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To the Tune of "The Fortuneteller" 1

Su, Dong-Po (1036-1101 CE)

The crescent moon hangs from a phoenix tree nearly barren of leaves.
The night watchman's drums have just stopped 2.
It is growing quiet.
Who sees a solitary recluse coming and going?
The barely discernible shadow of a lonely swan disappears.

When startled in flight,
It still looks back,
For it harbors sorrow that no one can understand.
Having scanned all the cold branches,
It is unwilling to perch 3.
The shoal is cold and lonesome.


1 In 1079, corrupt officials brought a false charge against Dong-po Su. They accused him of harboring malicious intentions because Su frequently criticized the government. Later, they arrested Su and imprisoned him for several months. Then Su was demoted to Deputy Commissioner of Militia at Huang-zhou City. During this period Su lived in Ding-hui-yuan Park in the city. The above poem excluding the last line was written in this park. The last line was originally written as follows: "The rivers in Wu District become cold as the maple leaves fall." The poem describes his disappointment at the government's corruption and his loneliness from the lack of men of integrity in the emperor's court. In 1094, Su was demoted to serve at Hui-zhou City. Su lived in Jia-you Temple at the eastern foot of Bai-he-feng Mountain (White Crane Mountain) and became a neighbor of Military Governor Wen. Wen has a daughter called Chao-chao (outstanding). She was sixteen and beautiful. Although she reached a marriageable age, she did not want to marry. When Dong-po Su became her neighbor, she was happy and stated, 'Dong-po Su will be my husband.' Later, Military Governor Wen traveled north and asked Su to take care of his daughter. This arrangement matched her wish. Every day she paced back and forth behind his window and listened to him reciting poetry. When she was discovered, she would hurriedly flee. After Dong-po Su understood her intentions, Su told her, 'I will ask Mr. Wang to marry you.' However, Chao-chao admired only Su and was not interested in Wang. Before long, Su was demoted to serve at Dan-zhou City. Consequently, Chao-chao became lovesick and died. She was buried on a shoal near the Eastern River by Dong-po Su's remaining family in Hui-zhou City. In 1100, Su was pardoned and was given a position at Lian-zhou City. After he arrived at the city in August, he was transferred again to Yong-zhou City in September. In October, Su arrived at Guang-zhou City where he met his family moving from Hui-zhou City. They told Dong-po Su about the death of Chao-chao Wen. Su was shocked and saddened. In order to honor Chao-chao, Su modified his previous poem by changing its last line to "The shoal is cold and lonesome." See "Distinguished Women" in Notes and Comments on Past and Present Ci Poetry.
    Wen-zhuo Zheng (1856-1918) said, "It is unnecessary to use the story of Chao-chao to interpret Su's poem. The poem itself is graceful and elegant."
    The following website provides Composer Zi Huang's (1904-1938) music score for this poem:

2 "Night watchman's drums" let people know what time it is during the night.

3 Stories of Recluses Living in Seclusion as Fishermen Along Tiao Creek written by Zi Hu (1095-1170) says, "Some people claimed that there is faulty wording in Su's lines, 'Having scanned all the cold branches,/ It is unwilling to perch.' They argue that a swan's webbed feet cannot grab a branch, and therefore that it appears only among the reeds. The first stanza describes a night scene; the second focuses on a swan. This style is similar to that of Su's poem, 'To the Tune of 'Congratulations to a Bridegroom''. The first stanza of the latter poem describes a summer scene; the second stanza focuses on pomegranate blossoms. Su's choice of a swan as the symbol in his poem came from Cao Cao's poem, 'The moon is bright./ The stars are sparse./ Ravens fly south./ They circle a tree three times,/ But they cannot find a branch to perch upon.' In Cao's poem, 'selecting a branch' means 'working with a wise emperor'. In addition, Su uses 'swan', a symbol representing a recluse of integrity, to elegantly express his feeling of powerlessness at the government's corruption. One should not use strict rules of logic to be over-critical of Su’s literary choice."