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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dream Of the Southern Bough - A Chinese Antz Story

The adage, “Dream of the Southern Bough” is used to illustrate the fleeting nature of fame, riches and glory. This story was written by a Tang Dynasty writer named Li Kung Zuo. It came from a volume entitled, “Tales from the Governor of Southern Bough”.

During the Tang Dynasty, there was a man named Chun Yu Fen from Dung Peng who liked making acquaintances on the fly, was extremely loyal to his friends and without hesitation would save someone from danger. He loved to drink and was often impulsive, willful, blunt and cared not for social graces. His family was extremely wealthy and he was a great patron to many intellectuals who lived in his household. Because of his martial skills, he was appointed to fill the vacant position of the lieutenant of the Wei Nan military division. However during one of his drinking fiascos, he angered the chief marshal and was relinquished from his official position. Roaming around everyday without aim he would indulge himself in wine without restraint.

His home was situated about 10 miles from the prefecture of Guang Lin. At the southern side of his home grew an ancient pagoda tree; so large was its canopy that a few acres1 came under its shade. Often Chun Yu Fen would drink and be merry under the shade with his cronies. On the 9th day of the 7th lunar month of the 7th year of Zhen Yuan (791 AD), Chun and his drinking buddies were so intoxicated in their stupor that they did not feel well. Two of his friends tried to carry him home but in the end decided to let him rest at the corridor on the eastern side of the main hall and told him, “Better rest for awhile. The two of us shall feed the horses and wash our feet before leaving you.”

Chun Yu Fen loosened his headscarf to make a pillow out of it as he dozed off. As he bordered in his dreams, two envoys in purple clothes walked through his door. After kowtowing to him on their bended knees, they announced,

“By his imperial order, the King of Great Pagoda Tree Peace has commanded your Lordship to pay a visit to His kingdom!”

Subconsciously he rose from his day bed, straightened his clothes and followed the two envoys out of the door. There a small oil green colored carriage drawn by four horses awaited together with seven or eight attendants. With utmost respect, they led Chun onto the carriage. Once out of the main gates, the carriage proceeded at a past pace into a cave that appeared in the pagoda tree. Chun felt rather strange but said nothing as he felt it was quite improper to ask questions. As they journeyed he realized that the scenery on both sides of the carriage: the roads, the rivers, the mountains and even the grasses were not quite the same as those of the mortal world. About ten miles later, outer walls of a city appeared. Many carriages and pedestrians were going about their way unceasingly. All this while, his attendants were shouting out aloud at the people who then quickly made way for the carriage. Soon, they entered a great city with a reddish gold main entrance surrounded by many towers. On the entrance tower was written the following characters, “Great Pagoda Tree Peace Country”. The tower guards paid homage to them and quickly went inside to report of the arrival. Next a horseman came bearing an imperial edit which he announced,

“His Imperial Highness, mindful of the Prince-in-Consort having to journey from afar, shall have him rest at the Gloriette of Eastern Grandeur”.

With that pronouncement, the horseman led the way. Soon afterwards another great entrance appeared. The attendant requested that Chun Yu Fen get out of the carriage. Once inside there were richly carved columns and colored grand balustrades. Rows of planted trees heavily laden with rare and exotic fruits were planted just outside of the great hall. Grand door drapes were hung, banquet tables, chairs and cushions were placed in an exquisite manner. Chun Yu Fen was delighted at such detailed arrangements. Not long afterwards he heard someone announcing,

“The Right Prime Minister has arrived.”

With great respect Chun Yu Fen approached the stairs to greet the minister who was dressed in  purple colored official robes of the Imperial Court. Both of his hands carried an ivory breath deflector2, walking quickly towards him. As the ceremony between host and guest had ended, the Right Prime Minister said,

“Even though our country is remote, His Imperial Majesty has especially summoned thee to become our Princess Consort.”

Chun Yu Fen replied,

“I’m just a person from the lower class, how can I dare to aspire to such lofty ambitions?”

The Prime Minister bade Chun Yu Fen to go with him for an audience with the King. About a hundred paces or so, they entered a great door painted in cinnabar red where many warriors clasped with halberds and axes were standing on guard. Military and Civil officials stood along the two sides of the imperial steps to the throne. In the midst of a crowd of officials, Chun was immensely delighted to see Chou Bian, a long time drinking boon friend, but dared not approach him for a chat. The Right Prime Minister led him towards an even more spacious and solemn palace where many more sentries were guarding the place. It must be the very chambers of the King himself. Seated in the middle of the great hall was a huge man of great regality wearing rich brocades of white and a red floral crown. Chun Yu Fen could not help himself and he shook like a leaf. He almost he could not lift his head. The attendants on the side hinted that he should now make obeisance to the King.

The King spoke,

“We had acquiesced to the wishes of your father, that you will not look down on our small country and shall be betrothed to our second daughter, Jade Fragrance and become our Prince-in-Consort3of the Eastern Chambers”.

Chun Yu Fen knelt before the king cowering in fear and did not respond. The King continued,

“You may return to the guest mission for now. When everything is prepared, the wedding ceremony shall proceed.”

