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Po Chu-i 

A.D. 772-846

Seventeen years old and already a doctor of letters, a great future was before him. The life of such a man would seem to be one sure progress from honour to honour. Yet it is to some petty exile, some temporary withdrawal of imperial favour, that we owe "The Lute Girl", perhaps the most delicate piece of work that has survived the age of the golden T`angs. Certainly the music is the most haunting, suggestive of many-coloured moods, with an undertone of sadness, and that motive of sympathy between the artist-exiles of the universe which calls the song from the singer and tears from the heart of the man. So exile brought its consolations, the voice and presence of "The Lute Girl", and the eight nameless poets who became with Po Chu-i the literary communists of Hsiang-shan. In China it has always been possible for the artist to live away from the capital. Provincial governor and high official send for him; all compete for the honour of his presence. Respect, which is the first word of Chinese wisdom according to Confucius, is paid to him. In provincial Europe his very presence would be unknown unless he beat his wife on the high-road or stole a neighbour's pig. But his Celestial Majesty hears of the simple life at Hsiang-shan and becomes jealous for his servant. The burden of ruling must once more be laid on not too willing shoulders. Po Chu-i is recalled and promoted from province to province, till eventually, five years before his death, he is made President of the Board of War. Two short poems here rendered -- namely, "Peaceful Old Age" and "The Penalties of Rank" -- give us a glimpse of the poet in his old age, conscious of decaying powers, glad to be quit of office, and waiting with sublime faith in his Taoist principles to be "one with the pulsings of Eternity".

Po Chu-i is almost nearer to the Western idea of a poet than any other Chinese writer. He was fortunate enough to be born when the great love-tragedy of Ming Huang and T`ai Chen was still fresh in the minds of men. He had the right perspective, being not too near and yet able to see clearly. He had, moreover, the feeling for romance which is so ill-defined in other poets of his country, though strongly evident in Chinese legend and story. He is an example of that higher patriotism rarely met with in Chinese official life which recognises a duty to the Emperor as Father of the national family -- a duty too often forgotten in the obligation to the clan and the desire to use power for personal advantage. Passionately devoted to literature, he might, like Li Po and Tu Fu, have set down the seals of office and lived for art alone by the mountain-side of his beloved Hsiang-shan. But no one knew better than Po Chu-i that from him that hath much, much shall be expected. The poet ennobled political life, the broader outlook of affairs enriched his poetry and humanised it.

And when some short holiday brought him across the frontier, and the sunlight, breaking out after a noon of rain over the dappled valleys of China, called him home, who shall blame him for lingering awhile amid his forest dreams with his fishing and the chase.

Yet solitude and the picturesque cannot hold him for long, nor even the ardours of the chase. Po Chu-i is above all the poet of human love and sorrow, and beyond all the consoler. Those who profess to find pessimism in the Chinese character must leave him alone. At the end of the great tragedy of "The Never-ending Wrong" a whispered message of hope is borne to the lonely soul beating against the confines of the visible world: --

"Tell my lord," she murmured, "to be firm of heart as this gold and enamel; then in heaven or earth below we twain may meet once more."

It is the doctrine of eternal constancy, so dimly understood in the Western world, which bids the young wife immolate herself on her husband's tomb rather than marry again, and makes the whole world seem too small for the stricken Emperor with all the youth and beauty of China to command.

The Lute Girl The following is Po Chu-i's own preface to his poem: --

When, after ten years of regular service, I was wrongfully dismissed from the Prefecture of the Nine Rivers and the Mastership of the Horse, in the bright autumn of the year I was sent away to Ko-pen Creek's mouth. It was there that I heard, seated in my boat at midnight, the faint tones of a lute. It seemed as though I was listening to the tones of the gongs in the Palace of the Capital. On asking an old man, I learnt that it was the performance of a woman who for many years had cultivated the two talents of music and singing to good effect. In the course of time her beauty faded, she humbled her pride, and followed her fate by becoming a merchant's wife.

. . . . . The wine ran out and the songs ceased. My grief was such that I made a few short poems to set to music for singing.

. . . . . But now perturbed, engulfed, distressed, worn out, I move about the river and lake at my leisure. I have been out of office for two years, but the effect of this man's words is such as to produce a peaceful influence within me.

