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Venting My Grief

Yuan, Zhen 1 (779-831 CE)


Though as talented as Prime Minister Xie's favorite daughter 2,
You had resigned yourself to hardship
Since you married me when I was as poor as Lou Qian 3.
After seeing that I did not have any other clothing to change into,
You rummaged through all the trunks.
After I coaxed and pestered you to buy wine for me,
You pulled out your gold hairpin to exchange it for the wine.
You were content with eating wild vegetables and old bean leaves.
For firewood we relied on fallen branches of old pagoda trees.
Now my salary has greatly improved,
But all I can do is prepare some offerings to honor you 4.


Once we joked about what would happen after death.
I cannot believe this casual attitude about death would be tested so soon.
I have given away almost all your clothing.
But not your needlework, for I still treasure it even though I cannot bear to look at it.
Because I miss you, I even take extra care of your servants.
I burned some paper money 5 for you several times because I saw you in my dreams.
I know everyone resents poverty.
Especially for a poor couple, everything looks sad.


Every time I sit at ease,
I lament your unfortunate life and mine.
How long can one live?
You Deng 6 did not have any sons and gradually accepted his fate.
What use was it that Yue Pan 7 wrote a poem to mourn his late wife?
Even if we are buried in the same grave,
Will we be able to meet again?
It is even more difficult
To wonder if we could marry in another life.
The only way I can repay you for your brows knitted with worry all your life
Is to think about you all night, never closing my eyes.


