Poem by Zhang Ji 張繼


"Anchored at Night by Maple Bridge"

As the moon sets the crows cry, and frosty mist fills the sky,
The riverside maples and fires of fishermen reflect in travel weary eyes.
From the Cold Mountain temple outside the walls of Gusu,
The sounds of late night bells reach the ferries.

Zhang Ji 張繼 (8th century)

Poem by Tao Qian 陶潛


"Drinking Wine"

I built my hut in the worldly realm,
yet there are no noisy carriages.
I ask you, how could this be so?
When the mind is faraway, where you are becomes remote.
Under the eastern hedge picking chrysanthemums,
At ease I see the southern mountain.
The mountain mists are elegant in the evening,
and the birds flying above return together.
In this is the true meaning.
If I were to explain it,
I would have already forgotten the words.

Tao Qian 陶潛 (365–427)

Indian Astronomers at the Tang Court

In a Buddhist astrological text translated into Chinese by Amoghavajra 不空 in 759 (the Xiuyao Jing 宿曜經) there is the following remark added in the running commentary written in 764 by his disciple Yang Jingfeng 楊景風. It highlights the presence and influence of Indian astronomers in China during the middle of the imperial Tang dynasty (619-907). It reads as follows:

Yang Jingfeng states, “Those wanting to know the positions of the five planets can predict what constellation they will be in based on the Indian calenderical methods. Now there are the three houses of Indian calendar experts including the Kāśyapa, Gautama and Kumāra, who are all employed at the Bureau of Astronomy [in the Chinese capital]. However, as to what is now in use, it is mostly the Gautama calendar and their 'Great Art' which are together used for state purposes.”

Interestingly, the bibliography of the Sui dynasty (581-618) chronicle, the Sui Shu 隋書, also lists three works on "Brahmin astronomy", which were probably in circulation around 600:

There are also "Brahmin" works on mathematics and medicine cited.

Xiao Ji on Lunar Luminosity and Meteorites

Xiao Ji 蕭吉 in the Sui Dynasty (581-618) wrote his Great Meaning of the Five Elements 五行大義, which is a manual on natural phenomena and classical Chinese metaphysics. It is an important text as it provides in great detail how Chinese civilization generally viewed both the physical world and cosmos in this period. The text incidentally was lost in China, but fortunately preserved in Japan. This is actually the case for a good many other Classical Chinese texts as well.

Xiao Ji relies heavily on citations from numerous classical texts and offers a balanced perspective in that he provides differing views. It is written in a technical style, lacking a literary polish. In my reading of the chapter on astronomy (chapter 16) I found two noteworthy things. The first is that Xiao Ji recognizes that the luminosity of the moon is a result of sunlight:

The moon is of yin essence. Its form itself is without light. It shines by means of sunlight illuminating it, just as a retainer is without power. His power is achieved through the influence of his lord.

Xiao Ji, like his predecessors, readily perceives a hierarchy in nature and frequently draws similes with court culture. Here the moon is accurately identified as lacking its own luminosity. Another accurate statement relates to the physical quality of astral bodies:

The five stars [i.e., the five visible planets of the solar system] – the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 states the stars are the essence of myriad phenomena. Some say the sun is divided into stars, hence its character [in Chinese] consists of the ideograph “birth” under the sun radical. The Shiji 史記 states stars are the dispersal of the essence of the metal element. It is stone when a star falls. This is the metal element. The Spring and Autumn Annals 春秋 states that a stony meteorite fell in the state of Song. It was a falling star. It is also said that a star is the essence of yin. The metal element is also yin.

The inference here is that since observed meteorites are of stone and the metal element, it follows that stars, specifically the five visible planets of the solar system, should also be comprised as such.

Such observations are noteworthy as it illustrates Chinese civilization in this period had a degree of accurate astronomical knowledge, much of it traceable to at least the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Xiao Ji of course is mistaken about other things – for example, that the sun is 1000 li in diameter and 3000 li in circumference, but nevertheless his observations and conclusions are often based on observations and reasonable inferences rather than mere revelation. This differs from the Buddhist approach to astral science which was based on the revelation of scriptures. For details on this see my post here.