This evening I feel that I have dismissed all the reproachful thoughts I harboured, and in consequence have made a long poem which I intend to present to the court.

By night, beside the river, underneath The flower-like maple leaves that bloom alone In autumn's silent revels of decay, We said farewell. The host, dismounting, sped The parting guest whose boat rocked under him, And when the circling stirrup-cup went round, No light guitar, no lute, was heard again; But on the heart aglow with wine there fell Beneath the cold bright moon the cold adieu Of fading friends -- when suddenly beyond The cradled waters stole the lullaby Of some faint lute; then host forgot to go, Guest lingered on: all, wondering at the spell, Besought the dim enchantress to reveal Her presence; but the music died and gave No answer, dying. Then a boat shot forth To bring the shy musician to the shore. Cups were refilled and lanterns trimmed again, And so the festival went on. At last, Slow yielding to their prayers, the stranger came, Hiding her burning face behind her lute; And twice her hand essayed the strings, and twice She faltered in her task; then tenderly, As for an old sad tale of hopeless years, With drooping head and fingers deft she poured Her soul forth into melodies. Now slow The plectrum led to prayer the cloistered chords, Now loudly with the crash of falling rain, Now soft as the leaf whispering of words, Now loud and soft together as the long Patter of pearls and seed-pearls on a dish Of marble; liquid now as from the bush Warbles the mango bird; meandering Now as the streamlet seawards; voiceless now As the wild torrent in the strangling arms Of her ice-lover, lying motionless, Lulled in a passion far too deep for sound. Then as the water from the broken vase Gushes, or on the mailed horseman falls The anvil din of steel, as on the silk The slash of rending, so upon the strings Her plectrum fell. . . . Then silence over us. No sound broke the charmed air. The autumn moon Swam silver o'er the tide, as with a sigh The stranger stirred to go. "I passed," said she, "My childhood in the capital; my home Was near the hills. A girl of twelve, I learnt The magic of the lute, the passionate Blending of lute and voice that drew the souls Of the great masters to acknowledgment; And lovely women, envious of my face, Bowed at the shrine in secret. The young lords Vied for a look's approval. One brief song Brought many costly bales. Gold ornaments And silver pins were smashed and trodden down, And blood-red silken skirts were stained with wine In oft-times echoing applause. And so I laughed my life away from year to year While the spring breezes and the autumn moon Caressed my careless head. Then on a day My brother sought the battles in Kansuh; My mother died: nights passed and mornings came, And with them waned my beauty. Now no more My doors were thronged; few were the cavaliers That lingered by my side; so I became A trader's wife, the chattel of a slave Whose lord was gold, who, parting, little recked Of separation and the unhonoured bride. Since the tenth moon was full my husband went To where the tea-fields ripen. I remained, To wander in my little lonely boat Over the cold bright wave o' nights, and dream Of the dead days, the haze of happy days, And see them set again in dreams and tears."

. . . . . Already the sweet sorrows of her lute Had moved my soul to pity; now these words Pierced me the heart. "O lady fair," I cried, "We are the vagrants of the world, and need No ceremony to be friends. Last year I left the Imperial City, banished far To this plague-stricken spot, where desolation Broods on from year to heavy year, nor lute Nor love's guitar is heard. By marshy bank Girt with tall yellow reeds and dwarf bamboos I dwell. Night long and day no stir, no sound, Only the lurking cuckoo's blood-stained note, The gibbon's mournful wail. Hill songs I have, And village pipes with their discordant twang. But now I listen to thy lute methinks The gods were parents to thy music. Sit And sing to us again, while I engrave Thy story on my tablets!" Gratefully

(For long she had been standing) the lute girl Sat down and passed into another song, Sad and so soft, a dream, unlike the song Of now ago. Then all her hearers wept In sorrow unrestrained; and I the more, Weeping until the pale chrysanthemums Upon my darkened robe were starred with dew.

