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Poetry

Poem to the Tune “Pure Peace”

By Li Bai
Translated from Chinese by Jeffrey Yang
This poem was written during the Tang Dynasty era (619 to 907 A.D.), also known as the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. It was originally set to music, but that music has been lost.

A cloud is her dress       a flower her face             Spring
wind through the threshold       stirs       deep peony-dew
If unable to meet                       on a jade mountain peak
we’ll face at Jasper Terrace                 beneath the moon


“Nine Poems from Ancient China” are translated from one of China’s most popular collections of traditional verse, the Qian Jia Shi (“Poems of a Thousand Masters”) first compiled in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by the poet Liu Kezhuang. Before he died in 1269 after some eighty-three years of living, Liu wrote: “I have complained that the work of recent writers is mostly shallow and commonplace. It lacks lofty and distant interests beyond the events themselves. The successful are tipsy with the inducements of favor and profit. The stymied dream of great deeds and fame. The matter/feeling appears in the words, and a thousand people all write the same poem” (translated by Michael Fuller). There is no cognate in these parts for such a collection of poems (Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is a stretch), as music and poetry have yet to be part of our standard education, and as the Chinese written language is the only language in the world that is the same today as it was three thousand years ago. In the Chinese, the poems follow the strict tonal patterns of “regulated verse” (eight lines of five or seven characters per line) and “detached verse” (four lines of five or seven characters per line), making melodies of such fluid complexity on par with a raga or Benedictine chant. The English translations emulate the overall rectangular fields (or seals) of the Chinese poems and retain the same number of lines. (Due to the difference in internet browsers, the lines in the translations may be a little off and not form perfect rectangles.) White space, as in many poems, serve as punctuation, breath, pause, degrees of rest, “In silence . . . the pulse of God’s blood in our veins” (Bunting). The overarching hope was to convey some of the music and precision of the Chinese in English.

Read About Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

A cloud is her dress       a flower her face             Spring
wind through the threshold       stirs       deep peony-dew
If unable to meet                       on a jade mountain peak
we’ll face at Jasper Terrace                 beneath the moon


“Nine Poems from Ancient China” are translated from one of China’s most popular collections of traditional verse, the Qian Jia Shi (“Poems of a Thousand Masters”) first compiled in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by the poet Liu Kezhuang. Before he died in 1269 after some eighty-three years of living, Liu wrote: “I have complained that the work of recent writers is mostly shallow and commonplace. It lacks lofty and distant interests beyond the events themselves. The successful are tipsy with the inducements of favor and profit. The stymied dream of great deeds and fame. The matter/feeling appears in the words, and a thousand people all write the same poem” (translated by Michael Fuller). There is no cognate in these parts for such a collection of poems (Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is a stretch), as music and poetry have yet to be part of our standard education, and as the Chinese written language is the only language in the world that is the same today as it was three thousand years ago. In the Chinese, the poems follow the strict tonal patterns of “regulated verse” (eight lines of five or seven characters per line) and “detached verse” (four lines of five or seven characters per line), making melodies of such fluid complexity on par with a raga or Benedictine chant. The English translations emulate the overall rectangular fields (or seals) of the Chinese poems and retain the same number of lines. (Due to the difference in internet browsers, the lines in the translations may be a little off and not form perfect rectangles.) White space, as in many poems, serve as punctuation, breath, pause, degrees of rest, “In silence . . . the pulse of God’s blood in our veins” (Bunting). The overarching hope was to convey some of the music and precision of the Chinese in English.

The English translation of the poem is shaped into a rectangular form, as it was in the original Chinese, and has the same number of lines. Each couplet, or set of two lines, expresses a different idea. The white spaces are meant to suggest pauses.

Li Bai

Li Bai (also known as Li Po, 701–62) is one of China’s most celebrated poets. He grew up in a town called Blue Lotus, in Sichuan Province, and wrote of his early years, “When I was fifteen, I was fond of sword play, and with that art I challenged quite a few great men.” After leaving home, he wandered the countryside, writing poems, meeting celebrities, giving away money, and marrying the first of his four wives His adult life included an interlude at the Emperor’s court, an arrest for treason, exile, and pardon. He lived through China’s Golden Age, as well as the wars and famines that followed.

