Tag Archives: Chinese

Z- Xu Zhimo, On Leaving Cambridge:#AtoZchallenge

Taking Leave of Cambridge Again

Softly I am leaving,
Just as softly as I came;
I softly wave goodbye
To the clouds in the western sky.

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun;
Their glittering reflections on the shimmering river
Keep undulating in my heart.

The green tape grass rooted in the soft mud
Sways leisurely in the water;
I am willing to be such a waterweed
In the gentle flow of the River Cam.

That pool in the shade of elm trees
Holds not clear spring water, but a rainbow
Crumpled in the midst of duckweeds,
Where rainbow-like dreams settle.

To seek a dream? Go punting with a long pole,
Upstream to where green grass is greener,
With the punt laden with starlight,
And sing out loud in its radiance.

Yet now I cannot sing out loud,
Peace is my farewell music;
Even crickets are now silent for me,
For Cambridge this evening is silent.

Quietly I am leaving,
Just as quietly as I came;
Gently waving my sleeve,
I am not taking away a single cloud.

Xu Zhimo

(6 November 1928) See Note.



Dear Mr Xu,

For the last month, I have been writing Letters To Dead Poets.  At last, I have finally reached “Z” and in a sense, my journey is over. You are: “The End”.

This means that I am also doing my own leaving. At least, that was the plan. However, this has become the first step of a much longer journey, which has unceremoniously been labelled: DRAFT.

Of course, “DRAFT” in no way reflects this gruelling, personal odyssey. Indeed, rather than “DRAFT”, it should be stamped “VICTORY” instead. After all, I’ve been working on numerous incarnations of The Book Project for 9 years and now I’m finally on my way.

Moreover, “DRAFT” fails to reflect how much I’ve grown and changed in the last month. Indeed, I’ve left a flat, hollow version of myself back at the start and at least now, I’m more aware of my ignorance. I don’t know whether my writing has improved from all of this reading and research but I have. You could say that I am the New Improved Version or in modern lingo I’ve been relaunched as Rowena 2.0.

This journey has been superfood for my soul!

However, as much as I would like to believe you could write a life-changing book in 30 days, I know it’s been rushed. Unfortunately, this is but the tip of the proverbial ice berg of what lies ahead and much of this work will also be going on underground, which is neither glamorous or exciting.

Anyway, this letter is not about me. It’s about you.

I’m here to ask about how you become a poet. Do you feel there was something inside you, some kind of “poet seed”, just waiting for the right time and that mix of sun and rain to germinate and grow? Or, were you made? If we took a humble lump of clay and processed it through a poet-making factory, could we pump out: “The Poet” where you turn the handle and poetry flows out, like an electric mincer?

Given that so many poets seem to go through the proverbial mincer themselves, I also have to wonder whether we should be watering poet seeds or manufacturing “The Poet” anyway.

I don’t know whether it was just bad luck that you died in a plane crash when you were 30 and Shelley drowned in a yacht at much the same age and Sylvia Plath also took her own life at 30.

Being a poet, really does seem to turn you into an endangered species. Wouldn’t we be better off in a much safer line of work such as becoming a stunt person? I think even they outlive us poets.


Anyway, for those of us too far down the poet path to turn back, it’s 1928 and we’re returning with you on a brief tour to Kings College, Cambridge. You were there as a literary researcher 1922-1923. Hungrily devouring a rich poet soup blended with Shelley, Keats, Hardy, Tagore and the French romantics and symbolists, must have nourished you like a super food. You translated poems into Chinese. In 1922, you returned to China and became a leader in the Modern Poetry Movement. In 1923, you founded the Crescent Moon Society, named after an anthology of poetry by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore and in 1924, you worked as a translator on Tagore’s controversial tour of China. In 1928, you briefly returned to Cambridge on a tour. That’s when you wrote: On Leaving Cambridge, which is now learned by children throughout China.

