画        Painting
(宋)无名氏    (Author: Anonymous, Song Dynasty)

远看山有色,  faraway see mountain have color
近听水无声。  nearby hear water no sound
春去花还在,  spring go flower still exist
人来鸟不惊      people come bird no startle



We see a mountain; though distant, its colors still glow.
We hear only silence, but nearby the waters flow.
Spring left, but its flowers are still bright.
People came, but no birds take flight.


Translation Notes:

This website translates ancient Chinese poems that have deep meaning and emotional resonance. We try to recreate some of the feeling and message of the poems at the cost of not being able to retain the original poem’s structure or rhyme scheme. With this poem, however, we have taken a different approach because, while we think it is very clever, we don’t think it attempts to be particularly profound. Using a series of contradictions, it describes the mountains, rivers, flowers and birds in a painting, and notes how different these objects are in real life.

The poet uses parallelism in the first two lines, a technique that pairs each word in the first line with a word from the next line that is either similar or the complete opposite. In this poem the word combinations are far/near, see/hear, mountain/water, have/without, and color/sound. The couplet can be read either horizontally or vertically, and its structure hints at the meaning: the painting has many points in common with life, but it fundamentally contradicts it. The poem is also structured around a series of verbs. The second word in each line is a verb that is the opposite of the corresponding verb in the previous line, see/hear, go/come. Like all the poems in this site, “Painting” also rhymes and scans. Our translation rhymes and retains the original structure of the opposing verbs as the second word of each line, but it lacks the parallelism of the original couplet, and it does not scan well. This poem was fun to translate, and we encourage readers to try their own hand at recreating this poem’s use of contradictions.

It is debatable as to who wrote this poem. Some believe that it was written by Wang Wei during the Tang dynasty, while others suggest that it was written by an anonymous poet during the Song dynasty. It is not a typical Wang Wei poem, as it is not imbued with a Buddhism-oriented spirit, but, since Wang Wei was a great painter as well as a great poet, he may have chosen to write a few lines on the nature of painted art.

己亥岁二首  Two Poems Written in the Year Ji Hai

曹松             (Author: Cao Song, 9th century)

其一             Number One

泽国江山入战图,lake nation river mountain enter war map
生民何计乐樵苏。live people how plan happiness firewood grasscutting
凭君莫话封侯事,rely on you no talk about grant marquess affair
一将功成万骨枯。one general achievement success ten thousand bones dry



The southern part of a nation blessed by fresh water enters the arena of war.
How can the people find happiness cutting firewood or grass?
Please don’t talk about winning aristocratic titles.
For one general’s glory, a thousand bones are left drying, crumbling to dust.


其二    Number Two

传闻一战百神愁,spread hear one war hundred deity worry
两岸强兵过未休。two banks strong armies pass no stop
谁道沧江总无事,who say Cang river always no affair
近来长共血争流.   recent come long together blood strive flow



I’ve heard that when war begins, hundreds of gods grieve.
There are strong armies on both sides of the river, but neither can stop this thing.
Who says nothing ever happens beside the Cang waters?
Now there are torrents of blood and water flowing east, struggling against each other.


Translation Notes:

These two poems were written by Cao Song, a poet in the late Tang Dynasty. Cao took the imperial examination many times, but didn’t pass the final exam and receive the degree until he was in his early 70s. Since four other scholars in their 70s passed that final exam in the same year as Cao, the announcement from that year’s exam was nicknamed “the list of five elderly”. Cao was famous for using accurate and refined words in his poems. His experience of failing the imperial exams many times is a reflection of how difficult it is for the educated people to pass such exams and become government officials at that time.

During Cao Song’s era, the power of the warlords had significantly expanded, and the central government of the Tang Dynasty had essentially lost control of the local armies. Cao’s poems focused on the sufferings of the commoners when local armies engaged in constant warfare with each other, and pointed out clearly that it was the commoners who were paying the unbearable cost of the warfare.

Chinese poets made frequent allusions to the works of the past, borrowing symbols, metaphors, and sometimes even entire lines from earlier poems. The following two poems repeat the image of a branch of red apricot reaches beyond the wall.


