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
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?
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.