木兰花   Magnolia Flower

晏殊      (Author: Yan Shu, 11th century)

燕鸿过后莺归去, swallow geese pass after orioles return go
细算浮生千万绪。 careful calculation uncertain life thousand ten thousand thread
长于春梦几多时? long compare spring dream several many time
散似秋云无觅处。 scatter similar to autumn wind no find place
闻琴解佩神仙侣, hear zither untie wear deity immortal couple
挽断罗衣留不住。 pull break silk clothes can’t stop leaving
劝君莫作独醒人, advise you not be along awake person
烂醉花间应有数。 exhausted drunk flower among should have count/number



The swallows and the geese have left,
And now the orioles are gone too.
It is so hard to understand this drifting life
With its thousand, ten thousand threads of meaning.

Was my past any longer than a spring-time dream?
It scattered like the autumn clouds. No place to find it.

Hear the zither, untie the goddess’ jewel.
I could clutch her silk clothes until they tore
But I still can’t stop time.

I advise you not to be the only one awake.
Join the rest of us — and drink to oblivion among the flowers.


Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Yan Shu, who was a poet and politician during the Northern Song Dynasty. He was considered a child prodigy, and passed the imperial exam when he was only 14. He rose to high-ranking posts at the court and once served as prime minister to Emperor Renzong. The content of this poem seems to suggest that the poet is lamenting the passage of time and the inevitable parting of lovers. However, this poem was written during a time when the emperor, who was not decisive in character, took advice from Yan Shu’s political rivals, and banished a couple of Yan Shu’s political allies. Considering the time when this poem was written, it is probably a reflection of Yan’s disappointment over the political environment at that time.

The fifth line refers to two Chinese legends. One is about Zhuo Wenjun, a female poet who lived in the Han Dynasty. She heard Sima Xiangru playing the zither when he was a guest at her parents’ home, and she eloped with him afterwards. The second one is about a man who encountered two female deities who untied their jewels and gave them to the man, only to find that both the jewels and the deities disappeared afterwards. In the sixth line, the poem is not specific as to what the poet wishes to stop, but in the context of the first four lines, we thought that “time” probably best expressed his intent. Many Chinese literary critics, however, believe that the sixth line references only the inevitable parting of these idealized lovers.

访杨云卿淮上别业 Visit Yang Yunqing’s villa by the Huai River

惠崇  (Author: Hui Chong, 10th century)

地近得频到, place close can frequently arrive
相携向野亭。 each other carry go toward wild temple
河分冈势断, river divide mountain tendency break
春入烧痕青。 spring enter burn trace green
望久人收钓, look long time people stop fishing
吟余鹤振翎。 chant after cranes flapping wing
不愁归路晚, not worry return path late
明月上前汀。 bright moon shines on front flat land beside the water



I can come often, to this nearby place,
And walk with you to the wilderness temple.

A river runs between the mountains
And the green grass of spring enters the burned out fields.

The fishermen have all gone home, and still, I’m taking in this view,
After I chanted my last poem, the cranes took flight.

I’m not worried about going home late
The bright moon lights the sandy shore.


Translation Notes:

This poem was written by Hui Chong, a monk in the Northern Song Dynasty who is known for his poems and paintings portraying small landscapes. Chinese poets sometimes borrow symbols and concepts from the great works of the past. This poem and Bai Juyi’s famous poem Grass, which we’ve also translated, both use grass as a symbol of renewal — it returns even after being destroyed by fire. The underlying feelings in the poems are very different, though. Bai’s Grass is vivid and dynamic, and uses the wild grass as a metaphor for his own “unending feelings.” Hui’s poem is tranquil. Instead of projecting his feelings onto nature, he immerses himself so much in the beauty of his surroundings that he didn’t want to return home.

游子吟  A Traveller’s Chant

孟郊     (Author: Meng Jiao, 8th century)

慈母手中线, loving mother hand center thread
游子身上衣。 travel son body on clothes
临行密密缝, just before leaving thick thick sew
意恐迟迟归。 thought dread late late return
谁言寸草心, who say inch long grass heart
报得三春晖。 repay able three spring sunshine


Thread in a mother’s loving hand,
Sewn into her wandering son’s clothes.

Careful, tiny stitches just before he leaves,
She dreads the thought that he’ll come home late.

Who says that the heart of an inch of grass,
Can ever repay three months of spring sun?


