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Colorful clouds arise from the ocean at dawn

The Plum and the Willow spit out their buds in Spring

The yellow Oriole hastens to sing on a gentle breeze

As the light of the sun turns the apple green

Suddenly hearing an old familiar tune

I want to return and wipe my eyes with a towel

My Thoughts on Du’s Poem

A rose-tinted cloud rising from the ocean, the plum and willow sprouting buds, an oriole flying by, the sun turning the apple tree green, and suddenly, an old familiar tune is heard. That is enough to make any man cry if he wanders far away from home.

All who wander are not lost,” is a popular saying attributable to the English author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien, of course, was not the first to wander and wonder about the beauty of things. Indeed, Du Shenyan (杜審言, ca. 645–708) of the early Tang Dynasty had similar thoughts. He is remembered today for forty three poems which still survive, and as the grandfather of Du Fu, one of China’s greatest poets.

Du’s poetic musing came while he was meandering with Deputy Lu on the hills outside Jinling. Jinling, for those interested in place names, is the former name of Nanjing, capital of eastern Jiangsu province. It is at the eastern limits of the Yangtze River where it empties into the East China Sea.

It was a quieter time, a more prosperous time, but not without its wars as the Tibetan army was active in the West and Tukic tribes busy in the Northwest. The Empress Wu Zetian sat on the throne and China was expanding considerably the territorial limits of the Tang Dynasty.

If we imagine that the poem was written on the occasion of Du Shenyan‘s posting in faraway Jiangnan Province, then we make sense of the last line. Perhaps the tune Du Shenyan heard was a familiar one from his home near Luoyang, and it was this that made him want to cry.

Original Chinese


云霞出海曙, 梅柳渡江春

淑气催黄鸟, 晴光转绿苹

忽闻歌古调, 归思欲沾巾

Notes on Translation

Yúnxiá, 云霞, (first verse) which I translate as colorful clouds could also be rose-tinted clouds. The alliterative and rhyming chū hǎi shǔ, 出 海 曙, visually suggests that the clouds are “coming out of the ocean at dawn.” A similar literary devise was the Greek poet Hesiod who described Venus arising from the Sea.

In the second verse, Du Shenyan only needs to say Méi liǔ, 梅柳, the plum and the willow, to create the image of Nature budding and an early Spring. It was also a popular Chinese motif to think of Spring crossing the Yangtze, Dù jiāng, 渡江. Coincidentally perhaps, a play on words, implying that Du (Du Shenyan’s family name) is in Jiangnan.

Third verse, Shū qì, 淑气 is a term for a gentle breeze. Huáng niǎo, 黄鸟, is a yellow bird, the oriole, a popular songbird. I added the word “singing” to Du Shenyan’s poem as I imagine it is implied. Du Fu himself, would later poetically make use of “a pair of yellow orioles singing in a green willow tree.” [Liǎng gè huánglí míng cuì liǔ, 两 个 黄 鹂 鸣 翠 柳].

Fourth verse, it is better to imagine the green apple, lǜ píng, 绿苹, as the apple tree turning green with its first leaves in Spring and not the summer apple ripening to green which some might assume. Again, perhaps coincidentally, giving a phonetic shout out to his friend Lu for whom the poem is written.

Fifth verse, an old familiar tune, Gǔgē, 古歌. This brings to my mind the song Just an Old Fashioned Love Song, by the American Rock Band, Three Dog Night (1971).

Last verse. As I said above, this poem is better understood if one understands that Du is teary eyed because he is far away from home. The verse contains the two characters 沾巾, Zhān jīn, literally to moisten the towel, to cry. The phrase suggests the idiom, lèi xià zhān jīn, 泪下沾襟 meaning to weep with abundant tears (for something lost).

There is a tear in my eye and I am wondering why. This is a throw back to the Irish standard, When Irish Eyes are Smiling. We all love a good tune and a great poem.

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