Image credit: Sufyan Jalal, from Withering Exhibition

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Bai Juyi never visited Japan, nor did he ever meet any Japanese, however his works circulated in Japan during his lifetime. Indeed, records of Japanese elites’ encounters with Bai Juyi, even though only in their dreams, appeared in literary works. Takashina no Moriyoshi recorded that he had dreams in which he travelled to China and met Bai Juyi. He composed several Chinese poems to commemorate his dreams … Ōe no Asatsuna has a dream in which Bai Juyi appears in front of him. Overjoyed by the encounter, Asatsuna asks the Chinese poet if he came from heaven. Bai Juyi reveals he has come to tell Asatsuna something. At that very moment, Asatsuna awakes from his dream.


—Leo Shingchi Yip, China Reinterpreted: Staging the Other in Muromachi Noh Theater




Flower           Yet Not



                                  yet not



                                  yet not  



          arrives       midnight          departs      daybreak   



    like a              spring dream               how long can this 







        vanishes              :


                                                           a spectre




                                                                                            to be found




Dear Mr. Bai,


Honestly, I didn’t know about your poetry until my trip to Xi’an with my good friend H—. For years I had been taught and instructed that the masters of Tang poetry were names like Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei and Meng Haoran. Perhaps even more pertinently, my Chinese wasn’t and still isn’t all that good. I did decently enough at Higher Chinese, in a school where failing Chinese was often seen as a badge of honor. But certainly not good enough to fluently read and interpret Tang poetry, though I am pretty adept at ordering from the caifan stall.  (I wonder how many dishes, if any, you would find familiar at a caifan stall.) Although I have made an attempt to translate and render some of what I’ve found are the most moving and resonant of your poems, I have really relied a lot on mediation through English. I wish I could say it’s regrettable, but it is mostly a relief. Without that supporting apparatus of previous translators and scholars, I doubt I would have developed an appreciation of your work.


I’ve digressed. During that holiday in Xi’an, we visited the Huaqing Springs, the famous site of the doomed romance between the Tang Emperor Xuanzong and his consort, the legendary beauty Yang Guifei. It was only then, while browsing the books at the bookstore, and picking up a book of your poetry, that I realized you had written a whole long poem of the saga, the Song of Everlasting Regret or Chang Hen Ge. What struck me as I read your poems, and in particular the Chang Hen Ge, was how easily I understood it. H—‘s Chinese was and still is better than mine, and she helped me out with the more difficult words.


We became obsessed with the poem, perhaps the most famous and widely read of your works. Back in our hotel room, I insisted on recording videos of H— reading the poems, and posting them on Instagram (Instagram’s going to be difficult to explain to you, along with the whole concept of the internet, but imagine being able to let your friends see what you’re doing right now, in an instant). The sheer drama of it leapt off the page: how the Emperor, captured by the beauty of Yang Guifei, neglected the affairs of state, leading to the An Lushan Rebellion. Eventually, Xuanzong is forced, by his own men, to put Yang Guifei to death (“The emperor covered his face, for he could not save her/as he looked back, he saw a stream of blood and tears intermingled”). But the Emperor remains haunted by the memory of his favorite consort, and eventually contacts her in the afterlife with the help of a Taoist priest.


 H—and I read the lines out loud, late into the night, with their pleasing rhyme scheme, sharing a bottle of cheap Chinese beer.  And that was when I first read your poetry.




In White Cloud Spring       


clouds float      free


                          and waters





                                why rush down the mountain

                                                  and bring more ferment 

                                                                to the world below?





One day, when the snow lay thick on the ground and it was so cold that the lattices had all been closed, I and other ladies were sitting with her Majesty, chatting and poking the embers in the brazier.

   ‘Tell me, Shōnagon,’ said the Empress, ‘how is the snow on Hsiang-lu peak?’

   I told the maid to raise one of the lattices, and then rolled up the blind all the way. Her Majesty smiled. I was not alone in recognizing the Chinese poem she had quoted; in fact all of the ladies knew the lines and had rewritten them in Japanese. Yet no one but me had managed to think of it instantly.

   ‘Yes indeed,’ people said when they heard the story. ‘She was born to serve an Empress like ours’.