That very night, all that is needed for the wedding had been set up in the Hall of Meeting making it a place of pomp and grand style. Three smiling officials who came up to Chun Yu Fen and said,

“We had been ordered to be the Prince-in-Consort attendants4.”

One of them turned out to be an old friend of Chun Yu Fen and Chun asked,

“Aren’t you Tian Tzu Wah?”

“It is so my Lord.”

Chun Yu Fen held Tzu Wah’s and soon they were chatting away, reminiscing their past. After awhile, Chun could not help but to ask Tzu Wah,

“How come you are here?”

Tian Tzu Wah replied,

“I was traveling and visiting famous places. When I came here, I met the Right Prime Minister. We became friends and hence stayed here since then.”

Chun asked again,

“Do you know that Chou Bian is also here?”

“Yes I do. His status is high and is the Governor of Silli. He is very a powerful man and many a time, I sought him for help and protection.”

The two chatted merrily for a while when an announcement came,

“It is time for the Prince-in-Consort to enter the palace.”

With that three male attendants quickly had a change of new clothes and Tzu Wah commented,

“Never had I witnessed such a grand wedding. Please don’t forget our friendship.”

Ten or more pretty maidens came and performed all sorts of exotic music. The melody sounded clear and sweet but the lyrics hinted at sorrow and melancholy. Such wondrous music could never be heard in the mortal world. Ten gorgeous lanterns were held high up to light the way. Gold and green colored curtains sewn with pieces of delicately carved jade, stretching for a few miles long weaved along the path. Chun Yu Fen sat upright in a solemn manner but his heart was pitter pattering away unable to relax. Tian Tzu Wah tried to lighten his mood by telling him jokes.

Finally the Right Prime Minister led Chun Yu Fen back to the Gloriette of Eastern Grandeur. Soon they reached a palace door; on which were written three characters – Palace of Cultivating Countenance. Many a royal relative came to the side of the door and respectfully welcomed Chun Yu Fen in his carriage. The wedding rituals were the same as those from the mortal world. Finally the drapes were unveiled. Face hiding fans were moved away and a very beautiful maiden appeared – Princess Golden Bough, about 14 to 15 years of age with a face more beautiful than the colored morning clouds. Her regal countenance rivaled those of fairies and immortals. The moment Chun Yu Fen laid eyes on her he was immediately smitten by her.

As each day passes, the love between Chun Yu Fen and the princess grew deeper and so did his prestige. Carriage traffic to his household was continuous like flowing waters. Grand stallions looked like dragons. The amount of guests attending the banquets together with the number of serving servants rivaled to the imperial banquets. The King of Great Pagoda Tree Peace allowed Chun Yu Fen to go on a grand hunt with his officials at Mt. Spiritual Turtle which was at the western side of the country. On top of the mountain one can see continuous mountain ranges surround it, making the place looked treacherous in deadly beauty. Looking down from the mountain, one can see lakes and rivers stretching beyond the horizon. Great forests were luxuriant with life, teeming with birds and animals of every kind. They hunted many a great and rare creatures. Not until the night fell that the hunt was finally over and everyone returned home happily.

One day the Princess asked her husband,

“Wouldst thee wish to become a court official?”

Chun Yu Fen replied,

“I’m a habitual go-a-lucky-person. I’m used to laziness. Neither a thought was given as I’m not well versed in statecraft.”

The Princess explained,

“All you need is the will to become one. Leave all other matters to me.”

With that the Princess went to see her father. A few days later, the King said to Chun Yu Fen,

“The Southern Bough Prefecture was not governed properly. Its governor had been dismissed. I have been thinking in borrowing your ability to become the next governor. The Princess shall leave with you to Southern Bough!”

Chun Yu Fen respectfully accepted the imperial edit and the King decreed to the officials in charge to make preparations for the journey. Several huge cases containing gold, pearls, jade, exquisite bolts of silk and clothes for the Princess were packed. Many a retainer and maid lined up at the main avenues to bid them farewell.

Chun Yu Fen also petitioned to the throne requesting,

“I have no experience in governing neither do I have any skill in doing so. If I have to bear the responsibility of this post, I fear that I would only betray your trust in me. I shall need capable men to assist me in governing the Prefecture of Southern Bough. Chou Bian of Silli is a firm and upright person. He does not get flattered easily and adheres to the letter of the law. I believe he is capable in assisting me. Tian Tzu Wah is a scholar not of government employ. He is an honest person who is careful in his ways. Flexible and adept to change and understands the principles of governance. They are also my friends of many years. I understand their abilities and capabilities. Therefore I can relax knowing that they can run things very smoothly. I sincerely recommend that Chou Bian be in charge of constitution matters of Southern Bough and that Tian Tzu Wah be the agricultural attaché. With them in charge, things will run systematically and efficiently.”

All that was petitioned was approved by His Majesty and that night the King and Queen threw a farewell banquet for them. The King counseled Chun Yu Fen,

“Southern Bough is a large prefecture, the land is fertile and there are many capable people. To govern this place well, you must love its people. With Chou Bian and Tian Wen5 Wah to help you, you shall not disappoint Our hopes in you.”