游园不值     Visiting a Garden with the Host Absent

叶绍翁         (Author: Ye Shaoweng, 13th century)

应怜屐齿印苍苔,    should pity wooden shoes teeth mark blue moss
小扣柴扉久不开。 light knock firewood door long no open
春色满园关不住, spring color full of garden close no stop
一枝红杏出墙来。 one branch red apricot go out wall come



It would be a shame to let wooden shoes ruin the blue moss.
Maybe that’s why no one answers when I tap on the wooden door.
But these walls can’t hold back the colors of spring.
A branch of red apricot reaches beyond them.


马上作    Written on Horseback

陆游        (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

平桥小陌雨初收,flat bridge small path rain first stop
淡日穿云翠霭浮;light/pale sun pass through cloud green mist float
杨柳不遮春色断,poplar willow no cover spring color stop
一枝红杏出墙头。one branch red apricot go out wall head



A low bridge, a small path, and the rain just stopped.
Pale sunlight pierces the clouds, floats on green mist.
The poplars and willows can’t block the spring colors.
A branch of red apricot reaches beyond the top of the wall.


Translation Notes:

The last couplets of these two poems both describe the vivid image of spring colors (meaning flowers) that can’t be contained, with a branch of red apricot reaching beyond the wall. Both Ye Shaoweng and Lu You were poets from the Southern Song dynasty, though Lu was born a bit before Ye. It seems likely, therefore, that the last couplet of Ye’s poem originates from Lu’s poem, but since the lives of the two poets briefly overlap each other, we can’t say for sure.

We also attach another translation of Ye’s poem by Red Pine, both because the translation is excellent and because it illustrates one of the problems in translating ancient poetry. As the poems are copied and recopied over the ages, sometimes a word is changed. In the version we use for our translation, the first word of the second line is little “小”, while in the version that Red Pine uses for his translation, the first word is ten “十.” This single change profoundly affects the poem’s meaning and tone: In the version we use, Ye seems to be very patient and doesn’t want to disturb his friend — the owner of the private garden, so he only taps on the door. In the version Red Pine uses, Ye seems to be very enthusiastic in visiting his friend’s garden, knocking ten times, and doesn’t particularly care whether his friend would be disturbed. The way in which the second line is translated affects the translation of the first line. Since there is no subject in the first line, we are left to make our own assumption as to who is concerned about the damage shoes might do to the moss. Because, in our version, Ye seems cautious, we assume that he shares the concern. Red Pine’s enthusiastic Ye ascribes the concern to his friend alone. We think that the version of the poem we used is most likely to be authentic, but this is another area in which we cannot be certain. We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

The last couplet of the two poems was reused repeatedly in later works, most notably by a Ming dynasty folksong “A Branch of Red Apricot”. The meaning of the last couplet was recast in this folksong as a sexual innuendo implying adultery. It was later developed into a well-known Chinese proverb “红杏出墙“(translated literally as “a branch of red apricot reaches beyond the wall”). Some translators have translated this image with sexual innuendo in this Ming dynasty folksong as a branch of red apricot “peeks over the wall.” (by Kathryn Lowry, 2005). We believe that the last couplet of Ye’s poem doesn’t have a sexual implication, as otherwise Ye would have implied that his friend has many concubines in his private garden, and Ye had an affair with one of them.


菩萨蛮.书江西造口壁 (To the Tune “Buddhist Dancers”: Written on the Cliff at Zaokou in Jiangxi Province)

辛弃疾 (Author: Xin Qiji, 12th century)

郁孤台下清江水,Yu Gu Terrance under clear river water
中间多少行人泪。middle among a lot few travel person tears
西北望长安, west north look Chang’an
可怜无数山。 deserve pitiful no count mountain
青山遮不住, green mountain cover no stop
毕竟东流去。 after all east flow go
江晚正愁余, river night just sorrow I
山深闻鹧鸪。 mountain deep hear Partridge



Beneath the Yu Gu Terrace flow the clear waters of the Gan River.
Mingled with the tears of so many who come this way.
I look northwest toward Chang An,
And feel bitterness at the sight of the unending mountains.

But the green mountains can’t stop the rivers.
After all, they flow east.
At night here, on the bank of the Gan, I feel so much sadness.
Deep in the mountains, I hear the partridges crying.


Translation Notes:

The author was famous for his patriotic poems, written during the Southern Song dynasty, a period when China had lost control of the northern part of its empire. The majority of the Song’s royal family had been captured by the northern invaders, though a few, including a former empress, escaped. This poem memorializes a spot where the empress stopped after abandoning her boat. The traveler looks back at Chang An, which was not the capital at that time, but which was a symbol of the past greatness. There is debate as to how the sixth line should be understood since it seems to be saying that the Gan river flows east, when, in fact, it flows north. Some scholars believe that the east-flowing river is a reference to the two great rivers of China, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, both of which flow east. In other words, no matter which way a local river that was the scene of heartbreak and defeat may run, the nation’s two most important rivers still go in the same direction.

The second couplet of the poem was tweaked a bit by contemporary Chinese netizens to satirize a municipal Chinese authority’s censorship towards “negative” COVID lockdown posts. In January this year, authorities in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, which was named Chang An during the Tang Dynasty, imposed harsh COVID lockdown measures that left a lot of city residents with a shortage of food and limited access to necessary medical treatment. With online posts complaining the local government’s COVID lockdown policies going viral on different social media websites, authorities in Xi’an started to ban “negative” COVID lockdown posts on social media. Some creative Chinese netizens, inspired by the second couplet of this poem, changed the last word in the second couplet from “山“ to “删“. The two words are a homophonic pun in Chinese. With the change, the second couplet reads (in Chinese) as followed: “西北望长安,可怜无数删“, and could be translated as “I look northwest toward Chang An.  And feel bitterness that countless posts were deleted”.


松寺        Pine Temple

卢延让    (Author: Lu Yanrang, 10th century)

山寺取凉当夏夜,mountain temple get cold should summer night
共僧蹲坐石阶前。together monk squat sit stone stair in front of
两三条电欲为雨,two three strip lightning about to become rain
七八个星犹在天。7, 8 individual star still exist sky
衣汗稍停床上扇,clothes sweat a little stop bed on fan
茶香时拨涧中泉。tea fragrant sometimes stir mountain brook in stream
通宵听论莲华义, all night hear discuss Buddhism meaning
不藉松窗一觉眠。 not equal to pine window one night sleep



A mountain temple grows a little cooler on a summer night.
I squatted in front of the stairs with a monk.
Until two or three flashes of lightning signaled the coming rain.
Seven or eight stars were left in the sky.

And my clothes were damp from the day’s heat,
I lay in bed, fanning myself and stirring my tea
Its fragrance joined the mountain streams,
The perfume of each stimulating the other.
I listened to talk of the Lotus Sutra until dawn
But even a whole night’s discussion is not worth a good sleep by a pine window.


Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Lu Yanrang, a poet in the late Tang Dynasty. While much of our translation closely follows the literal, word for word language, we expanded the sixth line to try to give a little better sense of what was meant by tea fragrance that stirs the mountain streams. By the Tang dynasty, tea drinking had become very popular in Buddhist monasteries, and the monks participated in the aesthetic appreciation of various teas. Moreover, a Buddhist who achieves virtue is believed to have a “pure nose” which is capable of smelling the good scents of nature even from a great distance. We think that the poet was saying that the essence of the tea became one with the mountain streams and that he could smell and appreciate both as he lay on a bed fanning himself.

Chinese poets sometimes borrow concepts from the works of the past. The second couplet of this poem probably inspired a later poem written by Xin Qiji, which we have also translated. Xin’s poem also portrayed a landscape with the stars appearing in the distant sky until two or three rain drops fall in front of the mountain. Though both poems portrayed a tranquil environment, the second couplet of Lu’s poem emphasizes the unexpectedness of a summer rain — before the flashes of the lightning signaled the coming rain, there were still stars hanging in the sky.

The last couplet of the poem could be translated in two different ways — If we translate the word “藉“ as “think of”, this couplet would mean that the poet was so concentrated on listening to the discussion of the Lotus Sutra that he didn’t even think about going to sleep. “藉“ could also be interpreted as a homophonic pun of the word “及“, which means “come up with” or “be equal to”. We chose the second interpretation as it corresponds more closely to the relaxing and pleasant environment described in this poem.

