The Book of Poetry’s Wandering Goddess of Wuhan: Mortal or Goddess or Both?

In reading ancient Chinese texts, be they medical texts like the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon of Medicine Huangdi Neijing 皇帝内经 or ancient philosophical or literary texts like the Book of Odes aka Book of Poetry aka Book of Songs Shijing 诗经 I am always impressed by the commentaries on them. The commentaries are archaeological layers of interpretation and sometimes, by our latter-day lights, misinterpretation.

While we look at China today and perhaps rightfully imagine that much of its public discussion lacks diversity of views (with opinon insofar as it can be determined breaking 80 – 20 or even 99 – 1 whereas in some other countries inclined to allow organized political opposition to the ruling party, on many issues it breaks 60 – 40 or perhaps close to 50 – 50 on some issues) and light because of fear and repression, that was also true for many times in the various Chinese states that occupied the Chinese cultural sphere in succession (or at times in parallel with other Chinese states) over those fabled five millenia of Chinese history. This was mitigated at times with the existence of other Chinese states where dissidents could move when things got hot at home. Conformity on the world of educated people was effectively imposed through control of the narrow pathways to professional advancement such as the imperial examination system.

The conformities enforced by totalitarian regimes (the more recent ones perhaps even more efficient — I tend to see the authoritarian – totalitarian divide as one of lack of capacity rather than lack of desire to impose the will of the great leader) can be exaggerated or caricatured. A sense of this is conveyed in Ran Yunfei’s 2008 essay 2008: Ran Yunfei: “Where Will the Fear End? A Talk that Could Not Be Delivered” . Of course the forces of conformity, social as well as political, exist in all societies and many rules and convention are there for good reason — perhaps even the fruit of years of evolution in society. See for example Nathan Nunn’s 2022 Distinguished Lecture to the American Economics Association: ON THE DYNAMICS OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR:
. Yet still….

Thus when we read ancient texts in translation without commentaries, we miss a great deal of information about their changing understandings across generations. Some translators do indeed go into great details about the commentaries, sometimes translating them as well or characterizing the more important ones. James Legge translations of the Chinese classics and Annping Chin’s Confucius: The Analects are examples.

Here I discuss the translation and understaning of the poem Han Guang set in what is now Wuhan where the Han River and the Yangzte join.

漢廣 – Han Guang
English translation: James Legge

In the south rise the trees without branches,
Affording no shelter.
By the Han are girls rambling about,
But it is vain to solicit them.
The breadth of the Han
Cannot be dived across;
The length of the Jiang
Cannot be navigated with a raft.

Legge’s 1876 London edition of this poem in a freer translation.

From 1876 Legge translation of the “Book of Poetry” online at

漢廣 – Han Guang
English translation: Arthur Waley

In the south is an upturning tree;
One cannot shelter under it. .
Beyond the Han a lady walks,
One cannot seek her.
Oh, the Han it is so broad,
One cannot swim it,
And the Jiang, it is so rough
One cannot boat it.


漢廣 – Han Guang
English translation: me

In the South tall trees give little shade,
On the Han River far bank stands a goddess,
But you cannot hope to reach her.
Forbidden is swimming across the broad Han River
Forbiden is crossing turbulent Yangze by raft.

When I read the poem I wondered that buke could be understood as ”forbidden to do” rather than “unable to do”. People in ancient times could swim and build rafts so this makes more sense.

Legge’s note on the Zhou Dynasty King Wen’s moral uplift in what is now the Wuhan region:


Through the influence of [King Wen], the dissolute manners of the people, and especially the women, in the regions south of Zhou had undergone a great transformation. The praise of the ladies in this piece, therefore, is praice of King Wen.

The Chinese Classics by James Legge, IV The She King, Oxford University Press reprinted by Southern Materials Center, Taipei. Online see Internet Archive Legge The Chinese Classics, and Google Scholar, various editions.

From the Wikipedia article on King Wen :

King Wen of Zhou himself (via Wikipedia) and early Chinese cultural hero — how he came to be called King Culture perhaps?

