Mother’s Day Again

Mother’s Day is one day away, so I reprise Meng Jiao’s Song of the Wandering Son. The poem is like a multi-faceted gem, viewed differently from different angles.

The thread in the hands of a loving mother
Making clothes for her wandering son;
Carefully she stitches and sews,
Fearing delays that will keep him from home.
But how does inch-long grass
Repay the sun for three months of sunlight in spring?

pine tree on rocky mountain

The wandering son

Our wandering son is most likely a soldier called up by the emperor to campaign in the spring and the summer against the Tibetans in the far west or the Mongols to the north. The weather is bleak, the spring and summer short, winter is long and cold. The soldiers travel to a faraway land of high, grass plateaus, steep ravines, and snow-capped mountains. The sparse rains fall, gathering and forming the three of the great rivers of Asia – the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong.

The Tang soldiers confront tribesmen who are fierce warriors and splendid horsemen born to the saddle. They live upon herds of yaks, cliff-dwelling sheep, horses and the plunder they take from the caravans bound to and from China.

A loving mother

Our mother silently goes about her work closely stitching the warm coat he will need, knowing and fearing the long delay before he returns.

Notes on translation

How does the high plateau grass repay the sun for its sunlight, how does a son repay a mother for her nurturing love?

The last two lines of Meng’s poem which begins with 谁 言 Shéi yán, who said, has become a metaphor for a mother’s love.

谁 言, 寸 草 心, 报 得 三 春 晖
Shéi yán, cùn cǎo xīn, bào dé sān chūnhuī

green grass hillside solitary tree
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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.

Enjoy!

Original Chinese and Pinyin

明朝驛使發
素手抽針冷
一夜絮征袍
那堪把剪刀
裁縫寄遠道
幾日到臨洮

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.

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…

flute

Yumenguan

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

凉州词

  黄河远上白云间
一片孤城万仞山
羌笛何须怨杨柳
春风不度玉门关

Pinyin

Liáng zhōu cí

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

Spring Thoughts – Li Bai

Draft – simple thought, tough poem to tackle, let me come back and get it right.

Spring Thoughts

In Yan, the grass grows like threads of blue silk
In Qin, it is said, mulberry leaves of emerald green hang low
Somewhere, a husband dreams of returning home
To his heartbroken wife who
Feels the spring breeze strange
As it slips unseen through her silk curtains

Notes on translating Spring Thoughts

The title is 春 (spring) 思 (thought).

From the clues left behind in Li Bai’s poem, we can date the writing of the poem to the spring of 756. Symbolically, the ancient State of Yan was rising like the blue-green grass of spring. The ancient State of Qin hung low like the emerald-green leaves of the mulberry tree.

In the winter of 755, General An Lushan, of Turkic extraction from modern day Mongolia, launched a rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong and the Tang dynasty. By the Lunar New Year in 756, An had captured the eastern Tang capital of Luoyang, establishing a new state of Yan.

Tang generals and their armies moved north to confront the rebellion. In line 1, Li Bai places our warrior husband in the the State of Yan (燕), in the midst of the blue green grasses.

燕 (Yan) 草 (grass) 如 (like) 碧 (bluish-green) 絲 (silk thread)

By 756, General An Lushan had captured the Tang capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an in the ancient state of Qin.) Silk is a symbol of Chinese culture and wealth. The metaphor of hanging low and the fortunes of the Tang dynasty speaks for itself.

Back home in Qin, the ancient Chinese homeland, a wife longs for her absent husband. Low hanging mulberry leaves, upon which the silk worms feast, have recently unfolded in colors of emerald green, symbolizing sadness. A western wind slips though the wife’s silk curtains and she senses a strange emotion with the breeze that is felt but not seen.

Rhyme

In this short poem, Li Bai has managed to repeat the “shi” (homo-phone for poem) sound five times in six lines. Sadly, these homo-phonic puns do not translate well into English. Now, add the additional rhymes of “bi”, “di”, “gui”, “ri”, “qie”, and “he”.

