佳人  A Beautiful Woman

杜甫 (Author:  Du Fu, 8th century)

绝代有佳人,absolutely/by all means generation have beautiful person
幽居在空谷。tranquil reside at empty valley
自云良家子,herself say good family daughter
零落依草木。remnant fall lean on grass trees
关中昔丧乱,strategic pass middle past mourning chaos
兄弟遭杀戮。elder brother younger brother suffer kill slay
官高何足论,official rank high how sufficient talk
不得收骨肉。no be able to collect bone fleshes
世情恶衰歇,world feeling evil decline come to an end
万事随转烛。ten thousand things follow rotate candles
夫婿轻薄儿,husband look down upon thin person
新人美如玉。new person beautiful similar to jade
合昏尚知时,close dusk still know time
鸳鸯不独宿。mandarin duck no alone sleep
但见新人笑,only see new person smile
那闻旧人哭。how (question word) hear old person cry
在山泉水清,exist mountain spring water clean
出山泉水浊。go out mountain spring water turbid/muddy
侍婢卖珠回,serve female slave sell jewel return
牵萝补茅屋。lead along rattan repair thatched cottage
摘花不插发,pick flower no insert hair
采柏动盈掬。pick cypress leaf move (here means usually) full bunch
天寒翠袖薄,sky cold green sleeve thin/flimsy
日暮倚修竹.   sun sunset lean on tall bamboo

 

Translation:

The most beautiful woman of our time,
Lives alone in a deserted valley.
She told me about her noble birth.
Driven into the wilderness, she had no support but the grass and trees.

When Chang An was invaded,
Both her older and younger brothers were slaughtered.
Their high rank could not protect them.
No one could retrieve their flesh and their bones.

And her whole world fell into ruins.
All of life is as unsubstantial as a flickering candle flame.
Her husband began to despise his fallen wife,
And found a new woman as beautiful as jade.

Even the flowers know to close their petals at dusk,
And the mandarin ducks will not sleep alone.
But her husband can only see his new love smiling.
How can he hear his old wife cry?

Spring water is clean when it’s in the mountain,
It gets muddy when it runs downhill.
When the maid returned from selling her lady’s jewels,
She found the lady using straw to repair the cottage.

The flowers she gathers are not for her hair.
Her arms are filled with cypress leaves.
The sky is cold, and her blue gown is flimsy.
The sun sets, and she leans on the tall bamboo.

 

Translation notes:

This poem is a portrait of a beautiful upper class woman whose birth family was destroyed during the An Lushan rebellion. After the downfall of her family, she was also despised and discarded by her husband, and was driven out to live in the mountain/wilderness. During the Tang Dynasty, it was usually not easy for an upper class man to divorce a wife who belonged to the same social rank. Therefore, what was described in Du Fu’s poem was a reflection of a complete destruction of social order during the An Lushan rebellion.

The poem is not easy to translate, and we had to take a couple liberties. The fourth line, if translated literally, will be something along the line of “lost and fallen, she could only lean on the grass and trees”. Some other translations have translated this line more literally. We felt that the literal translation could be pretty confusing to American readers, and therefore chose to translate it as “she has no support but the grass and trees”. The geographical location in the fifth line, if translated literally, will be “the middle of the strategic pass”. Here, since Du Fu is referring to the capital region, we chose to translate it directly as “Chang An”.

杂诗 Miscellaneous Poem

无名氏 (Author: Anonymous, Tang Dynasty)

近寒食雨草萋萋,close cold food rain grass luxuriant luxuriant
著麦苗风柳映堤。blow wheat seedling wind willow shine embankment
等是有家归未得,equal is have family return not can
杜鹃休向耳边啼。cuckoo no towards ear beside cry

 

Translation:

It’s almost Sweep the Graves Day, and the rain has made the grass grow thick.
The wheat seedlings tremble in the wind, and the river mirrors the willow trees.
Why can’t I return to my family?
Cuckoo bird, don’t make your mournful cry where I can hear you.

