A Selection of Chinese Poems

This will hopefully become a small collection of Chinese poems that I translate. The format is the Chinese characters on the first line with the second line showing the Yale Romanization for pronunciation (easiest romanization for American speakers to use without any special training - just use your Yankee intuition) and a one or two word translation on the third line. My own translation will follow in the italicized text.


Song for a Spring Journey

Red Peony

Moon Night

In the Wild There is a Dead Deer

Midnight Song

Spring View

Miscellaneous Chant

Seeing Off a Friend

Bamboo Village Lodge

Spring Dawn

Golden Valley Garden

Deer Brushwood

Here's my first attempt:

Song for a Spring Journey

Ten thousand trees perfume the riverbanks

With fresh blossoms after one night's wind

A garden full of colors dark and light

Reflecting in the middle of green waves

Wang Ya (c. 764-835)

Just a short poem from 8th or 9th century China to remind us of the beauty in Spring. I hope readers do not mind my somewhat liberal translation; for the language of Chinese poetry is a language that is simple, compact, and often ambigious.

Also, my apologies to those with tree pollen allergies. I hope you enjoyed the poem as well.

Back to the contents

Red Peony

A green radiance, tranquil and calm,

A red gown, pink and rosy.

The heart of a flower severed from grief

Will the vividness of Spring befriend her heart?

Wang Wei (c.701-761)

This poem is a real challenge to translate as the language is very archaic and one must learn the history behind some of the words to fully understand the meaning/nuance the poet meant. For example, the word yen (beauty) on the first line refers to a beauty that glows or shines; I think in English we might use the word radiant. Also, on the first line, the words syan (tranquil) and jing (calm) when used together refer to a woman who is calm and tranquil in her heart. On the second line, red clothes must certainly refer to a woman; for in the East, red is the color of beauty. (some suggest that the original name of Red Square in Moscow comes not from the color red but from beauty. The fact is that in old church slavonic the word for beauty and the word for red share the same root - perhaps that is Chinese influence on Russian?) On the last line we have the word sse (color) which in English could be color, tint, or even hue. This leaves a lot of leeway to the translator. I was tempted to use a metaphor such as a "taste of Spring" or perhaps, the "warmth of Spring;" But, in keeping with the color theme of this poem I have chosen the word "vividness."


Back to the contents

Moon Night

This poem was written by China's greatest poet - Du Fu. Like many poets of his time, Du Fu was a government official during the Tang dynasty (c 618-904). Chang An (meaning Long Peace), the capital, was truly a cosmopolitan city. It was at the eastern end of the famed Silk Road which brought goods, people, and ideas from the rest of Eurasia. Historians estimate that its population was close to one million; compared to the largest European city at that time - Constantinople which had about 300,000 (London and Paris were basically backwater villages at that time). Today the city is known as Syi An, or Xi An (Western Peace). Earlier, Buddhism was brought to China along this route and Chang An had become a center for Buddhist scholars. Chang An had a sizable foreign population; including Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and many others.

The Tang dynasty stretched from the north near the Great Wall to the south with protectorate states in Indochina; with many Han Chinese communities scattered throughout Southeast Asia (one way to say Chinatown in Chinese is "Tang Ren Jie" which translates as "Tang People Streets"). The Tang Dynasty stretched to the East with the protectorate state of Korea and to the West with protectorate states as far as Northern Iran. (they bypassed Tibet due to the high mountains and the strength of the Tibetian Empire) It was also during this time that Chinese culture, language, and religion heavily influenced Japan. Chinese merchants (and Buddhist pilgrims to India) were not only on the Silk Road, they were also sailing throughout the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, trading with the locals; as far away as India and perhaps Persia and Arabia.

It was against this rich political and cultural tapestry that Du Fu witnessed China's greatest poltical turmoil - the An Lu Shan Rebellion, which basically turned China from being an outward-looking nation to an inward-looking xenophobic society. Chang An, the capital, was later captured by An Lu Shan, a non-Han (Han are the ethnic Chinese) who rose through the ranks of Western mercenaries to become one of China's generals.

