七步诗 Qī bù shī Quatrain of Seven Steps
zhǔ dòu rán dòu qí,
Boiling beans by burning the beanstalks,
dòu zài fǔ zhōng qì
The beans are sobbing inside the pot.
běn shì tóng gēn shēng
Both of them were from the same root,
xiāng jiān hé tài jí?
Why should the beanstalk torture the beans so eagerly?
According to legend, the great warlord Cao Cao (曹曹) was succeeded by his son, Cao Pi (曹操), as the King of Wei state. Cao Pi, like his father, was a suspicious and jealous man. Because of this, he greatly distrusted his own brother, Cao Zhi (曹植), who was a genius in classical literature and the arts. Suspecting that Cao Zhi had intentions to usurp the throne, Cao Pi summoned him to the palace.
Using the pretext of Cao Zhi’s reputation as a genius scholar in classical literature, Cao Pi issued an ultimatum to Cao Zhi in his imperial court in front of all his officials. Cao Zhi was to compose a poem, within seven steps, telling King Cao Pi why he should be spared Cao Zhi’s life? Failing this, Cao Zhi would have to be executed.
With a sad heavy heart and tears streaming, Cao Zhi walked the seven steps and stopped. With extreme sorrow, a breaking and intermittently frail voice, he began reciting the above poem, comprising of four verses with five characters in each verse. Being a genius scholar, he had composed that poem inside his head whilst taking the seven paces!
The Quatrain of Seven Steps served as an allegory and compares the relation of beans and beanstalk to the relationship between the poet and his brother, Cao Pi (曹操). In the poem, the poet uses the phrase “煮豆燃豆萁 (burning the beanstalk to boil beans)” to expose Cao Pi’s brutal oppression of him. The phrase “同根” means the beanstalks and the beans originate from the same plant roots, thus questioning why Cao Pi would want to torture his own brother so eagerly.
- Cao Zhi uses several characters to describe the various processes of cooking and refining beans. Among those mentioned are: 煮 (boil), 燃 (skewer or char), 泣 (a pun on 蒸汽 “steam”, the qì here actually means “to cry”), and 煎 (to pan-fry using oil).
- A 釜 (fǔ) was a type of pot in ancient China.
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References: Our reading list for this article
Disclaimer: This article is largely based on and quotes from the following:
- Unknown (n.d.). The Quatrain of Seven Steps. Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02 Nov 2021 from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Quatrain_of_Seven_Steps
- Unknown (n.d.). Chinese Poetry – Quatrain of Seven Steps. Retrieved 02 Nov 2021 from the Happy School Online for Mandarin Learning website: https://www.happyschoolonline.com/post/chinese-poetry-quatrain-of-seven-steps
- Unknown (n.d.). Learn Chinese: Chinese Poems – Lesson 179. Retrieved 02 Nov 2021 from The Pew Research Center website: http://en.chinaculture.org/chineseway/2014-05/27/content_532746.htm
- Unknown (n.d.) The Quatrain of Seven Steps explained. Retrieved 02 Nov 2021 from the Explained.Today website: https://everything.explained.today/The_Quatrain_of_Seven_Steps/