Sound of temple bells from Hanshan

Fun with Tang poetry

TANG DYNASTY rhyming poems are the most popular of traditional Chinese poetry. They are usually in terse five-character or seven-character sets, and meant to be read aloud.

Economy of words and simplicity of expression are the main features, making the poems easy to memorise and easy to understand, even among modern-day schoolchildren, despite the fact they were written more than a thousand years ago.

On your first reading of a Tang poem, you would encounter a straightforward narrative  – description of a moonlit river, farewell exchange at the frontier, observation of the effects of famine, listening to music, the thoughts of a young girl amidst the flowers.

But there is more behind the words. So, you reflect and re-read, and toss the lyrics back and forth in your mind, as you try to tease out hidden allusions, ideas and insights.

This is where the fun begins as you start mining the poem. Consider this popular and “easy” four-liner, Night Mooring at Maple Bridge, by Zhang Ji (Chang Chi).

Here’s a literal translation:

Moon sets, crows cry, frost fills sky.
Riverside maples, fisherman’s light troubles sleep.
Outside Gu-su city, Han-shan Temple
Midnight bell sound comes to traveller’s boat.

It is an everyday scene that a traveller, homesick, melancholy and sleepless, sees, as his boat arrives in Suzhou (or Gusu, its old name). He’s at Maple Bridge outside the city proper, where his boat is moored. It is night and chilly, and his mood is affected by three things – the cry of crows, the fisherman’s light and the sound of the temple bell.

Here’s my translation:

The moon sets, crows cry in the frosty air.
Under maple trees by the river, a fisherman’s light disturbs my sleep.

Outside Suzhou city, from Hanshan Temple
The midnight bell comes to my boat.

In this English version, the poem is no longer purely descriptive. Instead, you get a series of “actions” – the moon sets, crows cry in the sky, the fishing light disturbs my sleep and the sound of a bell comes to my boat.

In December 1984, on a visit to a building and construction trade show in Shanghai, I book a day tour to nearby Suzhou. At Hanshan temple (Hanshan or “cold mountain”, is actually the name of the temple’s abbot who was said to have achieved enlightenment several hundred years ago), there was only a handful of visitors. We wandered inside the courtyard surrounded by saffron-painted walls, looked at the giant bronze bell hanging in the Dharma hall, and then strolled out to Maple Bridge. I snapped photographs of the picturesque waterway built by the Sui Dynasty government, predecessor of the Tang that glided past rows of tightly-packed lime-washed houses.

Unfortunately, since it was a bright winter afternoon, I didn’t experience any romantic effect, which reading the poem would have on me.

Although traditional poetry is passé with China’s young people driven by a money economy, I believe there still are many individuals who love reading Tang lyrical poetry for its music, vivid word pictures and nostalgic sentiments.

– Francis Chin, April 8, 2002

The Chinese text (above) is arranged in the traditional vertical format, reading from right to left. The first column is the title, followed by the name of the poet.

I re-visited Hanshan on October 14, 2012 (picture below). The modest premises I saw in 1984 have since been enlarged many times with plasticky monastic walls, pagodas, courtyards, passageways and rows of souvenir stalls to accommodate the tourist hordes. Behind the sweeper (taking a cigarette break) are wall panels with the text of the poem inscribed in different calligraphy styles.

Read more: Letter on a Rainy Night | Moon at Mid-Autumn | Yellow Crane Tower


Fishing boats, Suzhou scene
Worker taking a cigarette break at Hanshan, Oct 14, 2012 Francis Chin