A Li Yu Poem: Xiang Jian Huan

I’m attempting to translate one of the ci poems of Li Houzhu (937–78, personal name Li Yu 李煜), last ruler of the Southern Tang kingdom, one of the many kingdoms that emerged in China’s split upon the collapse of the Tang dynasty. This king had his kingdom taken away from him by Zhao Guangyin, founder of the Song dynasty, and he was led away from his capital as a captive with his family and put under house arrest at the Song capital in Kaifeng. The poems he wrote in this exile express regret for his lost kingdom and the pleasures it had brought him.

The opera playwright Tang Tik-sang (唐滌生) wrote his last Cantonese opera about Li Houzhu and his doomed kingdom, and indeed he’s a subject of great fascination.

So I have at the poem, 相見歡 (of which Teresa Teng has sung an ill-fitted rendition):


With cluster’d blooms is gone spring’s flow’r1
 (Too soon, too soon!),
Not bearing morning’s2 cold rain come
 And evening’s tempests come.

With rougèd tears are men kept drunk –
 But when again?
Surely man’s life is grievance long
 And water eastward long.

[1] Or The wilting of the forest blooms has ended the splendour of spring.
[2] Morning looks exactly like dynasty in Chinese (朝), though the two are pronounced differently.


Translation © Lue-Yee Tsang 2010.


5 responses to “A Li Yu Poem: Xiang Jian Huan

  1. Important question, to answer your question: to what extent are the hyperbaton and anachronisms a faithful approximation of the Chinese?

    That is, it sounds weird, but is it supposed to? What would it look like if you didn’t get all fancy with the word order?

    I like how you’re using an older dialect of English to do an older dialect of Chinese on a historical level, but in terms of poetry, I think it’s…probably not going to get you a publisher.

    Isn’t the point of translation to make it more accessible?


    • Thanks for the question.

      The hyperbaton’s actually for the sake of preserving parallelism, and of serving lexical class crossover (hinted at in rougèd), while still sounding like, well, English. Archaisms are there because it was archaic even in its own time in comparison to spoken Chinese, and my mom didn’t understand the poem with her knowledge of modern Chinese.

      I’m annoyed that I have three footnotes for such a short poem. Time to change I bear not to not bearing in order to make the verb’s subject as ambiguous as it should be and kill off the footnote.


  2. I have recently translated the same poem and posted it on 18 February 2011 on my local (Hong Kong) blog, where discussions can be very heated.

    I must say I am equally if not more “guilty” of hyperbaton (inversion) and anachronism (archaism), as can be seen in my rendition of this poem and others. I am afraid my notes are very much longer: they are there primarily not to explain the poem, but my rendition of the poem, a kind of a record of what went through my mind when writing and revising it and what transpired after blog discussions.

    As for Ferris’s “important question”, although I agree with Tsang generally, I fear (an archaism? probably, in this context?) I am not in a position to answer it generally. We should perhaps question ourselves on at least two levels:

    (1) Is the inversion/archaism in the original? (If so, the more reason, and even if not, it may still be necessary for reasons of style to ask)
    (2) Can the inversion/archaism be framed in comprehensible poetic English? (If so, proceed, if not abort!)

    All these need to be asked on a poem-by-poem, line-by-line, case-by-case, word-by-word basis. I, therefore, think it best to post here my rendition of this poem (sans notes) and await your critique:

    Li Yu: Xian Jian Huan (First line: The flower grove has shed its spring red halo)

    1 The flower grove has shed its spring red halo,
    2 Oh far too soon to go,
    3a Weathering not the morning sleets and
    3b the winds by evening blow.

    4 Tears of rouge you’re dripping,
    5 Together, our wine we’re sipping;
    6 Ever again in the morrow?
    7a Oh life is beset, as always, with sorrow
    7b as eastwards rivers must flow.

    Best wishes, Andrew Wong

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have now revised my line 1 to read “Flower groves have shed their spring red halo”. Andrew Wong.

    Liked by 1 person

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