The Queen also counseled the Princess,

“The Princess-in-Consort has a strong temperament and loves to drink. He is at the peak of his youth and vigor. As wife, you must be gentle. Comply and serve your husband well. Then I shall not be worrying about you needlessly. Although Southern Bough is not far from us, nevertheless we won’t be able to see each other every day. With this parting of today, how would it not grieve me?”

Finally Chun Yu Fen and the Princess bade farewell to the King and Queen. They made their way to their new home in the Prefecture of Southern Bough. The couple was chatting away in laughter and merriment in the horse drawn carriage as they were escorted by the cavalry. After a few days, they reached their destination. All the officials, monks, priests and important local elders came thronging out to greet the royal couple on chariot drawn music bands and mighty guardsmen. What a parade it was! Drums were beaten and bells were sounded. Everywhere was bustling with liveliness. Another ten miles or so of journeying a great city wall with grand palace towers appeared. On the city gate was a large placard in which golden colored words were written – The Prefecture of Southern Bough. Many magnificent looking spears, halberds and knives were placed and that made the vermillion colored gate a very solemn and imposing place.

After Chun Yu Fen took office, he would go around observing local customs and tried to understand the hardship of the people. All administrative duties of the prefecture were left to the capable hands of Tian Tzu Wah and Chou Bian. Twenty or so years went by and Chun Yu Fen implemented many beneficial policies. The people were so grateful that they decided to erect a stone stele to commemorate his accomplishments. Not only that - a shrine was also built and dedicated it to him while he was still alive. The King highly valued him and bestowed upon him many lands and elevated his position to equal that of the Three Prime Ministers6. Chou Bian and Tian Tzu Wah were promoted to great offices because of their merits in running of the prefecture. All in all, Chun Yu Fen had five sons and two daughters. Because of their positions, the sons became high officials and daughters were married off to nobility. The family rose to dizzying heights of power and grandeur that none could rival them.

Then one year, the neighbouring country of Sandalwood Radish came invading with a large army. The King ordered Chun Yu Fen to ward off the invasion. Chun petitioned to recommend Choy Bian to lead an army of 30,000 men. The battle took place at the city of Jade Terrace. Chou Bian was brave but was rash and reckless. In the end, his army was soundly routed. He was able to escape on his horse without his armor7. Because the country of Sandalwood Radish also lost a huge amount of men, they too retreated back. Chun Yu Fen imprisoned Chou Bian for his dereliction of duty and petitioned before the throne for forgiveness. The King pardoned all of them. In the same month because of the old wounds Chou Bian had suffered, he passed away. Then Princess Golden Bough, wife of Chun Yu Fen, became gravely ill and died ten days later. Chun then petitioned for his resignation as the governor and to escort the cortege back to the capital city. The King approved and the governorship of Southern Bough went to Tian Tzu Wah.

In great sorrow, as Chun Yu Fen brought the cortege back to the capital city, the King and Queen wore white and waited in the suburbs. The Princess was posthumously recognized as “Princess Submissive Bearing” and was buried in the imperial hills some 10 miles away from the eastern side of the capital. In the same month the son of Chou Bian, Chou Tzu Weng, brought the remains of his father back to the capital city.

As Chun Yu Fen was the governor of Southern Bough for a long time he had harmonious relations with all the officials of the Court, the nobles, the rich and the powerful. Since his resignation of his governorship and return to the capital city many of his cronies and former guests came flocking to him again. Soon they became haughty, started to abuse their power and became utterly arrogant. The King soon found his behaviour unacceptable and began to have second thoughts about him. Then a high official petitioned before the throne:

“Celestial omens of condemnation appeared; indicating there the country will experience great catastrophes and that the capital must be moved. The imperial ancestral shrines will be destroyed. It is the influence of outsiders that cause these kinds of disaster. Internal troubles will erupt.”

All debates and discussions were centered on the extravagant life style of Chun Yu Fen. Therefore the King stripped away all the guards from Chun; forbidding all travels, thereby putting him in house arrest. Chun Yu Fen was not happy and the King understood his feelings and said to him,

“You had left your home for many years now... Why don’t you have a visit and see your relations and friends? My grandchildren shall stay with me temporary and the Queen shall rear them up. Three years later, I shall allow a reunion.”

Chun Yu Fen thought it was rather strange and replied,

“Isn’t this place my home? Why are you asking me to return to my home?”

The King laughed and explained,

“You home lies in the mortal realm. This is not your home.”

Suddenly Chun Yu Fen realized as if wakened from a dream. After a long while, he remembered his former life and with tears he begged the King to let him return to the mortal world. The King ordered close by attendants to lead him back. With that, Chun tearfully bade farewell to the King.

