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.

饮酒      Drinking Wine

陶渊明  (Author: Tao Yuanming, 4th century)

结庐在人境, Build hut at man place
而无车马喧。 But no carriage horse noise
问君何能尔? Ask you possible can like this
心远地自偏。 heart far place naturally remote
采菊东篱下, pick chrysanthemum east fence under
悠然见南山。 far leisurely see south mountain
山气日夕佳, mountain air sun set lovely
飞鸟相与还。 fly bird each other and return
此中有真意, this inside have true meaning
欲辨已忘言。 want explain already lost words



I built my hut in a world of men,
But there’s no sound of carriages and horses.

You ask me how this is possible.
When the heart is far away, surroundings become remote.

I pick chrysanthemums by the east fence,
And idly gaze at the southern mountain.

The mountain air is so beautiful at sunset,
As the birds fly home together.

There’s true meaning in this.
I want to explain, but I’ve already forgotten the words.


Translation Notes:

Tao Yuanming is sometimes considered the father of Fields and Gardens poetry, a literature that celebrates contemplative life outside the city walls. Certainly, this poem exemplifies the Field and Garden style. It is set not in the wilderness, but in “the world of men,” yet its subject is natural beauty and contemplation. Much Fields and Gardens poetry is Taoist, and at least one translator has gone so far as to translate the penultimate line as: “Within this natural scene lies the artistic mood necessary for creation, and the real meaning of the Dao.” https://www.learnancientchinesepoetry.org/2016/09/11/tao-yuanming-drinking-wine-no-5/

We translate poetry much more literally than this, but we agree that this line of translation sums up much of the spirit of this poem and of Field and Garden poetry generally. The meaning reflected in the last couplet is very similar to the last couplet of “Painted Zither,” which we have also translated. Both couplets point to the ineffable nature of life.

秋来     The Arrival of Autumn

作者:李贺 (Author: Li He, 9th century)

桐风惊心壮士苦, parasol wind startle heart strong person bitter
衰灯络纬啼寒素。 feeble light cicadas cry cold white/clothes
谁看青简一编书, who read green bamboo slip one compile/volume book
不遣花虫粉空蠹。 no dispatch flower insect powder in vain moth-eaten
思牵今夜肠应直, think of connect today night bowel should straight
雨冷香魂吊书客。 rain cold fragrant soul pay tribute book guest
秋坟鬼唱鲍家诗, autumn tomb ghost sing Bao family poem
恨血千年土中碧。 hatred blood thousand year soil inside green jade



The wind through the parasol trees startles a strong man’s heart,
And makes him bitter.
In the dying candle light, crickets cry out,
Warning us to weave winter clothes.
Oh, who will read this book of poems, written on green bamboo?
And keep the flower moths from turning it to dust?

This night of longing makes my intestines go limp.
But in the cold rain, a fragrant spirit comes to comfort me.
Among the autumn tombs, ghosts sing poems in the style of Bao Zhao.
After a thousand years, the blood of a wronged man
Turns to jade deep in the earth.


Translation Note:

This poem was written in the late Tang Dynasty by a young man who was not allowed to sit for the official government exams because of a naming taboo — the name of the highest degree obtained from the official government exam sounds very similar to the given name of Li’s father. In ancient China, the practice of sons using titles or names similar to their fathers’ would be considered unfilial. Although Li He died at the age of 26, he left behind more than 200 poems, many of which featured ghosts and death.

In the first stanza, the literal translation is that cicadas cry for winter clothes, but we do not believe that Li He was anthropomorphizing crickets; we think he meant that the crickets signified that winter was coming and warm clothes would be needed. Although the mention of intestines becoming straight or limp is not common, Chinese poetry often refers to broken or twisted bowels or intestines to signify a broken heart. In line six, the word “diao”(translated as comfort) is usually used in the context of a living person visiting someone’s grave to pay tribute to the dead. Here Li uses it to refer to the “fragrant spirit” (the dead) coming to comfort him, even though he is still alive. The mention of a wronged man whose blood turned to jade is a reference from the Zhou dynasty which ended more than a thousand years before the poem was written.The “wronged man” was a scholar who was exiled because of a false accusation. After he died, his blood was preserved in a box, and within three years it turned into jade. In ancient Chinese history, the “jade green blood” therefore often refers to someone who sacrificed himself and died for a good cause. Even in modern China, the concept of “jade green blood” is commonly used by writers — for example, Jin Yong, a novelist famous for writing “martial arts and chivalry” novels, wrote a novel in the 1950s named “Bi Xue Jian” (the literal translation of the novel’s name is Jade Blood Sword).

