With the imminent arrival of the Chinese Year of the Dragon, in this article, we translated two poems centered around this mythical creature – Dragon.


龙移 The Move of the Dragon

唐・韩愈 (Han Yu, Tang dynasty, 8th century)

天昏地黑蛟龙移,sky dusk ground black scaly dragon dragon move
雷惊电激雄雌随。thunder startle lightning stimulate male female follow
清泉百丈化为土,clear spring hundred ten feet turn into dust
鱼鳖枯死吁可悲。fish turtle dry die alas deserve sorrow



In darkness and in chaos, the scaly dragons crawl.
Thunder and lighting urge the male and female toward each other.
It is their journey that turns a clear spring into a mile of dust
Pity the fish and turtles left to die on the parched ground.


咏龙诗 Chanting a Poem about a Dragon

金. 完颜亮 (Wan Yanliang, Jin dynasty, 12th century)

蛟龙潜匿隐苍波,scaly dragon dragon submerge hide concealed blue wave
且与虾蟆作混和。for now together shrimp toad make mix together
等待一朝头角就,wait wait one morning head horn finish
撼摇霹雳震山河。shake shake thunderbolt shock mountain river



This rough-skinned dragon hides beneath the blue waves,
And consorts with shrimps and toads
Wait, just wait, until my horn is grown.
Thunder will convulse the earth, lighting shock mountains and rivers.


Translation notes:

The “dragon” in the first poem, authored by Han Yu—a Confucian scholar, poet, and government official from the mid-Tang dynasty—has been interpreted by some Chinese literary critics as a metaphor for the Tang dynasty emperor whom Han served. In the poem, Han Yu subtly advises the emperor against causing unnecessary distress to the public, emphasizing how even minor actions by the emperor could inflict significant sufferings on the common people. The second line of this poem, regarding thunder and lightning, male and female dragons, stands out from the rest, and we are unsure as to its purpose. Our first, rather ungenerous, thought was that the poet was suggesting that any incorrect actions by the emperor must be the result of feminine counsel and that he was urging him not to follow the female dragon. Our second, and more likely interpretation, is that both the thunder and lightning and the male and female represent the yin and the yang, and that the poet is giving us a picture of a complete and powerful cosmology over which small creatures have no control. While we find this view of the poem satisfying, we are not certain that it is correct. We would be delighted if any of our readers could suggest an alternative explanation or supply us with a bit of history or mythology that might shed some light on it.

The second poem, crafted by Wan Yanliang, the fourth emperor of the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in 12th-century China, unfolds a narrative of his rise. Having ascended to power by overthrowing his predecessor through a coup, Wan Yanliang was eventually murdered by his subordinates following a military defeat to the Southern Song dynasty. The “rough-skinned dragon” in this poem is unequivocally a metaphor for Wan Yanliang himself. Given the traditional Chinese association of dragons with royalty, the poet articulates his ambition by expressing the intent to realize his aspirations through the impactful imagery of “shocking the mountains and the rivers” once he attains sufficient power.

On a separate note, my friend Vickie and I have established a Substack dedicated to classical Chinese poems. Our Substack offers a deep historical context for the poems and organizes related poems into groups. We invite you to subscribe to our Substack (with free subscription) for regular updates featuring new translations and commentary articles.

In ancient China, some renowned political figures had a penchant for poetry. We have translated poems from Cao Cao, a prominent warlord from the Three Kingdoms period. In this article we translated two poems written by Yuan Shikai, a famous general and statesman from the late 19th to early 20th century.


自题渔舟写真        Self-Portrait of a Fishing Boat in Ink

百年心事总悠悠, hundred years heart affairs always long long
壮志当时苦未酬。 strong ambition at that time bitter not realize
野老胸中负兵甲, wild old man chest inside bear military armor
钓翁眼底小王侯。 fish old man eye bottom belittle king marquis
思量天下无磐石, think measure sky under no steady stone
叹息神州变缺瓯。 sigh sigh deity provinces change incomplete bowl
散发天涯从此去, scatter hair sky edge from here leave
烟蓑雨笠一渔舟。 mist grass coat rain hat one fishing boat



For so long this has weighed on my mind,
The bitterness of failed ambition.

An old man in the wilderness still feels the armor on his chest.
An old fisherman can despise nobles and kings.

I think there are nothing but rolling stones beneath these heavens,
And I groan because our sacred provinces are now just a broken bowl.

No longer dressing for court, I’ve gone far away.
To live in the mist, wearing a straw hat and coat in a fishing boat.


登楼 Climb the Tower

楼小能容膝, Tower small can hold knees
檐高老树齐。 eaves high old tree at the same level
开轩平北斗, open window equal to Big Dipper
翻觉太行低     on the contrary feel Tai Hang mountain low



This tower is so small it can barely contain me
Though its eaves are as high as the old tree.
Open the window to be equal to the Big Dipper
Look down to see Tai Hang mountain.


Translation notes:

These two poems were both written by Yuan Shikai, a prominent Chinese military and political figure of the late 19th/early 20th century. Yuan Shikai served as the second provisional president of the Republic of China and headed the Beiyang government from 1912 to 1916. Notably, he was the great-great-grandfather of Jean Yuan, one of the translators of these poems.

The first poem was composed during a precarious period in Yuan Shikai’s life, marked by political turmoil. Rising to power through an alliance with Empress Dowager Cixi, he played a key role in ending Emperor Guangxu’s Hundred Days’ Reform. After the deaths of the Empress Dowager and Emperor Guangxu, tensions arose between Yuan Shikai and the ruling class of the Qing Empire, partly due to Shikai’s role in the conflict. The Qing Empire’s regent, Prince Chun, contemplated executing him but feared his influence over the military. Instead, Yuan Shikai was banished, supposedly due to a foot disease, and retired to his hometown, the village of Huanshang.

During this period of “retirement”, he publicly embraced a leisurely lifestyle, while secretly subsidizing the revolutionaries financially. Remaining in close contact with his allies, he maintained control over the military. Eventually, due to a Southern uprising of revolutionaries, he was recalled by the Qing empire to lead the army. Negotiating with Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionaries, he arranged the abdication of the child emperor Puyi, effectively ending the Qing dynasty.

The first poem, ostensibly about enjoying retirement, subtly reveals his ambition. He penned this poem to advertise his retirement, arranging for a Western journalist to capture an image of him fishing. This photograph, along with the poem he composed, was then featured in a newspaper publication. Anyone who was actually persuaded by the picture and poem must have been quite surprised when the “old fisherman” emerged from retirement to become the President of the Republic of China. Later, in an effort to further strengthen his authority, he reinstated the monarchy and declared himself the Hongxian Emperor, though as emperor, he only ruled for 83 days. The second poem focuses on natural scenery, distinct from the other poems we’ve translated before, reflecting both his ambition and the grandeur of the landscape.

As Jean is a descendant of the poet, she would like to share a family anecdote about her famous great-great-grandfather. When Jean’s grandfather was a child he lived with his family in Tianqin, and one day wandered into someone else’s backyard. A woman there seemed very upset to see him and scolded him in Korean, a language he did not understand. The woman was one of Shikai’s many concubines, gained by Shikai when he led a Qing empire garrison in Seoul and served as the advisor to the Korean government on his own government’s behalf. Jean’s grandfather did not report any further dealings with his own grandfather’s foreign concubines. Personal stories such as these, from Jean’s grandfather recounting, offer a glimpse into the complex life of this historical figure.

On a separate note, Vickie and Jean have established a Substack dedicated to classical Chinese poems. Our Substack offers a deep historical context for the poems and organizes related poems into groups. We invite you to subscribe to our Substack (with free subscription) for regular updates featuring new translations and commentary articles.

在北题壁  Writing the Poem on the Wall at North

赵佶        (Author: Zhao Ji, 12th century)

彻夜西风撼破扉,whole night west wind shake worn-out door
萧条孤馆一灯微。desolate alone house one candle tiny
家山回首三千里,home mountain return head three thousand li
目断天南无雁飞。look stop sky south no geese fly



I’m alone in this empty house with one small candle
And all night long the west wind rattles the old wood door.
Looking back to my homeland three thousand miles away
I search the southern horizon but see no geese to carry our letters.


Translation Notes:

The author of the poem was technically the penultimate emperor of the Northern Song dynasty. While lacking talent in governing a nation, he was well-known for his talent in the areas of poetry, painting, music, and calligraphy. His ascent to the throne followed the passing of his elder brother who didn’t produce an heir. He was devoted to arts, literature, and culture during the early part of his reign. However, as the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty encroached upon the Song dynasty in 1126 AD, he abdicated, passing his crown to his eldest son and adopting the title “Retired Emperor.” This was a customary gesture in ancient Chinese history when an emperor foresaw a looming defeat, seeking to avoid the ignominious title of the last monarch abandoned by the heaven.

The following year witnessed the fall of the Song capital to Jin forces. He, along with his eldest son (technically the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty), and the entire royal household, was taken captive by the Jurchens, with many royal consorts and princesses subjected to the miserable fate of becoming sex slaves―a dark episode chronicled as the “Humiliation of Jingkang.” The author spent the last nine years of his life in captivity, and this short poem reflects the harshness of his northern imprisonment.  The author discusses a wish that geese may carry messages from the South. The reason he wants to exchange messages with the South is that one of his surviving sons avoided the fate of being captured by the Jurchens, fled south, declared himself emperor, and continued the rule of the Song dynasty. The dream of return, unfortunately, never came true.

In translating this poem, we made two significant alterations to the original. We changed the order of the first two lines so that the reader begins by being located in the poet’s home and then hears the wind rattling the door. After some debate, we decided to make this change so that the translation would flow better and have a greater sense of immediacy. By reversing the order of the lines, however, we are centering the reader’s need to have the scene set and losing some of the subjective terror of the deposed king who first blurts out that the door has been rattling all night and then tells us where he is. We believe that a contemporary reader would have already understood the poem’s location and not have needed the explanation implied by the change we made. The final line of the poem ends with “no geese fly” in the original, but we added an explanation of why he was looking for geese. In both instances we have altered the original in an attempt to give the modern reader a better understanding of the events being described so that the reader would have some of the same experience of reading the poem that a Chinese person living at the time the poem was written would have had.

On a separate note, my friend Vickie and I have established a Substack dedicated to classical Chinese poems. Our Substack offers a deep historical context for the poems and organizes related poems into groups. We invite you to subscribe to our Substack (with free subscription) for regular updates featuring new translations and commentary articles.

夜雨寄北 (Mailing a Letter to the North during Night Rain)

李商隐    (Author: Li Shangyin, 9th century)

君问归期未有期,you ask return time no have time
巴山夜雨涨秋池。Ba mountain night rain rise/swell autumn pond
何当共剪西窗烛,when should together cut with scissor west window candle
却话巴山夜雨时    but talk Ba mountain night rain time



You ask when I’ll return, but I don’t know what to tell you.
Here in Ba mountain, the night rains are swelling the autumn ponds.
Oh, when will we sit by the west window and trim the candle
While we talk about this rainy Ba mountain night?


Translation Notes:

Li Shangyin was in today’s Sichuan Provence, serving as the governor’s advisor when he wrote this poem. The poem was written after Li Shangyin’s wife died, but it is possible that he had not received word of her death yet. It is also possible that he knew of her death, but chose to express his grief in a longing, imaginary letter to her. What is extremely unlikely is that this could be a poem to a mistress or “blue building” lady. Though it was common for married men to write about women other than their wives, such poems emphasize the woman’s beauty, and sometimes her virtue or her loneliness; they are not peaceful domestic scenes, nor do they address the woman with the highly respectful ‘君’.