This sad bag of rhymes makes for a poem, whose meaning conveys, but whose beauty is obscured in translation:(

Chinese Characters

春思

燕草如碧絲
秦桑低綠枝
當君懷歸日
是妾斷腸時
春風不相識,
何事入羅幃

Pinyin

Yàn cǎo rú bì sī
Qín sāng dī lǜ zhī
Dāng jūn huái guī rì
Shì qiè duàn cháng shí
Chūn fēng bù xiāng shí
Hé shì rù luó wéi

A Wilderness View – Du Fu

china mountains snow

A Wilderness View

In the western mountains the snow is white where lies three forts
In the south, the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River
Oh, the wind and dust keep me from my brothers, and
The edge of heaven ends in tears, as I am so far away
And the future offers only many ills and the stay of the sunset
To the imperial court, I have less use than a speck of dust
Yet, astride my horse I sally forth to the open country
No man can endure the chaos of the world

Setting for Du Fu’s Wilderness View

In the far west, the Tang imperial forces are hard pressed to keep out the Tibetan army. The poet Du Fu, old in years, approaches the three forts that guard China from the invaders. Astride his horse he stops for a moment to gaze at the snow on the western mountains to compose this poem.

The Jin River (Jinjiang) begins in the western province of Sichuan, that boarders Tibet. I can not find a bridge named Wanli on the Jin River and it may be that Du Fu is using the two Chinese characters 萬 and 里, to mean a thousand miles, or a long bridge, rather than as a place name, wan meaning a thousand, and li being a unit of measurement often equated with a mile.

One Chinese frontier city was Songzhou (松州, in modern Sichuan). Phonetically this is similar to chéng shù of the first line, but this interpretation is a stretch. The characters also sound like Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province.

Alternate translation of line 2: To the south it is clear to where the the Wanli Bridge crosses the vast Jinjiang River. The similarity in structure of the two characters 浦 and 清 is obvious, but the significance is not.

Line four, edge of heaven is often translated in English as the end of the world.

The Style of Du Fu

Du Fu liked to write in a structured poetry of balancing couplets, a style called Lu Shi (律詩). This can be observed in the Pinyin translation below, particularly in the last two lines.


kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáo

Original Chinese and Pinyin

野 望

西 山 白 雪 三 城 戍
南 浦 清 江 萬 里 橋
海 內 風 塵 諸 弟 隔
天 涯 涕 淚 一 身 遙
唯 將 遲 暮 供 多 病
未 有 涓 埃 答 聖 朝
跨 馬 出 郊 時 極 目
不 堪 人 事 日 蕭 條

Yěwàng

Xīshān báixuě sān chéng shù
nánpǔ qīngjiāng wànlǐ qiáo
hǎinèi fēngchén zhū dì gé
tiānyá tìlèi yīshēn yáo
wéi jiāng chímù gōng duō bìng
wèi yǒu juān āi dá shèng cháo
kuà mǎ chū jiāo shí jímù
bùkān rénshì rì xiāotiáoDu Fu’s Laments from the South

History of Chinese Tibetan Warfare

The history of Chinese warfare with Tibet is beyond my understanding. One source is China’s Golden Age. Another translation of this poem with background material is found in Du Fu’s Laments from the South by David R. McCraw.

china mountains river

Du Fu – The Evening Council Chamber

A poem is never done, it is left unfinished or abandoned, but never done, and, what is more, never fully understood.

