“Another response to Zeng Zikai in the imperial entourage” (No. 1)
Dim-sighted, gloomy, frost spreading over [my] temples;
A sick horse, a wasted steed, only raises dust about itself.
The carriage-guiding Reminder unworthily serves in the entourage;
The Junior Mentor, longing to retire, envies the Zhus and Chens.
At a waning age, the spectacular astonishing nothing but the eyes,
For tricky rhymes and fresh poems, [I] struggle to excel in novelty.
Don’t get bored with these last verses –
When smashed up, peppers and cinnamon have an abundance of pungency.
From Su Shi 蘇軾, Su Shi shiji 蘇軾詩集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1982), annotated by Wang Wengao 王文誥 (fl. 18th century) and collated by Kong Fanli 孔凡禮, 27.1491.
After a memorable encounter with “Madame Jeanette” over Christmas, I can relate above all to the last line of this poem by Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101). A casual rub on the face, with a finger that has just touched the freshly cut little chilli peppers in vivid yellow or red: that was all it took to get me burst into tears and suffer from burning heat on my skin for an hour. The following day, I saw a number of light scars take form, as if proudly announcing that my skin had been some sort of a battlefield.
I’d like to imagine that the Song gourmet was speaking from experience, and I hope he didn’t rub his nose or eyes after smashing his spices. But considering that chilli peppers didn’t even exist in China in his days, he ran little risk of learning his lesson from something like my Madame Jeanette chillies.
Apparently, the spices are not the subject matter of Su Shi’s poem, but it would be fair to say that there is more to the word xin 辛 (spicy, pungent), which is encoded in the language of classical Chinese poetry.
If we are to find a theme in the poem, it would perhaps be the occasion of an imperial procession, where Su Shi and Zeng Zhao were both among the emperor’s entourage. In addition to Su Shi’s four poems in response to the two initial poems by Zeng Zhao, the copious annotations on Su Shi’s works record another six responses by other contemporary poets. Interestingly, we do not have any record of the complete poems by Zeng Zhao that inspired so many responses.
All the responses by Su Shi and the other poets follow the ciyun 次韻 rule, namely using the same rhyming characters in the exact order of the poem to which it responds. Although only four lines by Zeng Zhao are known to us now, the responding poems clearly show that his first poem rhymes on the characters yun 勻 (MC ywin), chen 塵 (MC drin), chen 陳 (MC drin), xin 新 (MC sin), and xin辛 (MC sin). They are mostly used to express, especially in poetry, the ideas of “even/well-proportioned”, “dust”, “lay out”, “new” and “bitter/hardship”, respectively. The responses to Zeng Zhao’s first poem use yun 勻 (even), chen 塵 (dust), and xin 新 (new) in the same senses, and we immediately observe that Su Shi uses chen 陳 as the surname Chen and xin 辛 as “spicy/pungent”.
As indicated by the title, Su Shi has written two sets of poems in response to Zeng Zhao. The poem translated above comes from the second set. In the other set, Su Shi uses chen 陳 as “the stock of crops” and xin 辛 as the name of Lord Gaoxin 高辛 from legendary antiquity, showing other attempts to use the rhyming characters in somewhat unexpected ways.
In this light, we may now read something between the lines and see the poet’s ever-present humour.
I’m an old man, dim-sighted, grey-haired,
[Just like] my sick horse that only gets itself dusty.
Like Du Fu, I don’t deserve the honour of joining the imperial entourage;
Like Bai Juyi, I dream of retiring to the countryside.
My heart is no longer impressed by grand ceremonies,
And I’d rather think about novel solutions to our poetry game.
Bear with me, here I’ve got more ideas –
My wit hasn’t drained out with my life!
 Zikai is the courtesy name of Zeng Zhao 曾肇 (1047-1107). His elder brother Zeng Gong 曾鞏 (1019-1083) was one of the most prominent literary figures during the Tang-Song period. Only a small portion of Zeng Zhao’s writing has been transmitted.  Red characters rhyme.  The expression zhi zi chen 只自塵 (only raise dust about oneself) comes from the poem “Wujiang da che” 無將大車 in the Shijing: https://ctext.org/book-of-poetry/wu-jiang-da-che/zh?en=on.  This line alludes to Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), who famously served as a Reminder. In the poem “Yi xi” 憶昔 (Recalling the Past), he writes “Long ago I served in close attendance unworthily ‘pulling the coach’” (我昔近侍叨奉引); see https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=77996&page=140 and Stephen Owen’s translation in The Poetry of Du Fu (Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 407.  The title Junior Mentor refers to Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846). His long poem “Zhu Chen cun” 朱陳村 (Zhu-Chen Village) depicts a village with only two clans, the Zhus and the Chens, as a utopia where all families live a primitive, tranquil life; see https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=78084&page=38#.  See Su Shi shiji, 1489.  The phonetics in parentheses are reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciations as provided in Paul Kroll’s A Student’s Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese.
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