The Lî Sâo Poem and Its Author

By James Legge

Section I. Stanzas 1 to 6.

  1. A descendant am I of the Ti Kâo-yang,
    My excellent deceased father was called Po-yung.
    When Sheh-tî (=the planet Jupiter) culminated in the first month of spring,
    On Kăng-yin (= the 27th cycle-day) I was born.
  2. My father, in his first auspice at the inspection of me,
    Commenced by giving me an auspicious name;
    He named me "Correct Pattern,"
    And afterwards styled me "Efficient Adjuster."
  3. Largely gifted with those inward excellences,
    I proceeded to add to them far-reaching ability.
    I gathered and wore the angelicas of the streams, and those of the hidden values;
    I strung together the autumn orchids to wear at my girdle.
  4. I hurried myself as if I could not reach the goal;
    I was afraid the years would not wait for me.
    In the morning I plucked the magnolias of Pî;
    In the evening I gathered the evergreen herbage of the islands.
  5. The days and months passed hastily on without delaying;
    Spring and autumn succeeded to each other.
    Considering how the grass and trees withered and lost their leaves,
    I feared that the object of my admiration would be late in arriving.
  6. He did not in his time of vigour put away his bad advisers.
    Why did he not change his erroneous measures?
    Why did he not yoke his grand steeds, and dash along,
    And come to me to lead him in the way of the ancient (kings)?

Section II. Stanzas 7 to 13.

  1. Anciently, the purity and agreement of the three Sovereigns
    Was owing to their having all the perfumes around them.
    They brought together the pepper-plant of Shăn, and the finest cassia;
    Their wreaths were not only of the Hûi orchids, and the ch'ih.
  2. And the glorious greatness of Yâo and Shun
    Arose from their following the (right)way, and getting the (right) path.
    How did Chieh and Chau wear their clothes so ungirt?
    Because, hurrying along their devious paths, their steps were all-distressed.
  3. Those partizans, in their reckless pleasing of themselves,
    Were leading on by darksome paths to a dangerous defile.
    Did I dread the consequent suffering that would befall myself?
    I feared a fatal injury to the royal car and load.
  4. I hurried on, now before and now behind,
    That the ruler might be kept in the footprints of the former kings.
    His Majesty would not consider the loyal feelings of my heart;
    He believed the slanderers, and burned with anger (against me).
  5. I well knew that straight-forward words would bring calamity,
    But I could not repress myself, and forbear them.
    I pointed to the nine Heavens in confirmation of my truth;--
    All for the sake of His Majesty's intelligence.
  6. He had appointed the time of dusk for our meeting,
    But in the middle of the way (to me) he altered his path.
  7. At first he had given me this promise,
    But afterwards he repented, avoided me, and took other counsellors.
    I don't think it hard to be separated from him;
    I am grieved that, intelligent as he is, he should be subject to so many changes.

Section III. Stanzas 14, 15.

  1. I had planted nine large fields of orchids;
    I had sown a hundred acres of the Hûi orchid.
    The dykes of my fields showed the Liû-i and Chieh-che,
    Mixed with asarums and fragrant angelicas.
  2. I hoped that their branches and leaves would be long and luxuriant!
    And wished to wait for the time when I should cut them down.
    Though they wither and pass away, why should that grieve me?
    I lament that, with all their perfume, they were regarded as useless weeds.

Section IV. Stanzas 16 to 22.

  1. They all emulously strove for advancement through their greed of money and their gluttony;
    Though full, they never wearied of seeking for more.
    Ah! they took the measure of others from themselves;
    Each one excited himself to hatred and jealousy.
  2. Reckless they drove along in pursuit (of their objects),
    Which were quite unimportant to me.
    Old age will gradually come on me,
    and I fear that the cultivation of my name will not have been accomplished.
  3. In the morning I drank the dew that had fallen from the magnolia trees;
    In the evening I ate the flowers that had fallen from the autumn asters.
    Thus sincerely devoted to, and believing in, what is good, and practising what is most important,
    What did I care for the meagre and emaciated visage?
  4. I grasped the roots of trees to bind with them the ch'ih;
    I strung together the flowers dropt from the fig trees;
    I straightened (the branches of) the finest cassia to the thread the orchids on them;
    I bound with the hû-shâng beautiful bouquets.
  5. It is hard, but I strive to imitate the culture of the former time,
    Though it is not what the manners of this age approve.
    Though it is not conformed to the (views of the) men of to-day,
    I wish to imitate the pattern handed down by Păng Hsien.
  6. I have deep sighs, whilst I endeavour to hide my tears;
    Lamenting the many afflictions to which men are born.
    Though I love to cultivate what is good and pure, it serves to me as a bit and bridle.
    Faithfully in the morning I remonstrated, and in the evening I was dismissed.
  7. Though dismissed, I still wore the cincture of hûi orchids;
    And added to it a garland which I made of angelicas.
    The character so emblemed was what my heart approved.
    Even nine deaths would not make me regret my course.
  8. I was indignant that our Intelligent Ruler should be so greatly indifferent,
    and never examine the minds of the people.
    (The courtiers, like) the ladies (of a harem), all hated my silk-worm eyebrows,
    And vilified me, saying I was given to licentiousness.
  9. Yes, stupid are the skilful builders of to-day!
    They turn the back on the compass and square; they lay them aside for other measures;
    They reject the line marked by the plummet, and try a crooked one instead;
    They strive to get themselves borne with: this is their constant rule.
  10. Sad and disappointed, I am irresolute;
    I am now solitary, and reduced to the greatest straits.
    But sudden death and banishment would be more welcome to me
    That to act in such a way as they do.

Section VI. Stanzas 26 to 33.

  1. The birds of prey do not collect in flocks;
    So it has been in all generations.
    How can the square and the round fit in together?
    How can those who pursue different ways agree together?
  2. I bent my mind and controlled my will,
    To bear the charges against me, and cast from me the shame of them.
    I would keep pure and unstained, and even die in maintenance of the right;
    Pursuing the course which the earlier sages approved.
  3. I regretted that I had not examined more my course,
    And long stood considering whether I should go back;
    Turning my carriage round, and retracing my way,
    While yet I had not gone far astray.
  4. I walked my horses through the orchid fields along the lake;
    Then I galloped them to the mound of pepper trees, and there stopt.
    My advance was ineffectual to lead (the King) from his errors,
    And I retired to cultivate again my former habits.
  5. I fashioned the (flowers of the) water-caltrops and lotus to (adorn) my upper garment;
    I collected those of the hibiscus for my lower one.
    If he acknowledged me not, I would give up my efforts;
    My own wishes were to realize a similar fragrancy.
  6. How loftily rose the top of my cap!
    How many and various were the ornaments of my girdle!
    How did their fragrance and soft beauty blend together;
    Showing that my brightness and ability had not failed!
  7. Suddenly I turned round, to let my eyes look all about;
    I would go and see the most distant regions of the four quarters.
    The rich appurtenances of my girdle and its many ornaments (would be seen),
    Their exuberant fragrance would be more displayed!
  8. Every man born has that in which he delights,
    But I alone wish to cultivate what is good as my constant work;
    Though my body were torn in pieces, I would not change.
    Is there anything in my mind to reprove?

Section VII. Stanzas 34 to 36

  1. (My sister,) Nü-hsü, drawn by her affection,
    Would gently say to me, while blaming me,
    "Kwăn, obstinate and unbending, brought upon him his death,
    Coming at last to a premature end in the wild of Yü.
  2. "Why do you so fully speak out your mind, and indulge your love of culture,
    Standing out alone in the possession of your admirable qualities?
    Like the tribulus, the king-grass, and the burr-weed, your enemies fill the court,
    While you stand separate with quite another mind."
  3. (I replied,) "How can all men be talked with from house to house?
    Who would examine the real facts of my case?
    In the world they all put one another forward, and love partizanship;
    How should they regard a poor solitary like me, and listen to me?"

Section VIII. Stanzas 37 to 46.

  1. I would test the correctness of my views by those of the former sages,
    And mournfully in my excitement unfold all my mind.
    I crossed the Yüan and Hsiang on my way to the south,
    And by the grave of Ch'ung-hwâ set forth my plaint.
  2. Ch'î (received) the Nine Accounts (of the provinces of the kingdom) and Nine Songs about them.
    (His son), K'ang of Hsiâ, found his pleasure in self-indulgence,
    Without thinking of the troubles (arising from it), or any consideration of the future;
    And (his brothers), "the Five Sons," thereby lost their possessions.
  3. Î, given to vicious indulgence, found his pleasure in hunting,
    And was fond of shooting the great foxes,
    But seldom is it that one abandoned to disorder and idleness comes to a (good) end;
    And Cho, (î's minister), was coveting his wife.
  4. (Cho's son) Âo was possessed of immense strength.
    Abandoned to his lusts, he put no restraint on himself,
    Daily devoted to pleasure, he forgot all restraints,
    Till his head in consequence fell from his body.
  5. Chieh of Hsiâ was a constant rebel (against right),
    Taking his own way, and meeting with calamity.
    King Hsin cut up and pickled (the flesh of the Earl of Mei),
    And in consequence the temple of (the kings of) Yin did not last long.
  6. T'ang and Yü, in their dignified awe, were reverent and respectful;
    (The founders of) Châu weighed well the Path, and erred not in regard to it.
    They employed the wise and talented, and gave power to the able;
    They kept to the straight line, without deviation from it.
  7. August Heaven has no private partialities;
    It observes the qualities of men, and disowns or helps accordingly.
    It is only the conduct fully ordered by sage wisdom
    That can obtain rule on this earth below.
  8. Looking back to the earlier and round on the later times,
    We obtain a complete view of (Heaven's)dealings with men.
    Who without righteousness was ever fit to be employed?
    Who without goodness was ever fit to direct affairs?
  9. As on a precipice I exposed my person to danger, and nearly met with death;
    But looking on my course from the first, I still feel no regret.
    It was by not measuring their chisel, and fashioning the handle for it.
  10. Sighing and sobbing because of my distressful sorrow,
    I bewailed that the time is so unsuitable for me.
    I took the soft hûi orchids to wipe the tears,
    The torrents of which wet the lapel of my gown.

Section IX. Stanzas 47 to 65.

  1. Kneeling on my outspread skirt, I set forth my complaint;
    And had a clear conviction that my views were true and correct.
    In car drawn by four unhorned dragons, smooth as jade, and mounted on a phoenix,
    It was for me at once, through dust and wind, to travel on high.
  2. In the morning I started from Ts'ang-wû,
    And in the evening I came to Hsüan-pu.
    I wished to delay a little at the sculptured gate (of this abode) of the Immortals,
    But the day seemed hastening to the evening.
  3. I commanded Hsî and Ho to delay the stages of their course,
    And not to hurry on as they made for Yen-tsze.
    The way was long, and distant far was my goal;
    I would ascend and descend, pursuing my search.
  4. I watered my horses at the pool of Hsien;
    I gathered up and tied my reins to a Fû-sang (tree);
    I broke off a branch from a Zo tree to defend myself from the sun:
    Thus did I enjoy myself, aimlessly wandering.
  5. Before me I sent Wang-shû, (the charioteer of the Moon), as my precursor,
    And behind me Fei-lien, (the Baron of the Wind), hurried on in attendance;
    A lwan and a phoenix went before with guardian care;
    The master of Thunder told of anything that had not been prepared.
  6. I ordered the phoenix to fly aloft,
    And continue its flight day and night.
    But a whirlwind brought together my opponents; --
    Clouds and rainbows were led to meet and oppose me.
  7. In multitudes they came together, now dividing, now collecting.
    In confusion they separated, some going above, and others beneath.
    I ordered the porter of God to open the gate,
    But, leaning against it, he only stared at me.
  8. The time was dark and obscure, and I was nearly wearied out;
    I tied (to my girdle) the secluded orchids, and remained long as if not heeding anything.
    The age was one of confusion and greed, where no notice was taken of the different characters of men;
    The good were kept in obscurity, and viewed with hatred and jealousy.
  9. On the morrow, being about to cross the White-water,
    I ascended to the top of Lang-fâng, and there halted my horses.
    Suddenly I looked back and shed tears,
    Lamenting that on the lofty height there was no lady (for me).
  10. Forthwith I rambled to this palace of the Spring
    And broke off a branch of the ch'iung tree to add to my girdle.
    Before the glorious flower (of my years) had fallen,
    I would see the attendant of the lady to transmit an offering (for me).
  11. I ordered Făng-lung (=the Master of Thunder) to mount on a cloud,
    And search for the palace where the lady Fû was.
    I unloosed the string of my girdle to serve as the gage of my truth,
    And ordered Ch'ien-hsiu to transact the affair for me.
  12. In multitudes (he and others) came together, now dividing, now collecting.
    suddenly misunderstandings arose, difficult to change.
    In the evening I returned and halted at Ch'iung-shih;
    In the morning I washed my hair in the water of Wêi-p'an.
  13. She guarded her beauty with a haughty arrogance;
    She daily sought her pleasure in licentious abandonment.
    Truly beautiful she was, but had no regard to propriety;
    Therefore, I abandoned her, and sought elsewhere.
  14. In my inspection I surveyed (the earth) to its four extreme points;
    I travelled all over the sky, and then descended (to the earth).
    (There,) looking to the lofty height of the Yâo-built tower,
    I saw the beautiful daughter of the prince of Sung.
  15. I ordered Chăn to make proposals of a union with her for me,
    But he told me that she was not good.
    (Then) there passed by a jackdaw screaming;
    But I still hated the lightness and craft of them both.
  16. My mind full of doubt, and, mistrusting as a fox,
    I wished to go myself, but it was not proper for me to do so.
    The phoenix, (moreover,) had been employed by Kâo-hsin to negotiate a marriage with her,
    And I feared that (that sovereign) had anticipated me.
  17. I wished to settle far off, but there was no place where I could rest;
    Perhaps I might wander aimlessly about and enjoy myself.
    (Ah!) while Shâo-k'ang was yet unmarried,
    There would have been left for me the two yâos of the state of Yü!
  18. My grounds of application were weak, and my go-between was stupid;
    I was afraid that the communication of my views would not be (sufficiently) firm.
    The age is one of confusion and greed, and of hatred of the wise and good;
    All love to keep the excellent in obscurity, and to celebrate the praises of the bad.
  19. (Since) the female apartments inside are so deep and distant,
    and the wise king moreover does not awake,
    I will keep my feelings in my breast, and not express them.
    How can I bear to abide with such people so long as the ages of the past?
  20. I searched for the hibiscus and the grass-ropes, to divine with the splinters of bamboo,
    And commanded Ling-făn to explain their indications for me.
    He said,"(It is,) The two Beauties are sure to act in union;
    But who (here) will believe in your culture, and desire it?
  21. "Consider the vast extent of the nine regions;
    Is it only here that the lady (whom you seek) is to be found?
    I tell you, Strive to go away far, and allow no doubts to arise:
    Who will be seeking an admirable (partner), and neglect you?
  22. "What place is there in which alone there are no fragrant plants?
    Why do you keep on thinking of your past abode?"
    (But I rejoined,) "The age is dark, and dazzled by what is bright.
    Who will examine whether I am good or bad?
  23. " People differ in their likings and dislikings;
    But those partizans (Ch'u) are peculiar, and differ from all others.
    In every house they carry at their waists bags full of moxa,
    And say that the secluded orchids are not fit for their girdles.
  24. "However they look at and examine plants and trees,
    They still cannot distinguish one from another;
    How much less can they estimate the value of the brilliant ch'ăng jade!
    They collect muck and earth to fill their perfume bags;
    And say that the pepper plant of Shăn has no fragrance."
  25. I wished to follow the auspicious oracle of Ling-fan,
    But my mind was undecided, and I was suspicious as a fox.
    The (old) sorcerer, Wû Hsien, was to descend that evening;
    I would take pepper and the finest rice, and constrain him (to divine by them for me).
  26. Hundreds of spirits overshadowed him as he descended in state;
    Multitudes also from (the hill of) Nine Doubts met him at the same time.
    August (Heaven thus) gloriously displayed its power,
    so telling me that the issue (of Ling-făn's advice) would be good.
  27. (Wû Hsien) said, "Exert yourself, ascending above and descending beneath,
    and seek for those whose rules and measures shall agree with yours.
    T'ang and Yü in their dignity sought such coadjutors;
    With Chih and Kâo Yâo all their measures were harmonious.
  28. "When one loves (as you do) his self-culture in his heart,
    What further need has he to employ go-between?
    Yüeh was working as a builder in Fû-yen,
    When Wû-ting called him to office without misgiving.
  29. "When Lü Wang was reduced to tapping with his (butcher's) knife,
    He met with (king) Wăn of Châu, and was raised to office.
    When Ning Ch'i was singing his song,
    (Duke)Hwan of Ch'î heard him, and gave him all help.
  30. "While it is not yet too late in the years of your life,
    And your time is not yet come to its middle,
    (Look out) least the Tî-Chüeh have sounded its note,
    And made all plants lose their fragrance."
  31. How many are the precious ornaments of my girdle!
    But my numerous opponents secretly seek to hide them.
    All-insincere are those partizans;
    I fear that their hatred and jealousy will cause my ruin.
  32. The time is in confusion, and going on to changes;
    And how can I remain here long?
    The orchids and angelicas are changed, and no more fragrant;
    The ch'üan and the hûi orchids are transformed and become mere reeds.
  33. How is it that the fragrant grasses of former days
    Are now only these plants of oxtail-southernwood and mugowrt?
    Is there any other reason for it,
    But the injury which the love of culture brings with it?

Section XII. Stanzas 80 to 84.

  1. I had thought that the orchids were to be relied on,
    But they had no reality, and were (only) in outward appearance good.
    They have thrown away their excellence to follow the vulgar ways;
    It was rash (ever) to rank them among this fragrant.
  2. (Those who seemed to be as) pepper plants only use their glib tongues to promote negligence and dissoluteness,
    And want to fill the perfume bags at their girdles with the (fruit of the) Boymia.
    Thus seeking for entrance and admission (to the court),
    How can they have reverence for their character as fragrant?
  3. Yes, surely the manners of the time follow the current.
    Who, moreover, can avoid change and transformation?
    When we see how it is thus with the pepper-plant and orchids,
    How much more will it be so with the chie-ch'ê and angelicas of the streams!
  4. There were the pendants of my girdle more valuable than any others;
    But their beauty was rejected, and sad has been their fate.
    But their odoriferous fragrance it was difficult to lessen,
    And even now it is still not exhausted.
  5. I order my measures in harmony with my circumstances, and find pleasure in doing so;
    I will wander about and seek for the lady.
    While still in possession of my (symbolic) ornaments, and in vigour,
    I will travel around, now ascending, now descending.

Section XIII. Stanzas 85 to 93.

  1. As Ling-făn, had told me in his auspicious oracle,
    I chose a fortunate day when I would go away.
    I broke off a branch of the ch’iung tree for my food;
    And boiled it as into the finest rice to be my nourishment.
  2. There was yoked for me a team of flying dragons;
    With the Yâo jade and ivory the carriage was adorned.
    How could there be union with those who were estranged from me in heart?
    I would go far away, and keep myself apart.
  3. I turned my course to K'wăn-lun;
    Long was the way, and far and wide did I wander.
    Amidst the dark shade were displayed the rainbows in the clouds,
    While there sounded the tinklings of the bells of jade about the equipage.
  4. I started in the morning from the Ford of Heaven (in the sky),
    And in evening I arrived at the extreme west.
    The male and female phoenix greeted me from their supporting flags,
    One soaring on high, one floating along, in mutual harmony.
  5. All at once I was walking over the Moving Sands,
    And proceeded gaily along the course of the Red-river.
    I motioned with my hand to the dragons to bridge over the ford,
    And called the Western sovereign to carry me across.
  6. The way was long and beset with many difficulties;
    I made all my carriages ascend (before me) and, going by by-ways, wait for one another.
    (I would go by) Pû-châu (hill), and turn to the left;
    And I appointed the Western sea for our general (rendezvous).
  7. I collected my carriages, a thousand in number;
    Their linchpins were all of jade, and they raced on together,
    To each one were yoked eight dragons, which glided, snake-like, on;
    O'ver them floated with easy grace the cloud-like banners.
  8. I repressed my emotion and moderated my haste,
    But my spirit was borne aloft very far.
    I sang the Nine Songs (of Yü), and danced the dance (of Shun),
    Borrowing a day for enjoyment and pleasure.
  9. I ascended to the glorious brightness of great (sky),
    And suddenly looked down askance on my old neighbourhood.
    My charioteer lamented; my horses longed for their old home.
    The game was over; I looked round, and went no farther.

Section XIV. One Stanza.

  1. In conclusion I say, All over!
    There is no (good) man in the country, no man who knows me!
    Why should I still keep thinking of the old capital?
    Since I am not thought fit to aid in good government,
    I will follow Păng Hsien to the place where he is.

Legge. (1895). The Lî Sâo Poem and Its Author. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, 839–864. Retrieved from