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.