A Tall Tower in the Northwest


Music was an important part of life in ancient China. It was the the most popular form of entertainment, and for some men and especially women it was their profession. In Nineteen Old Poems (Gushi Shijiu Shou, 古诗十九首), a selection of anonymous poetry from Eastern Han Dynasty (25~220 BCE), one of the most common topics is music and singers. There are descriptions of singing and dancing, of the emotions stirred by music and banquet, of the experience of listening to a performer. Chinese musical aesthetic tradition hails the combination of those who where able to produce sorrow through their performances and the “knowing listeners” (zhiyin, 知音)– those in whom this sorrow arose. It is the shedding of tears that is valued, not just the music one hears.

A Tall Tower in the Northwest

In northwest there is a tower proud;
It stands as high as floating cloud.
Its curtained lattice window flares
Between the eaves and flights of stairs.
Music from there comes to my ear,
Its sound so sad,its tune so drear.
Who could compose such doleful song
But one whose secret grief’s life-long?
Sad music rises with the breeze;
The middle tune wafts ill at ease.
It’s followed the by three refrains;
At last indignant,it complains.
For the musician out of view,
I sigh that connoisseurs are few.
I would become a crane to sing
With her while flying wing to wing.



The Sight of Father’s Back


The Sight of Father’s Back

Zhu Ziqing

It is more than two years since I last saw father, and what I can never forget is the sight of his back. Misfortunes never come singly. In the winter of more than two years ago, grandma died and father lost his job. I left Beijing for Xuzhou to join father in hastening home to attend grandma’s funeral. When I met father in Xuzhou, the sight of the disorderly mess in his courtyard and the thought of grandma started tears trickling down my cheeks. Father said, “Now that things’ve come to such a pass, it’s no use crying. Fortunately, Heaven always leaves one a way out.”

After arriving home in Yangzhou, father paid off debts by selling or pawning things. He also borrowed money to meet the funeral expenses. Between grandma’s funeral and father’s unemployment, our family was then in reduced circumstances. After the funeral was over, father was to go to Nanjing to look for a job and I was to return to Beijing to study, so we started out together.

I spent the first day in Nanjing strolling about with some friends at their invitation, and was ferrying across the Yangtse River to Pukou the next morning and thence taking a train for Beijing on the afternoon of the same day. Father said he was too busy to go and see me off at the railway station, but would ask a hotel waiter that he knew to accompany me there instead. He urged the waiter again and again to take good care of me, but still did not quite trust him. He hesitated for quite a while about what to do. As a matter of fact, nothing would matter at all because I was then twenty and had already traveled on the Beijing-Pukou Railway a couple of times. After some wavering, he finally decided that he himself would accompany me to the station. I repeatedly tried to talk him out of it, but he only said, “Never mind! It won’t do to trust guys like those hotel boys!”

We entered the railway station after crossing the River. While I was at the booking office buying a ticket, father saw to my luggage. There was quite a bit of luggage and he had to bargain with the porter over the fee. I was then such a smart aleck that I frowned upon the way father was haggling and on the verge of chipping in a few words when the bargain was finally clinched. Getting on the train with me, he picked me a seat close to the carriage door. I spread on the seat the brownish fur lined overcoat he had got tailor made for me. He told me to be watchful on the way and be careful not to catch cold at night. He also asked the train attendants to take good care of me. I sniggered at father for being so impractical, for it was utterly useless to entrust me to those attendants, who cared for nothing but money. Besides, it was certainly no problem for a person of my age to look after himself. Oh, when I come to think of it, I can see how smarty I was in those days!