Chun Yu Fen looked at the two purple dressed envoys and recognized them as the ones who first brought him to this place. Outside the palace door was an old and decrepit carriage waiting. There was no driver to be seen. Neither was there any servant or friend to see him off. Chun Yu Fen was greatly saddened inside. He was driven for a few miles and came to a great city gate. It looked like the one he had once passed through when he was first invited to the country of ‘Great Pagoda Tree Peace’. The views of the mountains and rivers looked the same as before but the two envoys somehow lost their grand and solemn bearing. His thoughts of his past glory and power made him realized how such things are fleeting and meaningless. Nothing more than illusions and fantasies. As they walked out of the cave he saw the giant pagoda tree. His hometown had changed with the passing of time. Chun began to feel sorry for himself and subconsciously his tears flowed.

The two purple dressed envoys helped him down the carriage. Once through the main gate of his house, just as his feet touched the threshold of his home, he saw his body still lying in the corridor on the east side of the hall. Chun was greatly astonished and puzzled. He did not dare to approach that body of himself. The purple dressed envoys on seeing his hesitation called out aloud his name. After a few shouts, Chun suddenly jumped up and into his consciousness. He saw his own servants sweeping in the front hall, two of his guests were sitting on a day bed washing their feet. The rays of the setting sun were still lingering on the west wall and half drunk cups of wine were lying around on the eastern window sill. A life time in a dream was just but a mere moment in the mortal world. Chun Yu Fen could not help but feelings of regret overcame him and sighed. Finally he called out to his two guests and told them of his dream. They were astonished and afraid at the same time, not daring to say anything.

Finally the two friends accompanied Chun Yu Fen to the huge pagoda tree and looked for any strange openings. Upon seeing a hole, Chun pointed out them and exclaimed,

“This is where the carriage passed in my dream.”

The two friends thought it must be spirits or dryads at mischief. They ordered servants bearing axes and chopped at the roots and cleared the dense branches of the tree. A great round cave-like cavity, about a yard in radius, appeared. They could clearly see the empty space of the roots area, large enough to place a bed in. A large pile of soil sat on top looking much like city walls, terraces and palaces. It seemed there were several ant nests in there the center of activity. Two giant ants about three inches long with red heads and white wings were found in the center of the terrace like mound. Surrounding them were many large ants as if in a formation of protection. There were other ants but dared not approached the group. These two giant ants must be the King and Queen of Great Pagoda Tree Peace and therefore this place must be the capital city. Nearby as they dug they found another cavity. This looked like a connecting path to a south facing empty bough of the tree; about four yards wide. Inside the branch were intricate paths leading to a center which is square in shape. Again there were mounds of mud which were made to look like city walls and terraces. Again there was a group of ants concentrated in there. This must be the Prefecture of South Bough where Chun Yu Fen had once governed. Another cavity appeared on the west side, about 2 yards away. The hole was wide and spacious. However this hole did not look like the rest. Right in the middle of it was a decaying tortoise shell, large like a bucket and when rainwater seeped through the soil and it became a reservoir. Minute luxuriant grasses grew almost covering the entire shell. This must be Mt. Spiritual Turtle where Chun Yu Fen and the officials went hunting. Nearby they dug again and found another cavity. This one is on the east side, about a yard away where gnarly old tree roots were coiling like a snake. Right in the middle of it is about a foot high mound of mud. This must be the Coiling Dragon Hill where Chun buried his princess wife. Chun could not help himself and succumbed to great sadness on seeing these old places with his own eyes; remembering a dream life of once upon a time. All physical evidence matched perfectly with what he had experienced in his dream. He did not allow his two friends to destroy any of these places and quickly ordered his servants to put the soil back on top of them leaving the place pretty much as original as possible.

That night a great storm suddenly rose and Chun Yu Fen quickly return to check on the cave holes of the pagoda tree. All traces of the ants were gone. He did not know where they went. The reason being the ants were warned by the prediction of an impending catastrophe that the country of Great Pagoda Tree Peace shall experience and the capital has to be moved. Now that omen had come true. Remembering the invasion of Southern Bough by the Sandalwood Radish country Chun bade his two friends to look for the traces of that country. About a mile away, they found a dried mountain gully and a sandalwood tree was growing by its side. Radish vines were twining around the tree in such a mass that sunlight could not shine through. At the side of the tree was a small cavity and another ant nest was hidden there. This must be the country of Sandalwood Radish.

Ah… If such events and lives of tiny ants can cause astonish one in such wonder, what more excitement can exotic beasts hidden in mountains and forests offer?

When Chun Yu Fen remembered that he had not his two good buddies, Tian Tzu Wah and Chou Bian for about ten days. He quickly dispatched his boy servants to the prefecture of Six Harmonies to inquire about them. Later Chun found out that Chou Bian had died from a sudden and serious illness. Tian Tzu Wah was gravely ill and in a coma. Chun Yu Fen began to think about the emptiness and fragility of life. A fantasy like the clouds and mists appearing in front of him. All riches and power are nothing but the flimsiness of a dream. From then onwards, Chun turned over a new leaf and studied Taoism in earnest. No longer in having any taste for women and wine. Three years later in the year of Ding Chou (797 A.D.) Chun Yu Fen died in his home. He was 47 years of age, exactly what the King had predicted the time they would meet again.