Translation Notes:

This poem is well known to contemporary Chinese readers, as it is routinely taught to school children. The poet, Meng Jiao, was born during a difficult time — shortly after Meng’s birth, the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, which devastated the Tang Dynasty. Meng grew up during a period of disturbance and lived as a recluse when he was young. He failed the imperial exam twice. At the request of his mother, he took the exam a third time in his late 40s and finally passed. He was appointed to a low-ranking provincial post but never achieved a higher rank in court. In the third line, we translated the word “thick” as “careful, tiny” because the word for thick has a secondary meaning of “meticulous.” Making careful, tiny stitches would be a meticulous way of sewing and would create a thick seam. We also attach another version of the translation by Witter Bynner (please see pp. 19-20). We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

Chinese poets often wrote about famous historical figures, and poets living in different eras sometimes had astonishingly similar views on the same historical figure. The three poems that follow span more than five hundred years and are all about the first emperor of China.


古风 其三  Ancient Style (number three)

李白           (Author: Li Bai, 8th century)

秦皇扫六合, Qin Emperor sweep six combine
虎视何雄哉。 tiger look how powerful
挥剑决浮云, wave sword decide/breach floating cloud
诸侯尽西来。 warlords all west come
明断自天启, bright judge/decide come heaven enlighten/start
大略驾群才。 big strategy drive/harness many talents
收兵铸金人, collect weapon cast gold person/statue
函谷正东开。 HanGu just east open
铭功会稽岭, inscribe/record achievement Kuaiji Ridge
骋望琅琊台。 open up look Langya terrace
刑徒七十万, sentence criminal seven ten ten thousand
起土骊山隈。 rise soil Li mountain bay/cove
尚采不死药, still pick no die medicine
茫然使心哀。 At a loss/ignorant make heart sad
连弩射海鱼, connect crossbow shoot sea fish
长鲸正崔嵬。 long whale just/straight gigantic appearance
额鼻象五岳, forehead nose similar to five mountains
扬波喷云雷。 raise wave spout/gush cloud thunder
鬈鬣蔽青天, dorsal fin shield/cover green sky
何由睹蓬莱。 How can see PengLai Island
徐市载秦女, Xushi (emissary) carry Qin girls 
楼船几时回。 building ship several time/when return
但见三泉下, only see three springs under
金棺葬寒灰。 gold coffin bury cold ashes



The Qin emperor conquered heaven and earth
And gazed upon the world with fearsome tiger eyes.

With a wave of his sword, he cut the floating clouds apart
Defeated, the warlords all came to the West

His wise judgement sprang from heaven’s enlightenment
His grand design harnessed the nation’s genius.

He transformed his enemies’ weapons into spectacular statues
He opened Hangu Gate and let his people go to the East.

He inscribed his great works on Kuaiji Ridge.
From Langya terrace, he looked all the way to the sea.

He sentenced seventy thousand criminals
And raised a palace from the soil by Li mountain.

Still, he sought the elixir of immortality,
And his heart grieved because he couldn’t find it.

How could he see Penglai Island, renowned for its enchanted herbs?
Great whales blocked his view.

Their heads were like five mountains
They raised waves, spouted clouds and thunder

Their dorsal fins covered the blue sky.
Over and over again, the Qin emperor shot them with a crossbow.

His emissary sailed away with thousands of girls to give to the gods.
When will those boats ever return?

All that remains beneath the underworld’s three streams
Are cold ashes buried in a gold coffin.


Translation Notes:

Perhaps the single most interesting thing about this strange and fascinating poem is that the poet was a Taoist himself, and therefore probably also sought the elixir of immortality. We think that Li Bai’s approach of contrasting the emperor’s almost limitless earthly power with his wasted efforts to defeat death created a more complex and thoughtful poem than the other two in this series which only focus on the emperor’s inability to create a lasting dynasty. This poem was written as part of a group of 59 poems which used historical events to explore such timeless issues as our limitations in the face of death. China’s current administration, however, appears to have no wish at all to discuss anyone’s death or limitations. It has produced a t.v. series glorifying the first emperor and using the first half, and only the first half, of this poem as its theme song.

