Selected Poems from Nineteen Old Poems (Eastern Han Dynasty, 25 - 220 A.C.)

translated by Burton Watson except No. 10 and 15 by John A. Turner

1. On and On, Going On and On
2. Green Green, River Bank Grasses
3. Green Green, the Cypress on the Ridge
4. We Hold a Splendid Feast Today
5. Northwest the Tall Tower Stands
7. Clear Moon Brightly Shining in the Night
8. Frail Frail, Lone-growing Bamboo
9. In the Garden a Strange Tree Grows
10. Far in the Skies Is the Cowherd Star
11. I Turn the Carriage, Yoke and Set Off
13. I Drive My Carriage from the Upper East Gate 
15. Life That's Scarce a Hundred Years
17. First Month of Winter: Cold Air Comes 


On and On, Going On and On

On and on, going on and on,
away from you to live apart,
ten thousand li* and more between us,
each at opposite ends of the sky.
The road I travel is steep and long;
who knows when we meet again?
The Hu horse leans into the north wind;
the Yueh** bird nests in southern branches:
day by day our parting grows more distant;
day by day robe and belt dangle looser.
Shifting clouds block the white sun;
the traveler does not look to return.
Thinking of you makes one old;
years and months suddenly go by.
Abandoned, I will say no more
but pluck up strength and eat my fill.

* Earlier poetry and prose had been content to express the idea of great distance by the phrase "one thousand li," but with Chinese expansion into Korea and southeast China and increased knowledge of the states of Central Asia, this no doubt came to seem inadequate. For the Han people, with their penchant for hyperbole, nothing less than "ten thousand li or more" would do. A li is approximately one third of a mile. 

** Hu and Yueh: Hu, a general term for the area north of China from Korea west to Tibet, is paralleled by Yueh, a designation for the area around the mouth of the Yangtze, a region which, in earlier centuries at least, was looked on as the southernmost limit of civilization. 


Green Green, River Bank Grasses

Green green, river bank grasses,
thick thick, willows in the garden;
Plump plump, that lady upstairs,
bright bright, before the window;
lovely lovely, her red face-powder;
slim slim, she puts out a white hand.
Once I was a singing-house girl,
now the wife of a wanderer,
a wanderer who never comes home -- 
It's hard sleeping in an empty bed alone.


Green Green, the Cypress on the Ridge

Green green the cypress* on the ridge,
stones heaped about in mountain streams:
between heaven and earth our lives rush past
like travelers with a long road to go.
Let this measure of wine be our merriment;
value it highly, without disdain.
I race the carriage, whip the lagging horses,
roam for pleasure to Wan and Lo**.
Here in Lo-yang, what surging crowds,
capped and belted ones chasing each other;
long avenues fringed with narrow alleys,
the many mansions of princes and peers.
The Two Palaces*** face each other from afar,
paired towers over a hundred feet tall.
Let the feast last forever, delight the heart -- 
then what grief or gloom can weigh us down?

* The cypress, along with the pine, figures often in Chinese literature as a symbol of longevity or changelessness. The stones in the second line presumably represent a similar concept, that of durability. Both the cypress and stones serve as contrast to man and his fleeting life.

** The Eastern Han had its capital at Lo-yang. The city of Wan, southeast of Lo-yang, was renowned for its splendor and, because it was the home of the founder of the Eastern Han, Emperor Kuang-wu, was honored with the title of Southern Capital.

*** The Two Palaces are those of the emperor and of the heir apparent situated in the northern and southern sectors of the city respectively. The city was laid out in a grid of broad avenues from which branched numerous smaller alleyways. 


We Hold a Splendid Feast Today

We hold a splendid feast today,
a delight barely to be told in words.
Strike the lute, raise joyful echoes,
new notes of ghostly beauty.
Let the talented sing fine phrases;
he who knows music will understand.
One in mind, we share the same wish,
though the thought within remains unspoken:
Man lives out his little sojourn,
scudding by like a swirl of dust.
Why not whip up your high-stepping horses,
be first to command the road to power?
What profit to stay poor and unhonored,
floundering forever in bitterness!


Northwest the Tall Tower Stands

Northwest the tall tower stands,
its top level with floating clouds,
patterned windows webbed in lattice,
roofs piled three stories high.
From above, the sound of strings and song;
what sadness in that melody!
Who could play a tune like this,
who but the wife of Ch'i Liang*?
The clear shang** mode drifts down the wind;
halfway through, it falters and breaks,
one plucking, two or three sighs,
longing, a grief that lingers on -- 
It is not the singer's pain I pity,
but few are those who understand the song!
If only we could be a pair of calling cranes,
beating wings, soaring to the sky!

* Ch'i Liang, a man of the state of Ch'i, was killed in battle in 550 B.C. According to legend, his grief-stricken wife committed suicide by throwing herself into the Tzu River. She seems to have been the subject of several early songs or stories, and is often depicted as playing a lute just before her death. In one version of the legend, her pitiful cries cause the city wall to collapse.

** Shang is one of the five modes or keys of traditional Chinese music, that associated with autumn, hence the epithet "clear." The association with autumn also suggests sadness and decay. 


Clear Moon Brightly Shining in the Night

Clear moon brightly shining in the night,
crickets chirring by eastern walls;*
the jade bar points to early winter;**
crowding stars, how thick their ranks!
White dew soaks the wild grasses,
cycle of the seasons swiftly changing;
autumn locusts cry among the trees;
dark swallows, where did they go?
Once we were students together;
you soared on high, beating strong wings,
no longer recalling the hand of friendship;
you've left me behind like a forgotten footprint.
Southern Winnow, Dipper in the north,
Draught Ox that will not bear a yoke -- *** 
truly, with no rock to underpin them,
what good are empty names?

