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.”


作者:林逋 (Author:  Lin Bu,  10th century)


众芳摇落独暄妍   many fragrant sway fall alone warm beautiful
占尽风情向小园   occupy exhaust wind feeling toward small garden
疏影横斜水清浅   sparse shadow horizontal slanting water clear shallow
暗香浮动月黄昏   dim fragrant float move moon yellow dusk
霜禽欲下先偷眼   frost (white) bird about to go down first steal eye
粉蝶如知合断魂   pink butterfly if know should break soul
幸有微吟可相狎   luckily have tiny chant can each other intimate 
不须檀板共金樽    not need hard wood clapper together gold goblet 
This is the flower that shows us springtime beauty,
When the others have wobbled and fallen.
It’s the reason we love this small garden.   
Its thin shadows slant across the clear, shallow water
Its hidden fragrance floats beneath the yellow moon.
A snow-white bird steals a look before landing.
If the pink butterflies knew it was here, their hearts should break.
Luckily, I can make these flowers my friends by softly chanting poems.
There’s no need for a golden chalice or a singing girl’s wooden clapper. 
Translation Notes

The poet Lin Bu was a famous recluse in the northern Song dynasty and lived a quiet life in a mountain by the West Lake during his later years.  He was very fond of plums and cranes, and spent much time admiring them.  Since he never married, he earned the reputation of “considering plums his wife and cranes his children,” which was not a compliment in a Confucian society, despite the fact that Lin Bu was a much admired poet. Lin Bu was highly admired in Japan where he came to be regarded as one of the poetic immortals. A famous Japanese painting of Bu hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. 


Plum blossoms were very highly regarded in ancient Chinese culture and considered to be symbols of purity, courage, hope, longevity, and many other virtues, in part because they bloom very early in the year, often when there is still frost or snow on the ground. Even today, people say that its three stamens represent Sun Yat-sen’s three principles of the people and that its five petals represent the five branches of government.
We have included many color words in our translation, but it would be possible not to do so. “Yellow moon” frequently refers to dusk and could be translated as such. The “white” which describes a bird literally translates as frosty. The word for pink may also be a shortened version of a word for rouge. Some translations of this poem do not use the colors; we have chosen to use them both because we thought they painted a vivid image in a poem that takes place in a garden and because we suspect that Lin Bu deliberately chose to use yellow, gold, white, and pink since they are the colors of plum blossoms. As with so many translation choices, however, some of the original nuances have been lost. Our translation does not have dusk, frostiness, or a reference to such feminine allurements as rouge, all of which are hinted at in the original. 
The second stanza of the poem is said to have originated from poetry first written by Jiang Wei, a poet living in an era slightly before Lin Bu.  The poetic lines written by Jiang Wei are as follows (translated version):  The bamboo’s shadows slant across the clear, shallow water; the cassia’s fragrance floats beneath the yellow moon.  The first word in each of the two lines, namely, “bamboo” and “cassia” in the original was changed by Lin Bu into “sparse” and “hidden”.  Lin Bu only changed two words in this stanza, both from noun to adjective, and he was able to demonstrate the beauty and fragrance of the plums.  Today we could no longer find the complete version of Jiang Wei’s poem and only that couplet remains. 
作者:柳宗元   (Author: Liu Zongyuan, late 8th century)
千山鸟飞绝,    Thousand mountain bird fly absolutely
万径人踪灭。    Ten thousand trails man trace extinguish
孤舟蓑笠翁,    lone boat grass coat hat old man
独钓寒江雪        Alone fishing cold river snow


A thousand mountains: no bird flying.
Ten thousand trails: not one traveler’s footprint.
But an old man wearing a grass coat and hat in the snow,   

Fishes from a boat on the cold river.


Translation Notes:   
We make a great, though not always successful, effort to be faithful to the original Chinese by including all images in the poem and not adding any of our own unless we think we must have them to explain a crucial reference to contemporary readers. The results are sometimes awkward as we not only lose the meter and rhyme, but often end up talking about “railings” or “hats” that are not particularly evocative in English. Somewhat wistfully, we compare our translation above to this translation by adel@douban.  The translation was published on douban, a Chinese social media website. 
Not a feather amid the mountains 
Not a soul on the trails 
But an old fisherman in the snow 
Fishing in a drifting boat 



We think that adel’s version is much lovelier than ours and very much has the feeling of an elegant landscape painting. We do not think she took any great liberties by omitting the “thousand” mountains and “ten thousand” trails, as these numbers were really only used as a way of saying “many.” The “not a feather” is a neat way of reproducing a line that says the birds were “absolutely” gone, and “not one soul” is fairly close to the traces of men extinguished. 


In the second couplet, however, adel deviates pretty significantly from the original. She omits the grass coat and hat as well as the cold river. Most importantly, She adds the term “drifting” to describe the boat. The grass coat and hat and the cold river may be seen as superfluous since these clothes are what a fisherman would be expected to wear, and if he’s fishing from a boat in the snow, it’s obvious that he is fishing from a cold river. Even so, inclusion of these terms serves to emphasize the man’s inadequate protection from harsh winter weather. 


The term “drifting” is not suggested by the original at all. It gives a romantic feeling to the poem, but it might not describe the fisherman. If he has gone out in freezing weather to earn a living or get a meal, he is more likely to be picking his spots carefully rather than to be drifting along. We believe that our more literal translation is harsher, colder, more focused on the fisherman’s plight, than adel’s is. If Du Fu, who was a great champion of the poor, had written the poem, our translation would probably be closer to the poet’s intent. As it is, who can tell? The title, River and Snow, suggests that this is primarily a landscape painting, in which case, Adel’s beautiful translation best captures its true spirit. On the other hand, the poem was written after Liu Zongyuan had been sent into exile, and some scholars have theorized that the persevering fisherman was meant to represent the poet himself. Comparing the two translations helps us to think more deeply about the purpose of the poem.

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.