Tang Spirit Network - translations by Lan Hua of classic Chinese poetry by Li Bai, Du Fu and other great Tang poets

This week we continue on our journey in the company of the 7th century monk, Xuanzang, on his pilgrimage from China to India and back again, with our translation of three more recently discovered poems attributed to him.
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Three more Poems by Xuanzang

Xuanzang on pilgrimageThese days we are most likely to first encounter the Chinese monk Xuanzang as a figure of literature and legend through the pages of Journey to the West where, following the prologue of The Adventures of Monkey King, his pilgrimage to India, provides the through line for the remainder of Wu Cheng En's great epic tale, in which Xuanzang and a menagerie of animal traveling companions battle various spirits and demons along their perilous way.

Later, if we have the opportunity to continue further in our study of Chinese culture and history, we encounter Xuanzang again in the form of the real historical figure and author in his own right of a 7th century travel narrative, The Great Tang Record of the Western Territories. Dipping into the pages of Xuanzang’s account, we discover that his actual voyage crisscrossing Asia was indeed as fantastic as the legend that subsequently sprung up around him, as he traversed countless mountain passes, encountered peoples of more than a hundred different tribal nations, and found holy scriptures and visited stupas that glowed with mysterious light all along the way.

This for me conveys much of the abiding beauty and wonder of classical Chinese culture – how it simultaneously partakes of the spirit of reality and legend, blending them into a rich narrative mix, in which the strands probably neither can nor should be too assiduously separated. Its power to enchant and fascinate us stems from both the richness and the gaps in the historical record, which permits us to engage fully with the past yet still requires us to exercise our imaginative powers in order to bridge the gap over the intervening years.

And it seems perfectly fitting that the recent discovery of these poems attributed to Xuanzang rounds out our picture of him as a poet in his own right. Along with the reality and legend, we can now throw some lovely metaphor into the mix, understanding Xuanzang’s journey as real and legendery and poetic at the same time, proceeding along both inner and outer planes. Each of the three poems I have translated this week is a variation on the same theme – describing a mountain climb somewhere on the pilgrimage from India and China - which we can read both literally and metaphorically as descriptive of Xuanzang’s incredible journey.

The title of this first poem indicates that it was composed in Western Paradise, the traditional Chinese name for India.

A Half Finished Verse on the Mountain of Sacrifice
Composed In Western Paradise

After unstinting effort
Of the human frame
To reach this mountain shelter

Where a few words
Suddenly discovered
Exceed the poetic realm

In a holy sutra
Inscribed in stone

The spirit's music is performed
In the half empty mountain air

stairway to heaven



And here is my translation of the fourth of Xuanzang's poem, again written in a mountain setting, but this time composed back in China, presumably after his return from India, in which he describes a very specific terrain, including references to rivers and plains in north central China.

To the Temple of Novitiates Composed in Tai Yuan Near the Northern Capital

Climbing west to
The Temple of Novitiates
Gazing east towards
Yang Cheng where
The broad plain sparkles
Like a thousand flakes of gold
Along the pure route
Where the River Fen flows



And finally, here is the last poem in this series, again composed in China, describes the ascent of Mount Song, one of the five sacred mountains, located in Henan Province. This is my favorite one, as it gives us the best glipse of Xuanzang himself, walking stick in hand, as he ascends towards the heavens.

On Climbing Mount Song Near the Southern Capital

A lonely peak
Tapers its way
To a summit
Cut off in the clouds
Thousands of feet above

With walking stick in hand
Climbing like a rattan vine
Gradually ascending

Finally arriving at
The moon’s side
In the very Temple of Heaven

Where only fleecy clouds
Are gathered to keep company
With two or three monks

Mount Song



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About the Tang Spirit Network

The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Lan Hua and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.

In the Tang Spirit,
Lan Hua - July 25, 2012