 

Translation note:

In the first couplet of the poem, the name of the festival is the “Cold Food Festival,” if translated literally. It is a traditional Chinese holiday which originated from the commemoration of the death of a nobleman during the Spring and Autumn period (around 7th century BC). It gradually evolved into an occasion for the Chinese to worship their ancestors. During the Tang dynasty, ancestral observance became a single-day event that is now the “Sweep the Graves Day,” which is how we translated it. We assume that most American readers wouldn’t know what “Cold Food Festival” is but that “sweep the graves” would convey the meaning. Whether we call it cold food festival or sweep the graves day, it is a time for returning to your home town and being with family.

This poem reflects the nostalgia of a traveler who was unable to return home. The second couplet of the poem was quoted by a Chinese netizen showing her sympathy towards those overseas Chinese who were unable to return to China due to the tough border controls imposed by the Chinese government to deal with COVID.

Since the COVID breakout, it is increasingly difficult for Chinese living abroad to travel to China due to frequent flight cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices, and the strict pre-departure COVID testing requirements. Some were complaining that nowadays, travelling to China is as if they were purchasing “a lottery ticket”.

游山西村 Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain

陆游 (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

莫笑农家腊酒浑,no laugh farm family winter wine murky
丰年留客足鸡豚。ample year keep guest enough chicken pig/meat
山重水复疑无路,mountain layers water repeat doubt no road
柳暗花明又一村。willow dark flower bright again one village
箫鼓追随春社近,bamboo flute drum chase follow spring sacrifice near
衣冠简朴古风存。clothes hat simple rustic ancient style exist
从今若许闲乘月,From today if allow leisure take advantage of moon
拄杖无时夜叩门。lean on walking stick unscheduled night knock at door

 

Translation:

Don’t laugh at the murky winter wine in a farmer’s cottage
In the good years there’s enough chicken and pork for guests

There are so many mountains and with the way the river twists, you think there’s no road
And then, dark willows, bright blossoms, another village appears.

Pipers, drummers, chasing and following each other, the spring sacrifice is near.
Farmers’ straw hats and simple, country clothes, the old way of life is not forgotten.

From now on, please allow me to take advantage of a full moon,
Leaning leisurely on my cane, I’ll knock on your door some evening.

 

Translation Notes: 

Although this poem is similar to the Field and Garden school of poetry in that it describes a pleasing natural landscape, it is not firmly within the Field and Garden tradition. The emphasis in this poem is on the rural people rather than the rural surroundings, and the overall effect is one of happy engagement rather than contemplative withdrawal. “Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain” is much praised by the communist party because it exalts the everyday life of the working class. The second couplet has long been famous for its encouragement of perseverance toward an uncertain goal. In fact, it is so famous that Secretary Clinton recited it in 2010 during her remarks at the Shanghai World Expo. The translation she used is as follows: “After endless mountains and rivers that leave doubt whether there is a path out, suddenly one encounters the shade of a willow, bright flowers and a lovely village.” We chose to use the second person rather than the third to increase the sense of intimacy. We do not describe the village as lovely since “lovely” is not in the original. Other translations of this poem have been more literal than ours, though, at least with regards to the final line in which they accurately state that the proposed visits are “unscheduled” or “out of time.” We hope that this idea of a spontaneous visit was adequately implied in our version. We felt that words such as “unscheduled” were a little clumsy and out of place in the English version of the poem.

紫毫笔歌  Song of the Purple Writing Brush

白居易      (Author: Bai Juyi, 8th century)

