A Thousand Miles of Moonlight.

Bathrobe sent me his CJVlang post “A thousand miles of moonlight” explicating the Tang poet Li He’s “On the Frontier”; here’s part of it:

The term 塞 sài refers to the northern frontier beyond which the nomadic peoples lived. For the Chinese this was a military frontier. Tang-dynasty poets including Lu Lun, Li Yi, Wang Changling, and most famously Li Bai, had written poems entitled 塞下曲 sài-xià qǔ ‘Beyond the Border Tunes’, mainly dealing with military deeds and the harshness of military life.

But there are no heroics in Li He’s poem, which is an atmospheric piece filled with gloom and menace. It opens with a reference to the horns blown by the hu (胡 hú), a traditional name for peoples to the north of China which Graham translates as ‘Tartar’. While this is anachronistic — ‘Tartar’ came later in English — it conveys a similar mixture of disdain and fear.

The Chinese historical imagination of the northern frontier was dominated by the Xiongnu or Hunnu, who established an empire covering a huge territory centring on modern Mongolia from the 3rd century BC to the late 1st century AD. During this time they posed a continuing if fluctuating threat to China. The Great Wall (referred to in the poem) formed the boundary between China and the Xiongnu.

Under relations with the Xiongnu the Chinese often sent princesses to marry Xiongnu leaders in an appeasement policy known as heqin (marriage alliance). In an episode that has been celebrated ever since, Emperor Yuan of the Western Han dynasty gave five court ladies (not princesses) to the Chinese-backed Xiongnu leader, Huhanye Chanyu, at a time when the power of the Xiongnu was already waning. One of these women was called Wang Zhaojun, who married Huanyehe, to whom she bore at least two sons and a daughter. After his death, she married his successor (under levirate marriage) and bore him two daughters.

By the time of Li He, these 800-year old events had been considerably embellished and romanticised. Wang Zhaojun (who is now regarded as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China) was depicted as a court lady chosen to be presented to Huhanye Chanyu to satisfy his demand for “a princess”. Although stunningly beautiful, she was chosen on the basis of an unflattering portrait painted by a corrupt court painter to whom she refused to pay a bribe. When the Emperor saw her in the flesh he was mortified but had no choice but to go ahead with his decision. In this version, Wang Zhaojun was homesick for China and eventually committed suicide when ordered to remain with the Xiongnu and marry her own son (as her husband’s successor) after her husband’s death. (In later centuries this story was further embellished so that Wang Zhaojun committed suicide en route to the land of the Xiongnu.)

It’s got much more, including A. C. Graham’s translation, the original poem in characters and pinyin with morpheme-by-morpheme and literal translations of each line, and a nice photo of the supposed Tomb of Wang Zhaojun near Hohhot (one of my favorite exotic place names). Check it out!


  1. Hohhot (one of my favorite exotic place names)
    Mine too, along with Tpig (in Dagestan).

  2. Very nice! Тпиг.

  3. And I see that just east of Tpig are Khutkhul and Duldug.

  4. Just as Kokonor (khökh nuur хөх нуур ᠬᠥᠬᠡ ᠨᠠᠭᠤᠷ) means ‘blue lake’ in Mongolian, Hohhot (khökh khot хөх хот ᠬᠥᠬᠡ ᠬᠣᠲᠠ) means ‘blue city’. I’m not sure why it’s called that. Perhaps it’s related to the description of grass (hay) as ‘blue’ (хөх), or perhaps to the expression khökh tenger (хөх тэнгэр ᠬᠥᠬᠡ ᠲᠡᠭᠷᠢ) ‘blue sky, blue heaven’).

  5. Perhaps it was named after their most distinguished racial feature


  6. That Poems of the Late Tang book really is great. It was one of the first books of East Asian poetry I ever read, maybe THE first. I had no idea how lucky I was getting when I ran into it in a secondhand bookshop.

  7. Matt, glad to hear it. I got my copy in grad school ~45 years ago and still hang with it.

    But gee, I’m old enough to remember when Hohhot was “Kuku Khoto,” then “Huhehot.”

  8. When looking up the word “furze”, Google helpfully gave the laconic definition “another term for gorse.” Thanks, Google… Thoogle.

  9. Aka whin.

  10. favorite exotic place names
    And then there are some glorious surnames, like Saravanamuttoo (Tamil? Telugu?) or Kaakkuriniemi (“red-throated diver’s promontory”).

  11. I read a claim many years ago that the only two true synonyms in the English language are ‘gorse’ and ‘furze’. The point was that no two words are truly synonymous; there is always a slight difference in their nuances or range of meanings (except, of course, for ‘gorse’ and ‘furze’).

  12. There are lots of absolute synonyms among technical terms: Creutzfeld-Jakob disease is absolutely synonymous with Jakob-Creutzfeld disease, and likewise for variants with Kreutzfeld. It’s a prion-caused brain disorder similar to mad cow disease. Similarly, it is all one whether you say Simia pygmaeus as Linnaeus did, or Pongo pygmaeus in the modern style: the orangutan of Borneo is meant in either case.

  13. With technical terms, sometimes they may start synonymous, but a newer term may be adapted to have a more precise meaning, while the older, possibly deprecated term keeps the original sense. For example, there is now known to be variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (from eating prion-laden beef), but I don’t believe variant Jakob-Creutzfeld is a thing.


  1. […] Hat links to a lovely analysis of a Tang Chinese poem, “On the […]

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