夜雨寄北 （Mailing a Letter to the North during Night Rain）
李商隐 （Author: Li Shangyin, 9th century)
君问归期未有期，you ask return time no have time
巴山夜雨涨秋池。Ba mountain night rain rise/swell autumn pond
何当共剪西窗烛，when should together cut with scissor west window candle
却话巴山夜雨时 but talk Ba mountain night rain time
You ask when I’ll return, but I don’t know what to tell you.
Here in Ba mountain, the night rains are swelling the autumn ponds.
Oh, when will we sit by the west window and trim the candle
While we talk about this rainy Ba mountain night?
Li Shangyin was in today’s Sichuan Provence, serving as the governor’s advisor when he wrote this poem. The poem was written after Li Shangyin’s wife died, but it is possible that he had not received word of her death yet. It is also possible that he knew of her death, but chose to express his grief in a longing, imaginary letter to her. What is extremely unlikely is that this could be a poem to a mistress or “blue building” lady. Though it was common for married men to write about women other than their wives, such poems emphasize the woman’s beauty, and sometimes her virtue or her loneliness; they are not peaceful domestic scenes, nor do they address the woman with the highly respectful ‘君’.
The term “Ba Mountain” reflects the fact that the mountain was in what once had been the Ba kingdom. The archaic term “Ba Mountain” gives the poem a sense of temporal depth, as if Shangyin were telling an ancient story. The terms “Chu Nation” and “Wu Nation” are also used quite often in classical Chinese poems. Chu and Wu are the names of ancient kingdoms, but are used as geographical references, e.g. the Chu Nation was in the southern part of China, so poets write that they are going to the Chu Nation when they travel south. Again, the use of these literary terms links the poems to a long literary tradition and imbues the work with a sense of timelessness.
On a separate note, my friend Vicke and I have established a Substack dedicated to classical Chinese poems. Our Substack offers a deep historical context for the poems and organizes related poems into groups. We invite you to subscribe to our Substack (with free subscription) for regular updates featuring new translations and commentary articles.