The Unrelenting Goose

久視年中,越州有祖錄事,不得名。早出,見擔鵝向市中者。鵝見錄事,頻顧而鳴。祖乃以錢贖之,至僧寺,令放為長生鵝,竟不肯入寺, 但走逐祖後。經坊歷市,稠人廣眾之處一步不放。祖收養之。左丞張錫 親見說也。

In the Jiushi reign era [700-701] in Yuezhou there was Zu Lushi, who was not well-known. He went out in the morning and saw someone carrying a goose to the market. The goose saw Lushi and repeatedly looked to him crying out. Zu then bought the bird with cash and went to the monastery where he had the goose released for long life. Unexpectedly, it was unwilling to go into the temple and just followed behind Zu. Passing through town and the market, it didn't lose a step in the crowded places. Zu adopted it. This was personally told by Zhang Xi 張錫, assistant director of the left.

Chaoye Qianzai 朝野僉載 by Zhang Zhuo 張鷟 (?658-730)

Spring Dawn 春曉




Spring Dawn

Spring fatigue, I don't awaken to dawn,
Everywhere hearing birds calling.
Night comes with the sounds of wind and rain,
And I know some flowers have fallen.

Meng Haoran (689-740)

Tibetan Ethnogenesis in the Tang History

In modern scholarship there has been some discussion over the origins of the Tibetan people. One recent opinion comes from Michael L. Walter who states the following:

It seems that the final creation of a central, imperial authority was not, as formulated by Tucci long ago, the result of a "conquering aristocracy". It was, rather, the result of the superimposition of a small outside group, with a leadership structure built around an inspirational warrior leader, the btsan-po, on a set of tribal aristocracies brought under his often unsteady central control.1

In my recent reading of the Tang dynasty history, which was was initially compiled in 945 and revised in 1060,2 I realized that his stated view accords with what we see in the classical Chinese history. With respect to whether this is a plausible explanation for Tibetan ethnogenesis, several of the individuals mentioned in the history do appear in earlier histories as significant leaders, which lends some credibility to the story, however I am not in a position to make any conclusions. It is nevertheless valuable to have a classical Chinese perspective on the origins of the Tibetan people.

The detailed history of Tibetan affairs begins in year 634 with the first contact between the Chinese court and Songtsen Gampo, to whom the Zhang Zhung and various Qiang peoples submitted to. This perhaps tentatively marks the beginning of the Yarlung empire. From here there are detailed accounts of interactions with Tibet, both peaceful and otherwise. The Tibetan history comprises two whole scrolls in the Old Book of Tang, which is comparatively long, but reveals how significant a neighbor Tibet was to the Tang empire. There are also two scrolls dedicated to the Western Turks, who were another enduring foe to the Chinese in this period.

The following is from scroll 196a of the Old Book of Tang (舊唐書卷196上).


Tibet is 8000 li west of Chang'an. It was originally in the Han [206 BCE - 220 CE] the land of the Western Qiang people.


It is unknown where their tribe came from. Some say they are descendants of Tufa Lilugu 禿發利鹿孤 of the Southern Liang [397-414]. Lilugu had a son named Fanni 樊尼. When Lilugu died, Fanni was still young. His younger brother Nutan 傉檀 ascended the throne. Fanni was made general of Anxi.


In year 1 of reign era Shenrui 神瑞 [414] during the Later Wei [386-534], Nutan was destroyed by Qifo Chi Pan 乞佛熾盤 of the Western Qin [385-431]. Fanni summoned together the remaining masses to join with Juqu Mengxun 沮渠蒙遜. Mengxun made him the governor of Linsong.


When Mengxun died, Fanni quickly led his masses west. They crossed the Yellow River and went beyond Mt. Jishi. They founded a country in Qiang and opened up 1000 li of land.


