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Ode to the Red Cliff 1 (I)

Su, Dong-po 2 (1036-1101 CE)

On August 18th in 1082,
My guests and I were taking a boat ride beneath the Red Cliff.
The breeze blew gently.
The water remained calm.
I toasted my guests, recited the poems in the chapter entitled "The Moon Rises"
And then sang the song, "Being Modest and Retiring" 3.
Soon after the moon rose above the eastern mountain
And lingered between the Dipper and the Herdboy 4.
The dew-like foam floated across the river.
The reflection of the light blurred into the hues of the sky.
We let our small boat drift freely like a reed
And rode along the expanse of the unknown.
Unaware of where the rushing boat would end up,
We had the thrill of riding the mighty wind.
It seemed as though we were lightly leaving this world of cares,
Had grown wings, ascended, and become immortal.

Then we drank and celebrated.
We drummed the boat’s side and sang,
"The oars of laurel and orchid strike the reflection of the moon.
The boat goes upstream.
My feelings reach the distance where the flowing water leads.
I am longing for the sages 5 at the other side of the sky."
One guest accompanied the song with a bamboo flute.
The music was sad as if he were weeping, yearning, or lamenting.
The sound was melodious and lingered like an endless silk thread.
A dragon lying hidden in the secluded valley would be inspired to dance to the music
And a widow in a lonely boat might be brought to tears.

I straightened up and earnestly asked why he played such a sad tune.
The guest replied,
“‘The moon is bright and the stars are sparse;
Ravens fly south.’
We recite this from Cao Cao's poem 6, don’t we?
We can see Xia-kou City 7 in the east
And then Wu-chang City in the west.
Mountains and rivers intertwine each other.
The trees here are lush and green.
Was this not where Cao Cao was defeated by Yu Zhou 8 ?
When Cao Cao seized Jing-zhou City, captured Jiang-ling City 9,
And rode along the Yangtze River downstream to the east,
His fleet of warships stretched hundreds of miles;
The flags and banners of his troops filled the sky.
Drinking wine in front of a river,
General Cao improvised poetry while brandishing his lance.
Surely he was the hero of his time, but where is he now?
We fish and fell trees on this small island,
Befriending deer, fish, and lobsters.
Riding a small boat,
We raise gourd cups to toast each other.
We are like a speck of grain in the sea
Or mayflies between heaven and earth.
I lament that our life is short,
And covet the endlessness of the Yangtze River.
I wish I could roam in the sky by grasping a flying fairy
And embrace the moon with which I could live forever.
I am aware that this dream cannot be realized.
Therefore, I entrusted the lingering music to the sad wind."

I asked my guest,
"Do you truly understand the nature of water and the moon?"
Instead of waiting for his answer,
I expressed my point of view,
"The stream flows away, but never dries up.
The moon may appear full or crescent-shaped,,
But it never changes its size.
From the viewpoint of change,
The world cannot remain the same for longer than a moment.
From the viewpoint of constancy,
Everything including us will last forever.
So why should we envy other things?
In this world, everything has its natural master.
If it does not belong to me,
I dare not take it even if it has little value.
However, there are two exceptions:
The fresh wind on the river becomes a pleasant sound
As long our ears open to it;
The moon 10 between the mountains becomes beautiful
As long as our eyes are aware of it.
Free and inexhaustible,
The breeze and the moon are the Creator's endless treasure
Which we may enjoy together."

My guest emerged from his sorrow and smiled.
Then we washed dishes, ate our meal, and toasted each other.
After we finished eating,
The dishes were scattered about in disorder.
We reclined against each other in the boat,
Unaware of the sun rising in the east.


1 Four different mountains in Hubei Province all have the same name: the Red Cliff. The first is located northeast of Ja-yu-xian City. This was where Yu Zhou of the Kingdom of Wu defeated Cao Cao. The second is located southeast of Wu-chang-xian City. The third is located in Dun-kou City of Han-yang County and is also known as Wu-lin-feng Mountain, which belongs to the Lin-zhang Mountain Range. The fourth is outside the city Dong-po Su visited, Huang-gang-xian City. Su's essay said that this was where Yu Zhou defeated Cao Cao because Su wanted to add another dimension to his essay by using this historical event.

