LI HO (790 - 816) Li Ho was of royal blood and began to write poetry in his seventh year. His poetic style was bizarre and quite out of the ordinary, savouring very much of the ghostly world; hence his nick-name, "Poet-Ghost". Each morning he would go out on a horse, followed by a boy carrying a bag on his shoulder. Whenever inspired, he would immediately jot down a few lines at random, to be thrown into the bag. Back home at night, he would sort out what he had written and try to compose complete poems. This practice infuriated his mother who thought his health might be unduly undermined. This turned out to be prophetic for Li Ho died at the age of twenty-seven.
-- from Golden Treasure of Chinese Poetry, Translated by John A. Turner, S.J., Compiled and Edited by John J. Deeney, Renditions Books, 1976.
Song: Li Ping at the Vertical Harp*
Silk from Wu, paulownia from Shu,
Strummed in high autumn,**
In the white sky the frozen clouds
Falling, not floating.
Ladies of the River weeping among bamboos,
The White Girl mournful***
As Li Ping plays his harp
In the centre of the Kingdom.
Jade from Mount Kun is shattered,
Lotuses are weeping dew,
Fragrant orchids smile.
Before the twelve gates of the city
The cold light melts,*****
The twenty-three strings can move
The Purple Emperor******.
Where Nü Gua smelted stones
To weld the sky,+
Stones split asunder, sky startles,
Autumn rains gush forth.
He goes in dreams to the Spirit Mountain
To teach the Weird Crone,++
Old fishes leap above the waves,
Gaunt dragons dance.+++
Wu Ch'i, unsleeping still,
Leans on his cassia tree,++++
As wing-foot dew aslant
Drenches the shivering hare.+++++
* Li Ping was one the emperor's musicians, from the famous Pear-graden School.
** Shu (Si-tzuan) was famous for its tung trees (paulownia), from which these harps were made. Similarly, the best silk came from Wu, in southeast China, which was used to make the strings.
*** The Ladies of the River Hsiang are two daughters of the lengendary Emperor Yao, consorts of the Emperor Shun. Their teardrops, falling on the bamboos growing by the latter's grave, left speckled marks on them. The white Girl played a zither with fifty strings for the Yellow Emperor. The tune she played was so sad that he was forced to break her zither, leaving her with only a twenty-five stringed instrument.
**** Mount Kun-lun was a mythical mountain in the west, said to produce the finest jade. Here the Peaches of Immortality were to be found.
***** Both Chang-an and Luo-yang had twelve gates. The light melts because music had power over the elements.
****** Purple Emperor: one of the three foremost rulers of Heaven.
+ Nü Gua (or Wa) was a goddess with a snake's body, consort of Fu Hsi. When the demon Gong Gong butted his head against the north west pillar of heaven, tilting the earth downwards to the southeast and making a hole in the sky, Nü Gua repaired the hole by fusing minerals of five colours.
++ The Weird Crone was said to have been an expert performer on the vertical harp.
+++ Lie-tzu mentions a certain Hu Ba, who was such a performer on the classical zither that fishes danced and dragons leapt whenever he played.
++++ The line appears to allude to Wu Gang, banished to the moon for being too assiduous in his pursuit of immortality, where he must forever unavailingly try to cut down the cassia tree growing there. The music makes him pause from his endless toil.
+++++ The moon was believed to contain a hare, a toad, and a cassia tree; "shivering hare" is a kenning for "cold moon".
Songs of the Brazen Immortal Bidding Farewell to Han*
In the Mao-ling tomb lies the lad named Liu,
Guest of the autumn wind.**
At night we hear his whinnying horse --
At dawn not a hoof-print there.
From painted balustrades, the cassia trees
Cast down autumnal fragrance.***
Over six-and-thirty palaces grow
The courtiers of Wei harnessed their chariots
To travel a thousand leagues.
The vinegar wind from the eastern passes
Arrowed their eyes.
Vainly bearing the moon of Han
I went out of the palace gates.+
Remembering the emperor, my pure tears
Dropped down like molten lead.
Withering orchids bade them farewell
On the Hsian-yang road.++
If God could suffer as we do
God too would grow old.
