The Za Zuan

by Li Shangyin

The following lists are from the Za Zuan by Li Shangyin (ca. 813–858), a late-Tang poet famous for his lush intricacy and imagery. Written in a spare, candid style, the pieces in this little-known text record the author’s reactions to the mundane in shifting tones of humor, wonder, and sadness. A complete translation of the Za Zuan will be published by New Directions in 2014.


An old raven, like a destitute student, chants when starving, cold.
Poverty of familial affection, like a sleeve’s threadbare elbow, is generally
A servant girl, like a kitten, settles in warm places.
A capital bureaucrat, like the winter melon, grows in gloom.
An official seal, like an infant, always cleaves to the body.
A steamed bun, like a cousin, is only viewed adoringly.
Swallows, like nuns, always travel abreast.
A county magistrate, like the tiger, wolf, is moved by a desire to harm.
Nuns, like weasels, enter the profound.
A minister of music, like a magpie, is regarded without suspicion.


Thoroughbreds sighing.
Wax tears on candles.
Chestnut shells.
Lychee husks.
Stacks and heaps of money, rice.
Mother of pearl hairpins, abandoned.
Jargon of orioles, swallows.
Eddies of fallen blossoms.
Songs sung atop a tall building.
Books read aloud.
Sounds of grinding medicine, rolling tea.


A fat man in summer months.
Entering the dwelling of a hateful wife.
An impoverished scholar taking an examination.
Maliciously scolding other people’s servants, slave girls.
Discovering repellant behaviors in colleagues.
A magistrate exposing other people’s private affairs.
Wading a long distance, in great heat.
Sitting across from a crude boor, too long.
Confronting a corrupt and ruthless superior.
Rain dripping into a boat.
Filth, damp, under a thatched roof.


For no reason: bitter envy, lingering resentment towards others.
Drunkenly calling on ghosts, spirits.
Grieving sons reciting song lyrics.
Dressing in deep mourning at a cock fight, horse race.
Enemies reminiscing.
Grown men flying kites in the wind.
Enabling the wanderings of vagrants.
Selling land or businesses in fortune, misfortune.
People in dire straits casting divination blocks.
Mortgaging land, houses.
Married women cursing and scolding in streets, lanes.


Winter months, the touch of green cloth suggests cold.
Summer months, the sight of red suggests heat.
Upon entering, a spirit shrine seems to hold ghosts.
The belly of a grand master monk suggests pregnancy.
Behind a heavy curtain, the suggestion of people.
Passing a butcher shop, one feels rank as mutton.
The sight of ice jade cools the heart’s core.
The sight of plums softens the teeth.

Published on March 24, 2016