蒿里行 – Marching amid Wormwood


Cao Cao, as portrayed by Zhang Fengyi in the Red Cliff films.

If 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (as mentioned in this post) is the Chinese name for genius, then the name for intrigue, sneakiness and cunning plans would have to be 曹操 Cao Cao (155 − 220 CE), a name which has unfortunately been frequently savaged by English dubbers of Japanese games. (The c is pronounced ts, like in cats, or dots.)

Full disclosure here – in the Three Kingdoms fandom, I’ve always been very partial to Cao Cao. If there is one complaint about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms that I have, it is that it turned him into the villain – but also a figure of fun, someone who is alternately horribly cruel and horribly idiotic.

The historical record begs to differ; indeed, while Zhuge Liang was a skilled strategist who could write good prose, the all round Renaissance Man of that turbulent century was Cao. His ability to win battles and wars is one thing; but he was also an accomplished poet, an innovative policy-maker who revived agriculture in a country that had lost about 30% (if not more) of its population, and a patron and manager of people whose retinue included inventors, urban architects, and all sorts of other talents. In poetry terms, he – along with his oldest son and successor 曹丕 Cao Pi, and his third son 曹植 Cao Zhi – are still known as the ‘Three Caos’.

But this poem was written before he was any of those things – when he was still one warlord among many, and a relatively small one at that. When in 191 the tyrannical 董卓 Dong Zhuo took control of the Han court, an alliance of regional commanders to depose him was quickly formed; Cao Cao was one of its most ardent supporters, and much of his later career – his suspicion of people and instinct for power – might have been shaped by his disillusionment at how the alliance fell apart almost before it got going. But it also gave a sense of him not often seen in his war-making, as a person who actually did feel concern for how the Han Dynasty had gone way down the drain and the world was being ruined.

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蜀相 – The Chancellor of Shu

It's called the 武侯祠 Wuhouci, if you wish to find it in Chengdu

The Tomb of Zhuge Liang

If there is one period of Chinese history that everyone seems to know about – thanks to certain novelists, but certainly also to the Japanese game-maker Koei and its unremitting efforts – it seems to be the last decades of the Eastern Han, and the Three Kingdoms Period (184 − 280 AD). This is the era of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four Great Novels of Chinese literature (my favourite one, incidentally); but even before that novel was written the period held an enduring fascination for writers.

Of that period, one of the main heroes is of course 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (181 − 234 AD), who even now is a byword for genius in Chinese, but was also known for his loyalty. Having helped his lord 刘备 Liu Bei (161 − 223 AD) conquer the lands of Shu, in modern day Sichuan province, he stabilised, administered and defended that state for a decade after Liu Bei’s death, launching repeated Northern Expeditions against the rival state of Wei in an attempt to reunite China. That he eventually died of overwork and illness was seen as a great tragedy, and part of that view was shaped by the poem we are looking at today.

We last talked about poor Du Fu, the long-suffering sage of poetry, who was kicked this way and that during the turbulent years of the An-Shi Rebellion (749 − 756 AD). One of the many places where he eventually settled was Chengdu, the main city of Sichuan; the province was ideal for Liu Bei because of its position, surrounded by mountains and easily defended, and so it was for the Tang court as well. No doubt Du Fu was all too aware of how another era of instability was washing over the empire again, which drove him to commemorate a hero of another chaotic era.

I’ve been to Chengdu, and visited both the Tomb of the Martial Marquess (Zhuge Liang’s tomb) and Du Fu’s Thatched Hut. The Tomb is indeed a quiet park, well managed and densely vegetated, while Du Fu’s supposed house is a lot more of a tourist trap, more like a Qing Dynasty rich man’s house than the refuge of a poet fleeing a long way from home. Still beautiful, though. I’d definitely recommend both places if one visits Chengdu.

It's a reconstruction, of course. No complaints though.

Du Fu’s thatched cottage, in Chengdu

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An Explanation of ‘Lyrics to the form of _______’, along with three translations of 忆江南 ‘Remembering the South’


So far it seems I’ve been straying quite a bit into Song Dynasty territory, which is quite an intriguing place compared to that of the preceding Tang Dynasty. It’s a dangerous land – where the poems have no titles, the lines are not the same length, and the rules for matching character to character have become even more fiendish.

Several of the blog posts so far (here, here, here and here) have been about these irregular poems, which in Chinese are called 宋词 – literally ‘lyrics of the Song’. (Yes, yes, I see that too.) So here I will say something about this sort of poetry itself – why it is, what sorts of ‘forms’ there are, and what are some of the rules.
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青玉案-元夕 (Lyrics to the form ‘Azure Jade Table’ – on the Lantern Festival)

Xin Qiji, looking appropriately brooding and heroic

Xin Qiji, looking appropriately brooding and heroic

For some reason the idea of poetry is seen as being ‘unmanly’ these days – something I have never understood. The poetic spirit has risen out of all sorts of places, and ever since history there has been plenty of war poems – the earliest great poems, like the Iliad or the Mahabharata, were all about killing people in very large numbers.

