THE ARRIVAL OF AUTUMN (Author: Li He)

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秋来 The Arrival of Autumn

作者:李贺 (Author: Li He, 9th century)

桐风惊心壮士苦, parasol wind startle heart strong person bitter
衰灯络纬啼寒素。 feeble light cicadas cry cold white/clothes
谁看青简一编书, who read green bamboo slip one compile/volume book
不遣花虫粉空蠹。 no dispatch flower insect powder in vain moth-eaten
思牵今夜肠应直, think of connect today night bowel should straight
雨冷香魂吊书客。 rain cold fragrant soul pay tribute book guest
秋坟鬼唱鲍家诗, autumn tomb ghost sing Bao family poem
恨血千年土中碧。 hatred blood thousand year soil inside green jade

Translation:

The wind through the parasol trees startles a strong man’s heart,
And makes him bitter.
In the dying candle light, crickets cry out,
Warning us to weave winter clothes.
Oh, who will read this book of poems, written on green bamboo?
And keep the flower moths from turning it to dust?

This night of longing makes my intestines go limp.
But in the cold rain, a fragrant spirit comes to comfort me.
Among the autumn tombs, ghosts sing poems in the style of Bao Zhao.
After a thousand years, the blood of a wronged man
Turns to jade deep in the earth.

Translation Note:

This poem was written in the late Tang Dynasty by a young man who was not allowed to sit for the official government exams because of a naming taboo — the name of the highest degree obtained from the official government exam sounds very similar to the given name of Li’s father. In ancient China, the practice of sons using titles or names similar to their fathers’ would be considered unfilial. Although Li He died at the age of 26, he left behind more than 200 poems, many of which featured ghosts and death.

In the first stanza, the literal translation is that cicadas cry for winter clothes, but we do not believe that Li He was anthropomorphizing crickets; we think he meant that the crickets signified that winter was coming and warm clothes would be needed. Although the mention of intestines becoming straight or limp is not common, Chinese poetry often refers to broken or twisted bowels or intestines to signify a broken heart. In line six, the word “diao”(translated as comfort) is usually used in the context of a living person visiting someone’s grave to pay tribute to the dead. Here Li uses it to refer to the “fragrant spirit” (the dead) coming to comfort him, even though he is still alive. The mention of a wronged man whose blood turned to jade is a reference from the Zhou dynasty which ended more than a thousand years before the poem was written.The “wronged man” was a scholar who was exiled because of a false accusation. After he died, his blood was preserved in a box, and within three years it turned into jade. In ancient Chinese history, the “jade green blood” therefore often refers to someone who sacrificed himself and died for a good cause. Even in modern China, the concept of “jade green blood” is commonly used by writers — for example, Jin Yong, a novelist famous for writing “martial arts and chivalry” novels, wrote a novel in the 1950s named “Bi Xue Jian” (the literal translation of the novel’s name is Jade Blood Sword).

We also attach another version of the translation by Elizabeth Smithrosser: https://www.medievalists.net/2020/08/book-care-medieval-china/

We thought her translation of line three to five of the original is very striking “Who will see to it that the young bamboo is bound together as a book, And not left to the dappled silverfish To chew into holes and dust, Like tonight’s snaking thoughts unravel my innards?”, and that her linkage of the silverfish with Li He’s sad thoughts is not too much of a liberty. We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

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