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.


菩萨蛮.书江西造口壁 (To the Tune “Buddhist Dancers”: Written on the Cliff at Zaokou in Jiangxi Province)

辛弃疾 (Author: Xin Qiji, 12th century)

郁孤台下清江水,Yu Gu Terrance under clear river water
中间多少行人泪。middle among a lot few travel person tears
西北望长安, west north look Chang’an
可怜无数山。 deserve pitiful no count mountain
青山遮不住, green mountain cover no stop
毕竟东流去。 after all east flow go
江晚正愁余, river night just sorrow I
山深闻鹧鸪。 mountain deep hear Partridge



Beneath the Yu Gu Terrace flow the clear waters of the Gan River.
Mingled with the tears of so many who come this way.
I look northwest toward Chang An,
And feel bitterness at the sight of the unending mountains.

But the green mountains can’t stop the rivers.
After all, they flow east.
At night here, on the bank of the Gan, I feel so much sadness.
Deep in the mountains, I hear the partridges crying.


Translation Notes:

The author was famous for his patriotic poems, written during the Southern Song dynasty, a period when China had lost control of the northern part of its empire. The majority of the Song’s royal family had been captured by the northern invaders, though a few, including a former empress, escaped. This poem memorializes a spot where the empress stopped after abandoning her boat. The traveler looks back at Chang An, which was not the capital at that time, but which was a symbol of the past greatness. There is debate as to how the sixth line should be understood since it seems to be saying that the Gan river flows east, when, in fact, it flows north. Some scholars believe that the east-flowing river is a reference to the two great rivers of China, the Yellow River and the Yangtze, both of which flow east. In other words, no matter which way a local river that was the scene of heartbreak and defeat may run, the nation’s two most important rivers still go in the same direction.

The second couplet of the poem was tweaked a bit by contemporary Chinese netizens to satirize a municipal Chinese authority’s censorship towards “negative” COVID lockdown posts. In January this year, authorities in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi’an, which was named Chang An during the Tang Dynasty, imposed harsh COVID lockdown measures that left a lot of city residents with a shortage of food and limited access to necessary medical treatment. With online posts complaining the local government’s COVID lockdown policies going viral on different social media websites, authorities in Xi’an started to ban “negative” COVID lockdown posts on social media. Some creative Chinese netizens, inspired by the second couplet of this poem, changed the last word in the second couplet from “山“ to “删“. The two words are a homophonic pun in Chinese. With the change, the second couplet reads (in Chinese) as followed: “西北望长安,可怜无数删“, and could be translated as “I look northwest toward Chang An.  And feel bitterness that countless posts were deleted”.


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.

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.

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: