Ch'Ł YŁan (340 - 278 B.C.)poems translated by Yang
Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang
Li Sao (The Lament)
Li Sao (The Lament)
LI SAO (The Lament) is not only one of the
most remarkable works of Ch'Ł YŁan, it ranks as one of the greatest
poems in Chinese or world poetry. It was probably written during the
period when the poet had been exiled by his king, and was living south
of the Yangtse River.
The name LI SAO has been interpreted by some as meaning "encountering
sorrow," by others as "sorrow after departure." Some recent scholars
have construed it as "sorrow in estrangement," while yet others think it
was the name of a certain type of music.
This long lyrical poem describes the search and disillusionment of a
soul in agony, riding on dragons and serpents from heaven to earth. By
means of rich imagery and skilful similes, it expresses love of one's
country and the sadness of separation. It touches upon various
historical themes intermingled with legends and myths, and depicts,
directly or indirectly, the social conditions of that time and the
complex destinies of the city states of ancient China. The conflict
between the individual and the ruling group is repeatedly described,
while at the same time the poet affirms his determination to fight for
justice. This passionate desire to save his country, and this love for
the people, account for the poem's splendour and immortality.
A prince am I of ancestry renowned,
Illustrious name my royal sire
When Sirius did in spring its light display,
A child was
born, and Tiger marked the day.
When first upon my face my lord's eye
For me auspicious names he straight advanced,
in me Heaven's marks divine
Should with the virtues of the earth
With lavished innate qualities indued,
By art and skill my
talents I renewed;
Angelic herbs and sweet selineas too,
late that by the water grew,
I wove for ornament; till creeping
Like water flowing, stole away my prime.
Magnolias of the
glade I plucked at dawn,
At eve beside the stream took
Without delay the sun and moon sped fast,
succession spring and autumn passed;
The fallen flowers lay scattered
on the ground,
The dusk might fall before my dream was found.
Had I not loved my prime and spurned the vile,
Why should I not have
changed my former style?
My chariot drawn by steeds of race divine
urged; to guide the king my sole design.
Three ancient kings there were so pure and true
That round them
every fragrant flower grew;
Cassia and pepper of the
With melilotus white in clusters vied.
then, who high renown received,
Followed the kingly way, their goal
Two princes proud by lust their reign abused,
easier path, and their own steps confused.
The faction for illict
Dreadful their way where hidden perils
Danger against myself could not appal,
But feared I lest
my sovereign's sceptre fall.
Forward and back I hastened in my quest,
Followed the former kings,
and took no rest.
The prince my true integrity defamed,
Gave ear to
slander, high his anger flamed;
Integrity I knew could not
Yet still endured; my lord I would not fail.
spheres my witness be on high,
I strove but for his sacred
Twas first to me he gave his plighted word,
repenting other counsel heard.
For me departure could arouse no
I grieved to see his royal purpose vain.
Nine fields of orchids at one time I grew,
For melilot a hundred
And fifty acres for the azalea bright,
The rumex fragrant
and the lichen white.
I longed to see them yielding blossoms
And thought in season due the spoil to share.
I did not grieve
to see them die away,
But grieved because midst weeds they did decay.
Insatiable in lust and greediness
The faction strove, and tired not
Themselves condoning, others they'd decry,
their hearts in envious jealousy.
Insatiably they seized what they desired,
It was not that to which
my heart aspired.
As old age unrelenting hurried near,
Lest my fair
name should fail was all my fear.
Dew from magnolia leaves I drank at
At eve for food were aster petals borne;
And loving thus the
simple and the fair,
How should I for my sallow features care?
gathered vines I strung valeria white,
And mixed with blue wistaria
And melilotus matched with cassia sweet,
green and tendrils long to meet.
Life I adapted to the ancient
Leaving the manners of the present day;
Thus unconforming to
the modern age,
The path I followed of a bygone sage.
Long did I sigh and wipe away my tears,
To see my people bowed by
griefs and fears.
Though I my gifts enhanced and curbed my pride,
morn they'd mock me, would at eve deride;
First cursed that I angelica
Then cursed me for my melilotus fair.
But since my
heart did love such purity,
I'd not regret a thousand deaths to die.
I marvel at the folly of the king,
So heedless of his people's
They envied me my mothlike eyebrows fine,
And so my name
his damsels did malign.
Truly to craft alone their praise they
The square in measuring they disobeyed;
The use of common
rules they held debased;
With confidence their crooked lines they
In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom,
Alone I drove on to my
In exile rather would I meet my end,
Than to the
baseness of their ways descend.
