China Travel Photography

Home Maps Tech Info Location List Travel Writing


Below are some Chinese poems I like and translated with much effort. I will add to the list as time goes. As of now, I am using the following books for the Chinese: 宋诗一百首One Hundred Song Poems, published by 中华书局Zhonghua Shuju, 香港Xianggang (Hong Kong), 1984; 李商隐诗选A Selection of Poems by Li Shangyin, published by 中华书局Zhonghua Shuju, Beijing, 2009; and 唐诗三百首详析An Analysis of Three Hundred Poems from the Tang Dynasty, published by 中华书局Zhonghua Shuju, Beijing, 1991. Previously, I used " Chinese Poetry: An anthology of major modes and genres" by Wai-Lim Yip, published 1997 by Duke University Press. But unfortunately I lost Yip's book after a few translations.

After a couple of translations, inevitably I experienced the difficultness of translating. This is not just due to my inadequate Chinese, but is intrinsic in translation itself. Chinese is a tonal language while English is phonetic; combine with the terseness of Chinese, the difference makes the translation difficult, if not impossible, to preserve the meter and structure of the original peom. Besides these, the Chinese character also has a unique quality: its visualness. Chinese poets often make use of this silent trait to add extra depth to their piece. In the translation, this pictorial quality is entirely lost, as are the homonyms that many poets are fond of using. Because many traits can be lost in translation, the English version may appear simple and confusing to the reader. But the Chinese original, however, can be very sophisticated. Some poems, such as those of 杜甫Du Fu, are so complex that the translations are at best a jumble of words. This complexity is due to difficult vocabulary, homonyms, and deep references to past literature -- all is lost in translation. Compromise is unavoidable. The job of the translator is to decide what to keep and what not. Translation becomes, in many ways, a matter of style.

I like short poems with vocabularies that I can manage. Short: because I like poems that deal with an idea or a feeling, not a story; and managable vocabularies: because my Chinese is still at the elementry level. The poems on this page are arranged with the most recent first.

  1. 夕阳楼1 — 李商隐 (812 - 858)唐朝 (618 - 907)

    花明柳暗绕天愁, 上尽重城更上楼。 欲问孤鸿向何处, 不知身世自悠悠。

    Xiyang Tower (Sunset Tower)1 — Li Shangyin (812 - 858)Tang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Bright flowers, shaded willows, gloom all over the sky, To the end of the city wall and up the tower. Should I ask: "Oh! Lonely goose -- where are you heading to?" Don't know what the future holds for me -- still fluttering.

    1.  夕阳楼Xiyang Tower (Sunset Tower): 位於河南郑州市,但现在不存在。Located in Zhengzhou city of Henan Province, but no longer exist. One of the most well-known towers during the Tang and Song dynasties. It survived to the Qing dynasty. The poet wrote this short poem at some time during the Autumn of the ninth year of 大和Dahe reign (835), when he was in his early twenties. He was then an aide to an admiring official in Zhengzhou city. The tower was located within the outter city wall.

  2. 雨中游天竺灵感观音院1 — 苏轼 (1036 - 1101)北宋朝 (960 - 1127)

    蚕欲老,麦半黄,前山后山雨浪浪。 农夫辍耒女废筐,白衣仙人在高堂。

    Amidst Rain: Traveling to the Lingxian Guanyin Temple on Tianzhu Mountain1 — Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo) (1036 - 1101)Northern Song dynasty (960 - 1127)

    Silkworms fast cocoon, wheats half yellowed, All around the mountain, the rain pours and pours. The farmer had dropped his plough, the woman had layed down her basket2, But the white-robed immortal3 still sits idle high on her altar.

    1.  天竺山Tianzhu Mountain: 在浙江省杭州市Located in Hangzhou city of Zhejiang Province. 灵感观音院Lingxian Guanyin Temple is the 上天竺寺Shangtian Temple.

    2.   The basket use to collect mulberry leaves for the silkworms.

    3.  白衣仙人White-robed Immortal: Here refers to the bodhisattva 观音Guanyin, whose white robe is her signature clothing. She is a deity of kindness and mercy, and will bestow goodness in times of need or whenever someone prays for it. But here, the poet was sadden by her lack of mercy to the people affected by the unending rain.