The Never-ending Wrong

I have already alluded to the story of the Emperor Ming Huang and the lady Yang Kwei-fei, or T`ai Chen, as she is called, in my introduction. In order that the events which led up to her tragic death may be understood, I have given in front of the poem a short extract from the old Chinese annals translated into French by the Jesuit Father Joseph de Mailla in 1778. The Emperor is fleeing with a small, ill-disciplined force before the rebellious general An Lu-shan into the province of Ssuch`uan. So the bald narrative resumes:

As the Emperor was followed by a numerous suite, and because time was lacking, the arrangements for so long a journey were found to be insufficient. On their arrival at Ma-wei both officers and men murmured loudly against Yang Kuo-chung*, accusing him of having brought all the present evils upon them. The ambassador of the King of Tibet, followed by twenty retainers, seeing the Prime Minister pass, stopped him, and asked for provisions. Then the soldiers cried out that Yang was conspiring with the strangers, and throwing themselves upon him, they cut off his head, which they exposed on a stake to the public gaze. The Emperor, becoming aware of this violence, did not, however, dare to exact punishment. He sent an officer to the chief of those who had slain the Prime Minister, to find out the reason for their deed; he replied that they had done so because Yang was on the point of rebellion. The leader of the revolt even demanded the instant execution of the lady T`ai Chen, as she was the sister of the supposed rebel, Yang. The Emperor, who loved her, desired to prove her innocence by showing that it was impossible for her, living always as she did within the Palace precincts, to be confederate to her brother's plot. His envoy, however, urged him that it was politic, after the events he had witnessed, to sacrifice her, innocent as she was, if he wished to escape from the dangers of (another) revolution. The Emperor, yielding to political necessity, gave her into the hands of the envoy with the order that she should be strangled. --

* Minister of State, brother to T`ai Chen. --


Tired of pale languors and the painted smile, His Majesty the Son of Heaven, long time A slave of beauty, ardently desired The glance that brings an Empire's overthrow.


From the Yang family a maiden came, Glowing to womanhood a rose aflame, Reared in the inner sanctuary apart, Lost to the world, resistless to the heart; For beauty such as hers was hard to hide, And so, when summoned to the monarch's side, Her flashing eye and merry laugh had power To charm into pure gold the leaden hour; And through the paint and powder of the court All gathered to the sunshine that she brought. In spring, by the Imperial command, The pool of Hua`ch`ing beheld her stand, Laving her body in the crystal wave Whose dimpled fount a warmth perennial gave. Then when, her girls attending, forth she came, A reed in motion and a rose in flame, An empire passed into a maid's control, And with her eyes she won a monarch's soul.


Hair of cloud o'er face of flower, Nodding plumes where she alights, In the white hibiscus bower She lingers through the soft spring nights -- Nights too short, though wearing late Till the mimosa days are born. Never more affairs of State Wake them in the early morn. Wine-stained moments on the wing, Moonlit hours go luting by, She who leads the flight of Spring Leads the midnight revelry. Flawless beauties, thousands three, Deck the Imperial harem,* Yet the monarch's eyes may see Only one, and one supreme. Goddess in a golden hall, Fairest maids around her gleam, Wine-fumes of the festival Daily waft her into dream. Smiles she, and her sires are lords, Noble rank her brothers win: Ah, the ominous awards Showered upon her kith and kin! For throughout the land there runs Thought of peril, thought of fire; Men rejoice not in their sons -- Daughters are their sole desire. In the gorgeous palaces, Piercing the grey skies above, Music on the languid breeze Draws the dreaming world to love. Song and dance and hands that sway The passion of a thousand lyres Ever through the live-long day, And the monarch never tires. Sudden comes the answer curt, Loud the fish-skin war-drums roar; Cease the plaintive "rainbow skirt": Death is drumming at the door.


* Pronounced `hareem'. --


Clouds upon clouds of dust enveloping The lofty gates of the proud capital. On, on, to the south-west, a living wall, Ten thousand battle-chariots on the wing.

Feathers and jewels flashing through the cloud Onwards, and then an halt. The legions wait A hundred li beyond the western gate; The great walls loom behind them wrapt in cloud.

No further stirs the sullen soldiery, Naught but the last dread office can avail, Till she of the dark moth-eyebrows, lily pale, Shines through tall avenues of spears to die.

Upon the ground lie ornaments of gold, One with the dust, and none to gather them, Hair-pins of jade and many a costly gem, Kingfishers' wings and golden birds scarce cold.

The king has sought the darkness of his hands, Veiling the eyes that looked for help in vain, And as he turns to gaze upon the slain, His tears, her blood, are mingled on the sands.


Across great plains of yellow sand, Where the whistling winds are blown, Over the cloud-topped mountain peaks, They wend their way alone.

