作者:杜甫    (Author:  Du Fu, 8th Century)

国破山河在   nation ruined mountain river exist
城春草木深   city springtime grass tree deep
感时花溅泪   feel time flower splash tear
恨别鸟惊心   hate goodbye bird startle heart
烽火连三月   beacon fire last three months
家书抵万金  home letter worth 10000 gold
白头搔更短  white hair scratch more short
浑欲不胜簪   hardly can hold hairpin



Spring View

Our nation is defeated; the mountains and rivers remain.
In spring, the city lies deep in grass and trees.
Feeling the times, I cry at the sight of flowers.
Grieving over separation, my heart is startled by birds.

The signal fires have burned for three months now,
And a letter from home is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
I scratch my thinning white hair.
It can barely hold a hairpin anymore. 


Translation Notes

This is one of the most famous of the Tang dynasty poems, and perhaps the most widely translated. Our translation differs from many others in two significant ways. In the first line, we say that the nation is “defeated” while most of the translations we’ve seen have described China as “ruined” or “broken.” We prefer “defeated” because the words guo po in the original are generally used to refer to military defeat, and we try to be as true to the original as possible. We also just like the word better. “Ruined” has been described as more poetic, but we believe that the specificity of a military defeat rather than the amorphous “ruined” is the stronger image and more in keeping with the Tang poets’ use of clear, concrete terms.

We have also seen a number of translations that have the flowers crying and the birds being startled. We think these translations may have come about through a misunderstanding of the grammatical structure of the poems. Poets frequently wrote in the first person, omitting the word “I” which the readers were expected to understand. Because most lines follow a subject/verb format, “feel time” is best understood as “I, feeling the time,” followed by what I do (cry at the sight of flowers). Similarly, “hate goodbye” is best understood as the subject “I, hating goodbye,” also followed by what I do (feel startled by birds). The result of the more grammatically correct translation is a poem that describes a man so undone by grief that even the sight of flowers and birds causes him pain. The alternate translations yields the awkward images of weeping flowers and birds who don’t like saying goodbye. 

And here is a little bit of a historical background of this poem:  This poem was written by Du Fu in the late spring of 757 AD during the An Lushan Rebellion. An Lushan was a regional military commander in the northern part of the then Tang Dynasty, and he rebelled against the Tang Dynasty at the end of 755. In July of 756, An’s rebel forces captured Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. The city was looted and burned by the rebel forces. Du Fu arranged for his wife to stay at the Lu Province, a place north of Chang’an, while Du Fu himself continued his journey north to Ling Wu to join the new emperor Su Zong.  However, he was caught by the rebel forces during his journey north, and was taken back to Chang’an as a prisoner. It is said that Du Fu wrote this poem when staying in Chang’an as a prisoner of the rebel forces. 

作者: 李白 (Author: Li Bai, 8th century)


渡遠荆門外, travel far Jing Men outside
來從楚國游。 come follow Chu nation travel 
山隨平野盡, mountain follows flat field end
江入大荒流。river enters big wilderness flowing 
月下飛天鏡, moon descend flying sky mirror
雲生結海樓。 cloud form congeal ocean tower
仍憐故鄉水, still have heart for old village water
萬里送行舟。 ten thousand li send travel boat


I’ve traveled even beyond Jingmen now
In search of the Chu nation. 

The mountains have given way to plains 
And the Yangtze flows into a great wilderness.

Mirrored in the water, the moon flies through the sky,
Rising above the sea, clouds form a tower.

I still love the waters of my old home town
They’ve carried my boat for 10,000 li.  

Translation Notes

This poem is written by Li Bai, a renowned Tang Dynasty poet who has a vigorous and carefree character, has traveled to many places and is famous for his wild and romantic imaginations in some of his poems.  He and his friend Du Fu were sometimes referred to together as “Li Du” and considered the two most distinguished poets in the flourishing period of the Tang Dynasty. The first couplet tells how far the poet has come, and the last couplet tells us that he still loves and feels attached to his home town. We translated those lines in simple, personal language and took the liberty of adding “even” to the first line to emphasize the young man’s sense of wonder at having travelled so far from home. We did not use this personal language in the second and third couplets so that the majesty of their images could stand in contrast to the beginning and ending of the poem. 

