Su Shi's Nian Nu Jiao - Reminiscing Red Cliffs

(See previous post here.)

The original Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs:-

大江東去, 浪淘盡, 千古風雲人物。

古疊西邊, 人道是, 三國周郎赤壁;

亂石崩雲, 驚濤裂岸, 捲起千堆雪;

江山如畫, 一時多少豪傑。

遙想公瑾當年, 小喬初嫁了, 雄姿英發;

羽扇綸巾, 談笑間, 強虜灰飛煙滅。

故國神遊, 多情應笑我, 早生華髮,

人生如夢, 一樽還酹江月。

My rendition:-

Gone are ancient heroes, washed away in the east-flowing river.

West of the old forts, they say, was fought Zhou’s battle of Red Cliffs;

Rugged cliffs piercing clouds, furious waves hitting shores like snow being swept aside.

My country so picturesque, so full of gallant men in yonder time.

Zhou must have looked valiant, with younger Qiao his new bride;

Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, his enemies crushed as he joked.

Such was my dreamy tour. Mock me as maudlin, but I’m a young white-haired bloke.

Life is but a dream; let me honor the river moon, savor the wine in the bottle.

NOTE: This lyric poem was written during the time when Su Shi was serving as a junior official in Wang Zhou (黃州 in Hubei Province), to which he was banished after his release from prison. His imprisonment had been brought about by his writing a politically-incorrect poem called Crow Terrace Poem (烏臺詩). Nian Nu Jiao: Reminiscing Red Cliffs reflects his dramatic change of outlook on life after experiencing the near-death trauma (as imprisonment could well turn into a death sentence on a momentary whim of the emperor). The “Crow Terrace Case” was an incident in which Su Shi’s Crow Terrace Poem was deliberately taken out of context by his adversaries to make it sound like an offending accusation against the emperor. The whole incident made him feel not only wronged, but also helpless within the then prevalent officialdom where knavery and chicanery thrived. His cherished ideal of serving his country was wrecked by the incident.

Thus, the tone of the lyric poem is one of unfulfilled mission and ruefulness. In recalling Zhou Yu’s once heroic and romantic deeds, which had nevertheless been “washed away” by time, the poet was trying to express his own helplessness and the heartbreak of unrequited love for his country and his emperor. By implication, the poet wanted to say that as admirable and noble as Zhou, he had only lived a short life of 36 years. So, what right did he, a much less accomplished person than Zhou, have, to complain about petty failures? The undertone is at once sad (about the vicissitudes of life) and forgiving (because of his love for his picturesque country).