With the imminent arrival of the Chinese Year of the Dragon, in this article, we translated two poems centered around this mythical creature – Dragon.

 

龙移 The Move of the Dragon

唐・韩愈 (Han Yu, Tang dynasty, 8th century)

天昏地黑蛟龙移,sky dusk ground black scaly dragon dragon move
雷惊电激雄雌随。thunder startle lightning stimulate male female follow
清泉百丈化为土,clear spring hundred ten feet turn into dust
鱼鳖枯死吁可悲。fish turtle dry die alas deserve sorrow

 

Translation:

In darkness and in chaos, the scaly dragons crawl.
Thunder and lighting urge the male and female toward each other.
It is their journey that turns a clear spring into a mile of dust
Pity the fish and turtles left to die on the parched ground.

 

咏龙诗 Chanting a Poem about a Dragon

金. 完颜亮 (Wan Yanliang, Jin dynasty, 12th century)

蛟龙潜匿隐苍波,scaly dragon dragon submerge hide concealed blue wave
且与虾蟆作混和。for now together shrimp toad make mix together
等待一朝头角就,wait wait one morning head horn finish
撼摇霹雳震山河。shake shake thunderbolt shock mountain river

 

Translation:

This rough-skinned dragon hides beneath the blue waves,
And consorts with shrimps and toads
Wait, just wait, until my horn is grown.
Thunder will convulse the earth, lighting shock mountains and rivers.

 

Translation notes:

The “dragon” in the first poem, authored by Han Yu—a Confucian scholar, poet, and government official from the mid-Tang dynasty—has been interpreted by some Chinese literary critics as a metaphor for the Tang dynasty emperor whom Han served. In the poem, Han Yu subtly advises the emperor against causing unnecessary distress to the public, emphasizing how even minor actions by the emperor could inflict significant sufferings on the common people. The second line of this poem, regarding thunder and lightning, male and female dragons, stands out from the rest, and we are unsure as to its purpose. Our first, rather ungenerous, thought was that the poet was suggesting that any incorrect actions by the emperor must be the result of feminine counsel and that he was urging him not to follow the female dragon. Our second, and more likely interpretation, is that both the thunder and lightning and the male and female represent the yin and the yang, and that the poet is giving us a picture of a complete and powerful cosmology over which small creatures have no control. While we find this view of the poem satisfying, we are not certain that it is correct. We would be delighted if any of our readers could suggest an alternative explanation or supply us with a bit of history or mythology that might shed some light on it.

The second poem, crafted by Wan Yanliang, the fourth emperor of the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 12th-century China, unfolds a narrative of his rise. Having ascended to power by overthrowing his predecessor through a coup, Wan Yanliang was eventually murdered by his subordinates following a military defeat to the Southern Song dynasty. The “rough-skinned dragon” in this poem is unequivocally a metaphor for Wan Yanliang himself. Given the traditional Chinese association of dragons with royalty, the poet articulates his ambition by expressing the intent to realize his aspirations through the impactful imagery of “shocking the mountains and the rivers” once he attains sufficient power.

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.

夜雨寄北 (Mailing a Letter to the North during Night Rain)

李商隐    (Author: Li Shangyin, 9th century)

君问归期未有期,you ask return time no have time
巴山夜雨涨秋池。Ba mountain night rain rise/swell autumn pond
何当共剪西窗烛,when should together cut with scissor west window candle
却话巴山夜雨时    but talk Ba mountain night rain time

 

Translation:

You ask when I’ll return, but I don’t know what to tell you.
Here in Ba mountain, the night rains are swelling the autumn ponds.
Oh, when will we sit by the west window and trim the candle
While we talk about this rainy Ba mountain night?

 

Translation Notes:

Li Shangyin was in today’s Sichuan Provence, serving as the governor’s advisor when he wrote this poem. The poem was written after Li Shangyin’s wife died, but it is possible that he had not received word of her death yet. It is also possible that he knew of her death, but chose to express his grief in a longing, imaginary letter to her. What is extremely unlikely is that this could be a poem to a mistress or “blue building” lady. Though it was common for married men to write about women other than their wives, such poems emphasize the woman’s beauty, and sometimes her virtue or her loneliness; they are not peaceful domestic scenes, nor do they address the woman with the highly respectful ‘君’.

