Zu Yong, 祖詠

Zu Yong, 祖詠 is for the most part a shadowy figure of the Tang dynasty.

His dates of birth and death are given as 699 to 746, or thereabout. His place of birth uncertain and place of death unknown. So too Is the courtesy name, or pen name. It is said with some confidence that he took the imperial examination in 724 and passed.

There is also a story that circulates that he composed his well-known poem On Seeing Snow-capped Zhongnan as part of the examination process. This early poem reveals dark side:

…The forest shines bright after the snow clears, but below in the twilight the city grows cold.

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A gloomy disposition does not foretell a bright future, especially when the city one is speaking of is Chang’an, the Tang capital. And Zu Yong appears not to have take to administrative life.

The poet Wang Wei was a lifelong friend. Zu Yong stayed with Wang Wei (presumably at his Lantian Retreat near Mt. Zhongnan) before his departing the capital, composing several poems in tribute to his friend, and writing letters thereafter. A poem composed at the time of their parting includes the couplet:

A clasp of the hands, words unspoken; such sorrow is parting.

Wòshǒu yán wèi bì, què lìng shāng bié lí.


Wang Wei wrote, Sòng bié, 送别, addressed to a departing friend, who is not identified, perhaps Zu Yong.

Friend, I watched you walk down the mountain, til dusk darkened my door.
Spring grass next year will be green, Dear Friend will you return?

Shān zhōng xiāng sòng bà, rì mù yǎn chái fēi. Chūn cǎo míng nián lǜ, wáng sūn guī bù guī.

山中相送罢, 日暮掩柴扉。春草明年绿, 王孙归不归。

See notes below.


Zu Yong’s career in retirement is marked by lonliness as demonstrated by the poem Rufen’s My Fate, my translation. Rufen is variously identified as a place in Anhui Province, formerly part of Henan, Ru is also associated with the River Ru, Rufen sometimes becomes the tomb by the river. Bie Ye may mean farewell. Wang Wei uses the term in his poem Zhongnan Farewell (bie ye). In Buddhist philosophy, 別業, bié yè is associated with karma, which in English is usually translated as fate. I would suggest that what is meant is an “unintended consequence of a prior act”. I will however leave it to the Gentle Reader to draw their own conclusions.

Rufen’s my fate: My Way is lost, I am a farmer, Home is Rufen, alone and worried, wasting paper, a long illness, becoming an outlier.

Rǔ fén bié yè: Shī lù nóng wèi yè, yí jiā dào rǔ fén. Dú chóu cháng fèi juǎn, duō bìng jiǔ lí qún.

汝墳別業: 失路農為業,移家到汝墳。獨愁常廢卷,多病久離群。

Thirty-six of his poems are collected in Book 131 of the Quan Tangshi (Complete Tang Poems). Many of these written in the Wuefu style of two quatrains of five characters with alternating verses. These can be found in Chinese at the following site, which is part of a Chinese Text Project: https://ctext.org/quantangshi/131.

Wang Wei to Zu

In To Honorable Zu Yong, 赠 祖 三 咏, Wang Wei writes of their 20 year friendship, coping with separation, Zu Yong’s poverty and sickness, and the hope to meet again, but the obstacles to such a meeting:

Lately, I have your recent letter
A thousand li away, you are blocked by a river near a closed mountain pass.
Your letter said, you were a guest at Rufen near the Ying River
Last year you returned home…

[I have translated San in the title as an honorific and not “three”. Today, this is more of Japanese custom than Chinese. Its use in Tang China is unclear.]