2 Shi (a bar in the front part of a carriage for passengers to hold onto, not fancy but essential for safety) and Zi-zhan were Dong-po Su's other first names. He was a descendant of Wei-dao Su (648-705), a prime minister during Empress Ze-tian Wu's reign. Dong-po Su was a native of Mei-shan City (present day Mei-shan-xian City in Sichuan Province). He, his father, Xun Su, and his younger brother, Che Su, were all famous essayists. Today people call them the "Three Sus". Their essays are outstanding and especially excel in argumentative writing. There was a Chinese saying, "If one masters the essays of the Three Sus, one eats mutton. Otherwise, one eats the roots of greens." The saying showed that their argumentative writings were considered model essays for those who tried to prepare for the Advanced Exam. The Three Sus are included among "the Eight Masters of Ancient Chinese Prose". Dong-po Su was learned and talented. In 1057, he and his younger brother took the Palace Exam at the Board of Rites. Xiu Ou-yang was the examiner. In this exam, Dong-po Su wrote the essay "When Punishing or Awarding People, We Must Be Kind and Sincere" as his paper when taking the Palace Exam. Ou-yang asked him, "In your essay, Gao-tao said three times, 'Kill him.' Emperor Yao said three times, 'Pardon him.' Where does this story come from?" Su replied, "I thought it must have been so." Ou-yang praised Dong-po Su highly and said to himself, "I should keep this man out of the limelight." This statement showed Ou-yang's caution for nurturing young talent. In the above exam, Su's score was the highest, but Ou-yang put him in second place and put Gong Zeng in first place. Ou-yang said, "Su is only twenty-two years old. If I put him in first place, he might become proud." Later, Dong-po Su was appointed as the mayor’s assistant at Feng-xiang-fu City and then an Editor of Historical Records.
    In 1069, An-shi Wang became the prime minister. He established new law codes for reform. Dong-po Su opposed Wang’s reforms for the following reasons: Wang emphasized establishing new law codes, while Su emphasized appointing talented government officials. Wang wanted to quickly apply his new laws to the entire nation, while Su promoted slow and steady reforms. Wang put top priority on exploring sources of revenue, while Su considered frugality essential. Su's proposal was not adopted by the emperor's court. In 1071, after Su asked to be transferred to Hang-zhou City, he was appointed as the city's assistant mayor. In 1076, An-shi Wang resigned as the prime minister because his reforms failed due to making poor choices when appointing officials. In 1079, corrupt officials brought false charge against Dong-po Su of harboring malicious intentions because Su frequently criticized the government. They arrested Su and put him in prison for several months. Then Su was demoted to Deputy Commissioner of Militia at Huang-zhou City. In 1086, Guang Si-ma became the prime minister. During the Yuan-you Period Su became a member of the Royal Academy and then an imperial tutor. However, Su disagreed with Si-ma's policies because the latter only wanted to make nominal changes rather than truly consider the well-being of common people. In 1094, he was demoted to Deputy Commander at Qiong-zhou City. In 1099, he was pardoned and moved north. In 1101, he died at Chang-zhou City. See the biography of Dong-po Su in Chapter 338 of The History of the Song Dynasty.
    Wu-guan Lu said, "People claimed that Dong-po Su could not sing, so his folk style poetry was not harmonious with music." Yi-dao Chao said, "In the beginning of the Shao-sheng Period, Dong-po Su and I parted at a ferry crossing on the upper stream of the Bian River. After drinking wine, Dong-po sang the song, 'Gu-yang Pass'. It proved that Su can sing. However, his poems are so unrestrained that they may not comply with musical rules. I tried to sing a few of Su's poems. After finishing, I felt that the wind from the sky and the rain from the sea had been moved by the power of the song."
    Chui-jian-lu (Small Voices) written by Wen-bao Yu (c. 1240) of the Southern Song dynasty says, "One day in his office, Dong-po Su showed his poem, 'Nostalgia at Bei-gu Pavilion in Jing-kou City' (to the Tune of 'Lovely Nian-nu'), to one of his staff who was good at music. After the latter read the poem, Su asked, 'How does my poem compare with those of Yong Liu's?' The staff member replied, 'Liu's typical lines, such as 'I may be in a boat beneath the waning moon/ As the morning breeze brushes the willow trees along the riverside.', are suitable for singing only by a seventeen-year-old girl who keeps time with wooden clappers. In contrast, it requires a hefty male westerner who plays a bronze lute or beats a gong to sing your line, 'The mighty river flows eastward.'' Dong-po Su roared with laughter."
    In a letter to mayor’s assistant Min-shi Xie, Dong-po Su wrote about the profundity of writing. He said, “Writing is like clouds drifting or water flowing. At first, it does not have any direction. However, it goes where it is supposed to and stops where it should. In other words, the development of an essay should be natural; a good essay is like a graceful woman whose bearing is full of charm.” Dong-po Su commented on his own writing, “My essays stem from tremendous resources. They run like a spring which may emerge anywhere from the ground.” Su truly understood the profundity of essay writing. He was not only a great essayist, but also a great poet. In addition, Dong-po Su was a man greatly accomplished at practicing calligraphy, playing the game, “Go”, appreciating wine, and studying Buddhism. Su forged Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in one stove with one flame: Confucianism inspired him to save the world; Buddhism and Taoism expanded his vision. It can be said that Dong-po Su was a man of many talents.

3 "Being Modest and Retiring" was the first poem in the chapter entitled "The Moon Rises" in The Poetry of the State of Chen, a volume of The Book of Poetry. The poem says, "When the bright moon rises,/ With a beautiful woman as my companion,/ My sorrow is relieved/ And my harassed mind becomes quiet."

4 "The Dipper" refers to "the Constellation of the Big Dipper"; "the Herdboy" refers to "the Constellation of the Herdboy".

5 Here "the sages" refers to the virtuous officials in the emperor's court.

6 Cao Cao, a.k.a. Meng-de Cao, was the prime minister at the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. He forced Emperor Xian-di to do his bidding. Cao Cao and his two sons, Pei Cao and Zhi Cao, were great poets during the Jian-an Period.

7 Xia-kou City is located in Hubei Province.

8 In 208 CE, Cao Cao's navy sailed from Jing-zhou City downstream along the Yangtze River. King Quan Sun of the Kingdom of Wu made his commander Yu Zhou and King Bei Liu of the Kingdom of Shu-han unite their forces to fight against Cao's navy. They defeated Cao's navy at the Red Cliff.

9 Jing-ling City is located in Hubei Province.

10 The following video shows Li-jun Deng singing Dong-po Su's poem, "To the Tune of 'Prelude to the Water Song'":
The first line of this poem is "How long will the bright moon appear?". The poem centers around this question which inspired Su's concern and blessings for his country and his family. His observations of the moon made him understand that nothing is perfect. It also provided support for his life philosophy: Be content with what one has and be optimistic about the future.