A Japanese Death Poem in Chinese

The Kaifūsō 懷風藻 is oldest known extant collection of Chinese poetry by Japanese authors. Its compilation dates to 751 during the Nara Period 奈良時代 (710-784). In it we find poems written primarily by the aristocracy of around that time. The editor's identity is unknown, though some suspect it was Ōmi no Mifune 淡海三船 (722-785). Altogether the work comprises 120 works by 64 authors.

Reading it I found a poem that I would like to translate and analyze here. The author of it was Ōtsu no Ōji 大津皇子 (663-686) or Prince Ōtsu, the third prince son of Emperor Tenmu 天武天皇 (d. 686). The young man was unfortunately executed on charges of rebellion at the age of 24, shortly after his father died. His death poem, or at least one attributed to him, is included in the Kaifūsō. The title is translated as “Facing the End” 臨終. As follows:

烏臨西舍 鼓聲催短命 泉路無賓主 此夕誰家向

The golden crow approaching the west building,

The sound of the drum shortening my life,

The road to the underworld is with neither guest nor host,

This evening whose house shall I turn to?

This poem is written in the Chinese jueju 絕句 style, which is four lines of either five or seven characters. The four lines are respectively the introduction , development , twist , and conclusion /. In the case of five characters the second and fourth lines will rhyme (see highlighted parts below). In the case of seven characters, the first, second and fourth lines will rhyme. There is also the matter of level and oblique tones in Middle Chinese (different from modern tones) which are indicated in the table below. This style was quite popular during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and naturally found its way into Japanese literati circles.

This poem is written with five characters per line, so the second and fourth lines should rhyme. However, if you read it with modern Mandarin Chinese readings it does not. Although this is of course a Chinese poem written by a Japanese author, they were still using character readings from China. Fortunately, the Japanese preserved the pronunciations for Chinese characters from various time periods. These are called the on-yomi 音読み as opposed to the kun-yomi 訓読み readings. The latter are the native readings assigned to characters. The former are broken down into three time periods:

  • Go 吳 – Readings from before the 7th / 8th centuries. Possibly from the Korean peninsula or southern China. Often used in Buddhist texts.

  • Kan 漢 – Readings from the mid Tang Dynasty (618-907). Generally reflect the pronunciation of Chang'an 長安.

  • 唐 – Readings from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Often used in the Zen school. Here refers to China rather than the Tang Dynasty.

For our purposes we will compare the Mandarin to the Japanese on-yomi readings in the aforementioned chronological order. Given that Prince Ōtsu died in 686 the kan reading might be better reflective of what the author had in mind when composing the poem, though the go reading also seems to make sense. Again, the second and fourth lines are supposed to rhyme.

Mandarin 中文
Japanese On-yomi (go/kan/)

kon / kin
u / o
sai / sei

ku / ko
shō / sei
se / sai
myō / mei

zen / sen
ru / ro
mu / bu / mo
su / shu

jyaku / seki
zui / sui
ke / ka
kō / kyō

Here “golden crow” 金烏 refers to the three-legged crow residing in the sun, or as an allusion the sun itself. As it approaches or arrives at the western building we are informed that the sun is setting in an estate or urban area. The sound of the drum is perhaps not unlike in China where it signaled the closing of the city gates for the night. The character quan , which I have rendered as “underworld” here is an abbreviated form of huang quan 黃泉 (in Japanese yomi). The term bin zhu 賓主 here is a standard binomial term employed in the classics like the Liji 禮記 meaning guest and host. Finally the last line wraps up the sentiments accompanying a dreadful journey into the lonely darkness of death. It seems there is no intonation pattern, so perhaps this is not the regulated style 律絶, but instead the looser ancient style 古絶 (the latter are limited to five syllable lines). Bear in mind the poems in this collection are not noted for being exquisite specimens.

Assuming Prince Ōtsu wrote this shortly before his execution, it is quite remarkable and expresses the feelings surrounding such unfortunate circumstances. It is of course possible it is just attributed to him, though I will not go into the academic discussions on that matter at the moment.

I find the Asuka and Nara periods quite fascinating. It was in the mid-7th century that Wakoku 倭國 formally changed its name to Nippon 日本 (Japan). The Chinese histories suggest this was because they disliked the former name. It literally meant "country of the dwarfs". This would have been around the time
Prince Ōtsu lived and died. The famous Battle of Baekgang occurred during the year he was born. Japan had dispatched fleets in support of Baekje on the Korean peninsula against Silla and their ally Tang China. The Japanese suffered tremendous casualties. A few years later Silla was in control of the whole of the Korean peninsula. This incident and the Tang expansionism quite likely prompted a lot of fear and concern in Japan while also sparking a pressing need to adopt Chinese forms of government, statecraft and culture. Simultaneously Japan was receiving refugees from Korea. This led to the rapid sinicization of Japan, most prominently seen in the Nara period. It was in such an environment that Prince Ōtsu was raised and much of the rest of the Kaifūsō as well. The historical background for reading any kind of classical material indeed enriches the experience.

We will explore more of the text later on.