Sunday, June 4, 2017


Inlaid Harp

   --after Li Shangyin

Inlaid harp may have 50 strings
and each string reminds me of some yesterday’s beauty.
Like Zhuangzi, I got lost in my butterfly dreams.
Like Du Yu, my dirge made me a cuckoo.
A wide sea has a beautiful moon
but the mermaid bursts into pearls.
Lantian has a gentle sun
but jade breathes only fog.
We can’t revisit life’s vicissitudes
but our youth missed too much.

--tr. Duane Vorhees

Li Shangyin.jpg


  1. Li Shangyin was a 9th-century poet who was rediscovered" in the 20th century by young Chinese writers due to the imagist quality of his "no title" poems which are regarded as "pure poetry" by modern critics, especially the one beginning with the characters "Jin Se," which consists of 56 characters and a string of images. In 1968 Roger Waters borrowed lines from his poetry to create the lyrics for the song "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" for Pink Floyd's second album "A Saucerful of Secrets."

    Little by little the night turns around.
    Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn
    Lotuses lean on each other in yearning
    Under the eaves the swallow is resting
    Set the controls for the heart of the sun.

    Over the mountain watching the watcher.
    Breaking the darkness, waking the grapevine.
    One inch of love is one inch of shadow
    Love is the shadow that ripens the wine.
    Set the controls for the heart of the sun.
    The heart of the sun, the heart of the sun.

    Witness the man who raves at the wall
    Making the shape of his questions to Heaven
    Whether the sun will fall in the evening
    Will he remember the lesson of giving?
    Set the controls for the heart of the sun.
    The heart of the sun, the heart of the sun.

    In 2012 Peter Heller relied heavily on his poem "When Will I Be Home?" in the novel "The Dog Stars."

    When will I be home? I don't know.
    In the mountains, in the rainy night,
    The autumn lake is flooded.
    Someday we will be back together again.
    We will sit in the candlelight by the west window,
    And I will tell you how I remembered you
    Tonight on the stormy mountain.

    --tr. Kenneth Rexroth

  2. Zhuang Zhou, often known as Zhuangzi ("Master Zhuang"), was credited with writing the "Zhuangzi" in the 4th century BCE. In ca. 94 BCE Sima Qian recorded his biography in "The Records of the Grand Historian," saying he "had made himself well acquainted with all the literature of his time, but preferred the views of Lao-Tze; and ranked himself among his followers, so that of the more than ten myriads of characters contained in his published writings the greater part are occupied with metaphorical illustrations of Lao's doctrines. He made "The Old Fisherman," "The Robber Chih," and "The Cutting open Satchels," to satirize and expose the disciples of Confucius, and clearly exhibit the sentiments of Lao.... [Zhuang] was an admirable writer and skillful composer, and by his instances and truthful descriptions hit and exposed the Mohists and Literati. The ablest scholars of his day could not escape his satire nor reply to it, while he allowed and enjoyed himself with his sparkling, dashing style; and thus it was that the greatest men, even kings and princes, could not use him for their purposes. King Wei of Chu ... sent messengers with large gifts to bring him to his court, and promising also that he would make him his chief minister. [Zhuabg], however, only laughed and said to them, 'A thousand ounces of silver are a great gain to me; and to be a high noble and minister is a most honorable position. But have you not seen the victim-ox for the border sacrifice? It is carefully fed for several years, and robed with rich embroidery that it may be fit to enter the Grand Temple. When the time comes for it to do so, it would prefer to be a little pig, but it can not get to be so. Go away quickly, and do not soil me with your presence. I had rather amuse and enjoy myself in the midst of a filthy ditch than be subject to the rules and restrictions in the court of a sovereign. I have determined never to take office, but prefer the enjoyment of my own free will.'" His best-known anecdote was "Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly" at the end of the second chapter, "On the Equality of Things": "Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know that he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn't know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things." (tr. Burton Watson)

    Du Yu (king Wang Di of Shu) fell from the sky to Zhuti (modern Zhaotong, Yunnan) and married Liang Li, who was born in a well in Jiangyuan (modern Chongzhou Sichuan). He ruled for over a century from Pi (west of modern Chengdu) and taught the peoples of Ba and Shu how to plow their fields. He was closely assoiated with his councillor Bie Ling, who came from Jing (modern Hubei). After Bie tamed the floods of a river at Mt. Yushan, Wang Di ceded his trhone to him as king Kai Ming; or perhaps he abdicated due to guilt over his affair with Bie's wife. His soul transformed into a cuckoo ("duyu"), who returned every spring to remind his people to begin their work in the fields. (Another account related that Bie had usurped the throne, and the transformation into a bird was the result of Du's unsuccessful restoration attempt. In yet another rendition, Du freed the Dragon Maid from the dragon of the Min river, tamed the river's waters, and married her; one of his ministers lusted after the king and imprisoned him, but Du died, took the shape of a cuckoo, returned to his former palace, and the Dragon Maid also became a bird.)

    Lantian is part of Xi'an (formerly Chang'an, the ancient capital of China through the Tang dynasty).


Join the conversation! What is your reaction to the post?