Song of the Yue Boatman

The Song of the Yue Boatman (Chinese: 越人; pinyin: Yuèrén Gē; lit.: 'Song of the man of Yue') is a short song in an unknown language of southern China said to have been recorded around 528 BC. A transcription using Chinese characters, together with a Chinese version, is preserved in the Garden of Stories compiled by Liu Xiang five centuries later.[1]

The song appears in a story within a story in the Shànshuō (善說) chapter of the Garden of Stories. A minister of the state of Chu relates an incident in which the 6th-century BC prince Zixi (子晳), the Lord of È (鄂), on an excursion on his state barge, was intrigued by the singing of his Yue boatman,[a] and asked for an interpreter to translate it.[3][4] It was a song of praise of the rural life, expressing the boatman's secret pleasure at knowing the prince:[1]

Chinese version of the song
Text English translation
今夕何夕兮, Oh! What night is tonight,
搴舟中流。 we are rowing on the river.
今日何日兮, Oh! What day is today,
得與王子同舟。 I get to share a boat with a prince.
蒙羞被好兮, The prince's kindness makes me shy,
不訾詬恥。 I take no notice of the people's mocking cries.
心幾頑而不絕兮, Ignorant, but not uncared for,
得知王子。 I make acquaintance with a prince.
山有木兮木有枝, There are trees in the mountains and there are branches on the trees,
心悅君兮君不知。 I adore you, oh! You do not know.

On hearing this, the prince embraced the boatman and gave him his decorated cloak.[3][4]

The words of the original song were transcribed in 32 Chinese characters, each representing the sound of a foreign syllable:[1]


As with the similarly recorded Pai-lang songs, interpretation is complicated by uncertainty about the sounds of Old Chinese represented by the characters.[5] In 1981, the linguist Wei Qingwen proposed an interpretation by comparing the words of the song with several Tai languages, particularly Zhuang varieties spoken today in Guangxi province.[1] Building on Wei's work, Zhengzhang Shangfang produced a version in written Thai (dating from the late 13th century) as the closest available approximation to the original language, using his own reconstruction of Old Chinese.[1][5] Both Wei's and Zhengzhang's interpretations correspond loosely to the original 54-character Chinese rendition, and lack counterparts of the third and ninth lines of the Chinese version. Zhengzhang suggests that these lines were added during the composition of the Chinese version to fit the Chu Ci poetic style.[1] Zhengzhang's interpretation remains controversial, both because of the gap of nearly two millennia between the date of the song and written Thai and because Thai belongs to the more geographically distant Southwestern Tai languages.[6]

Qin Xiaohang has argued that although the transcription does not represent a true writing system for the non-Chinese language, such transcription practice formed the basis of the later development of the Sawndip script for Zhuang.[7]


  1. ^ At that time, "Yue" referred to non-Chinese peoples in the area south of the Yangtze River.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Zhengzhang, Shangfang (1991). "Decipherment of Yue-Ren-Ge (Song of the Yue boatman)". Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale. 20 (2): 159–168. doi:10.3406/clao.1991.1345.
  2. ^ Meacham, William (1996). "Defining the Hundred Yue". Bulletin of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. 15: 93–100. doi:10.7152/bippa.v15i0.11537.
  3. ^ a b Hawkes, David (1989). Classical, Modern, and Humane: Essays in Chinese Literature. Chinese University Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-962-201-354-4.
  4. ^ a b Stevenson, Mark; Wu, Cuncun, eds. (2013). Homoeroticism in Imperial China: A Sourcebook. Routledge. pp. 14–15. ISBN 978-0-415-55144-1.
  5. ^ a b Holm, David (2013). Mapping the Old Zhuang Character Script: A Vernacular Writing System from Southern China. BRILL. pp. 784–785. ISBN 978-90-04-22369-1.
  6. ^ Sagart, Larent (2008). "The expansion of Setaria farmers in East Asia: a linguistic and archeological model". In Sanchez-Mazas, Alicia; Blench, Roger; Ross, Malcolm D.; Peiros, Ilia; Lin, Marie (eds.). Past human migrations in East Asia: matching archaeology, linguistics and genetics. Routledge. pp. 133–157. ISBN 978-0-203-92678-9.
  7. ^ Qín, Xiǎoháng 覃晓航 (2010). Fāngkuài Zhuàng zì yánjiū 方块壮字研究 [Research on Zhuang square characters]. 民族出版社. pp. 80, 81. ISBN 978-7-105-11041-4.

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