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

 

Translation:

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.

 

Translation Notes:

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.

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.

作者:林逋 (Author:  Lin Bu,  10th century)

 

众芳摇落独暄妍   many fragrant sway fall alone warm beautiful
占尽风情向小园   occupy exhaust wind feeling toward small garden
疏影横斜水清浅   sparse shadow horizontal slanting water clear shallow
暗香浮动月黄昏   dim fragrant float move moon yellow dusk
霜禽欲下先偷眼   frost (white) bird about to go down first steal eye
粉蝶如知合断魂   pink butterfly if know should break soul
幸有微吟可相狎   luckily have tiny chant can each other intimate 
不须檀板共金樽    not need hard wood clapper together gold goblet 
Translation
This is the flower that shows us springtime beauty,
When the others have wobbled and fallen.
It’s the reason we love this small garden.   
   
Its thin shadows slant across the clear, shallow water
Its hidden fragrance floats beneath the yellow moon.
   
A snow-white bird steals a look before landing.
If the pink butterflies knew it was here, their hearts should break.
Luckily, I can make these flowers my friends by softly chanting poems.
There’s no need for a golden chalice or a singing girl’s wooden clapper. 
Translation Notes

The poet Lin Bu was a famous recluse in the northern Song dynasty and lived a quiet life in a mountain by the West Lake during his later years.  He was very fond of plums and cranes, and spent much time admiring them.  Since he never married, he earned the reputation of “considering plums his wife and cranes his children,” which was not a compliment in a Confucian society, despite the fact that Lin Bu was a much admired poet. Lin Bu was highly admired in Japan where he came to be regarded as one of the poetic immortals. A famous Japanese painting of Bu hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. 

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78232

Plum blossoms were very highly regarded in ancient Chinese culture and considered to be symbols of purity, courage, hope, longevity, and many other virtues, in part because they bloom very early in the year, often when there is still frost or snow on the ground. Even today, people say that its three stamens represent Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people and that its five petals represent the five branches of government.
We have included many color words in our translation, but it would be possible not to do so. “Yellow moon” frequently refers to dusk and could be translated as such. The “white” which describes a bird literally translates as frosty. The word for pink may also be a shortened version of a word for rouge. Some translations of this poem do not use the colors; we have chosen to use them both because we thought they painted a vivid image in a poem that takes place in a garden and because we suspect that Lin Bu deliberately chose to use yellow, gold, white, and pink since they are the colors of plum blossoms. As with so many translation choices, however, some of the original nuances have been lost. Our translation does not have dusk, frostiness, or a reference to such feminine allurements as rouge, all of which are hinted at in the original. 
The second stanza of the poem is said to have originated from poetry first written by Jiang Wei, a poet living in an era slightly before Lin Bu.  The poetic lines written by Jiang Wei are as follows (translated version):  The bamboo’s shadows slant across the clear, shallow water; the cassia’s fragrance floats beneath the yellow moon.  The first word in each of the two lines, namely, “bamboo” and “cassia” in the original was changed by Lin Bu into “sparse” and “hidden”.  Lin Bu only changed two words in this stanza, both from noun to adjective, and he was able to demonstrate the beauty and fragrance of the plums.  Today we could no longer find the complete version of Jiang Wei’s poem and only that couplet remains.