Like Water or Clouds

Li Po (699-762 AD)

Mountain Landscape, Li Di (early 15th century)

‘Mountain Landscape’ - Li Di (early 15th century)

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Green Mountain

You ask me why I live on Green Mountain –

I smile in silence and the quiet mind.

Peach petals blow on mountain streams

To earths and skies beyond Humankind.


Drinking, I sit,

Lost to Night,

Keep falling petals

From the ground:

Get up to follow

The stream’s white moon,

No sign of birds,

The humans gone.

Lines For A Taoist Adept

My friend lives high on East Mountain.

His nature is to love the hills and gorges.

In green spring he sleeps in empty woodland,

Still there when the noon sun brightens.

Pine-tree winds to dust his hair.

Rock-filled streams to cleanse his senses.

Free of all sound and stress,

Resting on a wedge of cloud and mist.

Mêng Hao-jan

True-Taoist, good friend Mêng,

Your madness known to one and all,

Young you laughed at rank and power.

Now you sleep in pine-tree clouds.

On moonlit nights floored by the Dragon.

In magic blossom deaf to the World.

You rise above - a hill so high.

I drink the fragrance from afar.

Note: Mêng Hao-jan (689-740AD) lived in the mountains where he studied the Classics and wrote poetry. He tried for the Civil Service but failed the examination. He was a friend of Wang Wei and Li Po. He was careless of worldly achievement and often arrived too drunk to work. The Dragon here is used to mean drink and Imperial disdain, while the blossom is the fragrance of the Tao.

Ho Chih-chang

When we met the first time at Ch’ang-an

He called me the ‘Lost Immortal’.

Then he loved the Way of Forgetting.

Now under the pine-trees he is dust.

His golden keepsake bought us wine.

Remembering, the tears run down my cheeks.

Note: Ho was a friend and Court official who retired to become a Taoist monk. The Lost Immortals banished from heaven for misbehaviour appeared on earth as extraordinary individuals.

Three Poems on Wine


Among the flowers a drink of wine.

I sit alone without a friend.

So I invite the moon,

Then see my shadow, make us three.

The moon can’t know how to drink,

Since just my shadow drinks with me.

The moon brought shadow along

To keep me silent company.

Joy should reflect the season.

I sing. That makes the Moon reel.

Get up. Make my shadow sway.

While I’m here let’s celebrate.

When I’m drunk each seek the Way,

Tie ourselves to Eternal Journeys,

Swear to meet again in the Milky Way.


If the heavens were not in love with wine,

There’d be no Wine Star in the sky.

And if earth wasn’t always drinking,

There’d be nowhere called Wine Spring.

I’ve heard that pure wine makes the Sage.

Even the cloudy makes us wise.

If even the wise get there through drink,

What’s the point of True Religions?

Three times and I understand the Way,

Six and I’m one again with Nature.

Only the things we know when we’re drunk

Can never be expressed when we’re sober.


Third month in Ch’ang-an city,

Knee-deep in a thousand fallen flowers.

Alone in Spring who can stand this sadness?

Or sober see transient things like these?

Long life or short, rich or poor,

Our destiny’s determined by the world.

But drinking makes us one with life and death,

The Myriad Things we can barely fathom.

Drunk, Heaven and Earth are gone.

Stilled, I clutch my lonely pillow.

Forgetting that the Self exists,

That is the mind’s greatest joy.

Lament for Mr Tai

Wine-maker there by Yellow Fountains,

‘Eternal Spring’  that’s still your vintage.

Without Li Po on Night’s Terrace

Who can there be to bring you custom?

Note: The Huangquan, the Yellow Fountains, and Night’s Terrace, are names for the gloomy realm of the dead below the earth inhabited by spiritual and ethereal beings.

Waking from Drunken Sleep on a Spring Day

Life is a dream. No need to stir.

Remembering this I’m drunk all day.

Lying helpless beside the porch,

Waking to see the deep garden.

One bird calls among the flowers.

Ask myself what’s the season?

Song of the oriole in Spring breezes,

Voice of beauty sadly moves me.

Is there wine? Ah, fill the cup.

Sing and watch the white moon rise,

until song’s end and sense is gone.

Drinking in the Mountains

Mountain flowers open in our faces.

You and I are triply lost in wine.

I’m drunk, my friend, sleepy. Rise and go.

With your dawn lute, return, if you wish, and stay.

Old Poem

Did Chuang Chou dream he was the butterfly?

Or the butterfly dream he was Chuang Chou?

In the single body’s transformations

See the vortex of the Myriad Creatures.

No mystery then that the Magic Seas

Shrank again to crystal streams,

Or down by Ch’ang-an’s Green Gate

The gardener was Marquis of Tung-Ling.

If this is the fate of fame and power,

What is it for-  this endless striving?

Note: The Myriad Creatures are the manifestations of the Tao, as distinct from the Tao itself. The Mythical Islands of the Immortals in the East were located in the Magic Seas, which in a legend were said to be dwindling to nothing. When the Han Dynasty overthrew the Ch’in, The Marquis of Tung-Ling was reduced to growing melons by the Green Gate, one of the eastern gates of the capital, Ch’ang-an.      