We also attach another version of the translation by Elizabeth Smithrosser: https://www.medievalists.net/2020/08/book-care-medieval-china/

We thought her translation of line three to five of the original is very striking “Who will see to it that the young bamboo is bound together as a book, And not left to the dappled silverfish To chew into holes and dust, Like tonight’s snaking thoughts unravel my innards?”, and that her linkage of the silverfish with Li He’s sad thoughts is not too much of a liberty. We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

虞美人   Beautiful Lady Yu

李煜       (Author: Li Yu, 10th century)

春花秋月何时了,           spring flow autumn moon when time end
往事知多少?                past affairs know many a few
小楼昨夜又东风,        small tower yesterday night again east wind
故国不堪回首月明中!past kingdom no bear return head moon bright in

雕阑玉砌应犹在,       carved railing jade stairs should still exist
只是朱颜改。               only is red face change
问君能有几多愁?       ask you can have several many sorrow
恰似一江春水向东流。just similar one river spring water towards east flow



Spring flowers, autumn moon — when will they end?
All those undertakings of the past — who knows how many there were?
Last night the east wind came to my small building again.
In the bright moonlight, I couldn’t bear to look back toward my homeland.

The inlaid ramparts and jade stairs should still be there.
It’s only the beautiful faces that have changed.
I ask you, how much sorrow is possible?
Just as much as a river full of spring water flowing east.


Translation Notes:

The author was the last ruler of the Southern Tang state. After his empire was invaded by the Northern Song armies, he was captured and spent the last couple of years of his life essentially as a prisoner in the North. This poem is said to be the last poem that he wrote, lamenting his miserable life as a prisoner and demonstrating how much he missed his empire/hometown. The historical record indicates that after he wrote this poem and asked some singing girls to chant it, the emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty grew furious and ordered that Li Yu be poisoned to death.

The wind in traditional Chinese thought is seen as a powerful force for change, often heralding the coming of spring. Even the word ‘wind’ has within it the symbol for insect, as it was believed that the wind brought the insects that appear in great number during the spring. In The Song of Weiyang Palace, translated on this site, the blowing wind causes the peach blossoms to open.  In other poems, however, such as Lu You’s Pheonix Hairpin, the wind is bitter and brings tragic change. In Beautiful Lady Yu, the east wind comes to the poet’s small building to remind the poet of his lost and beautiful homeland, triggering unbearable pain.


Chinese poets made frequent allusions to the great works of the past, borrowing symbols, metaphors, and entire lines from well-known poems. The three poems that follow span nearly a thousand years and deliberately repeat the image of a magpie flying beneath the moon.


短歌⾏ Short Song Style 

作者: 曹操 (Author: Cao Cao, 2nd century)

对酒当歌, ⼈⽣⼏何! facing wine should sing, people life several how long
譬如朝露, 去⽇苦多。 similar to morning dew, past day bitter much

慨当以慷, 忧思难忘。 generous should use passionate, worry thoughts difficult forget
何以解忧? 唯有杜康。 what can resolve worry? only there is wine
(According to legend, Du Kang is the first person who made wine)

⻘⻘⼦衿,悠悠我⼼。 blue blue you collar, linger linger my heart
但为君故,沉吟⾄今。 only because of you reason, ponder till today

呦呦⿅鸣,⻝野之苹。 you you(onomatopoeia) deer cry, eat field connection word mugwort
我有嘉宾,⿎瑟吹笙。 I have nice guests, drum zither blow reed pipe

明明如⽉,何时可掇? bright bright similar to moon, when can pick up
忧从中来,不可断绝。 worry from inside come, no can stop absolutely

越陌度阡,枉⽤相存。 transit East-West path pass South-North path, be kind enough to make a journey each other visit
契阔谈䜩,⼼念旧恩。 close distant discuss feasting, heart think of old favor

⽉明星稀,乌鹊南⻜。 moon bright star sparse, black magpie south fly
绕树三匝,何枝可依? circle tree three circle, which branch can rely?

⼭不厌⾼,海不厌深。 mountain not tired of tallness, sea not tired of deepness
周公吐哺,天下归⼼。 the Duke of Zhou spit out food, sky under return (convert) heart


When we have wine before us, we should sing
For who knows how long our lives will be?
Our days are like the morning dew,
It’s bitterness to think how many are gone.

Be passionate. Be generous
When worried thoughts are hard to forget.
All we can do is dissolve them in wine.

Oh, you blue-gowned scholars,
You linger on my heart.
It is only because of you
That I still chant these words.

But the deer call to us from the fields
As they eat the charmed grasses.
I have illustrious guests
Play the drums and zither. Blow the reed pipes!

You are as brilliant as the moon
When can I make you mine?
Worry comes from within
It never fully ends.

Still, every year, people are kind enough
To come from the four corners of the earth to see me.
We talk and feast and remember old favors.
Even after a long parting, we grow close again.

Tonight the moon is bright, the stars are sparse.
And the magpie is flying south.
It circles a tree three times.
Which branch can it rely on?

