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300 Tang Poems, No.99

Cen Shen was a contemporary and friend of the great Tang poet Du Fu, to whom this five-character regulated verse is addressed.  It dates from the year 757, when Cen was appointed “Right Rectifier of Omissions” at the court of Emperor Suzong. Du Fu, in spite of his failure to pass the Imperial Examination, was also employed at the court, having briefly managed to get one of the few official appointments of his life as “Left Reminder”. Cen’s poem captures the strain and futility of service at the Emperor’s court  in positions that may be largely ceremonial but nevertheless subject to Imperial caprice and court intrigue.

This 5-character regulated verse appears to follow the prescribed form faithfully. It has the required parallelism of the two middle couplets. Although the pronunciation of Classical Chinese clearly differed from that of modern Chinese ( Classical Chinese had five tones; today Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese seven), the question of “how different” is intriguing, since some of this rhyming scheme survives intact. Lines 2, 4, 6 and 8 read, in Mandarin: wei, gui, fei, xi.

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Cen Shen

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Letter to Left reminder Du Fu

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unite follow cinnabar steps

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divide office limits purple tiny

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dawn follow heavenly battle enter

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dusk cause imperial perfume return

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white hair grieve flower fall

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black clouds envy birds fly

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present dynasty without fault business

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self aware admonitions scarce

As one, we climb the cinnabar steps,
then each goes off to his office cubicle.
At dawn, we file in behind the Imperial Regalia;
at dusk, we carry home the odor of the palace.
White-haired, we grieve for fallen blossoms;
from dark clouds, we envy soaring birds.
Since Imperial decisions are without fault
our critical petitions will be rather few.

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