After his poems were translated into English in the eighteenth century, they became models for English and American poets, who admired his conversational style and emulated his celebrations of friendship, nature, and wine. In the twentieth century, his work influenced such poets as Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and Lorine Niedecker (“Swept snow Li Po . . .”)

Jeffrey Yang (translator)

Jeffrey Yang is the poetry editor for New Directions. He has published a limited-edition translation of Tang-Song Dynasty poems called Rhythm 226, and his translation of Su Shi’s East Slope is available from Ugly Duckling Presse. His own collections of poetry include An Aquarium and Vanishing-Lines. He is the editor of the anthologies Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems (2011) and Time of Grief: Mourning Poems (2013).

Meet Li Bai

13th-century image of the poet Li Bai.

Watch the 2-minute video, “Li Bo: The “Outsider” poet,” from Columbia University, and find out why some critics call him a “wild man” in the 90-second video, “Unconventional Poetic Style.”  

Listen to the Poem

Listen to someone reading and singing the poem, and read a different translation of it. 

"A flower her face"?

How do you imagine the woman in the poem? A five-minute video describes ancient Chinese makeup traditions, which sometimes included images of flowers on faces, and connects them to Disney’s Mulan. 

Or, read some “Make-up Tips from the Tang Dynasty,” published on chinaculture.org.

For a contemporary fashion designer’s cos-play featuring the same era, look through the “ultra-retro photo shoot” posted by the blogger Shanghaiist.

Jueju: Saying a Lot in a Few Words

A statue of Du Fu, a fellow poet and friend of Li Bai. Photo by Somchai Sun. (CC 3.0 license.)

This poem is an example of a poetic form called jueju, which means “cut-off lines.” To write a jueju, a poet needs to create matching couplets with five to seven syllables per line. In such a strict form, each Chinese character (or English word) has to count. In creating jueju, poets try to see “the big within the small” (xiao zhong jian da)—finding emotional, philosophical and religious meaning in careful observation of a few images.

Interested in reading more jueju? “Poems for Parting,” by Du Mu, also on WWB Campus, is also in jueju form, and addresses a similar theme of longing for a loved one.

Then, read a few more translated juejus from Li Bai (also sometimes called Li Po): 

Finally, take a look at a jueju by Li Bai’s equally celebrated friend, Du Fu: “The River’s Blue, The Bird a Perfect White.”

Art & the Tang Dynasty
File:Tang woman.jpg

Tang dynasty-era statue of a woman, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Look at art from the Tang Dynasty: Standing Court Ladya Phoenix-head ewerNight-Shining White.

Or, look at art depicting the Tang Dynasty era, composed during later periods, when people were beginning to refer to the Tang and Song eras as China’s Golden AgeLandscapes after Tang PoemsSpring Play in a Tang Garden, and A Tang Palace—all created hundreds of years after the dynasty fell.

Imagining Mountains

The poem mentions a “jade mountain peak“—what was the poet imagining? Look at the painting Summer Mountains, from the Song Dynasty era. Dwelling in the Mountains is a modern painting that draws on dynastic traditions.

More from Li Bai

Read some of Li Bai’s other poems, and look at photographs of places mentioned in the poems on the Mountain Songs website.

Listen to poems by Li Bai in Mandarin, and read English translations, on the blog Poems Found in Translation. You can also find even more poetry by Li Bai on the Poetry Foundation website, in this archive, or on Black Cat Poems.

More from Translator Jeffrey Yang

Read other poems from the series “Nine Poems from Ancient China,” translated by Jeffrey Yang and published in Words Without Borders.

Educators: To teach these and other poems from the Tang Dynasty era, take a look at the lesson plan “Reading a Tang Dynasty Poem“, available from the China Institute’s China 360 website. 