I said, “Dad, you might leave now.” But he looked out of the window and said, “I’m going to buy you some tangerines. You just stay here. Don’ t move around.” I caught sight of several vendors waiting for customers outside the railings beyond a platform. But to reach that platform would require crossing the railway track and doing some climbing up and down. That would be a strenuous job for father, who was fat. I wanted to do all that myself, but he stopped me, so I could do nothing but let him go. I watched him hobble towards the railway track in his black skullcap, black cloth mandarin jacket and dark blue cotton-padded cloth long gown. He had little trouble climbing down the railway track, but it was a lot more difficult for him to climb up that platform after crossing the railway track. His hands held onto the upper part of the platform, his legs huddled up and his corpulent body tipped slightly towards the left, obviously making an enormous exertion. While I was watching him from behind, tears gushed from my eyes. I quickly wiped them away lest he or others should catch me crying. The next moment when I looked out of the window again, father was already on the way back, holding bright red tangerines in both hands. In crossing the railway track, he first put the tangerines on the ground, climbed down slowly and then picked them up again. When he came near the train, I hurried out to help him by the hand. After boarding the train with me, he laid all the tangerines on my overcoat, and patting the dirt off his clothes, he looked somewhat relieved and said after a while, “I must be going now. Don’t forget to write me from Beijing” I gazed after his back retreating out of the carriage. After a few steps, he looked back at me and said, “Go back to your seat. Don’t leave your things alone.” I, however, did not go back to my seat until his figure was lost among crowds of people hurrying to and fro and no longer visible. My eyes were again wet with tears.

In recent years, both father and I have been living an unsettled life, and the circumstances of our family going from bad to worse. Father left home to seek a livelihood when young and did achieve quite a few things all on his own. To think that he should now be so downcast in old age! The discouraging state of affairs filled him with an uncontrollable feeling of deep sorrow, and his pent-up emotion had to find a vent. That is why even mere domestic trivialities would often make him angry, and meanwhile he became less and less nice with me. However, the separation of the last two years has made him more forgiving towards me. He keeps thinking about me and my son. After I arrived in Beijing, he wrote me a letter, in which he says, “I’m all right except for a severe pain in my arm. I even have trouble using chopsticks or writing brushes. Perhaps it won’t be long now before I depart this life. “Through the glistening tears which these words had brought to my eyes I again saw the back of father’s corpulent form in the dark blue cotton-padded cloth long gown and the black cloth mandarin jacket. Oh, how I long to see him again!

October 1925





source:  Zhang Peiji, (1999) “Selected Modern Chinese Prose Writings”, Shanghai Foreign Languages Education Press.

Listening to the Rain


    Beginning in Tang Dynasty (618~907), new music from Central Asia began entering China and soon became all the rage at the cosmopolitan Tang court and in Tang urban culture. From the lyrics set to this so-called banquet music (言乐, yanyue), there arose a new poetic genre, the ci (词), “song lyric”. The ci poems were written into hundreds of tune patterns, each of which strictly determined by the number of characters per line, the placement of rhymes, and the position of tones. Originally the ci were actually sung to these tunes, but eventually the tunes themselves were lost, and all that remained were the hundreds of ci patterns (词牌 cipai) with their many variations. To this day, one speaks of “filling in the words” to a song lyric (填词, tian ci) according to the matrix associated with its tune title.

This genre developed into a major alternative to traditional shi (诗) poetry during the Song Dynasty, when it is traditionally thought to have reached its height. In the famous ci poem “The Beautiful Lady Yu”, Southern Song Dynasty (1127~1279) poet Jiang Jie (c.1245~1310) tells his life story. The poem, which is commonly known as “Listening to the Rain” (听雨 Ting Yu),  poignantly and powerfully calls attention to the different emotions at stages of the poet’s life, set against the sameness of nature. While nature seems to eternally repeat itself in a predictable way, human life can never really repeat itself in a predictable way. Human life can never really repeat itself without noticeable change, not even in such a seemingly innocuous act as listening to the rain. In fact, it is precisely the sameness of nature and the seeming sameness of the poet’s habit of listening to the rain that trigger his deepest pathos about the vicissitudes of life.

English translation by Xu Yuanchong

The Beautiful Lady Yu

Jiang Jie

While young, I listened to the rain in house of song.
Beside a candle red,
In silken-curtained bed.

In prime of life I heard the rain on river long
Beneath the cloud where wailed wiled wild geese
In western breeze.

Now that I listen to the rain in temple’s cell,
My hair bespeckled well.
Men meet and part with joy and sorrow.
Let raindrops drip until the morrow!

English translation by Joseph Needham

The Beautiful Lady Yu

Jiang Jie

As a young man, listening to the girls in the tower,
I heard the sound of the rain,
While the red candle burned dim in the damp air.