Bearing my dew-plate, I journeyed alone
By the light of the cold, wild moon,
Already Wei-cheng lay far behind
And its waters faintly calling.+++
* Han Wu-ti, an emperor of the Han Dynasty, sought ardently for eternal life. He set up a statue of the brazen immortal on top of his Shen-ming tower. "It was placed high on a metal column, holding a bowl to catch the dew; reaching beyond the vile, clogging dust of the world to obtain the limpid elixir of the pure, translucent ether." Wu-ti was accustomed to collect the dew from this vessel and drink it, mixed with powdered jade, in the hope that this would make him immortal. Over three hundred years later, Emperor Ming of Wei tried to have the statue brought to his capital. But it proved too heavy to transport over such a distance; so it was eventually left forlornly standing on the banks of the river Ba, in Shan-hsi, with its dew-plate broken from its hands.
** Han Wu-ti (whose surname was Liu) was buried in the Mao-ling tomb in Hsing-ping county, 80 li northwest of Chang-an. "Guest of the autumn-wind" is a reference to wu-ti's having written a song called Autumn Wind, about the brevity of life. It also suggests that his life was as brief as summer; that he is now one with the dead leaves of autumn; that instead of wine and singing-girls, he now has only the cold wind of autumn to entertain him as it whistles through his bones.
*** Cassia trees are growing among the ruins of balustrades.
**** The thirty-six palaces of Chang-an. "Earth-flowers" means moss.
+ The statue still looks on the moon as belonging to Han, though everything else has been usurped by Wei.
++ Hsian-yang was the ancient capital of Ch'in.
+++ Wei-cheng was the name given by Han to the district around Hsian-yang. The change of names suggests the passing of the dynasties.
Ballad of the Savage Tiger*
(written to music)
No one attacks it with a long lance,
No one plies a strong cross-bow.
Suckling its grandsons, rearing its cubs,
It trains them into savagery.
Its reared head becomes a wall
Its waving tail becomes a banner.
Even Huang from the Eastern Sea,**
Dreaded to see it after dark,
A righteous tiger, met on the road,***
Was quite enough to upset Niu Ai.
What good is it for that short sword
To hang on the wall, growling like thunder?
When from the foot of Tai mountain
Comes the sound of a woman weeping,
Government regulations forbid
Any official to dare to listen.****
* This poem was a satire on oppressive government, of which the tiger was the symbol. Caught between the Central Government and the warlords, the people are harassed as though by tigers.
** Huang, of Eastern Sea, had magical powers which enabled him to control snakes and tigers. Unfortunately for him, he lost those powers through drinking to excess and was eventually killed by a tiger.
*** The Chou-yu was a white tiger with black markings which appeared only when a state was perfectly governed. It would not tread on grain nor eat living things. Niu Ai was a duke turned were-tiger, who ate his own elder brother. The poet is pointing out that some tigers are worse than others.
**** Confucius found a woman weeping at the foot of Mount Tai. Though her whole family had been killed by tigers she refused to leave the district, because there was no oppressive government there. This caused Confucius to remark that an oppressive government was more savage than any tiger.
Willow catkins beat at the curtains,
Under sweltering spring clouds.
Screen of tortoise-shell
And dazzling clothes.
Butterflies from the eastern neighbour
Come fluttering to the west.
Today the young man has returned,
Riding his white steed.
Su Hsiao-hsiao's Tomb*
Dew upon lonely orchids
Like tear-brimmed eyes.
No twining of love-knots,
Mist-wreathed flowers I cannot bear to cut.
Grass for her cushions,
Pines for her awning,
Wind as her skirts,
Water as girdle-jades.
In her varnished carriage**
She is waiting at dusk.
Cold candles, kingfisher-green,
Weary with shining.***
Over the Western Grave-mound
* Su Hsiao-hsiao was a renowned singing-girl from Chian-tang (Hang-chou) who lived during the Southern Chi dynasty (479 - 502). A tomb, said to be hers, in Chia-hsing county, north Tze-chiang, was destroyed by fanatical Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The Tang writer, Li Shen, recounts the story that sounds of music and singing could be heard coming from the tomb on stormy nights.
