Zhang Jiuling: "Brooding on Circumstance: Poem 1" (From Chinese)

The first of a suite of four, this poem (like similarly-titled poems by other authors) uses extended metaphor as a kind of code to talk about politics. Though this poem stands perfectly well on its own as a work of art, I've given a paraphrased interpretation of that code after the footnotes.

Brooding on Circumstance: Poem 1
By Zhang Jiuling
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite it in modern Mandarin pronunciation
Click to hear me recite it in my version of educated Medieval Chinese pronunciation

A swan 1 on its own comes flying inland
Too lofty to prey on ponds of the weak,
And sees askance two lavish kingfishers2
Nesting proud on a pearl-tree's3 peak:
Atop their treasure-tree, high as if mighty,
When don't they fear the bronze bullets'4 flight?
For wearers of wealth are worn down in the crosshairs
And grandeur will crowd the gods to spite.

And I now roam far beyond rage of men's eyes.
So what shall the fowl-hunter's heart now prize?

1- Though the Chinese word here used referred at the time to any large wild goose, the creature he clearly had in mind (probably anser cygnoides ferus, the wild swan-goose, or else perhaps some similar species hunted to extinction long before the modern era) was a migratory, solitary bird associated with the south, a place which, like the "Wild West" of American history, had somewhat romanticizing overtones of the half-civilized and unknown.
2- Kingfishers were thought of as regal birds, with their bright plumage, and connoted opulence and splendor. As birds of southern China, they could easily become associated with the pearl-tree of the subsequent line.
3- The pearl-tree: a tree of legend whose branches grew pearls. It is first mentioned in the 山海經 Shānhǎi Jīng ("On Mountains and Seas"), a book from the Warring States Period, which contains a mythological description of China's geography.
4- "Bronze bullets": 金丸 jīnwán "metal balls" i.e. pellets fired from a 彈弓 dàngōng or "bullet-bow", a crossbow-like device designed to shoot pellets rather than arrows, especially popular among bird-hunters. (Most translators seem to be under the impression that these projectiles are fired from a simple sling, a situation possibly exacerbated by the fact that 彈弓 dàngōng has come to mean "slingshot" in modern Chinese.)


I came to the imperial court from the rural places of the south, a man with no political connections, and no designs to rise to affluence at the expense of others. There, I found a pair of courtly social climbers (political enemies, Li Linfu and Niu Xianke) from prestigious families, in positions of affluence and power. Being so visible in the eyes of the political world, they go in constant terror of plots against them. For the more successful one is at the court, the more one attracts the envy of competitors. Likewise, the greater one's power, the more likely the Emperor himself is to feel threatened. But now that I am in exile, and far from the intrigues of court, I myself, unlike them, am no longer at risk of assassination.

The Original:

(Medieval Chinese transcribed using David Branner's anti-reconstruction)

Han Characters 


Medieval Chinese 

kám1a ngùo3c
trang3 kóu3b leing4

kuo1 ghung1b héi1a dzyàng3 lei1a
dri3b ghwang1 pet3a kám1b kùo1
tsrek3 kàn4 srong2 tshwì3c táu4
dzrau2 dzèi1a sam1b tsyuo3c dzyùo3c 
káu3x káu3x tren3b muk1b tan4
tek1 muo3c kem3x ghwan1 gùo3c
3cx buk3b ghwàn2a nyen3b tsyí3c
kau1 meing3a pek3 zyen3b ùo1
kem3x ngé1 you3b meing4 meing4
yek3 tsyá3 ghe1 srúo3b mùo1
Modern Chinese 

Gǎn yù  
Zhāng jiǔ líng 

Gū hóng hǎi shàng lái,  
chí huáng bù gǎn gù 
Cè jiàn shuāng cuì niǎo,  
cháo zài sān zhū shù. 
Jiǎo jiǎo zhēn mù diān,  
dé wú jīn wán jù? 
Měi fú huàn rén zhǐ,  
gāo míng bī shén wù. 
Jīn wǒ yóu míng míng,  
yì zhě hé suǒ mù? 

1 comment:

  1. Zhang Jiuling is one of my great great great...grandparents. I'm ashamed to say I grew up in a Western country without ever learning traditional Chinese and have yet to read much of his works. Thank you for this :)


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