Despite its many concrete images, this was a difficult poem to translate. “Hangu Gate” is normally translated as “Hangu Pass,” which is confusing in this context. Since the part of “Hangu Pass” that the emperor opened is a manmade structure (discovered by archeologists in 2014), the use of the word “gate” seemed both more accurate and easier to understand in this poem. A glance at the word for word translation shows that we did take a number of liberties, however, the greatest of which may have been to change the order of the line which asks how the emperor could see Penglai Island. By putting the question at the beginning on the efforts to get rid of the whales, we hoped to make that section clearer to the reader. We could not clarify the line about the thousands of girls being given to the gods as neither the poem nor the legend is at all clear about what happened to the children. The legend does specify that both boys and girls were taken, but Li Bai only mentioned girls. Did he want to make the children’s disappearance sound more salacious or more pitiful? Did he think that the use of “girls” instead of “children” flowed more easily when the poem was sung? Had he simply heard a different version of the legend? We don’t know.


焚书坑   The Book-Burning Pit

章碣       (Author: Zhang Jie, 9th century)

竹帛烟销帝业虚, bamboo silk smell disappear emperor business vain/empty
关河空锁祖龙居。 strategic pass river in vain lock ancestor dragon residence
坑灰未冷山东乱, pit ashes not cold mountain east in chaos
刘项原来不读书。 Liu Xiang originally come not read books



The bamboo books and silk scrolls all vanished in the flames
But neither the emperor nor his empire could be saved.

It did no good to bar the strategic pass or the Yellow River
Where that old dragon, the First Emperor, lived.

The burning pit’s ashes weren’t even cold yet
When chaos broke out east of the Mountains

The rebels, after all, weren’t the ones who read books.


Translation Notes:

The Book Burning Pit has made some very dramatic headlines recently. Some people are calling it the poem that cost $26 billion dollars. The CEO of a large Chinese tech firm, Meituan, posted The Book-Burning Pit on a small social media platform, an act that touched off massive sales of Meituan stock and personally cost the CEO over $2 billion. https://www.bloombergquint.com/global-economics/a-1-100-year-old-poem-cost-meituan-s-outspoken-ceo-2-5-billion

Why did posting one poem, written over a thousand years ago and regularly taught to school children have such an effect on the market? We presume it is because the poem is so well known to the Chinese people and was immediately understood as a comment on the current government. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has begun to compare himself to China’s first emperor, and this poem is a scornful denunciation of that same emperor. The Book-Burning Pit refers to a famous historical incident, “the burning of books and burying of scholars,” Legend has it that in about the year 213 BCE, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty tried to strengthen his rule by ordering both the destruction of scholarly works and the live burial of many Confucian scholars. Although it is not certain that there really was a mass burning of books or mass murder of scholars, the Dynasty was very short-lived, collapsing only after around 15 years of its establishment, despite the first emperor’s supposedly brutal measures taken to strengthen his rule. We are surprised that the CEO of a Chinese business would publicly imply that China’s current president is a tyrant whose regime would be short lived, but we are not at all surprised that when he did so, the value of the company immediately plummeted.

The poem is a bit difficult to translate. We had to expand the first two lines to four, in order to explain what was happening. In the last sentence, we substitute “Liu” and “Xiang” with “the rebels” because we assume that most American readers wouldn’t know who Liu Bang and Xiang Xu are but would get the idea we convey with the words “the rebels”.

We also attach another version of the translation, and encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.


博浪沙  Bo Lang Sha

陈孚     (Author: Chen Fu, 13th century)

一击车中胆气豪,one strike carriage inside guts courage heroic/bold
祖龙社稷已惊摇。ancestor dragon temple god rice god already startle shake
如何十二金人外,How (question word) ten two gold person outside
犹有民间铁未销?still there is people within iron not destroy?



With one hammer blow to that carriage, the air was filled with valor,
And the old dragon’s order began to tremble.

How is it that weapons could be melted down, made into statues,
And still, people found the iron they needed?


Translation Notes:

This poem refers to an assassination attempt against China’s first emperor. A large hammer was thrown into a royal carriage out of the mistaken belief that the emperor was riding in the carriage. Though the attempt failed, it was widely admired as a herald of the rebellion that would soon bring down the short-lived empire. The third line refers to twelve immense statues that were displayed as a symbol of imperial power; the statues were made of the melted-down iron weapons seized from conquered troops. This poem was written during the Yuan dynasty, a period in which the Chinese people were ruled by conquering Mongols. It is easy to see how a call for rebellion against a powerful ruler would have great appeal for Chen Fu’s contemporaries.