The River-Captain’s Wife – A Letter

I with my hair in its first fringe

Romped outside breaking flower-heads.

You galloped by on bamboo horses.

We juggled green plums round the well.

Living in Chang-kan village,

Two small people without guile.

At fourteen I married you sir,

So bashful I could only hide,

My frowning face turned to the wall.

Called after -  never looking back.

Fifteen before I learnt to smile.

Yearned to be one with you forever.

You to be the Ever-Faithful.

I to not sit lonely, waiting.

At sixteen you sir went away,

Through White King’s Gorge, by Yen Rock’s rapids,

When the Yangtze’s at its highest,

Where the gibbons cried above you.

Here by the door your last footprints,

Slowly growing green mosses,

So deep I cannot sweep them,

Leaves so thick from winds of autumn.

September’s yellow butterflies

Twine together in our west garden.

What I feel – it hurts the heart.

Sadness makes my beauty vanish.

When you come down from far places,

Please will you write me a letter?

As far as the farthest reaches,

I’ll come out to welcome you.

The Exile’s Letter

(To Yüan)

Remember how Tung built us a place to drink in

At Lo-yang south of the T’ien-ching bridge?

White jade and gold bought songs and laughter.

We drank forgetting Court and princes.

Those amongst us, wisest and bravest

On all this side of rivers and oceans,

Hearts high as clouds, and you and I together,

Cared nothing at crossing lakes and mountains

Only to share our thoughts and feelings.

Then I went out south-east to cut the laurel,

You north of Lo River still lost in dreams.

No joy in being parted. Soon back again in mountains,

Tracking the thirty-six twists and turns of valley,

By the streams bright with a thousand flowers,

By endless waters,

Hearing pine-trees sighing,

Till we met the Hang-tung Governor

On a gold and silver saddle,

And Hu the True-Taoist drew us with his pipe playing,

Making unearthly music out of the high tower,

Strange sounds of the mating phoenix.

The Governor’s sleeves kept time to the music,

So that he rose, drunk, and danced a little,

Brought his brocade coat, covered my body.

I fell asleep, head resting in his lap.

By day our hearts rose to the nine heavens.

At evening we scattered like blown stars or rain,

I to my far mountain over hills and waters,

You to your own house by the bridge of Wei.

That winter I made your father’s North City,

Loved you for the way you did me honour,

Sharing your wealth, thinking nothing of it.

Wine there - in cups of amber,

Food there - on plates of jade.

I ate and drank, no thoughts of returning.

We went out to the west. The river parts there,

Round the ancient shrine of a Prince of Chou.

Boats on the waters to drums and piping.

Waves made of dragon scales. Jade-green rushes.

We drank and drank, lived the passing moments,

Forgetting how they go like blossoms or snowfall.

Flushed with wine, warm in glow of sunset,

The hundred-foot deep pool mirroring bright faces,

Dancing-girls delicate as willows in the moonlight,

Notes lost in the silken sleeves’ fluttering.

A white breeze blew their song to the sky,

Winding through the air, twisting in the cloud-lanes.

Never again. Never again such joy.

I went west but got no promotion.

White-headed back to eastern hills.

Met once more south of Wei’s bridge.

Parted again north of Tso’s terrace.

And if you ask my feelings at parting,

They were inside me like Spring flowers falling.

No way to say what’s in the heart. Never.

I call in the boy. Have him kneel here, tie this,

To send my feelings through a thousand miles.

Jade Stairs Grievance.

On jade stairs the white of dewfall.

Deeply soaked the silken slippers.

She lets fall the crystal blind.

Sees, through gauze, a Moon of Autumn.

Note: She is a concubine in the Imperial Palace to which the jade stairs lead, but the white dewdrops on jade are also the tears on her face, the absent ‘dew’ of sexual union, and the half-month White Dew in the autumn lunar calendar. The soaked slippers indicate she has been there for hours, neglected and self-neglecting. The crystal blind is a jewelled curtain, but also eyelashes wet with tears. She is no longer young, herself a chilled autumn moon. The grievance is unspoken, but implicit.


Misted the flowers weep as light dies

Moon of white silk sleeplessly cries.

Stilled - Phoenix wings.

Touched - Mandarin strings.

This song tells secrets that no one knows

To far Yenjan on Spring breeze it goes.

To you it flies

Through the night skies.

Sidelong - Eyes. How

White tears fill now!

Heart’s pain? Come see -

In this mirror with me.

Note: She is a professional courtesan speaking to the absent  man with whom fatally she has fallen in love. She has exchanged the Phoenix zither for the Mandarin Duck zither (decorated as such?) that is she has exchanged sensual feelings symbolised by the Phoenix for those of conjugal affection symbolised by the Mandarin ducks. The sidelong glance was the way a dancing girl might attract a man’s attention. The Yang sunlight has faded. Yin mist, petals, damp silk and white moon bringing dew are emblems of her tears.

