Chinese poetry

There are 2 famous Chinese poems on family infighting for the throne. One is from The Three Kingdoms era. The second is from the Tang dynasty, referred to enigmatically by Li Ka Shing in a newspaper ad he put up concerning the HK protests of 2019.

Cao Cao {of the Three Kingdoms era} had a son named Cao Zhi. Cao Zhi’s most famous poem was the Seven Steps Verse composed by him in 7 steps after the Emperor {his brother Cao Pi} wanted to kill him as he thought he wanted to usurp his throne unless he can compose a poem in 7 steps to show his innocence. Cao Zhi recited in 7 steps:

“People burn the beanstalk to boil beans,

The beans in the pot cry out.

We are born of the selfsame root,

Why should we hound each other to death with such impatience?”

Chinese Pinyin

煮豆燃豆萁       zhǔ dòu rán dòu qí

豆在釜中泣       dòu zài fǔ zhōng qì

本是同根生       běn shì tóng gēn shēng

相煎何太急?    xiāng jiān hé tài jí

 A Tang dynasty poem on melon picking, written by Prince Li Xian, the youngest son of the beautiful empress Wu Zetian (624-705).

The Tang poem, The Melon of Huangtai Cannot Endure Further Picking, warned Wu of the risk of removing all melons.

It was an indirect message to the empress to stop persecuting her sons. If all sons were killed, Empress Wu would risk not having one of her own sons inherit her throne.

The poem was written as Empress Wu, China’s first female emperor, who had killed two children and exiled one to ensure she had absolute power in the palace.

Here’s the full poem translation by South China Morning Post:

“Growing melons beneath Huangtai,

Hanging heavily, many grow ripe,

Pick one, the others will be fine,

Pick two, fewer are left on the vine,

If you want to get yet another one,

That’s where we must draw the line,

For if there is any more reaping,

You will end up with an empty vine.”

It was written by Prince Li Xian. After his mother put him under house arrest, he wrote the poem as a subtle form of protest to his mother, asking her not to oppress her children to the extent she runs the risk not having one of her own sons inherit her throne.

 However, his plea fell on deaf ears, and he was eventually forced to commit suicide by his mom.

In this picture are 4 books on Chinese poetry. The Anchor book is a useful anthology of about 600 poems from the Zhou dynasty to the 20th century. It contains short essays on the dynasties and useful biodatas on all the poets featured.

There is also a useful index of the poets. I highly recommend this book as a primer to the rich canon of Chinese poetry. It is a rich picking from a 3000 year of tradition.

One Reply to “Chinese poetry”

  1. Why should we hound each other to death with such impatience?
    This translation is rather awkward….
    Poem should have certain rhymes and rhythm, even when translated
    I would suggest translating it as “Why should we hurt each other with such haste?”
    There is nothing in the original Chinese version that suggests “death”. “Hurt” is good enough.

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