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A poetry fragment from the Grand View Tower (Kunming Daguanlou Mansion)

By Li Huilin and Geoff Hart

This unusual piece represents a collaboration with a Chinese colleague and friend. Kunming City, in China's southwestern Yunnan Province, was holding a contest back in 2011 to translate a plaque that contained a poetry fragment by Sun Ranweng, created during the Qing Dynasty. The contest seems to have disappeared without a trace, but it seemed a pity to let the translation languish unpublished.

Credit where credit is due: Li provided the basic translation and an explanation of the overall context; I took that, and with a little additional research, turned it into blank verse.




Dianchi Lake stretches to the horizon.

Timeless winds surround me, clothes loose and hood cast back to feel their caress.

My heart expands as watery vistas spread before me.

Mountains encircle: Jinma, galloping celestial horse, power and virtue;

Changchon, subtle serpentine curves, modest ancestor of dragons and emperors;

Baihe, white crane taking flight, revealing wisdom;

Biji, phoenix joyous in rebirth.

Islands, mysterious in the distance;

Willows, youthful as spring, caressed and concealed like a maiden’s hair by veils of mist;

Reeds, reaching for the sky, girded by sparkling sand;

Birds, passing before clouds, gilded by changing light;

Fragrant paddy fields surround, nurtured and nurturing;

Lotus flowers in summer, pure as the goddess Kuan Yin.

Goblet of wine in hand, intoxicated by a thousand years of history—yet where have legend’s heroes gone?

Where Han troops once learned the art of marine warfare,

Where Tang’s iron column commemorated victory, reminded us of unity,

Where Song’s jade axe spoke of borders,

Where Kublai Khan’s Yuan crossed on sheep-skin rafts:

Meeting place of peoples since time immemorial.

Yet these achievements have not moved the mountains,

Nor have pearled curtains and painted palaces outlasted evening rain and morning cloud.

Broken tablets and monuments slumber beneath the setting sun’s departing rays,

Temple bells chime in the mountains, gift of divine Di Ku,

Lanterns gild the river and light the fisherman’s way home.

Wild, lonely geese cry in the autumn air, harbingers of frost’s cold fingers,

Echoes of phoenix, a lake eternally reborn as each generation sees it anew.

Translation notes

The poem begins with a description of the mountains encircling the lake: in the east, Jinma Mountain (“Golden Horse Mountain”) resembles a divine steed galloping with its head held high; in the west, Biji Mountain (“Phoenix Mountain”) resembles a supernatural bird, the phoenix, flying upwards toward the sky; in the north, Sheshan or Changchong Mountain (“Long Snake Mountain”) resembles a giant serpent descending sinuously into the city; and in the south, Baiheshan Mountain (“White Crane Mountain”) resembles a white crane hovering high above Dianchi Lake.

A sense of the region’s history is captured in several descriptions of key events in the history of the region. During the Western Han Dynasty, the Han Emperor Wudi ordered the construction of an artificial lake (today’s Dian Lake) in Chang’an (today, Xi’an) and used it to train his navy so they could successfully cross the Jinsha River (a branch of the upper Yangtze River that runs through Yunnan Province). Their goal was to unite the Dian Kingdom and the people of Kunming in the area of Dali City in northwestern Yunnan Province. “Tang’s iron column” refers to a monument established to commemorate a victory over Tibetan military forces in 707 A.D., when the Tang Emperor Zhongzong (originally, Li Xian) sent General Tang Jiuzheng to restore the empire’s dominance over the Erhai Lake area near Dali City. Song’s jade axe refers to an incident during the early Song Dynasty, when the first emperor and the founder of the dynasty, Song Taizu (originally, Zhao Kuangyin), wielded his jade axe over a map to demarcate a line along the Dadu River that excluded the Dali Kingdom from the empire and served as a reminder of the Nanzhao Kingdom’s rebellion during the Tang Dynasty in 649 A.D. Lastly, In 1253 A.D., the Mongolian Prince Kublai Khan commanded his 100 000 Mongolian soldiers to cross the Jinsha River using animal-skin floats to besiege Dali Town, where they captured the Dali King and destroyed his kingdom, thereby forging a single Chinese province and bringing Yunnan under the control of the Yuan Dynasty.

I particularly like the sense of eternity conveyed in the ending, which reminds us that whatever the "great" works of man, life and nature carry on unperturbed.

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved