Li He / Li Ho
The night turns around
The first line of 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' carries the interesting conceit of the night 'turning round':
Little by little the night turns around
This line was taken from Untitled Poem (iii) by Li Shangyin, but a similar expression also occurs in one of Li He's poems, entitled, 'Up in Heaven'. Graham's translation of the line 'little by little the night turns around' at that poem may have been influenced by his translation at this poem. In fact, the original Chinese at the two lines is quite different.
Who was Li He / Li Ho?
UP IN HEAVEN
The River of Heaven turns in the night and floats the stars around,
A stream of cloud between silver shores mimics the sound of water.
The cassia tree of the Jade Palace has never shed its flowers,
A houri plucks their fragrance to hang at her jewelled sash.
The Ch'in princess rolls back the blind, day breaks at the North window:
Before the window the straight wu-t'ung dwarfs the blue phoenix.
The prince blows the long goose-quills of the pan-pipes,
Calling to the dragon to plough the mist and plant the jasper herb.
With ribbons of pale dawn-cloud pink and lotus-root fibre skirts
Fairies walk on Azure Isle gathering orchids in the spring.
They point at Hsi-Ho in the Eastern sky, who deftly speeds his horses,
While out of the sea the new land silts beneath the stony mountains.
|UP IN HEAVEN||天上謠
tiān shàng yáo
Heaven top song
|The River of Heaven turns in the night and floats the stars around,||
|A stream of cloud between silver shores mimics the sound of water.||銀浦流雲學水聲。
yín pǔ liú yún xué shuǐ shēng
silver riverside flow cloud imitate water sound
|The cassia tree of the Jade Palace has never shed its flowers,||玉宮桂樹花未落，
yù gōng guì shù huā wèi luò
jade palace cassia tree, flower has-not fall
|A houri plucks their fragrance to hang at her jewelled sash.||仙妾采香垂佩纓。
xiān qiè cǎi xiāng chuí pèi yīng
fairy maiden pluck fragrance dangle hang tassel
|The Ch'in princess rolls back the blind, day breaks at the North window:||秦妃卷簾北窗曉，
Qín fēi juǎn lián běi chuāng xiǎo
Qin princess roll blind, north window light
|Before the window the straight wu-t'ung dwarfs the blue phoenix.||窗前植桐青鳳小。
chuāng qián zhí tóng qīng fèng xiǎo
window front plant tong, blue phoenix small
|The prince blows the long goose-quills of the pan-pipes,||王子吹笙鵝管長，
wáng zǐ chuī shēng é guǎn cháng
king son blow sheng goose pipe long
|Calling to the dragon to plough the mist and plant the jasper herb.||呼龍耕煙種瑤草。
hū lóng gēng yān zhòng yáo cǎo
call dragon plough mist, plant jade/jasper grass
|With ribbons of pale dawn-cloud pink and lotus-root fibre skirts||粉霞紅綬藕絲裙。
fěn xiá hóng shòu ǒu sī qún
pink dawn-glow red ribbon lotus thread skirt
|Fairies walk on Azure Isle gathering orchids in the spring.||青洲步拾蘭苕春。
qīng zhōu bù shí lán tiáo chūn
blue isle walk pick orchid trumpet-creeper spring (=season)
|They point at Hsi-Ho in the Eastern sky, who deftly speeds his horses,||東指羲和能走馬，
dōng zhǐ Xī Hé néng zǒu mǎ
east point Xi He good-at run horse
|While out of the sea the new land silts beneath the stony mountains.||海塵新生石山下。
hǎi chén xīn shēng shí shān xià
sea dust new bear/generate stone mountain below/down ('below stone mountain' or 'stone mountain goes down')
A few notes:
- The River of Heaven is the Chinese name for the Milky Way. In this poem, Li Ho imagines that the Milky Way is really like a river, running between silver shores, floating the stars. The Milky Way turns in the sky as the night progresses.
- The Palace of Jade and the Cassia Tree are traditionally said to be in the moon.
- Long-yu, the daughter of Duke Mu of Qin, studied the xiao (straight bamboo flute) from Xiao Shi, whom she married. Xiao Shi taught her to imitate the phoenix on her flute and attract them to her room. One morning Long Yu mounted a phoenix and Xiao Shi mounted a dragon, which carried them off to the moon together. The little phoenix that she sees outside her room has barely grown in the thousand years since she came to the moon.
- The 'king's son' is Prince Qiao, son of King Zhou Ling. Prince Qiao could play the sheng (type of mouth organ) to make the phoenix sing. Here he is shown summoning the dragon to come and plough the mist and clouds with the mythical 'jasper grass'. The jade pipes of his sheng were shaped like goose-quills.
- The Azure Isle is the legendary abode of the fairies, located in the Eastern Seas.
- Xi He gallops the sun across the sky with his horses each day.
Li He's poem paints an idyllic picture of heaven where familiar characters of legend are leading the days of their lives. The theme is the contrast between the timelessness of heaven and the brevity of human affairs. The theme becomes evident in the very last line, where the passing of the days in heaven is contrasted with the drastic changes taking place down on earth.
A second English version will help bring the tone of the poem into focus. This is by Frodsham.
A BALLAD OF HEAVEN
The River of Heaven wheels round at night
Drifting the circling stars,
At Silver Bank, the floating clouds
Mimic the murmur of water.
By the Palace of Jade the cassia blossoms
Have not yet fallen,
Fairy maidens gather their fragrance
For their dangling girdle-sachets.
The Princess from Ch'in rolls up her blinds,
Dawn at the north casement.
In front of the window, a planted kolanut
Dwarfs the blue phoenix.
The King's son plays his pipes
Long as goose-quills,
Summoning dragons to plough the mist and plant Jade Grass.
Sashes of pink as clouds at dawn.
Skirts of lotus-root silk,
They walk on Blue Island, gathering
Fresh orchids in spring.
She points to Hsi Ho in the east,
Deftly urging his steeds,
While land begins to rise from the sea
And stone hills wear away.
The same poem in an older translation by Ho Chih-yuan, from the anthology The White Pony (edited by Robert Payne, 1947, Mentor Books). Like many other poems in The White Pony, the translation is superficially attractive but doesn't give much hint what the poem is supposed to mean.
A SONG OF HEAVEN
The Milky Way revolves at night among the floating stars;
The clouds wander by the Silver River and imitate the murmur of water.
Within the moon lies the Jade Palace, unfading flowers and cinnamon trees.
The goddess with her headdress of silk plucks the fragrant grasses.
The queen pulls up her curtains; in the north window it is dawn.
There is a bluebird on the tree in the small window.
The prince blows the long pipe of his flute,
Then calls the Dragon to plow the earth and plant holy grasses.
She wears a red gown; underneath there is a purple skirt.
She gathers the flowers along green beaches,
She points to the God of the Sun careering like a charger.
The sea dust below the Stone Mountain has only just been born.