紫毫笔,               purple writing brush
尖如锥兮利如刀。sharp like awl connection word sharp like knife
江南石上有老兔,river south stone on have old rabbit
吃竹饮泉生紫毫。eat bamboo drink spring water grow purple fur
宣城之人采为笔,Xuan city connection word people pick make into brush
千万毛中拣一毫。thousand ten thousand fur among choose one brush
毫虽轻, 功甚重。 hair though light work very heavy
管勒工名充岁贡,tube handle neatly name use as year tribute
君兮臣兮勿轻用。emperor connection word official connection word not easily use
勿轻用,将何如?not easily use shall how? 
愿赐东西府御史,wish give east west official residence enquiry censors
愿颁左右台起居。wish issue left right terrace rise reside
搦管趋入黄金阙,   take hold brush walk into golden imperial city
抽毫立在白玉除。take out brush stand at white jade stairs
臣有奸邪正衙奏,court official have evil heretical upright administrative center report
君有动言直笔书。emperor have move word straightforward brush write
起居郎, 侍御史,  Imperial Secretaries enquiry censors
尔知紫毫不易致。you know purple hair not easy make
每岁宣城进笔时,Every year Xuan city pay tribute brush time
紫毫之价如金贵。purple hair connection word price like gold precious
慎勿空将弹失仪,carefully not in vain use accuse (others) of lose manner
慎勿空将录制词。carefully not in vain record the emperor’s word

Translation:

These purple calligrapher’s brushes
Sharp as an awl, sharp as a knife

In the south, an old rabbit sits on a stone
Eating bamboo and drinking spring water
The people of Xuan city harvest its purple-tipped fur.
From 10,000 hairs they find one that’s worthy.
They do heavy labor with these light hairs,
And finely carve the handles to use it as yearly tribute.

Oh, emperors and high officials, do not use them carelessly,
I can tell you a better way.
Give them to enquiry censors at the eastern and western imperial houses
Give them to Imperial Secretaries of the left and right terraces.

Take hold of the brush and enter the golden, imperial city.
Hold it aloft and stand before the white jade stairs.
Use it to report to the emperor during court meetings any official who does evil.
Use it to write clearly the edicts of the emperor.

Imperial Secretaries and enquiry censors,
You know these purple brushes are not easy to make.
Every year Xuan city pays tribute with these brushes
These brushes are as costly as gold.

When you use them, be careful not to make false accusations.
Be careful not to mistake the emperor’s words.

 

Translation notes:

This poem gives us some interesting insight into scholarly and imperial customs. The “four treasures of the study,” that is the paper, block of ink, whetstone for the ink, and the brush, were highly revered, and rabbit fur brushes made in Xuan city were considered so valuable that they were sent to the palace every year in tribute. This purple-tipped rabbit hair brush was used only by the emperor and palace officials. It was so highly associated with the court that when an aristocrat was found to be in possession of such a brush, he and his whole family were put to death. The reason for such a harsh punishment was the belief that the brush could be used to forge imperial decrees and thereby allow its owner to usurp the throne.

The enquiry censors of the eastern and western imperial houses and the imperial secretaries of the right and left terraces were court officials who transcribed the emperor’s words, recorded the functioning of the court, and monitored the behavior of court officials during morning assembles. They were tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring that the court was an example for the rest of the country of upright behavior in accordance with Confucian principles and royal tradition.

The line 搦管趋入黄金阙 (Take hold brush hurry enter golden capital) and the following line 抽毫立在白玉除 (take out brush stand at white jade stairs) can be read both as ordinary lines that advance the overall meaning of the poem, and as an elegant literary tour de force that deserve attention in themselves. In a technique known as parallelism that was commonly employed by classical writers, each word of the first line parallels the corresponding word of the next line by having either a related or opposite meaning. “Take hold” matches “take out.” “Hurry” matches “stand.” “Enter” matches with “at.” “Yellow” matches “white.” “Gold” matches “jade,” and “imperial city” matches “stairs.” We could not replicate this parallelism in English, but we thought that the elevated language of the original at least merited the grandiose word “aloft.”

舟夜书所见    On a Boat at Night Writing About What I Saw

查慎行            (Author: Zha Shenxing, 17th century)

月黑见渔灯, moon dark appear fisherman lantern
孤光一点萤。 alone light one spot firefly
微微风簇浪, tiny tiny wind pile up/make wave
散作满河星。 scatter become filled with river star

 

Translation:

Tonight, the moon is dark
A fisherman’s lantern appears.
Its lonely gleam like a firefly.

But when a breeze makes the water ripple
The light scatters
Until the river fills with stars.