The Evening Council Chamber

While the winter curtails the daylight
At the end of the world the frost and snow swirl in the night
At the fifth-watch the drums and bugles sound their sad song
O’er the Three Gorges pours the Star River (Milky Way)
From a distance women wail of war and
At dawn fishermen and woodcutters go to work
Wolong and his Leaping Horse are the Yellow Earth
A man’s work makes a letter unfettered, sound lonesome and alone

Dating the Poem

During the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Du Fu (杜甫, 712-770) was captured by the rebels and then escaped, and he later sought refuge in the wilds of the Gorges. It is likely that he wrote this poem then. In particular the date of this poem may be placed between the spring of 766 and the autumn of 768, when Du Fu and his family stayed in nearby Kuizhou. Chapter One, Rising From a Placid Lake, China’s Three Gorges

Caveats

This poem is a translator’s nightmare.

Translation that are literal miss the mark because they do not take into account compound words, place names, and pseudonyms for famous Chinese figures. Modern translation also miss subtleties of language.

The Title

The English title of the poem seems to wander from Du Fu’s intention. I have seen the title both as From the Watch Tower and as Night in the Watch-tower. The first character translates directly as council-chamber, not watch tower. And the intent of the poem is discuss the affairs of the day among those who make war and cause death. The second character in the title is “night” but “evening” works as well.

The Poem

Line 1. Du Fu uses the characters 陰 and 陽, yin and yang, to represent the opposing forces in nature.

Line 2. 天 涯, Tian Ya, at the border of heaven, at the horizon.

Line 3. The Fifth Watch, from 3 to 5 am.

wang shimin landscapes inspired by dufu  qing dynasty 1665 wikipedia

Line 4. The line identifies the place as today’s scenic Three Gorges. In the heavens above shines a River of Stars which we know as the Milky Way.

Line 6. Wolong (臥龍) is an alternative name for Zhuge Liang, Chinese general, statesman and strategist during the Three Kingdoms Period (220 -280), which began with the dissolution of the Han Empire. The kingdoms were separated by the natural boundaries of the Yangtze River and the central mountains where the Three Gorges are. Wolong, also called Sleeping Dragon,  was a general for the Shu Han. His death ended a strategic threat to the Chinese Kingdom.

Line 7. Begins with 人事, a man’s work, or human affairs, but also a homophone to 詩 or 诗, Shi, the Chinese word for all poetry generally.

Du Fu compares man’s work with a letter 書, Shu.

Du Fu had in mind the deaths of his good friends Li Bai and Yan Wu. What happens to poetry that is not collected? Will his story be different than Wolong?

There is a common belief in China that the dry dusty yellow earth (loess) of north China is made up of the remains of the millions of dead soldiers.

Original Chinese

閣 夜
歲 暮 陰 陽 催 短 景
天 涯 霜 雪 霽 寒 霄
五 更 鼓 角 聲 悲 壯
三 峽 星 河 影 動 搖
野 哭 千 家 聞 戰 伐
夷 歌 數 處 起 漁 樵
臥 龍 躍 馬 終 黃 土

This poem is unfinished… Recheck the last two lines.

too young to know what sorrow is

horse

in her quiet window

wang changling

too young to know what sorrow is, and
dressed for spring, to her bedroom chamber she climbs, and
as the budding green willow wounds her heart
she wonders why, just for a title, she sent him to war

The actual title is, in her quiet window, but I like too young to know what sorrow is.

A young wife encourages her new husband to join the Tang army and go off and fight the enemy at the border. The expectation is that he will return with honors. Most likely, the enemy were the Tibetans at the far west of the Chinese Empire or the Tartars to the north, but there were other enemies both foreign and internal with which the emperor had to dear with.

Wang Changling, the Tang poet, deals with the contradictory emotions of love and pride. The young wife’s pride in the rank and title her husband achieves if he is heroic is balanced with the risk in his death.

I have played around with the words and the rhyme and though incomparable with Wang Changling’s poetic gift, I hope I conveyed some sense of his meaning. Wang’s use of the willow is symbolic. In China, the willow branch is used to ward off evil spirits. More ominously, mourners carry willow branches with them on the way to the cemetery during the Qingming Festival, which, like our poem, takes place in early spring. It is a festival that loosely translates as Tomb-Sweeping festival.

