‘Winter Night’, by Bai Juyi (772–846)

December 19, 2005 (revised Jan 25, 06 and May 17, 13)

I have loved this poem for many years and last night when I was reading it I decided to have a go at translating it, particularly as the sentiments expressed resonated with how I was feeling. It was written in 812, when Bai Juyi 白居易 (Po Chü-i) was 40 and had retired from the world for a period.




Winter Night

My home is poor, those I love scattered,
My body is sick, and friendships finished.
Before my eyes there is not one person,
Alone I lie down shut up in my secluded dwelling.
Cold and desolate, the lamp flame dims.

Flapping about, my torn curtains.

The wind soughs before the window,
Again I hear a fresh snowfall.
Over the long years I have gradually reduced sleep,
Around midnight I get up and begin sitting.
Had I not learnt to sit and forget the concerns of the heart,
The loneliness might be unbearable.
A motionless body at its lodging in the world,
Overwhelming feelings abandoned to change.
Like this four years have come,
One thousand three hundred nights.

The reference to ‘sitting’ means meditation. Zuòwàng 坐忘 is literally ‘sit and forget’, which Wenlin defines as being oblivious to oneself and one’s surroundings, free of worldly concerns. Hanyu Da Cidian links the phrase to Daoism, saying it is the state of mind in which one becomes unconscious of the boundary between oneself and the external world, at one with the dao. There is a usage of the phrase towards the end of chapter 6 of Zhuangzi. There Yan Hui explains to Confucius what he means by ‘sit and forget’, saying: ‘Letting the body fall away, dismissing intelligence, separating from form, casting out knowing, being the same as the whole, this is called sitting and forgetting.’ 顏回曰:墮肢體,黜聰明,離形去知,同於大通,此謂坐忘。 (I suppose I could translate ‘being the same as the whole’ 同於大通 as ‘at one with everything’, but this is less literal and a cliché.)

Cè-cè 策策 is onomatopoeic and used to imitate such things as the sound of the wind or rustling of leaves. I have used the the English word ‘sough’, as in the line before the draught is ruffling his curtains. The wind as such is not mentioned, a more literal translation of 策策窗戶前 might be ‘Sough-sough before the window’. ‘Sough’ is quite similar to the modern pronunciation of the character. In Tang times, however, the pronunciation is thought to be more like ‘tsek’. Arthur Waley in fact translated the line as: ‘ “Tsek, tsek” on the door-step and window-sill’. At first, I could form no mental impression of what this could be the sound of. But, when I published the first draft of the above translation, Geoff Waters wrote to me and happened to mention that to him ‘tsek tsek’ sounded like bamboo in the wind. This certainly is a beautiful interpretation, to see a thicket of swaying bamboo outside his window, clacking in the wind and snow. So as an alternative translation I could well in the end decide on ‘Clack-clack before the window.’ (Thanks to Harmen Mesker too for discussions on this poem.)

[Revision May 17, 2013: The ‘secluded dwelling’ in the fourth line I originally had as ‘hermitage’, but this implies an isolated hut in the mountains whereas Bai actually was living in a small village. Waley has ‘cottage room’. Waley deals with this period of Bai Juyi’s life in Chapter VI of his excellent though hard-to-find 1949 book The Life and Times of Po Chü-i. It was mourning for his mother that had originally compelled him to withdraw from official life. His mother drowned herself in a well. Curiously, Santoka’s mother also committed suicide by throwing herself down a well.]