 

Translation Notes:

This poem is written by Zha Shenxing, a Qing Dynasty poet known for portraying natural scenery. It is said that the style of his poems was heavily influenced by Su Shi and Lu You, two famous Song Dynasty poets. The first and the second couplet of this poem form an interesting comparison: In the first couplet, the images are quiet and still, with the gleam from the fisherman’s lantern like a firefly. By contrast, in the second couplet, the images become dynamic when a breeze makes the water ripple. We translated the second couplet with simple languages and took the liberty of adding “the light scatters” to make the meaning clear.

木兰花   Magnolia Flower

晏殊      (Author: Yan Shu, 11th century)

燕鸿过后莺归去, swallow geese pass after orioles return go
细算浮生千万绪。 careful calculation uncertain life thousand ten thousand thread
长于春梦几多时? long compare spring dream several many time
散似秋云无觅处。 scatter similar to autumn wind no find place
闻琴解佩神仙侣, hear zither untie wear deity immortal couple
挽断罗衣留不住。 pull break silk clothes can’t stop leaving
劝君莫作独醒人, advise you not be along awake person
烂醉花间应有数。 exhausted drunk flower among should have count/number

 

Translation:

The swallows and the geese have left,
And now the orioles are gone too.
It is so hard to understand this drifting life
With its thousand, ten thousand threads of meaning.

Was my past any longer than a spring-time dream?
It scattered like the autumn clouds. No place to find it.

Hear the zither, untie the goddess’ jewel.
I could clutch her silk clothes until they tore
But I still can’t stop time.

I advise you not to be the only one awake.
Join the rest of us — and drink to oblivion among the flowers.

 

Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Yan Shu, who was a poet and politician during the Northern Song Dynasty. He was considered a child prodigy, and passed the imperial exam when he was only 14. He rose to high-ranking posts at the court and once served as prime minister to Emperor Renzong. The content of this poem seems to suggest that the poet is lamenting the passage of time and the inevitable parting of lovers. However, this poem was written during a time when the emperor, who was not decisive in character, took advice from Yan Shu’s political rivals, and banished a couple of Yan Shu’s political allies. Considering the time when this poem was written, it is probably a reflection of Yan’s disappointment over the political environment at that time.

The fifth line refers to two Chinese legends. One is about Zhuo Wenjun, a female poet who lived in the Han Dynasty. She heard Sima Xiangru playing the zither when he was a guest at her parents’ home, and she eloped with him afterwards. The second one is about a man who encountered two female deities who untied their jewels and gave them to the man, only to find that both the jewels and the deities disappeared afterwards. In the sixth line, the poem is not specific as to what the poet wishes to stop, but in the context of the first four lines, we thought that “time” probably best expressed his intent. Many Chinese literary critics, however, believe that the sixth line references only the inevitable parting of these idealized lovers.

访杨云卿淮上别业 Visit Yang Yunqing’s villa by the Huai River

惠崇  (Author: Hui Chong, 10th century)

地近得频到, place close can frequently arrive
相携向野亭。 each other carry go toward wild temple
河分冈势断, river divide mountain tendency break
春入烧痕青。 spring enter burn trace green
望久人收钓, look long time people stop fishing
吟余鹤振翎。 chant after cranes flapping wing
不愁归路晚, not worry return path late
明月上前汀。 bright moon shines on front flat land beside the water

 

Translation:

I can come often, to this nearby place,
And walk with you to the wilderness temple.

A river runs between the mountains
And the green grass of spring enters the burned out fields.

The fishermen have all gone home, and still, I’m taking in this view,
After I chanted my last poem, the cranes took flight.

I’m not worried about going home late
The bright moon lights the sandy shore.

 

Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Hui Chong, a monk in the Northern Song Dynasty who is known for his poems and paintings portraying small landscapes. Chinese poets sometimes borrow symbols and concepts from the great works of the past. This poem and Bai Juyi’s famous poem Grass, which we’ve also translated, both use grass as a symbol of renewal — it returns even after being destroyed by fire. The underlying feelings in the poems are very different, though. Bai’s Grass is vivid and dynamic, and uses the wild grass as a metaphor for his own “unending feelings.” Hui’s poem is tranquil. Instead of projecting his feelings onto nature, he immerses himself so much in the beauty of his surroundings that he didn’t want to return home.

