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.


  1. Hi, Jeffrey,
    This is Ken Su. We met at DDM, but we do not have a real talk.
    About this post, it is a strict rule that it can not be ended with oblique 仄 tones for the Chinese jueju 絕句.
    It is quite clear that if the rhythms (押韻) is level 平 tone, the third stanza should be ended by a word of oblique tone.
    And, if the rhythms (押韻) of a Chinese jueju 絕句 is oblique tone, the third stanza should be ended by a word of level tone.
    It is quite astonished to me that this verse written by the Japanese poet did not follow this basic rule.

    You are welcome to visit my Blog.

  2. About this post, it is a strict rule that it can not be ended with oblique 仄 tones for all the four stanzas of the Chinese jueju 絕句.

    By the way, there is a quite high possibility that Chinese jueju 絕句 was named after An Shi-gao's translation.

     「欲見明者,  當樂聞經,  
    亦除垢慳,  是名為信。」」
    (CBETA, T02, no. 150A, p. 881, c27-29)

  3. Hi Ken!

    I think this is a 古絶, not a 律絶, so it does not have to rhyme. Is that correct?

  4. Dear Jeffrey,
    No, I do not think so.
    馬毛朋,(2009) ,〈「《詩經》是押韻的」是從未得到證明的假說嗎?---與李書嫻、麥耘商榷〉,《中國語言學》第三輯),北京大學出版社,北京市,中國。

    馬毛朋 is a professor of Pei-jing University 北京大學, China. He claimed in this article (dated 2009) that 「《詩經》是押韻的」 ( Shi-Jing is definitely with rhythms.)
    That is to say, it would fail to be qualified as a 'verse' in ancient China (from BC 500 to AD 1900) without the rhythms (we may call this rhythms 'homoioteleuton').
    And, this verse do not follow a rhythms.
    For 命, pronounced as 'ming'("眉病"反) and 向
    (《一切經音義》卷9:「向(許亮」(CBETA, T54, no. 2128, p. 357, a2))
    It does not fit the rhythms of 'homoioteleuton'.
    Maybe, it is simply an ancient Japanese way to write a four five-worded sentences, The writer did not intend to fit his writing into a style of Chinese verse.
    Furthermore, if you go to check all the verses in 唐詩三百首 (Tang-shi-san-bai-sou), you do not have any chance to find a verse without the rhythms.

  5. 《一切經音義》卷9:「向(許亮反)」(CBETA, T54, no. 2128, p. 357, a2)
    向 is pronounced as Siang (or to be written as Xiang in China)

  6. This is definitely to be understood as a poem in the Chinese style; the Kaifuso is as Jeffrey says a book of such poems! However, Ken is quite correct in that it does not fit the required structure (向 and 命 do not rhyme). This shouldn't be very astonishing, though; Chinese was not Prince Otsu's native language, after all. Anyway, this is a known issue with the poem, but it's still considered very fine in the context of early Sino-Japanese literature.

    Incidentally, my edition of the Kaifuso (ed. Eguchi Takao) points out that there is a similar poem attributed to Otsu in the Man'yoshu , #416:

    百傳 磐余池尓 鳴鴨乎 今日耳見哉 雲隠去牟
    momodutapu/ ipare no ike ni/ naku kamo wo/ kyepu nomwi mite ya/ kumogakurinamu

    A poem composed by Prince Otsu as he wept at Iware Pond after being sentenced to death
    "On many-storied Iware Pond do the ducks cry; shall I see them only today and then pass on?"

    "Many-storied" (momodutapu) is a "makura-kotoba" (set epithet) for Iware; "cry" (naku) refers to both animals making noises and usual and people weeping.

    However, it is extremely unlikely that Prince Otsu actually wrote this poem, because "kumogakuru" was a verb used to indicate respect for a superior; it would be inappropriate to use it for your own death. So this poem must have been written from his POV by someone sympathetic to him (or at least someone who found the story moving).

    Interesting blog! I shall return!

  7. Hi Matt,

    Are you sure 向 and 命 do not rhyme, or at least not at the time when this was written? Myō / mei and kō / kyō are the readings as we have them recorded. I'm curious if contemporary scholars recognize this universally as lacking rhyme? Looking at the readings I thought there might have been a rhyme there, but it seems I might have been mistaken.

  8. I don't have enough personal knowledge of the rhyming system to be sure, but I have heard it pointed out that this poem "doesn't rhyme" before, and for example Eguchi says: "韻字は命と向であるが韻をふんでいない。" Eguchi doesn't mention the problem of tones, and again that's not my field, but I'm pretty sure I've heard it as a criticism (in the technical sense) of this poem before. The general consensus IIRC is that Otsu (or whoever wrote this poem) was familiar enough with written Chinese but less so with how it was actually spoken -- in China, at least. (The 命/向 issue may be indeed have arisen because they do/did "rhyme" adequately in Japanese, as you say.)

    It's actually an interesting idea of the power of (written) Chinese at the time, and specifically 訓読 -- here we have a poem that would apparently have been rejected and presumably forgotten by a Chinese audience, but it was added to an important collection and continues to be praised by readers whose relationship to Chinese is/was mediated through the characters rather than the spoken language.

  9. 《一切經音義》卷9:「向(許亮反)」(CBETA, T54, no. 2128, p. 357, a2)
    《一切經音義》卷6:「命(下明柄反)」(CBETA, T54, no. 2128, p. 340, b15)

    《一切經音義》 was composed by the scholar monk 玄應 in Tang Dynasty 唐朝.

    It is clear that 「向、亮」 and 「命、柄」 belong to different segment of rhythms.

  10. Ken,

    That settles the question! Thank you!