Then too, in Mandarin, “willow” sounds the same as “to stay”.

Does she care?

Original Chinese

闺怨

王昌龄

闺中少妇不知愁
春日凝妆上翠楼
忽见陌头杨柳色
悔教夫婿觅封侯

Read French translation of in her quiet window

Song of an Autumn Midnight

At the far western reach of the Tang Dynasty was the 玉 關, Jade Gate, though which the western caravans came wool, spices, gold, and silver in exchange for Chinese silks.

The Tang Dynasty was founded in 618 AD and ended in 907. It followed the Han Dynasty which existed from 206 BC until 220 AD. The Han succeeded in pacifying the western barbarian tribes and creating the gate or pass on the Silk Road connecting Central Asia and China. It was called the 玉 關, Jade Gate. The Tang emperor Taizong, and his military force defeated the Eastern Turks in 630, established peace with the Western Turks and vanquished Gaochang (Turpan), Yanqi (Qarashar) and Qiuci (now Kuche), all of whom were collectively called 胡 虜, barbarians or Hu Lu. In 646, the Mongolian Plateau came under the control of the Tang Dynasty the defeat of the Western Turks.

Chang’ An was the capital of the Tang Dynasty and the largest City on Earth, with a population exceeding one million. During the extended military campaigns the wives remained at home doing the wash, taking care of the children, and hoping for the day when their husbands would return.

moon-crescent

Midnight and an Autumn Song (秋歌)

Over Chang’an, shines a slice of moon and
Ten thousand wives can be heard washing clothes
An autumn wind blows without end
Carrying my heart to the Jade Gate
When will peace come to the Hu Lu
And my husband return from his long journey

Original Chinese text

秋歌

長 安 一 片 月
萬 戶 擣 衣 聲
秋 風 吹 不 盡
總 是 玉 關 情
何 日 平 胡 虜
良 人 罷 遠 征

Note:
Rhyme pattern:
Yuè, sheng, jìn, qíng, lǔ, zhēng
a, b, b, b, a, b

Li Bai (701–762) was a romantic poet influenced greatly by the northern An Shi Rebellion which began in 755 and lasted almost a decade. The catastrophic events included the capture of Chang’an by the rebels. Midnight Autumn Song poem should be read along with Li Bai’s Moon over the Mountain Pass.

li-bai-shadow

Li Bai, also known as Li Bo or Li Po, of the High Tang period, 701-762. He was one of the two leading figures of Chinese poetry.

Li Bai’s life was for the most part itinerant. In 742, he came to Chang’an, marveled at its splendor, hoping to be given an official position. No official post resulted, but he did meet other poets and shared a glass of wine or two, for which he was well-known. In the autumn of 744, he took to wanderings again.

Popular legend says that he drowned when, drunk in a boat, he leaned over and tried to seize the moon’s reflection in the water.

Border Songs, 1 of 4, revisited

A poet plays over in his mind the words and images of his poem. So too, does the translator. Let us then revisit Lu Lun’s Border Songs beginning with number one of four.

Hawk feathers flutter from his golden arrow
His woven silk flag waves like the tail like a swallow
One man rises to gives the order
Thousands follow as one, shouting, HU!

Lu Lun’s Border songs recount the exploits of General Li Guang (died 119 BC) .

From Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (Shǐjì 94 BC), General Li Guang was a man of great build, with long arms and good archery skills, who on one occasion, legend says, was able to shoot an arrow deeply into a stone which resembled the shape of a crouching tiger. To China’s northern enemy, a tribe called the Xiongnu (generally associated with the Mongols),  he was known as a determined opponent who would willingly face armies of superior numbers. He was haunted by bad luck in battle and committed suicide after a loss at the Battle of Mobei (Gobi Desert).