King Wen of Zhou (Chinese: 周文王; pinyinZhōu Wén Wáng; 1152–1050 BC, the Cultured King) was Count of Zhou during the late Shang dynasty in ancient China. Although frequently confused with his fourth son Duke of Zhou, also known as “Lord Zhou”, they are different historical persons. Although it was his son Wu who conquered the Shang following the Battle of Muye, Count Wen was posthumously honored as the founder of the Zhou dynasty and posthumously titled King. Many of the hymns of the Classic of Poetry are praises to the legacy of King Wen. Some consider him the first epic hero of Chinese history.[1]

Over the millenia, layer upon layer of political interpretation often gets imposed on Shijing poems in commentaries by various scholarly writers. James Legge in his translations sometimes sets time aside to discuss with good humor some of that seem very wacky in our own less enlightened times. Chinese sages including Confucius saw themselves living in an age of severe and steady decline compared to the many centuries past era of sage kings and their virtuous subjects. Confucius lived nearly a millenium after those days; one can imagine how depraved we are living nearly 3000 years after that golden age.

The “goddess” younu is understood as a wandering woman. Would a woman about to be married of the higher ranges of society represented in these poems be ‘wandering about”? Legge and Waley chastely understood this to mean women rather the women (singular and plural are often assumed in context in literary Chinese). Liu Qun in a 2017 Guangming Daily [Guangming Ribao] article about the ‘wandering woman’ younu aka ‘goddess’ argued that the ‘wandering woman’ came to be understood as a goddess of the Han River many centuries later during the Western Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 9 CE) and that there were only very few water goddesses recorded prior to the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BCE).

Women are not infrequently characterized as goddesses as they are worshipped by their suitors in these latter days so I translated word goddess in my own translation. Nice when some ambiguity can bridge the gap. The can/may ambiguity of kě 可 may be another example. Legge and Waley follow tradition in translating it as can/able to; I suspect translating it as may/has permission to works better. Yet the days I live in are even less enlightened than those of the commentators of centuries past. So I must be wrong.

Liu Qun’s Guangming Ribao article on the Goddess of the Han River in the Shijing Poem “The Han River is Broad”:

The Evolution of the “Goddess of the Han River” 

by Liu Qun (Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, Hubei University of Arts and Sciences)

June 12, 2017

Author: Liu Qun (Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, Hubei University of Arts and Sciences)

The Han River, also known as Hanshui, changes its name depending on the region it flows through: it is called Shinshui when it flows through Shin County, Hanshui when it flows east to Hanzhong, Canglangshui when it flows from Ankang to Danjiangkou, and Xiangyang when it is customarily called Xiangjiang or Xiangshui. The legend of the “Han River Goddess” was originally related to the poem “by the Han River there is  a wandering woman” in “The Book of Poetry [Shijing] – Zhou Nan – Han Guang”, and was later interpreted as the story of the “Han woman untying her pendant” and the resulting “Han River Goddess”. The legend of the “Han River Goddess” and the resulting “Han River Goddess” mainly occurred at the foot of Wanshan Mountain in Xiangyang.

“Book of Songs·Zhounan·Hanguang” artist’s conception

From a linguistic point of view, the semantic connotation of the “Han River Goddess” has undergone a complex process of change. Initially, it was recorded in the Book of Poetry – Zhou Nan – Han Guang as simply saying, “In the South trees provide little rest, there is a wandering woman who cannot be sought after. This “wandering girl” should be a real-life character, not a myth. During the pre-Qin period, this mythological story had not yet taken shape. Although Huangfu quiet “emperor century” and Wang Jia “collection of records” will “Han River goddess” and Zhou Zhao Wang two concubines linked, but this story was written late, and with the “poetry” “wandering girl” no direct relationship, can not prove that the “poetry” in the This story was written later and is not directly related to the “traveling maiden” in the Book of Poetry.

