To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Monday, November 30, 2015

Wai-limYip: From “The Nine Songs,” An Ancient Ritualistic Drama (by Qu Yuan [Ch’u Yuan])

 Portrait of Qu Yuan by Chen Hongshou
[This excerpt from The Nine Songs by Qu Yuan (332-296 B.C.), which appeared in the earlier edition of my Technicians of the Sacred in Arthur Waley’s different & text-only translation, was in its origins a clear example of poetry as an act of “total performance.”  Writes Wai-lim Yip as translator: “Recent scholarship, particularly the work of the poet-scholar Wen Yiduo, sees Qu Yuan's The Nine Songs as a collection of songs of folk and oral nature used in ancient shamanistic ritualistic dramas performed near Dongting Lake in Hu’nan Province. The songs as they appear in the Chu Ci or The Songs of the South (consisting of one single, ambiguous voice and in the form of poems) are believed to have been greatly worked over by Qu Yuan. Wen Yiduo, himself a famous modern Chinese poet of the 1920's, in addition to his many essays tracing the poem to relevant origins, reconstructs The Nine Songs into a performable structure. The present translation is a slightly modified version based on his reconstruction.” 
What follows is how the excerpt will appear in the expanded edition of Technicians of the Sacred now in progress. (J.R.)]

The Senior Arbiter of Fate

(Upon the Kongsang Mountain, a stretch of dark clouds.  Half-visible among the clouds, a huge black gate of the North Palace.  At the bend of the mountain is parked a jade-chariot driven by four dark horses.  Some beautiful girls are playing.  Suddenly, a trumpet is heard, and the Arbiter is seen walking toward the gate.)

          Arbiter:  May the gates of Heaven be opened wide!
                         I ride upon a dark cloud
                         And command the whirlwind to be my 
                         May the chill rain lay the dust to rest!

(The Arbiter sees the beautiful girls, descends quickly and runs after them. Surprised, the girls try to escape. The Arbiter succeeds in catching one of them.)

          Girl :        The Lord circles and circles in the sky and 
                                 suddenly descends.
                           Would that I follow you to the Kongsang 
                            Variegated and manifold are the peoples 
                                 in the nine provinces
                            Whose lives and deaths are in your hands.

(The Arbiter and Girl  begin to dance.  The other girls now come back to cheer them on.)

          Girl :          Skyward flight, how smooth and serene!
                             He rides upon the pure air, commanding 
                                  yin and yang  .
                             Quickly, solemnly, I hasten to follow you, 
                                  my Lord,
                             To accompany you all the way to the Nine 
                             Cloud-robes flutter and flutter.
                             Jade-pendants quiver and quiver.

          Arbiter:  One yin and one yang, one yang and one 
                         None knows the extent of my power.

          All in chorus: One yin and one yang, one yang and 
                                        one yin.
                                  None knows the extent of my power.

(The girls are all exhausted and fall asleep on the ground. The Arbiter is left alone, as if in deep contemplation.  Picking a flower from the bush and quietly putting it into the Girl's palm .)

          Arbiter: I pick this rarest cassia flower
                        For the one who lives away from home.
(The Arbiter sighs.)                  
                        Old age has now crept in, closing upon me.
                        Not to come closer ends in drifting apart.

(The Arbiter quietly goes.  Girl wakes up, finds the flower in her palm, looks for the Arbiter and catches sight of the Arbiter leaving up in the clouds, to her great dismay.)

          Girl:        He rides upon the rumbling dragon-chariot
                            Soaring, soaring into the high heavens.
                            Twisting the cassia-branch, I wait.
                            Longing, O Longing cuts deep into my 

          Chorus:    Sorrow, sorrow cuts heart; to it, what can 
                                 we do?
                            How one wish the now is forever.
                            Man's course is fated.
                            Unions and separations, who can master 

The Lesser Arbiter of Fate

(Sunset. In a garden full of semi-tropical flowers. Several girls are playing in the garden. The Lesser Arbiter of Fate arrives.)

          Arbiter:  Autumn orchids and deer parsleys
                          Grow in rows and rows under the hall.
                          Green leaves, white flowers
                          Such fragrance! to attack my senses.

          Girl :       It is nature's law that man finds 
                               his woman.
                          No need to be so down, so sad.

          Arbiter:  Green leaves, white flowers
                          Such fragrance! to attack my senses.

          Girl :       Autumn orchids are green upon green.
                          Green leaves, in sprays, emerge from 
                               purple stems.
                          A full hall of beautiful girls;
                          Why me, why his eyes are all glued at me, 
                               ever so suddenly?
                          Ever so suddenly?

(For some unknown reasons, the Arbiter, apparently agitated, leaves in a hurry.)
          Girl :       Coming: no words. Leaving: no words.
                          He rode away upon the winds, carrying 
                               flags of cloud.
                          Grief, not to grieve? O this life-separation!
                          Joy, not to enjoy? O friends that we newly 

          Chorus:   Joy, not to enjoy? O friends that we newly 
                          Grief, not to grieve?  O this life-separation!

          Girl :       Lotus-garment, basil-belt;
                          So sudden, he came, so sudden, he went.
                          In the evening, he rests in the precincts of 
                          Lord, whom are you waiting for by the 
                               clouds' edge?

          Arbiter (from afar):
                          I would bathe with you in the Pool of 
                          And dry your hair in the Bank of Sunlight.
                          I look for the Beautiful One who has not 
                          Loudly into the winds, I sing my song.

          Chorus:  Peacock canopy and kingfisher banners,
                          He mounts the Nine Heavens, stroking the 
                          Stroking his long sword  to protect the 
                               young and the old.
                          O You alone, the most fit to judge over 

The River God

(The River God emerges from the water riding on the back of a white turtle. Fishes of all imaginable kinds swim around him. The River God sings in response to some girls dressed in white in front of the riverside temple.)

          God:   With you I will roam the nine rivers.
                      A riot of winds arises and cuts across the 
                      We will ride the lotus-canopied water-chariot
                       Drawn by two dragons flanked by hornless 

          Girl:     I climb up the Kunlun Mountains and look in 
                            all directions.
                       My spirit flies high as I face the infinite 
                       Dusk is here; absorbed, I forget to return.
                       I only look back upon the distant shore.
                       A fish-scale house, a hall of dragons,
                       A purple-shell gateway and a palace of pearl,
                       O God, why do you dwell in the waters?   

          God (ignoring her question):
                       Riding a white turtle, chasing spotted fishes,
                       I will roam with you among the small islets
                       As swollen waters come tumbling down.
                       With crossed hands, I will go with you to the 
                       To escort my beautiful one to the Southern 
   God & Girl:  Wave after wave comes to welcome

                        Shoal on shoal the fishes take us all the way.

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