A mountain will never tire of its height
Nor the ocean tire of its depth.
The Duke of Zhou would spit his food out,
For the chance to greet a scholar.
Everyone under the heavens will learn to believe in me.


Translation Note:
The author of this poem was a brilliant warlord who rose to become a king. He wrote this poem to attract scholars to his newly formed court. He borrows frequently from the Book of Songs, perhaps to connect his upstart rule to China’s sacred traditions. The second stanza comes from a love poem addressed to a lover who wore a blue collar denoting his upper class status. Since “blue collar” has exactly the opposite connotation for American readers, we changed the words to “blue gowned” and added “scholar” to make Cao Cao’s point clear.

We took our greatest liberties with the couplet that follows about the deer in the fields. A more literal translation would be “Yu, yu the deer in the field cry, They eat mugwort,” but we found this literal translation very confusing and out of place. These lines also refer back to a poem from the Book of Songs and are meant to set to convey a bucolic scene with deer eating in the fields in sight or earshot of the people feasting. We created a sense of connection with the deer and nature by having the deer “call to us,” rather than bleat. Since a contemporary reader would have known that mugwort was not just any grass, but an almost magical herb used to ward off both disease and evil spirits, we translated it as “charmed grasses.”

As far as we are aware, the image of the magpie flying beneath the moon and looking for a branch that will be safe to land on is original to Cao Cao. It is arguably the most significant image of the poem as it vividly portrays the plight of the people he is trying to woo, and it is the image that seems to have been most often repeated through the ages.

We added a line in the final stanza “For the chance to greet a scholar.” The original only states that Duke Zhou spit his food out, an allusion that would have been clear to a contemporary reader and utterly confusing to a modern one.


⻦鸣涧   Birds Calling above the Stream

作者: 王维 (Author: Wang Wei, 8th century)

⼈闲桂花落, person idle Osmanthus flower fall
夜静春⼭空。 night quiet spring mountain empty
⽉出惊⼭⻦, moon go out startle mountain bird
时鸣春涧中。 times cry spring brook inside


An idle man, a cassia flower falling
On this peaceful spring night, the mountain is empty.
Even the rising moon startles the mountain birds.
Which call, now and then, above the spring stream.


Translation Notes: 

Wang Wei was a devout Buddhist whose work was often extremely contemplative and peaceful. In addition, this poem was most likely written in Wang Wei’s youth, during one of the most stable and prosperous periods of the Tang Dynasty. For these reasons, we chose to soften the third line a bit by adding the word “even,” and in the fourth line, we translated “times” as “now and then.” The same image which in Cao Cao’s poem shows the danger and insecurity of people who don’t know where they can safely land becomes an idyllic scene in Wei’s poem. The night is so quiet that even the bright moon is startling. However, if Wang Wei had written the poem during the An Lushan rebellion, when he was hiding in the mountains, it would have made more sense to translate the third and fourth lines as “The rising moon startles the mountain birds, which call, again and again, above the spring stream.” Looking into the historical context as well as the author’s other works, helps us to think more deeply about the purpose of the poem.


⻄江⽉ West River Moon

作者:⾟弃疾 (Author: Xin Qiji, 12th century)

明⽉别枝惊鹊  Bright moon slant branch startle magpie
清⻛半夜鸣蝉  clean wind half night sing cicada

稻花⾹⾥说丰年  rice flower scent in say abundant year
听取蛙声⼀⽚      listen get frog sound one piece

七⼋个星天外   seven eight the star sky outside
两三点⾬⼭前   two three drops rain mountain front

旧时茅店社林边   old time thatched store temple woods beside
路转溪桥忽⻅       road turn brook bridge suddenly see


The bright moon, a slanting branch, a startled magpie,
At midnight a fresh wind blows, and cicada sing.

Deep in the scent of rice flowers, there’s talk of a good crop
And the frogs are all croaking together.

Seven or eight stars appear in the distant sky
Two or three rain drops fall in front of the mountain

There’s an old thatched shop by a temple in the woods,
Take a turn in the path, cross the bridge, and suddenly you see it.


Translation Notes:

Because we presented this poem as part of a series of poems which contain images of magpies flying beneath the moon, we felt confident in translating the first line literally, and trusting that the reader would infer that the moon has so startled the magpie that it has flown away. If we had translated this poem without its literary antecedents, we would have written “A moon so bright it startles the magpie/Now only a slanting branch remains.” Our more literal translation of the poem involves the reader more deeply, and it focuses on a very precise instant in time, the fraction of a second that the branch is bent beneath the weight of the departing bird before it springs back again.

Classic Chinese poetry frequently leaves the subject unspecified, forcing the translator to make a decision as to whether the poet is talking about himself or some unnamed person. In the final couplet, we made the somewhat unusual decision to translate in the second person. The poem is so friendly and welcoming that we interpreted the last lines as a series of directions inviting the reader into the village scene.

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.