Remote the eagle spurns the common
Nor deigns since time began its way to change;
A circle fits
not with a square design;
Their different ways could not be merged with
Yet still my heart I checked and curbed my pride,
endured and their reproach beside.
To die for righteousness alone I
For this was what the ancient sages taught.
I failed my former errors to discern;
tarried long, but now I would return.
My steeds I wheeled back to their
Lest all too long down the wrong path I stray.
orchid-covered bank I loosed my steed,
And let him gallop by the
At will. Rejected now and in disgrace,
I would retire
to cultivate my grace.
With cress leaves green my simple gown I
With lilies white my rustic garb did braid.
Why should I
grieve to go unrecognised,
Since in my heart fragrance was truly
My headdress then high-pinnacled I raised,
pendents, where bright jewels blazed.
Others may smirch their fragrance
and bright hues,
My innocence is proof against abuse.
Oft I looked
back, gazed to the distance still,
Longed in the wilderness to roam at
Splendid my ornaments together vied,
With all the fragrance of
the flowers beside;
All men had pleasures in their various ways,
pleasure was to cultivate my grace.
I would not change, though they my
How could my heart be wrested from its end?
My handmaid fair, with countenance demure,
Entreated me allegiance
"A hero perished in the plain ill-starred,
stayed their plumage to discard.
Why lovest thou thy grace and
Alone dost hold thy splendid virtue high?
Lentils and weeds
the prince's chamber fill:
Why holdest thou aloof with stubborn
Thou canst not one by one the crowd persuade,
And who the
purpose of our heart hath weighed?
Faction and strife the world hath
Heeding me not, why standest thou removed?"
I sought th'ancestral voice to ease my woe.
Alas, how one so proud
could sink so low!
To barbarous south I went across the
Before the ancient I began my theme:
"With odes divine there
came a monarch's son,
Whose revels unrestrained were never done;
antics wild, to coming perils blind,
He fought his brother, and his
The royal archer, in his wanton chase
For foxes huge,
his kingdom did disgrace.
Such wantonness predicts no happy end;
queen was stolen by his loyal friend.
The traitor's son, clad in
In incest sinned and cared not what was right.
revelled all his days, forgetting all;
His head at last in treachery
And then the prince, who counsels disobeyed,
disaster, and his kingdom fade.
A prince his sage in burning cauldrons
His glorious dynasty ere long was lost.
"But stern and pious was their ancient sire,
And his successor too
did faith inspire;
Exalted were the wise, the able used,
was kept and never was abused.
The august heaven, with unbiassed
All men discerns, and helps the virtuous race;
princes through their virtuous deed
The earth inherit, and their reigns
The past I probed, the future so to scan,
And found these
rules that guide the life of man:
A man unjust in deed who would
Whom should men take as guide except the sage?
dangers death I have defied,
Yet could look back, and cast regret
Who strove, their tool's defects accounting nought,
ancient sages were to cauldrons brought."
Thus I despaired, my face
with sad tears marred,
Mourning with bitterness my years
And melilotus leaves I took to stem
The tears that
streamed down to my garment's hem.
Soiling my gown, to plead my case I
Th'ancestral voice the path to me revealed.
Swift jade-green dragons, birds with plumage gold,
I harnessed to
the whirlwind, and behold,
At daybreak from the land of plane-trees
I came to paradise ere close of day.
I wished within the
sacred brove to rest,
But now the sun was sinking in the west;
driver of the sun I bade to stay,
Ere with the setting rays we haste
The way was long, and wrapped in gloom did seem,
As I urged on
to seek my vanished dream.
The dragons quenched their thirst beside the lake
Where bathed the
sun, whilst I upon the brake
Fastened my reins; a golden bough I
To brush the sun, and tarred there in sport.
The pale moon's
charioteer I then bade lead,
The master of the winds swiftly
Before, the royal blue bird cleared the way;
The lord of
thunder urged me to delay.
I bade the phoenix scan the heaven
But vainly day and night its course it tried;
whirlwinds drove it from my sight,
Rushing with lowering clouds to
check my flight;
Sifting and merging in the firmament,
in various hues they went.
The gate-keeper of heaven I bade give place,
But leaning on his door
he scanned my face;
The day grew dark, and now was nearly
Idly my orchids into wreaths I bent.