  3. 临安1春雨初霁 — 陆游 (1125 - 1210)南宋朝 (1127 - 1279)

    世味年来博似纱, 谁命骑马客京华。 小楼一夜听春雨, 深巷明朝卖杏花。 矮纸斜行闲作草, 晴窗细乳戏分茶。 素衣莫起风尘叹, 犹及清明可到家。

    Linan1 After Rain — Lu You (1125 - 1210)Southern Song dynasty (1127 - 1279)

    The passing years, my taste for the world is as thin as gauze. The days in the capital, whose bright idea to come here? At night, in my small house, I hear the spring rain rushing down. By morning, in the alleys, someone calls to sell flowers. Bored. I play grass script2 writing on a small sheet of paper. Amused. I delight myself with the foam in my cup of tea. Sign no more about my spotless clothes that had been smeared, There's still time to return home and have my forbear's graves cleaned.

    1.  临安Linan: 现在浙江省杭州市Today Hangzhou city of Zhejiang Province.

    2.  草书Grass Script: In Chinese calligraphy, the form of writing style that is wildly cursive and is written in a single stroke without lifting the brush. It was developed during the early 汉朝Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD). By the Song dynasty, a whole composition was written without lifting the brush off the paper. As it is written differently from standard script, Grass script were, and still is, used mostly by calligraphers. The simplified script used today is largely influenced by, and many characters are taken out of, Grass Script. Grass Script is probably the first shorthand writing.

  4. 池州1翠微亭 — 岳飞2 (1103 - 1142)南宋朝 (1127 - 1279)

    经年尘土满征衣, 特特寻芳上翠微。 好水好山看不足, 马蹄催趁月明归。

    The Cuiwei Pavillion of Chizhou1 — Yue Fei2(1103 - 1141)Southern Song dynasty (1127 - 1279)

    My army clothes are dusty all year round. To Cuiwei I go just for its flowers; Good streams and hills I cannot get enough. On return, my horse speeds through the moonlight.

    1.  池州Chizhou: 现在安徽省贵池县Today Guichi county of Anhui Province.

    2.  岳飞Yue Fei is one of greatest Chinese generals and probably the most well-known patriot in his field. As a general, he vowed to regain the northern territories taken by the Jin. He came close to succeeding but was ordered back to the capital (today Hangzhou) by the Song emperor and his prime minister, who charged him of treason. He was soon hanged secretly (Scholars believe the execution order was given by the Song emperor, 高宗Gaozong, for three probable reasons: If Yue Fei succeed in capturing the Jin capital, the previous Song emperor held prison by the Jurchens would return to jeopardize Gaozong's position; Yue Fei had control of three-fifth the national army, so he is a threat; and Yue Fei gets involved in the imperial succession), ending his life of just 39 years. Although by birth the son of a farmer, Yue Fei became part of a long tradition of great generals who are well-versed in the arts.

  5. 静夜思 — 李白唐朝 (618 - 907)

    床前明月光, 疑是地上霜。 举头望明月, 底头思故乡!

    Thoughts in a Quiet Night — Li BaiTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Before my bedchamber, the bright moonlight, Thinking that it may be frost on the ground, I raise my head to check the brilliant moon, On lowering, my thoughts are full of home!

    This is probably the most famous poem in Chinese; every schoolchildren learned to memorize it. It describes a very common scene of an even more common theme -- the thoughts of home away from home. Combine with its easy vocabulary and perfect composition, it's extraordinary popularity is not surprising.

  6. 绝句 — 李清照 (1084 - 1151?)宋朝 (960 - 1279)

    生当作人杰, 死亦为鬼雄。 至今思项羽, 不肯过江东。

    Jueju (Poem of 4 lines and 5 characters) — Li Qingzhao (1084 - 1151?)Song dynasty (960 - 1279)

    Live a brave hero among the living, Die a tragic hero among the dead. To this day the memory of Xiang Yu,1 Who refused to cross the Yangzi River.

    1  项羽Xiang Yu (232 BCE - 202 BCE).   Xiang Yu, known as 楚霸王"King of kings", was born from a powerful and influential family. He and 刘邦Liu Bang struggled for supremacy during the final days of the 秦朝Qin Dynasty (221 BCE - 206 BCE). Xiang Yu eventually lost to Liu Bang, who established the 汉朝Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD). In his final battle at 乌江 (今安徽和县)Wujiang (present-day He County, Anhui province), he refused to cross the 长江Changjiang River (also known as 扬子江Yangzi River) to his homeland, feeling ashamed that none of his original followers had survived. Instead, he ordered his last warriors to dismount and fight the enemy til their death. As the last warrior standing, he committed suicide, presumably by cutting his own head off. Although he lost to Liu Bang, he was more well-known. Legends and songs abound of his heroism and tragic death, as well as his cruelty. Throughout time, he was considered by many the greatest warrior in Chinese histroy, whose almost mythic phyical ability helped him defeat enemies with just a handful of men. His fatal weakness was his violent temper and arrogance that blocked the advises of his loyal friends and advisors.