Few are the pilgrims that attain Mount Omi's heights afar; And the bright gleam of their standard grows Faint as the last pale star.

Dark the Ssuch`uan waters loom, Dark the Ssuch`uan hills, And day and night the monarch's life An endless sorrow fills.

The brightness of the foreign moon Saddens his lonely heart; And a sound of a bell in the evening rain Doth rend his soul apart.


The days go by, and once again, Among the shadows of his pain, He lingers at the well-known place That holds the memory of her face.

But from the clouds of earth that lie Beneath the foot of tall Ma-wei No signs of her dim form appear, Only the place of death is here.

Statesman's and monarch's eyes have met, And royal robes with tears are wet; Then eastward flies the frantic steed As on to the Red Wall they speed.


There is the pool, the flowers as of old, There the hibiscus at the gates of gold, And there the willows round the palace rise. In the hibiscus flower he sees her face, Her eyebrows in the willow he can trace, And silken pansies thrill him with her eyes.

How in this presence should his tears not come, In spring amid the bloom of peach and plum, In autumn rains when the wut`ung leaves must fall? South of the western palace many trees Shower their dead leaves upon the terraces, And not a hand to stir their crimson pall.

Ye minstrels of the Garden of the Pear,* Grief with the touch of age has blanched your hair. Ye guardians of the Pepper Chamber,** now No longer young to him, the firefly flits Through the black hall where, lost to love, he sits, Folding the veil of sorrows round his brow,

Alone, and one by one the lanterns die, Sleep with the lily hands has passed him by, Slowly the watches of the night are gone, For now, alas! the nights are all too long, And shine the stars, a silver, mocking throng, As though the dawn were dead or slumbered on.

Cold settles on the painted duck and drake, The frost a ghostly tapestry doth make, Chill the kingfisher's quilt with none to share. Parted by life and death; the ebb and flow Of night and day over his spirit go; He hunts her face in dreams, and finds despair.


* The Pear Garden was a college of music founded by Ming Huang for the purpose of training the youth of both sexes.

** The women's part of the palace. --


A priest of Tao, one of the Hung-tu school, Was able by his magic to compel The spirits of the dead. So to relieve The sorrows of his king, the man of Tao Receives an urgent summons. Borne aloft Upon the clouds, on ether charioted, He flies with speed of lightning. High to heaven, Low down to earth, he, seeking everywhere, Floats on the far empyrean, and below The yellow springs; but nowhere in great space Can he find aught of her. At length he hears An old-world tale: an Island of the Blest* -- So runs the legend -- in mid-ocean lies In realms of blue vacuity, too faint To be described; there gaily coloured towers Rise up like rainbow clouds, and many gentle And beautiful Immortals pass their days In peace. Among them there is one whose name Sounds upon lips as Eternal. By the bloom Of her white skin and flower-like face he knows That this is she. Knocking at the jade door At the western gate of the golden house, he bids A fair maid breathe his name to one more fair Than all. She, hearing of this embassy Sent by the Son of Heaven, starts from her dreams Among the tapestry curtains. Gathering Her robes around her, letting the pillow fall, She, risen in haste, begins to deck herself With pearls and gems. Her cloud-like hair, dishevelled, Betrays the nearness of her sleep. And with the droop Of her flowery plumes in disarray, she floats Light through the hall. The sleeves of her divine Raiment the breezes fill. As once again To the Rainbow Skirt and Feather Jacket air She seems to dance, her face is fixed and calm, Though many tear-drops on an almond bough Fall, and recall the rains of spring. Subdued Her wild emotions and restrained her grief, She tenders thanks unto his Majesty, Saying how since they parted she has missed His form and voice; how, though their love had reached Too soon its earthly limit, yet among The blest a multitude of mellow noons Remain ungathered. Turning now, she leans Toward the land of the living, and in vain Would find the Imperial city, lost in the dust And haze. Then raising from their lacquered gloom Old keepsakes, tokens of undying love, A golden hair-pin, an enamel brooch, She bids him bear them to her lord. One-half The hair-pin still she keeps, one-half the brooch, Breaking with her dim hands the yellow gold, Sundering the enamel. "Tell my lord," She murmured, "to be firm of heart as this Gold and enamel; then, in heaven or earth, Below, we twain may meet once more." At parting She gave a thousand messages of love, Among the rest recalled a mutual pledge, How on the seventh day of the seventh moon, Within the Hall of Immortality At midnight, whispering, when none were near, Low in her ear, he breathed, "I swear that we, Like to the one-winged birds, will ever fly, Or grow united as the tree whose boughs Are interwoven. Heaven and earth shall fall, Long lasting as they are. But this great wrong Shall stretch from end to end the universe, And shine beyond the ruin of the stars."


