To the Tune of "A Water Clock" 1

Wen, Ting-yun 2 (812-870 CE)


Willow branches are long;
Spring rain is light;
The sound of water drops 3 beyond the garden comes from afar.
Unlike the wild geese startling the fortress 4
Or the raven rising from the city wall,
The painted golden partridge remains on a picturesque screen 5.
The fragrant mist is light, penetrating the bamboo screen 6;
The pool and the mansion of the Xie family are covered with sorrow.
A red candle burns near me 7;
An embroidered curtain hangs down;
You cannot imagine how much I wish to stay with you in my dream.


The bundle of incense in a jade burner and red candles with tears
Illuminate the Autumnal thoughts in the picturesque hall.
Her eyebrows are lightly penciled.
Her hair is disheveled.
The quilt has been cold all night.
The phoenix tree and the midnight rain
Fail to understand her painful sorrow from separation.
All she has heard are raindrops from leaves
Dripping on the empty stairs until dawn.


1 Ting-yun Wen wrote the first of the above two poems as if the narrator were a woman. Anecdotes Written While Living in Seclusion by Tiao Creek as a Fisherman says, "Ting-yun Wen's lines are extremely delicate and lovely. His poems sung to the tune of 'A Water Clock' are his best."

2 Qi and fei-qing were Ting-yun Wen's other first names. He was a native of Qi City, a.k.a. Tong-xin City (present day Qi-xian City in Shanxi Province), in Tai-yuan County during the Tang dynasty. His thoughts flowed quickly as he wrote poetry. Whenever he attended an exam for poetry, he would complete an eight-line poem after he cracked his knuckles eight times. Consequently, his contemporaries called him "Ba-cha (eight-cracks) Wen". He was a representative poet of the Garden School of Poetry. The poets of this school focused on describing women’s beauty and sorrow using flowery words and metaphorical expressions. The short poems contained in Among the Flowers written by these poets were the pioneering works of Chinese ci poetry (verse poems). Only through Wen's improvements did the rules and forms of ci poetry became elegantly established. Hua-yan Huang said, "Ting-yun Wen's ci poems are extremely smooth and beautiful. They should be considered the best poems in the poetry book, Among the Flowers."
    Ting-yun Wen was ugly. People called him Zhong-kui (the king of ghosts) Wen. His looks did not match his talent. He mastered playing the zither and flute. He could play excellent music on anything with strings or holes instead of expensive musical instruments. He wrote Gan-sun-zi (jerky-man) which is lost.
    In Chinese poetry, finding a parallel line for a given line is an important method of enhancing a poem's theme and sound scheme. A good example is Fu Du's "Quatrain". It says, "A pair of golden orioles sing on a green willow./A line of white egrets rise to the blue sky./Outside my window lies snow which has accumulated for a thousand years on the western mountain./Near my door sits a boat that has sailed a thousand miles from Eastern Wu District." Emperor Xuan-zong and Shang-ying Li often consulted with Wen when they could not find an appropriate parallel line.
    Ting-yun Wen wrote many poems sung to the tune of “Foreign Beauties”: I. Her boudoir is hidden behind overlapping screens;/The lamp extinguishes./The disheveled hair desires to kiss her fragrant snowy cheeks./After she gets up, she pencils her eyebrows./It takes her a long time to get washed, dressed, and made up.//She has two mirrors: one before her, the other behind./The mirrors reflect her beautiful image upon each other./A pair of golden partridges are newly embroidered on her silk shirt.// II. Yellow flowers spread all over the mountainside./She is dressed in her sleeping gown./The screen window obscures her smile./Her lover visits her while peonies bloom,/But he will leave her soon.//Her jade hairpin is strengthened by a gold piece./A pair of butterflies dance above her hairpin./Who may understand her feelings?/The tree is in full bloom under the bright moon.// III. A pair of golden Mandarin ducks with green tails/Ripple the quiet water in the Spring pond./After a rain/A crabapple tree by the pond bursts into full bloom.//Embroidered sleeves cover smiling faces./Tobacco plants attract butterflies./A chain of jade rings is immersed in the fragrance of blossoms./There is little news from Yu-men pass of the Great Wall.// IV. The dew on apricot blossoms gathers in a drop of frozen fragrance./People often part on the road lined with willow trees./Lamps brighten when the moon becomes dim./Upon waking she hears a morning oriole sing.//The jade hooks gather the green curtains./Her night makeup has faded./Her Spring dreams are about her lover./Her cicada hair [hair on the temples thinly trimmed so as to resemble the cicada's wings] is thin.// V. The bright moon above the jade tower inspires us to think of each other constantly./Willow branches are gentle and lovely./Spring seems to lack strength./Grass is lush outdoors./The horse neighed as I said farewell to you.//A golden kingfisher is embroidered on a silk shirt./Fragrant candles melt into tears./Flowers fall and cuckoos cry./I remain infatuated by the lingering dream at the window.// VI. Peonies wither and orioles stop singing./The moon illuminates the yard full of green willow trees./She misses her lover so much that she cannot fall asleep./The lamp by the window is dim.//The jade and gold hair ornaments are heavy./The door of her lonesome boudoir is closed./Her tears fall on the banister while her lover is far from home./Swallows fly by as Spring is about to end again.