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For the interview with Tony in Winter 2000

For more of Tony's translations from the Chinese

Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

YUAN ZHEN (779-831)


Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Yuan Zhen was among the most brilliant poets and statesmen of the Tang dynasty, known by the epithet Yuan the Genius. He was born in Changan to a family descended from the royal house that ruled northern China during the Northern Wei dynasty in the fifth and sixth centuries. Though his father died when he was a child, under his mother's tutoring he became a brilliant scholar. He passed the examinations in the category of “clarification of the classics” when he was fourteen, and when he was twenty-four he passed the “highly selective” examination, which landed him an appointment in the imperial library with Bai Juyi, the poet who was to be his lifelong friend. Several years later, he passed the final palace examination, monitored by the emperor, and gained the highest score, resulting in a position close to the emperor. Like his friend Bo, Yuan dreamed of being a reformer, a dream that was to result in a series of banishments. He did, however, help to create a poetic movement, termed “the new music bureau songs” movement, which attempted to recapture the formal freedoms and the simplicity of diction of the yuehfu form of the Han dynasty, and to use poetry for the serious ends of a social reformer.


Chrysanthemum Flowers

Autumn clusters surround my house just like Tao Yuanming's.
I walk full circle round the fence as the sun slowly tilts.
It's not that I love chrysanthemums more than other flowers,
but that no others will blossom after these blooms wither.


Note: chrysanthemum is a late-blooming flower. It blooms in Autumn, and so it is known as the flower that blooms last in a year.


Late Spring

Calm day through the thin curtain, swallows talking fast.
Pairs of fighting sparrows kick up dust on the steps.
Wind at dusk, a brushwood gate swings shut.
Flowers drop their last petals. No one notices.


Two Poems Written in an Inn by the Jialing River

1)
In an inn by the Jialing, my traveler's bed feels empty.
The water flows noisily all night.
I gaze at trees on the mountain past the south wall,
and see wild flowers teasing me in soft moonlight.

2)
Branches blooming outside press on the low wall.
The bright moon lights up half my bed.
No one understands how I feel at this moment.
In the western chamber all night I sleep alone.


Petals Falling in the River

At sunset the Jialing River flows east
and thousands of pear petals chase the river wind.
What twists my stomach as I watch the river flowers?
Half have fallen in the river, half drift on the air.


Poem Written for Bai Juyi Who Often Dreams of Me

Thousand of mountains and waters part us. No letters come.
I know you care for me, since you dream of me
but I'm so sick these days my delirious soul
just dreams of random people, won't show me you.


Note: This poem was written in 817 in reply to the following poem by Bai Juyi:


At dawn I rise and gaze into the wind with worry:
no information ever comes from Tong Valley and Pen Water.
You must have been thinking of me, I don't know why,
so at the third beating of night drum I met you in dream.


Missing Her after Separation (Poem 2)

A mountain spring randomly flows over the steps:
a small house among thousands of peach flowers.
Before getting up, I leaf through a Daoist book
and watch her combing her hair under the crystal curtain.