* The fabled Island of P`eng-lai. --

The River and the Leaf

Into the night the sounds of luting flow; The west wind stirs amid the root-crop blue; While envious fireflies spoil the twinkling dew, And early wild-geese stem the dark Kin-ho.

Now great trees tell their secrets to the sky, And hill on hill looms in the moon-clear night. I watch one leaf upon the river light, And in a dream go drifting down the Hwai.

Lake Shang

Oh! she is like a picture in the spring, This lake of Shang, with the wild hills gathering Into a winding garden at the base Of stormless waters; pines, deep blue, enlace The lessening slopes, and broken moonlight gleams Across the waves like pearls we thread in dreams. Like a woof of jasper strands the corn unfolds, Field upon field beyond the quiet wolds; The late-blown rush flaunts in the dusk serene Her netted sash and slender skirt of green. Sadly I turn my prow toward the shore, The dream behind me and the world before. O Lake of Shang, his feet may wander far Whose soul thou holdest mirrored as a star.

The Ruined Home

Who was the far-off founder of the house, With its red gates abutting to the road? -- A palace, though its outer wings are shorn, And domes of glittering tiles. The wall without Has tottered into ruin, yet remain The straggling fragments of some seven courts, The wreck of seven fortunes: roof and eaves Still hang together. From this chamber cool The dense blue smoke arose. Nor heat nor cold Now dwells therein. A tall pavilion stands Empty beside the empty rooms that face The pine-browed southern hills. Long purple vines Frame the verandahs. Mount the sunken step Of the red, joyous threshold, and shake down The peach and cherry branches. Yonder group Of scarlet peonies hath ringed about A lordly fellow with ten witnesses Of his official rank. The taint of meat Lingers around the kitchen, and a trace Of vanished hoards the treasury retains.

. . . . . Who can lay hold upon my words? Give heed And commune with thyself! How poor and mean Is the last state of wretchedness, when cold And famine thunder at the gates, and none But pale endurance on the threshold stands With helpless hands and hollow eyes, the dumb Beholder of calamity. O thou That would protect the land a thousand years, Behold they are not that herein once bloomed And perished; but the garden breathes of them, And all the flowers are fragrant for their sakes. Salute the garden that salutes the dead!

A Palace Story

A network handkerchief contains no tear.

'Tis dawn at court ere wine and music sate. The rich red crops no aftermath await. Rest on a screen, and you will fall, I fear.

Peaceful Old Age

Chuang Tzu said: "Tao* gives me this toil in manhood, this repose in old age, this rest in death."

Swiftly and soon the golden sun goes down, The blue sky wells afar into the night. Tao is the changeful world's environment; Happy are they that in its laws delight.

Tao gives me toil, youth's passion to achieve, And leisure in life's autumn and decay. I follow Tao -- the seasons are my friends; Opposing it misfortunes come my way.

Within my breast no sorrows can abide; I feel the great world's spirit through me thrill, And as a cloud I drift before the wind, Or with the random swallow take my will.

As underneath the mulberry-tree I dream, The water-clock drips on, and dawn appears: A new day shines on wrinkles and white hair, The symbols of the fulness of my years.

If I depart, I cast no look behind: Still wed to life, I still am free from care. Since life and death in cycles come and go, Of little moments are the days to spare.

Thus strong in faith I wait, and long to be One with the pulsings of Eternity.


* Literally, "The Way". --


I cannot rest when the cool is gone from June, But haunt the dim verandah till the moon Fades from the dawn's pursuit. The stirrup-fires beneath the terrace flare; Over the star-domed court a low, sad air Roams from a hidden lute.

This endless heat doth urge me to extremes; Yet cool of autumn waits till the wild goose screams In the track of whirling skies. My hand is laid upon the cup once more, And of the red-gold vintage I implore The sleep that night denies.