** Singing-girls rode in carriages with varnished sides. Su's carriage may well have been buried with her.
*** The will-o'-the-wisps are like candles lit for the lovers who will never come. After burning for over 300 years, they seem faint and feeble.
**** In spite of the legend that her lovers visited her on stormy nights, she is waiting in vain. The Western Grave-mound was near Hang-chou.
Walking through the South Mountain Fields
The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.*
Pool-water deep and clear,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
Wilderness fields in October --
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.**
* White was the colour assigned to autumn, being the colour of mourning.
** The will-o'-the-wisps burn as feebly and as sinisterly as the black lacquer lamps placed in tombs.
Lament That the Days Are So Short
(written to music)
Flying lights, flying lights,*
I pledge you a cup of wine.
I do not know if the blue heavens are high,
The yellow earth is rich,
I only see cold moon, hot sun,
Both come to plague us.
Eat bears and you'll grow fat,
Eat frogs and you'll grow thin.**
Where is the Spirit Lady?
Where the Great Unity?***
East of the sky stands the Jo tree,****
Under it a dragon with a torch in its mouth.*****
I'll cut off the dragon's feet,
And eat the dragon's flesh.
Ther morning will not come back again,
Night will not stay.
So old men will not die,
Nor young men weep.
Why should we swallow yellow gold,
Or eat white jade?+
Who is Ren Gong-zi
Riding a white donkey through the clouds?++
Liu Che lies in the Mao-ling tomb,
Just a pile of bones.+++
Ying Zheng lies in his catalpa coffin --
What a waste of abalone.++++
* Flying lights: Sun and moon.
** Bears' paws were a rich man's delicacy; frogs were eaten by the poor.
*** The Spirit Lady was worshipped by Han Wu-ti. The Great Unity was the supreme deity of the Taoist pantheon.
**** The Jo tree is a mythical tree int ehfar west (not the east), the foilage of which gives off a red glow at sunset.
*****Chu-ci, The Heavenly Questions, p.49: "What land does the sun not reach to? How does the Torch Dragon light it?"
+ Yellow gold, white jade are ingredients of the elixirs of life.
++ Ren Gong-zi is an immortal in Chinese legends.
+++ Emperor Wu of Han, an assiduous seeker after immortality, was buried in Mao-ling tomb. Liu Che is his name.
++++ Ying Zheng, another ardent searcher for immortal life, was the notorious First Emperor of Ch'in. He died while on a journey, so his attendents, anxious to conceal his death until they returned to the capital, filled the carriages with abalone to hide the smell of the corpse.
A Ballad of Heaven
The River of Heaven wheels round at night
Drifting the circling stars,
At Silver Bank*, the floating clouds
Mimic the murmur of water.
By the Palace of Jade the cassia blossoms
Have not yet fallen,
Fairy maidens gather their fragrance
For their dangling girdle-sachets.**
The Princess from Ch'in*** rolls up her blinds,
Dawn at the north casement.
In front of the window, a planted kolanut
Dwarfs the blue phoenix.
The King's son plays his pipes
Long as goose-quills,****
Summoning dragons to plough the mist
and plant Jade Grass+.
Sashes of pink as clouds at dawn.
Skirts of lotus-root silk,
They walk on Blue Island++, gathering
Fresh orchids in spring.
She points to Hsi Ho in the east,
Deftly urging his steeds,
While land begins to rise from the sea
And stone hills wear away.+++
* The Silver Bank is part of the River of Heaven (the Milky Way).
** The Palace of Jade, the Cassia Tree, and the fairy maidens are all found in the moon.
*** Lung-yu, daughter of Duke Mu of Ch'in, married the Immortal Wang Tzu-ch'iao (the King's son of line seven).
**** The jade pipes of his sheng (mouth organ) were shaped like goose-quills.
+ Jade Grass: a mythical plant.
++ Blue Island: a legendary island in the Eastern Seas, abode of the Immortal Maidens.
+++ Gods and Immortals can afford to be careless of the passing of time. To them whole epochs, during which land rises out of the sea and sinks back beneath it again, are as nothing.
