Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Poem by Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin, Contemplating the Ancient
李商隱 覽古

Li Shangyin (813?-858) was born in Huojia 獲嘉 in modern-day Henan. After his father’s death in 821, he lived in Luoyang. After passing the jinshi examination in 837 he held several minor posts in and outside the capital.

This poem, "Contemplating the Ancient," is a criticism of the indulgences and ambitions of the emperor Jingzong 敬宗 (reigned 824-827), alluding to the downfall that met similar rulers in the past.

莫恃金湯忽太平, 草間霜露古今情。
Do not rely on iron walls and boiling moats while neglecting the peace:
The conditions of the ages are but frost and dew among the grass—

空糊赬壤真何益, 欲舉黃旗竟未成。
What is the point in writing them down?
They desired to give a lordly air, but in the end nothing came of it.

長樂瓦飛隨水逝, 景陽鐘墮失天明。
The tiles of Changle fly off and are washed away with the waters,
The bells of Jingyang fall and are lost to the Heavens’ light

回頭一弔箕山客, 始信逃堯不為名。
I turn back to memorialize the Man of Qishan,
Beginning to believe in his avoidance of Yao and not making a name for himself.

Line 1: This phrase is abbreviated from 金城湯池 and refers to fortifications. It is first found in the Han shu, juan 45: 必將嬰城固守,皆為金城湯池,不可攻也。“It was necessary to firmly secure the winding walls by using iron walls and boiling moats. These cannot be assaulted.”

Line 5: The Changle Palace of the Han. See Han shu, juan 12: 冬,大風吹長安城東門屋瓦且盡。 “In the winter, a great wind blew at Chang’an’s East Gate, and the tiles of buildings were on the verge of being blown away completely.”

Line 6: Nan Qi shu, juan 20: 宮內深隱,不聞端門鼓漏聲,置鐘於景陽樓上,宮人聞此鐘,早起裝飾,至今此鐘唯應五鼓及三鼓也。 “From deep within the (pleasure) palace, the sounds of the drums of the outside gate could not be heard. Bells were installed in Jingyang Tower, and when people in the palace heard these bells, they would quickly rise and dress. As of now, there should be only five or even three of these bells remaining.”

Lines 7-8: Xu You 許由, to whom Yao desired to entrust his rulership. Xu You turned it down, saying the world was already in order and he had no desire to take over only to make a name for himself. See Zhuangzi, Xiaoyao 2. (Translated in Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, p. 26): “Yao wanted to cede the empire to Hsü Yu.... Hsü Yu said, ‘You govern the world and the world is already well governed. Now if I take your place, will I be doing it only for a name? But name is only the guest of reality—will I be doing it so I can play the part of a guest? [...] Go home and forget the matter, my lord.’”