Fanni was imposing and benevolent. He was cherished by the Qiang tribes. All were treated with grace and trust. They gathered to him as if being in a market.


He then changed his family name to Suboye 窣勃野 and named the country Tufa. As a dialect variant it was called Tubo. His descendents flourished. They further ceaselessly invaded other countries and their realm gradually expanded. Through the Northern Zhou [557-581] and Sui [581-618] dynasties, they had no contact with China as they were still separated by the Qiang tribes.


In year 8 of reign era Zhenguan [634], their Tsenpo Trisong Songtsen [Gampo; bTsan-po Khri-srong Srong-btsan] first dispatched envoys to pay tribute at court.


Songsten inherited the throne as a young man. He had a martial disposition and was quite strategically minded. The neighboring countries of Zhang Zhung and Qiang peoples all submitted to him.3

1 Michael L. Walter, Buddhism and Empire The Political and Religious Culture of Early Tibet (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 23.

2 These are respectively the Old Book of Tang (Chn. Jiu Tang Shu 舊唐書) and New Book of Tang (Chn. Xin Tang Shu 新唐書).

3 Despite a degree of Buddhism being introduced, his reign was marked by continual violent expansion and conflict. He inherited the throne from his father Namri Löntsen between 625-627. In the days before his father's reign central Tibet had been controlled by a confederacy of clans including the dBas, Myang and mNon. Namri Löntsen had obtained oaths of allegiance from these tribes with which to expand his territories to the north and east of Lhasa and to Kong Po. Later the Dagpo rebelled and had to be reconquered. Following Namri Löntsen's death these problems mounted. The histories differ on what later transpired. The Tun-Huang Chronicles state the following:

...the paternal subjects rebelled; the maternal subjects revolved. ... The father gNam ri was given poison and died. The son Srong btsan firstly wiped out the families of the rebels and the prisoners.

Meanwhile Butön Rinchen Drup (1290-1364) relates the following:

...Thirteen years of age he ascended the throne and, brought under his power all the petty chiefs of the borderland who offered him presents and sent their messages (of submission).

See The History of Tibet Volume I The Early Period: to c. AD 850 The Yarlung Dynasty, edited by Alex McKay (London, UK: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 338.

Persia in the Book of Tang

The history of the Tang dynasty (618-907) was initially compiled in 945, though this work was revised in 1060. These are respectively the Old Book of Tang (Chn. Jiu Tang Shu 舊唐書) and New Book of Tang (Chn. Xin Tang Shu 新唐書). As in the earlier dynastic histories there is a large section at the end detailing China's relations with foreign countries with brief details about their customs, exports and features. One country included therein is Persia. In this period it refers to the Sasanian empire or specifically the last years of it as it collapsed from social upheavals and invasions by the Western Turks and Arabs.

Late Sasanian history is an extremely complex era involving multiple realms, players and events that are not always clearly detailed in our extant records. The Chinese record is actually a useful source that historians have access to in reconstructing the last years of the Sasanian period, though of course it must be used cautiously. For example, the accounts provided in the two aforementioned editions of the Tang history differ considerably in some places. It is also presumably entirely based on Chinese sources which may or may not have accurately recorded events that had occurred in a foreign country, to say nothing of the fact that the compilation of this history was done two and a half centuries after the main events detailed had taken place.

Nevertheless, the history provides a contemporary Chinese perspective on the late Sasanian dynasty and how Chinese historians perceived their neighbors to the west. The Persian and Chinese cultural spheres were well connected to one another throughout the Tang period, which is illustrated by the Persian community and Zoroastrian temples in Chang'an.

For further detailed information about the relations between Persia and China in ancient times see the following two articles at Iranica Online:


This translation is my own work and I must note it is still tentative and subject to revision. I was unable to identify two of the personal names as well as some of the types of domestic animals listed. I was able to discern most of the personal names by comparing the details provided in the Chinese against the modern Encyclopedia Iranica. The translation is based on the section related to Persia in scroll 198 in the Old Book of Tang (舊唐書卷198 西戎).


