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"'Fair, Fair,' Cry the Ospreys."

The following poem is from the Shih Ching. It is the first poem appearing in Mao's ordering of the Shih Ching, but is often numbered 87 in English versions of that anthology.Virtually every Chinese student memorizes this poem, and if you wish to memorize the opening lines in Chinese, as listed below, you will certainly impress them if you ever visit that country. The song is a traditional wedding song.

'Fair, fair,' cry the ospreys

On the island in the river.

Lovely is this noble lady,

Fit bride for our lord.


In patches grows the water mallow:

To left and right one must seek it.

Shy was this noble lady;

Day and night he sought her.


Sought her and could not get her;

Day and night he grieved.

Long thoughts, oh, long unhappy thoughts,

Now on his back, now tossing on to his side.


In patches grow the water mallow;

To left and right one must gather it.

Shy is this noble lady;

With great zithern and little we hearten her.


  1. What imagery or scenes from biological nature does the poet juxtapose with a scene from human society or human experience?
  2. Why might the speaker begin his poem with the image of a male bird calling to a female bird?
  3. Why is it significant that the water mallows in the paddy grow to the left and right, but never directly ahead? (I.e., what happens if the man picking the mallows leans too far to the left or the right?)
  4. Why is the woman juxtaposed with the water mallow?
  5. Why is it necessary to hearten the woman with song and music? How does that connect to the beginning of the poem?

Contrast the first two lines in translation with the way these lines would be pronounced in Mandarin:

'Fair, fair,' cry the ospreys

On the island in the river.

Guán! Guán! Ju Jiu

Zai hé zhi zhou.

  • [The words are roughly pronounced as follows:]
  • Guán="Gwon" (rhymes with Spanish Juan, but spoken in a high pitch)
  • Ju=like the word "Jew"
  • Jiu=like the English name "Joe."
  • Zai=take the ts- sound from Tse-Tse and stick it in front of "sigh."
  • Hé=like English "huh," but spoken in low pitch
  • Zhi= like English "chew"
  • Zhou="Cho," rhymes with English "go."

Notice that in the original, the lines are much shorter than they are in English, only four syllables long. Chinese poetry is compact. Also note the onomatopoeia in the original Mandarin. The words "Guán," when spoken in the appropriate pitch are reminiscent of birds calling to each other. In the original Mandarin, the last line contains an example of anthimeria, the poetic device in which one takes a part of speech and uses it a different part of speech. Instead of writing, "With great zithern and little [zithern] we hearten her," the actual Chinese uses the noun "zithern" as if it were a verb. I.e., "We zithern her." How does the act of translation raise special problems for an editor who wants to convey this sense in English?





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