The King of Ch'in Drinks Wine
Straddling a tiger, the King of Ch'in*
Roams the Eight Poles,**
His glittering sword lights up the sky,
Heaven turns sapphire.
Hsi and Ho whip up the sun***
With the sound of glass,
The ashes of kalpas have flown away,
Past and present at peace.****
From a dragon's head spouts wine+
Inviting the Wine-Stars,
All night the gold-groove zithers
Twang and sing.++
The feet of rain on Dong-ting lake
Come blown on the pipes.
Flushed with wine, he shouts at the moon --
It runs back in its course.
Beneath dense drifts of silver clouds
The jasper hall glows.
The Keepers of the Palace Gate
Cry out the first watch.
In the ornate tower, a jade phoenix sings,
Faltering and sweet.
From ocean-pongee, patterned in crimson,
A faint, cool scent.+++
The yellow beauties reel in their dance.++++
A thousand years with each cup!
As fairy candlesticks waft on high
A light, waxy smoke,
Eyes rapt with wine, those Emerald Lutes
Shed seas of tears.
* King of Ch'in refers to Emperor De-tsong (regnet 779 - 805), rather than the First Emperor of Ch'in.
** Eight Poles: the eight points of the compass.
*** Hsi and Ho were charioteers of the sun.
**** A kalpa was an Indian (later Buddhist) unit of measure. A cosmic cycle of 4,320 million years constituted one kalpa. At the end of each kalpa came a great dissolution, when the universe was reduced to ashes. The reign of De-tsong, the poet is saying, was a time of unexampled prosperity, a new era rising out of the ashes of the old.
+ A large wine-vessel shaped like a dragon spouted wine from its mouth for its guests.
++ The zithers (pi-pa) had golden grooves on their bridges for the strings.
+++ The dancers were clad in ocean-pongee, a rare and costly fabric said to be woven by the mermen or sharkpeople who lived under the sea off the coast of Champa.
++++ "Beautiful girls with yellow make-up."
Song: General Lü
Riding alone on Scarlet Hare**,
Out of the gates of Ch'in***,
To weep at Gold Grain Mound****
By funereal trees.
Rebellion in the north
Stains in the blue sky.
His dragon-sword cries out at night--
But the general's left idle,
To shake his sleeves,
And stroke his cross-guard.
"Round the jade towers of Vermilion City,
A maze of gates and pavilions."*****
Slowly, the silver tortoise swings
To the gait of the white horse.******
A powdered lady-general rides
Under a fiery banner.+
The iron horsemen of Mount Heng
Call for their metal lances.++
They can smell from afar the ornate arrows
In her perfumed quiver.
Cold weeds grow in the western suburbs,
With leaves like thorns,
High heaven has just now planted them,
To feed our thoroughbreds.
In tall-beamed stables, row on row
Of useless nags.
Stuffing themselves on green grass,
Drinking white water.+++
Inscrutable that vaulted azure,
Arching over earth,
This is the way the world wags
In our Nine Provinces.
Gleaming ore from Scarlet Hill++++!
Hero of our time!
Green-eyed general, you well know
The will of Heaven!+++++
* Lü Bu (d. A.D. 198), the great warrior of the Later Han, here stands for some Tang general whom Ho admired, left idle at home while eunuchs mismanaged the imperial armies. The general probably bore the surname Lü.
** Lü Bu's famous steed.
*** Chang-an, the Tang Capital.
**** The tomb of the Tang Emperor Hsiüan (regnet 712-56), ten miles northeast of Pu-cheng. The general, who may have been Commander of the Guards of the Imperial Mausoleum, is weeping over the fallen glories of the dynasty.
***** Eunuchs and women prevent the General from explaining the gravity of the situation to the emperor.
****** During Tang, the handles of official seals were shaped like fish. During Han times the seals had tortoise-shaped handles. Only high officials could wear silver seals.
+ The commander is a eunuch, probably the hated Tu-tu Cheng-cui.
++ Mount Heng, in Hobei, was in territory controlled by the rebel general Wang Cheng-zong.
+++ Ho is once again using his favorite horse metaphor. Good men are left to starve while parasites prey on the court.