In middle age, traveling by boat on a river,
I listened to the rain falling, falling:
The river was wide and clouds drifted above;
I heard the solitary cry of a teal borne on the west wind.

And now in a cloister cell I hear the rain again,
My hair is grey and sparse;
Sadness, and happiness, separation and reunion, all seem one,
They move me no more.
Let the rain drop all night on the deserted pavement
Till the day dawns.

Original text in Simplified Chinese






Xu Yuanchong. (2007). Three hundred Ci of the Song Dynasty. China Translation and Publishing Company.

Cecile Chu-chin Sun. (2011). The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry. University of Chicago Press.

Zong-qi Cai. (2013). How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. Columbia University Press.

Song of the Conscripts


Chinese literary critics have honored Du Fu (712~770) as the “Poet Historian” since Northern Song Dynasty (960~1127). The most directly historical of Du Fu’s poems are those commenting on military tactics or the successes and failures of the government, or the poems of advice which he wrote to the authorities. Indirectly, he wrote about the effect of the times in which he lived on himself, and on the ordinary Chinese people. “Song of the Conscripts” (兵车行 Bingche Xing, literally “Ballad of the Army Wagons”) was written in around 750, when China under Emperor Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty (685~762) frequently engaged in wars with neighboring countries on its western border. It gives voice to the sufferings of conscript soldiers in the imperial army and criticizes China’s military expansionism.

“Song of the Conscripts” sets the scene around Chinese capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) with a long column of conscripts heading north to the Wei River Bridge and off to the frontier. A bystander elicits a monologue from one of the conscripts, who complains of the length of service, deserted farmland, and the anticipation of a futile death on the battlefield. A Tang paper fragment with a few lines of this poem has been found in the sands of Central Asia, testifying that the poem actually traveled with where the troops did.

English translation by Xu Yuanchong

Song of the Conscripts

Du Fu

Chariots rumble
and horses grumble.
The conscripts march with bow and arrows at the waist.
Their fathers, mothers, wives and children come in haste
To see them off; the bridge is shrouded in dust they’ve raised.
They clutch at their coats, stamp the feet and bar the way;
Their grief cries loud and strikes the cloud straight, straightaway.
An onlooker by roadside asks an enrollee.
“The conscription is frequent,” only answers he.
Some went north at fifteen to guard the rivershore,
And were sent west to till the land at forty.
The elder bound their young heads when they went away;
Just home, they’re sent to the frontier though their hair’s gray.
The field on borderland becomes a sea of blood;
The emperor’s greed for land is still at high flood.
Have you not heard
Two hundred districts east of the Hua Mountains lie,
Where briers and brambles grow in villages far and nigh?
Although stout women can wield the plough and the hoe,
Thorns and weeds in the east as in the west o’ergrow.
The enemy are used to hard and stubborn fight;
Our men are driven just like dogs or fowls in flight.
“You are kind to ask me.
To complain I’m not free.
In winter of this year
Conscription goes on here.
The magistrates for taxes press.
How can we pay them in distress?
If we had know sons bring no joy,
We would have preferred girl to boy.
A daughter can be wed to a neighbor, alas!
A son can only be buried under the grass!”
Have you not seen On borders green
Bleached bones since olden days unburied on the plain?
The old ghosts weep and cry, while the new ghosts complain;
The air is loud with screech and scream in gloomy rain.

Original text in Simplified Chinese




Kang-i Sun Chang, Stephen Owen, The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, 2010, Cambridge University Press.
Xu Yuanchong, 300 Tang poems : a new translation, 1987, Commercial Press

Tang Ju Succeeded in His Mission


The story of Tang Ju is recorded in Zhanguo Ce (战国策, “Strategy of the Warring States” ), a  fictionalized work of history first circulated during the Latter Han Dynasty of China (25~220 CE ). Unlike military strategy manuals that center on Sun Tzu-style martial tacticians, Zhanguo Ce highlights the group known as moushi (谋士, “strategist-persuader”) and their skills as politicians, rhetors and diplomats during the Warring States period (475~221 BCE).

