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
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.