The HyperTexts

Best Chinese Poets: English Translations

This page contains English translations of poems by some of the greatest Chinese poets of all time, including Li Bai, T'ao Ch'ien, Po Chu-I, Du Fu, Li Ching-jau, Guan Daosheng, Huang O, Sui Hui, Du Mu, Li Qingzhao, Su Shi, Wang Wei, Tzu Yeh, Zhai Yongming, Yau Ywe-Hwa, Xu Zhimo and the Duke of Zhou. If you like these translations you are welcome to share them for noncommercial purposes, but please be sure to credit the original poet and the translator. You can do so by copying the credit line along with the poem. For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

Li Bai (701-762) was a romantic figure called the Lord Byron of Chinese poetry. He and his friend Du Fu (712-770) were the leading poets of the Tang Dynasty era, the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Li Bai is also known as Li Po, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po, and Li T’ai-pai.

Lines from Laolao Ting Pavilion
by Li Bai (701-762)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The spring breeze knows partings are bitter;
The willow twig knows it will never be green again.

A Toast to Uncle Yun
by Li Bai (701-762)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Water reforms, though we slice it with our swords;
Sorrow returns, though we drown it with our wine.

Quiet Night Thoughts
by Li Bai (701-762)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Moonlight illuminates my bed
as frost brightens the ground.
Lifting my eyes, the moon allures.
Lowering my eyes, I long for home.

My interpretation of this famous poem is a bit different from the norm. The moon symbolizes love, so I imagine the moon shining on Li Bai’s bed to be suggestive, an invitation. A man might lower his eyes to avoid seeing something his wife would not approve of.

Farewell to a Friend
by Li Bai
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Rolling hills rim the northern border;
white waves lap the eastern riverbank...
Here you set out like a windblown wisp of grass,
floating across fields, growing smaller and smaller.
You’ve longed to travel like the rootless clouds,
yet our friendship declines to wane with the sun.
Thus let it remain, our insoluble bond,
even as we wave goodbye till you vanish.
My horse neighs, as if unconvinced.

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain
by Li Bai
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now the birds have deserted the sky
and the last cloud slips down the drains.

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

Du Fu (712-770) is also known as Tu Fu. The first poem, "Moonlit Night," is addressed to the poet's wife, who had fled war with their children. Ch'ang-an is ironic because it means "Long-peace."

Moonlit Night (I)
by Du Fu (712-770)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Alone in your bedchamber
you gaze out at the Fu-Chou moon.

Here, so distant, I think of our children,
too young to understand what keeps me away
or to remember Ch'ang-an ...

A perfumed mist, your hair's damp ringlets!
In the moonlight, your arms' exquisite jade!

Oh, when can we meet again within your bed's drawn curtains,
and let the heat dry our tears?

Moonlit Night (II)
by Du Fu (712-770)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Tonight the Fu-Chou moon
watches your lonely bedroom.

Here, so distant, I think of our children,
too young to understand what keeps me away
or to remember Ch'ang-an ...

By now your hair will be damp from your bath
and fall in perfumed ringlets;
your jade-white arms so exquisite in the moonlight!

Oh, when can we meet again within those drawn curtains,
and let the heat dry our tears?

Lone Wild Goose
by Du Fu (712-770)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The abandoned goose refuses food and drink;
he cries querulously for his companions.

Who feels kinship for that strange wraith
as he vanishes eerily into the heavens?

You watch the goose as it disappears;
its plaintive calls cut through you.

The indignant crows ignores us both:
the bickering, bantering multitudes.

The Shijing or Shi Jing ("Book of Songs" or "Book of Odes") is the oldest Chinese poetry collection, with the poems included believed to date from around 1200 BC to 600 BC. According to tradition the poems were selected and edited by Confucius himself. Since most ancient poetry did not rhyme, these may be the world’s oldest extant rhyming poems. While the identities and sexes of the poets are not known, the title of this ancient poem may mean "Aunt" and thus suggest that it was possibly written by an aunt for a relative.

Shijing Ode #4: “JIU MU”
ancient Chinese rhyming poem (c. 1200-600 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
thick with vines that make them shady,
we find a lovely princely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
whose clinging vines make hot days shady,
we wish warm embraces for a lovely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

In the South, beneath trees with drooping branches
whose vines entwining make them shady,
we wish true love for a lovely lady:
May she repose in happiness!

The next poem is an ancient Chinese ode that sounds like a young man complaining about the airs of rich girls. Truly there is nothing new under the sun!

Shijing Ode #9: “HAN GUANG”
ancient Chinese rhyming poem circa (1200 BC - 600 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

In the South leafless trees
offer men no shelter.
By the Han the girls loiter,
but it’s vain to entice them.
For the breadth of the Han
cannot be swum
and the length of the Jiang
requires more than a raft.