归园田居·其四    Returning to Dwell in Fields and Gardens, No.4

陶渊明             (Author: Tao Yuanming, 4th century)

久去山泽游,long leave mountain water/lake travel
浪莽林野娱。unrestrained reckless forest field pleasure
试携子侄辈,for the moment take son nephew generation
披榛步荒墟。break luxuriant grass and wood walk deserted ruins
徘徊丘垄间,wander linger tomb among
依依昔人居。think of past person reside
井灶有遗处,well kitchen have leftover place
桑竹残杇株。mulberry bamboo incomplete scribble trunk of a tree

借问采薪者,borrow ask pick firewood person
此人皆焉如?this person all question word go to
薪者向我言,firewood person towards me say
死没无复余.   die submerge/die no again leftover
一世异朝市,one generation different morning city
此语真不虚。this word really not in vain
人生似幻化,person life similar to magical/unreal change
终当归空无。eventually should return emptiness no



It’s been a long time since I left the court,
To travel among the mountains and lakes,
Free to enjoy myself in forests and fields.
And now I’ve brought the next generation with me,
To blaze trails with axes and walk in deserted ruins.
To wander among the tombs,
And think of the people who lived here before.
We can still see traces of their kitchens and wells.
And what’s left of their mulberry and bamboo groves.

We ask a woodcutter where everyone has gone.
And he tells me they’ve all died.
No one survived.
In one generation, the whole world can change.
Believe me.
A person’s life is an unreal thing, always bound to change.
Eventually, everything returns to emptiness.


Translation Note:

This is a very different sort of Fields and Gardens poem. It has the requisite features: a departure from the busy world of the court to live a contemplative, rural life, an emphasis on a simple, natural setting, and a sense of the ineffable, but it also introduces new elements to considerable effect. Children (“the next generation”) make a rare appearance in a Fields and Gardens poem; although they don’t speak, their presence heightens the poem’s dramatic impact. When the woodcutter says that everyone has died, he introduces the specter of death and eventual “emptiness” not just to a world weary middle aged man, but also to the young and presumably innocent. The result is a much greater sense of vulnerability and loss. In addition, the poet’s primary focus is on the remains of everyday human existence, rather than on natural objects. This choice produces a similar effect; the feeling of loss is immediate, close, and pitiable.

In the last line of the first stanza, the words 残杇株 can be interpreted a number of ways. We believe that within the context of the poem, the words mean “withered tree branches” or “what remained of the trees.” It is significant that the line referencing mulberry and bamboo comes immediately after the traces of wells and kitchens, as mulberry and bamboo are domestic crops used for silk production, food, and construction. We introduced the word “grove” to suggest that these cultivated crops once grew in large numbers and were not random growths. The penultimate line of the second stanza states that a person’s life is “unreal.” Although the word 幻化 also may be translated as “magical,” doing so would have given the impression that life is beautiful or wonderful. The word 幻化 in this poem is used to reference a Buddhist notion of life being insubstantial and illusory. The Eastern Jin dynasty faced constant military threat from the North as well as domestic riots and peasant revolutions. As a result, life was precarious during this period, and there was no safety from attack even in the remote countryside.

秋风辞      Autumn Wind Song

汉武帝 (Author:  Emperor Wu of Han,  2nd century BC)

秋风起兮白云飞, autumn wind rise connection word white cloud fly
草木黄落兮雁南归。grass tree yellow fall connection word geese south return
兰有秀兮菊有芳, orchid have elegant connection word chrysanthemum have fragrance
怀佳人兮不能忘。 think of beautiful woman connection word no can forget
泛楼船兮济汾河, float building ship connection word cross Fen river
横中流兮扬素波。 cross middle flow connection word raise white wave
箫鼓鸣兮发棹歌, bamboo flute drum sound connection word sing paddle song
欢乐极兮哀情多。 happy happy to the extreme connection word sorrow feelings many
少壮几时兮奈老何!young strong how much time connection word deal with old question word



The autumn wind rises and sends white clouds flying
The grass and the trees have yellowed, and the geese flown south.
Orchids and chrysanthemums are fragrant and elegant.
I think of a beautiful woman I will never forget.

