Study Guide

A Poem of Changgan Quotes

By Li Po (also known as Li Bai)

  • Love

    When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
    Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums (3-4)

    These lovers go way, way back. They were practically in diapers when they first met. Well, at least the speaker's lover was still riding a toy bamboo horse, which suggests that he was pretty little. The point is, the speaker's evocation of meeting her sweetheart in childhood gives us a sense of how deep their relationship—and their love—is. It has its roots way back in their childhood.

    …At fourteen I became your wife,
    So bashful that I dared not smile (7-8)

    The lovers get married, but the speaker's so shy she can't even smile. We know that feeling. Don't we all get tied up in knots when we're around our sweetheart? The marriage between the speaker and her lover represents the fulfillment of their love for one another.

    But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
    Learning that no dust could ever seal our love, (11-12)

    Here we see the speaker growing more comfortable in her relationship with her hubby. She's finally laughing (thank goodness!). Her statement that "no dust could ever seal our love" is ambiguous. Dust evokes many things—it evokes burial (since we're buried with dust, or dirt) and it also evokes travel, a "dusty" road. So here the speaker could be suggesting that not even death or separation could destroy their love for one another.

    That even unto death I would await you by my post
    And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching (13-14)

    In these lines, we get a stronger sense of the speaker's love for her hubby. She's willing to wait for him even "unto death," so she's really into this dude. By saying that she would never lose heart while "watching" for him, she again emphasizes how her love for him will never wane.

    And, because of all this, my heart is breaking (25)

    Oh no—the speaker's heart is breaking. Why? Because she misses her sweetheart so much. The image of the breaking heart here really gives us a sense of the toll that the husband's absence takes on the speaker. The more we love someone, the more our heart breaks when we're separated from them.

  • Gender

    I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
    When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
    Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums (2-4)

    We can see some pretty conventional gender role play in this scene from the speaker's childhood. The girl (the speaker) is picking flowers, and the boy (the lover) is trotting along on a toy horse. This is kind of the equivalent of girls nowadays playing with Barbies and boys playing with cars and guns. In other words, even as children, we can see that gender roles are differentiated through play.

    And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
    And would not turn to your thousand calls (9-10)

    Again, here, we see the speaker depicting her relationship to her hubby in terms of conventional gender roles. It's her hubby who calls a "thousand" times to his shy wife. In other words, he is the "active" man who initiates things, while she cowers shyly in a corner.

    But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed (11)

    This is the first time in the poem where we get a sense of the female speaker growing in confidence. Now she's laughing openly with her sweetheart; she isn't frowning anymore. She seems to be becoming an equal to her husband, because she clearly feels comfortable expressing herself.

    …Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
    Through the Gorges of Ch'u-t'ang, of rock and whirling water (15-16)

    In these lines we again get a sense of gender relationships that are divided according to conventional norms. The husband is the one who goes off exploring on his long journey, while the wife, the speaker, stays home waiting for him. This feeds into the idea that men are the adventurers and explorers, while the woman's job is to stay put and look after the home.

    And, because of this, my heart is breaking
    And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade. (25-26)

    Stereotypically, this speaker is a woman who worries about her looks, about her "bright cheeks" fading. Her preoccupation with looks here again emphasizes (again, according to the stereotype) that we're dealing with a female speaker here. It's women who have to worry about being pretty, not men—which is totally unfair, we think. Of course, the speaker's cheeks are fading because she's heartbroken and she misses her hubby so much. But the fact that she is worrying about how her cheeks look suggests that the speaker of this poem is a pretty "conventional" woman, according to thousands of years of patriarchal norms.

  • Dreams, Hopes and Plans

    That even unto death I would await you by my post
    And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching (13-14)

    The speaker's sure of one thing: no matter what happens, she'll wait for her sweetheart. That's her main plan—to be there for her hubby, and wait for him, no matter how long it takes (even if she has to wait until death!).

    …Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
    Send me a message home ahead! (27-28)

    Here we see the speaker expressing her hope for her husband's return. She speaks as if her husband will definitely return (when in fact we don't actually know that he's going to come back, considering how long he's been away). By addressing him directly in these lines, we also get a sense of how much the speaker desires to be able to communicate with her hubby.

    And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
    All the way to Chang-feng Sha. (28-29)

    Again, in these final lines the speaker projects her hopes and dreams onto the future. She imagines going to welcome her sweetheart on his return home. While this is a point where the speaker expresses optimism about the future, there's also a sense that her hopes and dreams may not be realized. She's hoping for her husband's return, but we don't actually see that return happen in this poem.

  • Time

    We lived near together on a lane in Ch'ang-kan,
    Both of us young and happy-hearted (5-6)

    This poem begins way back in the speaker's childhood, when she's just a little girl playing with a little boy who lives in the neighborhood. The description of herself and her sweetheart in those childhood days as "young and happy-hearted" gives us a sense of the carefree joy that they both felt as children. By beginning in her childhood days, the speaker frames time as an important theme in the poem.

    …At fourteen I became your wife (7)

    By referencing her age here, the speaker gives us a sense of the years that have passed from her childhood days, and the changes that have taken place. She's no longer a little kid playing with flowers. She's a wife now.

    Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
    Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss (19-20)

    The image of the husband's footsteps overgrown with green moss conveys just how much time has passed since the speaker's hubby has left. It's been months and months, and the growing green moss is a strong visual image that conveys this passage of time.

    And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves (22)

    By referring to the arrival of the autumn and the changing landscape with its "fallen leaves," the speaker also emphasizes the passage of time. As she waits, nature changes around her, and there's still no sign of her hubby.

    And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
    Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses (23-24)

    The speaker tells us exactly how much time has gone by since her husband's departure: eight months. That's a long time to be separated from our sweetheart. The speaker here also uses nature imagery to convey the passage of time. Butterflies have started appearing (which suggests that it might be springtime). The fact that they're described appearing "two by two" also highlights the speaker's own loneliness. The butterflies are in pairs, whereas she's separated from her "other half": her hubby—sniff.

    And because of all this, my heart is breaking
    And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade (25-26)

    The speaker's cheeks are "fading" because she's sad. But they're also fading because she's growing older as she waits for her husband's return. By describing how her looks might change, the speaker also indicates how much time is passing as she sits there waiting for her sweetheart.

  • Isolation

    …Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey (15)

    No biggie—the speaker's hubby has gone away. He'll come back, right? Well, in this poem he doesn't. The husband's journey is the event that triggers the feelings of loss and isolation that the speaker experiences.

    And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
    And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky (17-18)

    Only five months into her separation from her husband, the speaker finds that it's really, really hard being separated from her lover. The fact that she can't "bear" the separation suggests just how lonely she's feeling. She also tries to overcome her isolation by trying "to hear the monkeys in [his] […] far-off sky." That is, she's trying to imagine and hear the landscape that he's living in far away from her (which presumably has a bunch of monkeys running around and making noises).

    And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
    Hover, two by two, in our west garden grasses (23-24)

    The image of the yellow butterflies hovering "two by two" gives us a sense of how lonely the speaker feels. She's noticing that the butterflies are in pairs; they're with their butterfly-sweethearts. But she's alone, without her significant other (aww).

    And because of all this, my heart is breaking
    And I hear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade (25-26)

    Here is the first time that the speaker explicitly expresses her sadness: her "heart is breaking." She's so lonely and isolated, that she's afraid that even her beautiful bright cheeks will "fade." The image of the fading cheeks also suggests that the speaker may actually be getting physically ill from her isolation. She's becoming pale and sickly looking—not good.