1 Wei-zhi and Wei-ming were Zhen Yuan's other first names. He was a native of Lo-yang City. Yuan passed the Advanced Exam in 793 CE, and in 803 CE he was honored as one of the Great Scholars. Early in his political career, he was a censor in the emperor’s court. Later, he was sent into exile because he offended the eunuchs. He subsequently allied himself with them and was promoted to a high rank. At the peak of his career, he held the position of prime minister for three months. Yuan also wrote a love story called "Ying-ying". Later, Shi-pu Wang wrote a great novel, The Romance of the Western Chamber, based on Yuan's story (The Romance of the Western Chamber, translated by S. I. Hsiung, New York: Columbia University Press, 1968). One may view the following segment of the movie "The Romance of the Western Chamber",
, to glimpse how a Chinese movie director in the 1940's interpreted Yuan's story.
    During Emperor Mu-zong's reign, court ladies frequently sang poems entitled “The Palace” written by Zhen Yuan. They called him Gifted Scholar Yuan. Later, Commander Jun Cui of Jing-nan District returned to the capital. He presented Zhen Yuan's poems to the emperor. The emperor was pleased. He immediately appointed Yuan as a senior secretary on the Board of Worship Service, and later as a member of the Royal Academy in charge of the emperor's personal affairs.
    Zhen Yuan wrote a preface to his poetry book and sent it to Ju-yi Bai. It says, "Whenever I am filled with moral indignation; am compelled by duty; discuss success and failure with friends; lament elapsed youth; record beautiful landscapes, scenic spots, my satisfactions, frustrations, and thoughts about the vicissitudes of life; drink wine before flowers; miss my old friends; lie ill; or encounter anything unusual, I like to express my thoughts and feelings in poetic form. I have been in exile for five years since I was thirty-two. During my exile, I have no other means than poetry to release my energy. I am not a Taoist without any ambition and I have no other interest than poetry. Therefore, I have devoted myself to poetry. I mingled refined and coarse lines and wrote many poems, but I did not copy them neatly for others to read. Jing-jian Li, a native of He-dong (east of the Yellow River) District and Mayor of Jiang-ling City, loved my poems. He said my poems contain profound meanings. He wanted to read all of them. Consequently, I compiled my poems into book form. My poems are divided into several classes. If a poem contains a virtuous theme and is close to the ancient style, I classify it as ancient satire. If a poem contains profound meanings and belongs to the folk style, I classify it as folk satire. If a poem is close to the ancient style but limited to expressing my feelings, I classify it as ancient style. If a poem is limited to describing objects or landscapes, I classify it as new folk style. If a poem’s sound and flow are smooth and its parallel constructions are proper, I classify it as a regulated verse. If a regulated verse contains passion and irony, I classify it as regulated satire. My wife died when I was young. I wrote many poems to honor her. These poems are entitled “Mourning My Late Wife”. Some of my poems are related to education and culture. Modern women love to be dressed up according to the latest fashion. Their hair styles, varieties of clothing, and choices of matching colors are amazing. I wrote more than a hundred poems about the beauty of women. [¼ ] I have heard that a scholar should aim to establish virtue. If he cannot, he should aim to make contributions. If he cannot do that, he should aim to write useful thoughts. One desires a job. If one cannot find it, one desires money. If one cannot find money, one desires food. I am not a gifted sage, so my virtue is incomplete. My talent is doomed to be unrecognized, so I have not had an opportunity to make any contributions. My character lacks divine graces, so my writings fail to set examples for later generations. I have devoted myself to poetry for almost forty years like an idiot or a crazy man. [¼ ] Now I am exiled at Tong City. The city is imperiled by tigers, leopards, and snakes and plagued by diseases carried through toads, spiders, and mosquitoes. [¼ ] I have little chance to survive. If I have the luck to come out of here alive, we should visit the capital together and fulfill our mission to make contributions and write useful poetry. If things become worse, I might be desperate for food someday. Then my situation would be worse than yours. I stored my poetry in my chests. It should be viewed as a game like chess, but I value it more than eating my fill. Perhaps my poetry is not even as worthwhile as the game of chess. [¼ ]"
    Zhen Yuan wrote to Wen-gong Ling-hu, "I have been in exile for more than ten years since I was demoted from my post as censor. I was free and at leisure, so I dedicated myself to poetry. Having accumulated my poems over a long period of time, their number exceeds a thousand. I have expressed my thoughts and feelings in these poems. They contain the flavor of ancient musicians. Some of my poems are expressive. However, my words are straightforward and my style is coarse. Because I worry my poems may offend some people, I dare not show them to others. Consequently, I write short poems only to entertain myself while drinking wine. In my opinion, my forms are simplistic and my words lack strength. If I fail to inject some attitude into my poems, they may easily be viewed as vulgar and common. In order to make my poems have a lingering appeal, I often try to contemplate how to express myself, revise the rhyming schemes, and examine my parallel constructions. However, I am unable to accomplish my goal by myself. [¼ ]"
    Zhen Yuan wrote an epitaph for Fu Du's tomb. It begins with a brief history of Chinese poetry by saying, "After reading Fu Du's poems, I realize that his poetry epitomizes the ancient poetic talents. Chinese poetry originated from the poems written by the emperor and his court officials to communicate their thoughts in poetic form during Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun's reigns. During the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, poets had followed this poetry style for more than one thousand years. Then Confucius selected the three hundred and five best poems about education and culture, and compiled them into The Book of Poetry. After Confucius died, Chinese poetry languished for centuries. Most poets began to write poems to express their sorrow, but their style and quality were still close to those in The Book of Poetry. During the Qin and Han dynasties the government eliminated the office that collected people's poems. Even so, ballads, lyrics, folk songs, and seductive as well as satirical poems had developed over time. The poem "The Cypress Beam Pavilion" written Emperor Wu-di of the Han dynasty was in the form of seven characters to a line. Wu Su (140-60 BCE) and Ling Li (d. 74 BCE) mastered the poetic form with five characters to a line. Although these poets wrote different styles and mingled refined and popular tastes, their poems contained profound meanings. They wrote poems to express their feelings rather than seek fame or profit. After the Jian-an Period Chinese writers suffered the disaster of civil wars. Cao Cao (155-220) and his sons often composed poems while in the saddle. Consequently, their poems were grand and vigorous. With respect to cadence, tragedy, or parting sorrow, their poems even surpassed classical ones. During the Jin dynasty public morals still persisted. During the Liu-song and Qi dynasties the foundation of education deteriorated. People tended to dissemble, take it easy, serve their own interests, and live an unruffled life. The style of their essays was bold and carefree; their colors were refined and clear. These essays lacked meanings and strength because they were limited to describing natural feelings, spirit and beautiful scenery. The decadency lasted through the Liang and Chen dynasties. The short poems written during the Liang and Chen dynasties were exquisite in form, but frivolous in content. These poems would have been considered devoid of value by the poets of Liu-song and Qi dynasties. Since the beginning of the Tang dynasty, provincial education has progressed vigorously. Individuals with mastery of various styles emerged in succession. Quan-qi Shen (656-715) and Zhi-wen Song (656-713) mastered poetry study, refined rhyming schemes, and established the style of regulated verses. From then on this new style of poetry steadily improved. However, those who loved classical poems left out the contemporary poetry. Those who stressed the ornate style lacked substance. Those who imitated the style of the Liang and Qi dynasties paled in comparison with the poets of the Wei and Jin dynasties. Those who mastered the folk style were not good at the form with five characters to a line. Poets who lived a carefree life might lack some experiences needed for certain styles of poetry. A poem with a proper rhyming scheme may lack a framework. Fu Du's poems improved Chinese poetry dramatically. His ancient style approaches the level of The Book of Poetry. His contemporary style includes the merits of Quan-qi Shen and Zhi-wen Song's poems. Du's choice of words surpassed Wu Su and Ling Li’s. Du's spirit swallows Cao Cao and Xie Liu's (465-522). Jan-zhi Yan and Ling-yun Xie's (385-433) pastoral poetry pales in comparison with Du's. Du's poems also include the beauty and fluency of Ling Xu (507-583) and Xin Yu's (513-581) poetry. It can be said that Du mastered the classical and contemporary poetic styles and that his poetry combines all the expertise that previous poets individually exhibited. If Confucius were to examine the themes of Du's poetry, he would highly praise Du’s versatility. In my opinion, Fu Du was omnipotent in Chinese poetry. In Chinese history there has been no poet as versatile as him. [¼ ]"