The term “Ba Mountain” reflects the fact that the mountain was in what once had been the Ba kingdom. The archaic term “Ba Mountain” gives the poem a sense of temporal depth, as if Shangyin were telling an ancient story. The terms “Chu Nation” and “Wu Nation” are also used quite often in classical Chinese poems. Chu and Wu are the names of ancient kingdoms, but are used as geographical references, e.g. the Chu Nation was in the southern part of China, so poets write that they are going to the Chu Nation when they travel south. Again, the use of these literary terms links the poems to a long literary tradition and imbues the work with a sense of timelessness.

On a separate note, my friend Vicke 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.

 

Some classic Chinese poems portray the grievances experienced by women in ancient Chinese history. The following three poems delve into the grievances of women in distinct ways, each offering a unique perspective.

 

春怨        Spring Sorrow

刘方平 (Author: Liu Fang Ping, 8th Century)

纱窗日落渐黄昏,gauze window sun set gradually dusk
金屋无人见泪痕。golden chamber no person see tear trace
寂寞空庭春欲晚,lonely lonely empty courtyard spring desire late
梨花满地不开门    pear blossom full of ground not open door

Translation: 

How slowly dusk descends as the sun sets beyond the muslin window
With no one in the golden chamber to see the tracks of her tears.
Oh, the loneliness of an empty courtyard when spring is almost gone
Pear blossoms cover the ground, but she won’t open the door.

 

赠内人 Send a gift to the palace’s singers and dancers

张诂    (Author: Zhang Gu, Tang Dynasty)

禁门宫树月痕过,forbidden door Palace tree moon trace pass
媚眼惟看宿鹭窠。charming eyes only see reside heron nest
斜拔玉钗灯影畔,slanting pull jade hairpin lamp shadow side
剔开红焰救飞蛾    reject open red flame rescue flying moth

Translation:

The forbidden door, the palace trees, a last trace of moon light.
But her lovely eyes see only the heron’s nest.
In the lamp’s reflection, she takes a slanting jade pin from her hair.
And puts out the red flame to save a flying moth.

 

春怨     Spring Sorrow

金昌绪 (Jin Chang Xu, Tang Dynasty)

打起黄莺儿,beaten rise yellow oriole son
莫教枝上啼。no let branch on crying
啼时惊妾梦,crying time startle my dream
不得到辽西.   not can arrive Liao west

Translation:

Throw a rock! Chase that oriole away.
Don’t let it sit on the branch making noise
Its singing startled me out of my dream
And now I’ll never get to my husband in West Liao.

 

Translation notes:

Both Liu Fang Ping and Zhang Gu’s poems delve into the grievances experienced by ladies in the Palace. In Liu’s poem, the phrase “golden chamber” derived from a famous ancient Chinese anecdote about Emperor Wu of Han, who was a brilliant and ambitious emperor but also a womanizer. His mother didn’t have high court status. Therefore, when Emperor Wu of Han was still a young prince, she arranged a marriage between her son and his cousin. The prince said that he would build her a golden chamber. The story had a miserable ending —eventually, the emperor got tired of his wife and divorced her, partially due to her inability to bear him a legitimate heir. By employing the term “golden chamber” in the poem, Liu implies that the court lady depicted was likely once a favorite of the emperor but eventually fell out of favor.

In Zhang’s poem, the discussion of a court lady’s sorrow is more implicit. By depicting the lady seeing only a heron’s nest and her subsequent action of rescuing a flying moth, Zhang effectively conveys the profound loneliness and yearning for home the woman experiences.

Jin’s poem centers around the grievances of a woman whose husband is engaged in a distant frontier battle, thousands of miles away. In the final sentence, we took a small liberty by adding the phrase “her husband” in reference to the woman’s desire to reunite with her husband in West Liao in her dream, although this phrase does not appear in the original poem. We believe that adding this phrase to our translation provides greater clarity for American readers.

己亥岁二首  Two Poems Written in the Year Ji Hai

曹松             (Author: Cao Song, 9th century)

其一             Number One

泽国江山入战图,lake nation river mountain enter war map
生民何计乐樵苏。live people how plan happiness firewood grasscutting
凭君莫话封侯事,rely on you no talk about grant marquess affair
一将功成万骨枯。one general achievement success ten thousand bones dry

 

Translation:

The southern part of a nation blessed by fresh water enters the arena of war.
How can the people find happiness cutting firewood or grass?
Please don’t talk about winning aristocratic titles.
For one general’s glory, a thousand bones are left drying, crumbling to dust.

