Old poems like old friends

Thought One of Four Poems
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Daring not to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a kingfisher pair
Three nesting on a pearled tree
Bravely at the tree’s top
Have they no fear of stones?
For those clothed in beauty invite people pointing
And the mighty face an evil god
And the admiration of hunters’ desires

Old friends, old poems

“Old poems are like old friends,” wise men say. “You should visit them from time to time.” We last visited Zhang Jiluing in November of last year. Then he gave us his first thought about his fall from power in 737.

I have reproduced it above.





Zhang Jiuling

Zhang, you may or may not recall, was a noted poet and scholar, titled the Count Wenxian of Shixing, deputy head of the legislative bureau of government, then chancellor to the Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty.

But a chancellor’s good advice is not always well received.

In 736, General Zhang Shougui suffered a loss in battle because his subordinate General An Lushan failed to follow orders. An, who was of of Sogdian and Göktürk origin, was ordered to appear in front of the emperor to hear his fate. Zhang favored execution, saying that An was likely to commit treason again. The emperor disregarded his advice and Am remained a general. A year later, Zhang was demoted and died in 740.

Zhang’s prediction proved accurate. In 755 General An Lushan revolted and Emperor Xuanzong was forced to flee the capital.

Notes on translation

巢在三珠樹 Cháo zài sān zhūshù, Three nesting in a pearl tree or nesting in three pearl trees? I lean toward the conclusion that three are a crowd, and two of the emperor’s advisors ganged up against Zhang.

The beautiful bird in fancy feathers should beware.. Tian-tsui is an ancient Chinese art featuring kingfisher feathers and using the iridescent blue feathers of kingfisher birds as an inlay for art objects and articles of adornment, such as hairpins, headdresses, and fans.

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting – Meng Haoran

To Prime Minister Zhang: Looking at Lake Dongting

In August (the eighth lunar month), the lake is peaceful,
Boundless waters blend with the sky and
Over the Cloud-Dream Marsh a damp mist rises and
The waves are breaking against the walls of Yueyang City.

I wish to cross the lake, but there is no boat
For me to live an easy life, I would disgrace our brilliant master.
I sit watching the angler cast his line,
Envying him for fishing.

China lake willow tree, mountains in the distance

Meeting Meng Haoran for the first time

In our last poem, we heard from Meng as he was leaving political life.

Here we meet Meng at the beginning of his political career. He is arriving at Lake Dongting on his way to the city Yueyang where he will meet with minister Zhang Jiuling.

Meng’s stint in politics was brief, beginning at the ripe old age of 39 and ending within a year.  Although politics was not his forte, poetry was and Meng managed to make friendships with younger poets such as Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Bai. Indeed, the collection of Tang poems has two written by Li Bai addressed to Meng Haoran.

Meng’s poem gives us some insight into why his career was brief.

Lake Dongting

Lake Dongting (洞庭湖) in northeastern Hunan Province is well-known as a flood plain of the Yangtze River. In August, the lake water and blue sky combine in an airy mist. In the morning and in the evening, the sun shining on the watery crystals hanging in the air presents an other worldly view.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling (張丞相) was a minister to Emperor Xuanzong, and himself a noted poet. In line six, Meng explains that living an easy life would bring shame and disgrace on Zhang who is after all a brilliant master 聖明.

Literally the title of the poem is Gazing at Lake Dongting, a gift, 贈, to Prime Minster Zhang, 張丞相. The Pinyin translation reveals the rhyme of the characters (Zèng zhāng chéngxiàng).


aaba baba






Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng

yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

architecture China, wood roof

Zhang Jiuling – Thoughts I

high flying goose zhang jiuling thoughts

How the mighty have fallen

Zhang Jiuling experienced a fall from power. Once high counselor to the Emperor Xuanzong, possessing the honorific title of Count Wenxian of Shixing, he found himself the subject of palace intrigue, and, by 737, demoted and sent to distant Jingzhou (荆州), on the banks of the Yangtze River, in Hubei, China.

Zhang died three years later, but not before giving us his thoughts on his fall from his lofty perch.

Thoughts, First of Four
A lonely swan comes from the sea
Not daring to land on lake or pond
Looking aside, he spies a pair of kingfishers
Nesting on a three-pearled tree
Bravely resting at the tree’s summit
Have they no fear of slingshots?
Beautiful clothes invite pointing fingers
And, the high and wise face an evil god
For what is there for hunters to admire?

