A Traveler’s Song

As Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday, I thought we’d talk about a poem dedicated to mothers. 游子吟 (Yóuzǐ Yín), A Traveler’s Song, was written by 孟郊 (Mèng Jiāo), a poet from the Tang Dynasty. 游子 (yóuzǐ) is a formal word that refers to a traveler, a wanderer or one who lives far away from home. Therefore, this poem could as well be titled “Chant of an Absent Son”. As most Chinese know this peom by heart, you should commit it to memory, too.

Cí mŭ shŏu zhōng xiàn,
The thread in the loving mother’s hand

Yóuzǐ shēnshàng yī.
Makes the clothes for the traveling son.

Línxíng mì mì féng,
Stitch by stitch, tight and firm,

Yì kŏng chí chí guī.
She provides for his late return.

Shéi yán cùn căo sīn,
Who says the heart of an inch of grass

Bào dé sān chun huī.
Can ever repay the sunshine that forever lasts?

Although the verses were written in classical Chinese, these lines are rather easy to understand, with the help of the following translation.
慈母 (címŭ) means the loving mother. In spoken language, it is 慈爱的母亲 (cíài de mǔqin).

手中 (shŏu zhōng) and 手里 (shŏu li) both mean “in one’s hand”.

Tā shŏu li ná zhe yī zhāng zhàopiàn.
He is holding a photo in his hand.

(yóu) means to wander, to rove around, to travel or to swim. (There are separate Traditional Chinese characters for wandering on land and swimming in water. This distinction is lost in the Simplified Chinese character system.)

身上衣 (shēnshàng yī) is abbreviated from 身上的衣服 (shēnshàng de yīfu clothes on one’s back)

临行 (línxíng) means just before leaving. (línxíng), in the sense of “to walk”, is the formal word for (zǒu). In Chinese, it is customary to add the word “ (shí)” or the phrase “的时候 (de shíhòu)” to an action or event to explicitly indicate a point in time. For example:

他临走时, 给了我五元小费.
Tā lín zǒu shí, gěi le wǒ wǔ yuán xiǎofèi.
Just before leaving, he gave me a $5 tip.

他临走的时候, 给了我五元小费.
Tā lín zǒu de shíhòu, gěi le wǒ wǔ yuán xiǎofèi.
Just before leaving, he gave me a $5 tip.

(mì) means dense, close, meticulous, intimate or secretive. It is used in this poem to describe the close spacing of the stiches.

(féng) means to sew.

(yì) means an idea, a meaning, an intention, to expect, to anticipate, or to intend. For example, 心意 means kind regards or intention. In the poem, this word stands for 意料 (yìliào anticipate, expect).

(kŏng) means dread, fear or being terrified. Here, it means 恐怕 (kǒngpà perhaps, I think that, I’m afraid that).

迟归 (chí guī) translates to 很晚回来 (hěn wǎn huílái). In the poem it refers to a long absence.

谁言 (shéi yán) means 谁说 (shéi shuō), or who says.

There is not a kind of heart that’s called 寸草心. This is a metaphor employed by the poet who likens a mother’s love to the grace of the sunshine in springtime, and the heart of an offspring to the grass that benefits from the sunshine.

Here, (bào)is the abbreviation for 报答 (bàodá to repay a favor).

(sān) means three or a lot of. (As they say, three is a crowd.)

(huī) refers to sunlight. It shows the sun radical on its left side. 春晖 is the sunshine in springtime.

游子吟 (Yóuzǐ Yín) is usually sung at a slow tempo to the tune of an old German folksong. It invokes reminiscence of our childhood and youth and reminds us how much our mothers love us. The song often brings tears to our eyes. The mood is much lighter, however, in this spirited animation. I hope you will be able to follow along.

To all you great mothers out there:

Mǔqīnjié kuàilè!
Happy Mother’s Day!

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