When firewood is needed,
I would cut down tall thorns to bring more.
Those girls on their way to their palaces?
I would feed their horses.
But the breadth of the Han
cannot be swum
and the length of the Jiang
requires more than a raft.

When firewood is needed,
I would cut down tall trees to bring more.
Those girls on their way to their palaces?
I would feed their colts.
But the breadth of the Han
cannot be swum
and the length of the Jiang
requires more than a raft.

David Hinton said T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) "stands at the head of the great Chinese poetic tradition like a revered grandfather: profoundly wise, self-possessed, quiet, comforting." T'ao gained quasi-mythic status for his commitment to life as a recluse farmer, despite poverty and hardship. Today he is remembered as one of the best Chinese poets of the Six Dynasties Period.

Swiftly the years mount
by T'ao Ch'ien (365-427)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Swiftly the years mount, exceeding remembrance.
Solemn the stillness of this spring morning.
I will clothe myself in my spring attire
then revisit the slopes of the Eastern Hill
where over a mountain stream a mist hovers,
hovers an instant, then scatters.
Scatters with a wind blowing in from the South
as it nuzzles the fields of new corn.

Drinking Wine V
by T'ao Ch'ien (365-427)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I built my hut here amid the hurriedness of men,
but where is the din of carriages and horses today?
You ask me "How?" but I have no reply.
Here where the heart is isolated, the earth stands aloof.

Harvesting chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
I see the southern hills, afar;
The balmy air of the hills seems good;
migrating birds return to their nests.
This seems like the essence of life,
and yet I lack words.

Returning to Live in the Country
by T'ao Ch'ien (365-427)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The caged bird longs for its ancient woodland;
the pond-reared Koi longs for its native stream ...

Dim, dim lies the distant hamlet;
lagging, lagging snakes the smoke of its market-place;
a dog barks in the alley;
a cock crows from atop the mulberry tree ...

My courtyard and door are free from turmoil;
in these dust-free rooms there is leisure to spare.
But too long a captive caught in a cage,
when will I return to Nature?

Wang Wei (699-759) was a Chinese poet, musician, painter, and politician during the Tang dynasty. He had 29 poems included in the 18th-century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems. "Lu Zhai" ("Deer Park") is one of his best-known poems.

"Lu Zhai" ("Deer Park")
by Wang Wei (699-759)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Uninhabited hills ...
except that now and again the silence is broken
by something like the sound of distant voices
as the sun's sinking rays illuminate lichens ...

by Wang Wei (699-759)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Those bright red berries you have in the South,
the luscious ones that emerge each spring:
go gather them, bring them home by the bucketful,
they’re as tempting as my desire for you!

The Ormosia (a red bean called the “love pea”) is a symbol of lovesickness.

Farewell (I)
by Wang Wei (699-759)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Where the mountain began its ascent,
we stopped to bid each other farewell...
Now here dusk descends as I shut my wooden gate.
Come spring, the grass will once again turn green,
but will you also return, my friend?

Farewell (II)
by Wang Wei
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

We dismounted, drank to your departure.
I asked, “My friend, which way are you heading?”
You said, “Nothing here has been going my way,
So I’m returning to the crags of Nanshan.”
“Godspeed then,” I said, “You’ll be closer to Heaven,
among those infinite white clouds, never-ending!”

Spring Night
by Wang Wei
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I'm as idle as the osmanthus flowers...
This quiet spring night the hill stood silent
until the moon arrived and startled its birds:
they continue cawing from the dark ravine.

The osmanthus is a flowering evergreen also known as the devilwood.

Huazi Ridge
by Wang Wei
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A bird in flight soars, limitless,
communal hills adopt autumn's resplendence;
yet from the top to bottom of Huazi Ridge,
melancholy seems endless.

Po Chu-I (772-846) is best known today for his ballads and satirical poems. Po Chu-I believed poetry should be accessible to commoners and is noted for his simple diction and natural style. His name has been rendered various ways in English: Po Chu-I, Po Chü-i, Bo Juyi and Bai Juyi.

The Red Cockatoo
by Po Chu-I (772-846)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A marvelous gift from Annam—
a red cockatoo,
bright as peach blossom,
fluent in men's language.

So they did what they always do
to the erudite and eloquent:
they created a thick-barred cage
and shut it up.

Li Qingzhao was a poet and essayist during the Song dynasty. She is generally considered to be one of the greatest Chinese poets. In English she is known as Li Qingzhao, Li Ching-chao and The Householder of Yi’an.

The Migrant Songbird
Li Qingzhao aka Li Ching-chao (c. 1084-1155)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The migrant songbird on the nearby yew
tears to my eyes with her melodious trills;
this fresh downpour reminds me of similar spills:
another spring gone, and still no word from you ...

