too young to know what sorrow is


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




Read French translation of in her quiet window


A lonely wild goose

A strange comparison indeed, Cher sings, Sooner or later, We all Sleep Alone, and Cui Tu’s poem, A Solitary Wild Goose, the story of a wandering wild goose, woefully crying, seeking a home.

A lonely wild goose

line after line after line after line
flies back over the border
and you, by yourself, saying its fine
as it rains
evening comes and you call
with no answer
so, you alight at night, slowly
on an icy and frozen pond, above
faster than you clouds, heavy and wet, move
towards the mountains and wintry moon…
if you suffered the archer’s arrow and streamer,
could it be worse than going alone?

Cui Tu (traditional Chinese) was born in 854. His death went unrecorded. His lifetime spanned the events leading up to the end of the Tang dynasty in 907, natural disasters — alternate floods and drought – accompanied by major rebellions.

Twice yearly, Cui Tu must have observed the annual migration of the wild geese. In the spring, when the weather warms, the geese fly north, line after line, beyond the mountains, beyond the northern borders, beyond the purple passes to a foreign land, to a place beyond the ken of the poet. This migration is then repeated in the winter when the geese return, and fly south in search of a warmer and safer home.

Woe, the solitary goose cries out to his fleeing companions and attempts to bear the cold northern winds alone.

Original Chinese Characters –




Jǐ xíng guī sāi jǐn,

piàn yǐng dú hé zhī?

Mùyǔ xiāng hū shī,

hán táng yù xià chí.

Zhǔ yún dī àn dù,

guān yuè lěng xiāng suí.

Wèibì féng zēng jiǎo,

gū fēi zì kěyí

An examination of the pinyin, reveals an abundance of rhyme that is lost in translation. I have also abandoned form and structure in a attempt to give the poem some of Cui Tu’s resonance.

What, you ask, does any of this have to do with Cher? It is obvious to the wild goose and Cher.


Thoughts on New Years Eve – Cui Tu

The end of the old year, the beginning of a new one, a new poet, Cui Tu. What will the new year bring?

The road to Ba is a long, long, long way
Still, I am making this fearful journey of ten thousand li
At night in the melting snow beneath the jagged mountains
A stranger alone in a strange land
Gradually growing more distant from family and friends
Becoming closer to my companions instead
How does one bear moving from place to place
When tomorrow will be the New Year?

The Chinese Lunar New Year will fall on Friday, February 16, 2018. So, I am ahead of myself if I am trying to keep pace with Cui Tu, but on track if one uses the Gregorian calendar.

State of Ba

Cui Tu’s destination was the state of Ba in eastern Sichuan, China. Ba borders the states of Pu, Chu, and Shu. Cui’s final destination is not given. He could have been traveling to the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, the northern Daba Mountains, or the Yungui Plateau to the south, or, just as well, all three. Cui Tu loved to wander.

Chinese mile, Li

The li is a Chinese unit of distance, about 500 meters or 1640 feet.

Other translations

No translation is ever exact and I have taken a liberty or two. American poet Witter Bynner included Thoughts on New Year’s Eve in his translation of Tang poetry, Heng-tʻang-tʻui-shih, The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology (New York: Knopf, 1929.

Original Chinese text



Happiness 幸福

A song of pure happiness, I

I want to believe that
Her clothes are a cloud, her dress a flower that
I could hold in the palm of my hand, and
That the wind of Spring will brush away the dazzling dew
So, that I might see the peak of Jade Mountain
From the platform of a heavenly paradise


I begin by asking myself if happiness exists.

There are few poems on the subject written by the Tang poets. I did come across a series of poems by the poet Li Bai, with the alluring description, A Song of Pure Happiness I, II, and III.

Happiness, most philosophers would say, is an illusive thing. And, the two Chinese characters in the poem’s title 清 平, are usually translated as “pure happiness,” but that is not entirely accurate.

平 is not even close to the Chinese character for happiness. That character is 雙喜. If one is referring to double happiness, then 喜喜, which is often inscribed on jars and vases.

Rather, 平 means peace or calm, but if the world is at peace, then I suppose I would be happy. I also suspect from a philosophical standpoint, and the philosophy here would be Buddhist or Taoist, happiness is not the goal in life. It is ephemeral like the cloud-like gown Li Bai imagines.

