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Best Chinese Poets: English Translations

complied by Michael R. Burch

This page contains English translations of poems by some of the greatest Chinese poets of all time, including male emperors and wonderful female poets like Yau Ywe-Hwa, Li Ching-jau, Tzu Yeh, Huang O and Li Qingzhao.

The Red Cockatoo
by Po Chu-I

Sent as a present from Annam—
A red cockatoo.
Colored like the peach-tree blossom,
Speaking with the speech of men.
And they did to it what is always done
To the learned and eloquent.
They took a cage with stout bars
And shut it up inside.

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The migrant songbird on the nearby yew
tears to my eyes with her melodious trillsó
this fresh downpour renewing the stains of older spills;
another spring gone, and still no word from you ...

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

This year with the end of autumn
I find my reflection graying at the edges.
Now evening gales hammer these ledges ...
what shall become of the plum blossoms?

Moonlit Night
by Tu Fu [Du Fu] (c. 757)

Alone in your chamber you gaze
At the moon tonight, in Fu-Chou.

Here, far away, I think of our children
Too young to remember Ch'ang-an ...

A fragrant mist, the moist cloud of your hair!
In that scintillant light, your jade-cool arm!

Oh, when may we meet by your bed's drawn drapes,
till love and the light dry our tears?

This poem is addressed to the poet's wife, who had fled war with their children. Ch'ang-an is an ironic pun because it means "Long-peace."

Tzu Yeh (a Chinese poetess of the Chin Dynasty)
five short poems translated by Arthur Waley

I will carry my coat and not put on my belt;
With unpainted eyebrows I will stand at the front window.
My tiresome petticoat keeps on flapping about;
If it opens a little, I shall blame the spring wind.

I heard my love was going to Yang-chou
And went with him as far as Ch’u-shan.
For a moment when you held me fast in your outstretched arms
I thought the river stood still and did not flow.

Longing, I watch out the open window,
my sash untied, long sleeves dragging.
This breeze lifts gauze so easily,
if my skirt should open, blame the warm spring wind.

Winter skies are cold and low,
with harsh winds and freezing sleet.
But when we make love beneath our quilt,
we make three summer months of heat.

When she approached you on the street,
you couldn't possibly say no.
But your neglect of me is nothing new.
Hinges soon sag on an empty door:
it won't fit snug like it did before.

Still He Does Not Come
by Yau Ywe-Hwa (T'ang Dynasty)

I have been here a long time,
With silver candles
And sparkling wine,
Walking up to the gate
And back again,
Watching for him
Till it's nearly daylight.

Now the moon has set,
The stars are few,
And still he does not come.

Suddenly wingbeats drum
In the misty willows;
A magpie flies off.

In China the magpie is associated with happiness. In this case the happiness of the poetess is flying away.

"Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River"
by Yang-ti (605-617), emperor of the Sui Dynasty

The evening river is level and motionless —
The spring colors just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water arrives with its freight of stars.

Spring In Wu-ling
by Li Ching-jau (Southern Sung Period, 1135 A.D.)

The wind is still,
The earth smells sweet;
The flowers all have fallen here.

As evening comes,
I comb my hair.

His things remain
But he is gone;
So everything's over.

When I try to speak
The tears well up.

I hear that spring's
Still at its height
At Double Creek ...

I think of going to sail
The light skiffs there,
But alas, I fear
The grasshopper-boats
At Double Creek
Could never bear
So great a weight
Of sorrow.

To the tune “Soaring Clouds”
by Huang O (1498-1569)

You held my lotus blossom
In your lips and played with the
Pistil. We took one piece of
Magic rhinoceros horn
And could not sleep all night long.
All night the cock’s gorgeous crest
Stood erect. All night the bee
Clung trembling to the flower
Stamens. Oh my sweet perfumed
Jewel! I will allow only
My lord to possess my sacred
Lotus pond, and every night
You can make blossom in me
Flowers of fire.