++++ At Scarlet Hill in Guei-ji, Zhejiang, Ou-ye Zi once forged swords with copper from the He-ye stream and tin from the mountains.
+++++ The "green-eyed general" was certainly not Chinese.
Song: Do not Dance, Sir!*
The song called Do not Dance, Sir! celebrates the way Xiang Bo protected Liu Pei. The exploits of that warrior at the feast have won such fame that no one was bothered to write of them again. Among the northern and southern ballads, however, there is one song which celebrates his feat. I thought this too crude, so I wrote another song of this title.
Flowers on ancient plinths of stone,
Nine pillars in a row,
Blood of slaughtered leopards dripping
Into silver pots.
Drummers and pipers at the feast,
No zithers or flutes,
Long knives planted in the ground
Split the singing lute.**
Lintels hung with coarse brocade
Of scarlet woof,
Sunlight fades the rich brocade,
The king still sober.***
Three times Yu saw the precious ring
Flash at Fan's belt,
Xiang Zhuang drew sword from scabbard,
And stood before Liu Pei.
"Ensign! Your rank is far too low.
You may not dance.
Our guest is kin to the gods themselves,
A red dragon's seed."+
On Mang and Tang auspicious clouds
Coiled in the heavens,++
In Xian-yang city, the royal aura
Shone clear as water.
Iron hinges, iron barriers
Fettered the passes,
Mighty banners, five fathoms long,
Battered the double gates,+++
"Today the King of Han possesses
The Seal of Ch'in.
Smash my knee-caps, disembowel me,
I shall say no more."++++
* Historical Records, VII, biography of Xiang Yu, relates the story of the struggle for empire between Xiang-yu of Chu and Liu Bang, Lord of Pei, who afterwards became the first Han emperor. Liu Bang's forces had been the first to enter the Ch'in capital, Xian-yang, and take possession of the strategic Han-gu pass. Enraged at this, Xiang Yu was about to attack Liu's forces when he was visited by his rival in his camp at Hong-men. At the feast that followed, Fan Zeng signalled to Xiang Yu with his girdle-pendant, silently asking permission to have Liu killed. When Xiang did not reply, Fan ordered Xiang Zhuang to perform a sword-dance in the course of which he was to kill Liu where he sat. However, as Xiang Zhuang was dancing, Xiang Bo, an uncle of Yu's, leapt up with his sword and joined in the dance, "protecting Liu with his body so that Xiang Zhuang could not smite him." At this juncture Liu's carriage-guard, Fan Kuai, strode into the hall, shouldering aside the sentries, and denounced Yu for attempting to kill his master. Thanks to the intervention of these two men, Liu was able to escape. This episode, as recounted by the historian Si-ma Qian, became so popular that it figured widely in both folk-tales and plays.
** The lute (Zheng), symbol of Chinese culture, could not survive in that barbarous, southern atmosphere.
*** Xiang Yu was still not drunk enough to kill Liu Pei.
+ Historical Records, VI, biograhy of Liu Bang, says he was begotten by a red dragon.
++ The history recounts how the First Emperor of Ch'in heard that "there was an emanation characteristic of a Son of Heaven in the southwest," and set out to destroy Liu Bang who fled and hid himself among the swamps and rocks of Mang and Tang. His wife, however, was able to track him down because wherever he went he was followed by the auspicious cloud mentioned above. Mang was in the old state of Pei, in Honan. Tang was in ancient Liang, in Jiangsu.
+++ These lines describe Liu Bang's capture of the Ch'in capital.
++++ He has put these words in Fan Kuai's mouth, for the Historical Records does not record them. Cutting off the kneecaps and disembowelling were ancient punishments.
Strumming his lute, high on a crag of stone,
Sits an immortal sylph flapping his wings.
White tail-plumes of a simurgh in his hand,
He sweeps the clouds at night from the Southern Hill.
Deer should drink down in the chill ravines,
Fish swim back to the shores of the clear sea.