作者:曹操   (Author: Cao Cao, 3rd century)


东临碣石,east climb Jieshi mountain
以观沧海。 to look dark blue sea
水何澹澹,water how peaceful
山岛竦峙。island rise peak
树木丛生,forest tree crowd grow
百草丰茂。100 grass abundant lush
秋风萧瑟,autumn wind grievance cold
洪波涌起。flood wave surge rise
日月之行,sun moon of travel
若出其中。like coming out its center
星汉灿烂,star wide bright glorious
若出其里。 like coming out its within
幸甚至哉,lucky very arrive oh
歌以咏志    sing to chant ambition


I rode east and climbed the Jeishi Mountain
To look down at this dark blue sea,
At its vast water,
At its islands and jutting peaks.

The trees grow thick here,
While the grass is still so lush.
Cold autumn winds blow:
Towering waves surge forth in answer.

To me it’s as if the sun and moon both
Rise up from these waters.
And the brilliant band of stars?
They burst from its depths.

Oh, my good luck to have reached this place!
I sing, I shout my ambition.

Translation Notes:

Cao Cao was a brilliant war lord who became very powerful by the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. He was also an influential poet, though, unfortunately, only a few of his poems remain. He wrote this poem after one of his significant victories against the northern Wuhuan tribes. At the end of the second stanza, we write that the water surges forth “in answer,” and we translate the last two lines of the third stanza as a question and answer despite the fact that there are not question words in the original. We made this choice because we thought that the question and response best represented the dynamic nature of the original poem.

作者:杜甫  (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

車轔轔 Cart sound of carriage (ling, ling)
馬蕭蕭  horse xiao, xiao walking sound, shoes, hooves clopping
行人弓箭各在腰 walk man (enlisted men) bow arrow each at waist
爺孃妻子走相送 father mother wife child walk him send someone off
塵埃不見咸陽橋 dust/dust not see Xianyang bridge,
牽衣頓足攔道哭 hold by hand clothes foot tapping block path cry
哭聲直上干雲霄cry sound straight go on rush towards (clash) cloud sky
道旁過者問行人 path beside (passing by person refers to Du fu) ask enlisted men
 行人但云點行頻 enlisted men only talk point (select/roll call) enlist frequently 
 或從十五北防河 either from 15 north defend yellow river
便至四十西營田  then reach 40 west manage field 
 去時里正與裹頭 leave time manager of an area (one li) and wrap head
 歸來頭白還戍邊 return come head white still defend frontier
邊亭流血成海水 frontier yard flow blood become sea water
武皇開邊意未已 Emp. Wu (veiled reference to Bright Emp.) opened up frontier intention wish not stop


君不聞漢家山東二百州 you not hear (didn’t you hear?) Han family (dynasty) mountain East 200 provinces (didn’t you hear that east of the mountain there are 200 provinces East of Han Gu strategic pass)
千村萬落生荊杞 1,000 village, 10,000 village grow wolf berry 
縱有健婦把鋤犁 Even have healthy woman hold hoe plow 
禾生隴畝無東西 Grain grow agricultural field not east west  (grain w/o direction)
況復秦兵耐苦戰 moreover again Qin nation soldier (fighting in western part) tolerate bitter war
被驅不異犬與雞 passive voice urge no different dog and chicken (urged on no different from dogs and chickens)
長者雖有問 even older person (Du Fu) have question
役夫敢申恨 War person (enlisted man) dare say hatred
且如今年冬 And like now year winter
 未休關西卒 not rest strategic pass west soldier
縣官急索租 county official in a hurry ask rent (taxes) 
租稅從何出 rent tax from where come out
信知生男惡 indeed know give birth men evil