Reflecting back to Virginia Woolf’s investigations into what it takes to be a woman writer, did you have a room of your own and independent means? Is that what allowed you to flourish? Or, was it something else?

Anyway, what Woolf forgot to mention, was that you also need to survive. Being a poet almost seems synonymous with tragedy. Even when such tragedy seems accidental, random, pure chance, that there’s no chance about it. Of all the millions of people living on this planet, once again the lightning bolt has stuck the poet…not someone else!

I thought you might appreciate this verse from Yeats and you can just substitute “lad” with “poet”…

“A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him up for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.”
― W.B. Yeats

Anyway, I should be safe. I’m working undercover driving Mum’s Taxi and posing as a suburban “housewife” (not my words, I can assure you!! Actually, our poor house has been orphaned…especially through the last 6 weeks!)

I am truly sorry that you life was cut so tragically short and you journey came to such a sudden, horrific end. It doesn’t seem fair that you didn’t get to finish your story.

Well, speaking of journeys drawing to a close, my trains due to depart, heading back to the shed. Indeed, the train whistle’s blowing right now.

Yours sincerely,



This translation is taken from Peter Pagnamenta (ed.) “The University of Cambridge: an 800th Anniversary Portrait”, (London: Third Millenium Publishing, 2008), page 29.

The featured image shows a memorial stone at Cambridge featuring the first and last lines of Xu’s poem.


Q- Wisdom: Chinese Poet Qu Yuan #atozchallenge.

After  writing a letter to Qu Yuan, an ancient Chinese Poet, I received this reply. Too big to fit inside a fortune cookie, I found it rolled up inside a piece of bamboo in my garden.

By the way the Annual Dragon Boat Races are held in his honour and there’s further information at the end.

Dear Rowena,

Wisdom is timeless.

You have been travelling down the river for so long navigating your path by the sun, the moon, the stars and the butterflies.

Question follows question and wisdom follows.

Know that you don’t need to become someone else to walk in their shoes. You can only be yourself.

You are a seed. For your seed to grow and feed the nation, you need nutrients and to feel the sun and rain. Not only for you to grow but also to nourish your soul.

I thought you would appreciate the Wisdom of Confucius, which has guided my footsteps and my heart.


Qu Yuan


The Wisdom of Confucius

  • By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

  • Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

  • Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.

  • Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.

  • Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

  •  If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.

  •  I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.

  •  Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.

  •  Instead of being concerned that you have no office, be concerned to think how you may fit yourself for office. Instead of being concerned that you are not known, seek to be worthy of being known.

  • To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge.

  • Study the past, if you would divine the future.

  • It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve; and bad things are very easy to get.

  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.

  • You cannot open a book without learning something.

  • The superior man is distressed by the limitations of his ability; he is not distressed by the fact that men do not recognize the ability that he has.

  • The more man meditates upon good thoughts, the better will be his world and the world at large.

  • Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.

  • He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.

  • Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.

  • A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.

  • If we don’t know life, how can we know death?

  • How to play music may be known. At the commencement of the piece, all the parts should sound together. As it proceeds, they should be in harmony while severally distinct and flowing without break, and thus on to the conclusion.

  • The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.

  • I want you to be everything that’s you, deep at the centre of your being.

  • A youth, when at home, should be filial and, abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all and cultivate the friendship of the good. When he has time and opportunity, after the performance of these things, he should employ them in polite studies.

  • To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.

  • Speak the truth, do not yield to anger; give, if thou art asked for little; by these three steps thou wilt go near the gods.

  • When you are laboring for others let it be with the same zeal as if it were for yourself.

  •  If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.

  • The superior man thinks always of virtue; the common man thinks of comfort.

  • The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.

  • A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.

  • We should feel sorrow, but not sink under its oppression.

    Qu Yuan & The Dragon Boat Race

Through researching Qu Yuan’s “reply” to my letter, I have learned so much more about his revered position in Chinese history and culture. Indeed, he is honoured through  Duanwu Jie, the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.

