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.