    The poetess Li Qingzhao used Xiang Yu's heroism and decision to fight back instead of retreat to mock the Song government's coward move across the Yangzi River. At the time, the northern Jin attacked the empire and forced it southward, eventually across the Changjiang River to set up the Southern Song.

  7. 无题 — 李商隐 (812 - 858)唐朝 (618 - 907)

    相见时难别亦难, 东风无力百花残。 春蚕到死丝方尽, 蜡炬成灰泪始干。 晓镜但愁云鬓改, 夜吟应觉月光寒。 蓬山此去无多路, 青鸟殷勤为探看。

    No Title — Li Shangyin (812 - 858)Tang dynasty (618 - 907)

    To meet is hard, so too, to separate. The east wind subsides, the flowers wither. Spring's silkworm dies upon its last thread; Torch turns to ash then its wax drips dry. Mirror: sorrow had grayed my temple hair. Night: reciting beneath the cold moonlight. The road to you seems so intangible; So a letter be my eyes to meet yours.

  8. 春雨 — 李商隐 (812 - 858)唐朝 (618 - 907)

    怅卧新春白袷衣, 白门寥落意多违。 红楼隔雨相望冷, 珠箔飘灯独自归。 远路应悲春晼晚, 残宵犹得梦依稀。 玉珰缄札何由达? 万里云罗一雁飞。

    Spring Rain — Li Shangyin (812 - 858)Tang dynasty (618 - 907)

    New spring. Sadly I lie in my plain clothes, At the White Gate1, nothing had come around. The red tower2, between rain, I watched: cold. The pearl-curtained carriage, fluttering lanterns, I returned: alone. A long journey through the sad spring evening, The night withered away like a vague dream. A pair of earrings, a letter: where to? An endless net of gray clouds: a goose flies.

    1  白门Baimen (White Gate).   In the poet's time and before, it refers to the 宣阳门Xuanyanmen Gate of 南京市Nanjing City (then named 健康Jiankang, the capital city of the 南朝Southern Dynasty (420 - 589)).   Outside the White Gate were many willow trees, and thus was a favorite place for lovers to meet.

    2  红楼honglou (red tower).   The house of a young woman from a common family, as oppose to 珠楼zhulou (pearl tower), which is the house of young woman from a wealthy family.

  9. 登鹳鹊楼 – 王之涣唐朝 (618 - 907)

    白日依山尽, 黄河人海流, 欲穷千里目, 更上一层楼。

    Climbing the Guanque Tower – Wang ZihuanTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    The brillant sun ends along the mountains; The Yellow River flows into the sea. If you desire for a thousand-li* view; Again, climb up another level.

    *  Li is a unit of distant used in China since antiquity. Today, it is standardized as half a kilometer.

  10. 春晓 – 孟浩然唐朝 (618 - 907)

    春眠不觉晓, 处处闻啼鸟。 夜来风雨声, 花落知多少?

    Spring Dawn – Meng HaoranTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Sleeping in spring – not a sense of dawn; Suddenly – everywhere – the cries of birds. Night comes: The symphony of wind and rain. Flowers drop: Who could know how many?

  11. 怨情 — 李白唐朝 (618 - 907)

    美人卷珠帘, 深坐颦蛾眉。 但见泪痕湿, 不知心恨谁。

    Blaming — Li BaiTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    A beauty rolls up her beaded curtain; Disappointed, she sits knitting her lashes. Only to see herself wet with quiet tears; Do not know who her heart now loves and hates.

  12. 游子吟 — 孟郊唐朝 (618 - 907)

    慈母手中线, 游子身上衣。 临行密密缝, 意恐迟迟归! 谁言寸草心, 报得三春晖。

    Wandering Son's Song — Meng JiaoTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Between a loving mother's fingers – thread; On the wandering son's body – cloth. Before a journey, closely she stitches, Worrying – what if he returns home late!
    Who says the little green grass by the road, Could ever give back three springs of sunshine.

