Not to be underestimated

Do not underestimate the little things in life is the simple message of this poem. To one who is weary and wet, a shack in the rain is more valuable than a palace far, far away, and coarse grain and diluted wine a feast.


Not to Be Underestimated

Traveling, on foot with a broken-down horse
Hungry, eating food that is coarse
Thirsty, surviving on diluted wine
Famished, drinking soup that is thin
Walking, forever without a good sleep at night
Caught in the rain, catching sight of a broken-down shack

Li Shangyin’s lived (813-858) towards the end of the Tang dynasty, his life spanning the reign of five emperors. Eunuchs controlled the power of the emperors. They did not favor Li Shangyin with important appointments and he seemed to survive without great disappointment. His humble political appointments allowed him to write poems using imagery to convey his message.

Daming Palace

For over two hundred years, the Daming Palace, or Palace of ‘Great Brillance’, in the capital city of Chang’an was the glorious seat of government for the Tang Dynasty. The complex covers almost 2 square miles and has a total length of slightly under 5 miles. It contains 11 royal gates. Its principal bulding is Hanyuan Hall.

During excavations in 1957, archeologists uncovered a stone inscription commemorating the building of Hanyuan Hall in 831, an event with which Li Shangyin would have been certainly familiar.




Cold Thoughts

In middle earth (Kansas), the temperature is minus 12 degrees Celsius. The sun is rising in the east, but clouds overhead make for a grey and cold day. The night before was clear and the Milky Way hung low in the sky, making a pathway for my thoughts to rise to the heavens.


A good day for an English translation of 涼 思 by Li Shangyin:

Cold Thoughts, by Li Shangyin.

客 去 波 平 檻

蟬 休 露 滿 枝

永 懷 當 此 節

倚 立 自 移 時

北 斗 兼 春 遠

南 陵 寓 使 遲

天 涯 占 夢 數

疑  誤  有  新 知

You are gone, at my door the river rises.
Cicadas are thick on dew-laden boughs.
This moment when deep thoughts arise.
I exist alone for a while.
The North Star is far and so is spring,
And your letters from the south never arrive
From the end of the earth regard this dream
Perhaps, you have found another friend.

French translation of Cold Thoughts by Li Shangyi.

Pensées froides

Tu es partie, à ma porte la rivière monte
Les cigales riche de rosée sur les branches sont épaisses
Ce moment où des pensées profondes paraîtent
Pendant un moment seul, j’existe.
L’étoile du Nord comme le printemps est loin
Et vos lettres de sud n’arrivent jamais
À la fin de la terre, je rêve
Peut-être, vous avez trouvé un autre ami


The title of the poem in English is often given as Thoughts in the Cold.

The river is the Wei, which flows by Chang’an, the capital of the Tang dynasty. The cicadas secrete a liquid which the Chinese referred to as “dew”. Li Shangyin refers to 北 斗 , (Běi dòu) the Big Bucket (Big Dipper) rather than the North Star to keep up the water allusion. I also wonder if this is not a double entendre, for “struggle” in the north, The Tang dynasty’s fight with the Tibetans and other rebels. 斗 may translate as fight or struggle. Literally, the northern dipper (bucket) or struggle.

天 涯 , the end of the world is also rich in meaning, and that his dreams may be suggestive is an understatement. 

The successful suppression of the An Lushan Rebellion by the Tang dynasty did not end the role of the rebels in the south of the kingdom, nor did it end the threat from the Tibetans in the north.

Night Rain on Ba Mountain

Ye Yu Ji Bei

Jun wen gui qi wei you qi
Ba shan ye yu zhang qui chi
He dang gong jian xi chuang zhu
Que hua ba shan ui ye shi

Night rain, sent north

Lord, you ask when I’m coming home, I do not know
Ba Mountain, night rains swell autumn ponds.
When shall we again trim wicks by the western window
And talk together while rain falls on Ba mountain?


The 45 years of Li-Shangyin’s life (c. 813–858) covered the reign of six emperors during the tumultuous decline of the Tang dynasty. Li was born in what is now Henan province in central China. The capital of the Tang dynasty, in present day Shaanxi province, was Chang’an (a name which means “perpetual peace”) . The Ba mountains of which Li-Shangyin writes are in the mountainous Sichuan province to the south and west of both Henan and Shaanxi. During the mid-8th century An Lushan Rebellion, it was the refuge of the Tang dynasty. It often rains at night in late spring and early summer, thus the reference to Night rain on Ba Mountain.

To whom did Li-Shangyin write the poem?

Li-Shangyin begins the first line with the character for Lord or Monarch (Jun),

so, we may assume he is writing to his overlord. That takes the steam out of the poetry for some who thought he was sending thoughts home to his wife or a recently dear departed friend.



The practice of trimming the wick is a means to reduce soot and prolong the life of the candle. Wicks are typically cut to one eighth of an inch, which extends the life of the candle by a factor of ten to one. Frugal yes, but also a means of prolonging a conversation.

Sent North in Night Rain

The poem is known by many names, but the one that best captures the spirit of the author is the ambiguous “Sent North in Night Rain”. The poem twice identifies “Ba shan” which is clearly Ba Mountain.

In the poem, the Chinese character for mountain is:

Translation are inherently subject to misinterpretation and Li Shangyin’s Night rain letter sent north is no exception. This could be a post, a letter, even a thought. We don’t know. From classical Chinese characters to simplified characters, then into the Roman alphabet is three steps distant from the author. Capturing the essence of the author’s meaning from the four lines of seven characters is no easy task. That is a total of 28 characters.

There is no way in English to express the idea in 28 words. One must even take liberties with the title which is only four characters.

The best translation of the Chinese


comes from It looks like Hugh Grigg deserves the credit.


From the title of the poem, I can pick out the last character “north”.

The first character is either night or evening.

The second character in the title is for rain.

The third character

is a verb and variously may mean, “mail” or “send” or “post by mail”.