* The cricket is mentioned in the Odes (Book of Songs) as a harbinger of the cold. Here it is called ts'u-chih or "hurry with the weaving!" because its song reminds the women of the house that they must get on with their weaving before winter comes.

** The "jade bar" seems to refer to the handle of the Big Dipper, whose position now indicates the approach of winter.

*** An allusion to Odes, #203, the lines: 
Bright shines that Draught Ox
but one yokes it to no wagon;...
South there is the winnow
but it can't be used to sift with;
north there is the Dipper
but no wine or sauce it ladles.

The Draught Ox, Winnow, and other constellations of Chinese astronomy mentioned in the poem, though bearing useful-sounding names, are in fact as worthless as the friendship of the fellow student to whom the poet addresses his bitter reproach. 


Frail Frail, Lone-growing Bamboo

Frail frail, lone-growing bamboo,
roots clasping the high hill's edge;
to join with my lord now in marriage,
a creeper clinging to the moss.
Creepers have their time to grow,
husband and wife their proper union.
A thousand miles apart, we made our vow,
far far -- mountain slopes between us.
Thinking of you makes one old;
your canopied carriage, how slow its coming!
These flowers sadden me -- orchis and angelica,
petals unfurled, shedding glory all around;
if no one plucks them in blossom time
they'll wilt and die with the autumn grass.
But if in truth you will keep your promise,
how could I ever be untrue? 


In the Garden a Strange Tree Grows

In the garden a strange tree grows,
from green leaves a shower of blossoms bursting.
I bend the limb and break off a flower,
thinking to send it to the one I love.
Fragrance fills my breast and sleeves,
but the road is far -- it will never reach you.
Why is such a gift worth the giving?
Only because I remember how long ago we parted.


Far in the Skies Is the Cowherd Star

Far in the skies is the Cowherd Star:
Bright on the Milky Way the Maid*
Lightly her snowy fingers raises
Jogging her shuttle through its mazes.
But her stint of work is never-ending,
And her tears like sobbing showers descending.
Though clear and shallow the Milky Way,
Never they'll meet for many a day.
No word she says, but stares dismayed,
Alone by that surging River far.

* In the beginning of time, the Cowherd and the Weaving-maid loved each other so well that they neglected their work and were changed into stars by the Lord of Heaven, and stationed at either side of the Milky Way in Aquila and Lyra respectively. The lovers are permitted to meet once a year, when the wings of magpies provide a bridge for them to cross. 


I Turn the Carriage, Yoke and Set Off

I turn the carriage, yoke and set off,
far far, over never-ending roads.
In the four directions, broad plain on plain;
east wind shakes the hundred grasses.
Among all I meet, nothing of the past;
what can save us from sudden old age?
Fullness and decay, each has its season;
success -- I hate it, so late in coming!
Man is not made of metal or stone;
how can he hope to live for long?
Swiftly he follows in the wake of change;
a shining name -- let that be the prize!


I Drive My Carriage from the Upper East Gate 

I drive my carriage from the Upper East Gate*,
scanning the graves far north of the wall;
silver poplars, how they whisper and sigh;
pine and cypress flank the broad lane.
Beneath them, the ancient dead.
black black there in their long night,
sunk in sleep beneath the Yellow Springs**;
a thousand years pass but they never wake.
Times of heat and cold in unending succession,
but the years Heaven gives us are like morning dew.
Man's life is brief as a sojourn;
his years lack the firmness of metal or stone.
Ten thousand ages come and go
but sages and wise men discover no cure.
Some seek long life in fasts and potions;
many end by poisoning themselves.***
Far better to drink fine wine,
to clothe ourselves in soft white silk!

* The Upper East Gate has been identified as the northernmost of the three gates in the east wall of Lo-yang. The graves are those situated on the hill called Pei-mang northeast of the city.

** The Yellow Springs is the land of the dead.

*** The reference to poisoning is deadly serious; many eminent men, including emperors, brought illness or death on themselves by drinking "longevity medicines" containing mercury and other dangerous ingredients. 


Life That's Scarce a Hundred Years

Life, that's scarce a hundred years,
Holds millenniums of fears.
Brief its noon, and long its night:
Best then mingle dark with light.
Merry-making whiles ye may:
Wait not for another day.
Fools that treasure up their stock
After-generations mock.
Him that held a bond with fate*
None may seek to emulate

* The literal translation of this line is: "The Immortal Wang Tz'u-ch'iao". It refers to the son of a Chou dynasty king who attained immortality, after twenty years of effort and, ultimately, flew away from this world riding on the back of a crane. 


First Month of Winter: Cold Air Comes 

First month of winter: cold air comes,
north winds sharp and cruel.
I have many sorrows, I know how long the night is,
looking up to watch the teeming ranks of stars.
Night of the fifteenth: a bright moon full;
twentieth night: toad and hare wane.*
A traveler came from far away,
put a letter into my hand;
at the top it spoke of "undying remembrance,"
at the bottom, of "parting long endured."
I tucked it away inside my robe;
three years -- not a word has dimmed.
With whole heart I offer my poor love,
fearful you may not see its worth.

* The dark and light areas on the surface of the moon were interpreted as the outlines of a toad and a hare who inhabit the moon.