Po Chü-i (772-846): Passing T’ien-Men Street in Ch’ang-an and Seeing a Distant View of Chung-Nan Mountain (1)

Chinese poets and artists concentrate heavily on the beauties of nature, but ordinary life went on in the T’ang Dynasty as in most places and times.

The snow has gone from Chung-nan; spring is almost come.
Lovely in the distance its blue colors, against the brown of the streets.
A thousand coaches, ten thousand horsemen pass down the Nine Roads;
Turns his head and looks at the mountains,–not one man!

The Charcoal-Seller

Po Chü-i is famous for the simplicity of his language and his sympathy with the oppressed, as in this poem depicting the sufferings of a charcoal-vendor exploited by arrogant aristocrats.

An old charcoal seller
Cutting wood and burning charcoal in the forest of the Southern Mountain.
His face, stained with dust and ashes, has turned to the color of smoke.
The hair on his temples is streaked with gray: his ten fingers are black.
The money he gets by selling charcoal, how far does it go?
It is just enough to clothe his limbs and put food in his mouth.
Although, alas, the coat on his back is a coat without lining,
He hopes for the coming of cold weather, to send up the price of coal!
Last night, outside the city,–a whole foot of snow;
At dawn he drives the charcoal wagon along the frozen ruts.
Oxen,–weary; man,–hungry: the sun, already high;
Outside the Gate, to the south of the Market, at last they stop in the mud.
Suddenly, a pair of prancing horsemen. Who can it be coming?
A public official in a yellow coat and a boy in a white shirt.
In their hands they hold a written warrant: on their tongues–the words of an order;
They turn back the wagon and curse the oxen, leading them off to the north.
A whole wagon of charcoal,
More than a thousand pieces!
If officials choose to take it away, the woodman may not complain.
Half a piece of red silk and a single yard of damask,
The Courtiers have tied to the oxen’s collar, as the price of a wagon of coal!


Po Chü-i impishly taunts one of the most influential of all Chinese philosophers in this poem.

“Those who speak know nothing
Those who know are silent.”
These words, as I am told,
Were spoken by Lao-tzü.
If we are to believe that Lao-tzü
Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?

Fu Hsüan: Woman (3rd C. CE)

Chinese civilization has often been considered one of the least favorable toward women, yet their problems are largely common from culture to culture. At least a number of Chinese women were able to articulate their plight in poems that came to be considered classics. Here the theme of distance is used throughout the poem to emphasize the emotional isolation that is women’s lot.

How sad it is to be a woman!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
Then she grows up, she hides in her room
Afraid to look a man in the face.
No one cries when she leaves her home–
Sudden as clouds when the rain stops.
She bows her head and composes her face,
Her teeth are pressed on her red lips:
She bows and kneels countless times.
She must humble herself even to the servants.
His love is distant as the stars in Heaven,
Yet the sunflower bends toward the sun.
Their hearts more sundered than water and fire–
A hundred evils are heaped upon her.
Her face will follow the years’ changes:
Her lord will find new pleasures.
They that were once like substance and shadow
Are now as far as Hu from Ch’in. (2)
Yet Hu and Ch’in shall sooner meet
Than they whose parting is like Ts’an and Ch’en. (3)

Mei Yao Ch’en (Sung, 1002-1060)

Despite the fact that Chinese civilization has not generally provided much freedom or status for women, clearly many men loved their wives dearly, for they said so in poems like this lament of a bereaved husband. In China it was believed that the spirits of the departed continued to surround the living; so his experience is in no way unusual.

In what role does the husband think affectionately of his late wife? How has her death affected his own attitude toward life?

In broad daylight I dream I
Am with her. At night I dream
She is still at my side. She
Carries her kit of colored
Threads. I see her image bent
Over her bag of silks. She
Mends and alters my clothes and
Worries for fear I might look
Worn and ragged. Dead, she watches
Over my life. Her constant
Memory draws me towards death.

Su Tung-p’o (1036-1101 CE): On the Birth of his Son

The Confucian examination system for recruiting officials into the bureaucracy may have been far more egalitarian than anything comparable in its heyday; yet it had its limits. Wealthy men were able to hire tutors to ensure their success, and poor but intelligent men seldom rose to the top. Su Tung-p’o, usually considered the greatest poet of the Sung Dynasty, often commented cynically on the system he considered corrupt and was dismissed from various positions for his pains. His sarcasm in the following poem sounds a strikingly contemporary note in this age of cynicism about politicians. The poet’s revenge lies in the fact that his poems are still read and memorized when all those who persecuted him have been forgotten.

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

All translated by Arthur Waley (1919)

(1) Part of the great Nan Shan range, fifteen miles south of Ch’ang-an.

(2) Two lands.

(3) Two stars.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books. This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.


The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

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