游子吟  A Traveller’s Chant

孟郊     (Author: Meng Jiao, 8th century)

慈母手中线, loving mother hand center thread
游子身上衣。 travel son body on clothes
临行密密缝, just before leaving thick thick sew
意恐迟迟归。 thought dread late late return
谁言寸草心, who say inch long grass heart
报得三春晖。 repay able three spring sunshine

 

Translation:
Thread in a mother’s loving hand,
Sewn into her wandering son’s clothes.

Careful, tiny stitches just before he leaves,
She dreads the thought that he’ll come home late.

Who says that the heart of an inch of grass,
Can ever repay three months of spring sun?

 

Translation Notes:

This poem is well known to contemporary Chinese readers, as it is routinely taught to school children. The poet, Meng Jiao, was born during a difficult time — shortly after Meng’s birth, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, which devastated the Tang Dynasty. Meng grew up during a period of disturbance and lived as a recluse when he was young. He failed the imperial exam twice. At the request of his mother, he took the exam a third time in his late 40s and finally passed. He was appointed to a low-ranking provincial post but never achieved a higher rank in court. In the third line, we translated the word “thick” as “careful, tiny” because the word for thick has a secondary meaning of “meticulous.” Making careful, tiny stitches would be a meticulous way of sewing and would create a thick seam. We also attach another version of the translation by Witter Bynner (please see pp. 19-20). We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

Chinese poets often wrote about famous historical figures, and poets living in different eras sometimes had astonishingly similar views on the same historical figure. The three poems that follow span more than five hundred years and are all about the first emperor of China.

 

古风 其三  Ancient Style (number three)

李白           (Author: Li Bai, 8th century)

秦皇扫六合, Qin Emperor sweep six combine
虎视何雄哉。 tiger look how powerful
挥剑决浮云, wave sword decide/breach floating cloud
诸侯尽西来。 warlords all west come
明断自天启, bright judge/decide come heaven enlighten/start
大略驾群才。 big strategy drive/harness many talents
收兵铸金人, collect weapon cast gold person/statue
函谷正东开。 HanGu just east open
铭功会稽岭, inscribe/record achievement Kuaiji Ridge
骋望琅琊台。 open up look Langya terrace
刑徒七十万, sentence criminal seven ten ten thousand
起土骊山隈。 rise soil Li mountain bay/cove
尚采不死药, still pick no die medicine
茫然使心哀。 At a loss/ignorant make heart sad
连弩射海鱼, connect crossbow shoot sea fish
长鲸正崔嵬。 long whale just/straight gigantic appearance
额鼻象五岳, forehead nose similar to five mountains
扬波喷云雷。 raise wave spout/gush cloud thunder
鬈鬣蔽青天, dorsal fin shield/cover green sky
何由睹蓬莱。 How can see PengLai Island
徐市载秦女, Xushi (emissary) carry Qin girls 
楼船几时回。 building ship several time/when return
但见三泉下, only see three springs under
金棺葬寒灰。 gold coffin bury cold ashes

 

Translation:

The Qin emperor conquered heaven and earth
And gazed upon the world with fearsome tiger eyes.

With a wave of his sword, he cut the floating clouds apart
Defeated, the warlords all came to the West

His wise judgement sprang from heaven’s enlightenment
His grand design harnessed the nation’s genius.

He transformed his enemies’ weapons into spectacular statues
He opened Hangu Gate and let his people go to the East.

He inscribed his great works on Kuaiji Ridge.
From Langya terrace, he looked all the way to the sea.

He sentenced seventy thousand criminals
And raised a palace from the soil by Li mountain.

Still, he sought the elixir of immortality,
And his heart grieved because he couldn’t find it.

How could he see Penglai Island, renowned for its enchanted herbs?
Great whales blocked his view.

Their heads were like five mountains
They raised waves, spouted clouds and thunder

Their dorsal fins covered the blue sky.
Over and over again, the Qin emperor shot them with a crossbow.

His emissary sailed away with thousands of girls to give to the gods.
When will those boats ever return?

