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Ancient China

Li Po, 701-762 CE

Selections from the book translated by David Hinton, 1996, New Direction Books, New York




A dog barks among the sounds of water.

Dew stains peach blossoms. In forests,


I sight a few deer, then at the creek,

hear nothing of midday temple bells.


Wild bamboo parts blue haze. A stream

hangs in flight beneath emerald peaks.


No one knows where you've gone.

Still, for rest, I've found two or three pines.





Crossing into distances beyond Ching-men,

I set out through ancient southlands. Here,


mountains fall away into wide-open plains,

and the river flows into boundless space.


The moon setting, heaven's mirror in flight,

clouds build, spreading to seascape towers.


Poor waters of home. I know how it feels:

ten thousand miles of farewell on this boat.






Climbing west toward Incense-Burner Peak,

I look south and see a falls of water, a cascade


hanging there, three thousand feet high,

then seething dozens of miles down canyons.


Sudden as lightning breaking into flight,

its white rainbow of mystery appears. Afraid


at first the celestial Star River[1] is falling,

splitting and dissolving into cloud heavens,


I look up into force churning in strength,

all power, the very workings of Creation[2].


It keeps ocean winds blowing ceaselessly,

shines a mountain moon back into empty space,


empty space it tumbles and sprays through,

rinsing green cliffs clean on both sides,


sending pearls in flight scattering into mist

and whitewater seething down towering rock.


Here, after wandering among these renowned

mountains, the heart grows rich with repose.



Why talk of cleansing elixirs of immortality?

Here, the world's dust rinsed from my face,


I'll stay close to what I've always loved,

content to leave that peopled world forever.



Sunlight on Incense-Burner kindles violet smoke.

Watching the distant falls hang there, river


headwaters plummeting three thousand feet in flight,

I see Star River falling through nine heavens.






Like Hui-yuan[3] fostering Ling-yun[4],

you open the gates of Ch'an for me:


here beneath rock and pine, serene,

it's no different than Glacier Peak.


Blossoms pure, no dye of illusion,

mind and water both pure idleness,


I sit once and plumb whole kalpas[5],

see through heaven and earth empty.





Sun rises over its eastern harbor

as if coming from some underworld,

and crossing heaven, returns again to western seas,

nowhere its six sun-dragons could ever find rest.

It's kept up this daily beginning and ending forever,

but we're not made of such ancestral ch'i[6],

so how long can we wander with it here?


Flowers bloom in spring wind. They never refuse.

And trees never resent leaf-fall in autumn skies.

No one could whip the turning seasons along so fast:

the ten thousand things rise and fall of themselves.


Hsi Ho[7], O great

Sun Mother, Sun Guide - how could you drown

in those wild sea-swells of abandon?

And Lu Yang[8], by what power

halted evening's setting sun?

It defies Tao, offends heaven -

all fake and never-ending sham.

I'll toss this Mighty Mudball earth into a bag

and break free into that boundless birthchamber of it all!





These bangs not yet reaching my eyes,

I played at our gate, picking flowers,


and you came on your horse of bamboo,

circling the well, tossing green plums.


We lived together here in Ch'ang-kan,

two little people without suspicions.


At fourteen, when I became your wife,

so timid and betrayed I never smiled,


I faced wall and shadow, eyes downcast.

A thousand pleas: I ignored them all.


At fifteen, my scowl began to soften.

I wanted us mingled as dust and ash,


and you always stood fast here for me,

no tower vigils awaiting your return.


At sixteen, you sailed far off to distant

Yen-yu Rock in Ch'u-t'ang Gorge, fierce


June waters impossible, and howling

gibbons called out into the heavens.


At our gate, where you lingered long,

moss buried your tracks one by one,


deep green moss I can't sweep away.

And autumn's come early. Leaves fall.


It's September now. Butterflies appear

in the west garden. They fly in pairs,


and it hurts. I sit heart-stricken

at the bloom of youth in my old face.


Before you start back from out beyond

all those gorges, send a letter home.


I'm not saying I'd go far to meet you,

no further than Ch'ang-feng Sands.





So much beauty home- flowers filled the house.

So much beauty gone- nothing but this empty bed,


your embroidered quilt rolled up, never used.

It's been three years. Your scent still lingers,


your scent gone and yet never ending.

But now you're gone, never to return,


thoughts of you yellow leaves falling,

white dew glistening on green moss.






It's like boundless dream here in this

world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.


I have, therefore, been drunk all day,

a shambles of sleep on the front porch.


Coming to, I look into the courtyard.

There's a bird among blossoms calling,


and when I ask what season this is,

an oriole's voice drifts on spring winds.


Overcome, verging on sorrow and lament,

I pour another drink. Soon, awaiting


this bright moon, I'm chanting a song.

And now it's over, I've forgotten why.





A woman alone here east of Ch'ung-ling

while you stay among Han River islands,


I look out across bright blossoms all day:

a lit path of white stretching between us.


We made clouds-and-rain love[10] our farewell,

then nothing but autumn grasses remained,


autumn grasses and autumn moths rising,

and thoughts of you all twilight sorrow.


Will I ever see you again, ever darken

this lamp as you loosen my gauze robes?



Short and tall, spring grasses lavish

our gate with green, as if passion-driven,


everything returned from death to life.

My burr-weed heart- it alone is bitter.


You'll know that in these things I see

you here again, planting our gardens


behind the house, and us lazily gathering

what we've grown. It's no small thing.






Alone, in the vast midst of boundless

dream, we begin to sense something:


wind and fire stir, come whorling

life into earth and water, giving us



this shape. Erasing dark confusion,

we penetrate to the essential points,


reach Nirvana-illumination, seeing

this body clearly, without any fears,


and waking beyond past and future,

we soon know the Buddha-mystery.


What luck to find a Ch'an recluse

offering emerald wine. We seem lost


together here- no different than

mountains and clouds. A clear wind


opens pure emptiness, bright moon

gazing on laughter and easy talk,


blue-lotus roofs. Timeless longing

breaks free in a wandering glance.






Over Heaven Mountain, the bright moon

rises through a boundless sea of cloud.


A hundred thousand miles long, steady

wind scouring jasper-Gate Pass howls.


Our armies moving down White-Ascent Road,

Mongols probing along Sky-Blue Seas-


soldiers never return from those forced

marches ending on battlefields. Countless


guards look out across moonlit borderlands,

thinking of home, their faces all grief.


And somewhere, high in a tower tonight,

a restless woman cries out in half-sleep.





Flourishing a white-feather fan

lazily, I go naked in green forests.


Soon, I've hung my cap on a cliff,

set my hair loose among pine winds.





Chuang-tzu dreams he's a butterfly[11],

and a butterfly becomes Chuang-tzu.


All transformation this one body,

boundless occurrence goes on and on:


it's no surprise eastern seas become

western streams[12] shallow and clear,


or the melon-grower at Ch'ing Gate

once reigned as Duke of Tung-ling.


Are hopes and dreams any different?

We bustle around, looking for what?





Jade winejars tied in blue silk . . . .

What's taking that wineseller so long?


Mountain flowers smiling, taunting me,

it's the perfect time to sip some wine,


ladle it out beneath my east window

at dusk, wandering orioles back again.


Spring breezes and their drunken guest:

today, we were meant for each other.






Among the blossoms, a single jar of wine.

No one else here, I ladle it out myself.


Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,

and facing my shadow makes friends three,


though moon has never understood wine,

and shadow only trails along behind me.


Kindred a moment with moon and shadow,

I've found a joy that must infuse spring:


I sing, and moon rocks back and forth;

I dance, and shadow tumbles into pieces.


Sober, we're together and happy. Drunk,

we scatter away into our own directions:


intimates forever, we'll wander carefree

and meet again in Star River distances.



Surely, if heaven didn't love wine,

there would be no Wine Star in heaven,


and if earth didn't love wine, surely

there would be no Wine Spring on earth.


Heaven and earth have always loved wine

so how could loving wine shame heaven?


I hear clear wine called enlightenment,

and they say murky wine is like wisdom:


once you drink enlightenment and wisdom,

why go searching for gods and immortals?


Three cups and I've plumbed the great Way,

a jarful and I've merged with occurrence


appearing of itself. Wine's view is lived:

you can't preach doctrine to the sober.



It's April in Ch'ang-an, these thousand

blossoms making a brocade of daylight.


Who can bear spring's lonely sorrows, who

face it without wine? It's the only way.


Success or failure, life long or short:

our fate's given by Changemaker at birth.


But a single cup evens out life and death,

our ten thousand concerns unfathomed,


and once I'm drunk, all heaven and earth

vanish, leaving me suddenly alone in bed,


forgetting that person I am even exists.

Of all our joys, this must be the deepest.





