Li Bai – Ballad of Four Seasons: Winter

“The messenger rides, she’s told, at first light
So, she sews a warrior’s cloak throughout the night
Her fingers tired, the needle cold
How can one hold the scissors tight?
Now the coat is done, she sends it away, and says,
‘How many days to Lintao?’ “

The poem explained

In the fourth and last of Li Bai’s seasonal ballads, the poet places us in a woman’s chamber in Chang’an, the Tang capital. The woman is sewing a warm cloak (征袍) for her warrior husband. He is serving with General Geshu Han in mountainous Lintao County (臨洮) on the Tibetan border. The messenger leaves at first light ( 明朝 ), so she must hurry to complete her task in spite of the cold.

Li Bai manages to capture the three emotions of love, devotion, and worry in this simple poem.

The original Chinese poem, as seen by the Pinyin translation, is more poetic, that is rhythmic and rhyming, than the English translation.


Original Chinese and Pinyin



Míng cháo yì shǐ fā
yīyè xù zhēng páo
sùshǒu chōu zhēn lěng
nà kān bǎ jiǎndāo
cáiféng jì yuǎndào
jǐ rì dào líntáo

General Geshu Han

General Geshu Han was of Turkic descent. He is famous for two events.

In 747, he achieved fame in western Lintao near Qinghai Lake, suppressing Tibetan raids on wheat farms and defeating Tibetan armies, and so restoring order to the western frontier of the Tang Empire.

The second event occurred during the An Lushan Rebellion that began in 755. General Geshu Han was sent to the strategic Tong Pass (Tongguan) to guard against the invading rebel forces. Though outnumbered, he followed orders and engaged the rebels, suffering a devastating defeat that led to his capture and the fall of the Tang capital at Chang’an.

General Geshu Han refused to cooperate with the rebels and was later executed.

Li Bai

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762.

Li is a common surname in Chinese and means plum. The personal name Bai means white. Li Bai (701–762) was one of the superstar poets of the Tang dynasty. His career took a decided turn for the worse during the An Lushan Rebellion. He was captured by the rebels and held captive in the capital of Chang’an, but managed to escape a year later.

He died in 762, shortly before the rebellion was put down. Legend has it that he drank and drowned after falling from a boat, attempting to catch the moon’s reflection in a river.

My Gift to Wanglun – Li Bai

My Gift to Wanglun

As I, Li Bai, was about to leave by boat
Alas, I heard singing on the shore
Though a thousand feet deep, Peach Blossom Lake may be,
It compares not to Wang’s kinship to me.

china ferry boat willow tree lake

Original Chinese Characters




lǐ bái chéng zhōu jiāngyù xíng
hū wén ànshàng tà gēshēng
táohuātán shuǐshēn qiān chǐ
bùjí wānglún sòng wǒ xíng

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance


Peach Blossom Spring

Li Bai’s reference to Peach Blossom Spring (桃花潭, Táohuātán) draws on an earlier legend of The Peach Blossom Land, written by Tao Yuanming (circa 421 AD).

The story is about the chance discovery of a perfect utopia where people live in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. A fisherman accidentally stumbles on the beautiful spot, stays for a week, and then leaves marking the way with signs. All attempts to rediscover this Shangri-la are futile.

Wang Lun

Who, pray tell, is the friend Wang Lun (汪伦)?

My guess is Wang Wei, a close colleague with whom he shared many nights of revelry. The Chinese character 伦, Lun in Pinyin, translates to relationship, kinship, or peer. Thus, the phrase is my peer, my kin, my friend Wang.

There is an often repeated story that Li Bai, who was fond of drinking to exess and talking to the moon, drowned after falling from his boat in the Yangtze River when he tried to embrace a reflection of the moon in the water.

Wang Wei’s Farewell to Li Bai


Wang Wei , The Farewell (ca. 750 CE)

Dismounting, I offer my friend a cup of wine,
I ask what place he is headed to.
He says he has not achieved his aims,
Is retiring to the southern hills.
Now go, and ask me nothing more,
White clouds will drift on for all time.


