Aboard a Boat at Night, Drinking with My Wife

Mai Yao-ch’en

The moon appears from the mouth of the sheer bluff;
its light shining behind the boat over there.
I sit drinking alone with my wife;
how much better than facing some dreary stranger!
The moonlight slowly spreads over our mat,
dark shadows bit by bit receding.
What need is there to fetch a torch?
We’ve joy enough in this light alone.

Burton Watson


Autumn’s Cold

Po Ch-ui

here’s my snowy crown
time’s tinted decrepitude
there’s the frost in the courtyard
autumn’s glittery breath
now I’m sick and just watching my wife
pick cure-alls
then I’m frozen waiting for the maid
to comb my hair
without the body
what use fame?
worldly things
I’ve put aside
I delve my heart
determined now
to learn from Empty Boats!

James Cryer


In a Boat: Fearsome Weather

Yuan Mei

All day in the boat, eyes weary, wide.
Snow petals fall lightly to rest
on floating water weed.
I shut the east window, then peak out on the west,

glad, at least, the wind can’t blow
two ways at once.

J.P. Seaton

Spring at Wu Ling

Li Ch’ing-Chao

The breeze has passed,
pollen dust settled,
and now the evening comes
as I comb out my hair.

There is the book, the inkstone, the table.
But he who was my life
is gone. lt is difficult
to speak through tears.

I’ve heard it’s always spring
at Wu Ling, and beautiful.
I’d take a little boat and drift
alone out on the water.
But I’m afraid a boat
so small would swamp
with the weight
of all my sorrows.

Sam Hamill


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.