In ancient China, some renowned political figures had a penchant for poetry. We have translated poems from Cao Cao, a prominent warlord from the Three Kingdoms period. In this article we translated two poems written by Yuan Shikai, a famous general and statesman from the late 19th to early 20th century.
自题渔舟写真 Self-Portrait of a Fishing Boat in Ink
百年心事总悠悠， hundred years heart affairs always long long
壮志当时苦未酬。 strong ambition at that time bitter not realize
野老胸中负兵甲， wild old man chest inside bear military armor
钓翁眼底小王侯。 fish old man eye bottom belittle king marquis
思量天下无磐石， think measure sky under no steady stone
叹息神州变缺瓯。 sigh sigh deity provinces change incomplete bowl
散发天涯从此去， scatter hair sky edge from here leave
烟蓑雨笠一渔舟。 mist grass coat rain hat one fishing boat
For so long this has weighed on my mind,
The bitterness of failed ambition.
An old man in the wilderness still feels the armor on his chest.
An old fisherman can despise nobles and kings.
I think there are nothing but rolling stones beneath these heavens,
And I groan because our sacred provinces are now just a broken bowl.
No longer dressing for court, I’ve gone far away.
To live in the mist, wearing a straw hat and coat in a fishing boat.
登楼 Climb the Tower
楼小能容膝， Tower small can hold knees
檐高老树齐。 eaves high old tree at the same level
开轩平北斗， open window equal to Big Dipper
翻觉太行低 on the contrary feel Tai Hang mountain low
This tower is so small it can barely contain me
Though its eaves are as high as the old tree.
Open the window to be equal to the Big Dipper
Look down to see Tai Hang mountain.
These two poems were both written by Yuan Shikai, a prominent Chinese military and political figure of the late 19th/early 20th century. Yuan Shikai served as the second provisional president of the Republic of China and headed the Beiyang government from 1912 to 1916. Notably, he was the great-great-grandfather of Jean Yuan, one of the translators of these poems.
The first poem was composed during a precarious period in Yuan Shikai’s life, marked by political turmoil. Rising to power through an alliance with Empress Dowager Cixi, he played a key role in ending Emperor Guangxu’s Hundred Days’ Reform. After the deaths of the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu, tensions arose between Yuan Shikai and the ruling class of the Qing Empire, partly due to Shikai’s role in the conflict. The Qing Empire’s regent, Prince Chun, contemplated executing him but feared his influence over the military. Instead, Yuan Shikai was banished, supposedly due to a foot disease, and retired to his hometown, the village of Huanshang.
During this period of “retirement”, he publicly embraced a leisurely lifestyle, while secretly subsidizing the revolutionaries financially. Remaining in close contact with his allies, he maintained control over the military. Eventually, due to a Southern uprising of revolutionaries, he was recalled by the Qing empire to lead the army. Negotiating with Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries, he arranged the abdication of the child emperor Puyi, effectively ending the Qing dynasty.
The first poem, ostensibly about enjoying retirement, subtly reveals his ambition. He penned this poem to advertise his retirement, arranging for a Western journalist to capture an image of him fishing. This photograph, along with the poem he composed, was then featured in a newspaper publication. Anyone who was actually persuaded by the picture and poem must have been quite surprised when the “old fisherman” emerged from retirement to become the President of the Republic of China. Later, in an effort to further strengthen his authority, he reinstated the monarchy and declared himself the Hongxian Emperor, though as emperor, he only ruled for 83 days. The second poem focuses on natural scenery, distinct from the other poems we’ve translated before, reflecting both his ambition and the grandeur of the landscape.
As Jean is a descendant of the poet, she would like to share a family anecdote about her famous great-great-grandfather. When Jean’s grandfather was a child he lived with his family in Tianqin, and one day wandered into someone else’s backyard. A woman there seemed very upset to see him and scolded him in Korean, a language he did not understand. The woman was one of Shikai’s many concubines, gained by Shikai when he led a Qing empire garrison in Seoul and served as the advisor to the Korean government on his own government’s behalf. Jean’s grandfather did not report any further dealings with his own grandfather’s foreign concubines. Personal stories such as these, from Jean’s grandfather recounting, offer a glimpse into the complex life of this historical figure.
On a separate note, Vickie and Jean 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.