As my flagship crosses the Fen river.
We raise white waves navigating the channel.
Flutes and drums sound; the oarsmen burst into song.
Great happiness can lead to great sorrow.
Oh, how much time we had when we were young?
How can we deal with growing old?


Translation note:

This poem was written by Emperor Wu of Han, a brilliant and ambitious emperor of the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu is known for his military expansion during his reign, as well as his patronage of musical and poetic arts. It is said that he wrote this poem during his 40s, when he travelled to Shanxi province to worship the deity of deep earth and soil. During his trip, he received a message that his army had just won a victory on their mission to conquer the south. This poem was therefore written during a time when his empire was strong and his personal power seemed unlimited. The last sentence of the poem contrasted his seemingly unlimited early power with the fact that he wouldn’t be able to stop time and prevent himself from getting old. That’s probably the reason why he seemed to be abusing his power during his later reign — he put his quest for the elixir of immortality ahead of his subjects’ well being. He even married off one of his daughters to a magician who promised to find the magic elixir. The frustrated emperor later executed his son-in-law for failure to fulfill this promise.

佳人  A Beautiful Woman

杜甫 (Author:  Du Fu, 8th century)

绝代有佳人,absolutely/by all means generation have beautiful person
幽居在空谷。tranquil reside at empty valley
自云良家子,herself say good family daughter
零落依草木。remnant fall lean on grass trees
关中昔丧乱,strategic pass middle past mourning chaos
兄弟遭杀戮。elder brother younger brother suffer kill slay
官高何足论,official rank high how sufficient talk
不得收骨肉。no be able to collect bone fleshes
世情恶衰歇,world feeling evil decline come to an end
万事随转烛。ten thousand things follow rotate candles
夫婿轻薄儿,husband look down upon thin person
新人美如玉。new person beautiful similar to jade
合昏尚知时,close dusk still know time
鸳鸯不独宿。mandarin duck no alone sleep
但见新人笑,only see new person smile
那闻旧人哭。how (question word) hear old person cry
在山泉水清,exist mountain spring water clean
出山泉水浊。go out mountain spring water turbid/muddy
侍婢卖珠回,serve female slave sell jewel return
牵萝补茅屋。lead along rattan repair thatched cottage
摘花不插发,pick flower no insert hair
采柏动盈掬。pick cypress leaf move (here means usually) full bunch
天寒翠袖薄,sky cold green sleeve thin/flimsy
日暮倚修竹.   sun sunset lean on tall bamboo



The most beautiful woman of our time,
Lives alone in a deserted valley.
She told me about her noble birth.
Driven into the wilderness, she had no support but the grass and trees.

When Chang An was invaded,
Both her older and younger brothers were slaughtered.
Their high rank could not protect them.
No one could retrieve their flesh and their bones.

And her whole world fell into ruins.
All of life is as unsubstantial as a flickering candle flame.
Her husband began to despise his fallen wife,
And found a new woman as beautiful as jade.

Even the flowers know to close their petals at dusk,
And the mandarin ducks will not sleep alone.
But her husband can only see his new love smiling.
How can he hear his old wife cry?

Spring water is clean when it’s in the mountain,
It gets muddy when it runs downhill.
When the maid returned from selling her lady’s jewels,
She found the lady using straw to repair the cottage.

The flowers she gathers are not for her hair.
Her arms are filled with cypress leaves.
The sky is cold, and her fine blue gown is flimsy.
The sun sets, and she leans on the tall bamboo.


Translation notes:

This poem is a portrait of a beautiful upper class woman whose birth family was destroyed during the An Lushan rebellion. After the downfall of her family, she was also despised and discarded by her husband, and was driven out to live in the mountain/wilderness. During the Tang Dynasty, it was usually not easy for an upper class man to divorce a wife who belonged to the same social rank. Therefore, what was described in Du Fu’s poem was a reflection of a complete destruction of social order during the An Lushan rebellion.

The poem is not easy to translate, and we had to take a couple liberties. The fourth line, if translated literally, will be something along the line of “lost and fallen, she could only lean on the grass and trees”. Some other translations have translated this line more literally. We felt that the literal translation could be pretty confusing to American readers, and therefore chose to translate it as “she has no support but the grass and trees”. The geographical location in the fifth line, if translated literally, will be “the middle of the strategic pass”. Here, since Du Fu is referring to the capital region, we chose to translate it directly as “Chang An”.