Original Chinese Characters




Gǎn yù sì shǒu zhī yī

gū hónghǎi shànglái
chí huáng bù gǎn gù
cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo
cháo zài sān zhūshù
jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān
dé wú jīnwán jù
měi fú huàn rén zhǐ
gāomíng bī shén è
yì zhě hé suǒ mù

Thoughts on Thoughts by Zhang Jiuling

Philosophers and poets imagine themselves as solitary swans (孤 鴻) flying high above the earth. They come from far away places, (海上來, coming from the sea) to serve the emperor. (Zhang himself was born in Guangdong, South China province, on the coast of the South China Sea.)

Having come from such a great body of water, how can the swan satisfy himself with a mere lake or pond?

The brightly colored kingfisher is common in China. Its colorful plumage makes it a popular subject of paintings, no doubt, looked at and admired greatly by an adoring public. The Three Pearl Tree (三珠樹) is a specific reference beyond my ability to identify. If I had to make an educated guess, it would be the Chinese Pearl-Bloom Tree with its beautiful white flowers.

The world is possessed of both good spirits and bad spirits. It is the bad spirits who admire (慕, admire, long for, desire) and hunt the high and the mighty (高明, literally those who are high and wise, clear-sighted). It is tempting to say “high and mighty” but that doesn’t quite express Zhang’s belief that one’s highest duty to the emperor is to behonest.

Note. A link to the Chinese Pearl-Blossom Tree.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), A Man of Much Substance (博物)

Thoughts 3 – Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling composed 4 Thoughts that were incorporated in the Book of 300 Tang Poems. Gentle reader, I give you two translation of Zhang Jiuling’s Thoughts 3:

Thoughts 3 – Zhang Jiuling
Alone in his abode, a quiet man, cleansed of care, composes his thoughts,
And projects them to the soaring goose, because it will bear his feeling.
Day and night, I conceive this empty prayer
Flying and falling, it is comfort enough that I am honest

Or something more poetic …

One man alone
Composes his thoughts, cleansed of care,
Then he projects them to the highest goose
To his distant Lord to bear.
Who will be moved by my sincerity,
By my daily prayer?
What comfort for my loyalty and honesty
When birds and the vile low-life are compared?

wild geese in a golden sky

Heed my warning, execute An Lushan

Some scholars reckon that this poem was written in 738 AD, two years before Zhang Jiuling died. If so, gentle reader, then these words have flown 1,280 years in time to you. Zhang could not have known that you would be reading his words. What poet does?

Alone in their rooms, alone with their thoughts, why do poets write?

When Zhang wrote these words, his career had soared high then crashed, flew then fell.

At the peak of his career, three years earlier, in 735, he was given the honorific title Jinzi Guanglu Daifu (金紫光祿大夫), the emperor’s close minister, and created the Count of Shixing. His nickname was Bowu (博物) meaning broadly knowledgeable and erudite. But nothing lasts forever, and success breeds jealousy and others plot.

One year before writing the poem, Zhang advised Emperor Xuanzong to execute General An Lushan for failing to follow orders. Zhang’s honesty cost him political favor, the Emperor disagreed, and Zhang was demoted and would die soon thereafter while visiting the tomb of his parents.

If the Emperor had only listened to the honest words of Zhang. General An Lushan, of course, is the one individual responsible for the devastating rebellion that would cover the years 755 to 763. Zhang’s foresight would have save the Tang dynasty form millions of deaths, famine and disorder.

In the midst of the rebellion, the emperor’s son, the new Emperor Suzong, would recall Zhang’s warning and issue an edict honoring his father’s old counselor.

Original Chinese

幽人归独卧, 滞虑洗孤清

持此谢高鸟, 因之传远情

日夕怀空意, 人谁感至精

飞沈理自隔, 何所慰吾诚


Yōu rén guī dú wò, zhì lǜ xǐ gū qīng,

chí cǐ xiè gāo niǎo, yīn zhī chuán yuǎn qíng.

Rìxī huái kōng yì, rén shéi gǎn zhì jīng

fēi chén lǐ zì gé, hé suǒ wèi wú chéng


As always, I am the first to say that there may be errors in my translation. A broad understanding of language, history, and culture are necessary to achieve a modicum of success.

Line one, 幽人, is often translated as “hermit” but I think solitary man is more accurate. Clearly, Zhang is writing this poem, having been demoted for being honest, and expressing his personal feelings.

Line two, 高鸟, high bird, is sometimes translated as wild goose. Here, it is likely a metaphor for the emperor who soars high above his subjects. One could substitute a wild goose, but that matter, it could be an eagle or a crane, both of which achieve high altitudes in flight.

Line three, 日夕, day and night. “Always” works too.

Line three, second stanza, I admit taking some liberties with the Chinese characters. Google says, “People who feel the essence,” but that seems to me an interpretation lost in translation.

