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The Ornate Zither 1

Li, Shang-yin (812?-858 CE)

I happen to observe an ornate zither containing fifty 2 strings;
Every string, every peg reminds me of my best years.
Zhou Zhuang was puzzled by the destiny of his life 3;
One morning he dreamed that he had become a butterfly 4.
After King Wang-di 5 died, he became a cuckoo
Expressing his hope and sorrow through his song.
The tears of a mermaid in the green sea become pearls under the bright moon 6;
The jade of Lan-tian Mountain 7 creates a mossy layer of radiance in the warm sunshine 8.
Why would such beautiful memories wait until now to be recalled?
This is simply because I felt lost at that time 9.


1 Every stanza of this poem circles around the central theme of an ornate zither. Li wanted to use this theme as a model to encourage himself to seek self-improvement.
The following two videos are samples of zither music: and

2 Li wrote this poem when he was forty-seven years old. Chinese count a person's age starting with one at birth.

3 Li was the victim of the power struggle of two major political parties, so his political career was doomed. During the Tang dynasty, many Chinese scholars were influenced by Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhism encourages one to transcend the various problems of life in general. Zhou Zhuang is considered the cofounder of Taoism. He popularized and expanded the initial foundation of Taoism that had been written by Lao-zi. Li used Zhuang's story to express his own problem.

4 A butterfly or a bird can fly over obstacles, so they are used to symbolize transcendence over difficulties.

5 Yu Du was the last king of the State of Shu at the end of the Zhou dynasty. Wang-di was Yu Du's king title. His kingdom was conquered by the State of Qin.

6 In Chinese mythology, when a mermaid cries, her tears become pearls. Each pearl is formed in the same shape as the moon.

7 "Lian-tian" means "blue-field". Lan-tian Mountain is located in present day Lan-tian-xian City of Shaanxi Province. The mountain is famous for producing jade. Consequently, it is also called Yu-shan (jade-mountain) Mountain.

8 It is difficult to explain these two lines. Basically, they refer to Li's hard work and influence as a poet.

9 "I felt lost at that time" means "I did not realize what was truly important at that time".