Gu Yanwu: Translations of Letters, Poems and Essays

By | 1 February 2015


Modern editions of Gu’s extant verse include 332 poems which editors have generally arranged chronologically, recognising five periods of his life after 1644.

(i) 1644-1649

This was a critical period for Gu Yanwu, as it was for the country as a whole. In 1644 the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the alien Manchus who established the Qing dynasty. Fighting continued, however, and several of Gu’s immediate family were killed in this strife. During these years the direction of Gu’s life changed. He devoted himself to attempting to restore the Ming dynasty. His first significant statecraft writings date from this time while some of his poems from the period have a strong martial flavour.

Autumn Hills

Autumn hills, still more autumn hills,
And the abundant autumn rain joins them all.
Yesterday there was fighting at the river mouth,
Today there is fighting on the sides of the hills.
I hear the right flank is already dispersed,
And see the left driven back and destroyed.
Flags and banners lie buried in the earth,
Ladders and battering rams dance against the walls.
In a single morning Changping was lost,
And the bodies of the fallen lie strewn all around.
Three hundred barges have departed for the north,
Barge after barge bearing fresh-faced girls.
Wu girls crowd together with the camels,
And pipes sound as they enter the Yan gates.
In an earlier time the men of Yan and Ying,
Were still to be found south of the city.

Note: In this description of war two eras are referred to: the present, in that the Manchus entered Beijing through the Yan gates and passes, and the girls referred to were captives being sent north to the capital; and the past, in that Changping was the site of a particularly bloody battle between the armies of Qin and Zhao in the 3rd century BCE in which a great number of Zhao soldiers were killed, while Yan (different from the previous Yan) and Ying were major cities in the southern state of Chu in ancient times.

The Jingwei Bird

So many matters and no peace to be found,
Why then do I let myself suffer in vain?
Going on so long with this little heart,
Carrying wood in my mouth until the end.
I wish to level the great Eastern sea,
My body will decay, my mind will never change.
But the great sea will never be levelled, 
And my own heart will never find peace.
Ah me! Do you not see in the great throng of birds in the Western Hills,
Magpies come and swallows depart, each completing their own nests?

Note: The Jingwei was a mythical bird, said to be like a pheasant, which was the reincarnation of the daughter of the founding father of agriculture, Shen Nong, who perished while travelling by the Eastern Sea. According to the legend the bird attempted to fill the sea by repeatedly carrying stones and wood in its beak which it dropped into the water.

(ii) 1650-1656

During these years, as the prospect of a Ming restoration seemed increasingly remote, Gu continued to focus on the problems related to the Manchu conquest and the resultant oppression of the Han Chinese majority. He was also personally involved in a particularly unpleasant altercation over his family’s land which resulted in an attempt on his life. Gu’s would-be assassin was killed by Gu’s associates and Gu himself was subsequently imprisoned. His sentence was, however, commuted and he was freed after almost a year.

The Boatmen’s Song 1

Our dwellings lie on an isle in the middle of the river,
And the streams on either side are like free flying birds.
But the Jin soldiers have now reached the northern bank,
And by foot and in carriages men surround Jin Shan.
The Boatmen’s Song 2
In Zhenzhou city the men are strong and resolute,
At Jingkou and the Yangzi there are no concerns.
Mooring my boat by night I enter south of the city,
But I doubt there is a southern court established.

Note: These two short poems allude to the Manchu invasion and overthrow of the Ming by speaking of the earlier Mongol invasion and overthrow of the Song. Zhenzhou and Jingkou were two relatively southerly places of particular relevance to the earlier invasion.

(iii) 1657-1662

These years saw the beginning of Gu’s extensive travels which included the northern regions. To all intents and purposes he left his home in Kunshan and embraced the wandering life. He had no fixed abode but stayed with friends and associates for short periods while he thought, wrote and gathered material for his various studies.