The virtuous and the
vile in darkness merged;
They veiled my virtue, by their envy
At dawn the waters white I left behind;
My steed stayed by
the portals of the wind;
Yet, gazing back, a bitter grief I
That in the lofty crag no damsel dwelt.
I wandered eastward to the palace green,
And pendents sought where
jasper boughs were seen,
And vowed that they, before their splendour
As gift should go to grace the loveliest maid.
The lord of
clouds I then bade mount the sky
To seek the steam where once the nymph
As pledge I gave my belt of splendid sheen,
Fleeting and wilful like capricious cloud,
obstinacy swift no change allowed.
At dusk retired she to the crag
Her hair beside the stream she washed at dawn.
in her beauty and her pride,
Pleasure she worshipped, and no whim
So fair of form, so careless of all grace,
I turned to take
another in her place.
To earth's extremities I sought my
And urged my train through all the heaven wide.
Upon a lofty
crag of jasper green
The beauteous princess of the west was
The falcon then I bade entreat the maid,
But he, demurring,
would my course dissuade;
The turtle-dove cooed soft and off did
But I mistrusted his frivolity.
Like whelp in doubt, like timid
fox in fear,
I wished to go, but wandered ever near.
gifts the phoenix swiftly went;
I feared the prince had won her ere I
I longed to travel far, yet with no bourn,
I could but wander
aimless and forlorn.
Before the young king was in marriage
The royal sisters twain might still be found;
My suit was
unauspicious at the best;
I knew I had small hope in my request.
The world is dark, and envious of my grace;
They veil my virture and
the evil praise.
Thy chamber dark lies in recesses deep,
prince, risest thou not from sleep?
My zeal unknown the prince would
How could I bear this harsh eternity?
With mistletoe and herbs of magic worth,
I urged the witch the
future to show forth.
"If two attain perfection they must meet,
who is there that would thy virtue greet?
Far the nine continents their
Why here to seek thy bride doth thou delay?
she cried, "set craven doubt aside,
If beauty's sought, there's none
hath with thee vied.
What place is there where orchids flower not
Why is thy native land thy single care?
"Now darkly lies the world in twilight's glow,
Who doth your defects
and your virtue know?
Evil and good herein are reconciled;
alone hath nought but is defiled.
With stinking mugwort girt upon their
They curse the others for their orchids chaste;
in choice of fragrance rare,
Rich ornaments how could they fitly
With mud and filth they fill their pendent bag;
pepper sweet, they brawl and brag."
Although the witches counsel I held
In foxlike indecision still I stood.
At night the wizard great
made his descent,
And meeting him spiced rice I did present.
angels came, shading with wings the sky;
From mountains wild the
deities drew nigh.
With regal splendour shone the solemn sight,
thus the wizard spake with omens bright:
"Take office high or low as days afford,
If one there be that could
with thee accord;
Like ancient kings austere who sought their
Finding the one who should fulfill their fate.
Now if thy
heart doth cherish grace within,
What need is there to choose a
A convict toiled on rocks to expiate
His crime; his
sovereign gave him great estate.
A butcher with his knife made
His king chanced there and happy proved the day.
who heard a cowherd chanting late
Raised him to be a councillor of
Before old age o'ertake thee on thy way,
Life still is young;
to profit turn thy day.
Spring is but brief, when cuckoos start to
And flowers will fade that once did spread and spring."
On high my jasper pendent proudly gleamed,
Hid by the crowd with
leaves that thickly teemed;
Untiring they relentless means
I feared it would through envy be destroyed.
age so fickle proved its will,
That to what purpose did I linger
E'en orchids changed, their fragrance quickly lost,
the weeds angelicas were tossed.
How could these herbs, so fair in
Their hue have changed, and turned to mugworts grey?
reason for their fall, not far to seek,
Was that to tend their grace
their will proved weak.
I thought upon the orchids I might lean;
No flowers appeared, but
long bare leaves were seen;
Their grace abandoned, vulgar taste to
Content with lesser flowers to dwell at ease.
To boasts and
flattery the pepper turned;
To fill the pendent bag the dogwood
Thus only upon higher stations bent,
How could they long
retain their former scent?
Since they pursued the fashion of the
Small wonder they decayed e'en in their prime.
orchids' and the peppers' plight
Why blame the rumex and selinea white?
My jasper pendent rare I was beguiled
To leave, and to this depth
then sank defiled.
It blossomed still and never ceased to grow;
water did its lovely fragrance flow:
Pleasure I took to wear this bough
As roaming wild the damsel fair I sought.