 

其二    Number Two

传闻一战百神愁,spread hear one war hundred deity worry
两岸强兵过未休。two banks strong armies pass no stop
谁道沧江总无事,who say Cang river always no affair
近来长共血争流.   recent come long together blood strive flow

 

Translation:

I’ve heard that when war begins, hundreds of gods grieve.
There are strong armies on both sides of the river, but neither can stop this thing.
Who says nothing ever happens beside the Cang waters?
Now there are torrents of blood and water flowing east, struggling against each other.

 

Translation Notes:

These two poems were written by Cao Song, a poet in the late Tang Dynasty. Cao took the imperial examination many times, but didn’t pass the final exam and receive the degree until he was in his early 70s. Since four other scholars in their 70s passed that final exam in the same year as Cao, the announcement from that year’s exam was nicknamed “the list of five elderly”. Cao was famous for using accurate and refined words in his poems. His experience of failing the imperial exams many times is a reflection of how difficult it is for the educated people to pass such exams and become government officials at that time.

During Cao Song’s era, the power of the warlords had significantly expanded, and the central government of the Tang Dynasty had essentially lost control of the local armies. Cao’s poems focused on the sufferings of the commoners when local armies engaged in constant warfare with each other, and pointed out clearly that it was the commoners who were paying the unbearable cost of the warfare.

松寺        Pine Temple

卢延让    (Author: Lu Yanrang, 10th century)

山寺取凉当夏夜,mountain temple get cold should summer night
共僧蹲坐石阶前。together monk squat sit stone stair in front of
两三条电欲为雨,two three strip lightning about to become rain
七八个星犹在天。7, 8 individual star still exist sky
衣汗稍停床上扇,clothes sweat a little stop bed on fan
茶香时拨涧中泉。tea fragrant sometimes stir mountain brook in stream
通宵听论莲华义, all night hear discuss Buddhism meaning
不藉松窗一觉眠。 not equal to pine window one night sleep

 

Translation:

A mountain temple grows a little cooler on a summer night.
I squatted in front of the stairs with a monk.
Until two or three flashes of lightning signaled the coming rain.
Seven or eight stars were left in the sky.

And my clothes were damp from the day’s heat,
I lay in bed, fanning myself and stirring my tea
Its fragrance joined the mountain streams,
The perfume of each stimulating the other.
I listened to talk of the Lotus Sutra until dawn
But even a whole night’s discussion is not worth a good sleep by a pine window.

 

Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Lu Yanrang, a poet in the late Tang Dynasty. While much of our translation closely follows the literal, word for word language, we expanded the sixth line to try to give a little better sense of what was meant by tea fragrance that stirs the mountain streams. By the Tang dynasty, tea drinking had become very popular in Buddhist monasteries, and the monks participated in the aesthetic appreciation of various teas. Moreover, a Buddhist who achieves virtue is believed to have a “pure nose” which is capable of smelling the good scents of nature even from a great distance. We think that the poet was saying that the essence of the tea became one with the mountain streams and that he could smell and appreciate both as he lay on a bed fanning himself.

Chinese poets sometimes borrow concepts from the works of the past. The second couplet of this poem probably inspired a later poem written by Xin Qiji, which we have also translated. Xin’s poem also portrayed a landscape with the stars appearing in the distant sky until two or three rain drops fall in front of the mountain. Though both poems portrayed a tranquil environment, the second couplet of Lu’s poem emphasizes the unexpectedness of a summer rain — before the flashes of the lightning signaled the coming rain, there were still stars hanging in the sky.

The last couplet of the poem could be translated in two different ways — If we translate the word “藉“ as “think of”, this couplet would mean that the poet was so concentrated on listening to the discussion of the Lotus Sutra that he didn’t even think about going to sleep. “藉“ could also be interpreted as a homophonic pun of the word “及“, which means “come up with” or “be equal to”. We chose the second interpretation as it corresponds more closely to the relaxing and pleasant environment described in this poem.