Tang Ju was such a moushi serving Anling, a minor protectorate of the State of Wei. In 225 BCE, King Zhao of Qin (324~251 BCE) conquered Wei, posing an immediate threat to Anling. To save his endangered lord, Tang Ju went to meet furious King Zhao and successfully settled the dispute by wisdom and courage.

English translation by B.S. Bonsall

Tang Ju Succeeded in His Mission

     The King of Qin sent a messenger to speak to the Prince of Anling and say: “I wish to exchange five hundred li of territory for Anling. I hope the Prince of Anling will agree to my request!” The Prince of Anling said:”Your Majesty adds to your graciousness. I received the territory from the former King. I wish to guard it to the end. I dare not make the exchange!”

       The King of Qin was displeased. So the  Prince of Anling sent Tang Ju on a mission to Qin. The King of Qin spoke to Tang Ju and said: “I was giving five hundred li of territory in exchange for Anling. The Prince of Anling would not listen to me. Why was that? Moreover Qin has destroyed Han and wiped out Wei. And because His Highness has been left with fifty li of territory he considers himself to be superior. Therefore he pays no attention. Now I ask permission to extend his lands with territory ten times as large, and yet His Highness resists me. He is despising me.” Tang Ju replied: “No. It is not so. The Prince of Anling received the territory from the former King and keeps guard over it. He would not dare to exchange it for a thousand li. How would he for only five hundred?”

      The King of Qin was annoyed and angry. He spoke to Tang Ju and said: “And has your Lordship heard of the wrath of the Son of Heaven?” Tang Ju replied: “Your servant has not heard.” The King of Qin said: “The wrath of the Son of Heaven lays low a million corpses and makes blood to flow for a thousand li.” Tang Ju said: “Has Your Majesty heard of the wrath of a commoner?” The King of Qin said: “The wrath of commoner makes himself take off his hat, walk barefoot, and knock the ground with his head!” Tang Ju said: “This is the wrath of a mediocre person, not the wrath of a gentleman. When Zhuan Zhu assassinated King Liao a comet covered the moon. When Nie Zheng assassinated Han Gui a white rainbow pierced through the sun. When Yao Li assassinated Qing Ji black falcons fought above the palace. All these three gentlemen were commoners. While they were cherishing their wrath and before it had come forth, portents descended from the Heaven. And your servant will make a fourth! If a gentleman must be wrath, the corpses of two men will lie low and their blood flow five paces. This is the day for the world to put on mourning.” He drew his sword and arose.

         The King of Qin with confused countenance knelt as length and excused himself, saying: “Be seated sir. Why come to this? I understand. That after Han and Wei have been annihilated Anling survives with only fifty li of territory is solely because of you!”

Original text in Simplified Chinese




        秦王怫然怒,谓唐雎曰:“公亦尝闻天子之怒乎?”唐雎对曰:“臣未尝闻也。”秦王曰:“天子之怒,伏尸百万,流血千里。”唐雎曰:“大王尝闻布衣之怒乎?”秦王 曰:“布衣之怒,亦免冠徒跣,以头抢地耳!”唐雎曰:“此庸夫之怒也,非士之怒也。夫专诸之刺王僚也,彗星袭月;聂政之刺韩傀也,白虹贯日;要离之刺庆忌也,仓鹰击于殿上。此三子者,皆布衣之士也,怀怒未发,休祲降于天,与臣而将四矣!若士必怒,伏尸二人, 流血五步,天下缟素,今日是也。”挺剑而起。


Song of Yuanyuan


Wrote during the Ming-Qing transition, Chinese poet Wu Weiye (1609~1671) was classified under the category of “officials who served two dynasties” (贰臣, erchen). He held office under the Qing from 1654 to 1656 and later regretted it.  Wu’s post-1644 writings are stuffed with lamentation for the fall of the Ming Dynasty, nostalgia for the world before its collapse, and, after his journey north to take office late in 1653, regret and anguish over his own irresolution and compromises. Most people have accepted Wu’s version of events — that he unwillingly took office under pressure from his family and the Qing authorities.