Thus in my
prime, with ornaments bedecked,
I roved the earth and heaven to
With omens bright the seer revealed the way,
I then appointed an
As victuals rare some jasper twigs I bore,
prepared, provision rich to store;
Then winged horses to my chariot
My carriage bright with jade and ivory wrought.
How might tow hearts at variance accord?
I roamed till peace be to
my mind restored.
The pillar of the earth I stayed beside;
was long, and winding far and wide.
In twilight glowed the clouds with
And chirping flew the birds of jasper green.
at dawn high heaven's ford to leave;
To earth's extremity I came at
On phoenix wings the dragon pennons lay;
With plumage bright
they flew to lead the way.
I crossed the quicksand with its treach'rous
Beside the burning river, red as blood;
To bridge the stream
my dragons huge I bade,
Invoked the emperor of the west to aid.
The way was long, precipitous in view;
I bade my train a different
There where the heaven fell we turned a space,
marked the western sea as meeting-place.
A thousand chariots gathred in
With axles full abreast we drove amain;
Eight horses drew
the carriages behind;
The pennons shook like serpents in the wind.
lowered flags, and from my whip refrained;
My train of towering
chariots I restrained.
I sang the odes. I trod a sacred dance,
revels wild my last hour to enhance.
Ascending where celestial heaven
On native earth for the last time we
My slaves were sad, my steeds all neighed in grief,
gazing back, the earth they would not leave.
Since in that kingdom all my virtue spurn,
should I for the royal city yearn?
Wide though the world, no wisdom can
I'll seek the stream where once the sage was drowned.
Ch'Ł YŁan, banished, wandered by the Tsanglang
River. As he walked he recited poems. Haggard he looked and thin.
An old fisherman saw him, and asked: "Aren't
you the knight Ch'Ł YŁan? What brought you to such a pass?"
"The crowd is dirty," said Ch'Ł YŁan, "I alone
am clean. The crowd is drunk, I alone am sober. So I was banished."
"A wise man shouldn't be too particular," said
the fisherman, "but should adapt himself to the times. If people are
dirty, why don't you wallow with them in the mud? If people are drunk, why
don't you drink a lot too? Why should you think so hard and hold so aloof
that you were banished?"
Ch'Ł YŁan said: "They say, after you wash your
hair you should brush your hat; after a bath you should shake your dress.
How can a man sully his clean body with the dirt outside? I would rather
jump into the river, and bury myself in the belly of the fish, than suffer
my cleanliness to be sullied by the filth of the world!"
The old man smiled and paddled away, singing:
"When the river water's clear,
I can wash my tassels
Muddied, for such use unmeet,
Here I still can wash my
This said, the old man went away.
Crossing the River
Leaving the Capital
Thoughts before Drowning
Longing for My Love
Recalling the Past
Ode to the Orange
The Ill Wind
CROSSING THE RIVER
Since I was young I have worn gorgeous
And still love raiment rare,
gem-studded sword hangs at my side,
And a tall
hat I wear.
Bedecked with pearls that glimmer like the
With pendent of fine jade,
there are fools who cannot understand,
Then give me green-horned serpents for my
Or dragons white to ride,
paradise with ancient kings I'd roam,
world's roof bestride.
My life should thus outlast the
With sun and moon supreme.
southern savages misunderstood,
At dawn I ford
I gaze my last upon the river
The autumn breeze blows chill.
my carriage here within the wood
beside the hill.
In covered vessel travelling
The men bend to their oars;
boat moves slowly, strong the current sweeps,
Nearby a whirlpool roars.
I set out from the bay at early
And reach the town at eve.
Since I am
upright, and my conscience clear,
Why should I
grieve to leave?
I linger by the tributary
And know not where to go.
forest stretches deep and dark around,
apes swing to and fro.
The beetling cliffs loom high to shade the
Mist shrouding every rift,
and rain as far as eye can see,
Where low the
dense clouds drift.
Alas! all joy has vanished from my
Alone beside the hill.
follow fashion will I stoop,
Then must live
One sage of old had head shaved like a
Good ministers were killed,
nakedness one saint was forced to roam,
Another's blood was spilled.
This has been so from ancient times till
Then why should I
Unflinchingly I still shall follow
Nor care if I am
Now, the phoenix
In the shrine crows make their
Withered is the jasmine
Fair is foul, and foul is
Light is darkness, darkness
Sad at heart I haste away.