Mid-Autumn Full Moon I: 李商隐/Li ShangYin


It was the mid-autumn full moon, the largest full moon of the year, over the past two nights. Unfortunately, with the returning haze and overcast rainy night skies, there was to be no large and looming, wide-as-a-double-yolk-mooncake, and right in your face, full moon this year. So sad.

Nevertheless carrying on family traditions, for about a fortnight or so, I have been following the young nascent crescent moon as it began to wax and grow into the proud mid-autumn’s full moon that has so many peoples and cultures celebrating it as a mark of season’s change:

As I walked each night, I watched the shy young moon, at first hiding its slim face and only daring to peer bashfully from behind the dark veil of the night sky, grow slowly larger and bolder with each passing night, getting less and less timid before finally stepping forth to reveal herself in her entirety and gazing proudly down at her admirers below.

And following a family tradition, each night as I watched, I will recite in my mind any one of our favourite poems on the full moon theme, paying homage to Chang Er, ancient poets, and family alike.

Here is a much beloved couplet poem on the moon, from the late Tang period by one of my favourite poets, the master of masters when it comes to allusive imagery, the enigmatic 李商隐/Li ShangYin:

[Poems taken from father’s well-worn and filled with margin-scribblings copy of A. C. Graham’s beautiful translations of Tang poetry.]


The Lady in the Moon

‘Ch’ang O Stole the herb of immortality and fled to the moon. Because the moon is white, she is called the White Beauty.’
‘In third autumn month, the Dark Maid emerges to send down the frost and snow’
(cf. Tu Fu, The Autumn Wastes, No. 4).

(i) Ch’ang O

The lamp grows deep in the mica screen.
The long river slowly descends, the morning star drowns.
Is Ch’ang O sorry that she stole the magic herb,
Between the blue sky and the emerald sea, thinking night after night?

(ii) Frosty Moon

First calls of the migrant geese, no more cicadas.
South of this hundred-foot tower the water runs straight to the sky.
The Dark Maid and the White Beauty endure the cold together,
Rivals in elegance amid the frost on the moon.

–translated by A. C. Graham

Father’s favourite way to learn a language is to read its acclaimed literature and poetry, especially well-regarded translations and to ‘improve’ on them with his own translations. And A. C. Graham’s beautiful and very sensitive translations of Chinese poetry was one of father’s primary sources for refining his grasp of the English language, with father being of course very intimately acquainted with the old Chinese poetry and literature that was Graham’s main material and subject. And father’s old copies of Graham’s books and translations are filled with notes of his own translations back and forth between the two languages.

And I love Graham’s books and translations. He has to be one of the finest Sinologist with a keen grasp of the nuances of the Chinese language. His essay “The Translation of Chinese Poetry” contains some of the most insightful analysis I have seen on Chinese prose and verse.

Li ShangYin (pitifully short): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Shangyin
李商隐: http://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/李商隐

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