To the tune “The Fall of a Little Wild Goose”
by Huang O (1498-1569)

Once upon a time I was
Beautiful and seductive,
Wavering to and fro in
Our orchid-scented bedroom.
You and I together tangled
In our incense-filled gauze
Bed curtains. I trembled,
Held in your hands. You carried
Me in your heart wherever
You went. Suddenly
A bullet struck down the female
Mandarin duck. The music
Of the jade zither was forgotten.
The phoenixes were driven apart.

I sit alone in a room
Filled with Spring, and you are off,
Making love with someone else,
Happy as two fish in the water.

That insufferable little bitch
With her coy tricks!
She’d better not forget —
This old witch can still
Make a furious scene!

People Hide Their Love
by Wu-ti [Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty]

Who says
That it’s by my desire,
This separation, this living so far from you?
My dress still smells of the lavender you gave me:
My hand still holds the letter you sent.
Round my waist I wear a double sash:
I dream that it binds us both with a same-heart knot.
Did not you know that people hide their love,
Like the flower that seems too precious to be picked?

On Going to a Tavern
by Wang Chi [circa AD 700]

These days, continually fuddled with drink,
I fail to satisfy the appetites of the soul.
But seeing men all behaving like drunkards,
How can I alone remain sober?

The Philosopher [Lao Tzu]
by Po Chu-I

“Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know, remain silent.”
These words, we are told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
Was, himself, one who knew,
How can be it be that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?

On Being Stricken with Paralysis
by Po Chu-I

Good friends,
Why waste your time in wailing
And in sympathy for me?

Surely, from time to time,
I shall be strong enough
To move about a bit
As for travel,
On land there are carrying-chairs,
And on the water there are boats;
So, if I can but keep my courage,
What need have I of feet?

Drunk Again
by Po Chu-I

Last year, when I was ill,
I vowed I'd never drink again,
As long as I should live.

But who could know, last year,
What this year's spring
would bring?

So here I am,
Wobbling home from old Liu's house
As drunk as can be again!

Last Poem
by Po Chu-I (A.D. 772-846)

They have put my bed beside the unpainted screen;
They have shifted my stove in front of the blue curtain.
I listen to my grandchildren reading me a book;
I watch the servants heating up my soup.
With rapid pencil I answer the poems of friends,
I feel in my pocket and pull out medicine-money.
When this superintendence of trifling affairs is done,
I lie back on my pillows and sleep with my face to the South.

Spring Prospect
by Du Fu (712-770 A.D.)

Our nation
Has been destroyed;
Only mountains and rivers remain.

It is spring in the city;
The trees grow tall,
the grasses deep.

Moved by the season,
The flowers blooming
Cause me to weep.

Resentful of separation,
The songbirds singing
Shock my heart.

The beacon-fires of war
Have been burning
For three months now.

I would give
Ten thousand gold-pieces
For a single letter from home.

I have scratched
My white head
So sparse

That soon
My hatpin
Will have nothing to hold.

by Yuan Chieh  (A.D, 723-772)

To the southeast three thousand leagues
The Yuan and Hsiang form into a mighty lake.
Above the lake are deep mountain valleys,
And men dwelling whose hearts are without guile.
Gay like children, they swarm to the tops of trees;
And run to the water to catch bream and trout.
Their pleasures are the same as those of beasts and birds;
They put no restraint either on body or mind.
Far I have wandered throughout the Nine Lands;
Wherever I went such manners had disappeared.
I find myself standing and wondering, perplexed,
Whether Saints and Sages have really done us any good.

A Protest in the Sixth Year of Ch‘ien Fu
by Ts'ao Tsung (Cao Song)
translated by Arthur Waley

   You have made your battle-ground.
How do you suppose the people who live there
   Will procure ”firewood and hay”?
Do not let me hear you talking together
   About titles and promotions;
For a single general’s reputation
   Is made out of ten thousand corpses.

Questions Answered
by Li Po (701-762)

You ask why I live
alone in the mountain forest,

and I smile and am silent
until even my soul grows quiet.

