The immense plain
runs south to the foamy waves of the sea
and north to the purple passes of the Great Wall.
canals are cut through the valleys;
and rivers and roads
lead to every corner.
In its golden past,
axles of chariots and carts
often rubbed against each other
like men’s shoulders.
Shops and houses stood row upon row
And laughter and songs rose up from them.
Glittering and white were the salt fields;
Gloomy and blue were the copper mines.
Wealth and talents
And cavalry and infantry
Reinforced the strict and elaborate
Regulations and laws.
Winding moats and lofty walls
Were dug and built, to ensure
That prosperity would long endure.
People were busy working
On palaces and battlements
And ships and beacon stations
Up and down, far and wide
At all places.
Magnets were installed at mountain passes;
Red lacquer was applied on doors and gates.
The strongholds and fortresses
would see to it
That for a myriad generations
the family’s rule should last.
But after five centuries or three dynasties
The land was divided like a melon,
Or shared like beans.
Duckweed flourishes in the wells
And brambles block the roads.
Skunks and snakes dwell on sacred altars
While musk deer and squirrels quarrel on marble steps.
In rain and wind,
Wood elves, mountain ghosts,
Wild rats and foxes
Yawp and scream from dusk to dawn.
Hungry hawks clash their beaks
As cold owls frighten the chicks in their nests.
Tigers and leopards hide and wait
for a draught of blood
and a feast of flesh.
Fallen tree-trunks lie lifelessly across
Those once busy highways.
Aspens have long ceased to rustle
And grass dies yellow
In this harsh frosty air
Which grows into a cruelly cold wind.
A solitary reed shakes and twists,
And grains of sand, like startled birds,
are looking for a safe place to settle.
Bushes and creepers, confused and tangled,
seem to know no boundaries.
They pull down walls
And fill up moats.
And beyond a thousand miles
Only brown dust flies.
Deep in my thoughts, I sit down and listen
To this awesome silence.
Behind the painted doors and embroidered curtains
There used to be music and dancing.
Hunting or fishing parties were held
In the emerald forests or beside the marble pools.
The melodies from various states
And works of art and rare fish and horses
Are all now dead and buried.
The young girls from east and south
Smooth as silk, fragrant as orchids
White as jade with their lips red,
Now lie beneath the dreary stones and barren earth.
The greatest displeasure of the largest number
Is the law of nature.
For this ruined city,
I play the lute and sing:
“As the north wind hurries on,
the battlements freeze.
They tower over the plain
where there are neither roads nor field paths.
For a thousand years and a myriad generations,
I shall watch you to the end in silence.”
China, c. 750
Photograph by Reza: Ruins of Nemrud Dagh, Turkey (2000)