By the start of the Han Dynasty, the situation had changed. There were four most famous transmitters of the “Book of Poetry” in the Han Dynasty, namely Qi, Lu, Han and Mao. Among them, Mao’s “Poem” is correct, and the “wandering girl” is still a real-life character; however, the other three commentaries have changed, and the “wandering girl” in the “Poem” has become the “divine girl” on the Han River. ” For example, Li Shan’s note in Wenxuan quoted Han’s poem as saying, “There is a wandering woman in Han, who cannot be sought after.” And also quoted Xue Jun chapter line said, “wandering girl means a water divinity in the Han River that is sometimes seen but cannot be sought and reached” This so-called “Han River godss”, which deity is it? Li Shan note also quoted Liu Xiang “the biography of the female” said: “wandering woman refers to Han River goddess. Zheng Dafu Jiaofu saw her at Hangao and sought her oranges and pomelo.” The detailed plot of this story is found in Wen Xuan (文选), Li Shan Note, quoting Han Shi Nei Zhuan (韓詩内傳): “Zheng Jiaofu complied with his Hangao Terrace and met two daughters, and said with them, “I would like to ask for my son’s pendant.” The two women and Zheng Jiaofu, Zheng Jiaofu received and embraced it, and went beyond, ten steps to follow the probe, that is, died.” This story is also recorded in Liu Xiang’s “Biographies of Exemplary Women (列女传)”, but the text is slightly different. Here, “the wandering girl” becomes two “wandering girls”, but there is no exact name yet. This indicates that the “wandering girls” in the Shijing have been added to the period (Zhou Dynasty), the place (Hangao), the event (see Zheng Jiaofu), and the characters (the two girls and Zheng Jiaofu). The intervention of “Zheng Jiaofu” has become a key figure in witnessing the divinity of the “Yuyu women”. Hangao, today’s Wanshan, is five kilometers west of the ancient city of Xiangyang.

According to Wang Xianqian’s “The Three Poets of Poetry: A Collection of Righteousness”, Zheng Jiaofu was already involved in the “Hangao goddess of the wandering woman” according to Lu’s “Poetry” and Qi’s “Poetry”. This shows that in the early period of the Western Han Dynasty, the “wandering woman” in the Book of Poetry had already become the “goddess of the Han River” and was associated with the story of Zheng Jiaofu. Jiao Gan’s “Jiao’s Yi Lin” from the Han Dynasty proves this point: “There is no rest at the tree, and the Han woman is hard to reach. Pray to the gods to ask for pearls, backhand away from you.” “The two daughters, Baozhu, mistook Zheng Dafu. The gentleman’s father is rude and makes himself a laughing stock.” This shows that the legend of the “Goddess of the Han River” circulating in Xiangyang was already produced and circulated in the early Western Han Dynasty, and became the documentary basis for the interpretation of the Poem by those reciting the Poem.

However, this does not mean that this is how Qi, Lu, and Han interpreted the poems. Let’s look at the chapter Han’s Commentary on the Book of Poetry:  “Confucius traveled south to Chu, and when he arrived at the tunnel of Agu, there was a virgin wearing jewelry and washing”, and the chapter of “The Book of Psalms”, “There are trees in the south, but there is no rest there. There is a wandering girl in the Han River, who is not to be sought after”, this “wandering girl” is a real-life character. The term “wandering girl” here is just a generic term, and is not the same person as the “wandering girl” in the Book of Poetry. In this regard, the “Han River Goddess” of the Han Dynasty has both divine and human characteristics.