佳人  A Beautiful Woman

杜甫 (Author:  Du Fu, 8th century)

绝代有佳人,absolutely/by all means generation have beautiful person
幽居在空谷。tranquil reside at empty valley
自云良家子,herself say good family daughter
零落依草木。remnant fall lean on grass trees
关中昔丧乱,strategic pass middle past mourning chaos
兄弟遭杀戮。elder brother younger brother suffer kill slay
官高何足论,official rank high how sufficient talk
不得收骨肉。no be able to collect bone fleshes
世情恶衰歇,world feeling evil decline come to an end
万事随转烛。ten thousand things follow rotate candles
夫婿轻薄儿,husband look down upon thin person
新人美如玉。new person beautiful similar to jade
合昏尚知时,close dusk still know time
鸳鸯不独宿。mandarin duck no alone sleep
但见新人笑,only see new person smile
那闻旧人哭。how (question word) hear old person cry
在山泉水清,exist mountain spring water clean
出山泉水浊。go out mountain spring water turbid/muddy
侍婢卖珠回,serve female slave sell jewel return
牵萝补茅屋。lead along rattan repair thatched cottage
摘花不插发,pick flower no insert hair
采柏动盈掬。pick cypress leaf move (here means usually) full bunch
天寒翠袖薄,sky cold green sleeve thin/flimsy
日暮倚修竹.   sun sunset lean on tall bamboo

 

Translation:

The most beautiful woman of our time,
Lives alone in a deserted valley.
She told me about her noble birth.
Driven into the wilderness, she had no support but the grass and trees.

When Chang An was invaded,
Both her older and younger brothers were slaughtered.
Their high rank could not protect them.
No one could retrieve their flesh and their bones.

And her whole world fell into ruins.
All of life is as unsubstantial as a flickering candle flame.
Her husband began to despise his fallen wife,
And found a new woman as beautiful as jade.

Even the flowers know to close their petals at dusk,
And the mandarin ducks will not sleep alone.
But her husband can only see his new love smiling.
How can he hear his old wife cry?

Spring water is clean when it’s in the mountain,
It gets muddy when it runs downhill.
When the maid returned from selling her lady’s jewels,
She found the lady using straw to repair the cottage.

The flowers she gathers are not for her hair.
Her arms are filled with cypress leaves.
The sky is cold, and her fine blue gown is flimsy.
The sun sets, and she leans on the tall bamboo.

 

Translation notes:

This poem is a portrait of a beautiful upper class woman whose birth family was destroyed during the An Lushan rebellion. After the downfall of her family, she was also despised and discarded by her husband, and was driven out to live in the mountain/wilderness. During the Tang Dynasty, it was usually not easy for an upper class man to divorce a wife who belonged to the same social rank. Therefore, what was described in Du Fu’s poem was a reflection of a complete destruction of social order during the An Lushan rebellion.

The poem is not easy to translate, and we had to take a couple liberties. The fourth line, if translated literally, will be something along the line of “lost and fallen, she could only lean on the grass and trees”. Some other translations have translated this line more literally. We felt that the literal translation could be pretty confusing to American readers, and therefore chose to translate it as “she has no support but the grass and trees”. The geographical location in the fifth line, if translated literally, will be “the middle of the strategic pass”. Here, since Du Fu is referring to the capital region, we chose to translate it directly as “Chang An”.

杂诗 Miscellaneous Poem

无名氏 (Author: Anonymous, Tang Dynasty)

近寒食雨草萋萋,close cold food rain grass luxuriant luxuriant
著麦苗风柳映堤。blow wheat seedling wind willow shine embankment
等是有家归未得,equal is have family return not can
杜鹃休向耳边啼。cuckoo no towards ear beside cry

 

Translation:

It’s almost Sweep the Graves Day, and the rain has made the grass grow thick.
The wheat seedlings tremble in the wind, and the river mirrors the willow trees.
Why can’t I return to my family?
Cuckoo bird, don’t make your mournful cry where I can hear you.

 

Translation note:

In the first couplet of the poem, the name of the festival is the “Cold Food Festival,” if translated literally. It is a traditional Chinese holiday which originated from the commemoration of the death of a nobleman during the Spring and Autumn period (around 7th century BC). It gradually evolved into an occasion for the Chinese to worship their ancestors. During the Tang dynasty, ancestral observance became a single-day event that is now the “Sweep the Graves Day,” which is how we translated it. We assume that most American readers wouldn’t know what “Cold Food Festival” is but that “sweep the graves” would convey the meaning. Whether we call it cold food festival or sweep the graves day, it is a time for returning to your home town and being with family.

This poem reflects the nostalgia of a traveler who was unable to return home. The second couplet of the poem was quoted by a Chinese netizen showing her sympathy towards those overseas Chinese who were unable to return to China due to the tough border controls imposed by the Chinese government to deal with COVID.

Since the COVID breakout, it is increasingly difficult for Chinese living abroad to travel to China due to frequent flight cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices, and the strict pre-departure COVID testing requirements. Some were complaining that nowadays, travelling to China is as if they were purchasing “a lottery ticket”.

