books / history

Quiet Night Thought

September 11, 20223 min read
CompVis SD v1-4 Quiet Night Thought Li Bai
image generated by CompVis Stable Diffusion v1-4 on 2022-09-15

On the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival (aka time to gorge on Mooncakes), I share with you 靜夜思 ("Quiet Night Thought"), a 1,300 year-old poem:

床前明月光
疑是地上霜
舉頭望明月
低頭思故鄉

The AABA rhyme scheme is accessible enough that generations of Chinese parents teach it to toddlers, giving hope to Chinese grandparents that their offspring are/will be geniuses.


[Wikipedia]

Before my bed there's a pool of light
I wonder if it's frost on the ground
Looking up, I find the moon bright
Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness

[CantoneseforFamilies.com]

Moon shining bright front of my Bed
I think there is frost upon the ground.
I raise my head and gaze at the bright moon,
I bow my head and reminisce about my hometown.

[EastAsiaStudent.net]

Bright moonlight before my bed;
I suppose it is frost on the ground.
I raise my head to view the bright moon,
then lower it, thinking of my home village.

[quiet] [night] [think]
[bed] [front] [bright] [moon] [light]
[suspect] [is] [ground] [on] [frost]
[raise] [head] [look] [bright] [moon]
[lower] [head] [think of] [old] [home village]

[Bing Translate]

Bright moonlight in front of the bed
Suspected to be ground frost
Look up at the bright moon
Look down and think of your hometown

[Google Translate]

Bright moonlight in front of the bed
Suspected ground frost
Looking up at the moon
Looking down on my hometown

And here is my own attempt at a modern rendition:

In the Still of the Night

By the bed a puddle of bright moon-glow
like left over morning snow
My head raised, basking in the bright moon
Head bowed, thinking of the old hometown only I still know

(I actually think John Denver re-wrote this)

I hear her voice in the morning hour, she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
Driving down the road, I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

靜夜思 was written during the Tang Dynasty, by an ethnic Han Chinese from a noble family born in some kind of exile in present-day Kyrgyzstan. He spent ~60 years variously as a translator, court poet, and living legend superstar (nicknamed Venus the Great White Star for his otherworldly talent), constantly inebriated (he was also called the Wine Immortal).


Around this same time, the Merovingians controlled Western Europe. Their kings had Frankish names like Clovis, Clotilde, Dagobert, and Sigismund. The Byzantine Empire underwent the Twenty Years' Anarchy, while the Arabic Umayyad Caliphate gave way to the Persian Abbasid Caliphate.

The Late Classic period of Maya civilization saw the rise of Chichen Itza. On the Indian subcontinent, resurgent Hindu kingdoms battled for supremacy with Buddhist (and Jain) kingdoms; it would be another ~500 years before the arrival/invasion of Muslim kings. Only Celts and Saxons (and a few Jutes) lived on the British Isles. It would be another ~300 years before their pigs and sheep would become pork and mutton after the arrival/invasion of William the Conqueror and the Normans.

Li BoQuiet Night Thoughthistory
長話短說 (short + sweet):
Thanks for reading, anon!