Ancient Chinese moon poems

Matching to the moon festival, which has just been celebrated in Asia, we are looking to the Far East and are going far back in time to the year 700 A.D. Back then, the Tang Dynasty ruled China, a powerful dynasty that remained in power for almost 300 years. And there were two poets whose names are still well-known today, Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770; see fictitious portrait opposite). Both created magnificent works. Li Bai was already a little older and hence a few years ahead, Du Fu had apparently surpassed his idol – this is what is being said amongst scholars.

The Moon plays a part for both poets. It is mostly spoken about »yuè« (月: Chin. moon), but one can assume that it is intended for the full moon, which is also shown in the calligraphic portrayals of this time, where the full moon can almost always be seen in the sky.

Li Bai
Quiet night thoughts

Before my bed
There is bright-lit moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:
Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon
Lowering my head
I dream that I’m home.

[Translation: Arthur Cooper]

Du Fu
Night thoughts afloat

By bent grasses in a gentle wind
Under straight mast I’m alone tonight,
And the stars hang above the broad plain
But moon‘s afloat in this Great River:
Oh, where’s my name among the poets?
Official rank? »Retired for ill-health.«
Drifting, drifting, what am I more than
A single gull between sky and earth?

[Translation: Arthur Cooper]

The linguistic structure of Chinese is entirely different to European languages, by having basically to be a poet in order to present the character of a work adequately. It is not rare for a poem to have hundreds of translations (either more or less good ones).

It is always astonishing that such a work survives centuries and the originator is still known and can be named. Insofar, there appears to be some truth in the saying that a piece of art makes its creator immortal.

It is different with the Moon: it does not need to perform miracles to stand the test of time.

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