“Usually Chinese festivals are explained by the traumatic death of some great paragon of virtue,” says Andrew Chittick, a professor of East Asian Humanities at Eckerd College in Florida.

And so the story goes with Qu Yuan, an advisor in the court of Chu during the Warring States period of ancient China who was exiled by the emperor for perceived disloyalty. Qu Yuan had proposed a strategic alliance with the state of Qi in order to fend off the threatening state of Qin, but the emperor didn’t buy it and sent Qu Yuan off to the wilderness. Unfortunately, Qu Yuan was right about the threat presented by the Qin, which soon captured and imprisoned the Chu emperor. The next Chu king surrendered the state to their rivals. Upon hearing the tragic news, Qu Yuan in 278 B.C. drowned himself in the Miluo River in Hunan Province.

In the first origin story of zongzi, told during the early Han dynasty, Qu Yuan became a water spirit after his death. “You can think of it as a ghost, a spirit energy that has to be appeased. There are a variety of ways one might appease a ghost but the best and most enduring is to give it food,” explains Chittick.

For years after Qu Yuan’s death, his supporters threw rice in the water to feed his spirit, but the food, it was said, was always intercepted by a water dragon. After a couple of centuries of this frustration, Qu Yuan came back to tell the people to wrap the rice in leaves, or stuff it into a bamboo stalk, so the dragon couldn’t eat it. It was only generations later that people began to retroactively credit Qu Yuan’s erstwhile lifesavers with starting the rice-ball-tossing tradition.

To make sense of how the water dragon gets into the story, or indeed of the boats carved with dragons on them, we need to go back further in time—more than 6,000 years ago, the earliest dated figure of a dragon found within the boundaries of modern China. “One of the most important mythical creatures in Chinese mythology, the dragon is the controller of the rain, the river, the sea, and all other kinds of water; symbol of divine power and energy…. In the imperial era it was identified as the symbol of imperial power,” writes Deming An, Ph.D., a professor of folklore at the Institute of Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing, and co-author of Handbook of Chinese Mythology. “In people’s imaginations, dragons usually live in water and are the controllers of rain.”

Dragon boat racing is ascribed to organized celebrations of Qu Yuan beginning in the 5th or 6th century A.D. But scholars say the boats were first used hundreds of years earlier, perhaps for varied reasons. On the lunar calendar, May is the summer solstice period, the crucial time when rice seedlings were transplanted. At the same time, says An, “according to Chinese traditional belief, the date figured with double ‘5’ is extremely unlucky.” To ensure a good harvest, southern Chinese would have asked the dragons to watch over their crops, says Jessica Anderson Turner, a Handbook of Chinese Mythology contributor who holds a Ph.D. in folklore from the Indiana University. They would have decorated their boats with ornate dragon carvings, “and the rowing was symbolic of the planting of the rice back in the water,” Anderson Turner explains. This jibes with Yan’s explanation of the symbolism behind the shape of zongzi: tetrahedral. “The points are intended to resemble the horn of a cow,” Yan says, “which was a sacred symbol in the ancient agrarian culture for blessings and abundant crops.”

Source: Legends Behind the Dragon Boat Race.

Further Reading:















Q: A letter to Qu Yuan Chinese Poet (340 – 278 B.C.): A Journey of “Circles” and “Squares”.

Dear Qu Yuan,

I am writing Letters to Dead Poets travelling through the alphabet from A-Z where each letter is a stop along the road.

In so many ways, we have formed something of an arranged marriage.

You see, I didn’t know any poets starting with Q and found you through a random Google search. So, instead of going through more traditional avenues to meet, we met online. Naturally, this is quite a different experience but does it make it any less valid? I don’t know. After all, is it destiny or chance which has brought me here, travelling back in time to Ancient China 340 – 278 B.C.?

That’s why I’m here. I need to find out.