The Plum Blossoms
Li Qingzhao aka Li Ching-chao (c. 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?

On Parting
by Du Mu
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My feelings are fond, yet “unfeeling” I feign;
we drink our wine, yet make merry in vain.
The candle, so bright!, and yet it still grieves,
for it melts, into tears, as the light recedes.

The Duke of Zhou (circa 1100-1000 BC), a member of the Zhou Dynasty also known as Ji Dan, played a major role in Chinese history and culture. He has been called “probably the first real person to step over the threshold of myth into Chinese history” and he may be the first Chinese poet we know by name today. He has also been called the spiritual ancestor of Confucius. The Duke of Zhou was a capable and loyal regent for his young nephew King Cheng and he successfully suppressed a number of rebellions. He has also been credited with writing the I Ching and the Book of Songs, also called the Book of Odes, and with creating yayue (“elegant music”), which became Chinese classical music. “The Owl” was apparently written while Zhou was away fighting on his nephew’s behalf, after court dissenters accused him of plotting to usurp the throne. Apparently the poem worked, as King Cheng welcomed his uncle back, and the Duke remained faithful till the end. Keywords/Tags: China, Chinese, translation, ode, odes, kingdom, king, duke, homeless, homelessness, homesick, homesickness.

Chixiao (“The Owl”)
by Duke Zhou (c. 1100-1000 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You've stolen my offspring,
Don't shatter my nest!
When with labors of love
I nurtured my fledglings!

Before the skies darkened
And the dark rains fell,
I gathered mulberry twigs
To thatch my nest,
Yet scoundrels now dare
Impugn my enterprise.

With fingers chafed rough
By the reeds I plucked
And the straw I threshed,
I now write these words,
Too hoarse to speak:
I am homeless!

My wings are withered,
My tail torn away,
My home toppled
And tossed into the rain,
My cry a distressed peep.

Li Shen (772-846) is better known in the West as Duke Wensu of Zhao. He was a Chinese poet, professor, historian, military general and politician of the Tang Dynasty who served as chancellor during the reign of Emperor Wuzong.

Toiling Farmers
by Duke Wensu of Zhou
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Farmers toil, weeding and hoeing, at noon,
Sweat pouring down their faces.
Who knows food heaped on silver trays
Comes thanks to their efforts and graces?

Luo Binwang (c. 619–684) was a Tang Dynasty poet who wrote his famous goose poem at age seven.

Ode to the Goose
by Luo Binwang
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Goose, goose, goose!
You crane your neck toward the sky and sing
as your white feathers float on emerald-green water
and your red feet part silver waves.
Goose, goose, goose!

Sui Hui, also known as Su Hui and Lady Su, appears to be the first female Chinese poet of note. And her "Star Gauge" or "Sphere Map" may be the most impressive poem written in any language to this day, in terms of complexity. "Star Gauge" has been described as a palindrome or "reversible" poem, but it goes far beyond that. According to contemporary sources, the original poem was shuttle-woven on brocade, in a circle, so that it could be read in multiple directions. Due to its shape the poem is also called Xuanji Tu ("Picture of the Turning Sphere"). The poem is now generally placed in a grid or matrix so that the Chinese characters can be read horizontally, vertically and diagonally. The story behind the poem is that Sui Hui's husband, Dou Tao, the governor of Qinzhou, was exiled to the desert. When leaving his wife, Dou swore to remain faithful. However, after arriving at his new post, he took a concubine. Lady Su then composed a circular poem, wove it into a piece of silk embroidery, and sent it to him. Upon receiving the masterwork, he repented. It has been claimed that there are up to 7,940 ways to read the poem. My translation above is just one of many possible readings of a portion of the poem.

Star Gauge
Sui Hui (c. 351-394 BC or sometime between 304 BC and 439 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

So much lost so far away
on that distant rutted road.

That distant rutted road
wounds me to the heart.

Grief coupled with longing,
so much lost so far away.

Grief coupled with longing
wounds me to the heart.

This house without its master;
the bed curtains shimmer, gossamer veils.

The bed curtains shimmer, gossamer veils,
and you are not here.

Such loneliness! My adorned face
lacks the mirror's clarity.

I see by the mirror's clarity
my Lord is not here. Such loneliness!

Due to similarities in names and antiquity, it seems possible that Sui Hui and Xu Hui were the same poet, with some of her poems being discovered later, or that poems written by other poets were later attributed to her.

Xu Hui (627–650)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Confronting the morning she faces her mirror;
Her makeup done at last, she paces back and forth awhile.
It would take vast mountains of gold to earn one contemptuous smile,
So why would she answer a man's summons?

Zhai Yongming is a contemporary Chinese poet, born in Chengdu in 1955. She was one of the instigators and prime movers of the “Black Tornado” of women’s poetry that swept China in 1986-1989. Since then Zhai has been regarded as one of China’s most prominent poets.

