Monday, October 12, 2015

Poem by Cuī Hào: The Yellow Crane Tower

Some years ago I bought a souvenir fan in Chinatown, printed with black characters on a white background. Accompanying the fan, tied to it with a bit of string, was a translation on a white card: (as written)
"The ancient fairy has flown away, riding on a yellow crane, all that is left is the empty tower of the crane. The crane has flown never to return, and now for hundreds and thousands of years therre will only be white cluds drifting.
"Under the sun in Han Yang, the trees are clearly discernable, even the fragrent and thick grass on Parrot Island are clearly visible.
"But as the day drifts towards evening dusk, one asks where one's home land is, the lingering and mystifying mists above the rivers adds to one's sadness."

I knew it was a poem but only yesterday rummaged out the original, by Tang Dynasty poet Cuī Hào.

Here is an unattributed translation that I've found on several travel websites:

The Yellow Crane Tower
Where long ago a yellow crane bore a sage to heaven,
Nothing is left now but the Yellow Crane Terrace.
The yellow crane never revisited earth,
And white clouds are flying without him for ever.

Every tree in Hanyang becomes clear in the water,
And Parrot Island is a nest of sweet grasses;
But I look toward home, and twilight grows dark
With a mist of grief on the river waves.

It's hard to tell from that translation, but the poem was considered so emblematic and was so influential that even the great Li Bai felt unable to write about the tower, though he eventually wrote his famous poem about watching from the Yellow Crane Tower as his friend sailed away to the west.

The tower, Huanghelou, (or rather the current version) is on a hill overlooking the Yangtze (Changjiang) River in Wuhan near the mouth of the Han River (Hanshui) in what is today Wuhan. It looks from the former town of Wuchang to the former town of Hanyang, both swallowed by the modern metropolis. I don't have a good map so I don't know where Parrot Island is/was, but the river was famous for its floods and probably that's something that changed.

Here's a literal translation (pinyin):

Past person already gone yellow crane away
Here only remain yellow crane tower
Yellow crane once gone not return
White cloud 1000 years sky leisuredly
Clear river clear Hanyang tree
Fragrant grass parrot islet
Day dusk homeland pass what place be
Mist water river on become person sorrow

The tower itself is what westerners think of as a pagoda, with multiple levels and turned up eaves. The first tower ("lou"="multistoried building"; a pagoda has something to do with Buddhism) was built in 223AD (Three Kingdoms Period,220-280AD); since it was wood it was burned and reconstructed many times. The current building dates from the 1950s, styled after the Qing Dynasty version. I wonder if there is a drawing anywhere of the original.

Over the centuries a legend grew up about a man who lived an austere life in or by the tower, and was taken up to heaven on the back of a yellow crane to become one of the immortals. Other legends say it was a fairy that was taken up from the tower. Another website relates this story:
"Long long ago, there was an aged man with gray hair and long beard who rode a yellow crane, flying slowly to fall down on the top of Mount Snake. All the farmers, old and young, chatting and playing on the hillside with rocky ground were surprised to look at the stranger. One of boys stepped forward to ask him who are you?swheresare you from? ?Listening carefully to the boy, touching his beard, the aged stranger answered: My name is Wang Zi-an [King's Son-safety], my hometown is over there..."he pointed out to the blue sky, and rode on the crane's back again to fly lightly to the heaven. The Yellow Crane was fluttering higher and higher, passing through the thin mist and thick cloud and vanishing in the remote dome of the sky. An old farmer said: there are only the cranes in white, in gray or the red-crowned cranes we have seen in our human world, but no crane in yellow. I'm sure the yellow must be a fairy crane. ?And then a mid-aged man said: what we have seen is a strange event, and we should build a pavilion to commemorate what happened to us."sure!"everyone agreed with him. Afterwards, the Yellow Crane Tower was established at the top of Mount Snake. That's the tower's origin."

The same website provides this translation:

  Long ago a man riding a yellow crane flew away,
  Leaving the Yellow Crane Tower empty till today.
  The yellow crane has never returned once again
  The 1000-year lonely clouds leisurely remain.
  The river is so clear to mirror the tree shadow,
  The grasses on the Parrot Islet luxuriantly grow.
  I'm not on way home as the sun behind the hill,
  My sorrow waves with the mist-veiled billow.

I'm still looking for other translations.

Note-here is someone taking a try at translating LI Bai: He explains some of the problems with translating the impressionistic written poem into English sentences.
Since I wrote this (in 2007) other sources have appeared online. There is a Wikipedia article, and Parrot Island did disappear long ago. The name is now attached to a bridge.