Line four, 飞沈, to fly and fall, is a bit confusing. 飞沈, Perhaps it is a simple as to rise and fall in one’s career.  What compares to the thrill of the bird in flight, rising and falling? 飞沈理自隔, 何所慰吾诚,

I need to give this final thought more thought.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling, (張九齡); Count Wenxian of Shixing (始興文獻伯), Tang Dynasty poet, and honest chancellor to Emperor Xuanzong

Orchid and Orange, 2


Zhang Jiuling’s title for this poem 感 遇 (gǎn​ yù) means a sigh, a lament in gratitude for good fortune, and not, as it is given, Orchid and Orange. There is an orange tree in the poem and a peach and a plum, but no orchid, so go figure.

I cannot argue with a thousand years of tradition, but I think the title should be, Gratitude for Good Fortune. A few other notes can await a reading of Zhang’s poem.

Gratitude for Good Fortune, 2

Here, in Jiangnan, grows a red orange tree.
Through the winter its leaves are green,
Could it be the soil is warm?
Or perhaps because it has a heart that’s cold
Can you suggest my honorable guest
Why this is so profound?
One’s fate is only chance
And an endless circle is not what we should seek
It is to no avail, I say, to plant your peach tree or your plum
And forget these trees are hidden by the shade

Chinese and Pinyin







Jiāngnán yǒu dān jú,
jīng dōng yóu lùlín

qǐ yī dì qì nuǎn?
Zì yǒu suì hánxīn

kěyǐ jiàn jiā kè,
nàihé zǔ zhòng shēn?

Yùn mìng wéi suǒ yù,
xúnhuán bùkě xún

tú yán shù táolǐ,
cǐ mù qǐ wú yīn


One wonders whether the orange, the peach and the plum are diminished or nourished by the taller trees.

Line one is beautifully phonetic, Jiāngnán yǒu dān jú, a slight play on words for, in Jiangnan, one is lucky and wealthy as the color red is a symbol of wealth. One cannot miss the phonetic similarity between the poet’s name Zhang Jiuling and Jiāngnán yǒu dān jú.

Zhang is lucky. Unfortunately, his luck would change and he would fall out of favor with the emperor. Alas, fate is only chance.

A couple of other points.

Line one states that the author is in Jiangnan. Literally, this is South of the River. In China it is a specific place name. The river is the mighty Yangtze and the place is Jiangnan, which includes several provinces and the city of Shanghai and Zhenjiang. Here the people are wealthy, the weather warm.

For the New Year, one plants an orange before your door. Recall, in Chinese, the word for orange, 橘 jú, sound like the word for luck 吉 jí. The plum and peach are also symbolic. The plum is winter’s friend, the peach a symbol of immortality, together they represent youth.

To Minister Zhang While Gazing at Lake Dongting

Note. Minister Zhang Jiuling held several important posts under Emperor Xuanzong, including head of the imperial library, minister of public works, and commandant of various prefectures. The ancient reader of this poem, acquainted with the history of the imperial court, would know that Minister Zhang fell from favor with the emperor and was dismissed.

Thus, a brilliant master like Zhang could not always count on a life of ease.

Zhang was himself a noted poet. Five of his poems are included in the anthology of Three Hundred Tang Poems. See for instance Orchid and Orange I.

To Minister Zhang while gazing at Lake Dongting 

The lake is full in the eighth moon,
The water blends with the sky
The march mist rises in a cloud-like dream,
While waves pound against Yueyang’s walls
Alas, I have no boat with which to cross.
A brilliant master is shamed with a life of ease
Still I sit and watch an angler release his hook,
And envy those the fish they catch.

fog and mist and rolling waves

Notes on the Meng Haoran’s translation; or what is wisdom to a hungry sage?

August is a rainy month in most of China. Meng does not mention this, but it is also the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Yueyang (岳陽) is both a city and a prefecture located in Hunan province on the eastern shore of the Yangtze River bordering Dongting Lake in the south. Dongting Lake is a shallow flood basin whose size depends on the time of year. Yueyang Tower is a well known site, standing at the west gate of the Yueyang city wall, looking down at Dongting Lake, and linking the Yangtze River to the north with the Xiangjiang River to the south.

Line six, 聖明, may be translated as enlightened sage, august wisdom, and brilliant master, this last choice probably applies to Minister Zhang, the person Meng is addressing. Meng wrote at least three other poems in which the name Zhang appears. From the poem, To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, and other poems, we may conclude they shared fish and a drink or two.

