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Friday, November 11, 2011

A Chinese Riddle Poem


I was planning to write some essays on my recent trip to Asia. However for the past two days, I lost track of time watching non stop this Taiwanese drama on YouTube. Yes, I am still on vacation, recuperating from jetlag. A friend had sent me a link on Facebook to this movie, "The Invincible Swordsman 傲笑江湖 - 東方不敗). It was interesting and so watched all the three movies following different links. However on finishing the last one, I noticed there was another link to one called, "Empire Devastating Beauty - 傾國皇妃." It was intriguing and soon I was hooked. So I had a marathon serial watching! One good thing resulted was that my biological clock was reset back to the local time.

There was one scene where the heroine wandered into a secluded palace. Inscribed on a post was cryptic poem written with strange forms. It was a riddle. In the story, anyone decrypting it would be rewarded handsomely by the emperor. I find it literally challenging, unique and elegant. Only in the languages based on the Chinese script can such a puzzle be constructed. Hence this note entry is mainly for the benefit of Chinese readers who did not watch the serial.

At first I thought how talented the screenwriter was. However, on further research, this was not the case at all. He had stolen the idea from history and modified it to fit his story. The original poem was written by Su Dong Pu, a Sung dynasty poet. Since the story took place before his time during the Five Dynasty and Ten States Era, it was a good ploy in the movie. Otherwise any literati worth his salt will able to figure it out easily.

Here are some hints...

月字傾斜,             The character for the moon is slanted
枕字倒寫,             The pillow (character) is written upside down.
門字少半邊          Only half the door character is written.
夜字加長漏变短 The character for night is lengthen while the one for leak is shortened.
望字中間折斷      The middle part of the character for "to see" is separated,
肝字加長.             The character for live is lengthened
信字少一點          There's a dot missing from the character of "to believe"
三個更字重疊      Three character of "to change/hour" is heaped on each other.
首字反寫              The character of "head" is written in reverse
釵字金邊折斷      The character for hairpin whose metal radical is broken.

Brown is literal, blue is figurative version and red is the polished version in the target language.

斜月到枕門半開, Slanting moon, comes pillow door half opened,
The light of the low hanging moon reaches my pillow and the door is still half opened.

夜長漏短無人來. Night long, water clock/time/leak short no one comes.
The night is long, time is short but still no one comes.

望斷肝腸無點信, see broken liver intestines, no dot news.
Waiting eagerly until my liver and intestines break, still no sign of him.

三更回首折金釵. Third hour return head, deconstruct, golden hairpin.
At the third hour, I turn my head and take away the golden hair pin.

Late is the hour, the door still half opened,
Long is the night, the hours short but still no one comes.
My heart breaks in vain, nary a sign of him.
Till the third hour cometh, one last lingering look before removing my golden hairpin.

A few notes for non Chinese readers. This is a love poem written from the view point of the lady longing for her lover’s return. Chinese love the sublime and the implicit but the vagueness. It makes the reader wonder what is not said explicitly. The missing lover could be her husband who is away on some journey, not necessary the illicit tryst like Romeo and Juliet.

漏 means leaky. It is the dripping of the water in a water clock of the old days. Hence the measurement of time.

心肝 means heart and liver. In Chinese, it means "my darling". Calling my heart and liver in English not only is meaningless but gross in imagery. Guts would be better but still not elegant enough in English. This is cultural bias. Broken liver and intestines mean great wrenching sorrows.

A Chinese hour is equivalent to 2 modern hours. The 3rd watch or the 3rd hour means very late. This denotes the period from midnight to 2am. Removing hairpins means preparation for bed.

Now we know that this lady is from a rich family; otherwise, she would not have such luxurious hair ornaments. In Old China, rich and noble ladies do apply makeup and dressing their hair upon waking up; usually with the help of the maids. If there is a loving husband around, he would paint her eyebrows in this morning ritual. This act itself means a pair of love birds newly married.

For more information see

The following is my translation of the article from the above link.

Let us first look at Su Dong Pu’s strange looking poem,

You may be taken aback for awhile. What’s this? The characters do not look as they should be and neither a painting that should look like one. This wondrous form of poem is that “thoughts are expressed in their visual forms and are self explanatory” 1. It is a poem whereby one can read out the implicit words just by its form. Thus, it is read out as,

長亭短景無人畫,   Long is the pavilion, short is the scenery but no one to paint,
老大橫拖瘦竹筇2. Along comes an old man walking with a slender bamboo staff.
回首斷雲斜日暮,  Turning his head, the dying sunlight shafting through the clouds,
曲江倒蘸側山峰.  The winding river, mountain peaks dipping in its waters.

1. In another words, a rebus.
2. A kind of bamboo for making staves etc.

The general meaning is a marvelous evening scene of slanting rays of the sun but it is a pity that no one is here to paint it. Right then an elderly person comes walking slowly with his bamboo staff. Now and then he would turn back his head to see the sun setting continuously; darkening the scene with pieces of clouds dancing slowly. Mountain peaks reflected in the waters of the meandering river. How lovely it is, a landscape begging to be painted!

(When I first read the poem, the imagery appeared in front of my eyes was a river, meandering into the distant mountains, as if the river is dipping into them!)

There is another story connected to this poem. During the reign of Sung Shen Tsung, of the Hei Ning (Splendid Tranquility) era, the ambassador from the Northern Dynasty (most probably the Liao Dynasty) who use poetry to stump the literati officials of the Hanlin Academy. Any unsatisfactory in their response, he would deride them to no end. Then one year, this ambassador came once more and the Sung emperor ordered Su Dong Pu to entertain him. Once more the ambassador used his customary tactics to humiliate his Chinese host. However he never dreamt that this time, he would meet his nemesis.

Su Dong Po sarcastically told the ambassador that writing poems is easy. What is more difficult is to be able to read it aloud. With that said, he took out his brush and began to write the above poem. The ambassador was stunned and looked stupidly with his mouth a gaped and tongue tied. He was thoroughly humiliated. From that time onwards, no longer would he dare to show off his poetic prowess when he come calling to the Imperial Sung court.

Now let us enjoy another one written as a folk song.

According to its form, it can be read as

夜長枕橫意心歪,The night is long, across my pillow I have no noble thoughts,
斜月三更門半開。At the third watch, the moon is low and the door still half opened.
短命到今無口信,Life is short and still nary a sign from him.
肝腸望斷沒人來。Till my guts are wrenched, yet no one comes.

Please note that are two homophones in the poem. They are “倒” (upside down) vs 到” (to arrive) and “長” (long) vs “腸” (intestines). The meaning of the poem is not difficult to grasp. One lonely lady deep in the heart of the night longing for her lover. She is antsy, waiting with impatience and the door still half opened. She waited till midnight and not a sign of that short live bastard. Till her guts are spilt, yet no one is here.

Another important note: The poem uses traditional characters. Those who do not know these characters will not appreciate this kind of poems. They cannot be constructed when using simplified forms.

Source: 300 Historical Strange and Intriguing Poems.













  1. It is right! Also thank you for sharing the story behind Su Dongpo's poem :)