Coming Home

He Zhizhang (659-744) was a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty who had the good fortune to die before the An Lushan Rebellion began.


He Zhizhang

It is said – I have not confirmed it – that he was both politician and poet who retired in the year 743, at age eighty-five, to become a Daoist hermit near Lake Jinghu in Zhejiang Province, his native province. If so, he returned to a place near where he was born. He (pun intended) was unlikely to have found any living relatives or friends, and so would be unrecognized by those living there. The children, finding a stranger speaking their native tongue would be curious.

Likely, this inspired his poem whose Chinese characters are:

回 鄉 偶 書

, variously translated as:

Coming Home or On Returning Home.

Small and young I left my home, big and old, I now return
Speaking in my village voice with hair grown thin
Children, seeing and hearing me, wonder, who is this man?
And smiling, ask, sir, why do you come?

Notes on the English translation.

The first two characters of the title 回 鄉 express Zhizhang’s emotion of coming home and are homophone (Huí xiāng) for his name. The first character 回 nicely expresses the idea of being a subset of a set, a part of a whole, and the temporal idea of returning to one’s place of origin. The character for native province 鄉 is coincidentally a homophone for Zuizhang’s native province of  Zhejiang.

The last two characters of the title 偶 書, often ignored in translation, contain the thought, I write.

French translation,

De retourner au pays
Petit et jeune, de ma village natale j’ai quitté , grande et ancienne je retourne
Parlant dans la voix de ma village avec des cheveux mûrs
Les enfants, me voyant, disent-ils, qui est cet homme?
Et souriant, demandez-moi, monsieur, pourquoi viens-tu?

German translation,

Rückkehr, Heimkommen
Kleine und junge mein Zuhause ich verließ, groß und alt komme ich zurück
Sprechen mit keinem Akzent, mit Haaren gewachsen dünn
Kinder, sehen mich, sagen, wer ist dieser Mann?
Und lächelnd, fragen Sie, Herr, warum kommen Sie?

Notes on the German translation

I will leave it to others to say whether Rückkehr or Heimkommen is the better choice for the title.

Spanish translation,

Not mine, someone else who has a better command of the Spanish language.

Original Chinese characters: