Ancient Wall

Yuan Mei

J.P. Seaton

古   牆


古 牆 庭 院 角

經 歲 樹 陰 遮

幽 絕 無 人 見

青 苔 作 小 花

I did this poem several times with translation classes at the University of North Carolina, often for classes that included students who knew no Chinese, and usually with very good results. Yuan Mei “steals” from Wang Wei’s famous quatrain Dear Park in the last two lines.

You might want to look at the essay, Once More On the Empty Mountain, available here, and at any of the many other translations you can find here and elsewhere on line if you want to try to understand what our poet’s game was.

Of course I’m happy to have anyone read and hopefully learn something from our work here, but what I really hope fervently is that you’ll try to “roll your own” from the word-for-words that are and will be offered here.

If you do want to try translating it yourself, I’d love to see your final draft, as well as any comments on the process of making the translation. If you enjoy translating, or just reading the word for word and comparing it to the translations of others, there will be more “Word-for Words” available here as we go along. Look here every other week or so.

It might be a good idea to copy the word for word below to your word processing program, enlarge the characters and make extra space after the commentary so you can take notes as you read.  Find a way of laying out the material that is comfortable to you, and then work at drafting your translation with a pencil. Or you can print out the last page of this article and work with that.


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.