíng, the phrase means to go through every possible ways in pursuing something, often using questionable means.
縠hú refers to a fine weaved silk; 纹 wén refers to the silk’s pattern 縠纹 hú wén here refers to the patterns of the waves.
After living in 黄州 Huáng Zhōu for two years, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō had already built a circle of friends and started enjoying life again. This poem describes how after a quiet night at a drinking party with friends on the river, he finally sobered up and walked home. It was way past midnight. The boy servant was soundly asleep. He could hear the boy snoring like thunder from the front gate. No one answer the door after he knocked. Instead of getting mad, 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō, leaning on his cane, listened to the sound from the river and noticed the beautiful patterns of the waves reflecting the moonlight. In such a peaceful night, he felt that he finally got his life back. He had been regretting that he did not own his life. He had spent his life serving his family, his emperor, and the people. Now, in this quiet night, he was himself again. He could just take a boat, sail down the river, and spend the rest of his life on the oceans!
The 下阕 xià què or second part of the poem draws substantial content from 庄子 Zhuāng Zi, the Taoist text. In chapters 22 and 23, 庄子 Zhuāng Zi argues that one should not pay too much attention to fame, wealth, or power. These are not important if you are to become a sage and really benefit your people. Here is a quote from 庄子 Zhuāng Zi chapter 23:
Keep your body wholesome; embrace your life; do not exert yourself in thinking, planning, and running over [all places]; doing these for three years, you will reach your goal [of becoming a sage].
We know that 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō was an excellent official and implemented many beneficial policies for the people under his care. Now that he was stripped of all his official titles and had no official duty, it must have been very hard for him to see the empire falling into the hands of incompetent and corrupt officials and the common people were suffering because of this. It would be hard for anyone who cherishes the Confucian ideal of bringing safety and peaceful lives for the people.
By reading 庄子 Zhuāng Zi 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō felt that he could just let go of his concerns for a while and escape into the natural world and let heaven and earth take care of things. Such thoughts must have offered huge comfort for him! The belief that heaven and earth have their intrinsic laws about how things work in this world, and that heaven and earth would do justice for the people and all other creatures in the world, are deeply held core beliefs in Daoism. The second belief does not sound very Taoist as presented in Dao De Jing and the first seven chapters of 庄子 Zhuāng Zi. However, it was added by later Daoists and even made its way into 庄子 Zhuāng Zi, the text.
It is clear that, as early as the Song Dynasty, Taoism and Confucianism had worked hand in hand to provide a moral compass for scholar officials. 苏东坡 Sū Dōng Pō draws from both Confucianism and Taoism, sometimes Buddhism too, for both moral direction as well as comfort. The same is true even today.