The An Lu Shan Rebellion was the begining of the end for China's glorious Tang dynasty. It was this rebellion that Du Fu lived through.

It was because of Du Fu's experiences that he has written some of the greatest Chinese poetry; much of it dealing with human compassion and the suffering of war. Many of his poems are considered today to be "anti-war." In Moon Night he is simply longing for his wife and children as he is stranded in the capital during the rebellion.

Some notes on my translation:

Gway (door) on the second line refers to an inner or small door of a courtyard. It is not used for an outside door that would face the street. By inference it means the door that connects to the inside chamber where women would stay. So, we know that Du Fu is refering to his wife, not himself, looking through this door

Yun (cloud) and Huan (hair on temples) on the fifth line are two words that are used together and refer to women's hair. It is a phrase that suggests beauty. It does not mean "cloudly" hair (I'm not sure what such a phrase would mean anyway?!) Can we refer to a woman's hair as wispy? or downy? or fluffy? I think I will simply use the word soft; for that seems to be the closest English that I can think of to convey the image of "fluffy, cloud-like hair" which is the image I get from yun huan.

Yu (jade) on the sixth line is another comment on a woman's beauty. Chinese will often comment on the skin of a beautiful woman as looking like jade; suggesting that her skin is smooth and pale. Keep in mind that white jade is considered the more beautiful and precious stone than the green stuff we often think of here in the West. I wonder if we might use the word "ivory" sometimes to convey a similiar image.

Hwang (curtain) is a word that I have chosen to translate as curtain. But, I think it could refer to a folding screen; the kind often used as a room divider.

Shwang (pair) on the last line refers to "both" Du Fu and his wife.

Jao (shine) on the last line is one word that I am having trouble with. I am not sure how to work it into the English translation. I believe that it is refering to the moonlight shining on them.

The moon this night in Fu county,

Is watched alone from her chamber door.

The tenderness of son and daughter,

Will not yet know of Chang An.

Her soft hair moistened by a fragrant mist,

Her smooth-white shoulders chilled in the pure light.

When shall we recline by humble curtains,

Both our eyes dried of tears?

Back to the contents

In the Wild There is a Dead Deer

The poems that I have translated so far come from the Tang and Sung Dynasties. This Friday's Chinese poem is from a more ancient source - the Shr Jing (Shi Ching), often translated as the Book of Odes or the Book of Poetry.

The Shr Jing is one of the books known collectively as the Five Classics:

These five books are believed to have been compiled and edited by Confucius (c. 470 B.C.); destroyed during the Book Burning of the Chin Dynasty (c. 213 B.C.); then rewritten from memory during the Han Dynasty (c. 206 B.C. to 220 A.D.). Whenever this poem was actually first written it is still pretty old.

The Shr Jing is a collection of poems from around China; some believed to be from as early as the 12th century B.C. There are three basic types of poems - folk songs, court songs, and temple hymns. In The Wild There Is A Dead Deer is a folk song.

Notes on translation:

Jun on the first line is a type of deer native to Eurasia known as the roe deer. It is known for its nimbleness and quickness. I have chosen to simply translate it as deer.

Huai Chun (embrace or think of Spring) on the third line is an expression in Chinese which has erotic overtones. It is always used in reference to women.

Ji (lucky) on the third line can be translated into English using several words; most commonly it is used as auspicious. In this context I have chosen to use the word favorable; as it seems for fitting for a poem and as a description of a gentleman.

Pu (plain) on the fifth line means plain or simple. However, it is normally used in reference to clothing. I am not sure how to convey this in English except to use the word common.

Yu (jade) on the eighth line, There is a woman as fine as jade. White jade is more prized in China than green. It is a very common way of saying that a woman is beautiful. Perhaps, there is also something to the (white) jade reference and the white grass reference.

Er (and) on the ninth line is rather hard to translate. This word is a common conjuction in Chinese. And is just one way to translate it.

