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Viewing General Cao's Painting 1 "Nine Horses" at Feng Wei's Mansion 2 (764 CE)

Du, Fu 3 (712-770 CE)

Since the beginning of the Tang dynasty,
Only the King of Jiang-du 4 has been regarded as the most marvelous painter of saddled horses.
General Cao has gained his fame as a painter for thirty years.
He allows the world to see real "Cheng-huang" 5 again.
He painted the late emperor's fine horse 6, Zhao-ye-bai 7.
The painted horse gallops tirelessly appearing as though it could chase the flying thunder over a dragon pond for ten days.
The emperor's concubines were ordered to send some court ladies
To fetch a purple cornelian plate from the treasure-house
And then bestowed it upon General Cao as a gift.
He thanked the emperor and danced home.
Light white and fine colorful silks were sent to him one after another.
Only after high officials acquired Cao's paintings
Might they feel that screens redoubled their splendor.
The painting I am looking at now includes Quan-mao-gua 8 and Shi-zi-hua 9.
Again art connoisseurs are transfixed by his talent.
Both horses are so fine that each can defeat a thousand enemies.
The expanse of white silk opens the scene of hazy sand blown by the wind
As these two horses rush by.
The remaining seven horses are also special.
Viewed from a distance, they are like moving mist or snow in the cold sky.
Their frosty hooves step on the road lined with catalpa trees.
The grooms and stable boys line up in a somber row.
It is pitiable 10 that the nine horses compete to show their radiating vigor.
They hold their heads high with noble spirits.
I wonder who would treasure fine horses.
First, there was Xun Zhi 11;
Now there is Feng Wei.
I recall that Emperor Xuan-zong visited Xin-feng Palace.
The flags decorated with green feathers 12 brushed the sky and moved eastward.
There were 30,000 horses galloping.
Their physiques were the same as those of the nine horses in the painting.
Since the river god presented a treasure to the emperor 13,
No one could hunt down and capture a horned dragon any longer 14.
Please look into the grove of pine and cypress trees at the foot of Jin-su Mountain 15.
All the dragons' vanguard 16 have scattered and gone.
All that remains are a few birds wailing in the wind.


1 "General Cao" refers to Ba Cao. He was a famous painter during the Kai-yuan Period. He was often summoned to the palace to paint portraits of emperor's horses and of high officials. At the peak of his career, he was General of Defense.

2 Feng Wei was a native of Cheng-du City in Sichuan Province. He was a state councilor at Lang-zhong City (in Sichuan Province) in charge of records and documents.

3 In this poem, Fu Du lamented the decline of the Tang dynasty. He used the passing of fine horses to represent the glory and decline of the Tang dynasty.

4 Xu Li, the King of Jiang-du, was a nephew of Emperor Tai-zong during the Tang dynasty.

5 "Cheng" means "ride"; "huang" refers to Emperor Huang-di, the ancestor of the Chinese people. In Chinese mythology, "Cheng-huang" was an animal that had the wings of a dragon and body of a horse. After Emperor Huang-di rode it, he became a god. That was how the animal gained its name. Later, people used "Cheng-huang" to refer to any fine horse.

6 "The late emperor" refers to Emperor Xuan-zong during the Tang dynasty.

7 "Zhao-ye-bai" means "illuminate night as brightly as day". The horse was named "Zhao-ye-bai" because its color was so bright that it illuminated the night.

8 "Gua" means a brown horse with a black mouth. "Quan-mao-gua" was one of Emperor Tai-zong's six fine horses during the Tang dynasty.

9 “Shi-zi-hua” literally means a horse with green and white mottled coat and the mane of a lion. "Shi-zi-hua" was the kind of horse that Emperor Dai-zong awarded General Zi-yi Guo for his meritorious service during the Tang dynasty.

10 It is pitiable that the horses were proud of their talents, but few people treasured them.

11 Dao-lin was Xun Zhi’s alternate first name. He was a famous monk during the Eastern Jin dynasty.

12 “The flags decorated with green feathers” were carried by imperial guards. Here the flags refer to the emperor’s carriages.

13 It was said that Emperor Mu-wang met a river guard as he traveled to the west during the Zhou dynasty. The river god presented a treasure to the emperor. Then Emperor Mu-wang died right after he returned home. Here the phrase refers to the death of Emperor Xuan-zong during the Tang dynasty.

14 According to the essay “Emperor Wu-di” in The History of the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu-di hunted down and captured a horned dragon in a river during the Han dynasty. Here the phrase says that Emperor Xuan-zong could not go on an inspection tour any more.

15 Emperor Xuan-zong was buried on Jin-su (golden grain) Mountain during the Tang dynasty. His tomb was called "Tai-ling" (peaceful mausoleum). It was located northeast of present day Pu-cheng-xian City in Shaanxi Province.

16 The essay "Rites and Music" in The History of the Han Dynasty says, "Heavenly horses are a dragon's vanguard."