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.

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.

作者:曹操   (Author: Cao Cao, 3rd century)


东临碣石,east climb Jieshi mountain
以观沧海。 to look dark blue sea
水何澹澹,water how peaceful
山岛竦峙。island rise peak
树木丛生,forest tree crowd grow
百草丰茂。100 grass abundant lush
秋风萧瑟,autumn wind grievance cold
洪波涌起。flood wave surge rise
日月之行,sun moon of travel
若出其中。like coming out its center
星汉灿烂,star wide bright glorious
若出其里。 like coming out its within
幸甚至哉,lucky very arrive oh
歌以咏志    sing to chant ambition


I rode east and climbed the Jeishi Mountain
To look down at this dark blue sea,
At its vast water,
At its islands and jutting peaks.

The trees grow thick here,
While the grass is still so lush.
Cold autumn winds blow:
Towering waves surge forth in answer.

To me it’s as if the sun and moon both
Rise up from these waters.
And the brilliant band of stars?
They burst from its depths.

Oh, my good luck to have reached this place!
I sing, I shout my ambition.

Translation Notes:

Cao Cao was a brilliant war lord who became very powerful by the end of the Eastern Han dynasty. He was also an influential poet, though, unfortunately, only a few of his poems remain. He wrote this poem after one of his significant victories against the northern Wuhuan tribes. At the end of the second stanza, we write that the water surges forth “in answer,” and we translate the last two lines of the third stanza as a question and answer despite the fact that there are not question words in the original. We made this choice because we thought that the question and response best represented the dynamic nature of the original poem.