Tuo tuo (strip strip) repeated is a common aspect of Chinese to emphasize the word. Perhaps, one should think of the Americanized expression Chop-chop! Chop is the Cantonese word for quick or fast. Hence, Chop-chop (or fast, fast) is saying like faster, faster.

Syi (ah!) on the ninth and tenth lines. As classical Chinese does not have punctuation this word is a way of expressing the exclamation point. It also implies that these lines are being spoken.

Meng (mutt) on the last line can also be the adjective for mangy.

In the wild there is a dead deer,

white grass has enclosed it.

There is a woman embracing Spring,

A favorable gentleman entices her.

In the woods there is a common shrub,

In the wild there is a dead deer,

White plants completely cover it.

There is a woman as fine as jade.

"Slowly, and strip, strip my clothes!"

"Do not touch my kerchief!"

"Also do not make the mutt bark."

Back to the contents

Midnight Song

A short poem written sometime between the 3rd Century B.C. and the 5th Century A.D.

Some notes on translation:

Dze (offspring) in the title is also the name of the beginning hour of the day. In ancient China the day was divided into12 named periods which were equal to two hours each. Dze was the first period of the day; hence, the midnight hour.

Shou (head), also in the title, literally translates as head. But in this case it is used as a measure word. Every Chinese noun has a corresponding measure word. We do not use measure words for every noun in English; except where it would be ambiguous without. For example; in English we have to say a piece of paper or a few grains of sand. Just as in English, using the wrong measure word with the wrong noun in Chinese can make for some good-natured fun (e.g.; a herd of seagulls) Shou (head), however, is the correct measure word to use with poem.

De (reach) in the first line does not mean just reach. It can also mean to get, to obtain, to achieve, etc.

He (wh?) on the second line can be translated as almost anyone of the WH questions in English - What, Why, Where, How.

Jwo (burn), also on the second line, by itself means an intense burning. So the Chinese jwo jwo (see above about double words) means very bright.

San (scatter) on the third line I have translated as scatter; But, that is not its exact meaning in this poem. It means something along the lines of disseminate. Perhaps, in this context, it could be a muffled, vague, or a broken voice. In this context I have chosen to translate it as distant.

Syu (modest) on the last line really means something along the lines of unsubstantial. Depending upon the context it could be translated as modest, humble, etc. I have chosen to translate it as meekly.

Midnight Song (No. 42)

On a long night sleep doesn't come,

How does the moon burn so bright?

Imagine hearing a distant voice,

meekly reacting with a reply to nothing.

Back to the contents

Spring View

Du Fu is considered to be one of China's Greatest Poet. This poem - Spring View - shows why. It is one of his best known poems.

I have already mentioned the An Lu Shan Rebellion that Du Fu lived through. Traditionally, this poem is considered to an "anti-war" poem; But, it is also about basic humanity and the loss he feels because of separation. This poem shows some of the real beauty of classical Chinese poetry. While it is true that Chinese, especially classical Chinese, is a very ambiguous language; it is also very compact. The first line shows this - in just five syllables, Du Fu has shown that the nation is shattered; Yet, hills and rivers remain. What a remarkable contrast between a nation destroyed and nature continuing! The whole poem is just 40 syllables long; compared to my English translation which takes more than twice that many (99, if I counted right).

Some notes on translation:

Wang, (view) in the title could be a noun or a verb; so, it could mean a view or to view.

Po, pronounced something like "paw" (shattered) on the first line, is more than just broken. Po is the word that is used if something is broken into several pieces; something such as a dropped glass which splinters into hundreds of pieces.

Dzai (in/at/on) is hard to give an exact translation. While it is often used the same way we might use the English prepositions in/at/on; it can also be used as a verb, meaning "is there." I have chosen to translate it as "remain" as that seems to be the general meaning in this case.

Fung (beacon) is a tower on which a fire was lit to signal enemy invasion.

