Dēng guàn què lóu
Climbing Stork Tower
唐 · 王之涣
Táng · Wángzhīhuàn
By: Wang Zihuan
[White] [sun] [be near] [mountain] [extreme, here: ’setting’]
Bái rì yī shān jǐn,
As the sun sets behind the mountain,
[Yellow River] [enters] [ocean current]
huánghé rù hǎiliú.
The Yellow River flows seaward.
[Want] [reach an end] [thousand] [miles] [see]
Yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
Wishing to see beyond a thousand miles,
[more] [go up] [a] [level] [tower]
gèng shàng yì céng lóu.
I climb another level of the tower.
登 ： 高，high
鹳雀楼： stork tower
登：step on, ascend
尽：尽快， extreme, greatest extent (here: referring to the sunset)
依：靠着, lean on, be near
欲：想要，欲望, to wish
穷：尽，进行, to reach an end
(liu and lou)
“X” here denotes no rhyme.
“A” here denotes the first rhyme.
Climbing Stork Tower is a 五言诗 or Five-word poem. These poems are comprised of a quatrain made up of five words per line, with two lines coming together to form a complete thought or sentence. With only twenty words to work with and strict rules around tones and rhymes, the Five-word poem is considered by Chinese scholars to be one of the most challenging to master.
This poem also epitomizes 边塞诗 or Frontier Fort poetry, a kind of literary genre that found its stride during the Tang Dynasty. These poems are often about life on the edge of the world, exploring man’s relationship with nature and the unknown. If you enjoy Westerns, there’s a good chance you’ll appreciate the thematic motifs of Frontier Fort poems. Swap the harmonica for the Qiang woodwind flute, the humble campfire for raging blazes, and you’ll find some surprisingly similar perspectives on civilization and its margins.
In the context of the Tang Dynasty, Climbing Stork Tower speaks to the vastness and complexity of China as a nation-state, as well as its inherit boundaries. Like many countries today, China had highly fortified and often well-defined borders, with the Great Wall being the best known example. These borders were enforced, patrolled, and managed by armies enabled by complex bureaucracies. While the emperor’s reign extends for hundreds of miles in all directions, Wang Zhihuan reminds us that he too has his limits. Climbing to the next story of the pagoda, Wang Zhihuan looks beyond the emperor’s realm, fulfilling a deep curiosity about what lays beyond.
Finally, perhaps one of the greatest tests of any literary work is whether it has made its way into the vernacular. In this case, Climbing Stork Tower certainly passes the test. Its final line, 更上一层楼 has come to mean to “take it to the next level” or “take it up a notch”. Wang Zhihuan therefore speaks both to humanity’s limits, his innate curiosity about the unknown, and finally the attainment that comes with discovery and enlightenment.
Middle Chinese, the language of many Chinese poets, is tonal. For this reason, tone plays an important role in many Classical poems. In the context of poetry, tones are divided into two groups:
平 (píng) level tones
仄 (zè) oblique tones
平 corresponds to today’s first and fourth tones
仄 corresponds to today’s second and third tones
Likewise, Classical Chinese tones are simply referred to as 平仄 (píngzè).
Many poetic structures rules on how and where level and oblique tones can be used. As such, they are an important part of appreciating and understanding historical Chinese poems.
Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly how Middle Chinese sounded, so the tone marks here are only an educated guess.