旅夜书怀  Writing my Thoughts when Traveling at Night

作者:杜甫 (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

细草微风岸  thin grass tiny wind shore
危墙独夜舟  fragile/tall mast lone night broad
星垂平野阔  star hang down flat field wide
月涌大江流  moon surge big river flow
名岂文章著  reputation how (question word) article show
官应老病休  official should old sick stop/rest
飘飘何所似  float float what (question word) similar to
天地一沙鸥  heaven earth one sand gull



Thin grass, and a gentle breeze on shore,
A tall mast on the night’s lone boat.
Starlight falls to the broad, flat fields,
And the moon’s reflection drifts in the great river’s flow.
Will I be known only for writing poems?
An official should rest when he’s old and sick.
But I flutter from place to place,
Like a gull between heaven and earth.


Translation Notes:

More than a thousand years after his death, Du Fu is still admired as one of China’s greatest poets, yet he was deeply disappointed by his failure to also become a great statesman. During Du Fu’s lifetime, China was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion which cost millions of lives. As a Confucian, Du Fu wished to help the emperor to restore social order and to alleviate the suffering of the common people, but he never became more than a low ranking official. Please see Qu River for a detailed discussion of one of Du Fu’s attempts to guide official policy.

Some Chinese literary critics have compared the second couplet of this poem to the second couplet of Li Bai’s poem “Crossing at Jingmen and Waving Goodbye”, which we have also translated.

In Li Bai’s poem, the second couplet features images — mountains, plains, the Yangtze and the great wildness. The second couplet of this poem also has the flat field and the Yangtze, but it includes the stars and the moon as well, which appear later in Li Bai’s poem. It is an interesting comparison: Li Bai was crossing the Yangtze at the beginning of his career filled with hope and ready for adventure. His images are dynamic, fanciful, and dazzling. Du Fu was near the end of what he believed was a failed career, and he appears to be docked on the Yangtze rather than crossing it. His portrait of the same scene is quiet, still, and depressive.

曲江 The Qu River

作者:杜甫 (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

朝回日日典春衣, court return day day pawn spring clothes
每日江头尽醉归。 Everyday river head exhaust drunk return
酒债寻常行处有, wine debt common go place have
人生七十古来稀。 people life seventy ancient come rare
穿花蛱蝶深深见, to cross flower butterfly deep deep see
点水蜻蜓款款飞。 skim water dragonfly slowly slowly fly
传语风光共流转, pass along words wind light together flow turn
暂时相赏莫相违. temporary each other appreciate no each other parting



Every day I return from court and pawn my spring robes,
And every day, I get so drunk by the river head before going home

Wherever I go, I owe money for wine.
Since ancient times, few people have lived to the age of seventy.

Deep in the flowers, a wandering butterfly appears.
Skimming the water, a dragonfly slowly glides.

Tell these beautiful scenes that we could all be one, roaming together
For a while, enjoying each other’s company without parting.


Translation notes:

Our translation of this poem begins rather brutally with the poet pawning his robes and getting drunk by the river every day. It is possible to translate words five and six of the second line differently. Out of context, they could mean “tipsy,” or “drinking my limit,” and others have translated them this way. We believe that “drinking” and “end” mean getting pretty thoroughly drunk here, and that there is a dark note of despair in what otherwise could be a rather typical Chinese poem about having some wine and communing with nature. Other drinking and nature poems do have an element of sadness, of having turned away from a more active style of living. They have also incorporated the idea of not having any money, but they’ve generally done so by painting an almost enviable picture of rustic simplicity, e.g. a humble thatched hut, a small garden, a drink shared with a neighbor. They are often suffused with a Taoist or Buddhist ideal of stillness and contemplation.

Du Fu was a Confucian and was very much concerned with right behavior. In Qu River, we see an urban man pawning his robes and seeing his creditors everywhere. He seems very alone though he works at the seat of power. Du Fu also notes that few people have ever lived to the age of seventy, in other words he doesn’t expect that he will live a long life. He spends the first half of the poem saying nothing about nature other than referencing the river and telling us that he is in debt, that he drinks daily, that he doesn’t expect to live to the 70s, and that he still works for the court. This is not a contemplative or idyllic opening.

