Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Japanese Koan (公案)


A koan is an accepted word in the English language. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is defined as,

"a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden enlightenment."

This note is the result of a series of conversation in the comment box of Toshi on his piece, "Ginger Tea".

After my commentary, I stumbled onto this gem. Another example of how I learn things from correcting English essays of others.

For more information about what a koan is,

For more koan examples,

The following koan is taken from the second link. I find it of great interest because it is so succinctly well put and suddenly a ray of enlightenment came upon me. I would like to share it with those studying Chinese. I have been doing all this while without realization. It is entitled, "How To Write A Chinese Poem".

How To Write a Chinese Poem

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

"The usual Chinese poem is four lines," he explained. "The first line contains the initial phrase; the second line, the continuation of that phrase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword,
But these girls slay men with their eyes."

Here is my translation into Chinese. Welcome to correct my mistakes and your suggestions are most appreciated,


1. I didn't literally translate sword into 劍 because I would need another character as adjective to fulfill the word count requirement. E.g. 利劍, etc. Weaponry seemed most appropriate.

2. I didn't think the Chinese character for men, 男 is suitable. So I used the character that can either mean a "male" or "hero". It has a better sound than either 男 or 士 (member of the senior ministerial class (old) / scholar (old) / bachelor / honorific / first class military rank / specialist worker). What do you this?


  1. On this Christmas day, I have a bit more time to look at the translations of the poem into Chinese. Originally, it was translated on the fly and is more of a direct translation. Now here is a more polished version,

    年華二十與十八 Thanks lxf for suggesting 與,"and"

    If I were to retranslate back into English, it would be quite different from the original version.

    Two sisters of a Kyoto merchant store.
    One aged twenty, the other eighteen.
    Swords of the militia can kill multitudes of life,
    Glances from these girls can slay entire armies.

  2. Being a perfectionist, I knew my nagging was telling me that there are more rough edges to be polished. So in the end, the poem evolved, though retranslated back into English will result in different wording but not its meaning.

    京都綢莊姐妹花 Two sisters of a Kyoto silk merchant, pretty as flowers
    年華二十與十八 One aged twenty, the other eighteen.
    兵將刀劍殺眾生 Swords of militia can kill multitudes of life,
    雙嬌媚視斬萬軍. Seductive glances from these two beauties can slay entire armies.

  3. Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto =/= Two sisters of a Kyoto silk merchant
    2 girls live in Kyoto. They are daughter of a merchant. We don’t know where the merchant lives...

  4. You are absolutely correct. I had forgotten the intented meaning in the too concise Chinese version. Thank you for your correction. However, we can safely assume the father's permanent home is in the same city.