紫毫笔歌  Song of the Purple Writing Brush

白居易      (Author: Bai Juyi, 8th century)

紫毫笔,               purple writing brush
尖如锥兮利如刀。sharp like awl connection word sharp like knife
江南石上有老兔,river south stone on have old rabbit
吃竹饮泉生紫毫。eat bamboo drink spring water grow purple fur
宣城之人采为笔,Xuan city connection word people pick make into brush
千万毛中拣一毫。thousand ten thousand fur among choose one brush
毫虽轻, 功甚重。 hair though light work very heavy
管勒工名充岁贡,tube handle neatly name use as year tribute
君兮臣兮勿轻用。emperor connection word official connection word not easily use
勿轻用,将何如?not easily use shall how? 
愿赐东西府御史,wish give east west official residence enquiry censors
愿颁左右台起居。wish issue left right terrace rise reside
搦管趋入黄金阙,   take hold brush walk into golden imperial city
抽毫立在白玉除。take out brush stand at white jade stairs
臣有奸邪正衙奏,court official have evil heretical upright administrative center report
君有动言直笔书。emperor have move word straightforward brush write
起居郎, 侍御史,  Imperial Secretaries enquiry censors
尔知紫毫不易致。you know purple hair not easy make
每岁宣城进笔时,Every year Xuan city pay tribute brush time
紫毫之价如金贵。purple hair connection word price like gold precious
慎勿空将弹失仪,carefully not in vain use accuse (others) of lose manner
慎勿空将录制词。carefully not in vain record the emperor’s word

Translation:

These purple calligrapher’s brushes
Sharp as an awl, sharp as a knife

In the south, an old rabbit sits on a stone
Eating bamboo and drinking spring water
The people of Xuan city harvest its purple-tipped fur.
From 10,000 hairs they find one that’s worthy.
They do heavy labor with these light hairs,
And finely carve the handles to use it as yearly tribute.

Oh, emperors and high officials, do not use them carelessly,
I can tell you a better way.
Give them to enquiry censors at the eastern and western imperial houses
Give them to Imperial Secretaries of the left and right terraces.

Take hold of the brush and enter the golden, imperial city.
Hold it aloft and stand before the white jade stairs.
Use it to report to the emperor during court meetings any official who does evil.
Use it to write clearly the edicts of the emperor.

Imperial Secretaries and enquiry censors,
You know these purple brushes are not easy to make.
Every year Xuan city pays tribute with these brushes
These brushes are as costly as gold.

When you use them, be careful not to make false accusations.
Be careful not to mistake the emperor’s words.

 

Translation notes:

This poem gives us some interesting insight into scholarly and imperial customs. The “four treasures of the study,” that is the paper, block of ink, whetstone for the ink, and the brush, were highly revered, and rabbit fur brushes made in Xuan city were considered so valuable that they were sent to the palace every year in tribute. This purple-tipped rabbit hair brush was used only by the emperor and palace officials. It was so highly associated with the court that when an aristocrat was found to be in possession of such a brush, he and his whole family were put to death. The reason for such a harsh punishment was the belief that the brush could be used to forge imperial decrees and thereby allow its owner to usurp the throne.

The enquiry censors of the eastern and western imperial houses and the imperial secretaries of the right and left terraces were court officials who transcribed the emperor’s words, recorded the functioning of the court, and monitored the behavior of court officials during morning assembles. They were tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring that the court was an example for the rest of the country of upright behavior in accordance with Confucian principles and royal tradition.

The line 搦管趋入黄金阙 (Take hold brush hurry enter golden capital) and the following line 抽毫立在白玉除 (take out brush stand at white jade stairs) can be read both as ordinary lines that advance the overall meaning of the poem, and as an elegant literary tour de force that deserve attention in themselves. In a technique known as parallelism that was commonly employed by classical writers, each word of the first line parallels the corresponding word of the next line by having either a related or opposite meaning. “Take hold” matches “take out.” “Hurry” matches “stand.” “Enter” matches with “at.” “Yellow” matches “white.” “Gold” matches “jade,” and “imperial city” matches “stairs.” We could not replicate this parallelism in English, but we thought that the elevated language of the original at least merited the grandiose word “aloft.”

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

 

Translation:
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?

 

Translation Notes:

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.

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

 

Translation:

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.

 

Translation Notes:

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

 

Translation:

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.

 

Translation Notes:

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?

 

Translation:

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?

 

Translation Notes:

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.