古柏行 – On the Ancient Cypress


In Chinese, many characters have the ‘wood’ (木) radical on its side. Aside from common words used for things made out of wood – chair (椅), bed (床), shelve (柜) for example – many of them are words for different sorts of trees, such as the pine (松), plum (梅), oak (橡 or 栎), and of course the subject for today, the cypress (柏). 

A long lived tree relatively common in Sichuan, this conifer must have been quite a familiar sight to Du Fu 杜甫 when he lived in Chengdu as a refugee from the chaos in the north caused by the An-Shi Rebellion. (You can read more about this here.)

Before managing to escape, he was in truly hot water in Chang’an, former capital of the Tang Dynasty which had fallen to the rebels. This is because, as a previous minister in the Tang Court, he had submitted advice against An Lushan, warning against giving him enormous military authority over all Tang forces in the northeast. The advice was not heeded; the authority backfired horribly, and Du Fu nearly died for it. 

In comparison to those days, living in peaceful Sichuan must have been a considerable relief. But Du Fu remained outside the mainstream of politics despite his ambitions, and instead became a poor, wandering poet. We are, of course, much the better for it. 


A beautiful rendition of the poem, in the cursive calligraphic style. (Reads from up to down, right to left)

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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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Translation Thursday: 赋得古原草送别 Bidding Farewell on the Plain, by 白居易 Bai Juyi


I actually drew a blank for this week’s translation and had to ask a friend, who immediately suggested Bai Juyi. The only surprise is that I didn’t think of that myself, honestly. 

Bai Juyi (772 – 846) belonged to a later generation than many of the writers previously featured, such as Du Fu and Li Bai, and his life was also… different, if not necessarily more comfortable. While there might not have been a civil war on, the way Du Fu suffered from the An-Shi Rebellion, Bai’s Tang Dynasty was a pretty fragmented place, with warlords (many of whom had helped the imperial side during the rebellion) and short-reigning emperors. In his 75 years, Bai Juyi lived through nine reigns. 

Coming from a family with some political background – his grandfather was a county magistrate, his father a general and inspector – he too made it quite smoothly through the imperial examinations, becoming a jinshi (imperial degree holder) on his first try in 800. His career would become quite rocky in later decades, but that’s not the period covered in the poems to come. (He had some seriously, seriously long poems in his later, bitterer years.)

The first of these poems is one of the pieces many kids learn when they dip their toes into Chinese literature; it is also a good expression of how Tang poetry had evolved by Bai’s time: still strongly impressionist, but with a stronger narrative thread running through it. 

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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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曲江二首 – Two poems, written at the Meandering River

Du Fu (712 – 770) is the one part of the Tang Poetic Trinity I’ve been holding back – partly because he is my favourite of the three. While the three contemporary masters perhaps didn’t see it as such, they all lived through an event which would prove a watershed of history – the An-Shi Rebellion (756 – 763), a seven-year revolt named after its two leaders which tore the Tang Dynasty apart at its very peak and undermined the central government fatally. Only Du Fu would survive the calamity; Wang died in 761, and Li in 762.

The way the civil war treated each of the three men, though, perhaps best reflects their character. Wang, captured by the rebels, somehow could not be persuaded to join them; then the Imperial Court suspected him of that exact defection, but were somehow persuaded that he was innocent. So, both sides having washed off his back like water, he returned to his Buddhist life, and remained so even as his titles and ranks were gradually restored to him. The calm within him had carried him through even this calamity.

Li, ever on the move, kept on the move during the war, and was also accused of treason and nearly put to death. Eventually he was exiled to a distant corner of the empire, but even this trip to the Tang version of Siberia proved just another trip in the spirited poet’s life, as he meandered through the realm meeting friends, writing poems and getting smashed. There was no dampening his spirit; he was on the road; he was wild and could not be tamed.

Du Fu, too, was forced into wandering, moving to Chengdu in Sichuan, where the Tang government-in-exile was. But as his nature was heavy, so his journeys were slow, full of pauses and ponderous. He had family to take care of; he did not have the spirit of Li Bai, or the calm of Wang Wei. What he had, more than either of them, was a sharp ear and a sharp eye – and plenty to watch and listen to.


The Meandering River lay to the south of Chang’an, and during better times was a renowned scenic area for all the well-heeled and literate of the capital. The two poems below, however, were not written in better times; they were composed in 758, in the midst of the Rebellion.

Du Fu had escaped Chang’an when it was captured by rebels in 756; in 757, Tang forces recaptured it. But a year was enough to unmake the entire world around the capital, as Du Fu would know – he had been held in Chang’an for months before escaping to join the government-in-exile. Perhaps it was the tenacity of nature (as he noted in another poem) which led him to visit the Meandering River; perhaps it was that the human world had done its best to reject him – the court he had risked death to rejoin, shuttling through mountains twice, had continuously sidelined and neglected him. Either way, he came and he wrote.

