遣怀 Dispelling Sorrow

杜牧 (Author: Du Mu, 9th century)

落魄江南载酒行, fall soul river south carry wine walk
楚腰肠断掌中轻。 Chu waist intestinal break palm inside light
十年一觉扬州梦, ten years one sleep Yangzhou dream
赢得青楼薄幸名。 win get blue building light favor reputation


I grew so downhearted in the Southern Land,
Wandering with a bottle of wine

And breaking my heart over those slim waisted Chu girls
The ones who could dance in the palm of your hand

Ten years later I wake from my dream of Yang Zhou

And all I’ve won for myself is the reputation
Of a man who can’t be trusted in Blue Buildings

Translation Note:

Du Mu was a famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty, best known for writing lyrical and romantic poems. He and another famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty — Li Shangyin, were often mentioned together by later Chinese literary critics as “Little Li-Du”, to differentiate them from the “Li-Du” during the most prosperous period of the Tang Dynasty, that is, Li Bai and Du Fu.

Du Mu was born into an elite family, and held various provincial posts in different locales over his career. However, he never achieved a high-ranking position in court, and this poem is considered one of those which he implicitly showed his disappointment over his government career. The first line of the poem implies a dark note of despair as Du Mu clearly indicates that his soul “falls down” when he was at the South of the River. The second line refers to two Chinese legends. One is about the King of Chu favoring girls of slim waists. In elite circles, slender female bodies were so admired that some palace girls even starved to death when trying to lose weight. The second one is about Zhao Feiyan, a famous beauty who was so slim that she could dance on a man’s palm. These legends were used to demonstrate the beauty and slenderness of the prostitutes in the blue buildings in Yangzhou with whom Du Mu has spent time. However, when Du Mu looked back, he was regretful of his time spent in Yangzhou, which is reflected by the third and fourth line of the poem.

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