Here on the summit of Fan-k'o Mountain, it's Tu Fu

under a midday sun sporting his huge farmer's hat.


How is it you've gotten so thin since we parted?

Must be all those poems you've been suffering over.





Now that I've come here, I wonder why.

This Sha-ch'iu life's lazy and carefree,


but in ancient trees near the city wall,

sounds of autumn still swell at evening.


Wine here never gets me drunk. And if

local songs rekindle a feeling, it's empty.


My thoughts of you are like the Wen River,

sent broad and deep on its journey south.





War last year at the Sang-kan's headwaters,

war this year on the roads at Ts'ung River:


we've rinsed weapons clean in T'iao-chih sea-swells,

pastured horses in T'ien Mountain's snowbound grasses,


war in ten-thousand-mile campaigns

leaving our Three Armies old and broken,


but the Hsiung-nu[15] have made slaughter their own

version of plowing.

It never changes: nothing since ancient times but

bleached bones in fields of yellow sand.


A Ch'in emperor built the Great Wall to seal Mongols out,

and still, in the Han, we're setting beacon fires ablaze.


Beacon fires ablaze everlasting,

no end to forced marches and war,


it's fight to the death in outland war,

wounded horses wailing, crying out toward heaven,


hawks and crows tearing at people,

lifting off to scatter dangling entrails in dying trees.


Tangled grasses lie matted with death,

but generals keep at it. And for what?


Isn't it clear that weapons are the tools of misery?

The great sages never waited until the need

for such things arose.





Here in Wu, mulberry leaves lush green,

silkworms have already slept three times[16].


My family's stayed behind in Sha-ch'iu,

no one to plant Kuei Mountain fields,


no one to do spring work, and here I am

wandering rivers, more and more dazed.


A south wind carries my heart back, its

flight coming to rest outside the upstairs


drinking-room, where a lone peach stands,

branches in leaf sweeping azure mist.


I planted it there before leaving them,

and now three years have slipped away:


it's already reached the upstairs windows,

but my travels haven't brought me back.


Our darling Ping-yang picks blossoms

and leans against it, picks blossoms


and looks for a father she can't see,

her tears flowing the way springs flow.


And how fast he's grown- little Po-ch'in

standing shoulder-high to his big sister!


My two kids under that peach together -

who comforts them with loving hugs now?


The sense of things blank, grief burning

through me day after day, I measure out


silk and write these far-away thoughts

sent traveling the Wen-yang River home.






Leaving our departures behind, yesterday's

sunlight is light I couldn't hold back,

and throwing my heart into confusion, today's

sunlight is light bringing tangled sorrows.


Facing ten-thousand-mile winds, autumn geese leaving,

we can still laugh and drink in this tower tonight,


chant poems of Immortality Land, ancient word-bones.

The clarity of Hsieh T'iao reappears here among us:



all embracing, thoughts breaking free into flight,

we ascend azure heaven, gaze into a bright moon.


But slice water with a knife, and water still flows,

empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.


You never get what you want in this life, so why not

shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?





We the living, we're passing travelers:

it's in death alone that we return home.


All heaven and earth a single wayhouse,

the changeless grief of millennia dust,


moon-rabbit's[17] immortality balm is empty,

and the timeless fu-sang tree[18] kindling.


Bleached bones lie silent, say nothing,

and how can ever-green pines see spring?


Before and after pure lament, this life's

phantom treasure shines beyond knowing.





Never refuse wine. I'm telling you,

people come smiling in spring winds:


peach and plum like old friends, their

open blossoms scattering toward me,


singing orioles in jade-green trees,

and moonlight probing gold winejars.


Yesterday we were flush with youth,

and today, white hair's an onslaught.


Bramble's overgrown Shih-hu Temple,

and deer roam Ku-su Terrace ruins:


it's always been like this, yellow dust

choking even imperial gates closed


in the end. If you don't drink wine,

where are those ancient people now?






Follow Tao, and nothing's old or new.

Lose it, and the ruins of age return.


Someone smiling back in the mirror,

hair white as the frost-stained grass,


you admit lament is empty, ask how

reflections get so worn and withered.


How speak of peach and plum: timeless

South Mountain's[19] blaze in the end?

[1] STAR RIVER: the Milky Way.

[2] CREATION: literally "create change" (tsao-hua), the force driving the ongoing process of change - a kind of deified principle.