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自宣城赴官上京 – Heading from Xuancheng to the Capital for an Official Appointment

Du Mu 杜牧, courtesy name Muzhi 牧之 (803 – 852) was probably both lucky and unlucky to be born when he was. On the plus side, he certainly had no shortage of idols and previous poets to learn from – indeed, among the poets of the Tang he is known as ‘lesser Du’ or ‘minor Du’, to differentiate him from the ‘greater Du’, Du Fu (712 – 770). (They are not closely related, though both of them are from the same Du clan – it was a pretty powerful clan during that era.)

As for the negatives, Du Mu grew up and entered government at a time when the Tang government was pretty knackered, between civil wars, half the country being quasi-independent, and eunuchs running the show in the palace while the long-running political episode called the Niu-Li Factional struggle – think modern two-party politics, but with losing parties executed or sent to Siberia – continued its long, long run. Still, having passed his Imperial Examinations, Du Mu got a lucky break, having been assigned to Xuancheng 宣城 (in modern day Anhui Province) as a member of the local administration. It’s hard to overstate how lucky a break this is for a poet; to this day, the city of Xuancheng gives its name to the lovely, strong and absorbent paper, known as Xuanzhi 宣紙 (lit. ‘Xuanzhou paper’) which is used in Chinese ink-wash paintings.

Naturally, he took to it like a poet in those days (in any days, really) took to alcohol, pretty girls and the ‘scene’; and this is the poem he wrote when eventually he had to be transferred to the capital.


Unbridled in Xuancheng’s environs, I have passed ten autumns;


And not one day has passed me without poetry and wine.


I’ve started awake beside the stream that flows round Lord Xie’s city [1];


The willows before Su Xiao’s gate [2] have oft caressed my head.


In a thousand li of clouds and peaks, is there any pleasant place?


How few can live so free of care, before their lives’ ends face.


Oh, to hang my headdress [3] and govern just my idleness,


And return here, to mock time spent on official business.

[1] Lord Xie’s city: Xie Tiao 謝脁 (464 – 499) was a famous poet of the Southern Qi Dynasty (479 – 502), who served as the Governor of Xuancheng in 495. Because of that he was known as ‘Xie of Xuancheng’ – an association cleverly reversed in this poem.

Also, he started awake because he got smashed. You know, like every other poet of his age.

[2] Su Xiao’s gate: Su Xiaoxiao was a famous entertainer who had absolutely nothing to do with Xuancheng; she was, however, apparently so beautiful and lovely and good at singing that her name became a general term for all singing girls. (It’s maybe for the best these things don’t happen these days. Oh, what lovely Gagas…) Anyway, she was famous for planting willows in front of her probably frequented doors, and willows or no, Du Mu certainly frequented many songstresses’ doors.

[3] Since the headdress is a sign of office, hanging it up naturally means resigning one’s commission.

A No-Longer-So-Little note on Chinese names – Part 2, courtesy names, pseudonyms, and names you’ll never use

The previous names we talked about – surname and given name – are, sadly, pretty much the only names that Chinese people have these days. You can say it’s not sad in that it’s simplified, but look at the examples of terrible names in the earlier post.

Of course, just as someone whose parents named him Havelock might just choose to go by, say, Avy (Locky?), and someone whose parents named him Socrates might hold symposia and get some deep thinking done (or drink hemlock, and yes I know a Socrates, and he’s ethnically Chinese), there are – well, were – ways of getting around such nominative messes in historical China. These are the courtesy names, and the pseudonyms.

Also, if one has gone far enough up the mortal coil before being eased off it, they would also be given names, or more accurately, posthumous titles. Which is, of course, a nice gesture – most of the time, anyway. People recognise that, if you’re highly-ranked enough, your non-existence is no reason for people to not gossip about you.

Courtesy names (, zi4)

Courtesy names exist because, according to the 2,700-year-old Classics of Rites, it is impolite to call people by their given names. The name people get at birth are for the ones who gave or suggested it – the parents, their aunt who thought it might be nice to call them Erectile Dysfunction or Shaking All-About, those people.

This is naturally a drag once you are old enough to have plenty of friends, so traditionally most literate Chinese would, on maturity, give themselves a courtesy name. And this is why, in many texts like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, keeping track of names often becomes a nightmare by Chapter 10 – on top of figuring who’s been hacked and who’s not, many people have two or even three names by which they are addressed. Some examples from that period (184 – 280):

曹操 Cao2 Cao1, courtesy name 孟德 Meng4 De2

劉備 Liu2 Bei4, courtesy name 玄德 Xuan2 De2

諸葛亮 Zhu1 Ge3 Liang4, courtesy name 孔明 Kong3 Ming2

孫權 Sun1 Quan2, courtesy name 仲謀 Zhong4 Mou2

The name is self-given, and so you are free to call yourself what you want. General rules do tend to apply, however. For one, there is the question of birth order; quite often one of the two words would be used to denote the birth order of the person, from oldest to youngest: 伯 bo2, 仲 zhong4, 叔 shu1, 季 ji4, and sometimes 幼 you4. Indeed, even now, 伯 is used to address one’s father’s older brothers (older uncles), while 叔 is for paternal younger uncles. Another option for the oldest chlid is 孟 meng4, though I’m not sure what the derivation for that is.

