A troupe of horses, captured in the war,
Hearing one day a military band,
Stopped in confusion and, milling near the stands,
Then broke into a prancing,
For they had danced the Emperor’s dancing,
And heard once more their dead master’s command.
The guards rushed down to beat the beasts away;
The docile horses, fearful to displease,
Redoubled their efforts, striving to obey
The whips and brands —
Were they not commands
To tread more closely, closely to the band?
So they fell and struggled up from the floor,
Seeking the lesson the furious blows contained,
Straining their hearts to match a hidden refrain,
Until the dancing horses danced no more.
Whose child are you, horse of Kansu?
What playful memory do you pursue
In your capering here?
Is it that you leap from sheer delight,
Or trotting past my reading lamp at night,
Rise to ease your dancing ancestors’ fear?
NOTES for Students of English
This poem is based on an episode from Chinese history that was translated into English by Arthur Waley in 1946: “The Dancing Horses (c. 850)” by Cheng Ch’u-hui, in Madly Singing in the Mountains, An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley, edited by Ivan Morris. Further details about this episode and its cultural history can be found in “The Dancing Horses of T’ang” by Paul W. Kroll, published by Brill in 1981.