The second half of the poem is a more typical work about drinking and longing to be one with the beauty of the natural world, but we note that Du Fu emphasizes the transitory quality of these moments and of the world around him. There is no mention of mountains, the moon, a tall pine, or other more enduring natural sights, only delicate butterflies and dragonflies. Du Fu hopes to join with them “for a while,” implying that he doesn’t expect to enjoy such beauty for long. At the time of writing Qu River, Du Fu was serving as a low-ranking advisor to Emperor Suzong and probably knew that he would soon be banished from the court.

The cause of the banishment was Du Fu’s loyalty to his friend and patron, Fang Guan. Fang Guan had been a chancellor to Suzong’s father, who was known as the Bright Emperor. During the An Lushan rebellion, the Bright Emperor escaped from Chang’An, and Suzong, who was the crown prince, declared himself the new emperor not long after. The Bright Emperor sent Fang Guan to recognize Suzong as the new emperor and to give his son the imperial seal. The new emperor was initially pleased with Fang’s arrival and offered him a senior position at court. However, it was later revealed that Fang Guan, while he was the chancellor to the Bright Emperor, advised the Bright Emperor to have Suzong share military commands with several of his brothers, each acting independently from each other and in different geographical territories. Suspicious of Fang’s loyalty to him, the new emperor stripped Fang Guan of much of his power. Du Fu then revealed himself to be either a very good Confucian or a very poor politician (or both) when he protested Fang’s demotion. After Du Fu’s protest, the new emperor grew concerned that Du Fu was inappropriately loyal to Fang, and he ordered the judicial system to interrogate him. This was a fairly unusual step to take given that Du’s ranking was very low as a government official. The result of the interrogation was that Du Fu was cleared of all criminal suspicions and pardoned by the emperor, but he was “banished” in the sense of being reassigned to a more provincial post.

钗头凤  Phoenix Hairpin

作者:陆游 (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

红酥手,黄縢酒, red soft hand, yellow sealed wine
满城春色宫墙柳。full of city spring color Palace wall willow
东风恶,欢情薄。 east wind vicious, happy feeling thin
一怀愁绪,            one bosom sad feeling,
几年离索。            several year parting live all alone
错、错、错。         wrong wrong wrong

春如旧,人空瘦, spring similar to past, people in vain thin
泪痕红浥鲛绡透。 tear trace red sorrowful raw silk thoroughly
桃花落,闲池阁。 peach flower fall, idle pond pavilion
山盟虽在,            mountain pledge although exist,
锦书难托。            brocade letter difficult entrust
莫、莫、莫!        no no no


钗头凤 Phoenix Hairpin (Reply Poem)

作者:唐婉 (Author: Tang Wan, 12th century)

世情薄,人情恶, world feeling thin, people feeling vicious
雨送黄昏花易落。 rain send yellow dusk flower easy fall
晓风干,泪痕残, morning wind dry, tear trace incomplete
欲笺心事,            desire to write heart affair,
独语斜阑。            alone talk slant railing
难,难,难!        difficult difficult difficult

人成各,今非昨, people become individual, today not yesterday. 
病魂常似秋千索。 sick soul constantly similar to autumn thousand rope
角声寒,夜阑珊, horn sound cold, night about to end
怕人寻问,             afraid people seek ask,
咽泪装欢。            swallow tear pretend happy
瞒,瞒,瞒!        conceal conceal conceal



Lu You’s poem:

Rosy soft hands, good wine with a yellow seal
The city filled with the beauty of spring,
Palace walls lined with willows.
A bitter east wind, and our happiness is cut short.
My mind steeped in sorrow and gloom, years of loneliness
This is wrong, wrong, wrong

Springtime has not changed,
But the futility of our lives has withered her.
She wears rouge ― it’s wet from crying.
She carries a silk handkerchief made by mermaids.
It’s soaked with tears.
Peach blossoms fall, lie idle
On the pond and pavilion.
We still have our sacred promise
But even a love letter is hard to send.
We have nothing, nothing, nothing


Translation of the reply poem by Tang Wan:

The world feels almost nothing,
Yet a single person can feel such hatred.
Flowers fall easily in the evening rain.
The morning wind is dry,
But traces of my tears remain.
I want to write all that’s in my heart,
But I talk to the slanting railing instead.
My life is so difficult, difficult, difficult.