So, for instance, Sun Quan’s courtesy name is 仲謀 Zhong4 Mou2, and that’s because he’s the second son in the family – his older brother Sun Ce 孫策’s courtesy name is 伯符, Bo2 Fu2.

Another general rule is that the courtesy name tends to reflect, in some way, the actual given name, often by using a related word. Cao Cao’s given name, 操 cao1, roughly translates to ‘virtue, purity’ (yeah, the irony is not lost on me); and so his courtesy name, 孟德 meng4 de2, refers both to him being the first son of his father, and to 德 or virtue.

None of these are absolute rules, of course. There are some literati who much prefer to have their names oppose rather than support each other. The great essayist and poet of the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu 韓愈 (768 – 824), has a given name 愈 yu4 which means ‘to advance‘; his courtesy name, however, is 退之 tui4 zhi1, which means ‘retreating’. I bet he was a great wit. (Judging by the essays, he wasn’t. Sorry to spoil. I might translate some later and you decide.)

Pseudonyms (, hao4)

So the courtesy name is there for friends, and not unlike the given name there is also some element of aspiration in it – except, perhaps, from a more adult, mature perspective. But aspiration is so mainstream, so what you want if you actually want a unique name that really says who you are, you get a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms tend, in Chinese culture, to be the preserve of poets and writers, and are often associated with geographical features, or some of their particularly witty sayings and beliefs. Many of the geographical feature pseudonyms are in turn derived from the places where they live – at least, where they live when they were poor and lived in interesting places, or got exiled from court into interesting places. You wouldn’t call yourself the Resident Scholar of Canary Wharf, and nor do the Chinese.

Indeed, there are some historical writers who are more commonly referred to by their pseudonyms; one example is the great Song Dynasty (961 – 1279) poet, painter, statesman etc. Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037 – 1101), pseudonym 東坡居士 dong1 po1, literally Resident Scholar of the East Slope, who in Chinese is often called Su Dongpo 蘇東坡, East Slope Su.

Some examples of pseudonyms are below:

諸葛亮 Zhu1 gee Liang4 (again), pseudonym 臥龍 Wo4 Long2 ‘Reclining Dragon’, named after Reclining Dragon Ridge where he lived

李白 Li3 Bai2, pseudonym 青蓮居士 Qing1 lian2 ju1 shi4, literally ‘Resident Scholar of the Blue-green Lotus’

Posthumous Names (謚號, shi4 hao4)

We Chinese people are seriously into history (it’s not just me, I swear!), and also quite bitchy (also not just me), and so we have this ancient tradition of posthumous names. We’re never going to hear our own, so that’s not much to worry about, but of the different sorts of names, this is perhaps the most formalised one, with the most rules. If given and courtesy names are aspirational, and pseudonyms are so hipster and ‘just the way I am’, then the posthumous name is a committee sitting over your coffin evaluating your life performance.

Nice image, eh?

Posthumous names are reserved for emperors and officials, and especially for emperors they are the main form of address – the emperor’s personal name is far too sacrosanct to be mentioned, and that is why we have titles like Emperor Wu of Han (156 BC – 87 BC, r. 141 BC – 87 BC), Emperor Wen of Wei (187 – 226, r. 220 – 226) and so on. In their cases, 武 Wu3 means ‘martial’, and 文 Wen2 means ‘civil’; some other common and complimentary posthumous titles include 明 Ming2 ‘bright, discerning’, 景 Jing3 ‘decisive, admirable’ and 穆 Mu4 ‘amicable, harmonious’.

There are derogatory posthumous names, though these are much rarer; Emperor Ling of Han (156 – 189, r. 168 – 189) has the title 靈 Ling2, which means ‘inattentive, lazy’.

For officials, posthumous titles are often given by the imperial court on their death, in order to commemorate their public service. This, in turn, means it is often possible to tell which writers and scholars have been high-ranking officials, and which ones either never joined imperial service (not very common) or got exiled due to political struggles at court (very common).

The writers who do manage to get posthumous names tend to have their collected writings published under that posthumous name – another literary tradition in China. Partly because of this tradition, there are also writers who are often known by their posthumous names; perhaps the most famous is the Song Dynasty minister and scholar Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989 – 1052), whose posthumous title was Wenzheng 文正 ‘civil and righteous’; he is often known as Fan Wenzheng Gong 范文正公, ‘Lord Fan, civil and righteous’.

So that’s about it (for now) for names. I’m not going to go into too many examples, partly because I will be going into a lot of those writers – in fact, writing this is making me recall all these other writers I need to post about! Well, no end of material for the blog then…