River Snow

I confess to being fascinated by the imagery in Liu Zongyuan poem River Snow (elsewhere I and others have used the translation Sn0w Covered River, but now I question its accuracy).


river snow


A thousand mountains and not a bird to be seen. The wintry landscape is smooth and pristine. And there in a boat on a snow-covered river sits a lonely fisherman clad in a cape of sea-grass wearing a bamboo hat.

Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819) lived in China towards the end of the Tang Dynasty. China was in the midst of rebellion and invasion, famine and flooding. The Tang dynasty, weakened by these calamities, would however go on, ending almost a century later in 907 AD. Surely, Liu had a foretaste of the end and a sense of the fragility of life. This “existentialist” poem more than hints at man’s isolation in the world and his struggles to survive against all that nature can throw at him.

Liu’s title is 江雪, literally River Snow.

Most translations are River Snow or Snow Covered River. There is a third possibility. River snow like lake effect snow is a specific atmospheric condition. One observes water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground in a thin white layer. The effect is quite ethereal and poetic and untranslatable.

That said, here I go again at translating Liu’s poem.

A thousand mountains, and not a sign of a bird in flight
On the wintry-white land, not a footprint in sight
But here on a frozen river, in a boat
Clad in my cape of sea-grass and bamboo hat
I sit and fish

Yes, I have translated Liu’s characters differently elsewhere. After all, the Chinese characters and the English words they represent are nothing more than images of the mind. We do not see words when we look at the world, we see images. Liu understood this. His setting is sparse – a thousand mountains covered in snow, not a single bird, not a trace of mankind but for this solitary fisherman, alone in his boat. Is the river snow-covered or frozen? And does it matter? Liu thought it important to clothe our fisherman only in cape of sea-grass and a bamboo hat. This implies that our fisherman is the lowliest of the low.

We are observers of this scene, unable to penetrate his thoughts, and yet, somehow we know.


Elsewhere I have concluded that 千山, the Thousand Mountains, Liu refers to in the first line is Qianshan National Park in Liaoning Province, China.


江雪 River-Snow, Liu Zongyuan

In a thousand mountains, not a bird takes flight
On a million paths, not a soul in sight, but
Alone in a boat, in his grass cape, sits a fisherman under a bamboo hat
Fishing, on the snow-covered river, despite the cold

Qianshan (千山, in the land of a thousand mountains)


Pinyin and Original Chinese Characters, 江雪

Qiānshān niǎo fēi jué
wàn jìng rén zōng miè
gū zhōu suō lì wēng
dú diào hán jiāng xuě


Winter Returns

In an earlier post, I translated Liu Zongyuan’s River Snow.

Now that that winter returns, I wish to go back to that lonely fisherman as he sits in his grass cape and bamboo hat fishing on a frozen river. Look closely, and I am sure you will see something of yourself in fisherman.

Quinshan, China

Qianshan is a is a national park in Liaoning Province, China.

In line three, Li has placed our poor and solitary 孤 old man 翁 in a boat 舟, wearing nothing more than a grass cape 簑 and bamboo hat 笠, as if he is part of the natural setting.

River Snow

And what did Liu mean by river snow?

The poem ends in the three Chinese characters – 寒江雪, hán jiāng xuě.

Literally “cold river snow,”  the first character meaning, cold, poor, tremble, fear, or winter. It is also a homophone for the Han, the Chinese people.

Such a simple and beautiful poem, and so complex.

French translation River Snow


River Snow, Liu Zhongyuan


River Snow, Liu Zhongyuan

River Snow 江雪 (Jiāng Xuě)

A poem by Liu Zhongyuan (Liǔ Zōngyuán 柳宗元).

A frozen landscape among a thousand mountains, so cold all the birds have left and along ten thousand trails  not a single footprint can be found. And yet, in this wintry scene, alone on the river a fisherman, clad in traditional straw cape and hat, is fishing.

Twenty Chinese characters convey the coldness and loneliness of life.

Is the poet the Confucianistic third party observer, or is he the fisherman himself in a Buddhist trance? A third point of view is Taoist, Liu’s attempt to live in harmony with the Way, no matter how harsh circumstances may be.

Exiled to faraway Guangxi, Liu succumbs to life’s vicissitudes at 46.

River Snow

In a thousand mountains (千山) the birds have flown and gone
On ten thousand trails there is no human trace
But one old man on a boat in straw cape and bamboo hat
Fishes alone in the cold river and snow.

Fleuve Neige

Dans mille montagnes  les oiseaux ont volé
Sur dix mille sentiers, il n’y a pas trace humaine
Mais un vieillard seul dans un bateau en paille cape et bambou chapeau
Pêche dans la rivière et neige.

Fluss Schnee

In tausend Berge haben die Vögel geflogen
Auf zehntausend Pfade gibt es keine menschliche Spur
Aber ein alter Mann auf einem Boot im Stroh Umhang und Bambushut
Im kalten Fluss und Schnee allein angeln.


Jiāng Xuě

Qiān shān niǎo fēi jué
Wàn jìng rén zōng miè
Gū zhōu suō lì wēng
Dú diào hán jiāng xuě


For the sake of convenience, I repeat the traditional title. River Snow. The title seems ambiguous unless one interprets the two characters


as, on the river in snow. This makes sense in that the poet/philosopher is on the river, his fortunes faded and now, sad and lonely, he finds himself ill-equipped to stay warm.

Alternate title could be – On the River in the Snow, a wordier, but more accurate description of the scene. Or, the slightly less wordy, River in Snow. Some have chosen to translate the title as River Winter, but this makes less sense to me, giving the impression of time rather than emotion.

Line 1. 千山, literally one thousand mountains. The idea of a journey of one thousand miles beginning with a single step is often associated with Confucius. 千里之行,始於足下, literally, a trip of a (千里) a thousand li (里, li, a Chinese mile, about 500 meters) begins with the next step. Laozi, founder of Taoism is the actual author of the line.

Line 2. 萬徑, ten thousand paths or ways, Liu’s nod to Taoism.

Line 3. 孤舟, a solitary boat, or, alone in his boat, a Buddhist point of view. The fisherman/poet is wearing a traditional cape and bamboo hat.

Line 4. The cold lonely fisherman.  Liu himself was banished from the royal court. Here, Liu gives us a double entendre, 寒江 literally the cold river, and a place name for a tributary of the Yangtze, in Shaanxi, where Liu is from.

Twenty Chinese characters convey the coldness and loneliness of life.