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.
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.
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.
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.