Gazing at the Mountain

Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “You can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pocket.” I like that. It takes hard work, one rung at a time, and sometimes, one needs to grab the foot that is just ahead and give it a yank.


A young Chinese scholar is about to take his imperial examinations. The future depends on it and he is jittery. Success is not a sure. In some years no students were passed, and Du Fu was in this group.

Wang Yue, “Gazing at the Mountain,” is one of Du Fu’s earliest poems.

It was written in 735 or 736 close in time to when Du Fu took his Jinshu examinations. As part of the examination, the candidate submitted a poem. There is no evidence for it, but this might have been the poem submitted by Du Fu. To “gaze at the mountain” is a metaphor for the challenge that stood before Du Fu. Success the goal and from the summit he could look down upon the thousands of others waiting their turn.

Is it optimism he expresses or the bravado of youth? Or is it the Greek quality of hubris that inevitably lead to defeat and downfall? Du Fu would fail his examination and his claim as one of finest poets of the Tang dynasties would take time.

Mount Tai or Tai’shen is a sacred mountain and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The long winding stairway to the summit and the Temple to the God of Taishan and from the Azure Cloud Temple is a famous pathway.


Mt Tai

Gazing at the mountain

Preparing to climb Mt. Tai

Zhao and Jiang all around me a distant blue

The God of Time bestows Good fortune  and

Yin and Yang are balanced as the light of dawn

I bare my breast at the layers of clouds

From the corner of my eye to catch the sight of flying birds

On my struggle to reach the top

And see all the small hills in one glance?

There are other translations. There always are. Often they differ in word and meaning, revealing our difficulties in understanding the voice of another human being from different culture and time.

Daniel Hsieh of Purdue University has given us his interpretation. Another one by All Poetry perhaps, better catches the poet’s meaning. I repeat it, for educational purposes.

For all this, what is the mountain god like?
An unending green of lands north and south:
From ethereal beauty Creation distills
There, yin and yang split dusk and dawn.

Swelling clouds sweep by. Returning birds
Ruin my eyes vanishing. One day soon,
At the summit, the other mountains will be
Small enough to hold, all in a single glance.

望 岳

岱 宗 夫 如 何

齐 鲁 青 未 了

造 化 钟 神 秀

阴 阳 割 昏 晓

荡 胸 生 层 云

决 眦 入 归 鸟

会 当 凌 绝 顶

一 览 众 山 小


Life’s illusion


Lost in Translation

Beware of translations. They often miss the meaning of the words. But the greater sorrow is that they do they convey the sense of rhyme and meter. So too with this poem by poet Du Mu, which is often translated as Dispelling Sorrow, but whose literal meaning is The Awakening.

The Awakening

What little we know here is that an older Du Mu (遣 怀) is recalling his heavenly days with the girls of Chu in Yangzhou. Ten years later he awakes to these thoughts with a bottle of wine and little else to show.

杜牧 The Awakening




Down on my luck, wine in hand…

Oh, those slim girls of Chu,

So tiny they could dance in the my palm of my hand.

Ten years later and I waken from a dream of Yangzhou,

among the corteseans, I was capricious.



Yangzhou (扬 州), which lies on the north side of the Yangtze, was one of the wealthiest cities in China, famous for its merchants, poets, beautiful women, and scholars. During the An Lushan Rebellion, it was the scene of a massacre of foreign merchants.

Dispelling Sorrow


These two characters are usually translated as “dispelling sorrow”. Literally, the letters translate as waking up. Other translations include, My lament and My confession. I suppose any of them work. The author is after all a Rip Van Winkle character, awaking from a dream with only a memory and a sorry reputation. So, with that in mind I give it the title, Life’s Illusion.

Courtesans in China

I refer to a Chinese house of prostitution as a “blue” house. 青 is the Chinese character and may mean blue or green, or bluish green. 青楼 is a greenish-blue house. I suspect, without certainty, that Du Mu is referencing “nature’s color” along with “youth” and “passion”.

“Prostitute” is not an accurate translation, “courtesan” is closer to the mark.

One should be mindful that a Tang prostitute was often held in high regard.  This is not a brothel as we understand it.  Living quarters contained spacious halls with exquisite furnishings, and grounds with artificial hills and ponds.  Therefore, a young man might consider himself as being in paradise.

Why, there were even Tang poets who were courtesans.

it is easier to find the rarest treasure
than to love for our own pleasure
by day, we weep our secret tears
among the flowers, we hide our breaking hearts
and if we can have great poets for friends
should we also long for handsome lovers?
Yu Xuan Ji

Note. I will come back to this poem a month from now. The meaning will in all likelihood be entirely different. This is not a comment on the finality of poetry, but rather its ephemeral nature, and beauty.