Di (against) on line 8 is another difficult word to translate into English; as there are so many different meanings. In general, it means something akin to "offset." But it can mean resist, oppose, substitute, to give as an equal, to act as collateral, etc. I think in this context "worth" is the best translation.

Wan (ten thousand), also on line 8, needs some explantion. Yes, it literally means ten thousand (10,000); but, it is also used as a superlative without meaning exactly ten thousand. Something like when we say in English "there are a million whatever." We, of course, do not always mean literally one million.

Dzen (hair/hatpin) on the last line is a type of pin or clasp that was used by Chinese officials during the Tang and Sung Dynasties to attach a hat to one's hair.

Spring View

The nation in shambles, yet the hills and rivers remain.

The city in Spring, yet overgrown with weeds and brush.

Such emotional times that flowers spill tears,

Separation is so troubling that the call of birds stir the soul.

Beacon fires have continued for three months,

A letter from home would be worth uncountable gold.

White hair scratched so thin with worry,

That with all my willpower, it will not hold a hatpin.

Back to the contents

Miscellaneous Chant

So far, the poems that I have translated are either very ancient or are from the 8th and 9th Century. This poem is a more "modern" one - written in the 12th Century. While it doesn't show in the translation, the language is closer to modern Chinese; and, therefore easier to read.

Some notes on translation:

Double words on Line 1 and Line 2 (day, day; year, year). As these are "time" words they would be the same as English day by day or year by year.

Also on Line 1 and Line 2: a verb, the word not or a preposition, followed by a result. This is a common language construction found in modern Chinese. It can be used for almost any verb (at least were it makes sense)

A Miscellaneous Chant

Day by day I grow poorer; yet from poverty I cannot recover.

Year by year I grow older; yet old age is as if on time.

The Yellow River will still happen to be clear one day,

Yet, my white hair will not return to the time when it was black.

Lu Yu (c1125-1210)

Back to the contents

Seeing Off a Friend

As I have already mentioned, Du Fu is considered to be China's greatest poet. Well, there is some debate to that claim as there was a contemporary of Du Fu, Lee Bai (AKA Lee Bo) who was equally prolific in his poetry in quantity as well as quality. They were not just contemporaries, but they were also good friends, in fact, they were "drinking buddies." I haven't gone into great detail about it; But, Chinese poets were often composing while enjoying some of that strong Chinese wine.

This poem is written by Lee Bo and perhaps he is seeing off his friend Du Fu.

Some notes on translation:

Song (sending) in the title could be translated as seeing someone off.

On Line 1, Chying (blue/green) can mean both green and blue. In modern Chinese there are two different words that mean blue and green; But, in classical Chinese this word can mean either one or both! I'm not sure that we have an English equivalent.

Also on Line 1, Gwo (outer city walls) and on Line 2, Cheng (outer city walls) are often be interchanged. Although in modern Chinese cheng can often be translated simply as city.

On Line 4, peng (tangled) can have several meaning, of which tangled is only one. It does not necessarily mean knotted; for it can be used to describe a vine, such as ivy, that grows every which way. I think that here it means that the path his friend will be on is going to go all over the place with no real clear direction. So, I think the word wandering fits the "feel" of the poem.

Also on Line 4, li (mile) is not really a mile. It is a traditional Chinese unit of measure that is equal to about 1/3 of a mile. But when used with the word wan (10,000) it simply means a really long distance.

Gu (old) ren (person) on line 6 must refer to the author himself. For one would never use the word gu (old) for someone else.

Blue mountains hug the north wall,

White waters skirt the east wall,

It's at this place that we must part.

Alone on your thousand-mile wanderings,

floating clouds will bring thoughts of you,

the setting sun will bring sentiments of your old friend.

Now, as we wave goodbye

to the sound of my mottled horse neighing.

Lee Bo (c701-762)

Back to the contents

Bamboo Village Lodge

This is a short poem by Wang Wei, one of China's great poets during the Tang Dynasty. While he is not as famous as Du Fu or Lee Bai; he is still well known and his poetry is among the best. The amount of his poems number in the hundreds - he was quite productive!