Ascending the Pagoda in the Temple of Mercy and Kindness, with Gao Shi and Xue Ju

This is a preliminary draft.

In his  poem With Gao Shi and Xue Ju, Ascending the Pagoda in the Temple of Mercy and Kindness, Master Can Cen instructs us that climbing the stairs of the seven story pagoda is a metaphor for ascending into heaven; the true path is to follow the Way of the Buddha.

The pagoda sprouting sharply from earth,
Appearing to touch Heaven above

Climbing, we leave the world behind,
Each step is suspended in space.

Overlooking this sacred place
Built by the toil of the human spirit.

Its four sides darken the bright light,
Its seven stories slicing through silvery clouds;

And birds descend below our sight,
And the wind whistling below us listening;

Mountains towering in the east,
Like rivers, curving and flowing.

In the distance locust-trees line broad roads
Towards clusters of  palaces and mansions;

Colors of autumn, out of the west,
Advancing, enter the city;

Northward in five graveyards, there lay
At peace under dewy green grass,

The mass of those who know life’s final meaning
It is a message humanity will learn.

So, I will put my official hat (office) aside.
The Dao (the Way,  Eternal Way) is our only happiness.

The Title

The poem’s title is generally given in English as Ascending the Pagoda at the Temple of Kind Favor with Gao Shi and Xue Ju.

Gao Shi (704–765) was a fellow Tang poet, two of whose poems were collected in the anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems. The reference to Xue Ju is presently unclear, but I suspect he may have been one of three brothers with the surname Xue. Time will hopefully tell.

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

Da Ci’en Temple

The Buddhist temple grounds of Da Ci’en (慈恩 寺, kindness, mercy, temple), is located in the ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty, Chang’an, now Xi’an, in Shaanxi province. The meaning of “Ci’en” can be translated as the “mercy and kindness of a loving mother”. Within the temple grounds is the pagoda. Its name, Big Wild Goose Pagoda, is omitted in the poem.

In 648, Emperor Gaozong (Li Zhi) ordered the construction of the temple and its pagoda to honor his dead mother. The temple grounds are known as Da Ci’en and sometimes Dacien, in English translations. The famous pagoda  is the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda which rises to seven stories. It was originally five stories, but, after its collapse, it was rebuilt in 704 to seven stories by the emperor’s spouse, the Empress Wu Zetian.

The well-known Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602 – 664) lived there, taking charge of the temple’s business and gathering under its roof classic scriptures, statues, and Buddhist relics (Sariras) which he acquired during his 17-year-long trip to India. Based on his journey to India, he wrote a book, Pilgrimage to the West. The reference to the locust tree in line 13 is likely to the Chinese scholar tree or Pagoda tree which is generally planted in front of temples and leading to cities. The reference to the cemetery of Wuling in line 17 is to the tombs of the five emperors of the Han Dynasty.*

Original Chinese Characters


塔势如涌出, 孤高耸天宫

登临出世界, 磴道盘虚空

突兀压神州, 峥嵘如鬼工

四角碍白日, 七层摩苍穹

下窥指高鸟, 俯听闻惊风

连山若波涛, 奔凑如朝东

青槐夹驰道, 宫馆何玲珑

秋色从西来, 苍然满关中

五陵北原上, 万古青蒙蒙

净理了可悟, 胜因夙所宗

誓将挂冠去, 觉道资无穷


Tǎ shì rú yǒng chū, gū gāosǒng tiāngōng;
Dēnglín chū shìjiè, dèng dào pán xūkōng.
Túwù yā shénzhōu, zhēng róng rú guǐ gōng;
Sìjiǎo ài bái rì, qī céng mó cāngqióng.
Xià kuī zhǐ gāo niǎo, fǔ tīngwén jīng fēng.
Lián shān ruò bōtāo, bēn còu rú zhāo dōng.
Qīng huái jiā chí dào, gōng guǎn hé línglóng.
Qiūsè cóng xī lái, cāng rán mǎn guānzhōng.
Wǔ líng běiyuán shàng, wàngǔ qīng méngméng.
Jìng lǐle kě wù, shèng yīn sù suǒ zōng.
Shì jiāng guàguān qù, jué dào zī wúqióng

*Royal tombs of the Han emperors were cut horizontally into rocky hillsides. A shaft led to an underground suite of rooms, which became the deceased emperor’s residence in the afterlife.