The Grass

How beautiful and fresh the grass returns! When golden days decline, the meadow burns; Yet autumn suns no hidden root have slain, The spring winds blow, and there is grass again.

Green rioting on olden ways it falls: The blue sky storms the ruined city walls; Yet since Wang Sun departed long ago, When the grass blooms both joy and fear I know.

Autumn across the Frontier

The last red leaves droop sadly o'er the slain; In the long tower my cup of wine I drain, Watching the mist-flocks driven through the hills, And great blown roses ravished by the rain.

The beach tints linger down the frontier line, And sounding waters shimmer to the brine; Over the Yellow Kingdom breaks the sun, Yet dreams, and woodlands, and the chase are mine.

The Flower Fair

The city walls rise up to greet Spring's luminous twilight hours; The clamour of carts goes down the street: This is the Fair of Flowers. Leisure and pleasure drift along, Beggar and marquis join the throng, And care, humility, rank, and pride In the sight of the flowers are laid aside. Bright, oh! bright are a thousand shades, Crimson splashes and slender blades With five white fillets bound. Tents are here that will cover all, Ringed with trellis and leafy wall, And the dust is laid around. Naught but life doth here display; The dying flower is cast away; Families meet and intermingle, Lovers are parted, and friends go single. One ambition all avow -- A roof to harbour, a field to plough. See, they come to the Flower Fair, Youth and maiden, a laughing pair. Bowed and sighing the greybeard wends Alone to the mart where sighing ends. For here is a burden all may bear, The crimson and gold of the Flower Fair.

The Penalties of Rank

Three score and ten! A slave to office yet! In the Li Chi these luminous words befall: "The lust for honours honours not at all," Here is the golden line we most forget.

Alas! how these long years afflict a man! When teeth are gone, and failing eyes grow dim. The morning dews brought dreams of fame to him Who bears in dusk the burdens of his clan.

His eyes still linger on the tassel blue, And still the red sedan of rank appeals, But his shrunk belly scarce the girdle feels As, bowed, he crawls the Prince's Gateway through.

Where is the man that would not wealth acclaim? Who would not truckle for his sovereign's grace? Yet years of high renown their furrows trace, And greatness overwhelms the weary frame.

The springs of laughter flow not from his heart, Where bide the dust and glamour of old days. Who walks alone in contemplation's ways?


The Island of Pines

Across the willow-lake a temple shines, Pale, through the lotus-girdled isle of pines, And twilight listens to the drip of oars -- The coming of dark boats with scented stores Of orange seed; the mist leans from the hill, While palm leaves sway 'twixt wind and water chill, And waves of smoke like phantoms rise and fade Into a trembling tangle of green jade. I dream strange dreams within my tower room, Dreams from the glimmering realms of even gloom; Until each princely guest doth, landing, raise His eyes, upon the full-orbed moon to gaze -- The old moon-palace that in ocean stands Mid clouds of thistle-down and jewelled strands.


The lonely convent on the hill Draws merchants faring from the west; Almost upon the waters still The quiet clouds lean down and rest.

In green pavilions of warm trees The golden builders toil and sing; While swallows dip along the leas, And dabble in the ooze of Spring.

A thousand flowers, a thousand dreams, Bright pageants in confusion pass. See yonder, where the white horse gleams His fetlocks deep in pliant grass.

Beside the eastern lake there calls No laughing throng, no lover goes; But in the long embankment walls The willow shade invites repose.

The Ancient Wind

The peach blooms open on the eastern wall -- I breathe their fragrance, laughing in the glow Of golden noontide. Suddenly there comes The revelation of the ancient wind, Flooding my soul with glory; till I feel One with the brightness of the first far dawn, One with the many-coloured spring; and all The secrets of the scented hearts of flowers Are whispered through me; till I cry aloud. Alas! how grey and scentless is the bloom Of mortal life! This -- this alone I fear, That from yon twinkling mirror of delight The unreal flowers may fade; that with the breath Of the fiery flying Dragon they will fall Petal by petal, slowly, yet too soon, Into the world's green sepulchre. Alas! My little friends, my lovers, we must part, And, like some uncompanioned pine that stands, Last of the legions on the southern slopes, I too shall stand alone, and hungry winds Shall gnaw the lute-strings of my desolate heart.

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