According to the literary works of the two Han dynasties, the “wandering woman” in the Book of Poetry was often called “Han woman” or “wandering woman” and was widely recognized as the “water goddess” of the Han River. The “water goddesses” in the Book of Poetry are often referred to as “Han maidens” and widely recognized as “water goddesses” of the Han River, such as Yang Xiong’s “Fugue of the Feathered Hunt”, Zhang Heng’s “Nandu Fugue”, and Wang Yi’s “Chu Shi – Jiushi”, “Zhou wanders around Hanzhu, seeking the water goddesses and so on. Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties, “Han River Goddess” and “Chu” in the Lady Xiang linked together, which probably originated from Cao Zhi “Luo Shen Fu” “from the two concubines of Southern Hunan, with the Han Bin of the wandering girl. Huang fu Mi of the Jin Dynasty’s “Century of the Emperor” saw the two women as concubines of the Zhou Emperor Zhao Wang, and proposed its exact name for Yan Yuan and Yan Yu. This shows that, during the Wei and Jin dynasties, the “goddess of the Han River” has entered the history books and more precise descriptions of their name and era had been added. It is likely that at this time, “Han River Goddess” has become worshiped by the people of that time, so Li Daoyuan “Water Classic” recorded that there is “Han Shrine”, and that “in the past, the Han woman swam by a fishing platform and later a shrine was erected on the platform. Later as people saw it crumbling, it came to be called the tumbledown Han shrine. This place is roughly under today’s Wanshan Mountain, so in the “Annotated Classic of the Waters” also said “beneath the mountain water curve of the kuma, the cloud Han woman used to swim there. This “under the mountain” means beneath Mount Wan.

From the above semantic changes of “Han River Goddess”, we can see that this myth and legend actually reflect the basic idea of “cultural unity” in ancient China. The poem of the “wandering woman” in “The Book of Poetry – Zhou Nan – Han Guang” clearly belongs to a “southern story”. However, Qi, Lu, and Han, all of whom were northern scholars, attached great importance to the story of the “wandering woman” that took place in the south, not only by giving her a divine character, but also by linking her to the “Zheng Jiaofu” who lived in the north. The creation of the story of the “Goddess of the Han River” is probably the result of a blend of northern and southern cultures.

It is very difficult to see the “wandering woman” in the north, while Zheng Jiaofu and the water god belong mainly to the northern cultural elements. In the pre-Qin Dynasty, there were very few water gods among the objects of worship, such as “Hanshu – suburban rituals” recorded that the first emperor of Qin “shrine to the famous mountains and rivers and eight gods”, that is, no water gods. However, it cannot be said that the existence of water gods did not exist in the northern culture of the pre-Qin Dynasty. Du Yu [Western Jin Dynasty counselor to Wu Di]  annotated the  “Zuo Zhuan” “two odd spirits of the mountains and rivers”, thought “odd two” that the water god, although the water god is still mainly a fictional non-realistic deity. After the southern “wandering woman” entered the northern mythological system, it not only made the image of “water goddess” very concrete yet also had a close relationship with real life and appeared as a female deity. This was easily understood and accepted by people. In this way, the mother story of the South was linked with the characters and deities of the North, resulting in the legend of the “Goddess of the Han River” that blends the cultures of the North and the South. For the southern people, the “Han River Goddess” was not only a real presence, but also a benefit to the southern people. “The beauty, gentleness, elegance, and divinity of the Han River Goddess also gave the people of the north an infinite amount of beautiful imagination. The frequent floods and floods in the north also made them long for the blessing of the “Goddess of the Han River”. Even the fortune and misfortune in love, and the pleasure and displeasure in life made them happy to take the “Goddess of the Han River” as the object of their confession. That’s why we can see that Yang Xiong, Zhang Heng, Wang Yi, Cao Zhi, Chen Lin, Ruan Ji, and others have all depicted the “goddess” in their poems. For example, Cao Zhi’s “Fugue of the Goddess of Luo” says, “I feel the abandonment of the words of the fellowship, and I hesitate and doubt.” Chen Lin’s “Fugue of the Goddess” says: “Praising the south of the Emperor’s teacher, praising the clear stream of the Han River. I feel the poet’s sigh, and think of the divine maiden’s visit.” Ruan Ji’s poem “A Poem of Chanting” says: “The two concubines swim along the riverside and soaring freely with the wind. In their works, the “goddesses” are either melancholy and happy, or ethereal and elegant, or free and spontaneous, not only expanding the imagination of poets and readers, but also shaping a charming image of “goddesses” in Chinese literature.