The tomb was provided with the luxuries of court life – furniture, kitchen utensils, food and toiletries, tools, weapons, jewellery, and other “necessary” royal appurtenances, including the deceased’s unfortunate concubines, cooks and servants, who were sacrificed to serve their master in the next life.

Princess Jinching

Princess Jinching (金城公主, 699-740) was the great-granddaughter of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wu Zetian. She was adopted by the ruling Emperor Zhongzong.

During peace negotiations between the Chinese and Tibetans, it was agreed that she would become the bride of the Tibetan emperor in a marriage alliance between the two powers. In 710, she departed Chang’an, the capital, accompanied by the Emperor Zhongzong to a city he later renamed Jinching in her honor. She was 10, 12, or 16 years old at the time, depending on the source.

The young princess continued on escorted by a Chinese general. And the trip would take them to the furthest reaches of Tang China, through Yumen Pass, named for the many jade caravans that passed though the fortress wall. The spot is dry, often windy, and in the summer scorched by heat.

The wind howling through the gate makes a mournful sound.

When the young princess reached Tibet, the Tibetans convinced the Chinese general escorting her to recommend that China cede the border land of Qinghai, home to the Qiang people. It was supposed to be a bathing fief for the princess but hostilities between the two countries continued and the area became a staging area for Tibetan attacks on China.

The princess’ life in Tibet was not a happy affair. In 723, she requested asylum with the King of Kashmir, but was dissuaded from going. She remained active with the Chinese community in Tibet, was responsible for building temples, and continued to correspond with her adopted father, the emperor.

After the princess’ departure, the emperor, saddened by her leaving, ordered that poems be written on her behalf.

Wang Zhihuan responded with the beautifully written “Beyond the Border”.

Qiang flute

Beyond the Border – Wang Zhihuan

tibet mountain qiang

Beyond the Border

Where the Yellow River in the far white clouds is arising,
A walled fortress stands alone amidst the vast peaks abiding,
Under a willow tree, the Qiang flute is sighing,
That Spring never blows through the Yumen (Jade) Pass.

Understanding Wang Zhihuan’s poem

In 710, the young  Princess Jinching, adopted daughter to the Emperor Zhongzong, passed through Yumen Gate on her way to marry the Tibetan emperor. She would never return to her home in China. With this poem, Wang Zhihuan answers the emperor’s request for poems in her honor.

The princess is not named specifically in the poem, but her name appears phonetically in the last characters on the first two lines (Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān, yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān). We can speculate further that these two characters 间 (jiān) and 山 (shān), represent the ideas of separation and mountains.

More about Princess Jinching…



The setting for the poem is Yumenguan (玉门关, English, Jade Gate Pass), so named because of the jade caravans that passed through the opening in the wall.  The pass was located on the ancient Silk Road.

It represented the border between China and Tibet.

At home in China, Wang Zhihuan could see the distant clouds in west. He  understood that the Yellow River (黄河) was formed by the rain that fell on the high Tibetan Plateau, in the midst of ten-thousand foot mountains, before it coursed through China to the Yellow Sea and the currents of the Pacific Ocean.

The wall’s opening surely reminded Wang of the hole on a flute. The Qiang people who live in the area have a unique two-reeded flute that plays a sound that recalls the emotion of missing someone.

The Qiang People

During Tang dynasty (618–907), Chinese and Tibetan forces battled often. Between the two super-powers lay the ethnic Qiang people. During the border struggles, the Qiang went one way and then the other, subjects of Chinese or Tibetan control.

Like Wang Zhihuan, one can imagine a lonely flutist lamenting his misfortunes underneath a willow tree wondering why the winds of spring never reach his home.