反是生女好 give birth to daughter good (on contrary) 
生女猶得嫁比鄰  daughter still be able to marry neighbor

生男埋沒隨百草 give birth son bury disappear follow 100 grasses 
君不見青海頭 you not see green sea side/edge (Green Sea Lake) 
古來白骨無人收  old come (since ancient time) white bone not person receive 
新鬼煩冤舊鬼哭 new ghosts bother (feeling) bitterness old ghosts cry (new ghosts feel resentment while old ghosts cry) 
天陰雨濕聲啾啾 sky shade rain wet sound cry joe joe



Rolling and more rolling of the war carts,
The horse hooves constantly clopping.
Soldiers with bows and arrows at their waists.
Fathers, mothers, wives, and children come to say goodbye
There are so many that we can’t see the bridge to the west.
It’s covered with dust.
They clutch the soldier’s clothes, stamp their feet, cry, 
And try to block their path.
Their weeping blasts into the heavens,
And breaks against the cloudy sky.


I ask the soldiers questions,
And they tell me they are forced to enlist again and again.
At fifteen years old, they defend us at the north river.
At forty they’re forced to grow food for the soldiers.
When they leave, the village chief wraps their heads.
When they come home again, their hair is white, 
And still, they go back to frontier to fight. 
On the frontier, so much blood flows that it becomes an ocean.
But Emperor Wu’s greed for more territory never ends. 


Haven’t you heard that east of the pass,
There are two hundred provinces?
In a hundred thousand villages, 
Nothing but thorns and wolf berries grow.
Even though the stronger women are tilling the land,
The crops are still in disarray.
In the West, the soldiers must endure a bitter war.
Forced on like dogs and barnyard fowl.
When an old man asks questions
The soldier is afraid to confess his hatred.
And this winter there will be no rest
For the soldiers fighting in the West.
The magistrate is still demanding taxes, right away
Where will the money come from?


Now we truly know that bearing a son is an evil fate.
Even a daughter is better than that.
The girl might be married to a neighbor, 
But a boy will leave you; he’ll be buried beneath the weeds.
Have you ever seen the banks of the Green Sea Lake? 
Since ancient times, no one has gathered its white bones. 
The ghosts of the newly dead are filled with bitterness,
While the old ghosts cry.
The grey sky soaks the earth,
And everywhere is the sound of sobbing.


Translation notes:

Du Fu, who lived during the height of the Tang Dynasty’s wealth and prestige and during the devastating An Lushan invasion as well, is one of China’s most renowned poets. A devoted Confucianist, he wrote feelingly of the sufferings of the common man. Although he speaks of Han dynasty Emperor Wu in the penultimate line of the second stanza, contemporary readers would have understood that he was actually making a thinly veiled reference to their own Bright Emperor. Someone in Du Fu’s time reading the first stanza of the poem would have also understood that when the soldiers crossed the bridge to the west, they were going toward the western border, where the Bright Emperor was aggressively expanding his domain. The third stanza also refers to the west, and the Green Sea Lake in the fourth stanza is a large and famous western lake. The repeated mentions of the west and the frontier are to emphasize the fact that these were primarily unjustified wars fought merely to enlarge territory. The only mention of any other direction comes in the second stanza when young soldiers fight at the “north river” (the Yellow River). This is the only place where Du Fu uses the word “defend” as the Tang Dynasty did face a serious threat at her north western border from Tibet.


作者:白居易 (Author:  Bai Juyi, 8th century)

離離原上草     lush, lush plain on grass
 一歲一枯榮   one year one dry glory
 野火燒不盡   wild fire burn not all
春風吹又生    spring wind blow again life
 遠芳侵古道   distant fragrance invade ancient road
晴翠接荒城    sun emerald-green meet ruined city
又送王孫去    again sendoff king’s grandson go
萋萋滿別情    dense, dense full separation feeling



Unstoppable, the grass on the ancient plain,
Each year it withers, then flourishes again. 
Wildfire cannot destroy it all.
The spring wind blows it back to life.

