Magistral Judge DU Mu
Li Shangyin (Tang Dynasty 812 ?-858 ?)
On a tower amid winds and rains, I am touched by your writings;
My wings are short and uneven that I cannot reach your height or the crowd’s.
Who in this world but the one and only Masistral Judge Du is able to
Make a lot out of the hurt at spring and further from the hurt at farewells?
刻意emphasize/ on purpose伤hurt春spring复again伤hurt别parting
人间human world惟only有have杜DU司勋sixun- name of an official rank
The title of this poem comprises two parts, the surname and the official rank of DU Mu (803-853?), which makes the poem both a dedication and an appraisal. Of course, in the ancient time, there is no email for instant communication and even if the author wanted the dedicatee to learn the poem, most probably it would have to be spread first in the poetic or literati circle (which of course was usually consisted of many officers and officials). The official rank of sixun (si-shuen), according to Zhou Ritual 周礼, is the magistral judge who takes charge of the rewarding land for meritorious services within six communes (under a county).
The two greatest Late Tang poets Li Shangyin and Du Mu were praised as the Li-Du Junior, compared with High Tang poets Li Bai and Du Fu. Both pairs of the Li and the Du were close friends, and they wrote to each other. They presented an interesting comparison. Li Shangyin was very passionate, while Du Mu was a proud guy. Du Fu was very affectionate, while Li Bai was very proud. Li Shangyin greatly admired Du Mu and wrote two poems for Du Mu, while Du Mu wrote none for return. DU Fu wrote more poems for Li Bai that Li’s returns.
This poem by Li Shangyin deserves attention and praise. Du Mu always complained that his talent was wasted, and he was famous for writing “For ten years I did nothing but dream in Yangzhou / Before I won an insignificant fame in the Green Quarters (brothels).” Li Shangyin wrote this poem to encourage him, and at the same time expressed an ambition that could only share with him. The recognition and the singling out of one person from one’s age are definitely a way to praise and self-praise.
The tower (high building) is a traditional image for a noble-minded man with a high aspiration who cannot be understood by ordinary people and therefore feel lonely. Wind and rain usually refers to the turbulence of the time, but here the phrase implies the socio-cultural decadence. The second line is a self-effacing lamentation. The phrase “short wings” stands for the lack of ability. The last word 群 may have two interpretations here. If it means crowd, the line may be read as mockery. It means that I will not be part of the crowd as I lack ability. If the word means a pair, the line may mean that I am no pair to you as I am short-winged. The third line refers to DU Mu’s poetic themes. Since the first line has already pointed to the whole society, the third line not merely summarizes the sentimental themes but generalizes the hurt. That is, Du Mu’s lament is rendered not about personal grievances but about generally-felt grief.
Here, I’d like to talk a little more about the word 伤hurt in Chinese. This is a highly culture-loaded concept. We have many phrases carrying the word, such as 伤春 hurt at/by the spring, 伤怀 hurt within the bosom (not 伤心 heart-hurting or 心碎 heart-breaking), 伤感 hurt by feeling something (sentimental) etc. Since the spring is the season for flowers, and the flowers may stand for transient beauty, being hurt at seeing the spring is to be hurt by the spring, and one is reminded of the fleeting life itself. Then, the sickness upon seeing the spring flowers may become internalized into a sickness within the heart, therefore it becomes伤怀a hurt within one’s bosom. The generalization and internalization from the hurt at/by the spring to the hurt within the bosom is important in Chinese culture (and this may also imply to other eastern cultural concepts such as the lamenting on the falling cherry blossom Japanese and han 恨 hate in Korean). The hurt in Chinese appears to be not directly related to the body, although it may compass the possible disembodiment in the imagery of falling flowers, which may further evoke the association of the withering of the beauty of a woman.
This hurt reminds me of Sylvia Plath’s line “Your body/ Hurts me as the world hurts God.” In Plath’s poem, the hurt also undergoes the generalizing process from the individual to the whole world, and at the same time, the comparison between me and God heightens the scale and nature of the hurt.