Honored as a “poet-historian” (诗史, shishi), Wu Weiye often chose to write longer ancient-style poems and ballads, forms that lend themselves to elaboration of descriptive and narrative detail, unfolding arguments, and shifting perspectives. In his famous “Song of Yuanyuan” (圆圆曲, Yuanyuan Qu), he put individual’s perspective against historical upheavals. According to various miscellanies and historical sources, the courtesan Chen Yuanyuan (1624~1681) was taken captive when Beijing fell to the rebels in 1644. Outraged at this turn of events, her lover Wu Sangui (1612~1678), military commander of the strategic Shanhai Pass, the eastern terminus of the Great Wall, joined forces with the Manchus and marched upon Beijing to facilitate the Manchu conquest. Wu did not make “Song of Yuanyuan” a warning against moral decadence and sensual indulgence, but remains sympathetic to Yuanyuan, who in the poem comes to stand for the helplessness and confusion of individual caught in cataclysmic turmoil.

English translation by Huang Zhangwei

Song of Yuanyuan

Wu Weiye

No sooner His Majesty committed suicide
Quit the world of horror
The General defeated the enemy in mountain-pass battles
Recaptures the capital in terms of honor

Soldiers were coached to cry for the emperor’s death
In their white mourning rags and sign
The General was so angry that his hair uplifted his hat
Simply for a beautiful concubine

Ostensibly the wanton woman may not be his only beloved
The rebel’s defeat mainly due to looting corruption
Swiftly striking them down by blitzkrieg
Expected a reunion

Always remember when he met her
At Mr. Tien’s house—the first sight scene
The singing and dancing of aristocratic entertainment
Topped by her flowered beauty to the extreme

The host allowed the General to pick her up
In a concubine marriage
And the royal relative’s geisha girl
Waiting for his ornamented wedding carriage

Who was such a girl?

She was born and raised
In a Soozhou’s romantic neighborhood in peace
Nicknamed Yuan Yuan
As pretty as fabulous silk masterpiece

Ever dreamed of getting inside an ancient royal garden
So happily milling around with roaming pace
Then ushered and fanned by palace girls
All the way to the King’s place

Probably she’s destined to be a countryside lotus-picking girl
And to be chosen later for a king
No wonder in front of where she lives
Provides such surrounding ponds like a ring

She was virtually kidnapped away in a boat
By a rich and strong man, can’t be defying
The departing twin oars
Splashing the river like flying

How unfortunate she was
In her youngster years
At that time the Beauty can do nothing
But bursting into tears

In a palace, to so many pretty girls
With bright teeth, sparkling eyes, who cared to pay attention
One of the royal relatives
Managed to have her released from palace administration

Then totally shut in a noble family’s confine
She was taught to sing new songs and learning her new line
The purpose was to please the guest
Until the guest drank to tipsy sunset and rest

Into all ears
The enchanting music rings
Who knows her melancholy
Fiddled among the strings

The noble General was young and smart
Making choices amidst pretty girls’ noise
Simply he can free any bird from a cage
By an order of his voice

As fairy goes, the once-a-year reunion
Of the Cowboy and Weaver-Girl on separate side of Milkway
Can be realized now to cross the bridge made by magpies
In any day of a year, at any time of a day

But pushed by urgent military orders
The General was reluctantly gone
Left behind a reunion promise
That subsequently made everything wrong

That reunion promise, so lovely and so hard to deliver
What a pity
Until suddenly one day
The rebels were all over the city

When viewing from upstairs
Willows beside her house excitedly changed a lot
In watchful eyes of a woman
It’s a sea of bewildered catkins on the spot

Sealing up her house
The search of the Beauty was going on
Shouting the best dancer’s name
Out! out of the luxurious building to come on down

Eventually were it not the victory
Of the General’s army to get her back
How could she be returned safely
On a single horseback

The messengers repeated the calling all along
“She is coming!”
Still shocked by her disastrous journey
Her unruly hair yet to be combing

Right there on battlefield
She was welcomed by candlelights and spears
She cannot help crying joyfully
Mingled her rouge with tears

Beating the drums, blowing the bugles
The General’s army marching toward the west
Along the road of Golden Cow
Thousands of war chariots progressed chest to chest

