Wang Wei’s Wangchuan Collection and Li Qingzhao translations

Matthew Flannery

Tune: “Shenshen Man”

Seek. Seek. Search. Search.
Cold. Cold. Void. Void.
Sorrow. Sorrow. Pain. Pain. Grief. Grief….
First a warm spell, then cold weather
ruin sleep.
Several cups of light wine
cannot deflect this evening’s breeze.
Once again, white geese bypass
my unhappiness —
if old companions, who can tell?

The falling petals of yellow chrysanthemums rise in heaps
now so frail
how can I pick them?
I wait by the window
alone: hours linger till the sky goes black.
On wu tong leaves, fine rain.
At twilight
one drop. Two. Another.
In this life
how full the word for sorrow.

Line one to three: Leon Chang: these strings of individual words were a new addition to poetic expression.
Line eight: geese: symbolic of messengers.
Line twelve: literally, “yellow flower drying out”: chrysanthemums, and a metaphor for failing human health. The translation preserves this line’s ambiguity of reference to both flower and poet.
Line sixteen: wu tong: a deciduous tree.

Tune: “Yong Yu Luo”

The falling sun was molten metal
evening clouds, gathered jade.
(Where is he now?)
Willows turned the mist light green
a lonely flute played “Plum Blossoms Fall.”
(How much spring can one expect?)
On the joyful feast of new year’s day
already the air was turning mild.
(Will tomorrow bring wind and rain?)
In caparisoned carts, invited guests came and went;
to all my friends in wine and poetry, I gave my thanks.

Those were prosperous days in the old capital
when women enjoyed great leisure behind their inner doors.
I still recall our special love of new year’s
how chic we were in green-feathered headdresses
jewelry woven of silver or gold
competing in our beauty.
But now my skin is burnt and sick
hair in wind-tangles, temples shot white.
Tonight, too tired to celebrate out
Lingering behind my curtained windows
I listen to others laugh and talk.

Line three: he: the artist’s deceased husband.
Line five: Chinese plums can flower in early spring before the snow melts.
Lines seven, fourteen: here, “new year’s day” is that portion of the new year’s celebration termed yuan xiao, the three-day festival of lights. It commences on the fifteenth day, first month.
Line twelve: old capital: in the face of a foreign conquest of north China (1125), the artist endured chaotic flight from north to south China and from the dynasties of the Northern Song (960-1125) (first stanza) to the Southern Song (1126-1279) (second stanza).

With great gratitude to my teacher, the polymath Leon Chang Long-yien (1909-2009), for his inestimable contributions to these translations.


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.