»  He Zhizhang's "On Returning Home"


On Returning Home

by He Zhizhang  (a.d. 659-744)


•  Background

Dr. Wu has this to say in his book The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry, using the older style for transcribing Chinese names, in which the poet's name transcribes as "Ho Chih-chang":

The 7th century was not to close without having produced a formidable host of poets. To begin with, there was the famous Ho Chih-chang who was born in 659 and lived to 744, and who called himself "a Mad Guest from the Mountain of Sze-ming" (in the neighbourhood of Ningpo). Exactly how "mad" he was we don't know, but certainly he had a great liking for wine. Tu Fu wrote a little caricature of him:
Chih-chang on horseback swayed back and forth
As though her were sitting in a boat.
Dizzy with wine, he fell into the water,
And was found sleeping on the bottom of a well!
He did not write many poems, but one poem of his, I think, has been recited more times throughout all these generations than any other poem in the Chinese language:
On Returning Home

As a young man I left home,
As an old man I have come back.
My native accent I still retain,
But hairs on my head I lack!
When my boys saw me,
They didn't know their pa had come home.
Gingerly they smiled and asked:
"From where O honorable guest, have you come?"

Dr. Wu tells us later that Wu Yun, a famous Taoist priest and a friend of the poet Li Po was summoned to the court of the Tang Emperor …

… and he spoke of Li Po very highly, so that his majesty was moved to invite the latter also to the capital. There Li Po met another Taoist, Ho Chih-chang, who was then serving in the court as a guest of the Crown Prince. On the very first meeting, Ho exclaimed: "Why, you do not belong to this world. You are an angel banished from Heaven." Li Po remained grateful to Chih-chang throughout his life. If, as Emerson said, "next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it," we can also say that next to a man of genius is the first man who recognizes him to the fullest extent.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem




Transcribed into pinyin:

    huí xiāng ŏu shū

shào xiăo lí jiā lăo dà huí,
xiāng yīn wú găi bìn máo cuī.
ér tóng xiāng jiàn bù xiāng shí,
xiào wèn kè cóng hé chù lái?

Witter Bynner's translation of this poem, in his book The Jade Mountain, is as follows:

    Coming Home

I left home young. I return old,
Speaking as then, but with hair grown thin;
And my children, meeting me, do not know me.
They smile and say: "Stranger, where do you come from?"

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

    return district accidental writing

young small leave home old big return
local speech-sounds not changed temple hair decreased
son child mutual see not mutual recognize
smile ask guest from what place come