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
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
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.
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.