I Laugh at Myself

Another year and I laugh at myself, still I have not returned.
A cup of wine and a book of verse, what else shall I rely on?
As dawn breaks I call the boy and ask him to bring my horse,
Before winter comes I must find a woman to mend my clothes.
I have no Yellow Ears to bring me a letter with news from home.
Now I am old and have time to think I recall the mountains.
Then I am transformed and become a wild goose heading south,
Next chasing the west wind I fly on towards the Li marshes.

Note: Yellow Ears was the legendary dog belonging to the poet Lu Ji (261-303). It is said to have borne messages between Lu (and his younger brother Lu Yun), who had moved to Luoyang after the fall of Wu, and the brothers’ family at home. The Li Marshes in Jiangsu Province was the site of a famous ancient battle between the states of Wu and Yue.


Fallen leaves invade Baixia, driven by the winds from the west.
Again I have come to this place and again climb up to look around.
Clear sounds of the pipes and a bright moon, autumn drapes the walls.
The wilderness burns under the cold stars coming forth over the forest.
Rivers and hills going back to ancient times, wild peaks seeking a master.
Year after year with weapons of war we search each other out.
If we each take a handful of water, the water of New Pavilion tears,
We can make the level of the great river rise ten fathoms or more.

Note: Baixia was another name for the old southern capital Nanjing. This was where the alternative Ming government was briefly established after the fall of Beijing in 1644. North of the city was the important Baishi fortification. New Pavilion (Xin Ting) was a meeting place for scholars.

(iv) 1663-1673

Now over 50, his wandering life continued, as did his prolific writing. He was again in trouble with the law – this time as one of a group of writers and intellectuals accused of anti-Qing activities. He was held in custody for six months but then exonerated.

In the Rain, Sent to Shen Hanguang

Ten years ago we met by chance at a bend in the River Fen,
These new poems still have errors, the sound of the cold jade.
In front of Xuanweng Mountain a hundred streams flow,
Below Taitai temple there stand a thousand trees.
Boarding my carriage I push against the rain, the horse neighs in distress,
It seems troubled by the ‘linked heavens’ and the silk saddle cloth.
Beyond the city wall at Bingzhou no travellers are to be seen,
So together at Liukun we two can hear the night cock crow.

Note: Shen Hanguang (1620-1677) was a noted poet from the northern regions who turned increasingly to philosophy in his later writings. He, like Gu, never served in an official capacity under the Qing. Taitai was the spirit of the Fen River. Bingzhou was the old name for Taiyuan.

(v) 1674-1682

This was the last decade of Gu’s life and his writings necessarily reflect the trials of growing old. Although he continued to travel widely, he did establish a study in Shansi province through the good offices of a friend. He also acquired a concubine. His wife, who had remained in Kunshan throughout Gu’s many years of travelling, died during these years, and Gu returned to his old home for the funeral. These last years also saw him become more involved in family matters generally. In 1682, as he was setting out on yet another journey, he fell while mounting his horse and died from his injuries a few days later.

An Old Friend Comes and We Sit Together Composing Poems

Being of no use is what we have relied on 
to live out our allotted span,
‘Tis this that has allowed us to perch so long 
beside the rushing torrent.
We have grown old putting our trust in words
and have been happy in ourselves.
But words are only for the purple and green.
Now we approach the world of spirits.

Note: This is a reference to the oft-repeated story from the early Daoist classic, the Zhuangzi, about an old tree, bent and gnarled, which has been able to avoid the axe of woodman or carpenter because its timber is taken to be useless. ‘Purple and green’ refers to the life of an official.


I sit alone beside the cold window looking out at the chopper and block.
I look for the right words to describe growing old but record my young heart.
Who knows where the wandering man went, leaving for the edge of heaven?
Who can bear the emptiness of the inner apartments in the depths of night?

Note: This relates to Gu’s wife who remained at home in Kunshan during the many years of his travels. His first return home after several decades was for her funeral. The ‘wandering man’ is of course Gu himself.

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