Yuan Haowen’s June 12th, 1233 – Crossing North: Three Verses

Kevin Maynard

Yuan Haowen
Yuan Haowen (元好問) (1190–1257) was the leading poet of the Jin dynasty, and lived through the Mongol invasions (one of the most catastrophic events in human history). The Jin or Jurchen were a non-Han Chinese people of nomadic origin, who had managed to oust the much more famous Song dynasty from Northern China before they themselves were annihilated by their former allies, the Mongols. In their brief moment of glory, however, they achieved a high level of civilization: although not yet as well known in the West as he should be, Yuan Haowen has been described by one recent Japanese scholar as “one of the great Chinese poets of all time”.

(The fact that his surname is identical with the dynasty name chosen by the Mongols when they acceded to the imperial throne is mere coincidence, and shouldn’t mislead anyone as to where his loyalties unswervingly lay: he remained faithful to his own defeated Jurchen emperor, and never made peace with the Mongol invaders. His steadfast refusal to serve under them has always been seen as highly honorable.

corpses sprawled, curled up beside the road—
hordes of half-dead prisoners;
banners, chariots pouring past, a flood . . .
weeping women trail these Uighur steeds—
for each step taken, who won’t cast a backward glance?

behind the troops cheap wooden Buddhas bundled—kindling:
skirl of pipes, bells clanging:
soldiers pack the swirling marketplace
men of rank imprisoned, pillaged homes
no one knows how many
all year huge boats sailing to Kaifeng


bones stacked high like sticks of hemp—
the homeland’s hacked-down mulberries, catalpas
flattened into wasteland: how much longer?
this I know: north of the Yellow River

our spirit’s broken,

houses smashed

thin smoke trails . . . all that’s left of home.

Kevin Maynard
Kevin Maynard is a retired teacher living in St Albans in the UK.  He was a graduate of Exeter University and did postgraduate work at the Warburg Institute.  He has studied Chinese for five years at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and has been translating classical Chinese poetry for over a decade.  Several of his translations have been published in small literary magazines in the UK.


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.