The country of Persia is west of the [Chinese] capital 15,300 li. To their east they meet the countries of Tochara and Kang. To their northern border is Kesabu of the Turks. At their northwest are the Byzantines. They face great seas both directly west and south.


Their households number 100,000. Their king resides in two cities. There are also more than ten great cities. They are like the imperial villas in China.


When their king first succeeds the throne, he secretly selects a son who may succeed him, writing his name before sealing and storing it away. After the king dies, the great ministers and sons of the king together open the seal and inspect [the document]. They elevate the name written therein as chief.


The king wears a crown of golden flowers. He sits on a lion throne. His clothing is a brocade gown additionally with neck ornaments.


People commonly worship the various gods of the sky, earth, sun, moon, water and fire. The barbarian peoples of the western regions who tend the sacred fire all visit Persia to receive teachings.


When worshiping their gods they use musk fragrance mixed with sappanwood, and paint their beards with it. They mark their forehead as well as the ears and nose. They use it as a form of respect. When prostrating they must keep their thighs together.


Their script is the same as the barbarian peoples [of Central Asia]. Men and women both go barefoot. Men cut their hair and wear white leather caps. Their garments do not open down the front. They all have turbans. They often use sappanwood, blues and white to color them. Both sides of the hem are weaved into a brocade. Ladies also have turbans and gowns. They braid their hair and hang it behind. They ornament themselves with gold and silver.


The country rides elephants in war. For every elephant there are 100 warriors. Those defeated in battle are all put to death.1


When subjects give birth to a girl who possesses fine beauty at the age of ten and above the king takes her in and raises her. He rewards capable ministers with them.


It is their custom for the superior to be to the right and the inferior to the be to the left.


The first day of the sixth month is considered the start of the year.


Legal judgments are not bound by letter. They are verbally decided at court. It is only during the king's enthronement when he can release those prisoners with unlimited sentences.


For the crime of rebellion they heat an iron in the sacred fire and cauterize the tongue. If the sore becomes white, they are considered just. If the sore becomes black, they are considered guilty.


Their punishments include the severing of hands, feet and nose. They will also shave the head of the guilty and attach an iron collar around the neck. For minor crimes they cut off the beard. Some are tied to a board and the back of their neck marked. After a month they are released.


For armed robbery the guilty go into a dungeon and do not come out even when very old. Minor theft is punished with a fine of silver coins.


When someone dies they are left on a mountain. It is auspicious if the mourning clothes are still on them after a month.


The climate is hot. Their lands are expansive and flat. They understand tilling and seeding. They have much livestock. They have a bird shaped like a camel. It cannot fly high. It eats vegetation and meat. It is even brave against dogs and can seize goats. The locals consider it an extreme menace.


They also have many white horses, and swift hounds. Some on hot days will go for 700 li and become variegated. Their golden hounds are now what we call Persian hounds.


They produce great mules, lions, white elephants, coral trees as tall as 1 or 2 chi, amber, carnelians, agates, rubies, crystal, lapis lazuli, aleppo oak, sedge tubers, harītakī,3 black pepper, long pepper, sugar, dates and peaches.


Later in the Daye 大業 period [605-618] of the Sui [581-619], the Western Turk Yabgu Qaghan [reigned 617-630] constantly attacked the country. The Persian King Khosrau II [reigned 590-628]4 was killed by the Western Turks. His son Sheroya [Kavadh II, Sheroya Qobād Širōy, Šērōye] succeeded him. Yabgu then divided his commanders to administer the country. Persia ultimately became subordinate to Yabgu.


When Yabgu Qaghan died, those he had made to administer took control on their own initiative over Persia and did not return to serving subordinate to the Western Turks. Sheroya died after a year on the throne before Khosrau's daughter [Borandukht] was made queen. The Turks also killed her.


Sheroya's son *Dan Jie Fang5 then fled to the Byzantine Empire. Thereupon the [Persian] subjects welcomed and established him on the throne as *Yin Heng Zhi. He was on the throne for two years and died. His elder brother's son Yazdegerd III [632-651] succeeded him.


