Old Dust and the Rabbit on the Moon

The full moon in the northern hemisphere’s autumn is a special day for the Chinese nation – its 中秋节zhong qiu jie or Mid Autumn Festival. On this day, the moon is closed to earth so appears bigger than usual. Chinese people gather with their families and eat delicious food. Traditonally, everyone goes out to look at the moon also.

Everyone’s favourite poet – well mine anyhow – Li Bai, was famed for loving to look at the moon and writing poems about it. Often when drunk.

Statue of Li Bai in his mausoleam at Ma’anshan, Jiangsu.

Li Bai wrote a poem sometimes translated  into English as  “Old Dust“. The Chinese name is a bit more complex. 拟古 ni gu –  gu means ancient, and sometimes refers to a classic text, whilst ni  means draft. Joseph Li tranlates ni gu in Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry,  as “In imitation of Ancient Songs”.

The living are a passing traveller

says Li Bai in the first line of his poem. 生者为过客 sheng zhe wei guo ke

In ni gu, Li Bai refers to the rabbit in the moon pounding an elixir in vain. The first recorded reference to the rabbit in the moon is from the Western Han dynasty, in the Chu Ci, the Songs of Chu. Chu was a state in central China, and the Western Han ruled from 206 BC to 9 AD .

The rabbit is pretty busy. He has to help Chang’E, lady of the moon, prepare her elixir of immortality.

Chang E and Jade Rabbit from http://theopenscroll.blogspot.nl/2013/12/part-30-celestial-stargates-chinese.html

After her husband, Yi the archer, shot down 9 of the ancient 10 suns, leaving only one, he was given the Elixir of Immortality. One day someone broke into Chang’E and Yi’s house, demanding the Elixir. Chang’E, rather than handing over the Elixir to the thief, drank it herself. She promptly turned into an Immortal and flew to the Moon, where she found the Jade Rabbit. The Jade Rabbit resides on the moon pounding the elixir to eternity, so Chang’ E may drink it.

Happy Moon Festival! 中秋节快乐!


Here’s  an online translation of Li Bai’s poem

The living is a passing traveler;
The dead, a man come home.
One brief journey betwixt heaven and earth,
Then, alas! we are the same old dust of ten thousand ages.
The rabbit in the moon pounds the medicine in vain;
Fu-sang, the tree of immortality, has crumbled to kindling wood.
Man dies, his white bones are dumb without a word
When the green pines feel the coming of the spring.
Looking back, I sigh; looking before, I sigh again.
What is there to prize in the life’s vaporous glory?  


Here’s the Chinese version



Lee, Joseph, Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, pp. 103-104.

Online translation: http://www.damo-qigong.net/forum/Thread-The-Old-Dust-%E6%8B%9F%E6%97%A7-By-Li-Bai-%E6%9D%8E%E7%99%BD