At the end of episode 011, Dong Zhuo heard the lyrics to a children’s song, which went:
“A thousand li of green green grass,
Beyond the tenth day, one cannot last.”
When Dong Zhuo asked Li Su what this meant, Li Su gave him some hogwash about it signifying the wane of the Liu clan (the house of Han) and the rise of the Dong clan. To explain what these words really mean, we need to delve into a visual exploration of the Chinese characters in the song. So it’s better to do it here on the blog than in a podcast episode.
Here are the lyrics in Chinese, with the literal English translation underneath:
- 里 (li): A Chinese unit of measurement for distances. According to Wikipedia, during the Han dynasty, one li equaled 415.8 meters or about 0.25 miles.
- 卜 (prediction): This means prediction in the context of fortune-telling.
Now, take the first three characters of the first line, put them in reverse order, stack them vertically, and keep only the top part of the character 草 (grass), and this is what you get:
Do the same with the first three characters of the second line:
Get it? Now you can guess the rough true meaning of the lyrics.
A few other relevant notes:
- In most such Chinese wordplay, the convention is to stack the characters from top to bottom in the order they appear. In this case, though, the order is reversed, going from bottom to top. This flip is symbolic of Dong Zhuo’s disregard for the proper order — bullying the emperor (who sits at the top) from the position of a servant of the throne (the bottom).
- The words 青青 (green green) signify “eruption” or “explosion”, which refers to Dong Zhuo’s abuse of power.
- This song originally came from the Book of the Later Han, a history of the Eastern Han Dynasty that was written some 200 years after the period.