Huang Tingjian – The Pure Brightness Festival

Huang Tingjian (黃庭堅, 황정견, 1045-1105) was a Song Dynasty (宋, 송, 960-1279) bureaucrat and a poet. He was born in what is now Xiushui (水, 수수) in Jiangxi Province (江西省, 강서성); his courtesy name (字, 자) was Luzhi (魯直, 노직); and his pen names (號, 호) were Shan’gu Daoren (山谷道人, 산곡도인) and Fuweng (涪翁, 부옹).

From an early age, Huang Tingjian was interested in studies of Taoism (道學, 도학) and Buddhism (佛學, 불학). In 1066, he passed the civil service examination and just five years later became a tutor at the Imperial Academy (國監, 국자감) before attaining even higher ranking positions. During this time, he became acquainted with and then became a pupil of another famous contemporary poet, Su Shi (蘇軾, 소식, 1037-1101). This association, however, would later be problematic for Huang Tingjian’s political career. In 1095, he was banished to Pengshui (彭水, 팽수) in Sichuan Province (四川省, 사천성) for supposedly expressing opposition through a poem to Wang Anshi’s (王安石, 왕안석, 1021-1086) New Policy Faction (新黨, 신법당) and their socioeconomic reforms, which was opposed by Su Shi and his Old Policy Faction (舊黨, 구법당). In 1100, when Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, 송 휘종, 1082-1135, r. 1100-1135) rose to the throne, Huang Tingjian was reinstated and given a government post. He was, however, banished just two years later to Yizhou (宜州, 의주) in Guangxi Province (廣西省, 광서성), when the political winds shifted once again. Huang Tingjian passed away a few years after, away from his family.

Throughout his political career, Huang Tingjian was renowned for his poetry, becoming one of the most distinguished poets of the Northern Song Period (北宋, 북송, 960-1127). His poems became famous for skirting around the normal, already complicated ground rules of recent poetry style (近體詩, 근체시) by invoking an even more complicated technique called “Crooked Form” (拗體, 요체). In the poem below — which does not employ Crooked Form –, Huang Tingjian writes about the Pure Brightness Festival (淸明, 청명). The festival falls on the day following the Cold Food Festival (寒食, 한식) usually around April 5 or 6 on the Western Gregorian Calendar. The traditional custom is to sweep and clean up the burial mounds of ancestors and to offer ancestral rites. Though this custom has not fared well in modern times, Huang Tingjian too laments about the custom’s neglect almost a thousand years ago.

淸明 청명

The Pure Brightness Festival

佳節淸明桃李笑 가절청명도리소
野田荒塚只生愁 야전황총지생수
雷驚天地龍蛇蟄 뢰경천지룡사칩
雨足郊原草木柔 우족교원초목유
人乞祭餘驕妾婦 인걸제여교첩부
士甘焚死不公侯 사감분사불공후
賢愚千載知誰是 현우천재지수시
滿眼蓬蒿共一坵 만안봉호공일구

On the beautiful day of the Pure Brightness Festival, the peaches and apricots smile;
But in the fields and paddies, the neglected tombs only give rise to grief.
A thunderbolt startles heaven and earth, causing the dragons and snakes to hide;
The rains are plentiful on the outer fields, making the grass and trees luxuriant.
Men who have engorged on leftover offerings flaunt to their concubines;
Scholars favor death by fire over becoming feudal lords.
The sagely and the stupid for thousands of years have known who are like this.
Filling the sight, the mugworts and wormwood together are one mound.


Beautiful • festival • clear • bright • peaches • apricots • laugh
Fields • rice paddies • desolate • burial mound • only • to create • worries
Thunder • to startle • heaven • earth • dragons • snakes • to hide
Rain • to suffice • outskirt • field • grass • trees • to be meek
People • to beg • ceremony • leftover • to flaunt • concubines • wives
Scholar • to be sweet • to burn • death • not • dukes • lords
Sages • fools • thousand • years • to know • who • this
To fill • eyes • mugworts • wormwood • together • one • hill


  • Heptasyllabic regulated poem (七言律詩, 칠언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 尤(우).
  • 人乞祭餘驕妾婦(인걸제여교첩부) – Allusion to Mencius (孟子, 맹자), Lilou Chapter II (離婁下, 이루하). In the story, a man brags to his wife everyday that he has engorged himself with his rich friends. His wife becomes suspicious and tracks his movements one day, only to find him stuffing himself with leftover offerings.
  • 士甘焚死不公侯(사감금사불공후) – Allusion to Jiezitui (介子推, 개자추, ?-636BC), a minister of the Jin state (晉, 진, 1042-376BC). When Duke Wen of Jin (公, 문공, 697-628BC) had to flee the Jin state, Jiezitui is said to have cut his own thigh to offer as meat to feed to the Duke. Sometime later, he retired to the mountains to live in seclusion. Duke Wen invited Jiezitui as a minister back into the court, but he refused. The Duke in response set the mountain on fire hoping that he would come down. Instead, Jiezitui remained on the mountain and died, grabbing onto a trunk of a tree. The Duke in remorse ordered that each year for three days that no fires be lit in commemoration of his death. This is the origin tale for the Cold Food Festival. 
  • Korean translation available here.
  1. I would translate the following lines to flesh out the meaning of those sentences, otherwise those not knowing the original Chinese text will be puzzled.

