在北题壁 Writing the Poem on the Wall at North
赵佶 (Author: Zhao Ji, 12th century)
彻夜西风撼破扉，whole night west wind shake worn-out door
萧条孤馆一灯微。desolate alone house one candle tiny
家山回首三千里，home mountain return head three thousand li
目断天南无雁飞。look stop sky south no geese fly
I’m alone in this empty house with one small candle
And all night long the west wind rattles the old wood door.
Looking back to my homeland three thousand miles away
I search the southern horizon but see no geese to carry our letters.
The author of the poem was technically the penultimate emperor of the Northern Song dynasty. While lacking talent in governing a nation, he was well-known for his talent in the areas of poetry, painting, music, and calligraphy. His ascent to the throne followed the passing of his elder brother who didn’t produce an heir. He was devoted to arts, literature, and culture during the early part of his reign. However, as the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty encroached upon the Song dynasty in 1126 AD, he abdicated, passing his crown to his eldest son and adopting the title “Retired Emperor.” This was a customary gesture in ancient Chinese history when an emperor foresaw a looming defeat, seeking to avoid the ignominious title of the last monarch abandoned by the heaven.
The following year witnessed the fall of the Song capital to Jin forces. He, along with his eldest son (technically the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty), and the entire royal household, was taken captive by the Jurchens, with many royal consorts and princesses subjected to the miserable fate of becoming sex slaves―a dark episode chronicled as the “Humiliation of Jingkang.” The author spent the last nine years of his life in captivity, and this short poem reflects the harshness of his northern imprisonment. The author discusses a wish that geese may carry messages from the South. The reason he wants to exchange messages with the South is that one of his surviving sons avoided the fate of being captured by the Jurchens, fled south, declared himself emperor, and continued the rule of the Song dynasty. The dream of return, unfortunately, never came true.
In translating this poem, we made two significant alterations to the original. We changed the order of the first two lines so that the reader begins by being located in the poet’s home and then hears the wind rattling the door. After some debate, we decided to make this change so that the translation would flow better and have a greater sense of immediacy. By reversing the order of the lines, however, we are centering the reader’s need to have the scene set and losing some of the subjective terror of the deposed king who first blurts out that the door has been rattling all night and then tells us where he is. We believe that a contemporary reader would have already understood the poem’s location and not have needed the explanation implied by the change we made. The final line of the poem ends with “no geese fly” in the original, but we added an explanation of why he was looking for geese. In both instances we have altered the original in an attempt to give the modern reader a better understanding of the events being described so that the reader would have some of the same experience of reading the poem that a Chinese person living at the time the poem was written would have had.
On a separate note, my friend Vickie 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.