Notes on translation:

In the title:

Li (lee) can mean a unit of measure equal to about 1/3 of a mile or it can mean a village (because a typical village was about 1/3 of a mile in length? I don't really know the connection between the two meanings). Here, I like village as a better translation; But, perhaps the meaning is that the lodge is 1/3 of a mile into the bamboo? I choose village as that gives some indication to being remote as the unit of measure would..

Gwan - a lodge, or a house. The meaning is not one of a day-to-day home; rather it is something like a guest house, an inn, or a summer lodge.

First line:

Hwang - means specifically a bamboo grove. That the Chinese have one word to describe this natural setting shows how common is a bamboo grove. Yo - hidden or secluded - makes for a great description of what something (or someone) would be like in a bamboo grove as bamboo (which is a grass) grows very think and makes for a great screen.

Second line:

Tan - play - on the second line means to play only in the sense of playing a stringed instrument; it does not mean to play a game. Strum or pluck could be used to translate tan except those two words have very specific meanings; whereas tan means any kind of playing on a stinged instrument using one's fingers.

Chyin is a Chinese lute. A very common instrument in ancient China.

Fu - reply; But it can also sometimes mean repeat. Here, however, I think it only means reply.

Syiao - whistle. It can also mean something like howl. I would have taken this to mean that the poet is whistling in reply to his own lute playing. However, having been inside a tall bamboo grove (the bamboo was the height of large trees) while I was in Bangalore, India, I remember the bamboo seeming to chime or clatter in the wind. Bamboo is really a tall wooden grass that is hollow inside so as bamboo stems hit each other in the wind there was a clattering sound that can have a rather soothing effect. And, I think, the clattering of the bamboo would make for a nice accompaniment to lute playing.

Third line:

lin - forest. This character is really two mu (wood or tree) written closely together; showing how some Chinese characters are pictographic in origin.

Last line:

Ming - bright. This character is a bit more than pictographic; it is referred to as ideographic. While its two components: re (sun) and yue (moon) are pictographic in origin, the two combined represent something that is not a picture, rather it is an idea - bright.

Jao - shine. This word is very hard to translate as it can have so many different meanings in English. Shine is the usual word I use to translate it. But it can also mean something like to reflect.

Here's my translation:

The Bamboo Village Lodge

Sitting alone, secluded, in the bamboo grove,

I play my lute replying to long whistles.

So deep in the forest that no one knows,

The bright moon comes out to accompany me.

Back to the contents

Spring Dawn

Meng Hao Ran is a lesser know poet from the Tang Dynasty (c 618-904). He was a contemporary of Du Fu and other great poets. Given the weather that we have had in the New York area the last couple of days I thought this poem of his - A Spring Dawn - was quite appropriate to post.

Many Chinese poems are about love and nature; But, some are political commentary (in disguise, of course, not unlike English nursery rhymes). As to whether Meng Hao Ran meant anything political by Spring Dawn I do not know.

With so many others who are better informed and more articluate than myself, and in keeping with this "political commentary" tradition of Chinese poetry I would like to offer Spring Dawn as my commentary on the current situation in the Middle-East.

Notes on translation:

Title - Spring Dawn or A Spring Dawn or The Spring Dawn. Chinese does not have articles (a, an, or the) so this title could have any or none of the articles that we have in English.

Line One - as I have already mentioned, a common Chinese grammatical construction is a verb, the word not or a preposition, followed by a result. In this case it is sleep not awaken. I have translated it as not fully awaken from my sleep.

Line Two - chu chu (place place) - double words in Chinese are very common. In this case doubling the word place means everywhere.

Line Three - Verb tense (come or came). Chinese does not make a distinction between past, present, or future tense. Yes, it can be ambiguous - you must infer from the context as to which verb tense is meant. In this case I am using past tense and adding the word last to modify night as the poem is talking about this morning.

Line Four - dwo shao (many few) is the way to ask in Chinese how many.

Here's my translation:

Spring Dawn

This Spring dawn, not fully awaken from my sleep,

Everywhere I hear the calling of birds,

Last night came the sound of wind and rain,

I don't know how many blossoms fell.

Meng Hao Ran (c. 689-740)

Back to the contents

Golden Valley Garden

Golden Valley Garden is a poem by Du Mu who was a poet during the Tang Dynasty (c 618-904). He is not to be confused with Du Fu - China's greatest poet; in fact Du Mu is sometimes called the "little Du" to distinguish him from Du Fu. They were not related, they just happen to have the same surname (in Chinese the surname comes first). As he was an official who served in the capital he was certainly familiar with all the "goings-on" in politics. While there was a park in the capital called Golden Valley Garden I cannot help but wonder if this poem is more about the capital than about the garden.

Notes on translation:

Title - yu (gold) could mean gold or golden. Chinese words are not inflected; which means that they do not show verb tense, noun number or case, etc. It is placement in the sentence which tells you if it is a noun or an adjective or a verb. In this case yu must be an adjective modifying valley. So, I have chosen to translate it as golden. I could also get "poetic" and translate the title as The Garden of the Golden Valley. But I will keep it simple - Golden Valley Garden.

Line One - Fan (abundant) and hwa (splendid) when used together mean extravagant.

Line Two - Dze (self/nature) while the two meanings do not seem at all related in English, in Chinese they are and it depends upon the context as to which meaning is being used.

Line Three - Yuan (blame), as with many Chinese words this can also be translated in many ways - Here I have chosen to translate it as complain.

Line Four - Du Mu has "coupled" a few words in this poem; fan/hwa (abundant/splendid), yuan/ti (blame/call), and now yo/sse (like/resemble). It could be a way of filling out the poem to fit the 7-syllable pattern as well as give the poem more flavor.

Juey (fall) is not in refernce to physically falling. It is most often used about a person, a business, etc. and can be better translated as failing.

Lou (building) coupled with ren (person); as men were concerned with outside affairs and women were concerned with inside affairs this is (a rather sexist) way of refering to a woman.

Here's my translation:

Extravagant affairs slowly disperse as fragrant dust,

Flowing water does not make the grasses feel Spring,

As the sun sets into dusk an Eastern wind causes birds to call complainingly,

Falling flowers are like a woman's reputation.

Back to the contents

Deer Brushwood

Another poem by Wang Wei.

Notes on translation:

Title - chai (brushwood) can mean brush, firewood, a bundle of sticks, and sometimes, by extension, means a door on a poor man's hut. In this case, it must simply mean the brushwood along the edge of the forest. As chai is used after the word for deer I am tempted to translate the title in a couple of different ways: Deer Shelter, Forest's edge, etc. For deer are often taking shelter, not deep in the forest, but rather in the brush along the forest's edge.

Line 1 - kong shan bu jian ren (empty mountain not see person). This seems pretty straight-forward except that there is no subject, does it mean that the speaker sees no one or that no one can be seen. While this seems very ambiguous remember that English also has this situation sometimes - for example: spare the rod, spoil the child is always taken to mean if you spare the rod you will spoil the child. The subject is assumed. Such is usually the case with Chinese poetry, although modern Spoken Chinese often has a subject like modern English.

Line 1 & 2 - ren (person). As Chinese does not make a distinction between singular and plural this could mean person or people.

Line 3 - ying (view), which can also mean shadow sometimes, is a noun, not a verb. So it means the view into the deep forest. Also, there is no subject, so who is looking on this view? The speaker or is it something else entering the forest?

Line 4 - jao (reflect) can also mean shine. Here it is taken by most scholars to refer to the sun shining on the green moss. Shang (on) can also mean above, top, etc.

Here's my translation:

Deer Brushwood

In the empty mountains, people are not seen,

Yet, a person's voice can be heard.

Turning back to the view into the deep forest,

The light reflects off the top of the green moss.

Back to the contents

return to home page.