The peach trees blossom.
The water continues to flow.

I live in the other world,
one that lies beyond the human.

Mountain Drinking Song
by Li Po (701-762)

To drown the ancient sorrows,
we drank a hundred jugs of wine

there in beautiful moonlight. We couldn’t
go to bed with the moon so bright.

Then finally the wine overcame us
and we lay down on the empty mountain:

earth for a pillow
and a blanket made of heaven.

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
by Li Po (701-762)

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

Li Qingzhao (Li Ching-chao, 1084-1155)
by Jiaosheng Wang

Stepping down from the swing,
Languidly she smooths her soft slender hands,
Her flimsy dress wet with light perspiration—
A slim flower trembling with heavy dew.

The lotus has wilted, only a faint perfume remains;
On the bamboo mat there's a touch of autumn chill.
Softly I take off my silk dress
And step on board my orchid skiff alone.
Who is sending me the letter of brocade
From beyond the clouds?
When the wild geese return
The moon will be flooding the West Chamber.
Flowers fall and drift away,
Water glides on,
After their nature.
Our yearning is the sort
Both sides far apart endure——
A melancholy feeling there's no resisting.
As soon as it leaves the eyebrows
It surges up in the breast.

A jumble of parting thoughts,
Yet I hesitate on the verge of utterance
For fear of bitterness.
Of late I've been growing thin,
Not that I overdrink myself,
Nor from lament for the autumn.

Fine mist, thick clouds:
A day of sadness drags on.
The incense in the gilt animal-burner is running out.
Once more the festive day of Double Ninth returns,
And my mesh-curtained bed and jewelled pillows
Are drenched in the chill of midnight.
Beside the east hedge I drink after dusk;
A subtle fragrance fills my sleeves.
Don't say one is not pining away!
When the west wind blows the blinds aside,
I am frailer than the chrysanthemums.

Autumn Song

She opens the window, observes the autumn moon,
snuffs out the candle, slips from her gauze skirt.
With an enigmatic smile, she parts the thin curtains,
offers me her body, redolent of orchids.
Thank you, very much!

Winter Dawn
by Tu Fu

The birds in the eaves are restless ...
                     ... soon now
(the next winter dawn?) I will face
my fortieth year. Borne headlong
towards the long shadows of sunset
by headstrong currents,
life whirls past like drunken orgies.

by Mei Yao Ch’en

Heaven took my wife.
Now it's taken my son.
My eyes have been denied
a dry season.

It's too much for my heart:
now I long for death.
When the rain falls, when a pearl
drops into the ocean's depths

you can ... dive into the sea
to recover the pearl;
you can dig into the dry earth
till the bright waters swirl,

but no one has ever returned
from the omnipotent grave.
Once it's gone, life is over.
There's no reason to be "brave."

I have no one to turn to now, but Terror.
Not even the reflection in the mirror.

Sorrow of Departure
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Lotus incense fades, a red stain
on shimmering curtains.
Autumn returns.
Gently I release my silk dress
and float, nude, alone
on the orchid boat.
Who can take a letter beyond the clouds?
Only the wild geese reply,
writing their enigmatic ideograms
on the darkening sky,
under the full moon
now flooding the west chamber.
Flowers, after their kind, flutter
and scatter.
after its nature,
having been divided, at last
reassembles itself at the lowest place.
Creatures of the same species
long for each other,
but you and I
remain far apart
and I have grown wise in the ways of a broken heart.
Nothing can make sorrow dissolve
or vanish.
One moment it banishes
all gladness from my eyes;
the next, it weighs heavy on my heart.

A Song of Departure
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Warm rain and a gentle breeze
Have just arrived
And driven away the winter chill.
Moist as the willows,
Blithe as the plum blossoms,
I feel Spring's spirit renewing.
But who will imbibe with me
The joys of wine and poetry?

