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  • Julia Min

狱中寄子由 From Prison to My Brother Ziyou



原作: 苏轼(字子瞻, 号东坡居士; 11世纪北宋)

旧版英译:戈登.奥赛茵, 闵晓红, 黄海鹏(1990)

新版及赏析: 闵晓红(2023)









From Prison to My Brother Ziyou

( I was put into prison at the Censorate where the guards were a bit hard on me. I reckon I might not be able to make it, and fear not having the opportunity to see my brother for the last time. So I write my last two poems and ask the guards to deliver them to Ziyou.)

written by Su Shi (11th AC, social name 'Dongpo')

old En. trans. by G. Osing, J. Min & H. Huang (1990)

Revision+ annot. by Julia Min (2023)

The emperor is our heaven, our great saint,

Bringing us hope just like the promising spring.

But my ignorance’s bent on self-destruction.

This body, though not old, deserves punishment

to clear my debt possibly owed before this life.

So sorry to burden you with a household of ten.

Don’t worry about a good place for my tomb.

Any green hill is decent enough for my bones.

I regret leaving you alone to future night rains.

But promise to be a better brother, a better man.

Not just the next life, but many to come and spend.

Together, we’ll fulfill this unfinished sibling bond.


The year 1079 witnessed a turning point not only for Su Shi's life but also for the freedom of speech that had been largely enjoyed over hundreds of years in China. Yes, he was arrested in Huzhou and sentenced to prison at the Censorate (御史台nicknamed ‘the Crows’ Court’乌台)not because of his doings but because of his speech via poems being bent by others in their interpretation to the emperor. Three months of near-death suffering filled him with fears and worries for his family. A striking change in life always brings a striking change inside a person. For Su Shi, we see a deeper philosophical understanding of life, and a growing inclination to return to the mountains, to lead a Daoist life on rivers and seas. As the New Law was enacted further across the country, many of his followers suffered different levels of punishment from the Court after his banishment to Huangzhou.

Just like the misunderstanding of his poems by Emperor Shenzong due to his political opponents, this poem was also an outcome of a misunderstanding of a fish dish. He agreed with his son Su Mai to bring a fish dish should it be a death sentence, otherwise, just meat and veggies. One day Mai couldn’t make it, sending his friend for the errand instead, who had caught a nice fish, wanting to treat the poet with his, normally, favorite dish. The near-death sentiments emerged into two poems, the content of which could be almost read as his will on death bed. He was only 44 years old and had a family of ten to support. Now he had to ask his brother to take the burden.


1. Blooming Alone in Winter by Gordon Osing, Julia Min, and Huang Haipeng, published by the People's Publication House Henan Province in 1990 (《寒心未肯随春态》戈登.奥赛茵,闵晓红,黄海鹏) (From Prison to my Brother Zi You" – "Noble Emperor Shengzong be praised! Everything is in spring./ Political foolishness brought me down this road to doom./ I’m not old yet, and still ask you to pay my debts. / I trouble you with my ten mouths to feed, and no home. / My body you can bury any place the hills are green. / A year from now you’ll grieve alone on nights it rains./ Listen, in this life and the next we will be brothers./ Our love’s not finished, not in this world or any other.”)

2. picture from the magazine


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