Not the Actual But the Perceived: Translating the Poetics of Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin

Li Shangyin
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons


Translator’s Note

Li Shangyin (813-859), was a late Tang poet whose works are famous for their lush and obscure imagery. During his lifetime, he held various posts as a low-level government official, and though his poetry and prose were appreciated within certain literary circles, his status as one of the most important poets of his time was not recognized until after his death. To read his work is to encounter a classical Chinese lyricism rich with mysterious juxtapositions of the immediate and the imagined. His poems are written in accreting layers, smears of memories, and symbolic remnants of an imagistic language for which the code has been lost, leading the reader into a world of cryptic and autonomous interiority.

His poems are written in accreting layers, smears of memories, and symbolic remnants of an imagistic language for which the code has been lost, leading the reader into a world of cryptic and autonomous interiority.

What is important in Li Shangyin’s poetry is not the actual but the perceived. Any attempt on the part of the reader to impose exterior logic on this glimpsed interiority will yield no clarity but actually inhibit the cumulative argument of the author’s poetics. Unlike in reality where the poet is perpetually surrounded by restrictions of position, mortality, and society, in these poems all existence, remembered and immediate, is aligned with the poet’s emotions and ruminations, and the border between the two is presented as transparent and yet impermeable as glass. Li Shangyin’s poems force the reader to succumb to a world where explanation is not provided and meaning is instead acquired through the layering of seemingly fragmented images, which when viewed from an inclusive vantage point blend together to form an emotional whole.

Any poem is a unique constellation of specific coordinates, intersections of the poet’s own voice and the language she exploits. The translation of such demands a certain amount of paring as only some facets of the original can be transplanted in the destination language; many must be left behind as they are inextractable from their native tongue. In translating poems as dense as these, I had three priorities: preserving the imagery created by Li Shangyin and inherent in the classical Chinese, highlighting the philosophical aspects of the form, and reconstructing the larger emotional landscape. These three elements when braided together recreate Li Shangyin’s unique brand of classical Chinese cubism, a poetic pastiche of image fragments traversable only through the sensory perceptions of the poems’ speaker.


Most English translations of Li Shangyin address the esoteric nature of his poetry by accompanying or implanting the text with explanations of the context and history. In my own translations there are no footnotes or explicit explanations, as one of my primary aims was to present the mystery of the works upon first encounter; to recreate the poem that I read and immediately loved, a poem whose justification needs not reside in clarification of meaning or narrative but rather in the inherent beauty of the imagery alone. On the most basic level, in these translations I attempt to bring both rare and common classical Chinese symbols and linguistic tropes into English, not by translating them into English equivalents (if such exist) but rather by preserving their literal meaning and prioritizing their aesthetic resonance. For example, the graying or the tears of the candle in the following couplet, imagery which could technically be translated into more common English descriptions of melting and dripping, is left in a more literal state as to smooth this language down would both remove the human element in the still life and sterilize the strangeness of his imagery.

春蚕到死丝方尽,
蜡炬成灰泪始干

When spring’s silkworm arrives at death, its filaments have reached exhaustion.
Beeswax candles grey, then their tears begin to dry.

As far as the intricate rhyme which exists in Li Shangyin’s poetry, a highlight of a language with limited sound inventory, I decided to leave much of it behind. Instead I chose to work towards similar line lengths and sentence structures and to focus on the traditional form of the couplet, in this case four couplets of five character lines. In these poems I attempted to translate the structure of the couplet as it exists in classical Chinese: a microcosm of a larger poetic impetus, containing two lines which can be read as complete thoughts as well as advancements of an overarching poetic argument. This pattern frequently continues even further, as many of these lines can be broken along the fault of the caesura to create a couplet unto themselves, therefore simultaneously extending the reach of the poem deeper into the micro-level while building up to the macro.

望断平时翠辇过,
空闻子夜鬼悲歌。

In the distance where my gaze breaks, the emperor’s emerald carriage passed.
In silence I listen, the singing grief of midnight ghosts.

Finally another central goal was to recreate the spatial dimensions of Li Shangyin’s emotional landscape, a landscape painted not as tangible and immediate but which instead is seen and felt, in both distance and time, from afar; a landscape shaped as much by the boundless reach of the poet’s vision as the anguish he feels for his physical limitations. This is the true beauty of these poems, that the restrictive gravity of the actual is never totally escaped. The language and symbolism of division is rampant throughout; even deep inside Li Shangyin’s opulent and extraordinary world we can feel a layer of separation between the speaker and the dream which he creates, the tug of the line connecting us to reality, a frame of despair bordering the poet’s imagined joy.

天荒地变心虽折,
若比伤春意未多。

Heaven became a wasteland. And though my heart foundered —
against the anguish of spring, meaningless.

Ultimately only the speaker’s sensory perception is able to pierce the final barrier between the passive and the active, the real and the possible. Sensory not in that it belongs to a physical body, as what the speaker perceives is impossible for a physical body to perceive, rather a disembodied perception, one detached from the person and sent ahead to incorporeally wander in the landscape.

蓬山此去无多路,
青鸟殷勤为探看。

There is not much road left to Penglai Mountain.
Bluebird, as much as in you lies, search out a glimpse for me.

Li Shangyin’s poetry tells and retells a journey where the poet, though able to perceive an interior mystical plane, is not able to exist within it and so must remain in the reality from which he longs to depart, endlessly tracing and retracing the omnipresent longing which arcs between the actual and the desired. This journey is continued in translation; ever intent on the ethereal beauty of the original poems, I struggle to convey their elusive essence all the while mourning the limitations of my rendering.

回头问残照,
残照更空虚。

I turn my head. I ask the winnowing gleam.
The winnowing gleam grows hollow.

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