Tears muddy my rouge,
My hairpins are too heavy.
I put on my new quilted robe
Sewn through with bright golden thread
And throw myself upon a pile of pillows,
Disheveling my hair.

Alone, all I can embrace is my sorrow,
Which seem infinite.
I know good dreams are beyond me,
so I stay up past midnight
trimming the lamp’s smoking wick.

To the tune “Everlasting Joy”
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

The sun sets, molten gold.
The evening clouds form a jade disk.
Where is he?
A dense white mist envelops the willows.
A sad flute plays “Falling Plum Blossoms.”
How many Spring days remain?
This Feast of Lanterns should be joyful.
The weather is calm and lovely.
But who can say
If it may
be followed by wind and rain?
A friend sends her perfumed carriage
And high-bred horses to fetch me.
I decline the invitation of
My old poetry and wine companion.
I remember the happy days in the since-abandoned capital.
We took our ease in the women’s quarters.
The Feast of Lanterns was elaborately celebrated —
Golden pendants, emerald hairpins, brocaded girdles,
New sashes: we competed
To be the most fashionably dressed.
Now I am withering away:
thinning hair, graying temples.
I am embarrassed to go out this evening
Among girls in the flower of their youth.
I prefer to stay beyond the curtains,
listening to gossip and laughter
I can no longer share.

Autumn Love
by Li Ch'ing-Chao (1084-1151)

Search! Search! Seek! Seek!
Cold! Cold! Clear! Clear!
Misery! Misery! Pain on pain!
Hot flashes! Shivers of fear!

Stabs of remorse! Sudden agonies!
Here tonight, I can find no release.
I drink two cups and maybe three bowls
of crystalline wine,
and yet I can’t find
the strength to stand
against a gust of wind:
no peace.

Wild geese soar high overhead;
their keenings wrench at my heart.
They were good friends in the olden days;
now golden chrysanthemums litter my hearth,
piled here on the floor:
all dry, faded, dead.
This season I could no longer bear
to abide them. Alone, in silence I fled,
to gaze out my window,
where I watched the gathering shadows.

Fine rain sifts through the wu-t’ung trees,
And drips, drop by drop, through the dusk.
What can I ever do now?
How can I drive off this word —

A Letter To Lady T’ao Ch’iu
by Ch’iu Chin (1879?-1907)

Alone with my shadow,
I confide secrets to her
And draw strange symbols in the air,
like Yin Hao.
It is not sickness, nor wine,
Nor sorrow for the departed,
Like Li Ch’ing-Chao,
that cause an empire of broken-hearted
anxieties to arise in my heart.
There is no one I can confide in here;
Who can understand me?
My hopes and dreams are greater
Than those of the men who surround me,
But the chance of our survival grows less and less.
What good is a hero's heart
Inside this feminine dress?
My fate proceeds according to some perilous plan.
I ask Heaven:
Did the heroines of the past
Perish like this?

New Corn
by Tao Qian (372-427)

Fleeting—the years, beyond recollection.
Solemn—the stillness of this lovely morning.
I will clothe myself in spring garb
And visit the slopes of the hill to the east
Where a mist hovers over the mountain-stream ...
Hovers for a moment, then scatters.
There a wind comes, blowing from the south,
That rustles the fields of new corn.

In Chinese poetry the south signifies death, so a southern wind rustling ears of new corn might be like an aged poet writing poems for children.

Drinking Wine
Tao Qian (372-427)

I built my hut by a thoroughfare
Yet never hear the sound of horse or coach.
How can this be?
A distant heart creates a wilderness around it.
I pluck chrysanthemums beneath the eastern hedge,
Then gaze a long time at the distant hills.
The mountain air is fresh at dusk.
The birds return, two by two.
In such things there lies a profound meaning,
But when I try to express it, words immediately fail me.

Tsao Tsao
Tsao Chih

Towards the end of the Han Dynasty at the beginning of the third century, China was divided into three kingdoms: Wei in the north, Shu in the southwest, and Wu in the southeast. In Chinese literature this is knownn as the Chien-an Period (Chien-an being the reigning title of the last Han emperor). Tsao Tsao and his son, Tsao Chih, are among its most famous poets.

