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du fu: the fine lady

Today’s translation is basically a first draft. It’s not poetic, not within any kind of metrical constraints, and really not all that good. Ah well – there’s a long weekend coming up, and I’ll have more time to not suck then.

杜甫:佳人

绝代有佳人,幽居在空谷。
自云良家子,零落依草木。
关中昔丧乱,兄弟遭杀戮。
官高何足论,不得收骨肉。
世情恶衰歇,万事随转烛。
夫婿轻薄儿,新人美如玉。
合昏尚知时,鸳鸯不独宿。
但见新人笑,那闻旧人哭!
在山泉水清,出山泉水浊。
侍婢卖珠回,牵萝补茅屋。
摘花不插发,采柏动盈掬。
天寒翠袖薄,日暮倚修竹。

Du Fu: The Fine Lady

Unmatched in beauty, there is a fine lady *
Who lives secluded in an empty valley.
She says she comes from a good family,
Now faded and fallen like a dying plant. +

In the skirmishes at the passses,
Her brothers met untimely deaths.
What good did high rank do them then?
She couldn’t even beg their bodies back.

The way of the world is to hate what has had its day;
All things are as fickle as a candle-flame in the wind.
Her husband is not faithful to her —
His new woman is as beautiful as a jewel.

Even the vetch-tree knows time; #
Even mandarin-ducks do not desert their lovers.
Yet he only has eyes for his new woman’s smiles.
He has no ears for his old woman’s weeping.

In mountain springs, the water is clear.
When it leaves the mountains, the water is muddied.
When her maidservant returns from selling pearls,
She drags vines to mend their cottage’s thatched roof.

The lady picks flowers, but not to adorn her hair.
She picks cypress, enough to fill her grasp.
It’s cold, and her embroidered shirt is thin.
Dusk comes, and she leans against the bamboos.


* The word order is weird in the original as a reference to a poem by Han dynasty poet Li Yannian which begins with the words “北方有佳人” – “in the north, there is a fine lady.” Thanks to zhwj for pointing this out.

+ The difficulty in translating this sentence comes from the word 依, which can mean both “in accord with” and “to depend on.” (I couldn’t think of a way of preserving the ambiguity of the line in English.) Combined with the reference to the lady “picking flowers, but not to adorn her hair” later in the poem, the suggestion is that she’s forced to sell flowers to get by — but of course, as David Hawkes notes in his Little Primer of Du Fu, the poet is far too much of a gentleman to come out and say that. 零落 means “to wither and fall,” and can be used of leaves and of fortunes alike.

# “Vetch-tree” — 合昏. I’m going here from David Hawkes’ explication of the poem in his Little Primer, where he identifies the he-hun – “close-dusk” – with “albizzia julibrissia, a tree whose vetch-like leaves fold up at night time” (Hawkes, 1967: 84). The next line is literally “mandarin ducks do not sleep alone,” mandarin ducks being a symbol of faithful love.

5 Comments

  1. oli wrote:

    in my book 依草木 means 住在山林中. Because you depend on the grass and trees if you live in the forest? or because grass and trees also wither and come to rest in the forest?
    and it doesnt pin down the 合昏as a specific species of flower, but whatever.

    How is that Little Primer of Du Fu? Does Hawkes analyse the Chinese of each poem in depth, or is it mainly just translations? Reading all the notes and back story in Chinese is still quite time consuming for me!

    Thursday, November 25, 2004 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Brendan wrote:

    That s a product of the multiple meanings of 依. The implication of the poem is that she has to sell flowers – thus one sense of “relying on plants,” while the second sentence, 幽居在空谷, indicates the sense of “living off in the woods.” The sentence right before it, 自云良家子, adds another interpretation, with the focus on 零落 – that her fortunes have, 依草木, fallen and faded.

    Friday, November 26, 2004 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  3. A.Z. Foreman wrote:

    The term 零落 is often metaphorically used to describe one whose fortunes have turned and who has fallen on hard times. This, obviously, is intended here. The botanical imagery of the line itself suggests that the literal sense is not irrelevant either. 草木 is a phrase that Du Fu is particularly fond of associating with the greenery of the wild.

    The word 佳人 itself seems somewhat hard to translate. Options include “beautiful gentlewoman, noble woman, fine lady” and the like. I myself would go with “fine fair lady” to encompass the lion’s share of associations. Though the word 佳 can be used to signify physical beauty, in classical Chinese it also implies nobility of breeding and bearing. (One thinks of the original sense of the word “gentle” which still survives in the Italian cognate “gentile” and, somewhat, in the first two syllables of the Modern English word “gentleman.”) In any case, at the time Du Fu was writing, the three qualities inhering in the term 佳人 were beauty, breeding and dignity. (In earlier periods 佳人 could have meant something like “splendid gentleman” as well but I digress.)

    Your line:

    “In the skirmishes at the passses,
    Her brothers met untimely deaths.”

    I think you’re over-literalizing in your reading. The passes aren’t literal. In Medieval usage 關中 often referred to the area surrounding the Tang capital of Chang’an (rather than, say, the entirety of the Guanzhong plain) and implies that the capital had fallen to the rebels, as indeed it did.

    As a way of preserving the ambiguity of “依” I’d say “live on” but that’s just me.

    Friday, October 18, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Brendan O'Kane wrote:

    Whoa — hadn’t thought about these posts in a long time. Thanks for commenting, A.Z. Foreman — good comments all, and I’d probably go with all of them if I were translating these poems today. Unfortunately this is one of those the-internet-never-forgets things: I did these more than eight years ago, when my Chinese was not very good, and then more or less forgot about them.

    I like the work you’re doing over at Poems in Translation — really impressive stuff. Nice to meet you here.

    Friday, October 18, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  5. A.Z. Foreman wrote:

    Oh you’ve been reading my work there have you?

    Funny story: I came upon your blog because, while I know Classical and Medieval Chinese pretty well, my knowledge of modern written Chinese -though functional- leaves a lot to be desired. So I’ve been looking for ways to improve my knowledge of the modern written language, because I want to be better at doing research in it.

    Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

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