Garden of the Golden Valley of Shi Chong



The Golden Valley near Lyoung, was where Emperor Wu’s wealthy offical, Shi Chong had his luxurious villa in the midst of “clear springs and verdant woods”. Life is impermanent, and political disaster descended upon Shi Chong’s paradise. Green Pearl, his favorite concubine, threw herself from a tower.

Du Mu wrote this quatrain 500 years later.



The Garden of the Golden Valley

Du Mu



A. C. Graham has given us the sense of Du Mu’s poem set in paradise – a tragic death, love lost, time passing, and beauty fading into dust. I repeat his words here with a few changes:

Scattered pomp has turned to scented dust
Streaming waters know no care, grass spreads and claims spring as its own
At sunset, an East Wind carries the sound of crying birds
Petals on the ground are her likeness still, beneath the tower where she fell

Original translation by A. C. Graham

Others have given different interpretations, suggesting that it is glory that fades, or prosperity that does not last, or sweet love too soon turned to dust.

The Chinese characters 繁华 suggest a sense of bustling prosperity and Shi Chong was certainly one of the most prosperous men of his time who took pleasure in displaying his wealth to others. This in time is scattered 散 like fragrant dust, 香尘. Metaphors make for powerful images. The character 香 may be translated as a joss stick, and 尘 as dust. So we have the image of something sweet and beautiful now become perfumed ashes.

Life continues on.

The rivers flow to the sea, the grasses reclaim what was once a garden. At twilight 日暮 an East Wind 东风 blows. The symbolism of the East Wind is not lost on Du Mu. It is the harbinger of spring, but it is also the idea of something that is perfect in all aspects but for one thing. Du Mu’s perfect garden was lost because of his political association and the enemies he made along the way.

On his way to execution, Shi Chong remarked that it was his wealth others sought, not his love of Green Pearl. He was then asked, if knowing this, why had he not given away his wealth?

The most powerful metaphor remains, the beautiful Green Pearl lying beneath the tower wall, like the fallen petals of a flower 落花.

Orchid and Orange 1

感 遇 其

Orchid and Orange I, by Zhang Jiuling.

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?

I will begin with the caveat that all translations are inherently suspect, including this one.

I begin with the title of the poem, Orchid and Orange.

Some one seems to have settled on this because of assonance and not for literary accuracy.  Zhang Jiuling’s title is 感 遇 其, which comes out something like, “the sense (feeling) of it”. Perhaps we have ended up with Orchid and Orange because of the comparison in the first two lines between two plants, one cultivated for its beauty, the other natural in its cultivation, but none the less beautiful. For that matter, the title could have been, Orchid and Osmanthus, a bit obscure, better yet, Cymbidium and Osmanthus, which makes it sound like two Greek words, which in fact they are, and points out why translations are suspect.

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 Juiling

The Confucian Zhang Juiling (678–740) 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 Juiling 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 the Guilin and Juiling is a fitting coincidence.

Zhang was a blunt and out-spoken advisor to the emperor. When asked about what to do with the captured rebel An Lushan, Zhang favored execution. The emperor disagreed and eventually demoted Zhang from his post. A new rebellion ensued, the emperor fled to the mountains of Sichuan and passed the throne to his son. The new emperor remembering Zhang’s advice and warnings, honored him posthumously.


I admit that this Tang poem is beyond my ability to translate Chinese into English. The prevalent translation of Zhang Jiuling’s poem is:


Tender orchid-leaves in spring
And cinnamon-blossoms bright in autumn
Are as self-contained as life is,
Which conforms them to the seasons.
Yet why will you think that a forest-hermit,
Allured by sweet winds and contented with beauty,
Would no more ask to-be transplanted
Than Would any other natural flower?

Original Chinese.


 桂 Osmanthus and 蘭 Cymbidium

桂 (Gui), Osmanthus blooms in August, a bush or small tree that is cultivated in pots, and 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

By contrast, 蘭 (Lán), Cymbidium is a large orchid that blossoms in spring in an array of colors. It is 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

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?

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.

Drinking Alone beneath the Moon



Li Bai*

Li Bai (701 – 762) was friends with Du Fu, but on this night when he composed this poem he was alone with a pot of wine; for companions he had the moon, his shadow and his thoughts.

There is a story, there always is, that Li Bai, glass of wine in hand, drowned in a river when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection. Some say the river was the Yangtze, the mother river of China. Some say he went to keep his appointment with the moon and the stars.

Some say Li Bai died at home in bed in Anlu (now in Hubei province).


One could translate the title of Li Bai’s poem variously as Drinking alone beneath the Moon or Under the Moon Alone and Pouring Wine. The latter is a more literal translation. I say “more” literal in the sense that all translations are imperfect. The pouring and drinking of wine is also a deliberate act in which one considers and ponders the mysteries of the world.




Pouring Wine  (“literally” wine pouring, drinking, considering, deliberating)


Between the flowers from a pot of spirits
I drink alone. There is no one with me
Till, I raise my cup inviting the moon
To bring my shadow and make us three.
The moon, alas, can not drink
So my shadow only drinks with me;
But still for a while I have these friends
Happy that it must be Spring
I sing while the moon wanders off.
I dance. My shadow becomes disorderly
Awake from time to time we bosom three
Until I get drunk, and so, we lose each other
And this never ending wandering passion
Expecting to meet them at a distant time in the Cloudy Stars.

I feel my translation trails off the path in the middle and is lost in the brush at the end.

Take for instance, the second to last line


The first three characters:


may translate as “never ending” or “neverending” if one treats it as an adjective modifying,

an emotion that extends from love to passion and borders on kindness

comes out as “tour” but one could also choose wander, travel, …

The cloudy stars could be the Milky Way, but that would not be true to the Chinese.


  • image of Li Bai, Encyclopedia Britannica, original image of the moon, Pixabay

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”.



Traveling by Night


Traveling by Night

Slender grass, a faint breeze along the shore.
The tall mast of a solitary boat at night.
Far-flung stars hang o’er the flat-wide plain.
Moonbeams bounce on the Yangtze’s waves.
How does an old man with a pen gain fame?
When age and illness overcome his spirit, retire.
Drifting through this life – what have I become
Between heaven and earth, a seagull upon the wind.

Traveling by Night

Between the shores of slender grass at night, a slight breeze stirs to move the mast of this solitary boat. The wide-flung stars overhead seem to touch the wide-flat plains. The moon seems to swim upon the Yangtse waves.

What literary honors can I achieve? Old age and illness have overcome my spirit, let me retire. Drifting through this life – what have I become. Between heaven and earth, a lonely seagull upon the wind.


Notes on Du Fu and Thoughts while Traveling by Night, 旅 夜 書 懷

There are dozens of translations of Du Fu’s Thoughts while Traveling at Night. Even the title of the poem is variously given as – Written, Reflections, Thoughts, and so on. The exact words are not important. Literal translations ineffective in conveying the meaning of the writer. It is the image beheld and the emotion experienced that is important.

The poem is number 113 in the collection 300 Tang Poems. It is also known by its first line: 細草微風岸 (Xì Cǎo Wēi Fēng Àn), [slender] [grass] [tiny] [wind] [shore]. gives the Chinese and a translation.

Du Fu has not given us the time of year. However, one senses the season must be advanced as the writers age and it is at least fall, if not winter. In speaking of the wide-flat plains, Du Fu is perhaps referencing the Sichuan Basin, famous for its rice cultivation and “slender grass”.

Du Fu is also known by the name Tu Fu. Having failed the Civil Service Examination, he mostly led an itinerant life, writing poetry about the famine, political unrest, loss of life and personal tragedy he witnessed and endured during and after the the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, a rebellion that spanned the reigns of three emperors. Eventually, he settled in Sichuan, where he lived in a cottage with his wife and children and wrote many poems describing a happier life.

Zhang Mingfu

winter-fenceA Cold Evening’s Feast at Zhang Mingfu’s
by Meng Haoran
A lucky first snow falling a full foot,
Evening eases in, and just at midnight’s nigh.
Mats arrayed, we wine companions beg
To cut the candle to a poem’s length.
Warmed by the fragrant golden ashes of the stove,
Her jade fingers pluck the lute strings clear,
And just then, befuddled, I wish to fall asleep,
Surprised awake by the cock’s cry.

The Morning After at Zhang Mingfu
Morning is a distant light that
Reveals ghostly figures in the naked trees
I open the window and shout
Except for the cry of the cock
The snow still blows
Against Zhang Mingfu’s house
In go to the stove,
Where the silver white ashes are cold
And though I toss inside a sparrow’s nest and wood,
Then blow
No ember lights the flame

A cracked wine cup, an empty plate
Lie scattered on a wine stained mat
On the stool a silk scarf scented jasmine
The remains of
The girl whose face was white as snow
My companions gone
And when the cock-a-doodle-do
Fades to nothingness
I am alone

Geshu Han

Geshu Han

A fanjiang in the service of the Tang
He is eight feet in height
His eyes are hard and purple as the Amethyst
His hair bristles like the hedgehog
Before his troops and mounted on his sturdy horse
He roars like a tiger
And scatters the enemy like sheep

Geshu Han on the vast Tibetan plain
The seven stars of the Dipper shine down
Like gods they smile or frown
At what they cannot change
At night Geshu Han carries his sword
The year is old, the days are short
The Tibetans have gone south
With their herds of horses and yak
Afraid to venture past Linyao

Tonight, across the valley the campfires grow cold
White tents flap in the breeze
And Geshu Han puts away his feather pen and folds his poem
He places it in his coat next to his heart
They cannot hurt him now

Tomorrow, Geshu Han heads north with 200,000 troops
To confront Cui Qianyou and An Lushan
At Tong Pass


Note. The original poem is attributed to an anonymous soldier in the west.