采莲曲    Lotus Picking Song

汉代 (Han Dynasty)

江南可采莲,river south can pick lotus
莲叶何田田,lotus leaf how field field
鱼戏莲叶间。fish play lotus leaves among
鱼戏莲叶东,fish play lotus leaves east
鱼戏莲叶西,fish play lotus leaves west
鱼戏莲叶南,fish play lotus leaves south
鱼戏莲叶北。fish play lotus leaves north



We pick lotus south of the Yangtze
Lotus leaves so fresh and so green.
fish play among the lotus leaves
fish play in the leaves to the east
fish play in the leaves to the west
fish play in the leaves to the south
fish play in the leaves to the north.


Translation Notes:

This is a folk poem that was popular in the Han dynasty (202 BCE to 9 ACE). It was sung as a gentle metaphor for the relations between the sexes, with the men singing one line, and the women singing the next line. “South of the river” means south of the Yangtze, which is a common way of referring to the southern part of the nation. This folk poem was adapted as one of the songs sung by an emperor’s concubine in a Chinese television series “Empresses in the Palace”. The concubine won the emperor’s favor with her singing. The song could be found here.

There have been several instances in Chinese history when multiple members of the same family became renowned for their poetry. One such instance was with the Cao clan during the Three Kingdoms period (220 ACE to 280 ACE). The brilliant warlord Cao Cao, together with his two sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, all wrote poems that are still read and studied today. The four poems that follow were written by Cao Cao’s two sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. Though the two princes are brothers, the styles of their poems are very different from each other.


白马篇  On the White Horse

(魏)曹植 (Author: Cao Zhi, 3rd Century)

白马饰金羁,white horse decorate gold bridle
连翩西北驰。connect fly fast west north ride
借问谁家子?borrow ask who family son
幽并游侠儿。You Bin travel chivalrous person
少小去乡邑,young little leave hometown city
扬声沙漠垂。raise reputation sand desert frontier
宿昔秉良弓,night morning hold good bow
楛矢何参差!beadtree/china-berry arrow how fringe difference
控弦破左的,control bowstring break left archery target
右发摧月支。right release destroy archery target
仰手接飞猱,upward hand shoot flying monkey
俯身散马蹄。bow down body scatter horse hoof
狡捷过猴猿,cunning agile surpass monkey
勇剽若豹螭。brave swift similar to leopard hornless dragon

边城多警急,frontier city many alarm hasty
虏骑数迁移。tribeman horse rider several times shift change
羽檄从北来,feather exhortation from north come
厉马登高堤。rein horse climb high hill
长驱蹈匈奴,long ride step on Xiongnu
左顾陵鲜卑。left look overpower Xianbei
弃身锋刃端,discard body edge knift front
性命安可怀?nature life how can think of
父母且不顾,father mother yet no take care
何言子与妻?how say son and wife
名编壮士籍,name compile strong person roll
不得中顾私。no can middle/heart think of private matters
捐躯赴国难,donate body go nation calamity
视死忽如归. look at death suddenly similar to return


A white horse with a gold bridle
Soared like a bird into the Northwest.
I begged to know where the rider had come from.
He was a hero from You Bin.
When he was young, he left his hometown,
And made his reputation in the desert frontier.
Night and day he carried his good bow
With china-berry and bead tree arrows, short and long,
He could hit his target shooting left handed on horseback,
Shooting right handed, he could also pierce through it.
Shooting upward without stop, he could hit a flying monkey
Aiming his bow at the ground, he could destroy a horse hoof target.
More agile and cunning than a monkey,
As brave and as fierce as a leopard or mountain demon.

In this frontier city there are many sudden alarms
Urgent military messages come from the North,
While tribesmen attack from all directions.
He races up a steep hill
One long ride and he dominates the Xiongnu
Then he looks to his left and vanquishes the Xianbei
He lives on the knife-edge of danger
How can he think of his own well being?
He cares little for his mother and father,
Even less for his wife and child.
With his name on the roll of great men
He has no time for private matters
He sacrifices his body to save the nation
And sees his own death as a sweet homecoming.


