Chinese Poetry in Pink Floyd

site icon, link to home page

Allusions to Classical Chinese Poetry in Pink Floyd

Down to List of Poems

It's not that widely known that Pink Floyd quoted lines from classical Chinese poetry in a couple of their early songs. (Not widely known, but known nevertheless - see Note at bottom of page).

The first was the song 'Chapter 24' on Piper at the Gates of Dawn, released in 1967. This song by Syd Barrett quotes the Chinese Book of Changes (Yi Jing), a very trendy thing to do at the time and still apparently quite trendy, judging by the number of hits for this term on the Internet. But this is pretty boring stuff. Anyone with a passing interest in Oriental mysticism is apt to quote the Yi Jing as proof of his/her hipness. It's on a par with attributing anything vaguely Oriental to 'Zen influences'.

Another song is much more interesting. First, it doesn't quote just any old classical Chinese poetry, but a couple of incredible, even startling poets of the ninth century Tang Dynasty. One of the poets has always been popular, noted for his mysterious love poetry. Another, known as a 'daemonic genius', has been neglected for over a thousand years and only recently rediscovered. Moreover, some of the lines quoted refer even further back, to the oldest major poet in the Chinese tradition, born in the fourth century before Christ.

The song in question is 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun', from A Saucerful of Secrets, which we will look at below. In addition, 'Cirrus Minor' from the album More also alludes to Chinese poetry, so we will also have a look at this song.

As this site is devoted to Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, we'll take this as an opportunity not just to look at the source of Pink Floyd's lyrics, a humble but compelling Penguin anthology of Chinese poetry, but also to look at the original works — in Chinese. Don't worry if your classical Chinese is a bit rusty. It's reasonably easy to understand in a word-for-word translation and we'll be providing the English version that Roger Waters read.

Set the controls for the Tang dynasty

The third song on Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (released on 29 June 1968) is a hypnotic paean to the sun with the sci-fi title of 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'. The lyrics to this song, written by Roger Waters, are remarkably elusive. Since they're delivered in an almost unintelligible whisper, it's not surprising that several versions can be found on the Internet, some of them so off the track that they might have been lifted straight from Japanese liner notes.

My preferred version goes:


Little by little the night turns around,
Counting the leaves which tremble at dawn.
Lotuses lean on each other in yearning;
Under the eaves the swallow is resting.
Set the controls for the heart of the Sun.

Over the mountain, watching the watcher,
Breaking the darkness, waking the grapevine.
One inch of love is one inch of shadow.
Love is the shadow that ripens the vine.
Set the controls for the heart of the Sun.

Witness the man who raves at the wall
Making the shape of his questions to Heaven.
Knowing the sun will fall in the evening,
Will he remember the lessons of giving?
Set the controls for the heart of the Sun.
Set the controls for the heart of the Sun.

The second Pink Floyd song to quote from the Penguin anthology is 'Cirrus Minor', from the soundtrack to the film More. The words to this song are difficult to make out and versions vary. My take is as follows:


In a churchyard by a river
Lazing in the haze of midday,
Laughing in the grasses and the graze.

Yellow bird you are not long in
Singing and in flying on,
In laughing and in leaving.

Willow weeping in the water,
Waving to the river daughters,
Swaying in the ripples and the reeds.

On a trip to Cirrus Minor
Saw a crater in the sun
A thousand miles of moonlight later.

Although some of these lyrics have been called 'Zen' lyrics by at least one misguided soul, and Taoist by others, they in fact owe much to an anthology of Chinese poetry called Poems of the Late T'ang by A. C. Graham, published by Penguin in 1965. After this anthology, Professor Graham went on to display his powers as an expert in ancient Chinese philosophy, including the works of Zhuang-zi (Chuang-tzu), the Daoist (Taoist) philosopher who famously dreamt he was a butterfly — or was it a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuang-zi? Some of Professor Graham's work on ancient Chinese philosophy is so ground-breaking that it is recommended reading even for Chinese scholars doing research into their own philosophical tradition. But for me, Professor Graham's most beautiful work remains these translations of a number of major and minor poets of the later years of the Tang dynasty (the eighth and ninth centuries), the tail end of a period universally acknowledged as the Golden Age of Chinese poetry.