  13. 送别 — 王维唐朝 (618 - 907)

    下马饮君酒, 问君何所之? 君言不得意, 归卧南山陲。 但去莫复问, 白云无尽时。

    Farewell — Wang WeiTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Off my horse I share your wine. I ask: Where are you heading? You said unexpectedly: Back to lie in the South Mountains.1
    Leaving – why ask more. The white clouds do not end with time.2

    1.  The 南山South Mountains are in 陕西省Shaanxi Province. Its peak is in the the south of 西安Xian.

    2.  But other things do – such as officialhood, and fame and fortune.

  14. 绝句二首 — 杜甫唐朝 (618 - 907)

    1. 迟日江山丽 春风花草香 泥融飞燕子 沙暖睡鸳鸯
    2. 江碧鸟逾白 山青花欲燃 今春看又过 何日是归年

    Two Poems — Du FuTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    1. Late sun: the beauty of rivers and mountains; Spring winds: the fragrance of flowers and grass. As the soil thaws, the swallows fly; On the warm sands, the mandarin ducks sleep.
    2. Above the jade river, the birds are extra bright; On the emerald mountain, the flowers seem like flames. Look! This spring again passes. Which day and year is homecoming?

  15. 访戴天山道士不遇 — 李白唐朝 (618 - 907)

    犬吠水声中 挑花带雨浓 树深时见鹿 溪午不闻种 野竹分青霭 飞泉挂碧峰 无人知所去 愁倚两三松

    On visiting Daitian Mountain's Daoist recluse but failed to meet him — Li BaiTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Dogs bark amidst the sound of water. Peach blossoms soaked thick with rain. Deep groves: at times — the sight of a deer. Stream at noon: not a bell rings. Wild bamboos share in the green mist. Flying springs hang on a jade peak. No one knows his whereabouts. Sadly, I lean on two three pines.

  16. 无题 — 李商隐唐朝 (618 - 907)

    昨夜星辰昨夜风 画楼西畔桂堂东 身无彩凤双飞翼 心有灵犀一点通 隔座送钩春酒暖 分曹射覆蜡灯红 嗟余听鼓应官去 走马兰台类断莲

    No Title — Li ShangyinTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Last night's stars, last night's winds; West of the painted chamber, east of the cassia hall. Our bodies have none of the wings of the colorful phoenix, But Our hearts have the magic horn to communicate as one. Across the table, play "hook-a-turtle": spring wine is warm. In teams, try "tongue-twisters": candle burns red. Too bad! I hear the drum calling me to my official duties; I rush my horse to the Orchid Terrace like an uprooted lotus.

  17. 登高 — 杜甫(唐朝宗大历二年 - 767 - 秋)

    风急天高猿啸哀 渚清沙白鸟飞回 无边落木萧萧下 不尽长江滚滚来 万里悲秋常作客 百年多病孤登台 艰难苦恨繁霜鬓 潦倒新停浊酒杯

    Climbing The Terrace — Du Fu(Tang dynasty during the second year of the Song Dali reign - 767. Summer)

    Rush winds, high sky, monkeys wail; Clear shores, white sand, birds return. The borderless woods - leaves rustling down; The endless Chang Jiang - torrents roaring through. Umpteen miles of grievous Autumns - a constant traveler; Hundred years of painful illness - a lone terrace-climber. Hardships and bitterness had frosted my temple hair; Ah! wretched that I had just quit going for my cups of muddy wine.

  18. 竹里馆 — 王维唐朝 (618 - 907)

    独坐幽篁里 弹琴复长哨 深林人不知 明月来相照

    Bamboo Groove — Wang WeiTang dynasty (618 - 907)

    Sitting alone among dark bamboos; Plucking the qin* and singing aloud. In the deep woods no one knows; Only the bright moon shines on me.

    * The qin,also called the 古琴guqin (meaning "ancient qin" for clarifications; there are few other instruments that uses the character qin - such as the western piano) is a seven-string (seven for the last two millennia; before, it may have 5 or 20.) zither, and considered the classical instrument of China. The qin is one of the oldest Chinese musical instruments, dating back some 3000 years or more. An extremely difficult instrument to play because it has no frets or bridges, and its plucking variations are numerous -- more than any instrument. Today, very few musicians can truely be claimed a master qin player.