The term “Ba Mountain” reflects the fact that the mountain was in what once had been the Ba kingdom. The archaic term “Ba Mountain” gives the poem a sense of temporal depth, as if Shangyin were telling an ancient story. The terms “Chu Nation” and “Wu Nation” are also used quite often in classical Chinese poems. Chu and Wu are the names of ancient kingdoms, but are used as geographical references, e.g. the Chu Nation was in the southern part of China, so poets write that they are going to the Chu Nation when they travel south. Again, the use of these literary terms links the poems to a long literary tradition and imbues the work with a sense of timelessness.

On a separate note, my friend Vicke and I have established a Substack dedicated to classical Chinese poems. Our Substack offers a deep historical context for the poems and organizes related poems into groups. We invite you to subscribe to our Substack (with free subscription) for regular updates featuring new translations and commentary articles.


Some classic Chinese poems portray the grievances experienced by women in ancient Chinese history. The following three poems delve into the grievances of women in distinct ways, each offering a unique perspective.


春怨        Spring Sorrow

刘方平 (Author: Liu Fang Ping, 8th Century)

纱窗日落渐黄昏,gauze window sun set gradually dusk
金屋无人见泪痕。golden chamber no person see tear trace
寂寞空庭春欲晚,lonely lonely empty courtyard spring desire late
梨花满地不开门    pear blossom full of ground not open door


How slowly dusk descends as the sun sets beyond the muslin window
With no one in the golden chamber to see the tracks of her tears.
Oh, the loneliness of an empty courtyard when spring is almost gone
Pear blossoms cover the ground, but she won’t open the door.


赠内人 Send a gift to the palace’s singers and dancers

张诂    (Author: Zhang Gu, Tang Dynasty)

禁门宫树月痕过,forbidden door Palace tree moon trace pass
媚眼惟看宿鹭窠。charming eyes only see reside heron nest
斜拔玉钗灯影畔,slanting pull jade hairpin lamp shadow side
剔开红焰救飞蛾    reject open red flame rescue flying moth


The forbidden door, the palace trees, a last trace of moon light.
But her lovely eyes see only the heron’s nest.
In the lamp’s reflection, she takes a slanting jade pin from her hair.
And puts out the red flame to save a flying moth.


春怨     Spring Sorrow

金昌绪 (Jin Chang Xu, Tang Dynasty)

打起黄莺儿,beaten rise yellow oriole son
莫教枝上啼。no let branch on crying
啼时惊妾梦,crying time startle my dream
不得到辽西.   not can arrive Liao west


Throw a rock! Chase that oriole away.
Don’t let it sit on the branch making noise
Its singing startled me out of my dream
And now I’ll never get to my husband in West Liao.


Translation notes:

Both Liu Fang Ping and Zhang Gu’s poems delve into the grievances experienced by ladies in the Palace. In Liu’s poem, the phrase “golden chamber” derived from a famous ancient Chinese anecdote about Emperor Wu of Han, who was a brilliant and ambitious emperor but also a womanizer. His mother didn’t have high court status. Therefore, when Emperor Wu of Han was still a young prince, she arranged a marriage between her son and his cousin. The prince said that he would build her a golden chamber. The story had a miserable ending —eventually, the emperor got tired of his wife and divorced her, partially due to her inability to bear him a legitimate heir. By employing the term “golden chamber” in the poem, Liu implies that the court lady depicted was likely once a favorite of the emperor but eventually fell out of favor.

In Zhang’s poem, the discussion of a court lady’s sorrow is more implicit. By depicting the lady seeing only a heron’s nest and her subsequent action of rescuing a flying moth, Zhang effectively conveys the profound loneliness and yearning for home the woman experiences.

Jin’s poem centers around the grievances of a woman whose husband is engaged in a distant frontier battle, thousands of miles away. In the final sentence, we took a small liberty by adding the phrase “her husband” in reference to the woman’s desire to reunite with her husband in West Liao in her dream, although this phrase does not appear in the original poem. We believe that adding this phrase to our translation provides greater clarity for American readers.

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.