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李賀《莫種樹》 “Don’t Plant Trees” by Li He





In the garden, don’t plant trees.

Planting trees is a four-season concern.

Sleeping alone, moon above the southern bed,[3]

This autumn like last autumn.

*From scroll 3, Li He geshibian 李賀歌詩編 (Sibu beiyao chubian 四部備要初編 edition).

[1] Some editions have nanchuang 南牕 (southern window) instead of nanchuang 南牀 (southern bed).

[2] Red characters rhyme.

[3] The Ming dynasty reader Zeng Yi 曾益 (d. 1646) noted that nanchuang 南牀 (southern bed) was the couch to the south of the seat of a Censor (yushi 御史, a central government official who was responsible for maintaining disciplinary surveillance over other officials) during the Tang dynasty. However, this does not seem to apply to Li He, who had a very short official career at a low-ranking position. Another anonymous commentator suggested that Li He wrote this poem after he failed the imperial examination in the year 809; see Wu Qiming 吳企明 ed., Li Changji geshi biannian jizhu 李長吉歌詩編年箋注 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2012), 71. More on Zeng Yi’s annotations later.


The poetic world of Li He 李賀 (790-816, Wade-Giles: Li Ho), the “spectral talent” of poetry, is characterised by his remarkable use of unusual (often dark and fantastical) imagery and sometimes astonishing violation of aesthetic conventionality. But in this little poem, he shows a poet’s sensitivity that other poets might find easier to share.

This pentasyllabic quatrain (wujue 五絕) has a catchy title. I guess anybody who browses the titles in Li He’s corpus would stop here and wonder what a poet has to say against the greening of the world, even though his world was not in need of greening as much as ours.[4]

If one really wants, one could interpret the poem as something like a message from the master to his servant who is about to plant some trees, “Hey, don’t do it. I don’t want to worry about those trees all the time. Without them, I’ll have a hassle-free autumn like last year.”

But a poem being a poem, it sends out messages that it’s about something that is more complicated and subtle than rejecting a gardening plan. To me, it is rather sombre. Words like “autumn ”(qiu 秋),” “concern/worry (chou 愁)” and “sleep alone (dushui 獨睡)” are the obvious signals. The more interesting and powerful signals, in my view, are the things left unsaid. For example, what did his garden look like when he wrote this? I would imagine Li He already had some trees planted there. The first two lines are thus not a caveat but a sigh for the worry he had experienced or was still experiencing.

Li He’s attitude towards what is described by the last two lines is also left unsaid. Unlike Su Shi’s contradictory yet unambiguous statements on the two lifestyles presented in his first and second “Watery Wine” poems, Li He’s lines here say nothing about whether it is desirable to have the same autumn year after year. With this poem, he could be saying, “I shouldn’t have planted these trees. I could have lived an easier life if this autumn were the same as every other autumn.” But he could also be saying, “I shouldn’t have planted these trees. But if I hadn’t, this autumn would be just the same as every other autumn.” That space left between the first two lines and the last two prompts me to wonder about this ambiguity and perhaps Li He's hesitation. Is it really good to have nothing to care about?

I then wonder whether it’s just me who senses uncertainties here. Like my habit of checking out comments below a Youtube video, I also enjoy finding out what historical readers said about a text.

Compared to other enigmatic poems by Li He, “Don’t plant trees” hasn’t attracted much attention.[5] But there are interesting disputes when historical readers did voice their opinions. The Ming dynasty reader Zeng Yi 曾益 (d. 1646), for example, was keen to identify all references that are even just remotely relevant. We thus read in his commentary that Li He’s last line is nearly identical to a line by Yu Xin 庾信 (513-581), and that “bed under the southern window” could be of significance during the Tang dynasty. Meanwhile, we also read Huan Kuan’s 桓寬 (fl. 1st century BCE) comment on the importance of planting trees in agriculture and Zhuangzi’s revelation that spring, summer, autumn and winter make four seasons. Zeng Yi seems to take things quite literally, which makes it hardly surprising that he did interpret this poem as a comment on a gardening plan. There is no melancholy whatsoever detected. The trees seem to be a source of annoyance rather than sorrow. “The moon,” he notes, “is more enjoyable when there is no tree.”[6]

Yao Quan 姚佺 (fl. 17th century), in his “definitive recension” (dingben 定本) of Li He’s lines, almost gives Zeng Yi a slap, “Zeng [Yi][…] misunderstood [Li] He.”[7] Li He meant to say, so Yao Quan states, “At first, I was worried all year round simply because I had planted trees. I didn’t know about the worry that originated from sleeping alone under the southern window, having the same autumn as the year before, without planting the trees.”[8] Yao Quan thus also senses a sombre tone in this poem. But instead of the uncertainties that I discerned between the first two lines and the last two, he interprets the poem as an expression of everlasting melancholy (wuwang er fei chou ye 無往而非愁也).[9] Also, he would probably say Li He had stopped planting trees in his garden and this poem was written on his newly-discovered concern of planting no trees.