There is a little eroticism involved here. I picture Li Bai out for a prowl on the town, a couple of drinks under his woolen tunic, looking up at the balcony, seeing a beautiful girl in silk and becoming enamored.

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain which Li Bai references is a place name, or rather a mythological place name that predates the Tang dynasty.  It is located in the west and it is home to the Queen Mother of the West, who dispensed eternal bliss and a good measure of happiness.

It is also likely that Li Bai’s mention of 會 向, is another place-name, Yáotái, but this will take a little more time to look into than I now have. I will say that tai references a high place from which all of the surroundings may be viewed.


The character for bliss in Chinese is 福, the other half of the two characters that make up happiness, 幸福, literally, lucky to be blissful. One does observe the similarity in the two characters, 平 and 幸, peace and lucky, but that may be just coincidence.

One observes that the world is lucky if it is at peace.

Go figure.

Li Bai’s rhyme scheme is aaba. This and other internal rhymes are sadly lost in translation.

The original Chinese poem

平 調 之 一

雲 想 衣 裳 花 想 容
春 風 拂 檻 露 華 濃
若 非 群 玉 山 頭 見
會 向 瑤 臺 月下 逢

French translation

Voit-il des nuages, et pense à sa robe ; voit-il des fleurs.
Le vent du printemps souffle sur la balustrade embaumée ;
la rosée s’y forme abondamment.
Quand ce n’est pas au sommet du Yu-chan (montagne de jade) qu’il l’aperçoit,
C’est dans la tour Yao-taï qu’il la retrouve, sous les rayons de la lune.

The translation is not mine. It is from 唐 詩 Tang Shi 300 Tang poems. There is a remark in the footnotes that is interesting. Le mont Yu-chan et la tour Yao-taï étaient des lieux célèbres habités par les immortels.


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


farmhouse on the Wei river

Farmhouse on the Wei


While fading light falls on the land
As the cattle and sheep trail down the country lane
An old man stands at the door of his thatched cottage
Leaning on a staff with thoughts of his son, the herd-boy, thinking
Of fluttering pheasants amongst sheaves of wheat
Of silk worms asleep, among half-eaten mulberry leaves
Of farmers returning with hoes hoisted on shoulders
Exchanging words of hello
Oh, how I long for the simple life
And sigh, as I sing the old song,
Oh, to be young again!

Wang Wei spent much of his adult life in seclusion. For a period of time he retreated retreat to the mountains, just south of the Tang capital, Chang-an. The Wei River that he writes about here was was one of the early cradles of Chinese civilization, a tributary of the Yellow River, an obvious play on Chinese characters for the poet.

Wang Wei was well known for his shanshui, or mountains and rivers, poetry and his poems were often written to be presented with his art work.

The title, 渭 川 田 家, literally, Wei River farm house.

The penultimate line, 悵 然 吟 式 微, a play on word for Wang Wei’s capture in the capital Chang’an by the An Shi rebels. The first two characters, literally respectfully correct, by a homophone for Chang’an, the capital city that the rebels captured.

The last two charcters, 式微, shì wēi, the poetry of Wei or, to decline, again a play on word, which describes his trouble with the imperial court.

The conclusion, 又作至, literally, to do it again.

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.


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


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

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, 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.

Moonlit night

When moonbeams light more than half my house
And the Big Dipper and Southern Star criss-cross
On such a night I sense and smell a warm spring
In a cricket’s sound passing by my green window screen

Geng shen yue se ban ren jia
Bei dou lan gan nan dou xia
Jin ye pian zhi chun qi nuan
Chong sheng xin tou lu chuang sha

月 夜
更 深 月 色 半 人 家
北 斗 闌 干 南 斗 斜
今 夜 偏 知 春 氣 暖
蟲 聲 新 透 綠 窗 沙

Liu Fangping 劉 方 平

Liu (c.742 in Luoyang – c.779) began an official career quite early, but he resigned from office in his thirties to live a hermit’s life. The poem Moonlit night expresses his oneness with nature. 蟲 聲, literally bug sound, but cricket works since the criss-crossing stars imitate the sound of the cricket’s song.

Alternate translation:

Moonlit Night

As moon colors half my house
And the North Star rises and the South Star sets
I can feel in the warm air the first moment of spring
In an insect singing at my green-silk screen


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.


Original Chinese Characters


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


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.