We made several difficult choices in translating this short poem. The greatest was the “air was filled with valor.” The original use of the word air means “qi,” the animating spirit all people share, and a much more literate translation would simply refer to the would-be assassin’s courage. Since the purpose of the first two lines was to show the effect that the one courageous act had on the nation, we chose to interpret qi in its more metaphorical sense. In Chinese cosmology, the “qi” — air that gives life to an individual corresponds to the atmospheric air that gives life to the world. The one brave act infused the nation with courage, the personal, heroic air from the assassin, translating to the national will. A second choice was to translate “ancestor dragon temple god rice god” as “the old dragon’s order.” Typically, the “temple and rice god” would be translated as “nation”; however, we did not want to suggest that citizens would be defeated, only that the government would be brought down. Finally, we left the last line somewhat ambiguous, not explaining what the people did with the iron. We thought that the connotations of the word “iron” in English worked well to imply both the required iron will and the literal weapons.


遣怀   Dispelling Sorrow

杜牧   (Author: Du Mu, 9th century)

落魄江南载酒行, fall soul river south carry wine walk
楚腰肠断掌中轻。 Chu waist intestinal break palm inside light
十年一觉扬州梦, ten years one sleep Yangzhou dream
赢得青楼薄幸名。 win get blue building light favor reputation



I grew so downhearted in the Southern Land,
Wandering with a bottle of wine

And breaking my heart over those slim waisted Chu girls
The ones who could dance in the palm of your hand

Ten years later I wake from my dream of Yang Zhou

And all I’ve won for myself is the reputation
Of a man who can’t be trusted in Blue Buildings


Translation Note:

Du Mu was a famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty, best known for writing lyrical and romantic poems. He and another famous poet of the Late Tang Dynasty — Li Shangyin, were often mentioned together by later Chinese literary critics as “Little Li-Du”, to differentiate them from the “Li-Du” during the most prosperous period of the Tang Dynasty, that is, Li Bai and Du Fu.

Du Mu was born into an elite family, and held various provincial posts in different locales over his career. However, he never achieved a high-ranking position in court, and this poem is considered one of those which he implicitly showed his disappointment over his government career. The first line of the poem implies a dark note of despair as Du Mu clearly indicates that his soul “falls down” when he was at the South of the River. The second line refers to two Chinese legends. One is about the King of Chu favoring girls of slim waists. In elite circles, slender female bodies were so admired that some palace girls even starved to death when trying to lose weight. The second one is about Zhao Feiyan, a famous beauty who was so slim that she could dance on a man’s palm. These legends were used to demonstrate the beauty and slenderness of the prostitutes in the blue buildings in Yangzhou with whom Du Mu has spent time. However, when Du Mu looked back, he was regretful of his time spent in Yangzhou, which is reflected by the third and fourth line of the poem.

终南山   Zhongnan Mountain

王维       (Author: Wang Wei, 8th century)

太乙近天都, Taiyi close heaven capital
连山到海隅。 connect mountain arrive sea edge
白云回望合, white cloud return look converge
青霭入看无。 green haze enter look no
分野中峰变, divide field central peak change
阴晴众壑殊。 shade sunny many valley different
欲投人处宿, about to go to people place stay overnight
隔水问樵夫。 separate water ask woodcutter



Taiyi Peak so close to heaven, so close to Chang An.
The mountains run all the way to the edge of the sea

When I look back, the white clouds converge
When I walk in, the green haze disappears.

And when I look from the center peak, the whole divided earth changes.
Sunlit or shaded, the countless valleys look so different.

Needing a place to sleep tonight,
I call to a woodcutter on the other side of the river.


Translation Notes:

The first line reads “Taiyi Peak, so close to heaven’s capital” and is usually translated as “Taiyi Peak, so close to Chang An.” We agree that the “heaven’s capital” is meant to refer to Chang An, but feel that this more literal translation loses some of the poem’s nuance. “Heaven’s capital” was a way of referring to the nation’s capital, and scholars in the later dynasties, such as during the Ming dynasty, used the same word to refer to Beijing. We thought that Wang Wei chose to use this less common way of referring to Chang An both to exalt the city and to suggest the immensity of the mountain which nearly pierced the heavens. By translating it as we did, we kept the dual implications of the original, but we disturbed the rhythm of the poem by inserting a repetition that is not repeated elsewhere. As is very common in Chinese poetry, the subject is omitted. We chose to use first person throughout, both because it is almost certainly required in the particular, individual action of the last stanza and because it gives a more immediate sense of entering the mountain landscape. We added the word “whole” to the fifth line because we believe that the poem implies that the mountain encompasses the entire earth, which is “divided” in accordance with Chinese astrology in which different sections of the earth correspond to different sections of the sky. This cosmic connection between earth and sky is another reason to emphasize the use of the word “heaven” in the first line.