Chinese poets made frequent allusions to the works of the past, borrowing symbols, metaphors, and sometimes even entire lines from earlier poems. The following two poems repeat the image of a branch of red apricot reaches beyond the wall.


游园不值     Visiting a Garden with the Host Absent

叶绍翁         (Author: Ye Shaoweng, 13th century)

应怜屐齿印苍苔,    should pity wooden shoes teeth mark blue moss
小扣柴扉久不开。 light knock firewood door long no open
春色满园关不住, spring color full of garden close no stop
一枝红杏出墙来。 one branch red apricot go out wall come



It would be a shame to let wooden shoes ruin the blue moss.
Maybe that’s why no one answers when I tap on the wooden door.
But these walls can’t hold back the colors of spring.
A branch of red apricot reaches beyond them.


马上作    Written on Horseback

陆游        (Author: Lu You, 12th century)

平桥小陌雨初收,flat bridge small path rain first stop
淡日穿云翠霭浮;light/pale sun pass through cloud green mist float
杨柳不遮春色断,poplar willow no cover spring color stop
一枝红杏出墙头。one branch red apricot go out wall head



A low bridge, a small path, and the rain just stopped.
Pale sunlight pierces the clouds, floats on green mist.
The poplars and willows can’t block the spring colors.
A branch of red apricot reaches beyond the top of the wall.


Translation Notes:

The last couplets of these two poems both describe the vivid image of spring colors (meaning flowers) that can’t be contained, with a branch of red apricot reaching beyond the wall. Both Ye Shaoweng and Lu You were poets from the Southern Song dynasty, though Lu was born a bit before Ye. It seems likely, therefore, that the last couplet of Ye’s poem originates from Lu’s poem, but since the lives of the two poets briefly overlap each other, we can’t say for sure.

We also attach another translation of Ye’s poem by Red Pine, both because the translation is excellent and because it illustrates one of the problems in translating ancient poetry. As the poems are copied and recopied over the ages, sometimes a word is changed. In the version we use for our translation, the first word of the second line is little “小”, while in the version that Red Pine uses for his translation, the first word is ten “十.” This single change profoundly affects the poem’s meaning and tone: In the version we use, Ye seems to be very patient and doesn’t want to disturb his friend — the owner of the private garden, so he only taps on the door. In the version Red Pine uses, Ye seems to be very enthusiastic in visiting his friend’s garden, knocking ten times, and doesn’t particularly care whether his friend would be disturbed. The way in which the second line is translated affects the translation of the first line. Since there is no subject in the first line, we are left to make our own assumption as to who is concerned about the damage shoes might do to the moss. Because, in our version, Ye seems cautious, we assume that he shares the concern. Red Pine’s enthusiastic Ye ascribes the concern to his friend alone. We think that the version of the poem we used is most likely to be authentic, but this is another area in which we cannot be certain. We encourage readers to compare other translations with ours.

The last couplet of the two poems was reused repeatedly in later works, most notably by a Ming dynasty folksong “A Branch of Red Apricot”. The meaning of the last couplet was recast in this folksong as a sexual innuendo implying adultery. It was later developed into a well-known Chinese proverb “红杏出墙“(translated literally as “a branch of red apricot reaches beyond the wall”). Some translators have translated this image with sexual innuendo in this Ming dynasty folksong as a branch of red apricot “peeks over the wall.” (by Kathryn Lowry, 2005). We believe that the last couplet of Ye’s poem doesn’t have a sexual implication, as otherwise Ye would have implied that his friend has many concubines in his private garden, and Ye had an affair with one of them.


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.

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: