There have been several instances in Chinese history when multiple members of the same family became renowned for their poetry. One such instance was with the Cao clan during the Three Kingdoms period (220 ACE to 280 ACE). The brilliant warlord Cao Cao, together with his two sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi, all wrote poems that are still read and studied today. The four poems that follow were written by Cao Cao’s two sons, Cao Pi and Cao Zhi. Though the two princes are brothers, the styles of their poems are very different from each other.


白马篇  On the White Horse

(魏)曹植 (Author: Cao Zhi, 3rd Century)

白马饰金羁,white horse decorate gold bridle
连翩西北驰。connect fly fast west north ride
借问谁家子?borrow ask who family son
幽并游侠儿。You Bin travel chivalrous person
少小去乡邑,young little leave hometown city
扬声沙漠垂。raise reputation sand desert frontier
宿昔秉良弓,night morning hold good bow
楛矢何参差!beadtree/china-berry arrow how fringe difference
控弦破左的,control bowstring break left archery target
右发摧月支。right release destroy archery target
仰手接飞猱,upward hand shoot flying monkey
俯身散马蹄。bow down body scatter horse hoof
狡捷过猴猿,cunning agile surpass monkey
勇剽若豹螭。brave swift similar to leopard hornless dragon

边城多警急,frontier city many alarm hasty
虏骑数迁移。tribeman horse rider several times shift change
羽檄从北来,feather exhortation from north come
厉马登高堤。rein horse climb high hill
长驱蹈匈奴,long ride step on Xiongnu
左顾陵鲜卑。left look overpower Xianbei
弃身锋刃端,discard body edge knift front
性命安可怀?nature life how can think of
父母且不顾,father mother yet no take care
何言子与妻?how say son and wife
名编壮士籍,name compile strong person roll
不得中顾私。no can middle/heart think of private matters
捐躯赴国难,donate body go nation calamity
视死忽如归. look at death suddenly similar to return


A white horse with a gold bridle
Soared like a bird into the Northwest.
I begged to know where the rider had come from.
He was a hero from You Bin.
When he was young, he left his hometown,
And made his reputation in the desert frontier.
Night and day he carried his good bow
With china-berry and bead tree arrows, short and long,
He could hit his target shooting left handed on horseback,
Shooting right handed, he could also pierce through it.
Shooting upward without stop, he could hit a flying monkey
Aiming his bow at the ground, he could destroy a horse hoof target.
More agile and cunning than a monkey,
As brave and as fierce as a leopard or mountain demon.

In this frontier city there are many sudden alarms
Urgent military messages come from the North,
While tribesmen attack from all directions.
He races up a steep hill
One long ride and he dominates the Xiongnu
Then he looks to his left and vanquishes the Xianbei
He lives on the knife-edge of danger
How can he think of his own well being?
He cares little for his mother and father,
Even less for his wife and child.
With his name on the roll of great men
He has no time for private matters
He sacrifices his body to save the nation
And sees his own death as a sweet homecoming.


七步诗    Seven Steps Poem

煮豆持作羹,cook/boil beans use make soup
漉豉以为汁。filter pulse use become juice
萁在釜下燃,beanstalks at pot under burn
豆在釜中泣。beans at pot inside cry
本自同根生,originally from same root born
相煎何太急? each other fry why too much hastily


Beans are boiled to make soup
In their own fermented broth
Beanstalks burn beneath the pot
Beans inside the pot cry out
We were born from the same stalk
why so quick to incinerate me?


杂诗二首    Two Pieces of Miscellaneous Poems

(魏)曹丕 (Author: Cao Pi, 3rd century)

其一 Number One

漫漫秋夜长,overflow overflow autumn night long
烈烈北风凉。wind blowing sound north wind cold
展转不能寐,toss toss no can sleep
披衣起彷徨。put on clothes get up wander
彷徨忽已久,wander suddenly already long
白露沾我裳。white dew moisten my clothes
俯视清水波,look down see clear water ripple
仰看明月光。look up see bright moon light

天汉回西流,milky way return west flow
三五正纵横。three five at the time vertical horizontal
草虫鸣何悲,grass insect cry how sorrow
孤雁独南翔。solitary goose alone south fly
郁郁多悲思,sad sad many sorrow thoughts
绵绵思故乡。continuous think of past village
愿飞安得翼,wish fly how get wing
欲济河无梁。desire to cross river no bridge
向风长叹息, face wind long sigh rest
断绝我中肠。break cut off I middle bowel



Long, long the autumn night,
Howling, howling the cold north wind.
Restless, turning, unable to sleep
I rise and get dressed, unsure of what to do.

In my confusion, I suddenly realize
That my clothes are damp with white dew.
I look down: the clear water ripples
I look up: the bright moon shines

The whole star system is flowing back to the west.
But three stars still intersect five, forming a cross.
Insects in the grass make mournful cries.
All alone, a goose journeys south.

I have so many sad thoughts,
Longing without stop for my home.
I want to fly, but have no wings
I want to cross the river, but have no bridge.

Facing the wind, I sigh,
My bowels twisting with grief.


其二 Number Two

西北有浮云,west north have floating cloud
亭亭如车盖。towering towering like carriage cover/top
惜哉时不遇,pity alas time no meet
适与飘风会。suitable coincidentally float wind meet
吹我东南行,blow I east south go
行行至吴会。go go arrive Wu Kuai
吴会非我乡,Wu Kuai no my hometown
安能久留滞。how can long stay remain/stagnant
弃置勿复陈,discard put no again say
客子常畏人。 guest person often afraid people



A cloud floats in the northwest,
High above me like a carriage top.
What a pity it came at the wrong time
And was blown away by the north wind.

I was blown southeast,
Blown all the way to Wu Kai.
This place is not my home.
How long will I be trapped here?

Even if I put aside my sadness,
A stranger has reason to fear the townspeople.


Translation Notes:

Cao Pi was the eldest son of the ambitious and talented warlord Cao Cao, and Cao Zhi was Cao Cao’s third son. Cao Cao became very powerful by the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, and for years it was unclear whom he would appoint as his heir. Cao Zhi’s poetic talents, made him Cao Cao’s favorite son at one point. However, Cao Zhi was also a heavy drinker and sometimes behaved recklessly. He eventually disappointed Cao Cao, and his father made Cao Pi as his heir apparent instead.

After Cao Cao passed away, Cao Pi become the new king, and he exiled Cao Zhi to the countryside. Legend has it that Cao Pi once summoned his younger brother to court, forcing him to write a poem about brotherhood and threatening to execute him if he couldn’t do it in the time it took him to walk seven steps. That is why the title of Cao Zhi’s poem is “Seven Steps Poem”. However, historians have questioned the authenticity of this story, pointing out that Cao Pi had a million other ways to murder his younger brother if he wanted to. It would not have been wise for Cao Pi to challenge his talented younger brother by forcing him to write a poem.

Though both princes were famed for their poetry, the style of their poems is very different. Cao Pi was the one in power. Interestingly, in the two poems we translated, he put himself in a frail, insecure and homesick traveler’s shoes. By contrast, the poem “On the White Horse”, written by Cao Zhi, is very aggressive and warlike. Yet the young prince who idolized war heroes is not known for his military skills.