In year 216 Yazdegerd dispatched an envoy to give as tribute a beast called a huorushe, similar in shape to a rat and colored blue with a body eight or nine cun [inches] long. It can enter holes and grab rats.


Yazdegerd was weak and pursued by great chiefs, whereupon he fled to Tochara. He never arrived and was killed by Arab soldiers [in 651].


His son was named Peroz III who went on and stayed temporarily in Tochara. He was granted a pardon by Yabgu.


Peroz III in year 1 of reign era Longshuo 龍朔 [661] communicated to the Emperor that they were frequently being invaded and harassed by the Arabs. He requested troops to assist them.


By imperial order was dispatched Wang Mingyuan of Nanyou county in Long province to the western regions to establish a province and counties. He then arranged the land so that Zarang would be the governing seat of Persia. The governorship was given to Peroz.


After this there were numerous envoys dispatched to pay tribute. During the Xianheng 鹹亨 era [670-674] Peroz himself came to court. Gaozong was quite favorable towards him, granting him the office of General of Right Guard.7


In year 3 of reign era Yifeng 儀鳳 [678] Vice Minister Pei Xingjian 裴行儉 of the Ministry of Personnel was ordered to dispatch troops and enthrone Peroz as king of Persia. As the road was far, Xingjian got to Suiye in Anxi before returning. Peroz returned alone, but was unable to enter the country. It was increasingly being invaded by the Arabs. He was guest in Tochara for more than twenty years. There was a tribe of several thousand people who later gradually dispersed.


In year 2 of reign era Jinglong [708] he again came to court and was given the title Mighty General of the Left Guards. Not long after he died from illness. His country was destroyed, but a tribe still remained.


From Kaiyuan 開元 10 until Tianbao 天寶 6 [722-747] there were altogether ten dispatched envoys which came to court all offering as tribute local items. In the fourth month they offered a couch of agate. In the fourth month of the ninth year they offered a fiery-wool embroidered dance rug, a long wool embroidered dance rug and flawless pearls.


In year 1 of reign era Qianyuan 乾元 [758] Persia and the Arabs both attacked Guangzhou. They plundered the warehouses and razed the buildings before floating off to sea.


In year 6 of reign era Dali 大歷 [771] they dispatched an envoy to court and offered pearls.

1 Encyclopedia Iranica notes the following: “Ḵosrow was forced to raise an army of cooks and slave boys, and yet he ordered his commanders to execute the troops who had been defeated on battlefields.” See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sasanian-dynasty

2 Unclear what 婁 refers to.

3 A type of evergreen tree: Myrobalan tree (terminalia chebula), or the fruits of said plant. Used in medicine. The fruits are used for making yellow dyes or as a laxative.

4 See Iranica Online article: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/khosrow-ii

5 Unclear who this is.

6 The XTS states this was in Zhenguan 貞觀 12 [638].

7 The XTS states Peroz died at the Chinese court in the Xianheng era after receiving this title. His son Ninieshi was then the one who in Tiaolu 調露 1 [679] went on the subsequent journey with Pei Xingjian only to remain in Tochara for more than twenty years.

The Spirit Slaughtering Pill

Chaoye Qianzai 朝野僉載 by Zhang Zhuo 張鷟 (?658-730):


Hao Gongjing was collecting medicines on Mount Tai and passed by the market. Someone who saw spirits was shocked at how the flock of spirits would see Gongjing and all run away from him. After getting his medicine he mixed a “spirit slaughtering pill”. Any ill person who took it recovered.

Two Poems from a Mountain Retreat

I wrote the following while in meditation retreat up in Ladakh earlier this year.



"Retreat in the Mountains"

The moon bow bright on high peaks,
The golden crow returns to the western mound.
During winter alone practicing in the mountain,
What samādhi to warm me up?





Living like clouds and water outside the world,
Suspending a kettle, a taste of horse feed.
Delighted to meet someone wandering the realm,
Ashamed, I have not two cups for tea.