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Atop a teetering tower, picking a star, but careful not to panic the gods. A five-character quatrain, 20 characters in total.



Night Lodging in a Mountain Temple*
Li Bai (701–762)

A teetering tower a hundred feet high
I can pick my very own star
But I dare not speak loudly
For fear of startling the gods

Yè sù Shānshì

Wéi lóu gāo bǎi chǐ
Shǒu kě zhāi xīng chén
Bù gǎn gāo shēng yǔ
Kǒng jīng tiān shàng rén

Bǎi chǐ gān tóu, 百尺竿頭,

*The mountain temple, 山寺, Shanxi is not identified. If pressed to identify a location for the mountain temple, I choose the Wudang Mountains in Hebei Province. Li Bai was married in Hebei and lived there for a time. The Wudang Mountains are sacred to Taoism.

Notes on Translation

Is there a starry future ahead for Li Bai? No date for this poem, but the subject matter suggests a young Li Bai.

First line, bǎi chǐ, literally one hundred feet, but a literary term for a great height. Bǎi chǐ gān tóu, 百尺竿頭, is a Buddhist expression for being at the highest level of enlightenment. Compare — bǎi chǐ gān tóu , gèng jìn yī bù, there, but still some work to do.

Second line, Zhāi xīng, equates to “reaching for a star.” Third line, 高, gao, means both “loud,” and “lofty”. Thus, its use in lines one and three. The complete phrase Bù gǎn gāo shēng yǔ refers to the poet’s ambition to climb step by step to the lofty heights his superiors have already achieved. Bù bù gāo shēng, being the correct rendition of this aspiration, suggesting that Li Bai is already on his way up.

Last line, Shàng rén, refers to the Confucian principle of Ren, a virtue denoting the good feeling when exhibiting respect for one’s betters. Shàng serves a double purpose. Literally it means superior, as in superior people, i.e. one’s “betters”. Shang also alludes to the Shang dynasty, China’s earliest ruling dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C). I have used “gods” as Li Bai is elevating these “superior people” to a godlike status.

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