The Qiang people make a unique flute made up of two bamboo pipes with two sets of holes. It is said that the sound of the flute is special, reminding one of the emotion of missing home. Popular Qiang songs include “Breaking off a Willow Branch” and “Missing You”. The third line of the poem begins with the characters 羌笛 – Qiāngdí, which clearly to me is Qiang flute. Nevertheless, some modern translations do not identify the Qiang flute, but generally of a flute played by a Tartar or Tibetan soldier. The verb in this line is 怨, literally, blame or complain, but lament or sigh sounds better to me. The willow tree – 杨柳 literally, willow tree / poplar and willow / or, a reference to the name of traditional tune that I cannot identify.

For a song that uses the willow tree as a metaphor see The Song of Everlasting (Unending) Sorrow, a long narrative poem by Bai Juyi (772 – 846). In the fifth scene, the imperial concubine is a little drunk. Her swaying figure resembles that of a willow branch dancing in the spring breeze.

The Title – 凉州词

The title also presents somewhat of a challenge. The original Chinese characters are 凉州词, literally Discouraging, Provincial, Word, or word from a cold province. Generally, modern translators use Beyond the Border, and so will I, but it would be more accurate to say, “At the Border” or “A Word from the Border,” or “word from a cold province”.

These alternate titles, however, lack the alliteration of “Beyond the Border”.

This is the second of two of Wang’s six existing poems published in the anthology of  300 Tang Poems. The other published poem is Ascending Stork Tower.

More about Wang Zhihuan (王之涣)

Original Chinese Characters




Liáng zhōu cí

Huánghé yuǎn shàng báiyún jiān
yīpiàn gūchéng wàn rèn shān
qiāngdí héxū yuàn yángliǔ
chūnfēng bù dù yùménguān

Ascending Stork Tower, Wang Zhihuan

On The Stork Tower
By Wang Zhihuan

To the furthest mountain, the bright sun shines
To the distant sea, the Yellow River flows
To get a better view
Climb another floor

stork tower found in Spain

Notes on the poem

Only six of Wang’s poems survive today, two are part of the 300 Tang Poems, including “Ascending Stork Tower for a better view”.

The poem symbolizes the pursuit of an ideal. The admonition is “Try harder!”


There are many variations of the poem, and one can substitute climbing for ascending if one wishes. I also like this visual image: “In the mountain’s distance mountains, the bright sun sinks, To the sea the Yellow River flows, If you wish to see a thousand miles, You should climb another floor.”

The poem’s third line is idiomatic. One could also say kick it up a notch. Or, try harder! A literal translation goes like this:

yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
[wanting] [furthest] [thousand] [mile] [eye]
If you want to see a thousand miles

Another version goes like this:

The sun in the distant mountains glows
The Yellow River seawards ever flows
You will find a grander sight
By climbing to a greater height

About Wang Zhihuan

Wang Zhihuan (王之涣, 688-742) was born in Shanxi province where the Stork Tower is located. Read more…

Original Chinese




Bái rì yī shān jǐn,
huánghé rù hǎiliú.
Yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
gèng shàng yī céng lóu


Much of the rhyme, both internal and end, is lost in translation.

The second line is particular beautiful. The combination of the Yellow River (黄河, Huánghé) and the Ocean Current (海流, hǎiliú) is more suggestive than my simple use of “the sea”.

Stork Tower

The Stork Tower in Puzhou Town, Yongji, Shanxi, Wang’s home province.

In China, the stork (鹳, include the heron and crane) is a symbol of longevity because it lives a long life, and its white feathers represent old age. In the Chinese imperial hierarchy, the stork is “a bird of the first rank.” Flying cranes symbolize one’s hope for a higher position.

There is a useful idiom that explains the significance of the stork.

Hè lì jī qún
A crane standing amid a flock of chickens
Being conspicuously different, Standing head and shoulders above others.

Alas, the Stork Tower was ravaged by the flooding Yellow River, but it has been rebuilt.