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Wintry poem

Winter is a season of “closing” says the Neijing (a Classic of Chinese medicine) and the season is sometimes, wrongly, interpreted as representing death. There is no end in itself in the cycle of the seasons as you know but rather cycles end and start over without interruption. Year after year, the seasons follow one another, the previous one preparing the next. The winter season follows the “harvest” of autumn and precedes the “surge” of spring, which it prepares by its quiet accumulation.

Source: Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.

Winter is the period that coincides with the kidneys organ according to Chinese medicine. These organs have the function of storing Essence, controlling water, and “receiving” inhaled qi. They also have correspondences in the human body. One of them is represented by the close connection between the kidneys and bones (在体合骨骼 zai ti he gu ge). The kidneys are said to control the bones and generate marrow (腎主骨生髓 shen zhu gu sheng sui). However, the “surplus bone” is what allows the emergence of teeth and nourishes them (齒為骨之於 chi wei gu zhi yu). We therefore understand that everything related to the health of the teeth finds its root in the kidneys.

This brief introduction now behind, allow me to introduce to you a poem from the Tang dynasty (618-907) which I came across by chance and in which teeth are the main subject. They allow the author to speak in a free, skillful and comical way about “the winter of life”. I am not a specialist in Chinese literature, and even less in the culturally rich period of the Tang period, but the poem evokes the winter season so well that I cannot resist sharing it. The title of the poem is 落齒 (luò chǐ), literally Losing Tooth, and its author is Han Yu (韓愈), born in 768 in a family of minor relevance officials in what is now Henan province, and died in 824 .

According to Stephen Owen — Professor Emeritus at East Asian Languages ​​and Civilizations at Harvard University and a sinologist specializing in pre-modern literature, lyric poetry and comparative poetics — the writing of this poem is poorly suited to the refined style of the poems of the time, which makes it strange. The prose is unusual because it is prosaic and lacks elegant variations. However, the poem is also unique because it reverses the model of this era which consists of abundant descriptions intended to translate an emotion or develop an idea, to propose the opposite. The poem limits itself to one object (the teeth) to multiply the emotions they make him feel. You will also note the teasing tone, imbued with lightness for a situation with a possibly serious outcome. While he begins his poem with a fear of what is happening to him, he becomes philosophical about it as the poem unfolds.

Han Yu (韓愈, 768-824)

Furthermore, Han Yu is a figure who has aroused both admiration for his “literary corpus and his posthumous prestige – having been considered a Confucian cultural hero”; just like the criticism, for his “licentious behavior” towards women and a “hypocritical indulgence in mineral-based elixirs” (read on this subject Timothy M. Davis). On this last point, not verifiable, it is perhaps the explanation of the misfortune which struck him (the loss of his teeth) and which he describes in this poem.

Finally! here is the poem in Chinese language with the traditional characters, the phonetic translation (in pinyin) and Stephen Owen's translation. I inserted numbered bullets to make navigation between the texts easier. Your remarks and comments are most welcomed.

Enjoy the read.

落齒, Losing a Tooth (Han Yu, 768-824)

  1. Last year a molar fell out,

  2. This year an incisor fell.

  3. All of a sudden six or seven more fall,

  4. And this totth-falling condition is hardly over.

  5. Those left are all shaky,

  6. And I suppose this won't stop till they've all fallen.

  7. I remember when the first one fell,

  8. I felt only that the gap was embarrassing.

  9. When two or three had fallen,

  10. I began to worry that this decline meant death.

  11. Now every time one's going to fall,

  12. I feel a constant trembling within.

  13. A shaky tooth prevents me from eating,

  14. I'm so upset I fear rinsing my mouth with water.

  15. Finally it will desert me and fall,

  16. My mood likens it to an avalanche.

  17. Recently I've grown used to the falling,

  18. When one falls, there is similarity in emptiness,

  19. The remaining ones, twenty-odd,

  20. I know they'll fall in succession and that's it.

  21. Now supposing one falls each year,

  22. I've got enough to last me two decades,

  23. On the other hand, if they fall together, emptying me, 

  24. It's still the same result as gradually.

  25. People say when the incisors fall,

  26. You can't hope for long life,

  27. But I say life has its limits,

  28. Long or short, all die anyway.

  29. People say when you've got a gap in the incisors,

  30. Those around are startled when they look closely,

  31. But I say what Chuang-tzu said,

  32. Trees and geese each have something to be happy about.

  33. Silence is certainly better than telling lies,

  34. Chewing doesn't work, but soft things still taste good.

  35. Thus I sang and finished a poem on it,

  36. With which I inform my wife and children.

Original text, with pinyin

  1. 去年落一牙,Qùnián luò yī yá,

  2. 今年落一齿。jīnnián luò yī chǐ.

  3. 俄然落六七,Érán luò liùqī,

  4. 落势殊未已。luò shì shū wèi yǐ.

  5. 馀存皆动摇,Yú cún jiē dòngyáo,

  6. 尽落应始止。jǐn luò yīng shǐ zhǐ.

  7. 忆初落一时,Yì chū luò yīshí,

  8. 但念豁可耻。dàn niàn huō kěchǐ.

  9. 及至落二三,Jízhì luò èrsān,

  10. 始忧衰即死。shǐ yōu shuāi jísǐ.

  11. 每一将落时,Měi yī jiāng luò shí,

  12. 懔懔恒在己。lǐn lǐn héng zài jǐ.

  13. 叉牙妨食物,Chā yá fáng shíwù,

  14. 颠倒怯漱水。diāndǎo qiè shù shuǐ.

  15. 终焉舍我落,Zhōng yān shě wǒ luò,

  16. 意与崩山比。yì yǔ bēngshān bǐ.

  17. 今来落既熟,Jīn lái luò jì shú,

  18. 见落空相似。jiàn luòkōng xiāngsì.

  19. 馀存二十馀,Yú cún èrshí yú,

  20. 次第知落矣。cìdì zhī luò yǐ.

  21. 倘常岁一落,Tǎng cháng suì yī luò,

  22. 自足支两纪。zìzú zhī liǎng jì.

  23. 如其落并空,Rúqí luò bìng kōng,

  24. 与渐亦同指。yǔ jiàn yì tóng zhǐ.

  25. 人言齿之落,Rén yán chǐ zhī luò,

  26. 寿命理难恃。shòumìng lǐ nán shì.

  27. 我言生有涯,Wǒ yán shēng yǒu yá,

  28. 长短俱死尔。chángduǎn jù sǐ ěr.

  29. 人言齿之豁,Rén yán chǐ zhī huō,

  30. 左右惊谛视。zuǒyòu jīng dì shì.

  31. 我言庄周云,Wǒ yán zhuāng zhōu yún,

  32. 木雁各有喜。mù yàn gè yǒuxǐ.

  33. 语讹默固好,Yǔ é mò gù hǎo,

  34. 嚼废软还美。jué fèi ruǎn hái měi.

  35. 因歌遂成诗,Yīn gē suì chéng shī,

  36. 时用诧妻子。shí yòng chà qīzi.

  • Stephen Owen, « The Poetry of Meng Chiao and Han Yu » (1975).

  • Timothy M. Davis, « Lechery, Substance Abuse, and ... Han Yu? », dans Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 135, No. 1 (2015).

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