Historical Background

苏轼Su Shi was the deputy governor of 杭州 Hang Zhou from 1071 to 1074 AD.  苏轼Su Shi was primarily a scholar official with a lot of official duties, and only a poet after hours. He grew up reading and memorizing Confucian classics. For him, to offer sagely advice to his emperor and to bring order and peace to people under his care were his primary goals as a scholar official. During the three years as the deputy governor at Hang Zhou, he made great efforts to help his governor to improve the lives of the people of 杭州Hang Zhou. One of his major achievements was to get the governor to clean up the six wells that provided drinking water for the town’s people.

One of the wells was first drilled by a scholar official of the Tang Dynasty named 李泌 when he was the governor at 杭州Hang Zhou between 781 to 783 AD. Later 李泌 became the premier so the well was known as 相国井 or the Premier’s Well. By the time Su Shi worked at Hang Zhou, this well and the five other wells providing clean water for the town’s people were either blocked by sediment and dried up, or the wells’ waters were mixed with seawater and tasted bad. Su Shi, along with his governor, appointed two monks who were irrigation experts to clean up all six wells. Their efforts were so successful that a few years later, when the surrounding regions were suffering from a severe drought, the people of Hang Zhou still had a secure water supply. Today, only the Premier’s well is still providing water. Of course, there is a modern water supply in Hang Zhou city now, so people no longer need these wells for their drinking water, but it is still nice to have a well from more than a thousand years ago!

When 苏轼 was the deputy governor at 杭州, the governor of 杭州 was 陈襄 Chén Xiāng, also a well-known poet. 陈襄 was also the one who recommended 苏轼 to the emperor for this job. The two of them got along quite well, and became great friends, often exchanging poems with each other. Because of this close relationship, 苏轼’s time at 杭州 was very happy.  He often went out drinking with friends and colleagues. These two poems were composed describing one such outing:







Poem one

Early morning sunlight welcomes guests, daubs the tiered hills,

evening rain invites them to stay, sends them to a domain of drunkenness.

Gentleman, do you not understand this fine intention?

Let’s have a toast to the King of the Water Immortals.

Poem two

When it is clear, the ripples gleam on this beautiful lake,

the colours of the mountain drizzled in mist are also wonderful.

Should I compare Western Lake with Lady Shi?

Lightly made up or heavily rouged, it is always fitting for her.        


  • 艳 is an adjective to describe bright or vibrant colour as in the term of 色彩鲜艳 meaning “the colours are fresh and vibrant”. But here艳 is used as a verb meaning that the sunlight daubs the hills with vibrant colours.
  • 留 means to invite someone to stay. 人 means person but here it is clear the term refers to 苏轼 and his guests. 
  • 此意 means “this intention” referring to the water immortal king’s intention. Here Su Shi means that the Water Immortal King makes it rain to keep the guests to staying night on the lake, which is why he proposes a toast to the Water Immortal King in the following line. 会 is an abbreviation of 会意 meaning to understand.
  • 水仙 also means Narcissus in modern Chinese, but here the two characters should be understood individually as Water Immortals.
  • 水光 refers to the light reflected from water. 潋滟 is an adjective describing the gleaming ripples. 好 means good in modern Chinese; however, if you break up the character, it is made up of 女 meaning woman and 子meaning child. The earliest Chinese Dictionary 说文解字 or Discussing Articles and Explaining Characters states that 好 refers to beautiful women and is extended to refer any good and beautiful thing. We translate 好 as beautiful.
  • 空 means empty; 蒙 means misty; 空蒙 is a term describing an empty but misty scene when it is raining lightly. This is a scene quite common along the Yangtze River. This misty scene represents one of the core beliefs in Chinese cosmology, that is, when it rains, it is the moment when heaven and earth, yin and yang forces interact with each other. Life is created when heaven and earth, yin and yang interact with each other, and magic happens at such moments. 奇 means wonders, extraordinary things, as well as unique, shocking, or amazingly beautiful.
  • 西子 is a revered title for the famous ancient beauty 西施 Xīshī. 西施Xīshī was the heroine of one strategy from the classic of 三十六计 or the Thirty-six Strategies named 美人计 or the Beauty Trap. The story goes something like this. During the late 春秋Spring and Autumn Period, the 吴王King of Wu 夫差 Fū Chā conquered the 越国State of Yue and captured the 越王King of Yue 勾践 in 494 BC. One of King 勾践’s official 范蠡 suggested the 美人计Beauty Trap strategy to 勾践, that is, sending the most beautiful women of Yue to King 夫差 as a tribute and to seduce him to neglect state affairs. 范蠡, while training the recruited women, fell in love with one of them, that is, 西施. But he still sent 西施 to 夫差’s court. As it turned out, 西施 was very successful in distracting King 夫差 from his duties and neglecting state affairs. After 20 years of preparations and two wars against the 吴国State of Wu, 勾践 finally defeated the 吴王King of Wu and forced 夫差 to kill himself in 473 BC. According to 史记 or the Record of History, 西施 left the 越国State of Yue with 范蠡 to live on the five lakes around the Yang Tzu Delta. Of course, there are also other versions about how 西施 ended up with. One of the version was that 西施 and 范蠡 were drowned under the order of king 勾践. But we prefer the first version because we believe that good people should be rewarded. 西施 and 范蠡 sacrificed everything to save their home country. They deserve a happy ending! So we translate 西子 as Lady Shi.