[3] HUI YUAN: A major figure in the history of Chinese Buddhism, Hui Yuan (334-416) emphasized dhyana (sitting meditation), teaching a form of Buddhism which contained early glimmers of Ch'an (Zen).

[4] LING-YUN: Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433), the great pre-Tang poet. When he first visited Hui Yuan in the Lu Mountains at his Tung-lin Monastery (see following poem), Ling-yun's "heart submitted to him reverently." Hsieh Ling-yun thereupon joined Hui Yuan's spiritual community, and Buddhism became central to his life and work.

[5] KALPA: In Ch'an, the term for an endlessly long period of time. Originally, in Vedic scripture, a kalpa is a worldcycle lasting 4,320,000 years.

[6] CH'I: universal breath or life-giving principle.

[7] HSI-HO: Hsi Ho drove the sun-chariot, which was pulled by six dragons.

[8] LU YANG: Lu Yang's army was in the midst of battle as evening approached. Fearing nightfall would rob him of victory, Lu Yang shook his spear at the setting sun, and it thereupon reversed its course.

[9] Translated by Ezra Pound as "The River-Merchant's Wife," this poem is a modernist classic. Indeed, translated under his Japanese name (Rihaku) in Pound's Cathay, Li Po was an important part of the modernist revolution Pound engineered. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think the husband is a river-merchant. The wandering Li Po was likely thinking figuratively of his own wife.

This poem is in the yueh-fu form. Originally, yueh-fu were folk songs, often critical of the government, which were collected by the Han emperor Wu's Music Bureau ("yueh- fu" means "Music Bureau") to gauge the sentiments of the common people. Hence, as poets later adopted the form, using a common person as the poem's speaker became a convention. As here, the speaker is often a woman left alone by her lover (cf. 20-21, 29, 65). See also p. 58 and note.

[10] CLOUDS-AND-RAIN LOVE: From the legend of a prince who, while visiting Wu Mountain, was visited in his sleep by a beautiful woman who said that she was the goddess of Wu Mountain. She spent the night with him, and as she left said: "At dawn I marshal the morning clouds; at nightfall I summon the rain."

[11] CHUANG-TZU . . . BUTTERFLY: This story, in which Chuang-tzu can't decide whether he's Chuang-tzu dreaming he's a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he's Chuang-tzu, is found at the end of Chapter 2 in the Chuang Tzu.

[12] EASTERN SEAS . . . WESTERN STREAMS: After China's rivers flow into the eastern sea, they ascend to become the Star River (Milky Way) and flow back across the sky to descend again in the west, forming the headwaters of the rivers again.

[13] Li Po's way of life often led him to inns and winehouses where courtesans entertained guests with a popular songform called tz'u. Probably imported from Li Po's native central Asia, tz'u had been considered unfit for serious poets. Not surprisingly, Li Po was the first major poet to ignore this convention. Each tz'u had a different songform, and poets would write lyrics that fit the music, which meant using quite irregular line lengths. Here, the title of the original tz'u is "Ch'ing P'ing," hence: "Ch'ing P'ing Lyrics." Tz'u thereafter grew in importance as a serious poetic form, eventually becoming the distinctive form of the Sung Dynasty.

[14] Another kind of yueh-fu the traditional form for poems of social protest, which allows rather extreme metrical irregularities. As is often the case with T'ang Dynasty yueh- fu, it is set in the Han Dynasty - a convention used when the poem was likely to offend those in power (here the protest would be against the expansionist militarism of the government). The speaker here is a soldier.

[15] HSIUNG-NU: war-like nomadic peoples occupying vast regions from Mongolia to Central Asia during the Han Dynasty. They were a constant menace on China's northern frontier.

[16] SILKWORMS . . . SLEPT THREE TIMES: Silkworms, which feed on mulberry leaves, go through three or four cycles of feeding and sleeping each spring and summer before spinning their cocoons.

[17] MOON-RABBIT: According to popular myth, there is a rabbit on the moon under a cinnamon tree. There it pounds a balm of immortality using, among other things, sap and bark from the tree.

[18] TIMELESS FU-SANG TREE: The sun is, also according to popular myth, ten crows- one for each day of the week. Each day, one sun-crow rises from the vast fu-sang (mulberry) tree in the far east. After setting, it waits in the tree's branches until its turn to rise comes again, ten days later.

[19] Calling- up such passages as "like the timelessness of South Mountain" in the Book of Songs (Shih Ching, 166/6), South Mountain came to have a kind of mythic stature as the embodiment of the elemental and timeless nature of the earth.



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