Poetry of Cao Cao

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A Ming Dynasty portrait of Cao Cao from the Sancai Tuhui.

Cao Cao (155—220) was a warlord who rose to power towards the final years of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25—220 CE) and became the de facto head of government in China. He laid the foundation for what was to become the state of Cao Wei (220—265), founded by his son and successor Cao Pi, in the Three Kingdoms period (220—280). Poetry, among other things, was one of his cultural legacies.

Overview[edit]

Cao Cao was an accomplished poet, as were his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. Cao Cao was also a patron of poets such as Xu Gan.[1] Of Cao Cao's works, only a remnant remain today. His verses, unpretentious yet profound, helped to reshape the poetic style of his time and beyond, eventually contributing to the poetry styles associated with Tang Dynasty poetry. Cao Cao, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi are known collectively as the "Three Caos". The Three Caos' poetry, together with additional poets, eventually developed into the Jian'an style: Jian'an was the era name for the period from 196 to 220. Poets of the Cao family and others continued to write and develop the poetry of this style, after the end of the Han Dynasty and the subsequent founding of the Cao Wei state: these were the Jian'an poets. The effects of civil strife on poetry towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty contributed to the development of a solemn and heart-stirring tone of lament for life's ephemeral nature during the period of Jian'an poetry.

From its roots in Han poetry folk songs, Jian'an poetry evolved into a form of scholarly poetry that is characteristic of Six Dynasties poetry. Cao Cao and other Jian'an poets developed the characteristic Han fu (or yuefu) poetry style deriving from folk song or ballad traditions, such as of uneven line lengths. Irregular lines became transformed into regular five-character line-length styles, very similar (and inspirational to) the shi poetry of the Tang Dynasty's five-character regular line. Cao Cao has specifically been noted for his ballad-style verse, which he apparently set to music.[2]

Cao Cao also wrote verse in the older four-character per line style characteristic of the Classic of Poetry. Burton Watson describes Cao Cao as: "the only writer of the period who succeeded in infusing the old four-character metre with any vitality, mainly because he discarded the archaic diction associated with it and employed the ordinary poetic language of his time."[3] Cao Cao is also known for his early contributions to the Shanshui poetry genre, with his 4-character-per-line, 14-line poem "View of the Blue Sea" (as translated by Wai-lim Yip).[4]

Poems[edit]

Though the Tortoise Lives Long[edit]

One of Cao Cao's most celebrated pieces, written in the old four-character line style, is titled Though the Tortoise Lives Long (龜雖壽). It is one part of a four part poem titled Steps through the Illustrious Gate (步出夏門行). It was written during the Battle of White Wolf Mountain in 207.

《龜雖壽》

Though the Tortoise Lives Long

神龜雖壽,猶有竟時。

Though the tortoise blessed with magic powers lives long,
Its days have their allotted span;

騰蛇乘霧,終為土灰。

Though winged serpents ride high on the mist,
They turn to dust and ashes at the last;

老驥伏櫪,志在千里;

An old war-horse may be stabled,
Yet still it longs to gallop a thousand li;

烈士暮年,壯心不已。

And a noble-hearted man though advanced in years
Never abandons his proud aspirations.

盈縮之期,不但在天;

Man's span of life, whether long or short,
Depends not on Heaven alone;

養怡之福,可得永年。

One who eats well and keeps cheerful
Can live to a great old age.

幸甚至哉!歌以咏志。

And so, with joy in my heart,
I hum this song.

Short Song Style[edit]

Cao Cao citing the Short Song Style while facing the rising moon at Mount Nanping. From Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Aspects of the Moon series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints

Another of Cao Cao's most well known poems, written right before the Battle of Red Cliffs in the winter of 208, is Short Song Style (短歌行). Translation by Anonymous.

《短歌行》

Short Song Style

對酒當歌,人生幾何?

To my wine I sing a song: a man's life can last how long?

譬如朝露,去日苦多。

Ephemeral as morning dew; past days are bitterly endless

慨當以慷,憂思難忘。

Indignity is matched by generosity; yet this worry is unforgettable

何以解憂?唯有杜康。

How can one be free from sorrow? There is only Du Kang's wine(1)

青青子衿,悠悠我心。

Your collar so blue, blue; forever my heart longs, longs for you(2)

但為君故,沈吟至今。

Yet only for your sake; do I still sing to this day

呦呦鹿鳴,食野之蘋。

"Yu, yu" call the deer; eating together on the plain

我有嘉賓,鼓瑟吹笙。

I too have my dear guests; drumming strings and blowing flutes(3)

明明如月,何時可掇?

Bright, bright shines the moon; Will there be a time it can be grasped?

憂從中來,不可斷絕。

Sorrow comes from deep within; never will it be ended

越陌度阡,枉用相存。

Crossing streets, passing roads; over a hard path you joined my service

契闊談宴,心念舊恩。

Whether in work or play; my heart shall always remember that kindness

月明星稀,烏鵲南飛,

The moon outshines the sparse stars; the crows fly to the south

繞樹三匝,何枝可依?

Circling the tree three times; on what branch can they find rest?

山不厭高,海不厭深。

Mountains do not despise height; Seas do not despise depth

周公吐哺,天下歸心。

The Duke of Zhou spat out his meal; so the world turned its heart to him(4)

(1) 杜康 is the legendary inventor of wine
(2) This a quote from a love poem in the 詩經 anthology of classical poems
(3) This entire stanza is a quote from a poem in the 詩經
(4) When people visited the Duke of Zhōu while he was eating, he would spit out his food and meet them instead of finish his meal. Later commentators praised him for his self-sacrifice.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Davis, p. vi
  2. ^ Watson, p.38
  3. ^ Watson, p. 38
  4. ^ Yip, 130-133
  • A. R. (Albert Richard) Davis, Editor and Introduction (1970). The Penguin Book of Chinese Verse. Penguin Books. 
  • Burton Watson (1971). CHINESE LYRICISM: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-03464-4. 
  • Yip, Wai-lim (1997). Chinese Poetry: An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres. (Durham and London: Duke University Press). ISBN 0-8223-1946-2
  • Xiao Tong (6th century). Wen Xuan.  Check date values in: |date= (help)