In the 8th lunar month the 18th year of Original Purity (802 A.D.) Li Kung Zuo8 journeyed on his way to Loyang by boat and stopped at River Hwai where he heard of the story of Chun Yu Fen. After some inquiries and evidence seeking, he concluded that the Dream of the Southern Bough was an actual event and made it into a novel for those enjoying in reading about the occult. Although the story is filled with weird and amazing things, events that defy logic, the moral of the story serves as a warning to those seeking power and glory through deceitful means.

“To the later generations of upright gentlemen, let this story, ‘Dream of the Southern Bough’ serve as reflection for thyself: Never gain unfair advantage over others using officialdom as a haughty means to glorify oneself in this mortal world.”

Military advisor Li Zhao9 of Prefecture Hua once said,

“Even when you reached the pinnacle of officialdom, wielding the greatest power with no one to rival you, what difference is there with those living with ants?”

This story also appeared in “Strange Tales From A Studio Of Leisure”, 聊齋異誌. Another version was that Chun was charged with treason and his entire family was to be mass executed. Just as the executioner’s axe fell upon him he woke up from his dream.

1. A Chinese acre equivalent to 1/15 for a hectare (2.47 of an acre).

2. Also known as 笏. This is to prevent one’s bad breath from reaching one’s superior or August person from a close distance of intercourse.

Ming Dynasty


3. Husbands of Tang dynasty princesses possess military skills and given a military position.

4. These attendants serve to receive guests and presents on behalf of the groom.

5. Most probably a misprint.

6. 三公宰相–Originated by Emperor Han Wu Ti to prevent the office of the prime minister from getting too powerful.

7. In the original text, it was suggested that he escaped in nakedness. Most probably he threw off his heavy armor in order to escape quickly.

8. A Tang Dynasty novelist

9. A Tang Dynasty philosopher

There are various versions of this story. The first one comes from Tales from ‘A Chinese Studio’ (聊齋志異), translated by H. A. Giles. The second version is known as the ‘Dream of the Yellow Sorghum’ (黃粱夢)


One day, an old priest stopped at a wayside inn to rest, spread out his mat, and sat down with his bag. Soon afterwards, a young fellow of the neighbourhood also arrived at the inn; he was a farm labourer and wore short clothes, not a long robe like the priest and men who read books. He took a seat near to the priest and the two were soon laughing and talking together. By and by, the young man cast a glance at his own rough dress and said with a sigh,

"See, what a miserable wretch I am."

"You seem to me well fed and healthy enough," replied the priest;

"Why in the middle of our pleasant chat do you suddenly complain of being a miserable wretch?"

"What pleasure can I find," retorted the young man,

"in this life of mine, working every day as I do from early morn to late at night? I should like to be a great general and win battles, or to be a rich man and have fine food and wine, and listen to good music, or to be a great man at court and help our Emperor and bring prosperity to my family; — that is what I call pleasure. I want to rise in the world, but here I am a poor farm labourer; if you don't call that miserable wretchedness, what is it?"

He then began to get sleepy, and while the landlord was cooking a dish of millet-porridge, the priest took a pillow out of his bag and said to the young man,

"Lay your head on this and all your wishes will be granted." The pillow was made of porcelain; it was round like a tube, and open at each end. When the young man put his head down towards the pillow, one of the openings seemed so large and bright inside that he got in, and soon found himself at his own home. Shortly afterwards he married a beautiful girl, and began to make money. He now wore fine clothes and spent his time in study. In the following year he passed his examination and was made a magistrate; and in two or three years he had risen to be Prime Minister. For a long lime the Emperor trusted him in everything, but the day came when he got into trouble; he was accused of treason and sentenced to death. He was taken with several other criminals to the place of execution; he was made to kneel on both knees, and the executioner approached with his sword. Too terrified to feel the blow, he opened his eyes, to find himself in the inn. There was the priest with his head on his bag; and there was the landlord still stirring the porridge, which was not quite ready.

After eating his meal in silence, he got up and bowing to the priest, said,

"I thank you, sir, for the lesson you have taught me; I know now what it means to be a great man!"

With that, he took his leave and went back to his work.

Dream Of Yellow Sorghum – in pictures.

