In Weicheng, the morning rain moistens the powdered dust
The green guesthouse is the color of new willow
Let me persuade you to drink another wine for
West of Yangguan Pass, there are no old friends to be found
In Weicheng, the morning rain wets the dust
The guesthouse is green, the color of new willow
Drink up! another cup
West of Yangguan, you’ll find nothing but deceased friends
(tongue in cheek translation, see notes below)
Line 1 – Weicheng, the city of Wei was in western Shaanxi province. Line 4 – Yangguan Pass, Yang Pass in the even more remote Gansu province that touches upon the arid Gobi Desert. Yuanguan, along with Yumen Pass, marks the entrance to the Silk Road, China’s link to the Cental Asia and the Middle East.
Place names trigger memories. The Beatles, a British rock band of the 1960s, wrote In My Life (There are Places I Remember, album Rubber Soul, 1965) whose lyrics begin: “There are places I’ll remember, All my life, though some have changed, Some forever, not for better, Some have gone, and some remain.”
Remarkably, many place names in China have remained, some have changed. Chang’an, the Tang capital is now called Xi’an. In my life, sometime after 1979, Peking, China’s present capital, became Beijing. Weicheng, city of Wei, present day Xianyang on the Wei River, a few miles upstream (west) of Chang’an (Xi’an).
Yuan of the Title – an old friend of Wang’s not otherwise identified. Perhaps a soldier, perhaps an administrator, for sure, a drinking companion who would find few trees to give shade and shelter and little wine to wet his lips and no old friends with which to share a drink.
[Some translators give the name as Yuan the Second. I suppose the confusion arises from whether the second describes the preceding or following character 元二使 in the title. As I understand Chinese grammar (and I am no expert) modifiers precede the thing they modify.]
The Title – in the late Tang dynasty, the protectorate of Anxi (modern Xinjiang) consisted of four military garrisons whose purpose was to protect China from invading forces from Tibet and the Western Turkic Khaganate. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion (beginning in 755), near the end of Wang Wei’s lifetime (699–759), Tibetan forces were stirring up trouble along with the rebel General An Lushan. Garrison forces in Anxi were withdrawn to help battle the rebel forces which had taken the Tang capital Chang’an in 762. Wang Wei was of course dead at the time all this was unfolding.
It would appear, therefore, that Wang Wei wrote this poem sometime prior to 755.
Chinese and Pinyin
sòngbai yuán èr shǐ ān xī
wèichéng zhāoyǔ yì qīngchén
kè shè qīng qīng liǔ sè xīn
quàn jūn gēng jìn yì bēi jiǔ
xī chū yángguān wú gù rén
Ezra Pound’s Translation
Light rain in the light dust.
Green willows around the courtyard
Going greener and greener,
But you, Sir, better take wine ere you depart,
For no friends will be about
When you come to the gates of Go.
I modified Ezra Pound, epigraph to “Four Poems of Departure”, in Cathay (1915)
Notes on Translation
Are you still with me? Then you are into minutiae, the trivialities of translation.
Almost universally, translators begin the title as “Farewell”. Farewell in Chinese more often appears as 送别, Sòngbié, which itself is mellifluous. Wang Wei has chosen to shorten this to 送, Sòng, which is kind of a “send off.” Not a big difference, probably not any difference at all.
Last line – One other interesting word choice is 故人 gù rén which means both “old friend” and “deceased friend”. To stretch a point, there are not “no friends,” but 無, Wú “nothing” but “deceased friends” in Anxi.