So it is too with China. Today’s poet, 辛弃疾 Xin Qiji (1140 − 1207), is as bad-ass as Chinese poets come. Born in the waning years of the Northern Song Dynasty, when it came under repeated attacks from the rival Jin Dynasty and eventually retreated south (as so many Chinese dynasties do), Xin was an ardent nationalist and a fighter too. It was something that ran in the family; he was named Qiji, which literally means ‘to forsake illness’, to reflect the name of a great general from the Han Dynasty, 霍去病 Huo Qubing (140 BC – 117 BC); Qubing also means ‘to ward off illness’.

A famous wartime exploit of his was when one of his former comrades in the struggle against the Jin Dynasty, a man named Zhang Anguo, switched his allegiance, murdered a Song general and went to the Jin camp with the general’s head. Enraged by this, Xin led a hand-picked group of 50 horsemen, charged into the Jin camp at night, and dragged Zhang Anguo out to be delivered for execution. Because he’s a cultured man, presumably, and due process is the way!

Things did not go so well for him, though, with his own authorities; the pro-peace sentiments in the Song court meant that Xin was repeatedly sidelined, which in the end was not good for his health and mood. It’s turned out quite well for Chinese literature, though, as frustration tends to; much of Xin’s best works, like the following poem, came from his later years.

There is a certain ambiguity in this poem; on one hand, it could be a romantic poem about finding a loved one during the Lantern Festival, when young men and women were allowed to mingle and admire lanterns. On the other hand, given Xin’s political frustrations, it could also be about the strange gilded age around him in the southern capital at Lin’an (modern day Hangzhou) – the Southern Song Dynasty, after all, was immensely rich, wealthy and cultured, and yet always teetering at the edge of being destroyed.

Fun fact about this poem – the Chinese search engine and portal Baidu, which literally means ‘a hundred times’, comes from a line in this poem. Which makes sense, as you will find out.

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念奴娇 -赤壁怀古 (Lyrics to the form of ‘Missing the Songstress’ – Reminiscing at the Red Cliffs)


Su Shi, or Su Dongpo – who has been featured on this blog before, here and here – is known these days for being good at just about every civilised pursuit there was. As a politician in the turbulent years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 − 1127), though, he often became the chew toy for the Imperial administration. Twice in his life he was caught up in court intrigues and exiled from the capital in 开封 Kaifeng (in modern day Henan) towards the south, first to modern day Hubei, and then all the way to Hainan.

Many of Su’s most famous works were written during these periods of exile, and the poem we are looking at today is one of them, dating from his exile to the prefecture of Huangzhou (in modern day Hubei). Its subject matter, though, is probably what’s most famous about the poem – the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 AD.

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Translation Thursday: 无题 – Untitled, by Lu Xun

(Argh! Just a little late.)


We’ve had poems from the heyday of Imperial China, and we’ve had poems from the crises of Imperial China. But today, I’d like to do an example of ancient poetry from right after the end of Imperial China, from one of the greatest Chinese writers of the 20th century.

Chinese was once a highly diglossic language. Diglossia refers to a situation where the written form of the language – which is pretty much all I’ve been translating so far, in the poems – is different, often dramatically, from the way the language actually is spoken.

Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), born Zhou Shuren, was one of the pioneering figures in forcing the two to come together, and in promoting the use of Vernacular rather than Classical Chinese as the written standard (which it is today). One of the first short stories written fully in the vernacular was his 1918 Diary of a Madman. He was also an ardent liberal and nationalist, which shows through most of his works, including the below.

We’ve been living in an interesting time of revolutions, to put it mildly – and this poem comes to mind every time I read about another uprising or round of protests. It was also what came to the mind of a lot of the protestors in a certain city square in June, 1989; the final line was a common refrain in the post-Tiananmen crackdown.

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黃鶴樓 – The Yellow Crane Tower, by 崔顥 Cui Hao

Chinese towers are actually a bit of an exception in Chinese architecture. Whereas most traditional Chinese buildings emphasise width and vastness rather than height, there is nonetheless a big fascination with these buildings.

Of course, there are functional uses for many of these buildings; but a large part of the fascination is with the spiritual and mystical. After all, most Chinese towers are Buddhist pagodas, or derivations thereof. And so it is with the poem I’ll be doing this week, except the influence is not Buddhist but Taoist.

The following poem is by an early Tang poet, Cui Hao 崔顥 (704 – c. 754), who was one of the openers of the tradition of poems with regular lines of five or seven characters (seven in this instance), grouped mostly into quatrains. The sort of poems, in other words, which made Li Bai, Du Fu and all the rest of them legends; and those great poets also recognised the value of Cui as an early adopter.

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