Overall view of the mural

Immortal granting the dream 仙人賜夢

Chance meeting with a beautiful maiden 巧遇美女

The marriage 洞房花燭

Becoming the Number One Scholar 金榜題名

Riches and Wealth 榮華富貴

Valor and glory 建功立勛

Enoblement 封官進爵

Fame and recognition 功成名就

A life of wealth and luxury 富貴人生

Upon his death bed 彌留之際

Upon wakening 南柯一夢

Cooking of the yellow sorghum hasn’t even started yet 黃粱未開鍋

Both feet on firm ground and hurrying to the Imperial Exams! 脚踏實地, 進京趕考






































淳於棼長年鎮守南柯郡,與滿朝文武百官、豪門大族和權貴人家都相處得很好。自從辭去南柯郡職務回到國都,許多交往遊歷所跟隨的賓客和隨從,便開始作威作福,不可一世起來。皇帝心裡感覺有些疑忌和討厭他了。這時朝廷有大臣上奏章說:「天象出現譴責的徵兆,表示國家將有大災禍發生,首都即將要搬遷,宗廟即將要崩壞,這種種災禍皆是由外姓人所引起,禍患即將自內部發生。」當時所有的議論,都認為是淳於棼生活太過奢侈的緣故。於是皇帝就撤走了淳於棼的衛士,禁止他隨便遊玩,將他軟禁起來。淳於棼心裡煩悶不開心。皇帝也瞭解他的心思,就對淳於棼說:「你離開家鄉已經很久了,你不如先回家一趟,看看一下親戚朋友。幾個外孫可以暫時留在這裡,由皇后親自教導養育他們。三年以後,我再讓他們去接你回來。」淳於棼覺得很奇怪,就說:「這裡不就是我的家嗎?怎麼還要我回家呢?」 皇帝笑著說:「你本來住在人世間,這裡並不是你的家。」這時淳於棼恍恍惚惚間才覺得像在做夢一般。過了很長時間之後,他才想起之前種種的事,於是他流著淚請求皇帝讓他回到人間。皇帝命左右的人送淳於棼離開,淳於棼拜別之後就走了。







30 Dec 2010 – 16 Feb 2011

Anatomy of a Poem

Some friends commented that they were amazed at the amount of poems I post on the net and Facebook. I thanked them for their kindness and compliments. When asked, the short answer I always give is it was inspired by a piece of music I heard or from some nostalgia of an event that happened in my life. However the truth is far from that. A poem cannot be created just because I wanted to have one composed. Creativity cannot be forced. It must come to you willingly like our Blue Kitty. It is also never a day’s work. The final form may span many days, weeks or even months depending on the frame of mind that I was at the moment. Many uncompleted lines were written somewhere in a book, electronic or otherwise. Hopefully one day a revisit to them will cause their Muse to jump out of the pages.

By the time the poem’s final form comes to fruition, I have often forgotten what had transpired in my thought process. This time I shall make a conscious effort to document each step of the way so that a more definitive answer can be given. This essay proves that I do not possess the soul of a poet, just a mere glimpse of it. Poems do not pour from my mind like wine from a jug. Each step is fraught with hard work and decision-making. I have to delve deeply into the recesses of my mind to seek out my Muse.

On 19 Feb 2011, a Saturday night, as we drove home from a dinner party in West Hollywood during a torrential downpour, a phrase came suddenly; a seductive whisper that grew unceasingly louder into a Sirenic song. 今宵酒壺滿 - 'Tonight the jug is filled with wine’. Not long afterwards, an image wafted into my mind – a picture of a lonely person drinking in the night. I found myself asking: What sort of a night should this be? A warm summer night enjoying the quietude of nature? Or a wintry night regretting about life in solitude? In the end, I thought these scenes were too blah - generating no mystery or interest. Let us suppose that jug of wine can be made mysterious; would readers then be wondering about its existence? Perhaps a feast or merriment was being prepared and the lover never showed up? If he does show up what happens next? Whatever the case may be, lines began to form…

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full
待君….         Awaiting for my Lord…
漫舞歌曲起 Song and dance began
… …

Since the original phrase was in five characters, I decided on the five character format. The question now was how the poem should be capped. I was too tired to think and left things as they were for the rest of the journey home. However, as I lay in bed my mind churned and thoughts were swirling at a mile a minute. They would not let me enter my dreams. Tossing and turning around for what seemed an eternity, a light suddenly dawned on me. Why not let the passage of time move so quickly that all at once dawn appeared? This was a great idea and thus I was able to complete the poem,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full
待君解夜寒. Awaiting/entertaining my Lord to dispel his cold night air.
漫舞歌曲起, Dancing in leisure, my song began,
不覺東方紅. Not realizing the east is aglow in red.

I was satisfied with the result as it made readers wonder why her Lord did not come. Was there a new favourite? Or were there matters of such paramount importance that he could not meet her? With this, I was able to enter my dream world finally.

The Blue Kitty - Queen of my backyard
On Sunday, February 20, 2011 during a mid-morning jog, I recited the poem again and again in my head; making changes here and there; dealing with the mechanics of rhyming. I fiddled with the third line and changed it to 歌曲未得盡, ‘Song and dance not yet ended’. But somehow the line does not seem elegant enough even though I liked the words, 未盡, ‘not yet ended’. My Cantonese is much more proficient than my Mandarin; so all my poems are composed in Cantonese. Indeed to Mandarin speakers or speakers from other dialects, the rhyming and tonal scheme may not be correct at all. I profess that I am not a rhyming expert nor am I fluent in the tonal constraints placed on Chinese classical poetry. To me, if it sounds right, then it is alright.

As I jogged in exhaustion on the final leg of the run, another thought came waltzing by… By removing a single stroke on the character 待 (to wait upon, to entertain) it becomes 侍 (to serve). It was an interesting thought. Why not try the scenario that her Lord came? He was served but their merriment was cut short because of the coming dawn. Very soon the composition morphed into,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒. Serving my Lord and dispelling the cold night air.
鼓樂裙舞起, Skirts flaring up in dance with the beat of drums,
不覺東又紅. Not realizing the east is aglow again in red.