 

The English Translation

In writing this series of poems, Lu Lun was no doubt mindful of the Tang dynasty’s troubles during the An Lushan Rebellion. General An Lushan was from the northern tribes and fought for the Chinese emperor before rebelling. For an extended period of time, he and his armies wrecked havoc on the Tang dynasty. These troubles were the subject of many Tang poets. Lu Lun’s ancestral home was Fanyang, modern day Beijing, on the northern extreme of the Chinese Empire, where An Lushan began his rebellion.

First line, the characters for golden arrow are 金 僕 姑, literally golden servant girl. The pinyin translation of last two characters (servant girl) rhyme (pú and gū). In Chinese military history, armies relied heavily on archery and the general in command would carry a golden arrow with feathers to signify his authority.

Second line, the war flag of embroidered silk is woven, a metaphor for the army itself which is woven to together with individual soldiers. Like the swallows of the air they will then move to and fro in unison.

Third line, even in the flight of the swallow, one bird makes a movement and others follow. The general raises his arrow and gives the order to advance.

Fourth line, thousands raise their voice and shout. The Chinese character for shout is 呼 and also the sound of the wind. If you have ever stood in a field and heard the sound of a flock of swallow changing direction, you will have the sense of the imagery.

The rhyme scheme is aaba, gū, hú, lìng hū.

Dunhuang_Zhang_Yichao_army

Original Chinese Characters

鷲翎金僕姑
燕尾繡蝥弧
獨立揚新令
千營共一呼

The Title

The title is almost always translated as Border Songs. For border, Lu Lun chooses the Chinese characters  塞 and 下, sāi and xià, literally beneath the pass. He picked these characters, no doubt, because they work together poetically.

French Translation

Des plumes faucon palpitent de sa flèche en d’or
Son drapeau soie ondule comme la queue hirondelle
Un homme se lève pour donner l’ordre
Des milliers suivent comme un, en criant, HU!

Border Songs, 4 of 4, Lu Lun

Let our victorious feast in camp begin
Let the Quiang, our friends, proclaim, the war is won
Let us drink to harmony, and in golden armor dance until the night is done
Let us thunder on the mountains and rivers with our drums

Literally, the the poem’s 20 characters go something like this: In our camp we feast, the Qiang Rong (a friendly tribe on China’s western border) praise the toil of our triumphant soldiers. Full of wine, we dance in golden armor, while drums thunder over the rivers (valleys) and mountains.

The rhyme scheme is aaba. There is also internal rhyme that is missing in this translation. For example, the poem ends with the characters 山 川 (Shān chuān), mountains and rivers. Sichuan (四川) Province in China’s southwest province includes the eastern plateau of Tibet.

野 幕 蔽 瓊 筵

羌 戎 賀 勞 旋

醉 和 金 甲 舞

雷 鼓 動 山 川

Pinyin (phonetic)

Yě mù bì qióng yán

Qiāng róng hè láo xuán

Zuì hé jīn jiǎ wǔ

Léi gǔ dòng shān chuān

Notes.

Shuo Wen Jie zi (Shuowen Jiezi), the 2nd century Chinese dictionary says: “Qiang are shepherds of the western tribes, hence, the character 羌 is developed from 羊 (sheep) and 人 (human) meaning they are shepherds.” The Rong were a branch of the Quiang. Early in the Tang dynasty, the Tubo, a poweful Tibetan tribe, made war against the Tang. The “enlightened” Tang Emperor Taizong defeated the Tibetans in 638. The Qiang had to handle pressure from both sides. Historical texts referred to the Qiang then as “two-faced Qiang”. Other texts suggest the Quiang merged with the Chinese people. Today, they are a minority people, recognized as such by Mao Zedong.

The title. The first three characters of the title, 塞 下 曲, literally translate as “at the strategic pass, song” from which comes the more popular rendition “border song.” Then, the character for the number four. This is followed by the remaining three characters, 首 之 四, thus we have “four of four.” Phonetically, the last four characters are full of sibilance, like a snake hissing – sì shǒu zhī sì.