游山西村 Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain

陆游 (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

莫笑农家腊酒浑,no laugh farm family winter wine murky
丰年留客足鸡豚。ample year keep guest enough chicken pig/meat
山重水复疑无路,mountain layers water repeat doubt no road
柳暗花明又一村。willow dark flower bright again one village
箫鼓追随春社近,bamboo flute drum chase follow spring sacrifice near
衣冠简朴古风存。clothes hat simple rustic ancient style exist
从今若许闲乘月,From today if allow leisure take advantage of moon
拄杖无时夜叩门。lean on walking stick unscheduled night knock at door



Don’t laugh at the murky winter wine in a farmer’s cottage
In the good years there’s enough chicken and pork for guests

There are so many mountains and with the way the river twists, you think there’s no road
And then, dark willows, bright blossoms, another village appears.

Pipers, drummers, chasing and following each other, the spring sacrifice is near.
Farmers’ straw hats and simple, country clothes, the old way of life is not forgotten.

From now on, please allow me to take advantage of a full moon,
Leaning leisurely on my cane, I’ll knock on your door some evening.


Translation Notes: 

Although this poem is similar to the Field and Garden school of poetry in that it describes a pleasing natural landscape, it is not firmly within the Field and Garden tradition. The emphasis in this poem is on the rural people rather than the rural surroundings, and the overall effect is one of happy engagement rather than contemplative withdrawal. “Traveling to a Village West of the Mountain” is much praised by the communist party because it exalts the everyday life of the working class. The second couplet has long been famous for its encouragement of perseverance toward an uncertain goal. In fact, it is so famous that Secretary Clinton recited it in 2010 during her remarks at the Shanghai World Expo. The translation she used is as follows: “After endless mountains and rivers that leave doubt whether there is a path out, suddenly one encounters the shade of a willow, bright flowers and a lovely village.” We chose to use the second person rather than the third to increase the sense of intimacy. We do not describe the village as lovely since “lovely” is not in the original. Other translations of this poem have been more literal than ours, though, at least with regards to the final line in which they accurately state that the proposed visits are “unscheduled” or “out of time.” We hope that this idea of a spontaneous visit was adequately implied in our version. We felt that words such as “unscheduled” were a little clumsy and out of place in the English version of the poem.

紫毫笔歌  Song of the Purple Writing Brush

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

紫毫笔,               purple writing brush
尖如锥兮利如刀。sharp like awl connection word sharp like knife
江南石上有老兔,river south stone on have old rabbit
吃竹饮泉生紫毫。eat bamboo drink spring water grow purple fur
宣城之人采为笔,Xuan city connection word people pick make into brush
千万毛中拣一毫。thousand ten thousand fur among choose one brush
毫虽轻, 功甚重。 hair though light work very heavy
管勒工名充岁贡,tube handle neatly name use as year tribute
君兮臣兮勿轻用。emperor connection word official connection word not easily use
勿轻用,将何如?not easily use shall how? 
愿赐东西府御史,wish give east west official residence enquiry censors
愿颁左右台起居。wish issue left right terrace rise reside
搦管趋入黄金阙,   take hold brush walk into golden imperial city
抽毫立在白玉除。take out brush stand at white jade stairs
臣有奸邪正衙奏,court official have evil heretical upright administrative center report
君有动言直笔书。emperor have move word straightforward brush write
起居郎, 侍御史,  Imperial Secretaries enquiry censors
尔知紫毫不易致。you know purple hair not easy make
每岁宣城进笔时,Every year Xuan city pay tribute brush time
紫毫之价如金贵。purple hair connection word price like gold precious
慎勿空将弹失仪,carefully not in vain use accuse (others) of lose manner
慎勿空将录制词。carefully not in vain record the emperor’s word


These purple calligrapher’s brushes
Sharp as an awl, sharp as a knife

In the south, an old rabbit sits on a stone
Eating bamboo and drinking spring water
The people of Xuan city harvest its purple-tipped fur.
From 10,000 hairs they find one that’s worthy.
They do heavy labor with these light hairs,
And finely carve the handles to use it as yearly tribute.

Oh, emperors and high officials, do not use them carelessly,
I can tell you a better way.
Give them to enquiry censors at the eastern and western imperial houses
Give them to Imperial Secretaries of the left and right terraces.

Take hold of the brush and enter the golden, imperial city.
Hold it aloft and stand before the white jade stairs.
Use it to report to the emperor during court meetings any official who does evil.
Use it to write clearly the edicts of the emperor.

Imperial Secretaries and enquiry censors,
You know these purple brushes are not easy to make.
Every year Xuan city pays tribute with these brushes
These brushes are as costly as gold.

When you use them, be careful not to make false accusations.
Be careful not to mistake the emperor’s words.


Translation notes:

This poem gives us some interesting insight into scholarly and imperial customs. The “four treasures of the study,” that is the paper, block of ink, whetstone for the ink, and the brush, were highly revered, and rabbit fur brushes made in Xuan city were considered so valuable that they were sent to the palace every year in tribute. This purple-tipped rabbit hair brush was used only by the emperor and palace officials. It was so highly associated with the court that when an aristocrat was found to be in possession of such a brush, he and his whole family were put to death. The reason for such a harsh punishment was the belief that the brush could be used to forge imperial decrees and thereby allow its owner to usurp the throne.

The enquiry censors of the eastern and western imperial houses and the imperial secretaries of the right and left terraces were court officials who transcribed the emperor’s words, recorded the functioning of the court, and monitored the behavior of court officials during morning assembles. They were tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring that the court was an example for the rest of the country of upright behavior in accordance with Confucian principles and royal tradition.

The line 搦管趋入黄金阙 (Take hold brush hurry enter golden capital) and the following line 抽毫立在白玉除 (take out brush stand at white jade stairs) can be read both as ordinary lines that advance the overall meaning of the poem, and as an elegant literary tour de force that deserve attention in themselves. In a technique known as parallelism that was commonly employed by classical writers, each word of the first line parallels the corresponding word of the next line by having either a related or opposite meaning. “Take hold” matches “take out.” “Hurry” matches “stand.” “Enter” matches with “at.” “Yellow” matches “white.” “Gold” matches “jade,” and “imperial city” matches “stairs.” We could not replicate this parallelism in English, but we thought that the elevated language of the original at least merited the grandiose word “aloft.”

舟夜书所见    On a Boat at Night Writing About What I Saw

查慎行            (Author: Zha Shenxing, 17th century)

月黑见渔灯, moon dark appear fisherman lantern
孤光一点萤。 alone light one spot firefly
微微风簇浪, tiny tiny wind pile up/make wave
散作满河星。 scatter become filled with river star



Tonight, the moon is dark
A fisherman’s lantern appears.
Its lonely gleam like a firefly.

But when a breeze makes the water ripple
The light scatters
Until the river fills with stars.


Translation Notes:

This poem is written by Zha Shenxing, a Qing Dynasty poet known for portraying natural scenery. It is said that the style of his poems was heavily influenced by Su Shi and Lu You, two famous Song Dynasty poets. The first and the second couplet of this poem form an interesting comparison: In the first couplet, the images are quiet and still, with the gleam from the fisherman’s lantern like a firefly. By contrast, in the second couplet, the images become dynamic when a breeze makes the water ripple. We translated the second couplet with simple languages and took the liberty of adding “the light scatters” to make the meaning clear.