From far away, its fragrance invades the old road
Its emerald green surges all the way to the ruined city.
Again, I say goodbye to my noble friend,
Unending, my feelings at seeing you leave.


Translation Notes: 

Bai Juyi was only seventeen years old when he wrote Grass. Legend has it that when he went to the capitol city of Chang An, a gentleman reacted to his name, which means something along the lines of “relaxed, easy living,” by telling him that he wouldn’t find living in Chang An very easy. Bai Juyi then showed him his poem, and the gentleman corrected himself, noting that anyone with such extraordinary talent might indeed find life easy in Chang An.

When Bai Juyi wrote this, grass was already a metaphor both for the common people and for emotions. He was drawing on a long tradition when he combined the two. The repeated first word, which  means “lush,” also has a secondary meaning of “depart,” foreshadowing the final two lines. We chose to translate it as “unstoppable” both because unstoppable also hints at departure and because it is a very dynamic word, suitable to the raw energy of something that cannot be destroyed. 


作者:李白  (Author: Li Bai, 8th century)

蒲萄酒,grape wine
金叵罗,gold wine cup
吴姬十五细马驮。Wu (south, near shanghai) young girl 15 thin horse carry on horseback
青黛画眉红锦靴,green black dye decorate eyebrow red brocade shoes/boots
道字不正娇唱歌。talk word not straight, upright tender sing song
玳瑁筵中怀里醉,gemstone tortoise shell feast in bosom inside drunk
芙蓉帐底奈君何!   lotus bed curtain inside helpless you how (question word) 


A golden cup
Holds wine made from grapes.
And a little horse carries
A Wu nation beauty
Just 15 years old.

Her eyebrows are dyed green/black.
Her boots are red brocade.
Her dialect is hard to understand,
But her singing is so tender.

We feasted on fine tables
Inlaid with tortoise shell
And she grew drunk within my arms.
Now she is helpless inside the lotus bed curtains.
Little Miss, whatever should I do with you?


Translation Notes

The term “grape wine,” which might seem redundant to a Westerner, signifies an exotic, foreign wine made from grapes rather than the Chinese wines made from more readily available domestic crops. The entire poem bespeaks sophistication and luxury. A tortoise shell feast is an extravagant feast, and a beautiful girl dressed in finery is an expensive purchase. A Wu nation beauty who speaks with an accent is a girl from the south who, though Chinese, would be exotic to Li Bai. From the context of the poem, it is likely that the young girl is a courtesan or singing girl that has been entertaining guests (including Li Bai) during the feast. Like the grape wine, she is a testament to his ability to sample rare and fine pleasures. 

The word “helpless” in the penultimate line might possibly refer to the poet himself, but two considerations militate against this reading. The first is that the Chinese of this period did not have a tradition of chivalry in which it was fashionable for a man to at least pretend that he was helpless before a woman’s beauty. The second is the fact that Li Bai has spent almost all of the poem flaunting his sophistication and good fortune. It is extremely unlikely that a young man who has just been bragging about drinking grape wine and enjoying a tortoise shell feast would then admit to not knowing what to do with a young girl. In the final line, the address that we have translated as “Little Miss” is normally used as a serious term of respect, often toward other men. In this context, we took it as ironic.  


作者:李商隐  (Author: Li Shangying, 9th century)

锦瑟无端五十弦,Painted zither without reason 50 strings
一弦一柱思华年。one string one bridge feel flowering year
庄生晓梦迷蝴蝶,Master Zhuang dawn dream confuse butterfly
望帝春心托杜鹃。Emperor Wang spring heart entrust cuckoo
沧海月明珠有泪,Blue sea moon bright pearl has tears
蓝田日暖玉生烟。Indigo field sun warm jade emit smoke
此情可待成追忆,this feeling can wait become recall
只是当时已惘然。only is this time already lost



There’s no reason for me to have this mournful zither,
with all its fifty strings.
And yet, each string, each post reminds me of my youth.

