How to Use:
Hover over each character to obtain a pop-up of the Pinyin pronunciation and all the English words that the character can be translated into. Write down the meanings on a sheet of paper, and, using your knowledge of classical Chinese, transform the seeming gibberish into a poem.
How to Read:
The first set of poems consists of 2,848 four-liners with seven characters per line. The maroon grid (equivalent to the armature of an astrolabe / “star gauge”) is made up of 32 seven-character phrases. The poems are quatrains formed from these phrases. At the end of each phrase (one line of your poem) there will be a crossing of the maroon lines; the direction to go is entirely up to you, as long as the second lines of the two couplets rhyme (abcb). The poem ends once you have chosen four lines.
We are working on creating images to show the patterns, and a “smarter” interface that will allow pattern-based line-selections and proper line-by-line transliteration (rather than character-by-character) is the ultimate goal. See image at the bottom of this page for an example.
The colored regions are harder to read, but we have the instructions – in classical Chinese! Once we finish translating the directions for the red section, we will do the blue, black, green, and other sections, probably in that order.
Lady Su Hui (蘇蕙) lived during the Six Dynasties period of Chinese history, specifically during the mid Sixteen Kingdoms, most likely during the Former Qin and Former Yan kingdoms (A.D. 351-394; before 花木蘭…) This period of history was tumultuous, bloody, and and politically unstable.
Lady Su was born in what is now Fufeng county, in the city of Baoji, which is in the province of Shaanxi. This province was the seat of power for thirteen feudal dynasties, and was the terminus of the northern route of the Silk Road. Baoji sat at the opening of the Hexi Corridor, a sequence of oases between the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert. This route, connecting the the ancient Chinese capital Xian to Wuwei (a major trading center), was the only connection central China had to western China and the rest of Western Asia and Europe. There are variations of the poem’s back-story but a loose retelling of the most recent (and the version “we” were taught in school) is:
At the age of 16 Su was married to Dou Tao (窦滔), the governor of Qinzhou District in the Tianshui Prefecture of Gansu Province. The scholar Li Wei tells us that it was a fairy-tale, love-at-first-sight type of deal. At some point in his career Dou was removed from his post and exiled into a desert. When he left, he swore to Lady Su that he would not marry again, even though it was common in those days for a man (especially a civil authority) to have several wives and concubines. Despite his promise, upon arriving in the desert he took a concubine. When he was recalled to service he brought his new wife with him, having completely forgotten about Su Hui. The two wives had a fight and he stormed off to a new assignment, taking the concubine. She composed the Star Gauge and sent it to him. Gov. Dou was so impressed by this poetic feat that he abandoned his desert wife and returned to his deserted wife. Their house was called “the house of the brocade” (the poem was originally described as circular, stitched in brocade) and they also got their street named. There was no living it down, and sixteen-hundred years later we’re still talking about it.
However, Tang (2020) notes that this story is more than a little suspect, ending a powerful paper stating:
“This fourth-century woman of talent who turned to poetry and art to express longing for her exiled husband was appropriated as part of ‘boudoir lament’ poetry’s attempt to redeem the image of the morally problematic wanderer’s wife motif developed in the early history of Chinese classical poetry. Then, in Tang dynasty ‘frontier’ poetry, she was recast as the dutiful wife of a soldier fighting on the borderland. While Su Hui was depicted consistently as a respectable woman prior to the Late Tang, her image would undergo a drastic change when the account of her attributed to Wu Zetian unleashed depictions of her as a jealous wife.”
The amateur astronomer among us wants to find out who started calling it Star Gauge, and why. While it’s a catchy phrase (or is it?), a “star gauge” has almost nothing to do with astronomy. Métail (2017) calls it “The Map of the Armillary Sphere”, while the Chinese 璇玑圖 could be translated “round star map”. An armillary sphere (aka astrolabe) is an instrument used to calculate and predict the motion of planets and stars. The poem was originally circular, with a colored grid that corresponded to the arms of an astrolabe.
The characters were obtained from the Chinese Wikipedia page on the Star Gauge here. There is a warning that the characters may be incorrect and that the text version needs proofreading, however, that was the only text version the author could find, and a comparison with the pictures of the reproductions didn’t yield any obvious errors.
- All translations are from MDBG.net.
- Help with the Old Chinese grammar can be obtained here and here.
- Pronunciation of Pinyin is explained here.
- A more useful dictionary (copy and paste just the characters you wish to translate) is here.
- Etymologies obtainable by search:
Constructive criticism and error reporting should be directed to the webmaster at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Project:
This website was started as the result of an idea expressed by Norwich University Professor Sean Prentiss to one of his students during a spring 2014 literature class in which ancient Chinese poetry was studied. The student (Ken) created the world’s first web-based version of the Xuanji tu over the summer nights of 2014 and provided a rudimentary transliteration. During the 2014 fall semester another student, Lei Da, began decoding the rules for reading and started improving / rewriting the transliteration. Over the 2015 spring semester, visiting Professor Chen Rongxiang of Changzhou University generously took the time to translate eight poems of the outer maroon square.
After a few false starts with website-building during the 2015 fall semester, the Star Gauge Poetry Translation Team was formed by Ken, Prof. Prentiss, and Dr. Song Xiaoping (also of Norwich University.) Dr. Song determined that the reading patterns laid out by authoritative scholars such as Li Ruzhen (李汝珍) should be strictly followed, and began research on the reading patterns.
In the 2016 spring semester students Yu-chiao Ko, Hai Wen Lin, and Wen-ying Hsu joined the team, assisting Dr. Song in arranging characters from the main poem into the sub-poems, and in translation. As the poem relies heavily on Chinese cultural references, idioms and the like the translation team operated in two stages; the first being translation, and the second making translated lines more appreciable by creating informative annotation and by carefully editing the translations. Then the project stalled due to graduation of translators and a general lack of interest, as well as the inability to easily add / display translations on the site.
In 2018 Turning Sphere assumed management of the project and the Star Gauge Poetry Translation Team was unofficially dissolved. Through 2019 professional web dev contracts were sought without good results.
In 2021 the website was removed from the Norwich University Google account to its own server, and hosting was changed from Google Sites to WordPress. The project continues to be an all-volunteer endeavor as originally intended. In 2023 the ability for beneficiaries to donate to the cause was added via PayPal links, thanks to the suggestion and encouragement from another busy scholar.
- To make classical Chinese poetry, specifically Su Hui’s Xuanji tu, more known and appreciated by English speakers
- To enable both scholars and laypersons to extract and translate poems from Xuanji tu
- Locate, compile, and translate as needed all literature references to Su Hui and the Xuanji tu
- Translate the reading instructions into English
- Enable clickable reading patterns on website or web app
- click starting character, possible routes displayed, decision-points
- generates three text blocks:
- Selected characters
- (later) translation + commentary
- Extract all the poems from the grid
- Translate all the poems
- Write commentary for each of the geographic, historical, cosmological, political, economic, natural, and idiomatic references
- To link each comment to characters, lines, and poems as appropriate
- Create a simple poem-entry system, featuring
- Click-and-drag to select characters
- Input transliteration
- Input translation
- Select appropriate commentary
- Re-create the poem’s originally round shape
For future generations
- Translate the translations, transliterations, and commentary to other languages
- Print a book of all the poems
Would you like to help out? We’d love to have you! Please send an e-mail with a resume and cover letter to email@example.com.
您想幫忙嗎？ 我們希望擁有您！ 請發送一封帶有簡歷和求職信的電子郵件至info@stargaugepoem.com。
Metail, Michele, Jeffrey Yang, and Jody Gladding. Wild Geese Returning Chinese Reversible Poems. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Of Hong Kong Press, 2017. Print. A translation of La carte de la sphère armillaire de Su Hui. (1998)
Tang, Qiaomei. From Talented Poet to Jealous Wife: Reimagining Su Hui in Late Tang Literary Culture. NAN NÜ, 2020, 22(1), 1-35.