Yao Wenxie 姚文燮 (1628-1692) agrees on the expression of everlasting melancholy, but he does not suggest Li He gave up on planting. In Yao Wenxie's imagination, there are certainly trees in Li He's garden. He draws an interesting contrast between Li He and Tao Qian 陶潛 (AKA Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, 365?-467), who wrote about the pleasure of glancing at the trees in his garden. Li He, on the other hand, was made more melancholic by the numerous branches in sight that remind him this autumn was just as bleak as last autumn.[10]

Luckily, there is no need to determine which interpretation is the best one here. Such is the fun of reading poetry and blogging about it. [4] Li He has several other “Don’t” poems, including “Don’t sing and dance,” “Don't cross the river," “Don’t worry,” and “Don’t go out of the door.” The last title might be particularly appealing considering the present world-wide confinement. One can find English translations of it in J. D. Frodsham’s The Poems of Li Ho, A. C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang, and Stephen Owen’s An Anthology of Chinese literature. Graham’s translation of this poem (as well as several other late Tang poems), by the way, found its way into Pink Floyd’s music, see: [5] The Song commentator Liu Chenweng 劉辰翁 (1232-1297) didn’t leave any comment on this poem. From the Sanjia pinzhu Li Changji geshi 三家評注李長吉歌詩, one finds that none of the three main Li He commentators of the Qing dynasty say anything about this poem apart from the one textual variant noted above in my footnote 1. Stephen Owen includes this poem in his Anthology but does not leave any comment whereas he does with other poems. [6] See Li He shijie 李賀詩解 (Feihongtang 飛鴻堂 edition from early 17th century), 3.8b-9a: 月無樹而增爽. [7] See Li Changji Changgu ji jujie dingben 李長吉昌谷集句解定本 (Xuxiu Siku vol. 1311), 3.11a: 曾[...]錯會賀意. [8] See Li Changji Changgu ji jujie dingben, 3.11a: 始吾以種樹而四時愁耳。豈知不種樹而獨臥南牕,今秋又似去秋之愁也。

[9] Li Changji Changgu ji jujie dingben, 3.11a. [10] See Yao Wenxie’s annotation quoted in Wu Qiming 吳企明 ed., Li Changji geshi biannian jizhu 李長吉歌詩編年箋注 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2012), 71 : 陶潛云:“眄庭柯以怡颜。”此则對繁枝而愈增牢騷也.。臥月南窗,猶似舊秋,零落此景,自難為懷矣。

Annotations by Zeng Yi (right) and Yao Quan (left).


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Apr 20, 2020

Thanks a lot for sharing your interpretation and translation! I believe reading poetry is quite a personal thing. Different readers resonate with a poem in very different ways, and your interpretation is perfectly justified.

I think the readers I mentioned in this blog all sense something beyond the written words and wouldn't just follow Li He's "advice" literally and stop planting trees :) I chose a sort of minimalist style of translation because I think it's an effective way to display the wording that inspires the reader's imagination and the empty space left by the text. That space makes all the different interpretations possible, which is quite amazing. I found it very interesting to discover how people arrive at their…


Apr 20, 2020

(An alternative and more loose translation)

Don’t plant those trees in your backyard,

exposing yourself to the sorrows of birth and death.

Sleeping alone with the moon above thy head,

knowing the autumn now is the autumn next.


Apr 20, 2020

(My interpretation is solely from a reader‘s point of view)

Currently living through autumn and sleeping alone, I can certainly resonate with this poem.

Autumn is often associated with sorrow, and for good reason, given how the ground becomes the burial site of endless leaves that have fallen to their death. Maybe one ought not to aid this inevitability.

Nonetheless, I don’t take this advice as literal. The figurative is far more useful. Don’t add oil to fire, don’t act in ways that enhance your sorrow.

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