2 One day Prime Minister An Xie of the Jin dynasty met his nephew and niece at a family gathering. Before long it started snowing. The prime minister asked them to describe the scene outside. His nephew replied, "It is almost like someone is throwing salt in the air." His niece, Dao-yun Xie, said, "That description is not as good as willow seeds [with white hair] riding on the wind." The prime minister was greatly pleased. Dao-yun Xie was actually the niece rather than the daughter of Prime Minister Xie. Yuan's wife, Hui-cong Wei, was the youngest daughter of Xia-qing Wei, the Prince's Guardian. Yuan is comparing his noble father-in-law to Prime Minister Xie and his talented late wife to Dao-yun Xie.
    Yuan's wife, Hui-cong Wei, was a native of the national capital. After Wei died, Yuan wrote a poem to mourn her. It says, "Having experienced the great ocean, it is difficult to appreciate ordinary waters (The loving care of my late wife is like an ocean, which dwarfs other waters by comparison)./ Clouds above other places pale when compared with those above Wu Mountain." After twelve hundred years, these famous lines of Yuan's remain popular in China today.

3 Lou Qian of the State of Qi was a hermit. King Gong-gong of the State of Lu wanted to appoint him to be his prime minister. He refused the offer. The King of the State of Qi heard of Qian's talent and offered him two hundred pounds of gold if he would become his official. Qian also refused this offer. He lived in poverty all his life and wrote books on Taoism. When he died, he did not even have proper clothes to be buried in.

4 Yuan prepared his offerings in his family shrine.

5 Buddhists believe that one can deliver money to one's deceased relatives in the underworld by burning paper (fake) money.

6 You Deng of the Jin dynasty was the Mayor of He-dong City. In 312 CE, he fled from home because General Le Shi incited a rebellion against the government. As Deng fled, he encountered the rebel troops. The urgent situation forced him to choose between his son's life and his nephew's life. Deng chose his nephew’s life because his nephew's father, Deng's younger brother, died young. Later, You Deng became the Mayor of Wu-jun City. He was kind, but never had a son again. His contemporaries lamented, “The negligence of the Creator causes Mayor Deng to have no sons.” Here Yuan compares himself to Deng because his wife died and they had no sons.

7 Yue Pan was a poet of the Jin dynasty.