七步诗    Seven Steps Poem

煮豆持作羹,cook/boil beans use make soup
漉豉以为汁。filter pulse use become juice
萁在釜下燃,beanstalks at pot under burn
豆在釜中泣。beans at pot inside cry
本自同根生,originally from same root born
相煎何太急? each other fry why too much hastily


Beans are boiled to make soup
In their own fermented broth
Beanstalks burn beneath the pot
Beans inside the pot cry out
We were born from the same stalk
why so quick to incinerate me?


杂诗二首    Two Pieces of Miscellaneous Poems

(魏)曹丕 (Author: Cao Pi, 3rd century)

其一 Number One

漫漫秋夜长,overflow overflow autumn night long
烈烈北风凉。wind blowing sound north wind cold
展转不能寐,toss toss no can sleep
披衣起彷徨。put on clothes get up wander
彷徨忽已久,wander suddenly already long
白露沾我裳。white dew moisten my clothes
俯视清水波,look down see clear water ripple
仰看明月光。look up see bright moon light

天汉回西流,milky way return west flow
三五正纵横。three five at the time vertical horizontal
草虫鸣何悲,grass insect cry how sorrow
孤雁独南翔。solitary goose alone south fly
郁郁多悲思,sad sad many sorrow thoughts
绵绵思故乡。continuous think of past village
愿飞安得翼,wish fly how get wing
欲济河无梁。desire to cross river no bridge
向风长叹息, face wind long sigh rest
断绝我中肠。break cut off I middle bowel



Long, long the autumn night,
Howling, howling the cold north wind.
Restless, turning, unable to sleep
I rise and get dressed, unsure of what to do.

In my confusion, I suddenly realize
That my clothes are damp with white dew.
I look down: the clear water ripples
I look up: the bright moon shines

The whole star system is flowing back to the west.
But three stars still intersect five, forming a cross.
Insects in the grass make mournful cries.
All alone, a goose journeys south.

I have so many sad thoughts,
Longing without stop for my home.
I want to fly, but have no wings
I want to cross the river, but have no bridge.

Facing the wind, I sigh,
My bowels twisting with grief.


其二 Number Two

西北有浮云,west north have floating cloud
亭亭如车盖。towering towering like carriage cover/top
惜哉时不遇,pity alas time no meet
适与飘风会。suitable coincidentally float wind meet
吹我东南行,blow I east south go
行行至吴会。go go arrive Wu Kuai
吴会非我乡,Wu Kuai no my hometown
安能久留滞。how can long stay remain/stagnant
弃置勿复陈,discard put no again say
客子常畏人。 guest person often afraid people



A cloud floats in the northwest,
High above me like a carriage top.
What a pity it came at the wrong time
And was blown away by the north wind.

I was blown southeast,
Blown all the way to Wu Kai.
This place is not my home.
How long will I be trapped here?

Even if I put aside my sadness,
A stranger has reason to fear the townspeople.


Translation Notes:

Cao Pi was the eldest son of the ambitious and talented warlord Cao Cao, and Cao Zhi was Cao Cao’s third son. Cao Cao became very powerful by the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, and for years it was unclear whom he would appoint as his heir. Cao Zhi’s poetic talents, made him Cao Cao’s favorite son at one point. However, Cao Zhi was also a heavy drinker and sometimes behaved recklessly. He eventually disappointed Cao Cao, and his father made Cao Pi as his heir apparent instead.

After Cao Cao passed away, Cao Pi become the new king, and he exiled Cao Zhi to the countryside. Legend has it that Cao Pi once summoned his younger brother to court, forcing him to write a poem about brotherhood and threatening to execute him if he couldn’t do it in the time it took him to walk seven steps. That is why the title of Cao Zhi’s poem is “Seven Steps Poem”. However, historians have questioned the authenticity of this story, pointing out that Cao Pi had a million other ways to murder his younger brother if he wanted to. It would not have been wise for Cao Pi to challenge his talented younger brother by forcing him to write a poem.

Though both princes were famed for their poetry, the style of their poems is very different. Cao Pi was the one in power. Interestingly, in the two poems we translated, he put himself in a frail, insecure and homesick traveler’s shoes. By contrast, the poem “On the White Horse”, written by Cao Zhi, is very aggressive and warlike. Yet the young prince who idolized war heroes is not known for his military skills.

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”.