Yet during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han
He sent a letter about the spring peach-blossoms.*
* It is believed that this poem is a satire on the self-styled Immortals who thronged Hsian-zong's court, all promising him eternal life. He is pointing out that no real immortals would ever come to court, for their place is far from the haunts of men. During Han Wu-ti's reign, those who came to court claiming that they knew that the Magic Peaches of the Mother who is Queen in the West were ready to ripen were legion. Yet they were clearly frauds, for these peaches ripen only every six thousand years.
Mount Wu* Is High
A cluster of emeralds
Piercing high heaven!
Over the Great River's swelling waves
Spirits trail their mist.
The King of Chu's soul sought a dream
In a bitter wind.
In dawn wind and flying rain,
Grow coins of moss.
The Jade Princess has been gone
A thousand years,
Amid lilac and Sichuan bamboos
Old gibbons wail,
Her ancient shrine is close to the moon's
Chill toad and cassia,
Pepper flowers shed scarlet petals
Among drenching clouds.
* Mount Wu, a famous twelve-peaked range, rises up on the northern banks of the Yangzi and stretches from Sichuan to Hubei. It was on this mountain that Jade Beauty, daughter of the legendary Scarlet Emperor, was buried, thus becoming its tutelary deity. King Huai of Chu (floruit 3rd century B.C.) once spent the night with her, not knowing who she was. When she left him she told him that in the morning she took the form of clouds on Mount Wu, in the evening she marshalled the rain. Huai's son, King Hsiang, had the same experience.
Let's Drink Wine
Hsi and Ho gallop their six steeds*
Days and nights leave us no leisure,
Chasing the crow to Mount Yan-zi's bamboos,**
They flog their horses with a Coiling Peach whip***.
Ru Shou no sooner breaks the kingfisher willows,
Than the Green Emperor creates red orchids again.****
Millions of years have rolled by
Since Yao and Shun,
And no king halted his chariot more than a moment.
Green coins, white jade-rings cannot buy time.
We should be merry, make the most of the present.
Turtle-soup and bears' paws -- why bother with them?
Let's drink the North Sea out of flagons,
Cross-legged on South Mountain,
Sing loud and long
To the low lilts of flutes,
Bestowing gifts of tattoo gold*****
For the amorous glances of singing-girls.
This is life at its best!
Why struggle to fathom the mind
Of the Creating Power?+
Let's urge each other to drink,
Drink without stopping.
May the Emperor's great name
Endure without end!
His sons and grandsons spread abroad
Like arrowroot on rocks!
From Luo-yang to Chang-an
Strech lines of carriages.++
Liang Chi's ancient mansion!+++
The old gardens of Shih Chong!++++
* The charioteer of the sun.
** A three-legged crow lived in the sun. Yan-zi was a mountain where the sun set.
*** Legend said that a peach-tree with roots 3,000 li long grew on the summit of Mount Tao-du. On top of the tree was a golden cock which sang when the sun shone on it.
**** Ru Shou is the spirit of autumn. The Green Emperor is the spirit of spring.
***** "Tattoo gold": fine gold from the south where the tattooed aborigines lived.
+ Why worry about the future?
++ One reads: "Carriages come to Chang-an in an endless stream." Since both Liang Ji and Shi Chung lived in Luo-yang, not Chang-an, our version is clearly preferable.
+++ Liang Ji (d. A.D. 159), one of the richest and most powerful men in China during the closing decades of the Later Han.
++++ Shi Chung (249-300) was a millionaire infamous for his extravagance and cruelty. His estate, Golden Valley Garden, lay just outside Luo-yang. Li Ho is obviously thrusting at some of his degenerate contemporaries, perhaps at officials and eunuchs notorious for their rapacity.
Long Songs after Short Songs*
Long songs have split the collar of my robe,
Short songs have cropped my whitening hair.**
The king of Ch'in is nowhere to be seen,***
So dawn and dusk fever burns in me.
I drink wine from a pitcher when I'm thirsty,
Cut millet from the dike-top when I'm hungry.
Chill and forlorn, I see May pass me by,
And suddenly a thousand leagues grow green.
Endless, the mountain peaks at night,
The bright moon seems to fall among the crags.
As I wander about, searching along the rocks,
Its light shines out beyond those towering peaks.
