Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry: "The Book Burning Pit"

Wen Sige

PureInsight | September 5, 2005


The Book Burning Pit
By Zhang Jie

The Qin Dynasty is ruined with the burning of bamboos and fabrics.
The Hangu Pass and the Yellow River guarded the residence of the ancestor of the Chinese dragon in vain.
Before the ashes in the burning pit turned cold, a riot had already started in Shandong Province.
It turned out that Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were both uneducated people.

The Poem in Chinese:


About Zhang Jie (章碣)
Zhang Jie is famous poet in the late Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 A.D.) He wrote most of his poems in seven-character regular verse (七言律詩.) He often expressed his rage for the injustices that civilians were suffering from in society in his poems. He also showed novel and creative ideas and techniques in his poems. He once created a new form of poetry, which was known as "The Reformed Form." His contemporaries called him a "novelty poet." A Complete Collection of The Tang Dynasty Poetry contains 26 of his poems.

An explanation of the words

This is a very famous poem in the Tang Dynasty's poetry and is often quoted by poets of later generations. It is a sharp and sarcastic criticism of the rule of the tyrannical Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) of the Qin Dynasty (221 – 207 B.C.), or the First Emperor of China. To silence criticism of his imperial rule, Qin Shi Huang once slaughtered many dissenting Confucian scholars and confiscated and burned their books (焚書坑儒).

"The book burning pit" is a giant pit where the books were burned to ashes. The burning reportedly took place on Mount Li in southeastern Lintong County, Shanxi Province. In the ancient Qin Dynasty, books were made of bamboo sticks or fabrics. Hence, "bamboos and fabrics" refer to books. "The ancestor of the Chinese dragon" refers to Emperor Qin Shi Huang because he aspired to be the founder of the Chinese empire and the Chinese people are known as the offspring of Chinese dragons. "The residence of the ancestor of the Chinese dragon" thus refers to the capital of the Qin Dynasty. The Hangu Pass and the Yellow River are important landmarks that mark the border of the Qin Dynasty. A riot in Shandong Province refers to the first rebel army that rose up against Qin Shi Huang's rule. Together, two uneducated rebel warlords, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, overthrew the Qin Dynasty.

The Author's Interpretation
In just four lines, Zhang Jie expressed his rage and abomination of Emperor Qin Shi Huang for his tyranny, especially marked by his decision to burn the books. Zhang Jie's creativity and his appropriate use of images and exaggeration make this poem a very successful work of art.

"The Qin Dynasty is ruined with the burning of bamboos and fabrics."
In this line Zhang Jie used a narrative tone and tangible images to express his criticism. It took countless people's time and effort to record and pass on many generations of knowledge and wisdom on books made of bamboo sticks and fabrics. It is agony to watch many generations of wisdom be burned to ashes in the pit! However, when Emperor Qin Shi Huang burned the books, he destroyed not only the treasure of the Chinese culture, but also the Qin Dynasty. When the books turned into ashes and smoke, so did the Qin Dynasty.

"The Hangu Pass and the Yellow River guarded the residence of the ancestor of the Chinese dragon in vain."
"In vain" is a continuation of the image of ashes and smoke established in the previous line. Hangu Pass refers to the Great Wall of China that Qin Shi Huang started building to guard the Qin Dynasty from the barbarian tribes in northwestern China. It was a massive undertaking to build miles and miles of the Great Wall. The Yellow River is also a natural border against the barbarian invasion. But why did they fail to safeguard the reign of the Qin Dynasty? It is a sharp sarcasm to Qin Shi Huang's fantasy of becoming "the ancestor of the Chinese dragon." This line is all about the use of strong images to create sharp, vivid contrasts. It has the power to increase the readers' blood pressure and bring them back to history. With an economical use of words, Zheng Jie has delivered a message with very powerful, very deep meanings.

"Before the ashes in the burning pit turned cold, a riot had already started in Shandong Province."
Zhang Jie wrote the third line in the narrative tone again. He illustrated the law of cause and effect by tying the great sin of burning books with the fall of the Qin Dynasty. Qin Shi Huang treated Confucian scholars and books as the largest threat to his rule. He thought he would secure the reign of the Qin Dynasty by burning all of the Confucian books. Never did it occur to him that a rule relies primarily on its people' support. Burning the books to silence the people's criticism only bring the opposite outcome. As soon as he burned the books, farmers in Shandong Province started a rebellion. Before the ashes in the pit turned cold, the Qin Dynasty had started to collapse. "Before the ashes in the burning pit turned cold" is an exaggeration, but it ingeniously portrayed the law of cause and effect.

"It turned out that Liu Bang and Xiang Yu were both uneducated people."
This is the greatest and most important sarcasm in the poem. Shortly following the riot in Shandong, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu overthrew the Qin Dynasty, but neither of them were learned men, let alone Confucian scholars! This might read like a fairly simple line, but it is the climax of the poem.

Many readers are likely to laugh when they come to the final line or call Emperor Qin Shi Huang a fool. It is sad to know that there are many foolish rulers in China today who are just like Qin Shi Huang. During the Great Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the burning of classical Chinese books and many Chinese cultural treasures. In 1999 when the Chinese Communist Party claimed that it had led China into the modern age, Jiang Zemin ordered the burning of millions of copies of Zhuan Falun and ignorantly thought it would stop the Chinese people from practicing Falun Gong. Contrary to his foolish dream, Jiang Zemin made Falun Gong famous around the world overnight! People around the world became increasingly eager to know and learn Falun Gong! People from over 64 countries are now practicing Falun Gong! Shortly after the Chinese Communist Party burned millions of copies of Zhuan Falun in 1999, Zhuan Falun is available in over 30 different languages, including traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese, English, German, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Dutch, Czech, Spanish, Swedish, Finnish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malay, Indonesian, Hindi, Danish, Burmese, Tibetan, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Romanian, Slovakian, Albanian, and many other languages.

What a fool Jiang Zemin is.

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