Still dreaming in the morning, the Taoist thought he might be a butterfly.
The ruined king gave his springtime heart away to a cuckoo bird.

The moon shone on the dark blue sea, and mermaids’ tears turned into pearls.
The sun warmed the blue-field mountain, and the jade gave rise to its misty spirit.

One day all these feelings could turn into memories,
But already I’m confused, lost in the passage of time.

Translation Notes

This is another poem that can yield many different translations. We chose to emphasize its personal nature by using the first person, particularly in the first two lines which many scholars believe refer to the death of the poet’s wife. By not explaining the stories behind many of the allusions, we also kept the focus on the poem’s mood. We did, however, substitute the general term “Taoist” for the specifically named Taoist “Master Zhuang Zhou” because we believed that this small change would be enough to remind most American readers of the story of the monk who woke from a dream about being a butterfly. We also substituted “Ruined king” for Emperor Wang, again because we assumed that most American readers would not know who Wang was but would get the idea being conveyed with the words “Ruined king.”

Choosing the word “ruined” meant that we chose what we thought was the legend that Li Shang-yin most likely wanted to associate with Wang. Wang was replaced by his prime minister, and some people believe the story that the throne was awarded to the prime minister in gratitude for his good works. The more probable and more widely believed version is that the king was overthrown and the usurper invented the face-saving story to cover his treason. Legend has it that the king did transform himself into a cuckoo bird at death and that he can still be heard calling. Since the cuckoo bird’s cries are associated with blood in a very negative metaphor, the reference to the cuckoo bird makes our negative interpretation of the reference to Wang more likely.

The title of this poem is also translated as “Brocade Zither.” It is a very famous and highly regarded work; and we encourage readers to compare this translation with others.

作者:杜甫   (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

江 汉 思 归 客 Jiang Han feel return guest
乾 坤 一 腐 儒。heaven earth one pedantic scholar
片 云 天 共 远 piece cloud sky together distant
永 夜 月 同 孤。long night moon together alone
落 日 心 犹 壮 fall sun heart still strong
秋 风 病 欲 苏。autumn wind illness will revive
古 来 存 老 马 old come keep old horse
不 必 取 长 途 not need use long trip


Where the Han and Yangtze meet: a homesick traveler.
Between Heaven and Earth: a quibbling scholar,

I become one with a scrap of cloud in the distant sky.
I am alone with the moon in the endless night.

The sun sets, but my heart remains ambitious.
The autumn wind blows, but I will recover from my illness.

From ancient times, old horses were kept
Because they were the ones who knew the way home.

Translation notes:

While we are satisfied that we’ve come up with a reasonable translation, we did take liberties with the original and think that this is a poem that could yield many very different and equally valid translations. In lines three and four, the “I” is implied, and the verb tense is unspecified. We used the present tense because it gives greater immediacy, and we chose the words “I become” to give the lines a sense of vigor and personal agency, which we thought was important because the poem ends on a triumphant note.

The last two lines refer to a Chinese legend. In around 650 BC, Duke Huan of Qi, a famous ruler during China’s Spring and Autumn period, initiated an expedition against the State of Gu Zhu. The war between the two States didn’t end until winter time. On their way back home, the Duke’s army lost their way. Guan Zhong, Duke Huan’s long-time advisor, offered a suggestion that old horses in the army are wise animals who could know the way back home. Following Guan’s advice, the Duke let a couple old horses lead in front, with his armies following behind. Eventually they managed to find their way back home. If we had translated the poem more literally, an American might have understood it to be saying that old horses were kept even though they are not particularly needed, not that they were valuable for their wisdom. One of us is a bit of an old horse herself and vigorously objected to giving the impression that charity might be the only reason for keeping an old nag around.