Because I cannot roam round with the moon,
My hair's grown white before I end my song.****
* "Long song" and "Short song" were the names of royal conservatory ballads, both of which had for their theme the shortness of man's life. The story goes that He wrote this poem when he was only seven years old. This is, of course, quite untrue. Our poet is ill and grieving over his failure in the examination.
** His hair was cut short because of his illness.
*** At this time Emperor Hsian-zong had retired to Ch'in; hence the allusion.
**** One commentators plausibly equates the moon with the Emperor and the high rocks which bar Li Ho from the moon with the powerful officials of the court.
Song: Throwing off My Sadness
Written under Mount Hua
An autumn wind blows over the earth,
The grasses die,
Mount Hua becomes a sapphire shadow
In the chill of dusk,*
Though I have reached my twentieth year,
I've missed my goal.**
My whole heart sad and withered
As a dying orchid.
Clothes like the feathers of a flying guail,***
Horse like a hound.****
Where the road forks I beat my sword
With a brazen roar.
Dismounting at a tavern I shed
My autumn gown,+
Wishing to pledge it for a jar
Of Yi-yang wine.++
Deep in the jar I called on Heaven --
No clouds rolled back,+++
The white day stretched a thousand leagues,
Cold and forlorn,
My host urged me to cultivate
Both body and soul,++++
Nor care at all if the vulgar crowd
Made mock of me.
* Mount Tai-hua in Hua-yin county, Shanxi, between Xi-an and Luo-yang.
** We may date this poem at A.D. 810. The line would thus refer to Ho's rejection as a jin-shi candidate.
*** Xun-zi, XIX, p. 22b. "Zi Xia was so poor his clothes were (like the feathers of) a hanging quail. Someone said: `Why doesn't he look for an official post?' He said: `The feudal lords look down on me, so I cannot become a minister.'"
**** It was said of Zhu Zhen of the Later Han that he was so poor "his carriage was like a bird's nest, his horse like a hound."
+ The "beflagged pavilion" here refers to a tavern, not to the marketplace, as some commentators would have it.
++ Yi-yang was the old name for the county where Li Ho's family lived. It lay about 120 miles east of Mount Hua.
+++ One commentator thinks this refers to the story of the Immortal Shi Cun who jumped into a wine-pot, made it his universe, and called it "the wine-pot of Heaven". Another interprets this as a reference to the story of Fei Chang-fang of the Later Han who met an old man with a magic wine-jar, from which the two of them could drink all day without emptying it. Fei followed the old man into the jar and learnt the arts of immortality.
++++ One commentator interprets "to cultivate heart and bones" as meaning "to cultivate mental energy."
Thirteen Poems from My Southern Garden
Budding branches, stems of flowers,
Blossom while I watch.
Touched with white and streaked with crimson --
Cheeks fo a girl from Yue,*
Sad to say, once dusk has come,
Their wanton fragrance falls.
They have eloped with the spring wind,
Without a go-between.**
* Hsi-shi, most renowned of all Chinese beauties, came from Yue.
** No respectable Chinese girl would ever get married without a go-between or match-maker.
Why shouldn't a young man wear a Wu sword?*
He could win back fifty provinces in pass and mountain,**
I wish you would visit the Ling-yan pavilion,***
How can a student ever become a rich marquis?
* Wu-gou (Hook of Wu) was the name of a famous type of sword used by the southern aborigines.
** Over fifty Chinese districts in Ho-nan and Ho-pei were in the hands of tribal peoples at this time.
*** The portraits found in the Ling-yan pavilion were those of military men who had aided Tang Tai-tsong in his truggle for power.
Seeking a style, culling my phrases,
Grown old carving grubs!
At dawn the moon hangs in my blinds,
A bow of jade.
Can't you see what is going on, year after year,
By the sea of Liao-dong?
Whatever can a writer do
But weep in the autumn wind?*
* The poet has been studying all night, perfecting his literary style. There is no point to all this, since a country incessantly at war has little use for poets. The quickest way to gain renown is to fight on some distant frontier.
All translations selected from Goddesses, Ghosts, and Demons -- The Collected Poems of Li He (790 - 816), Translated by J.D. Frodsham, North Point Press, San Fransisco, 1983.