Now each of us is alone,
And today is nothing like yesterday.
My painful soul swings back and forth like a heavy rope.
The horns at dawn sound cold, and the night will end soon.
I’m afraid people will ask why I’m sad.
I pretend to be happy, smiling instead of crying,
My life is all hiding, hiding, hiding.


Translation Notes:

Lu You was a famous poet of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 to 1279). At the age of 20, he married a young lady from an upper class family named Tang Wan who was also talented in poetry and literature. The couple fell deeply in love with each other, and the marriage was a happy one. However, Lu You’s mother disliked Tang Wan and forced the couple to divorce. Tang Wan later married again to a nobleman of royal descent named Zhao Shicheng.

A couple years later, Lu You paid a visit to Shen Garden, a tourist spot that is still popular today, and accidentally ran into Tang Wan and her husband. Lu wrote this poem on the wall of Shen Garden expressing his deep sorrow of being forced to break up with Tang. After Tang Wan read Lu’s poem, she wrote down another one under the same title as a reply. In Lu’s poem, the “bitter east wind” is a metaphor implying the interference from Lu’s mom into their marriage. In Tang’s reply poem, the “hatred” towards the break-up couple probably refers to the same thing. During Lu and Tang’s era, filial piety is strictly observed and it is almost impossible for Lu to disobey his mother, and their grievance over separation is reflected in these two poems.

we also attach another version of the translation for Tang Wan’s reply poem (from The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry).  We encourage readers to read other translations and comment on the choices we made in our translation: http://illsandthrillsoflove.blogspot.com/2010/11/reply-to-phoenix-hairpin-to-tune-of.html


作者:杜甫  (Author: Du Fu, 8th century)

竹凉侵卧内,bamboo cold invade bedchamber inside
野月满庭隅。wild moon fill yard corner
重露成涓滴,heavy dew become tiny stream drop
稀星乍有无。sparse star suddenly exist no
暗飞萤自照,dark fly firefly itself shine
水宿鸟相呼。water lodge bird each other cry
万事干戈里,ten thousand affairs shield dagger-ax inside
空悲清夜徂。in vain sorrow clear night fade away



Cold air from the bamboo grove invaded the bedchamber,
And the moon, shining from the wilderness, flooded the whole yard.
The dew grew heavy and began to drip,
A few stars appeared, then disappeared, came back again.

Flying in darkness, lightning bugs flickered.
Resting by the water, birds called to one another.
Dagger-axes and shields are at the heart of everything.
Hopelessly, I grieved as the clear night ended.


Translation Notes:

It is believed that Du Fu wrote this poem right after the An Lushan rebellion ended. The Au Lushan rebellion, which lasted for almost eight years, essentially left the Tang Dynasty devastated, making its western border vulnerable to the Tibetan forces. In 763 AD, immediately after the An Lushan rebellion ended, the Tibetan forces invaded the Tang Empire and briefly captured Chang’an, the capital of the Empire. Du Fu was living in Cheng Du at that time, faraway from the center of the warfare. However, he was very sympathetic towards the sufferings of commoners during the war. The first three couplets describe the natural sceneries at night around his residence, implying that he stayed up awake all night. The last couplet of the poem explains the reason for his sorrow — he was worried about the warfare but he couldn’t do anything to help mitigate the sufferings of the people.

Our translation of Weary Night is not very different from the other translations we’ve seen. We chose to use “invade” in the first line because it was more in keeping with a poem about dagger-axes and shields and because it was more literal. We chose to use “hopelessly” in the final line because the word felt more immediate and personal to use than “in vain.”