Funeral of the Flower, translated by Marco Cheung

Flowers: they wilt, scatter, and drift through the clouds, but who is to pity their withering lives?
Pearls of spider silk land softly on the pavilion, as pollen wanders through the window.
The girl in her bedroom; she fears the dawn of Spring, her sorrow trapped within her.
She escapes her bedroom, a hoe in her hands, as her feet trample grievously on the yielding petals.
Weeping willows and elm pods prosper alone, while plum trees and peach blossoms await their mortality;
Even were plums and blossoms to reincarnate the next year, who will replace the girl in the bedroom?
In March, swallows build their sweet nests around her room, until they leave heartlessly in August;
Yet a year later, they return to pollinate, and the girl who once lived here is no longer remembered.
One year, three-hundred-and-sixty days, howling gales clash against slanting hail;
Like an aimless wanderer, she wonders: when will they blossom again?
So zestful when they bloom, yet so intangible when they wilt; the flowers’ gravedigger mourns,
I lean against the hoe, guilty tears burning wounds in tree branches where petals once descended.
Silently, cuckoos wait for sunset, for when they return home with their backs against the mourner;
A green light shines on her as she dreams, silver ropes knocking on the window pane, her bed still cold.
Vestiges of the past stifle my consciousness, half-pathetic, half-raging.
When Spring arrives as company, it is doomed to leave and leave me lifeless in the absence of goodbyes.
Yesterday evening I heard a wail outside: was it the soul of a flower or the spirit of a bird?
With the finality of souls and spirits, the bird’s drumming is soundless, the flower futile.
I wish for a pair of wings, for me to accompany these petals wherever they go until the edge of the clouds.
Within the borders of the sky, where will I find my grave?
Perhaps bones belong to coffins, where a handful of pure soil may smother the traces of human sin.
We are born to this world pure and shall depart this world pure, without contamination.
Today I bury you, but when will it be my turn?
They mock my sanity for grieving for you, but I ponder: who will mourn for me?
Witness the seconds of Spring vanish and flowers languish, for that is when beauty withers;
One morning Spring will end and my beauty will decay; maybe just like the wilting of the flower, life is indeed pointless.


葬花吟 portrays how a sickly girl compares herself to a flower, ultimately coming to a pessimistic epiphany that life is perhaps not as wonderful as it is often said to be. The poem was written by this fictional girl in one of the most renowned Chinese novels, 红楼梦 (1792), ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’. Cao uses the form of a 古体诗, Pre-Tang-Dynasty poem, to encapsulate the depressed, or even nihilistic thoughts of the narrator, which I found quite difficult to translate as the poem has a relatively rigid structure of two clauses per line, with seven characters per clause. Although I mimicked the double-clause feature by dividing the descriptions of each line into two main clauses, with additional punctuation to ensure it made sense in English, I decided not to have seven words per clause, as adding or subtracting words in an English sentence would damage the description’s fluidity. Through doing this translation, I realised that ancient Chinese poems tend to omit particular parts of speech, such as in the line ‘知是花魂与鸟魂?’, where there is no distinguishable subject. Although I could not do the same in the translation, this gave me the opportunity to move around subjects and objects, especially as the original poem does not have a rhyme scheme. The greatest challenge in translating this poem was understanding it, as the narrative constantly alternates between third and first person, the ‘mourner’ and ‘girl’ being the first person narrator. Thus I maintained how the poet utilises the narrative, for the transition from third to person could be interpreted as a representation of how the girl’s thoughts gradually seep through, as a form of free indirect discourse conveying the strength of her curiosity.




Original poem by Cao Xueqin.