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.


Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Liu Zongyuan was one of the finest prose writers of the Tang dynasty, and was one of only two Tang dynasty writers included among the Eight Great Prose Masters of the Tang and Song. He was a friend of Han Yu, and one of the followers of the “ancient style” prose movement, which emphasized clarity and utility over ornament in prose writing. He was also a relatively minor poet. He was born and raised in Changan, the capital of the Tang dynasty. After a highly successful early career in civil government, he was reassigned to a post in the provinces (in Yongzhou, Hunan province) after the abdication of Emperor Shunzong in 805. A decade later, he was banished even farther away, to modern Guangxi. His works in exile are considered to be his finest. The writings done in the capital were bureaucratic in nature, and he considered them primarily a means to advance his career; in exile, however, he wrote a number of delightful didactic pieces, showing a Neo-Confucian synthesis of both Daoism and Buddhism (unlike Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan was not adverse to the wave of Buddhism that was then sweeping across China). He is particularly known for his allegorical writings and for his fables, which like Aesop's fables often are tales about animals.
      His poem “River Snow” is considered a prime example of “minimum words; maximum message,” and has been the subject of numerous landscape paintings. It is a terrifically imagist poem; the twenty characters of the poem create a whole landscape, sketch an intimate scene, and suggest a chill ineffable solitude. There is also a Buddhist element to the poem, and Liu Zongyuan's old man becomes like Wallace Stevens's “Snow Man,” with a “mind of winter”:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Poem to Relatives and Friends in the Capital after Looking at Mountains with Monk Hao Chu

Sharp-pointed cliffs by the sea are swords
that slice my homesick guts in autumn.
If I could split into millions of selves,
I'd scatter them on all the peaks to gaze home.

Morning Walk Alone After Rain to Northern Pond at Fool's Stream

Yesterday's clouds are still scattered in the shoals;
morning sun brightens up the village.
From a tall tree standing by the pond,
wind brings down rain from last night.
My heart is free in this place
where I chance to dwell or that dwells in me.

Summer Day

Damp summer in Nanzhou intoxicates like wine;
with northern windows open I take a nap on the tea table.
I wake at noon alone and hear nothing but the sound of mountain boys
pounding tea leaves in stone mortars in the bamboo grove.


A fisherman spends the night under West Rock,
pails clear river water and burns bamboo.
Smoke vanishes, sun rises and no one is seen.
The oar-sound turns mountains and water green.
Floating the central current, he turns to gaze at sky
above rock where mindless clouds chase each other.

The Caged Eagle

Chill wind noisily sifts a hard frost
as a black eagle soars up the dawning light.
Clouds shatter, mist cracks, a rainbow breaks in half!
The eagle skims a hillock like thunder and lightning.
The sound of fierce wings cuts thorns and brush;
he snatches foxes and hares and soars through sky again.
Hair on claws, blood on beak, one hundred birds gone.
He stands alone, gazing round, often excited.
But fiery wind and damp summer suddenly come,
now caged, his feathers droop and his wings ache.
In the wilderness raccoons and rats are just pests,
but now ten times a night they come to startle and to attack.
I long for wind swelling my wings again
and to fly in clouds, all constraints gone.