—From the translation by Ivan Morris, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon




Night Snow




                             by cold                     pillow &




                           the window flashes                        



                                                           white                               again




dark night    but I know                   


                          the snow falls heavy



                                                             as         the bamboo        snaps                                                 








Night Walk in the Light Rain



Out of the mists                     rise                


                                                                      autumn clouds








                                                           the night’s chill             grows




            All I feel are               

                                                my damp clothes





                                                     not the raindrops &

                                                                                             not a sound




Dear Mr. Bai,


What is it that draws so many of us to translation? To that space between the languages, and that seductive and impossible task of converting the hard, glittering gems of Tang poetry into the promiscuous, easy and endlessly evolving language that is English. Writers like myself, with Chinese ancestry, seem particularly drawn. I am friends with an elderly poet from Malaysia, Mr. Wong Phui Nam. Ours is an unlikely friendship but perhaps one you would have approved of. He is 85 this year, while I am 30. Over messages, we speak about the Tang poets and he tells me, as he is confined to his home because of the pandemic that rages across the world, that he is still trying to get to grips with Chinese still, like many of us English-speaking descendants of Chinese immigrants (he is fluent in Cantonese, though, and tells me many of the rhymes of Tang poetry are preserved in Cantonese). Yet despite his struggles, he has rendered some of the most striking renditions of Tang poetry I know, creating versions that transmute the essence of the poetry into something else, similar yet wonderfully different.


That famous poem of Du Fu’s “Spring View” begins in the original with something like “The country is broken; the hills and rivers are still here,/Spring in the city: the flowers and trees grow thick”. In Mr Wong’s rendering, instead of trying to preserve the brevity of the Chinese, he commits fully to exploiting the verbosity of English, to fill in what Du Fu left to the imagination:


At the death of great houses,
the waste of cities,
the land returns to desolation
of its rivers and its hills.
The high walls under a mild sun
lie fissured, opened in great wounds
to the ravening tide of spring.


I don’t really know what you would have said about this method of translation. Or indeed the way I have translated some of your poems. In modern English, words flow too easily into each other, and we are too quick to fit ourselves into that flow and ease, consuming each word and moving on to the next. The world we live in, with that internet I spoke of, encourages this. Language is cheap, grubby and easily processed, and we seem less and less concerned with language and more with images and graphics. This is why I have tried to put space between characters, to let the reader feel the gravity and significance of each word, and to let the significance sink in more fully.









                    grows the grass on the plain


           each year                wilting


                                            and flourishing


fires fail

                 to consume them  

                                                     spring winds rouse them    to life



           their fragrance            overwhelms             

                                                                 the old road




                        sunlit green gives way         

                                                                              to the grey city





          goodbye again           my friend


                                               like this plain

                                                               my heart is full






After nine years, growing weary of living in the city, I moved my dwelling to the vicinity of the Fukagawa River. “Chang’an was, since ancient times, a place for fame and profit, a place difficult for those who are empty-handed and penniless to live.” I found the person who said this to be very wise, and I wondered if this was because I myself was poor.   Bashō



—From Peipei Qiu, Basho and the Dao: The Zhuangzi and the Transformation of Haikai




Dear Mr. Bai,


I mentioned Du Fu in my last letter: I know you admired Du Fu’s work. Like you, he was deeply concerned with social problems: the corruption of the court and officials, and the suffering of the people, the lao bai xing. A whole new style, called the xin yuefu, arose from your satirical and political writings, which you developed with your friend, Yuan Zhen. In your exile in Xunyang, in a letter you wrote to Yuan Zhen, you poured your heart out, and told him that despite your banishment you were content: after all, Du Fu was an official of low rank, and was destitute to the very end. Meng Haoran and Li Bai didn’t even manage to get official posts or keep them for long. What you wished for then was for your poetry to benefit the country and its people. You wanted to write popular poems so that the problems of the people would reach the ears of the emperor:


I don’t seek lofty euphony,

I don’t strive for strange diction.

I sing only of the problems of the people,

wanting the Emperor to learn of them.


During the Tang dynasty, it was believed the yuefu, the Music Bureau in Chinese bureaucracy, descended from institutions that collected popular songs so that the emperors could learn of social ills and the abuses of their officials. And it seems your poems were truly popular. The Tang magistrate Li Kan complained that your poems had spread among the common people and were written on screens and walls. Your “lewd words and indecent talk are like winter’s cold and summer’s heat. They enter into men’s flesh and bone and cannot be expelled”. I think you wouldn’t have thought this an insult at all.


As H— and I travelled back to Xi’an city from Huaqing Springs on the bus, we were reading your poems. We started conversing with the bus attendant, checking in with her on some of the more difficult words (she was probably wondering why this pair—who looked ostensibly Han Chinese—needed so much help with reading). After some time, she asked if she could borrow the book, just to read it on her own for a while. Astonished, we said yes. At the end of the trip, she handed it back to us and thanked us with a smile, her face notably brighter.




Moored at Night





Darkness    on the riverbank


                                                                 more alone                


                                                                                        than ever





Wet winds


         frosty air                                    it is          very  very      








Looking back          at the moored boat





                                                    amid the reeds

                                                                                a point of light








Forty &         not yet        utterly





                anxiety          makes            







                                                                             these white hairs









two egrets     


       by the water           unworried



                                       by the white strands                                                                           




                                                                                 off their heads




Dear Mr. Bai,


Last night I think I dreamt of you, but you were Japanese. I had seen a Japanese woodblock print of you from the Edo period, where you are on a cliff, surrounded by attendants who are unfurling a piece of Chinese calligraphy; it appears to be a couplet, though I can’t make out the words. You are looking into the blue and oddly calm sea. Behind you is a ship. Yet further behind are some pillar-like rocks, reminiscent of karst formations. The proportions and spatial arrangements are certainly off. 


Your popularity in Japan, and how you became an integral part of the culture, is an astonishing story of cultural exchange. The Tale of Genji, Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book, Matsuo Bashō’s poetry—they all make reference to you. Sei Shōnagon makes it clear that your poetry was necessary knowledge for ladies and courtiers in the Heian court; it was the basis of word games, associations, riffs and demonstrations of erudition. Not knowing your work would be tantamount to not knowing which knife to use for steak—a failure of basic etiquette. Japanese writers dreamt of you too. Others wished to be rid of your influence, and wanted to send you back to China. Though you had never been to Japan nor met any Japanese person in your life, you became a spectre hanging over Japanese literature. Meanwhile, some Chinese critics had decided that your poetry was too su: too common, too vulgar. As your star rose in Japan, it fell in China.


The Japanese connection reminds me of a Singaporean poet, the late Arthur Yap, who took inspiration from Japan in his poetry, especially in the collection man snake apple. Some of your poems and some of his have that remarkable and restrained stillness I find difficult to achieve in my own poetry, and perhaps actively avoid:


two arms run a path in the garden,

draw up sparrows, dun squirrels, still as stone

near columns of grass, green as spring tea.


the rain the shower, the sun a hot towel.

the tiled pate on top knows, holds all

to an entire point.


Arthur was notoriously private. An account describes him turning up for a reading, reading a poem and declining to join other writers for drinks. Yet the same account says Arthur had an “alertness… a curious eye for observation”.  Some of this reticence has been put down to his homosexuality, a thing many kept private—and many more wanted it kept private—in Singapore in the 70s and 80s (I have no idea what you would have thought about homosexuality). Arthur is certainly someone I wish I’d met. You too, of course, and I am glad I have.


In the dream, you tell me: I have said enough.






In the play, an envoy of the Chinese court named Hakurakuten (Bai Juyi) travels to Japan to assess the wisdom of the people. He encounters an old fisherman; the fisherman knows Hakurakuten’s identity, is able to comprehend a couplet of Chinese poetry Hakurakuten recites, and uses the couplet to create a verse of waka poetry. The fisherman, at the end of the first act, reveals himself to be the Sumiyoshi deity, the patron deity of waka poetry. In the interlude, a lesser deity from a branch shrine recaps the events of the first act and presents waka poetry as consolation to Hakurakuten. The second act opens with the Sumiyoshi deity in his true form coming out to dance for Hakurakuten; he summons other deities to play music for him and as he dances, he summons a wind that blows Hakurakuten back to China, bringing the play to an end.



—Adapted from LeRon James Harrison, “Staging Poetic Balance: A New Introduction to and Translation of the Noh Play Hakurakuten”




Night Rain

 (misattributed to Bashō)



an early cricket            chirps        & stops                 


                                                                         & chirps





                               a dying lamp         goes out               


                                                                                      & rekindles





    by the window            I sense     the night   


                                                                   brings rain 







               the banana leaves             caught wind            of it                                                                                                     







But when I think about it all, I realize that I am just a man from east of the pass. Other than being the bookworm that I am, I am totally ignorant of anything else. When it comes to calligraphy, painting, chess, and other board games that everyone loves to play, why, I don’t know the first thing about it! You can tell how stupid and clumsy I really am! When I first sat for my Jinshi examinations, I did not have even one distant relative working in the court; I did not even know anyone that had ever become a court official. As for striving for my scholarly honor, I was not good at running about currying favor with influential people, so I went out for my battle at the testing grounds bare-handed. Yet in the space of ten years, I passed all three examinations, my reputation spread down to the ears of the masses, and my footprints had begun to get noticed by officials in high and honorable positions. Outside of the Imperial Court I was in correspondence with other worthy and noble gentlemen. Within the Court I was in service to the Emperor. It was in the beginning that I made a name for myself through writing; and it was in the end that I was incriminated by my works, as well I should be. – Bai Juyi’s letter to Yuan Zhen