Kayaking in the clouds

Kayaking Through LI SAO (The Lament).

Lacking a time machine, I’ve boarded my kayak and I’m travelling back in time along your epic poem: LI SAO (The Lament). I understand that you probably wrote Li Sao while living in exile South of the Yangtse River. There is some debate about what LI SAO means. It’s been interpreted as: “encountering sorrow”, “sorrow after departure”, “sorrow in estrangement” while others claim it was the name of a certain type of music.

In any case, your poem is bringing us together, carrying me across the boundaries of time and place.

There is a quote from modern literature, which I hold very dear:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

So, although we live so many, many worlds apart, why couldn’t we swap our skins and get a feel for what it is to see through each other’s eyes, walk in each other’s shoes and wear each other’s skins? Trade places and breathe in each other’s air? Sing each other’s song?

I know it sounds crazy, impossible and even ridiculous. Indeed, I can picture us now in a change room, trying each other on in front of the mirror and just how weird it would feel. It wouldn’t surprise me, if I am a lot taller than you and that you’d look something like the saggy baggy elephant lost inside all those folds of skin. On the other hand, your skin would be stretched as tight as a drum and would inevitably rip as soon as I tried to sit down. That would be particularly hard to explain. Yet, perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is how we’d adjust to life in our different worlds. Fast forwarding and reversing over 2000 years, would have to be the ultimate head spin!

red shoes

I wonder how far you would walk in my fabulous red shoes…

So, here we are. I’m in my kayak and you are the river.

What are the words you speak? Even though our meeting has been designed, arranged or even forced, can we find some common ground or will this “marriage” immediately end in “divorce”?

I don’t know.

Indeed, I’m very conscious that we’ll barely have a chance to meet before I’m forced to leave. My time is brief and LI SAO (The Lament) has 373 lines and about 2400 characters. Unfortunately, I can’t simply stop and contemplate the wax and waning of the moon. I must move on. So, I can really only dip my toe in what really is a vast expanse.

Yet, even on this very fleeting encounter, I immediately found common ground, even though  we’re man and woman living over 2000 years apart in different lands:

Excerpts from LI SAO (The Lament)

In swift succession spring and autumn passed;
The fallen flowers lay scattered on the ground,
The dusk might fall before my dream was found.


I marvel at the folly of the king,
So heedless of his people’s suffering.
They envied me my mothlike eyebrows fine,
And so my name his damsels did malign.


In sadness plunged and sunk in deepest gloom,
Alone I drove on to my dreary doom.
In exile rather would I meet my end,
Than to the baseness of their ways descend.
Remote the eagle spurns the common range,
Nor deigns since time began its way to change;
A circle fits not with a square design;
Their different ways could not be merged with mine

“A circle fits not with a square design.”…That line really spoke to me. Bound us together as one. Indeed, we have a modern phrase: “you can’t fit a square thing in a round hole”. This is most definitely me. While I can’t be entirely sure this phrase wasn’t in effect “added” via the translation but no doubt at least the meaning was there.

While our experiences of exile have been different, I know what it is to be a circle. So many of us do in our own way, which I guess makes us a community of circles. While we might not stack up as efficiently as the squares, is efficiency more important than creativity and imagination? That ability to think outside the square to create and innovate?

You probably know my answer.

Besides, while we circles might not stack, we definitely roll. Move. Grow. We’re not all stacked up on one top of the other filed in alphabetical order.

It’s quite difficult to budge a square.

It’s been really interesting to see how much two random strangers can have in common, even when there is seemingly so much difference between us. That there is a common thread of what it means to be human extending from the distant past and heading off into the future. That is a beautiful thing.

Alas, as much as I’ve relished our journey together, the train whistle’s blowing and it’s time for me to leave.

Perhaps, you would like to visit me and raft along my poetry some time. We could even go for a walk along the beach and contemplate the waves. It would be wonderful to pause with you when we could simply stop.