Tsao Tsao (AD 155-220), who served as prime minister to the last Han emperor, was a brilliant statesman and strategist who unified north China. He was considered a great general, and also excelled in calligraphy, music and especially poetry. Two of his sons, Tsao Pei and Tsao Chih, were fine poets like their father and attracted other talented writers, known as the Chien-an poets.

Of Tsao Tsao's poems, only around twenty have been preserved. Two examples of those dealing with society are "Dew on the Shallots" and "Overgrown with Brambles", while those of the second type are On Leaving the Hsia Gate and A Song. Tsao Tsao described the confusion at the end of the Han Dynasty, when the eunuchs tried to usurp power and the relatives of the empress tried to crush them. Finally a warlord, Tung Cho, entered the capital with his army and seized control, while other warlords rose against him. Tsao Tsao sharply rebuked these ambitious warmongers and expressed his deep sympathy for the suffering people:

White bones bleach in the desert;
For a thousand miles not a cock crows.
Only one in a hundred people really lives.
This breaks our hearts.

On Leaving the Hsia Gate

Rolling waves,
Studded with rocks and islands;
Thickset trees and bushes;
Rank undergrowth;
Autumn winds sighing;
Huge clouds billowing;
The sun and moon ascend the sky
As if risen from the sea;
And the whole bright galaxy of stars
Also seems sprung from the deep...

In his well-known poem, Though the Tortoise Lives Long, Tsao Tsao expressed the idea that the length of a life is not a matter decided entirely by fate, and that if one eats well and is optimistic it is possible to live to a ripe old age. The following stanza shows his resolute, vigorous character always determined to achieve his political aims:

Though the old war-horse is stabled,
Still he longs to gallop ten thousand miles;
Though the noble-hearted man grows old,
Still he longs to forge ahead.

Even today these lines are loved by the Chinese people.

Tsao Chih (AD 192-232) was Tsao Tsao's youngest and favourite son. His father considered making him his successor, but because of his liberal habits he fell from his favour and was replaced as heir by his brother Tsao Pei. After the death of Tsao Tsao, Tsao Pei established the Wei Dynasty (AD 220-265).

As emperor, Tsao Pei persecuted his brothers, especially the talented Tsao Chih, of whom he was most jealous. Once he summoned Tsao Chih and demanded that he compose a poem within the time it takes to walk seven paces. If he should fail to do so he would be punished. Tsao Chih then made up this poem on the spot before the seven steps were taken:

To boil beans, the stalks are burnt;
The beans cry from the cauldron:
"We are born from the same root,
Why persecute us so cruelly?"

Tsao Pei was deeply ashamed. Later he sent Tsao Chih into exile. Although he was made a prince, in reality he was kept under surveillance. After more than ten years of living in fear, Tsao Chih died of sorrow, only forty-one years old.

About eight of Tsao Chih's poems remain today. With their concise language, splendid imagery, his poems are full of passion and originality. They are considered as the best of the Chien-an School. His early poems reveal his youthful spirit, in which he described himself as a man of talent in a great empire, like a shining pearl in an ocean, and encouraged his young friends to achieve greatness. The poem The White Horse described a brave young man in the northwest, who left his home for the remote desert regions. A skilled archer and marksman, he risked death many times in battle, awing his enemies with his courage. His fame spread afar. This poem shows Tsao Chih's enterprising spirit and desire to serve his country.

His later poems, however, deal mainly with the transience of life and its vicissitudes, as a result of his persecution and banishment. He only hinted, however, his protest, never voicing it directly. In his poem Sparrows in the Fields, he compared a persecutor to a man laying a net and his victims to sparrows, which are freed by a gallant man:

The one who laid the net delights in his catch;
But the young man sees that the sparrows are sad.
Taking out his sword he slashes at the trap;
The sparrows escape and fly away.

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