Sporadically she put herself up
In a valley-side guest house
Even the waning moon above the mountain-pass
Mirrored the Beauty with applause

As the news spread back to her native land
Time really flies as you see
Already counted it’s the tenth year frost
Standing there the old red tree

The geisha teacher—alive and well
Was still kicking around
The silk-cleaning girls remembered their companion
Knowing now she was safe and sound

Just like those busy swallows
In the same muddy nest, in the same days of old
Now the Beauty flew to the top
Becoming a phoenix in gold

Holding a wine-cup, some one usually felt sad
Thinking about old age
And someone’s husband
Titled the Prince on national stage

During those years
She was very much disturbed by her fame
But noble lords and leaders’ desire on her
Remained the same

As the Beauty says:
“Buy me off with a bushel of pearls
That brought up thousands of bushels’ unhappy elements
As it whirls”

“That made me wantoning
Over countless mountains and rivers in a haste
Ended up with, as evidenced by
My skinny and fragile waist”

Don’t blame stormy wind blowing the withering flowers
Looks like the destiny is unsound
As time goes by
The springtime and fortune will come around

Supposed the prettiest woman in history
Might destroy a nation or a city
Undoubtedly the General’s fame
Came up and down with the Beauty

Should a spouse have anything to do
With the existence of a nation
Irresistibly the General was tightly bound
By love and desire in combination

Members of the General’s family were all killed
Dead body’s bones became ashes and ashes it laid
Merely left the Beauty’s big name in history
O’ What a price the General has paid

Don’t you see
The ancient king’s place of love
Where the twin ducks swim happily to and fro
The beautiful girls of Yue country
Just like countless flowers as many generations grow

Now the once fragrant garden path
Is dusty and weedy
Only the birds are still chirping:
“What a pity!”

The once most fantastic palace corridor of Wu Dynasty
Which can produce musical sound with each stepping on
Except the silent courtyard moss is evergreen
Everything else together with the Beauty is all gone

Within a scope of ten thousand miles
The stage moved to the old southwest
Changing things like shifting musical tones
Whether comedy or tragedy, history will judge best

Comparing the songs singing in palace of Wu Dynasty
Ceaseless inspirations and rhymes reaching a new height
Just like the Han River
Flows to southeast day and night

Original text in simplified Chinese




source: Kang-i Sun Chang & Stephen Owen, “The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature Volume 2: From 1375”,  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Crossing the Lonely Ocean

Wen Tianxiang(1236 –1283) was a prominent scholar, military leader, and poet in the late years of the Southern Song Dynasty. Having passed the imperial examination as the top scorer at a young age, he gradually rose up the ranks and served as the Prime Minister. Wen positively organizing the Chinese resistance against Mongol invasion and was captured. He was tortured for years and ultimately executed, never wavering in his loyalties.

Crossing the Lonely Ocean was written in early 1279 when Wen was being escorted from Guangdong to Beijing to meet Kublai Khan, the new ruler of China. The Lonely Ocean (伶仃洋/零丁洋, Lingding Yang) is also known as Lintin Sea. A part of South China Sea, it locates in the south of the Zhongshan County, Guangdong Province. The Frightful Shallows (惶恐滩, Huangkong Tan) is one of the eighteen dangerous shallows in the Gan River of Jiangxi Province. The Mongols entered Jiangxi in 1275 and defeated Wen’s army there in 1277.

Crossing the Lonely Ocean
Wen Tianxiang

Through painstaking mastery of one
Of the Classics, I have risen high;
But four years of raging war have well-nigh
Brought all-round destitution and ruin.
My shattered country does remind
Me of willow-catkins swept by wind;
My life’s vicissitudes attain
The aspect of duckweeds beaten by rain.
At the Frightful Shallows we fought our way,
They’d tell the frightful battle never won,
And on the Lonely Ocean I could but sigh
For being captured, and all alone.
Down through the ages, whoever that lived
Has not in death ended his life?
I wish to leave but a loyal heart
Shining red in History’s archive.




source: Wang Zhihuan, Selected Lyrics on Themes of Patriotism and Moral Integrity: from Ancient to Modern Chinese Classic Poetry, 1995, China Translation & Publishing Corporation.