Below are the Chinese sources of the main lines from 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' and some from 'Cirrus Minor'. To check out the source, just click on the link.

Introduction (you are here)
Poems of the Late T'ang
Li Shangyin: The Poet of Illicit Love
'Watch little by little the night turn around'
'Countless the twigs which tremble in the dawn'
'Two swallows in the rafters hear the long sigh'
'One inch of love is an inch of ashes'
Li He (Li Ho): The Daemonic Genius
'The River of Heaven turns in the night and floats the stars around'
'Witness the man who raved at the wall as he wrote his questions to Heaven'
'On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight' (Cirrus Minor)
Du Mu (Tu Mu) & the Yearning Lotuses
Meng Jiao (Meng Chiao) & the Inch of Grass
The Historical Man who Raved at the Wall & his Questions to Heaven (No Chinese)
The Significance of Roger Waters' Allusions (highly speculative)
Links More! about Pink Floyd and Classical Chinese Poetry

Each Chinese poem features:

  1. The translation by A. C. Graham
  2. The original Chinese version in Traditional characters (not Simplified - the GB Simplified character set on computers lacks some of the characters needed)
  3. The Chinese pronunciation in modern standard Chinese, based on Beijing dialect. This is not the pronunciation of the time. The poetry originally followed a rhyme scheme partly lost in modern Mandarin.
  4. A simple English gloss on each individual word. The gloss is only a rough guide.
  5. Notes on the meanings of the poem.

Reluctantly, I've used the modern pin'yin transliteration of the names of the poets for the sake of consistency, even though I personally much prefer the old transliteration 'Li Ho' to the pin'yin version 'Li He'.


A Personal Note: I first made the connection between 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' and Poems of the Late T'ang in the early 1990s while watching the Live at Pompeii video. Since the lyrics are much clearer than on A Saucerful of Secrets, the line 'Witness the man who raves at the wall / Making the shape of his questions to Heaven' fairly leapt out at me. I had bought Poems of the Late T'ang in about 1973 and browsed through it many times in the following years.

At the time, I was tickled pink at noticing something that nobody else knew about - or so I assumed. Of course, Poems of the Late T'ang is not an obscure book. It just needed one Pink Floyd fan to read it and the connection would be made. At any rate, since it was before the days of the Internet and I didn't know any Pink Floyd fans, I never had a chance to share my discovery.

The illusion that I was the sole proprietor of the secret was finally shattered by an e-mail from Vernon Fitch in July 2000 informing me of the source of the lyrics. I later found out that Roger Waters admitted in a radio interview in (I believe) 1993 or 1994 to having taken the lyrics from a book of Chinese poetry. Eagle-eyed Floyd fans soon picked up the source.

Johan Lif appears to have been the first to bring Graham's book to the attention of the world, having discovered it in a Swedish bookshop in 1997. His analysis of the lyrics is much closer than anything I could have made. I'm embarrassed to say that having read Li He's line 'On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight' and heard the song 'Cirrus Minor' countless times, I never connected the two! Beaker originally had a page called "Lyrical Sources for Set the Controls", which presented Johan Lif's original post in a succinct and enlightening treatment. This is no longer on line but appears to be preserved here.

Vernon Fitch's comprehensive The Pink Floyd Encyclopedia (U.S., 1998) also has a number of entries relating to the use of Chinese Poetry by Pink Floyd.

When I started on this page in 2000, I didn't know of Beaker's site and had no access to Fitch's book. Not having Poems of the Late T'ang with me I was forced to work from a copy at the National Library of China, which eventually fell apart and was removed from the stacks for repair. I uploaded a draft version of the project in December 2000, fully intending to update it when I got hold of my own copy of the book.

Now that I've found the Lyrical Sources site, there's not much point in combing the book for the source of Pink Floyd lyrics; the work has all been done. At this stage, I propose simply to present the original Chinese version alongside the Graham translation, along with some of my own comments which, I hope, will sufficiently differentiate this project from the Lyrical Sources site to justify reproducing the same information.

Back to Top