Original Chinese and Pinyin




Wàng dòngtíng hú zèng zhāng chéngxiàng

Mèng Hàorán

bā yuè hú shuǐpíng
hán xū hùn tài qīng
qì zhēng yún mèng zé
bō hàn yuèyáng chéng
yù jì wú zhōují
duān jū chǐ shèngmíng
zuò guān chuídiào zhě
tú yǒu xiàn yú qíng

Other translations

I am intrigued by the wide variation in translations of Tang poetry. Here is a translation for comparison. There are others.

An English translation by E. C. Chang

lake china

Orchid and Orange 1

bamboo orchid

Zhang Jiuling 感 遇 其

Each flower blossoms in its season, each flower has its place. And so the hermit in the forest seeks nothing more than to be allured by sweet winds and contented with natural beauty.


A tender orchid-leaf in spring,
And a cinnamon-blossom bright in autumn
Are each as self-contained as life itself,
Which conforms them to a season.
Then why should you think that a forest-hermit,
Allured by sweet winds and contented with beauty,
Would no more ask to be transplanted
Than any other natural flower?





Lán yèchūnwēi ruí,
guì huá qiū jiǎojié
xīnxīn cǐ shēngyì,
zì ěr wèi jiājié
shéi zhī lín qī zhě,
wén fēng zuò xiāng yuè
cǎomù yǒu běn xīn,
hé qiú měirén zhé

Thoughts on Orchid and Orange, I

One must begin with the caveat that all translations are inherently suspect, including this one.

I begin with the poem’s title, Orchid and Orange.

Zhang Jiuling’s actual title is 感 遇 其, which translates something like, “the sense (feeling) of it.” Orchid and Orange come from the first two lines of the poem and the beauty in assonance. 蘭 (Lán), the orchid, or precisely Cymbidium, a particular variety of orchid that is much prized and cultivated. 桂 (Gui), the Osmanthus, a bush or small tree, none variety of which has orange blossoms, but others are bright white.

Zhang Jiuling

Zhang Jiuling (678–740) was mentioned in several poems by Meng Haoran.  He was a member of the Chinese literati class, with its hierarchy and system of advancements, primarily by examination, but also by means of court favor. For purposes of the poem the literati should be compared with the ascetic Confucian hermits who were by definition loners living in the mountains and forests.

Zhang Jiuling was for a period commandant of the city of Guilin, famous for its fragrant flowering Osmanthus and as a destination for Buddhist monks in pursuit of enlightenment.

The phonetic similarity of Guilin and Jiuling is a fitting.

Losing Favor

Zhang was a chancellor and an out-spoken advisor to Emperor Xuanzong.

A question arose as to the fate of General An Lushan. Zhang favored execution. The emperor disagreed and eventually demoted Zhang from his post.Zhang retired from public life and died in 740.

After his death, General An Lushan rebelled, the emperor fled the capital to the mountains of Sichuan ,and passed the throne to his son. The new emperor, remembering Zhang’s warning, honored him posthumously.



Osmanthus 桂 and Cymbidium 蘭

蘭 (Lán) is the Cymbidium, a large orchid that blossoms in spring in an array of colors, a symbol of the horticulturalist’s virtuosity and a dream to propagate.

蘭 葉 春 葳 蕤

Cymbidium verdant in spring is luxuriant with blooms

桂 (Gui) is the Osmanthus that blooms in August. It is a small tree or bush, cultivated in pots, a symbol of love and romance. Osmanthus is also known as sweet osmanthus, sweet olive, tea olive. Its tiny bright flowers range in color from white to orange. Gui has a double meaning, referring also to expensive or valued, and to a clan of former rulers. There is a well-known city called Guilin which means “fragrant forest”, referring to its many fragrant Osmanthus trees. Guilin was a destination for Buddhist monks.

桂 華 秋 皎 潔

Osmanthus flower in autumn blooms bright


So what do I come up with?

A cymbidium, so luxuriant in spring as the
Sweet olive which blossoms bright in autumn
Each as self-contained as life,
Which keeps to its season.
So why do you think that a forest-hermit,
Seduced by sweet winds and surrounded with beauty,
Would wish to be displaced
More so than any other forest-flower?

Can one truly get a sense of the feeling of nature? Would one who enjoys the forest and nature want to be transplanted to the city?

Will I come back to this? Or will I enjoy the beauty of the blossom and leave it at that? Some thoughts are ineffable.

Could it be the thought is nothing more than this:

Would you think that a forest-hermit, well-content with the beauty of his home, would favor less a natural setting than a forest-orchid?

And for fun let’s say it in French:

 Pense-tu qu’un ermite de forêt, bien content de la beauté de sa gîte, favoriserait moins un cadre naturel qu’une orchidée de forêt?