    With enough rain, the countryside is soft in luxuriance
    Then there are those engorged on the sacrifices will brag to their wives [about their full bellies].
    Scholars rather die by fire than to become nobility
    A thousand years passed, still no one knows who’s wise or stupid,
    Are now are but now under a mound of mugwort and wormwood

    • 歸源 said:

      I prefer to keep closer to the original parallel structure if possible. I’ve added a note about 祭餘.

  2. riroriro said:

    _ 5th line : beggars ask for ritual foods from haughty housewives
    _ 7th line : since old times , who can tell which one is a sage , which one is a fool ?

    • 歸源 said:

      1. While potentially a grammatically correct translation, it does not make sense in context.* 人乞祭餘驕妾婦 is parallel with 士甘焚死不公侯, as they are in one of the middle two couplets in a 律詩. Therefore, the second and fifth characters should be read as verbs. There is no clear indication that he meant otherwise.

      * As an example of how logically ridiculous interpretations can get, despite being grammatically correct, try interpreting “I eat rice with a spoon.” Are you eating rice and the spoon? Are you eating rice using spoons as a utensil? Are you eating rice with your hands with the spoon somewhere nearby? Et cetera. Only context can clarify. Please note context when interpreting.

      2. Current translation is a literal one.

  3. Alice Cheang said:

    Ah, I just remembered. Line 5 人乞祭餘驕妾婦 is based on an anecdote from Mencius: 齊人有一妻一妾…. In the story, the man often comes swaggering home, drunk and merry, saying that he has been dining with his rich buddies. After a while, his wife and concubine become suspicious because none of these supposed friends ever drops by for a visit, and so one day they follow him when he goes out. It turns out that he’s been eating and drinking leftover sacrificial offerings that he scrounges from people sweeping their family tombs. I’ve forgotten the moral of the story, but it’s pretty neat regardless. Huang Tingjian was very anal-compulsive in his use of allusions: his deployment of the 齊人 story together with the 介之推 story, both from the Warring States, shows a fastidious preoccupation with neatness and balance.

  4. A small footnote to Line 3 雷驚天地龍蛇蟄: Do you think this line could be read as “Thunder startles heaven and earth, (shocking) dragons and serpents (out of) hibernation”? I think Huang is playing here with the term 驚蟄, the festival of “Arousing from Hibernation,” which comes shortly before 清明; on this day all hibernating creatures are supposed to awaken from their winter sleep. It makes better sense that living creatures should be coming out, rather than hiding away, in spring.

    • 歸源 said:

      I thought the play on the character 蟄 was that the thunder scared them back into hibernation. I was between your interpretation and the one I have on the post, and stuck with the latter because that’s what the Korean translation had. (Though the other one I just found has what you have.)

    • This is why I translated it as “Then there are those engorged on the sacrifices will brag to their wives [about their full bellies].”

      Actually, I believe the poet was saying that these people stole the sacrificial food. No one is going to give the food away meant for their ancestors!

      • 歸源 said:


      • The passage in Mencius says unequivocally that the man _begged_ for food and drink from the people making offerings: 卒之東郭墦間之祭者,乞其餘;不足,又顧而之他,此其為饜足之道也。”[His wife and concubine followed him until] finally he arrived at the tombs outside the eastern city wall, where people were making sacrificial offerings, and went up to beg leftovers from them; not having had enough, he looked around for others and went up to them, [and so on]. This, then, was the way he wound up so fully engorged.”

        See for the full text.

        I’m not sure exactly what the text means by 餘, whether these are “leftovers” in the sense of the excess remaining after the sacrificial bowls and dishes have been filled, or in the sense of largesse distributed at the end of the ceremony to the poor. In either case, Huang Tingjian is precise in his use of allusion: Line 5 is composed by quoting verbatim from Mencius…之祭者乞其餘… and, later in the passage, …驕其妻妾.

  5. 豊臣 said:

    The moral lesson of the Mencius anecdote is : it’s rare , ambitious men in search of glory and fortune , who do not bring shame to their wives .

    • 歸源 said:

      Zhu Xi’s annotations to Mencius for this passage states:

      孟子言自君子而觀, 今之求富貴者, 皆若此人耳. 使其妻妾見之, 不羞而泣者少矣, 言可羞之甚也.
      ○趙氏曰 [言今之求富貴者, 皆以枉曲之道, 昏夜乞哀以求之, 而以驕人於白日, 與斯人何以異哉? ]

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