Translating Chinese Poetry with Ilya Kaminsky and Arthur Sze

Learn more about translating Chinese poetry in Ilya Kaminsky’s essay, “Translating a Peony.”

Watch Arthur Sze talk about translating Li Bai and other Tang poetry, translation as the most intimate form of reading, and the differences between contemporary and ancient Chinese. Go to 2:14 to see him read Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone with the Moon.” 

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Music and Lyrics from the Tang Dynasty

The music this poem was originally set to has been lost, but other music from the Tang era remains. Li Bai played and set some poems to the qin, or guqin, a stringed musical instrument. Listen to his poem “Endless Yearning” on the piano and guqin, and read the English lyrics.

Then, listen to American composer Harry Partch’s “Seventeen Lyrics by Li Po.”

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

They’re based on poems from The Works of Li Po, the Chinese Poet, translated by Shigeyoshi Obata, which you can read online.

Tang Dynasty Lookbooks

Li Bai writes, “a flower her face.” Read this article from a Chinese state newspaper about beauty and fashion trends for women in the Tang Dynasty—a painting of a Tang Dynasty woman is at the top. Then watch the video that prompted this article—a Taiwanese student’s project to recreate the looks of Tang women.

(Watch the video on YouTube.)

Homegrown Hip Hop

Artists in Li Bai’s city of Chengdu are continuing to set poetry to music: read all about it in “Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan’s Homegrown Hip Hop,” from Guernica magazine. According to the article, Li Bai’s lifestyle was not so different from that of the rappers living in the city today.   

More Poetry from Asian Voices

Looking for more poems? Check out the Poetry Foundation’s “Asian American Voices in Poetry” collection.

Li Po's Influence*

To learn about another poet from the Tang Dynasty, take a look at James Wright’s “A Blessing,” a modern poem influenced by poet Li Po.

For more of Li Po’s modern influence, visit the pages for James WrightEzra Pound, and Lorine Niedecker on The Poetry Foundation, and read Simon Elegant’s novel, A Floating Life, in which Li Po appears as a character.

* For Teaching Idea 1

More Poetry from the Tang Dynasty*

For more poems from the Tang Dynasty read Poems for Parting published on Campus, or look through the online anthologies 300 Tang Poems and Chinese Poems.  

Then, learn more about Tang Dynasty-era poetry on Columbia University’s Asian Topics website.

* For Teaching Idea 2

1. Writing Jueju
2. Li Bai & James Wright
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

A cloud is her dress       a flower her face             Spring
wind through the threshold       stirs       deep peony-dew
If unable to meet                       on a jade mountain peak
we’ll face at Jasper Terrace                 beneath the moon


“Nine Poems from Ancient China” are translated from one of China’s most popular collections of traditional verse, the Qian Jia Shi (“Poems of a Thousand Masters”) first compiled in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) by the poet Liu Kezhuang. Before he died in 1269 after some eighty-three years of living, Liu wrote: “I have complained that the work of recent writers is mostly shallow and commonplace. It lacks lofty and distant interests beyond the events themselves. The successful are tipsy with the inducements of favor and profit. The stymied dream of great deeds and fame. The matter/feeling appears in the words, and a thousand people all write the same poem” (translated by Michael Fuller). There is no cognate in these parts for such a collection of poems (Palgrave’s Golden Treasury is a stretch), as music and poetry have yet to be part of our standard education, and as the Chinese written language is the only language in the world that is the same today as it was three thousand years ago. In the Chinese, the poems follow the strict tonal patterns of “regulated verse” (eight lines of five or seven characters per line) and “detached verse” (four lines of five or seven characters per line), making melodies of such fluid complexity on par with a raga or Benedictine chant. The English translations emulate the overall rectangular fields (or seals) of the Chinese poems and retain the same number of lines. (Due to the difference in internet browsers, the lines in the translations may be a little off and not form perfect rectangles.) White space, as in many poems, serve as punctuation, breath, pause, degrees of rest, “In silence . . . the pulse of God’s blood in our veins” (Bunting). The overarching hope was to convey some of the music and precision of the Chinese in English.

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