The Roosting Crows

On Soochow’s terrace the crows find their nests.

The King of Wu in his palace drinks with Hsi Shih.

Songs of Wu, Dances of Chu quicken their pleasure

One half of the sun is caught in the valley’s throat.

The clock’s silver arrow marks the passing hours.

They rise early to see the autumn moon,

Watch it sink down into deep river.

Daylight glows in the East. Dawn renews their joy.

Note: King Wu and his consort the legendary beauty Hsi Shih provide an analogy for Hsüan Tsung and Yang Kuei-fei. The crow is a Yang symbol associated with the sun.

Lu Mountain, Kiangsi

I climbed west on Incense Cloud Peak.

South I saw the spray-filled falls

Dropping for ten thousand feet

Sounding in a hundred gorges,

Suddenly as if lightning shone,

Strange as if light-wet rainbows lifted.

I thought the Milky Way had shattered,

Scattering stars through the clouds, downwards.

Looking up an even greater force.

Nature’s powers are so intense.

The Cosmic Wind blows there without stop.

The river’s moon echoes back the light

Into vortices where waters rush.

On both sides the clear walls were washed,

By streams of pearl broken into mist,

By clouds of foam whitening over rock.

Let me reach those Sublime Hills

Where peace comes to the quiet heart.

No more need to find the magic cup.

I’ll wash the dust, there, from my face,

And live in those regions that I love,

Separated from the Human World.

Note: Lu Mountain is a Taoist sacred site in Kiangsi Province.

To My Wife on Lu-shan Mountain

Visiting the nun Rise-In-Air,

You must be near her place in those blue hills.

The river’s force helps pound the mica,

The wind washes rose bay tree flowers.

If you find you can’t leave that refuge,

Invite me there to see the sunset’s fire.

Note: Pounded mica and rose bay were both used as Taoist medicines.

Reaching the Hermitage

At evening I make it down the mountain.

Keeping company with the moon.

Looking back I see the paths I’ve taken

Blue now, blue beneath the skyline.

You greet me, show the hidden track,

Where children pull back hawthorn curtains,

Reveal green bamboo, the secret path,

Vines that touch the traveller’s clothes.

I love finding space to rest,

Clear wine to enjoy with you.

Wind in the pines till voices stop,

Songs till the Ocean of Heaven pales.

I get drunk and you are happy,

Both of us pleased to forget the world.

Note: Meeting an adept at a Taoist hermitage, Li thinks about the state of his own dislocated life compared with the hidden, childish, unassuming, but intoxicating nature of the Tao.

Hard Journey

Gold painted jars - wines worth a thousand.

Jade carved dishes - food costing more.

I throw the chopsticks down,

Food and wine are tasteless.

Draw my magic sword,

Mind confused stare round me.

See the ice floes block the Yellow River.

Feel the snowfall shroud the T’ai-hang Mountains.

Quiet again I cast in dark waters,

Find the fragile boat that might drift sunwards.

Hard Journey. So many side-tracks.

Turn after turn, and where am I?

New breezes flatten down the waves ahead.

I’ll set cloud sails, cross the Blue Horizon.

We Fought for - South of the Walls

Died for - North of the Ramparts’ (to an old tune)

We fought for Mulberry Springs

Die now for Garlic River.

Wash our swords in Parthian Seas,

Feed our mounts on T’ien Shan snows.

Thousands of miles to and fro.

The Three Armies tired and old.

These Huns kill instead of ploughing,

Sow white bones in desert sand.

Ch’in built the Great Wall.

Han keeps the bright beacons.

These fires never die.

These wars never end.

Hand to hand we fight and fail,

Horses screaming to the skies.

Kites and crows pick at our flesh

Perch on dead trees with our dead.

We paint the grasses red,

Because our General had a plan.

The sword I say’s an evil thing.

A wise man keeps it from his hand.

Note: The Mulberry and Garlic Rivers are north and west beyond the Great Wall (as in the old song they represent short-term and ultimately worthless objectives). The ‘Parthian Seas’ denote the far West and Turkestan, say Parthia and Central Asia of Han times, from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and Aral Seas. The T’ien Shan are the ‘Celestial Mountains’ dividing China from Turkestan. The Huns are the Hsiung-nu of Central Asia. The T’ang armies were defeated in northern Turkestan at the battle of the Taras River in 751AD. The last lines are a paraphrase of lines from the Tao Te Ching  (Book I, XXXI).

Remembering the Springs at Ch’ih-chou

Peach-tree flowers over rising waters.

White drowned stones, then free again.

Wistaria-blossom on quivering branches.

Clear blue sky. The waxing moon.

How many tight-coiled scrolls of bracken,

On green tracks where I once walked?

When I’m back from exile in Yeh-lang,

There I’ll transmute my bones to gold.

Note: Li was banished to Yeh-lang in Yunnan in the extreme south-west, though pardoned under an amnesty before he reached it. He passed the springs at Ch’ih-chou on his slow journey towards it up the Yangtze.

Authored and translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.

Last Modified 8 February 2004