Warm regards my friend,



LI SAO (The Lament) translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang






Stumbling into the Chinese Lunar New Year, Sydney!

Have you ever found a piece of jigsaw puzzle lying beside the road? All you have is that single piece and you can’t help wondering what the rest of the puzzle looked like but feel completely overwhelmed by the enormity and impossibility of the task? How can you ever hope to assemble the big picture from only one little piece?

You know you can’t and yet you’re almost being eaten alive by curiosity!

What is it?

That’s what it was like for me yesterday when my daughter and I stumbled into the Chinese Lunar New Year Celebrations in Sydney yesterday. We were simply walking from Darling Harbour to Town Hall Station, via the Queen Victoria Building (QVB), to catch the train home.

After walking through some smokey food stores, we came across this stunning but also intriguing lantern sculpture towering through the QVB.


Queen Victoria Building: a red lantern Sculpture rises to the  dome.

As we walked on, we spotted what looked like an enormous inflatable bee but turned out to be a Tiger.

A Tiger? To mark the beginning of the Year of the Monkey?

Clearly, the tiger is also juggling four different coloured balls. What are they? What do they mean?


Queen Victoria is clearly not too sure what to make of her new neighbour?

When you write a blog, it’s no longer enough to walk past these mysteries and simply write them off as someone else’s culture. You just can’t let ignorance go through to the keeper. You have to find out. Explore. Come up with the answers.

Or, at least ask Google. Find out.


The question is: how much time do you allocate to the quest?

Cultural icons don’t suddenly appear. They have been built up, layer up on layer, over hundreds and even thousands of years. Of course, the complexity and nuance of all this history can’t instantly be gleaned from Google and understood. It really is something you need to live and breathe and to give due respect, almost needs to be your own.


Yet,  if we only stay home and never cross that bridge, we’ll never build bridges between nations, cultures and peoples.

Moreover, have you ever considered that people, not just countries, are multicultural? This means that we even have these mergers and fractures inside our very selves.

While Irish, German and Scottish blood battle it out in my genes, I don’t have any personal connection to Chinese culture, beyond buying take away meals and a fleeting day trip to China from Hong Kong back in 1988.

This makes developing any level of cultural understanding difficult.


So, far Google hasn’t been altogether helpful but what I did find out is that Sydney is hosting what’s claimed to be the biggest Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations outside mainland China. 12 giant lantern sculptures have been erected at iconic Sydney landmarks. That explained why the Tiger was outside the QVB. Unfortunately, we didn’t see our Tiger lit up but it was still an interesting spectacle.

These 12 sculptures represent the 12 years of the Chinese zodiac or Sheng Xiao: Each year is represented by one animal (and one mythical creature, the dragon). There are 12 animals in a specific order, and the 12-animal-cycle rotates every 12 years. In Sheng Xiao these animals are (in order): Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat (or Ram), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.

Apparently, I was born in the Year of the Rooster and in this the Year of the Monkey:

During the year, the Rooster-born need to clear all misunderstandings quickly. It is important to seek expert advice when faced with failure. They can make wrong judgments if they rely on external information without personally delving deeper into what is actually happening. Good luck can be destroyed with careless action when trying to find solutions when faced with financial, family or personal problems.

This sounds like good advice for anyone, don’t you think?!!

You can find your zodiac and read more here

Anyway, in my usual fashion, I made quite a mistake consulting Google and should’ve gone straight to Wikipaedia where pretty much all is explained. Moreover, it confirmed just how much tradition is involved in this ancient festival and that a few photos taken passing by, could never do it justice.

Yet, at least, I paused and looked a little further.

Asked a few questions.

We might not be able to walk in someone else’s shoes but at least we can try them on. Stumble around. We don’t even need to pretend they fit. Indeed, it’s probably better we don’t.

Happy Chinese New Year!

If you are celebrating Chinese New Year or can enlighten me at all, please leave a link in the comments!

xx Rowena