I was smug with myself as I thought the new transformation was good and that this would be the final version. However later in the day, my mind changed again. I felt the way this theme was presented was too straight forward and generated no interest. Drum beating in the days of old signaled danger. Instead of dancing to the beat of drums, they can now be a metaphor for impending war while the couple still in merriment.

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒. Serving my Lord to dispel the cold night air.
曲舞宴未盡, Song, dance and banquet still in merriment,
東遠(邊)又染紅. Far away in the east once more dyed in red.

The changes are now made on the third and fourth lines. Instead of dancing to the beat of drums, it is now a feast still in progress when dawn broke - dyed in red. I chose the word, 染 (to dye) over 漸 (slowly) because the former has another meaning, ‘to infect’, a negative connotation – that the land was dyed in blood. For the astute reader, the poem could be an allusion to the parting night scene of Hsiang Yu and Yu Ji (項羽虞姬) in the opera story (霸王別姬) depicted in the movie, “Farewell My Concubine”. Hsiang Yu was the rival contender to the Founder of the Han Dynasty. Yu Ji was his favourite concubine whose magnificent sword dance performance is famous throughout the land. On that fateful night before his defeat, Hsiang Yu heard songs from his hometown being played from nearby surroundings, a psychological ruse used by the Han side, to trick him in thinking that his homeland was lost. To spur his courage and not let her beauty befuddle his judgment, Yu Ji performed her famous sword dance one last time before committing suicide in front of his eyes.

The poem now takes on a different flavour. It can also be used to hint at the scene of the Imperial Concubine Yang Gui Fei dancing before the Tang Emperor just as the news of the advancing army of An Lu Shan breaking out in the Capital. The poem certainly contains all the generic elements. Such possibilities stimulate the mind. After much toiling, I recalled a poem/song from an old Chinese movie, “Kingdom And The Beauty” (江山美人), a story about a tryst between a lustful Ming Emperor and a wine seller girl. The poem was,

一瞥驚鴻影, A stolen glance startled the shadow of the swan,
相逢似夢中. Our chance meeting was like a dream.
廣寒身未到, The moon yet to be reached,
分手太匆匆. Too hurriedly we had parted...

I like the term '驚鴻影' – a startled goose shadow (see

In the flowery language of Chinese, it meant a startled beauty. The ancient Chinese found the grace of a goose in flight is comparable to the demeanor of a beauty. However the word goose does not have elegance and grace in the English language. Still I would like to incorporate it somehow into the poem. With this in mind, the third line is now completely reworked,

今宵酒壺滿,       Tonight the wine jug is full,
侍君解夜寒.       Serving my Lord to dispel the cold night air.
鼓聲驚鴻裙(舞)  Beat beat goes the drums startling the pleated skirts (dance)
東遠漸染紅.       Far away in the east slowly dyed in red.

The tone of the word dance (舞) in this combination did not sound quite right in Cantonese and opted for the word skirt instead. This version too has its merits but upon reflection, the phrases, ‘drum beats’ and ‘dyed in red’ were too explicit. At the same time, the timbre and scenario of the poem were too radical a departure from the original idea. More work and tweaking were needed. Sometimes beating the head against the wall is no way to progress. So I stopped thinking and banged on the piano instead!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

During another jog up the street as I recited the lines in my head, a decision was made to remove the explicit phrases and return to my original idea. However that posed a problem as I wanted to incorporate 驚鴻(a startled beauty) into the poem while retaining the phrase ‘未盡' (not yet). Extending a fifth line would violate the four line stanza restriction. After much mulling, the easiest solution was to change the poem into a seven character format Instead. This would give me more flexibility to incorporate all the ideas I wanted. Thus the closing line was born,

東遠漸紅驚鴻裙(影) - Far in the east the red glow approached slowly and startled the swan’s skirts (shadow).

To satisfy the seven character format of the poem a descriptive autumn moon (秋月) to the first line was added and enhanced the opening imagery.

今宵秋月酒壺滿 – Tonight, an autumn night, the jug is filled of wine.

However I felt the tones were a bit amiss. 月明 (bright moon) is a better choice as it also hinted a touch of autumn because the moon is brightest at that time. Let readers paint their time frames.

今宵月明酒壺滿 – Tonight the moon is bright and the jug of wine is full.

The second line proved problematic in construction. It was difficult to find an apt description to fill the spaces between the phrases, ‘Awaiting for my Lord’ and ‘dispelling the cold night air from him’? Took me quite a while to hit upon the action of “to thank her Lord for the privilege of dispelling the cold night air from him”. A very nice idea indeed. However I didn’t like the original words used. 感謝 (to thank) sounds too a modern usage and 感恩 is too ‘Thanksgiving’ for me. 謝恩 (thanking his graciousness) though appropriate but in my eyes made her too submissive and namby pamby. I wanted a stronger lady character. After more soul searching 献恩 was favoured. This term means ‘to give’ or ‘to offer thanks’ to one’s superior. To offer herself in this manner is due to etiquette requirements and not because she is a meek hapless toy of his. For all outward appearances he is her Lord but in her heart she is his equal. At the same time this phrase smacks of hanky panky business about to happen. This makes the poem more interesting and salacious to readers. The word, ‘解' (dispel) also means ‘to loosen’. To loosen his cold night air may mean to warm him up in other ways than just wine. The third line was easily completed by adding “song and dance” before “not yet”. The poem is now complete. I like the ambiguity of the word, 樂 (joy) for it also means music depending on how it is pronounced.


The literal translation is:

Tonight the moon is bright and the jug is filled with wine,
Serving my Lord, I offer my love to him, dispelling the cold night air.
In leisure dance I sang; the music/joy has not ended when,
Far away in the east, the slow red glow startled the swan (goose) skirt.

A polished version is:

Tonight under the bright moon, a jug full of wine,
Serving my Lord, I offer my love, dispelling the cold night air.
My dance, my song, my music has yet to end,
Too soon that eastern glow of red startled my pleated skirt.
A note on the translation…

In the original, there is no indication who is lamenting. It is acceptable to use non-first person pronouns in the translation.

Saturday, 25 Feb 2011

Just as I feared as I was polishing this essay on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning after heavy rains from night, my thoughts began swirling once more. The seven character format seemed long winded and too mechanical in construction for my taste. It does not have the terseness, fluidity and vagueness of the five character format. In a stroke of insight, I was able to shortened the last line to five characters, 東紅驚鴻裙 ‘The east is aglow in red startling my pleated skirt’. This time I was lucky that my Muse was at my side. In minutes, I was able to prune away the added superfluous words. It seemed that I had gone round a full circle; ending up with the original opening phrase once more. However this time, I was well armed and prepared,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
歌舞宴未盡, My song, my dance, my feast has yet to end,
東紅驚鴻裙. The east is aglow in red startling my pleated skirt.

Still I was not satisfied as the tonal construction did not sound too pleasing to my ears. Also the words紅 (red) and鴻 (goose) sounded the same… After more a bit more monkeying, I arrived at the following version,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.

It would be nice if indeed this is the final version but for now it is. Never know when new ideas pop into the mind and things start to morph once again…


It had been more than four years since this poem was posted.  I guess my comment proved wrong.  Now that my Chinese had somewhat improved, I am updating this poem so that the second and fourth line rhymes.  Only one character had been replaced without changing the original intent of the poem.

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君. I offer my love to dispel my Lord's sleepiness.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Passing Seasons

水滴清清冬漸去, Drip drip goes the icicles as winter fades,
花開芬芳春自到. Flowers bloom in fragrance as spring is here.
夏熱秋涼不停轉. Hot summers and cool autumns cycle unceasingly,
蜂飛雪降又一季. Bees a buzz, snow a fall, yet another season goes on by.


水滴清清冬漸去, Drip drip goes the icicles as winter fades,
花開芬芳春自到. Flowers bloom in fragrance as spring is here.
追蜂撲蝶螢火夏. Chasing bees, catching butterlies and summer nights of fireflies,
酒過醒來又一秋. As I recovered from my stupor, another autumn had gone by.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Valentine's Day Muttering.

My response to all those Valentine's Day greetings etc.

非是酒香玫瑰紅, Not bouquets of wine nor the color of the red red roses,
糖甜口美有何用. Of what use are sweets and candied mouths?
日夜小節敬如賓, Daily small things we do for each other with greatest respect,
勝於翡翠滿頭金 Are far more superior than wearing the greenest jade or a head decked in gold!

Of what use is the bouquet of wine or the color of red roses,
Or that of candied tongues?
Daily small things in greatest respect we do for each other,
Are far more superior than wearing the greenest jade or a head decked in gold!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Life's A Short Dream

For a few days I was doodling on one and half lines of

紅梅滿天疑是春, Red plum blossoms fill the sky and I wondered if it's spring time yet.
白雪紛飛...          White snow flying profusely...

Then I was inspired by a post from a friend and was able to complete it within a few minutes...

life is beautiful and fragile too...

by Hui Tan on Friday, February 11, 2011 at 10:00pm

today, I was in a doctor's office working as an interpreter, the poor guy was told that his cancer cell reoccurred in his liver and lungs, and the maximum time he could live is 12 months...he was very strong at the moment when he was told that, my heart was actually beatingt so fast and felt so sad for him..cause he is so young and cute...huge surprise to me, he even made a smile and told the doctor he would do anything to cooperate with the is so fragile, my friends, let us enjoy every moment we have in a productive and loving way,,,,Thank you, my Lord...thank for all the blessing...please forgive me..

i cant get rid of his face right now....drinking some wine at home, alone...

紅梅滿天疑是春,      Red plum blossoms filled the sky and I wondered if it's spring time yet.
白雪紛飛眼前冬,      White snow flying profusely before me I cannot deny it's still winter.
苦酒獨酌難免愁,      Bitter is the wine as I pour alone in sorrow which I cannot escape.
霎時人間一塲夢.      How quickly a life time becomes a dream...