All that remains beneath the underworld’s three streams
Are cold ashes buried in a gold coffin.

 

Translation Notes:

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about this strange and fascinating poem is that the poet was a Taoist himself, and therefore probably also sought the elixir of immortality. We think that Li Bai’s approach of contrasting the emperor’s almost limitless earthly power with his wasted efforts to defeat death created a more complex and thoughtful poem than the other two in this series which only focus on the emperor’s inability to create a lasting dynasty. This poem was written as part of a group of 59 poems which used historical events to explore such timeless issues as our limitations in the face of death. China’s current administration, however, appears to have no wish at all to discuss anyone’s death or limitations. It has produced a t.v. series glorifying the first emperor and using the first half, and only the first half, of this poem as its theme song.

Despite its many concrete images, this was a difficult poem to translate. “Hangu Gate” is normally translated as “Hangu Pass,” which is confusing in this context. Since the part of “Hangu Pass” that the emperor opened is a manmade structure (discovered by archeologists in 2014), the use of the word “gate” seemed both more accurate and easier to understand in this poem. A glance at the word for word translation shows that we did take a number of liberties, however, the greatest of which may have been to change the order of the line which asks how the emperor could see Penglai Island. By putting the question at the beginning on the efforts to get rid of the whales, we hoped to make that section clearer to the reader. We could not clarify the line about the thousands of girls being given to the gods as neither the poem nor the legend is at all clear about what happened to the children. The legend does specify that both boys and girls were taken, but Li Bai only mentioned girls. Did he want to make the children’s disappearance sound more salacious or more pitiful? Did he think that the use of “girls” instead of “children” flowed more easily when the poem was sung? Had he simply heard a different version of the legend? We don’t know.

 

焚书坑   The Book-Burning Pit

章碣       (Author: Zhang Jie, 9th century)

竹帛烟销帝业虚, bamboo silk smell disappear emperor business vain/empty
关河空锁祖龙居。 strategic pass river in vain lock ancestor dragon residence
坑灰未冷山东乱, pit ashes not cold mountain east in chaos
刘项原来不读书。 Liu Xiang originally come not read books

 

Translation:

The bamboo books and silk scrolls all vanished in the flames
But neither the emperor nor his empire could be saved.

It did no good to bar the strategic pass or the Yellow River
Where that old dragon, the First Emperor, lived.

The burning pit’s ashes weren’t even cold yet
When chaos broke out east of the Mountains

The rebels, after all, weren’t the ones who read books.

 

Translation Notes:

The Book Burning Pit has made some very dramatic headlines recently. Some people are calling it the poem that cost $26 billion dollars. The CEO of a large Chinese tech firm, Meituan, posted The Book-Burning Pit on a small social media platform, an act that touched off massive sales of Meituan stock and personally cost the CEO over $2 billion. https://www.bloombergquint.com/global-economics/a-1-100-year-old-poem-cost-meituan-s-outspoken-ceo-2-5-billion

Why did posting one poem, written over a thousand years ago and regularly taught to school children have such an effect on the market? We presume it is because the poem is so well known to the Chinese people and was immediately understood as a comment on the current government. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has begun to compare himself to China’s first emperor, and this poem is a scornful denunciation of that same emperor. The Book-Burning Pit refers to a famous historical incident, “the burning of books and burying of scholars,” Legend has it that in about the year 213 BCE, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty tried to strengthen his rule by ordering both the destruction of scholarly works and the live burial of many Confucian scholars. Although it is not certain that there really was a mass burning of books or mass murder of scholars, the Dynasty was very short-lived, collapsing only after around 15 years of its establishment, despite the first emperor’s supposedly brutal measures taken to strengthen his rule. We are surprised that the CEO of a Chinese business would publicly imply that China’s current president is a tyrant whose regime would be short lived, but we are not at all surprised that when he did so, the value of the company immediately plummeted.

The poem is a bit difficult to translate. We had to expand the first two lines to four, in order to explain what was happening. In the last sentence, we substitute “Liu” and “Xiang” with “the rebels” because we assume that most American readers wouldn’t know who Liu Bang and Xiang Xu are but would get the idea we convey with the words “the rebels”.