—From Jordan Alexander Gwyther, Bai Juyi and the New Yuefu Movement




Dear Mr. Bai,


It would be easy for someone reading these letters to read it as a tale of rediscovering roots, of retrieving supposedly ancient wisdom, or even as making claims of Chinese chauvinism. Yet Tang China was never a monoculture, just as China now is most definitely not. In your time, the Chinese capital was Chang’an (now Xi’an), where you lived and worked. Chang’an was a bustling city of traders and the eastern starting point of the Silk Road, an entry point into China for foreign food, ideas, religions and all manner of influences. This is evident if you enter the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an today. The heavy presence of lamb, cumin, fennel and other spices in the food is living history, the result of influences from Central Asia and the Middle East. I went mad for roujiaomo, meat sandwiched between a certain type of bread (known as mo)—in some places it’s pork, but of course in the Muslim Quarter it’s beef or lamb, laced heavily and gorgeously with fragrant cumin. H— absolutely loved this desert, liang gao, made with rice cakes, honey, sesame seeds and rose sauce. Again, the rose sauce seems to me to hint at a Middle Eastern origin. We visited the Great Mosque of Xi’an, finally finding it after going down many winding roads, and marveled at the buildings, which blended Chinese architecture with beautiful Islamic calligraphy. One of the worshippers came up to us, curious about where we’d come from. He was formidably knowledgeable about Singapore and the region—no surprise since for him Southeast Asia was a region populated with his brethren. Midway through our conversation, the call to prayer, the azan, sounded, and the worshippers began to stream into the main hall. The man left us, bidding goodbye, reiterating his previous expressions of admiration for Singapore.


In one of your poems, you write about hubing (a type of sesame seed bun) being sold in Zhongzhou, where you were governor, and how you’re reminded of Chang’an, where these snacks were widely sold. You proceed to then send some to your friend, asking him if they were as good as the ones in Chang’an. Hubing (known in China today as shaobing) came from Central Asia, believed to have been brought back by the Eastern Han general Ban Chao from his campaigns against the Xiongnu in Tarim Basin, in the southern part of modern-day Xinjiang. After all, hu is the Chinese word for foreigner or barbarian. I read a paper that claimed your family had Central Asian roots, originating from Kucha, which is also in Xinjiang. Kucha was actually an ancient Buddhist kingdom, and you were a fervent Buddhist. You would have known that Buddhism, though it was at its zenith under the Emperor Daizong, never lost the taint of being a foreign religion. In the last years of your life, the Emperor Wuzong began a campaign to purge China of supposedly foreign influences, destroying thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines and defrocking monks. This happened in 845. You died in 846, in a monastery in Longmen, famous for its Buddhist statues carved out of rock. Did you die of a broken heart, as your brethren were ruthlessly suppressed? H— and I visited Longmen, two hours away, using China’s incredible high-speed rail network. Dwarfed by a giant and awe-inducing statue of the Buddha, we were thankful that Wuzong didn’t completely have his way.




Feeling Sorry about the Peonies





feeling sorry       

                             about the red peonies                                


                                                                 before the steps    







         by evening     :     just    two             dying branches






morning’s winds         will surely             


                                                              blow them                          







holding a light 

                    I cherish



                            the         ebbing



























































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Translator's Note

I did not set out wanting to translate Tang dynasty Chinese poetry or Bai Juyi in particular, but a series of coincidences and unusually moving encounters convinced me I should. These are detailed in my letters to Bai Juyi, as you will read. I began to realize that what made translation interesting, at least to me, was not simply the texts themselves but the mood and context in which I approached them. In other words, to put it crudely, this was really as much about me as it was about Bai. After all, Bai Juyi is a well-known poet, both among Chinese-speaking people and across the world. His works have been translated countless times and Chinese schoolchildren can recite his works from heart. My act of reading and translation was in some ways freed from the sometimes-daunting task translators face as ambassadors from one culture to another.


After fully realizing and embracing this, I tried a much more subjective approach to translation, which focused on my particular encounter with Bai Juyi and my attempt to bridge vast distances of space and (especially) time. The letters to him allowed me to do this, and I felt that a man like Bai Juyi would not have minded receiving letters from an admirer: he seemed to have been a generous, open-minded and kindly sort of person. And letters would have been the main form of communication he had with his friends and fellow poets across China. (In these pandemic-stricken times, this mode of communication seemed entirely apt, as I kept up with friends around the world with texts and emails.)


In selecting the poems, I chose shorter ones in part because I was experimenting with a style of translation that made maximal use of the space on the page. As I say, in English, words flow too quickly and easily into each other. In the use of space, I was trying to encourage the reader (and myself) to pause and take in the profound brevity of Bai’s poetry. On the other hand, I was trying to tie the selection in with another aspect of this collage work: that of Bai’s tremendous influence on Japanese poetry (one of Bai’s poems had been mistakenly attributed to Bashō). In his short poems, Bai seems to me to prefigure certain aspects of Japanese aesthetics, especially in poetry. Looking back, I think perhaps one of my subconscious aims as a member of the Chinese diaspora was to destabilize the rigid conception of Tang poetry as a cultural product only of China, and the increasing tendency to think of cultures as the exclusive property of one group or another.

Daryl Lim Wei Jie


In the Classroom