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For more of Tony's translations from the Chinese

Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

HAN YU (768-824)


Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping


         Han Yu was born in 768 in Nanyang, Henan province, to a literary family. He is considered to be among China's finest prose writers, second only to Sima Qian, and he is the first among the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song. His father died when he was two, and he was raised in the family of his older brother, Han Hui. He taught himself to read and write and was a student of philosophical writings and of Confucian thought. His family moved to Changan in 774, but was banished to southern China in 777 due to their association with disgraced minister Yuan Zai. Han Hui died in 781, leaving the family in poverty, and they returned north around 784. In 792, after four attempts, he passed the Imperial Exam (Jin Shi), and a few years later went into the service of the military governor of Bianzhou, and later of the military governor of Xuzhou. Finally, in 802, he obtained a post as instructor at the Imperial University, a job that he held periodically, between other postings and several periods of exile; ultimately he was made Rector of the university. After a number of other distinguished posts in the government, he died at the age of 56 in Changan.
         He was a Confucian thinker, and was deeply opposed to Buddhism, a religion which was then popular in the court. In fact, he came close to being executed in 819 for sending a letter to the emperor in which he denounced “the elaborate preparations being made by the state to receive the Budda's fingerbone, which he called 'a filthy object' and which he said should be 'handed over to the proper officials for destruction by water and fire to eradicate forever its origin.'” He believed that literature and ethics were intertwined, and led a revolution in prose style against the formal ornamentation then popular. He championed instead gu wen (old style prose), which was characterized by simplicity, logic and an emphasis on apt and exact expression. He was the center of a group of prose writers who adopted this style, a group which included Meng Jiao, whose poetry Han Yu appreciated. Other writers included in this anthology who adopted this style include Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi (Su Dongpo). While Han Yu's lasting reputation lies as a prose innovator, he was also a fine poet.


Losing My Teeth

Last year a tooth dropped,
this year another one,
then six or seven went fast
and the falling is not going to stop.
All the rest are loose
and it will end when they are all gone.
I remember when I lost the first
I felt ashamed of the gap.
When two or three followed,
I worried about death.
When one is about to come loose,
I am anxious and fearful
since forked teeth are awkward with food,
and in dread I tilt my face to rinse my mouth.
Eventually it will abandon me and drop
just like a landslide.
By now the falling-out is old hat,
each tooth goes just like the others.
Fortunately I have about twenty left.
One by one they will go in order.
If one goes each year,
I have enough to last two dozen years.
Actually it does not make much difference
if they go together or separately.
People say when teeth fall out
your life is fading.
I say life has its own end;
long life, short life, we all die.
People speak of the gaps in my teeth,
and all gaze at me in shock.
I quote Zhuangzi's story
a tree and a wild goose each has its advantages,
and though silence is better than slurring my words
and though I can't chew, at least soft food tastes great
and I can sing out this poem
to surprise my wife and kids.


Note: written in 803 when Han Yu was 36 years old. Zhuangzi tells the story of how he met a woodsman in the mountains who chose not to cut down a tree with useless wood. Afterwards he visited a friend who wanted to slaughter him one of his two geese, one of which could sing and one of which could not, and killed the one who didn't greet his guest. His student asked Zhuangzi, “That tree because it's useless was able to survive, but the goose because it couldn't sing was slaughtered. What do you think about that?” Zhuangzi answered, “I stand between the two,” meaning you shouldn't be too useful and shouldn't be too useless.


The Gorge of Virtuous Women

The river curves, the gorge narrows, spring current is wild,
thunder and wind battle and scare off fish and dragons.
A suspended torrent whoosh! plunges into a water palace,
rushing down thirty miles like rolling clouds.
A floating boat hits a rock and shatters into thousands like a
     smashed tile.
An inch or foot amiss, and life will drift off light as a feather.


Listening to Yinshi Play His Instrument

Softly lovers whisper to each other,
pouring out affection and complaints.
Suddenly the tune becomes daring,
heroes marching to the battlefield.
Floating clouds and willow catkins have no roots;
between heaven and earth they float.
Hundreds of birds chirp and call together
—suddenly only the phoenix is heard.
Now climbing up even one inch is hard,
but then it waterfalls thousands of yards.
I sigh that though I have two ears
they do not understand music.
When you started to play
I couldn't sit or stand still by your side.
I raised my two hands to stop you,
my tears wetting my clothes.
You are a master at this instrument, Yin.
Please don't fill my guts with ice and fire.


Spring Snow

No flowers yet in the new year
but fresh grass blades surprise me in early February.
Impatient for spring, white snowflakes
swirl through trees and courtyard like petals.


A Fallen Petal

Parted from my branch, I fall to the ground.
How can I bear feet trampling my color?
For no reason spring wind does me another wrong
blown to the neighboring west, I can never return.


Poem to Commander Zhang At the Meeting of the Bian and Si Rivers

Two rivers meet at this corner of the city
where a one-thousand-step polo field is smooth as if planed.
A low wall stretches around three sides,
drums clatter when red flags are raised.
Before sunrise on a chill early autumn morning,
why are you all dressed up like this?
It's been agreed, teams will be chosen and made to fight for the      
win.
A hundred horses draw in their hooves while brushing by each
     other.
The ball surprises and players gather and disperse with excited
     sticks.
There are red pommels made of dyed ox hair and gold bridles.
A player turns aside and reaches over close to the horse belly,
a thunder rolls from his hand and the magic ball runs.
Players retreat and relax on both sides,
but suddenly things shift and they fight again.
The serve is hard, but the receiver is more skillful, such rude
     strength!
Cheers cascade from the surrounding crowd as strong men shout.
This is of course for military training not for fun,
different than sitting calmly moving pieces on a map,
but these days it is hard to find loyal officers,
so please rein in your horses and fight real enemies.