I spent a lot of time this summer self-studying the poetry of the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960-1279 AD). While I fell in love with Bai Juyi, various natural riddles and a certain paltry ode by Luo Binwang (Goose! Goose! Goose! Your song to the sky I sing!), my favourite discovery of all was a short poem by the female writer Li Qingzhao, who lived from 1084 to 1155. In this poem, ‘Ru Meng Ling’ (如梦令 – lit. ‘As if in a Dream’, but one of two poems she wrote that has this title, because it’s also the name for the sort of poetic meter she uses ) she switches effortlessly from a rich literary style to a natural recounting of daily life, and back again. Li fulfils my natural need for unreliable narration – joining a large cast of characters, such as Humbert Humbert and Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, in the process – as she describes the painful morning after a comforting drink, and her subsequent worries about the crab-apple tree outside her window.
In Ru Meng Ling, alcohol is framed as a temporary escape from nature and the elements, even overpowering human sleep – but it is no stronger than the belief and meaning the poet holds for her tree. The underlying meaning of this poem is incredibly cryptic. Given that crab-apple flowers often symbolise female youth in Chinese literature, I personally believe Li is using the analogy to talk about her beauty: her drowsy but astute realisation that it has left her, while her servants continue to engage in flattery.
As if in a Dream (grammatical gloss by me)
As if in a Dream (my translation)
Last night brought rain in sprinkles and an onslaught of wind, and heavy sleep was no match for the liquor I drank. I try to ask her* as she rolls back the curtains, and she insists that the crab-apple tree is as it was before.
Doesn’t she know, doesn’t she know? It should be plump with foliage, with its red fruit wasted away.
*TN. although in the original poem the author uses 人, which is gender-neutral, every Chinese analysis I have read claims the person rolling back the curtains is Li’s maid
As if in a Dream (but it’s a limerick) (I’m not sorry and I absolutely will do it again)
Last night brought some blustery wind,
No alcohol did I rescind,
My tree – is it there?
The housemaid did glare!
What a lie – of red it’s been skinned!
I really do think this is the sort of cultural discovery that can change a person for the better – I relate so very much to this woman from 900 years ago. I like that Tang and Song poetry is so focused on pure, relatable human experience (drunkenness, appreciation of nature, existential dread) – it is possible to just ‘click’ with it to an extent that I couldn’t really do all the time while reading a lot of Roman poetry (with all its mythological names). I sort of appreciate that Chinese culture had its supposed ‘golden age’ of poetry synchronous to the West’s ‘dark age’, because it means there is another place to look to find out about the constant beauty of nature and the fact that all people are actually the same.