We also attach another version of the translation, and encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

 

博浪沙  Bo Lang Sha

陈孚     (Author: Chen Fu, 13th century)

一击车中胆气豪,one strike carriage inside guts courage heroic/bold
祖龙社稷已惊摇。ancestor dragon temple god rice god already startle shake
如何十二金人外,How (question word) ten two gold person outside
犹有民间铁未销?still there is people within iron not destroy?

 

Translation:

With one hammer blow to that carriage, the air was filled with valor,
And the old dragon’s order began to tremble.

How is it that weapons could be melted down, made into statues,
And still, people found the iron they needed?

 

Translation Notes:

This poem refers to an assassination attempt against China’s first emperor. A large hammer was thrown into a royal carriage out of the mistaken belief that the emperor was riding in the carriage. Though the attempt failed, it was widely admired as a herald of the rebellion that would soon bring down the short-lived empire. The third line refers to twelve immense statues that were displayed as a symbol of imperial power; the statues were made of the melted-down iron weapons seized from conquered troops. This poem was written during the Yuan dynasty, a period in which the Chinese people were ruled by conquering Mongols. It is easy to see how a call for rebellion against a powerful ruler would have great appeal for Chen Fu’s contemporaries.

We made several difficult choices in translating this short poem. The greatest was the “air was filled with valor.” The original use of the word air means “qi,” the animating spirit all people share, and a much more literate translation would simply refer to the would-be assassin’s courage. Since the purpose of the first two lines was to show the effect that the one courageous act had on the nation, we chose to interpret qi in its more metaphorical sense. In Chinese cosmology, the “qi” — air that gives life to an individual corresponds to the atmospheric air that gives life to the world. The one brave act infused the nation with courage, the personal, heroic air from the assassin, translating to the national will. A second choice was to translate “ancestor dragon temple god rice god” as “the old dragon’s order.” Typically, the “temple and rice god” would be translated as “nation”; however, we did not want to suggest that citizens would be defeated, only that the government would be brought down. Finally, we left the last line somewhat ambiguous, not explaining what the people did with the iron. We thought that the connotations of the word “iron” in English worked well to imply both the required iron will and the literal weapons.

 

遣怀   Dispelling Sorrow

杜牧   (Author: Du Mu, 9th century)

落魄江南载酒行, fall soul river south carry wine walk
楚腰肠断掌中轻。 Chu waist intestinal break palm inside light
十年一觉扬州梦, ten years one sleep Yangzhou dream
赢得青楼薄幸名。 win get blue building light favor reputation

 

Translation:

I grew so downhearted in the Southern Land,
Wandering with a bottle of wine

And breaking my heart over those slim waisted Chu girls
The ones who could dance in the palm of your hand

Ten years later I wake from my dream of Yang Zhou

And all I’ve won for myself is the reputation
Of a man who can’t be trusted in Blue Buildings

 

Translation Note:

Du Mu was a famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty, best known for writing lyrical and romantic poems. He and another famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty — Li Shangyin, were often mentioned together by later Chinese literary critics as “Little Li-Du”, to differentiate them from the “Li-Du” during the most prosperous period of the Tang Dynasty, that is, Li Bai and Du Fu.

Du Mu was born into an elite family, and held various provincial posts in different locales over his career. However, he never achieved a high-ranking position in court, and this poem is considered one of those which he implicitly showed his disappointment over his government career. The first line of the poem implies a dark note of despair as Du Mu clearly indicates that his soul “falls down” when he was at the South of the River. The second line refers to two Chinese legends. One is about the King of Chu favoring girls of slim waists. In elite circles, slender female bodies were so admired that some palace girls even starved to death when trying to lose weight. The second one is about Zhao Feiyan, a famous beauty who was so slim that she could dance on a man’s palm. These legends were used to demonstrate the beauty and slenderness of the prostitutes in the blue buildings in Yangzhou with whom Du Mu has spent time. However, when Du Mu looked back, he was regretful of his time spent in Yangzhou, which is reflected by the third and fourth line of the poem.