// VII. The house is immersed in moonshine and the white color of pear blossoms./She and her lover are separated by mountains./A pair of wild geese fly by./Her tears stain her embroidered shirt.//The grass in the garden is green./Her home is at the bend of Yue Creek(Xi-shi, one of the four most beautiful women in Chinese history, was born here)./The beautiful green willow trees attract visitors./The swallows return home, but not her lover.// VIII. There are gold sparrows and mandarin ducks in her jewelry box./Her boudoir made of aloeswood faces green Wu Mountain./The willow branches hang like silk threads/When Spring rain falls on the bridge by a postal relay station.//She leans against the banister of a picturesque tower to look into the distance/For she has not received her lover’s letter for a long time./Fragrant grass greens the southern shore of the Yangtze River./Only blooming branches and a mirror ornamented with a phoenix frame accompany her./Who can understand her feelings?// IX. Light dandelion seeds pile all over the southern garden./The sudden rain during the Pure Brightness Festival saddens her./The sun sets after the rain./The fragrance of fallen apricot blossoms lingers in the air.//She silently rubs her sleepy eyes./The screen by her bedside hides her from the entrance./The festival is about to end./Being bored and lonesome, she leans against her door jamb.// X. The bright moon shines at midnight./It is quiet behind many bamboo screens./The smoke of musk rises in her boudoir./She sleeps without washing away her light makeup.//She used to be able to take good care of herself./But now she cannot bear to recall the past./The dew on the blossoms reflects the lingering moonshine./She feels the morning chill despite her colorful quilt.//
    Records of Folk Style Poetry says, “Emperor Xun-zong loved to sing ci poems (verse poems) that had the tune ‘Foreign Beauties’. Prime Minister Tao Ling-hu asked Wen to write twenty poems with this tune and then Ling-hu sent them to entertain the emperor. The prime minister told Wen to keep the project secret. Wen immediately told others that he ghost-wrote for Ling-hu. In addition, Wen ridiculed Ling-hu's lack of literary talents by saying that a general sat in the prime minister’s office. Consequently, the prime minister and Wen became estranged.” One day Ling-hu consulted with Wen about an ancient event. Wen said, "This event appears in Nan-hua (i.e. Zhuang-zi written by Zhou Zhuang, one of the two cofounders of Taoism) rather than a rare book. You should study classics more often when you have time." Then he wrote a poem to tease Ling-hu's ignorance. The prime minister was angry, so he told the emperor about Wen's arrogance. Consequently, Wen never passed the Advanced Exam. At the peak of his career, Wen was a teaching assistant at the Imperial College.
    Ting-yun Wen wrote a few poems sung to the tune of “A Southern Song”: I. With a golden parrot in hand/And an embroidered phoenix on the front of her shirt,/The girl peeks to see people around her./The pleasure of being beautiful and graceful is not as great as that of getting married,/Becoming a Mandarin duck. (Mandarin ducks always walk in pairs, a male and a female. They are used to represent an affectionate couple.)// II. A slender girl twists her hair into a bun./She yearns for her lover all day/And withers away in his absence./It is a blooming season.// III. Her eyes roll to cast charming glances./Her waist is as slender and attractive as willow branches./Among flowers she used to secretly greet her lover./Now her heart is broken when she misses him./She is consumed with sorrow during this Spring night.//
    An epilogue written by You Lu (1125-1209) says, "Wen's poems sung to the tune of 'A southern Song' are refined and impressive. They are Wen's master pieces that may compete with Yu-xi Liu's poems sung to the tune of 'Bamboo Stalks'."
    Emperor Xuan-zong loved to travel incognito. He met Wen in a hotel. Wen failed to recognize the emperor, so he questioned him arrogantly, "Are you a secretary or the Minister of War?" The emperor replied, "No." Then Wen asked condescendingly, "Are you a clerk or a lieutenant?" Emperor Xuan-zong answered, "No." After the emperor returned to the palace, he demoted Wen from the Police Inspector at Xiang-yang City to a lieutenant to punish Wen's arrogance. After that, Wen's career went astray. He never assumed an office that could utilize his outstanding talent. Instead, he often had a difficult time making a living. His wandering about destitute eventually led to his death.

3 "Water drops" refers to the drops of a water clock. Using water drops to measure a rainy night refers to how difficult it is for a woman to endure a long night while her husband is away from home.

4 The wild geese either make a loud sound or shoot skyward from the ground and thereby startle the people in the fortress.

5 A screen is a partition separating a house entrance from the sitting room. It provides privacy and an opportunity for the host to prepare for receiving guests. A painted golden partridge on a picturesque screen symbolizes a grande dame in her inner chamber. This line implies that the woman is helpless in regard to looking for her husband who travels far away.

6 This bamboo screen is hung from the top of a door frame. It is used as an interior door curtain.

7 Ting-yun Wen compared himself to a woman who misses her husband.