杂诗 Miscellaneous Poem

无名氏 (Author: Anonymous, Tang Dynasty)

近寒食雨草萋萋,close cold food rain grass luxuriant luxuriant
著麦苗风柳映堤。blow wheat seedling wind willow shine embankment
等是有家归未得,equal is have family return not can
杜鹃休向耳边啼。cuckoo no towards ear beside cry



It’s almost Sweep the Graves Day, and the rain has made the grass grow thick.
The wheat seedlings tremble in the wind, and the river mirrors the willow trees.
Why can’t I return to my family?
Cuckoo bird, don’t make your mournful cry where I can hear you.


Translation note:

In the first couplet of the poem, the name of the festival is the “Cold Food Festival,” if translated literally. It is a traditional Chinese holiday which originated from the commemoration of the death of a nobleman during the Spring and Autumn period (around 7th century BC). It gradually evolved into an occasion for the Chinese to worship their ancestors. During the Tang dynasty, ancestral observance became a single-day event that is now the “Sweep the Graves Day,” which is how we translated it. We assume that most American readers wouldn’t know what “Cold Food Festival” is but that “sweep the graves” would convey the meaning. Whether we call it cold food festival or sweep the graves day, it is a time for returning to your home town and being with family.

This poem reflects the nostalgia of a traveler who was unable to return home. The second couplet of the poem was quoted by a Chinese netizen showing her sympathy towards those overseas Chinese who were unable to return to China due to the tough border controls imposed by the Chinese government to deal with COVID.

Since the COVID breakout, it is increasingly difficult for Chinese living abroad to travel to China due to frequent flight cancellations, skyrocketing ticket prices, and the strict pre-departure COVID testing requirements. Some were complaining that nowadays, travelling to China is as if they were purchasing “a lottery ticket”.

游山西村 Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain

陆游 (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

莫笑农家腊酒浑,no laugh farm family winter wine murky
丰年留客足鸡豚。ample year keep guest enough chicken pig/meat
山重水复疑无路,mountain layers water repeat doubt no road
柳暗花明又一村。willow dark flower bright again one village
箫鼓追随春社近,bamboo flute drum chase follow spring sacrifice near
衣冠简朴古风存。clothes hat simple rustic ancient style exist
从今若许闲乘月,From today if allow leisure take advantage of moon
拄杖无时夜叩门。lean on walking stick unscheduled night knock at door



Don’t laugh at the murky winter wine in a farmer’s cottage
In the good years there’s enough chicken and pork for guests

There are so many mountains and with the way the river twists, you think there’s no road
And then, dark willows, bright blossoms, another village appears.

Pipers, drummers, chasing and following each other, the spring sacrifice is near.
Farmers’ straw hats and simple, country clothes, the old way of life is not forgotten.

From now on, please allow me to take advantage of a full moon,
Leaning leisurely on my cane, I’ll knock on your door some evening.


Translation Notes: 

Although this poem is similar to the Field and Garden school of poetry in that it describes a pleasing natural landscape, it is not firmly within the Field and Garden tradition. The emphasis in this poem is on the rural people rather than the rural surroundings, and the overall effect is one of happy engagement rather than contemplative withdrawal. “Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain” is much praised by the communist party because it exalts the everyday life of the working class. The second couplet has long been famous for its encouragement of perseverance toward an uncertain goal. In fact, it is so famous that Secretary Clinton recited it in 2010 during her remarks at the Shanghai World Expo. The translation she used is as follows: “After endless mountains and rivers that leave doubt whether there is a path out, suddenly one encounters the shade of a willow, bright flowers and a lovely village.” We chose to use the second person rather than the third to increase the sense of intimacy. We do not describe the village as lovely since “lovely” is not in the original. Other translations of this poem have been more literal than ours, though, at least with regards to the final line in which they accurately state that the proposed visits are “unscheduled” or “out of time.” We hope that this idea of a spontaneous visit was adequately implied in our version. We felt that words such as “unscheduled” were a little clumsy and out of place in the English version of the poem.