Guangming Daily (June 12, 2017, page 13)

Chinese website on the Shijing Poem “The Han River is Broad”:

A recent commentary on this poem from the Chinese literature website from an article discussing the text and meaning of the poem 汉广 所属分类:国风·周南

“Han Guang” is one of the best poems in the Book of Poetry, and one of the only poems in the Book of Poetry that “portrays the landscape”. Wang Shizhen of the Qing Dynasty, in his “Poetic Discourse on the Hall of the Book of Poetry”, praised this poem highly, and even considered it to be the genesis of Chinese landscape literature.

Regarding the main theme of the poem “Han Guang”, there are mainly the “De Guang’s reach” theory in the “Preface to Mao’s poem”, the “Goddess’ legacy” theory in the three poems, the “woodcutter’s song” theory in the Qing Dynasty by Fang Yurun, and the “love poem” theory held by many people today. The “love poem” theory. In view of the fact that the Book of Poetry is an encyclopedia that truly and comprehensively reflects all aspects of Zhou dynasty society, and that realism is its main creative feature, it is most appropriate to consider this poem as reflecting the marriage and love and rituals of ordinary people in the Zhou dynasty.

The poem is structured in three chapters, with the first one being independent and the second two chapters overlapping. The opening lines of the three chapters revolve around the imagery of “wood”, “salary”, “Chu” and “piper”, suggesting that the main character of the poem is a young woodcutter. The main character is a young woodcutter, and the word “mow” directly indicates the labor process of woodcutting. The first eight lines of the poem, four of which are “cannot”, express the woodcutter’s frustration and helplessness as he is unable to pursue the “wandering girl”. In the second and third chapters, the author builds a beautiful vision of the “wandering girl” getting married and cutting grass to feed the horses, so that the main character’s long-cherished wish is finally fulfilled. However, the dream bubble will eventually break, and when the eyes of reality are opened, the vast Han River and the Yangtze River are still uncrossable, and the other side of the dream of the “wandering girl” is still unreachable.

Chen Qiyuan of the Qing Dynasty summarized the poetic situation of this poem as “visible but unattainable”, similar to what Western Romanticism calls “the situation of admiration”. The protagonist’s journey from hope to disappointment, from fantasy to disillusionment, accompanied by the superimposed singing of three sighs to the Yangtze River and the Han River, leaves us with a woman on the other side of the river who is unattainable, a poetic realm that is beautiful, though fragmented.

From the Chinese Text Project: full text the Shijing poem Han Guang “The Han River is Broad” with James Legge Translation

《漢廣 – Han Guang》English translation: James Legge [?]Books referencing 《漢廣》 Library Resources
1 Jump to dictionaryShow parallel passagesRelated discussion漢廣:南有喬木、不可休息。
Han Guang:In the south rise the trees without branches,
Affording no shelter.
By the Han are girls rambling about,
But it is vain to solicit them.
The breadth of the Han
Cannot be dived across;
The length of the Jiang
Cannot be navigated with a raft.
2 Jump to dictionaryShow parallel passages漢廣:翹翹錯薪、言刈其楚。
Han Guang:Many are the bundles of firewood;
I would cut down the thorns [to form more].
Those girls that are going to their future home, –
I would feed their horses.
The breadth of the Han
Cannot be dived across;
The length of the Jiang,
Cannot be navigated with a raft.
3 Jump to dictionaryShow parallel passages漢廣:翹翹錯薪、言刈其蔞 。
之子于歸、言秣其駒 。
漢之廣矣、不可泳思 。
江之永矣、不可方思 。
Han Guang:Many are the bundles of firewood;
I would cut down the southern wood [to form more].
Those girls that are going to their future home, –
I would feed their colts.
The breadth of the Han
Cannot be dived across;
The length of the Jiang
Cannot be navigated with a raft.

Legge’s discussion of the poem “The Han River is Broad” illustrates how he incorporates views of the various commentators. Available online via the Internet Archive.


2017-06-12 04:43 来源:光明网-《光明日报》 










  《光明日报》( 2017年06月12日 13版)






About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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