Zhai Yongming (1955-)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The waves manhandle me like a midwife pounding my back relentlessly,
and so the world abuses my body—
accosting me, bewildering me, according me a certain ecstasy ...

Zhai Yongming (1955-)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am a wild thought, born of the abyss
and—only incidentally—of you. The earth and sky
combine in me—their concubine—they consolidate in my body.

I am an ordinary embryo, encased in pale, watery flesh,
and yet in the sunlight I dazzle and amaze you.

I am the gentlest, the most understanding of women.
Yet I long for winter, the interminable black night, drawn out to my heart's bleakest limit.

When you leave, my pain makes me want to vomit my heart up through my mouth—
to destroy you through love—where's the taboo in that?

The sun rises for the rest of the world, but only for you do I focus the hostile tenderness of my body.
I have my ways.

A chorus of cries rises. The sea screams in my blood but who remembers me?
What is life?

Guan Daosheng (1262-1319) is also known as Kuan Tao-Sheng, Guan Zhongji and Lady Zhongji. A famous poet of the early Yuan dynasty, she has also been called "the most famous female painter and calligrapher in the Chinese history ... remembered not only as a talented woman, but also as a prominent figure in the history of bamboo painting." She is best known today for her images of nature and her tendency to inscribe short poems on her paintings.

"Married Love" or "You and I" or "The Song of You and Me"
Guan Daosheng (1262-1319)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You and I shared a love that burned like fire:
two lumps of clay in the shape of Desire
molded into twin figures. We two.
Me and you.

In life we slept beneath a single quilt,
so in death, why any guilt?
Let the skeptics keep scoffing:
it's best to share a single coffin.

Guan Daosheng (1262-1319)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You and I share so much desire:
this lovelike a fire—
that ends in a pyre's
charred coffin.

Tzŭ-Yeh (or Tzu Yeh) was a courtesan of the Jin dynasty era (c. 400 BC) also known as Lady Night or Lady Midnight. Her poems were pinyin ("midnight songs"). Tzŭ-Yeh was apparently a "sing-song" girl, perhaps similar to a geisha trained to entertain men with music and poetry. She has also been called a "wine shop girl" and even a professional concubine! Whoever she was, it seems likely that Rihaku (Li-Po) was influenced by the lovely, touching (and often very sexy) poems of the "sing-song" girl. Centuries later, Arthur Waley was one of her translators and admirers. Waley and Ezra Pound knew each other, and it seems likely that they got together to compare notes at Pound's soirees, since Pound was also an admirer and translator of Chinese poetry. Pound's most famous translation is his take on Li-Po's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter." If the ancient "sing-song" girl influenced Li-Po and Pound, she was thus an influence―perhaps an important influence―on English Modernism. The first Tzŭ-Yeh poem makes me think that she was, indeed, a direct influence on Li-Po and Ezra Pound.―Michael R. Burch

I heard my love was going to Yang-chou
So I accompanied him as far as Ch'u-shan.
For just a moment as he held me in his arms
I thought the swirling river ceased flowing and time stood still.
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Will I ever hike up my dress for you again?
Will my pillow ever caress your arresting face?
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Night descends ...
I let my silken hair spill down my shoulders as I part my thighs over my lover.
Tell me, is there any part of me not worthy of being loved?
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I will wear my robe loose, not bothering with a belt;
I will stand with my unpainted face at the reckless window;
If my petticoat insists on fluttering about, shamelessly,
I'll blame it on the unruly wind!
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When he returns to my embrace,
I’ll make him feel what no one has ever felt before:
Me absorbing him like water
Poured into a wet clay jar.
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Bare branches tremble in a sudden breeze.
Night deepens.
My lover loves me,
And I am pleased that my body's beauty pleases him.
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Do you not see
that we
have become like branches of a single tree?
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I could not sleep with the full moon haunting my bed!
I thought I heardhere, there, everywhere
disembodied voices calling my name!
Helplessly I cried "Yes!" to the phantom air!
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have brought my pillow to the windowsill
so come play with me, tease me, as in the past ...
Or, with so much resentment and so few kisses,
how much longer can love last?
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When she approached you on the bustling street, how could you say no?
But your disdain for me is nothing new.
Squeaking hinges grow silent on an unused door
where no one enters anymore.
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I remain constant as the Northern Star
while you rush about like the fickle sun:
rising in the East, drooping in the West.
―Tzu Yeh, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Su Tungpo (1037-1101) is better known as Su Shi. A towering figure of the Northern Song era, Su Shi is considered to be one of China’s greatest poets and essayists. More than 2,000 of his poems survive.

by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You’re ten years dead and your memory fades,
nor do I try to remember,
yet how to forget?

Your lonely grave, so distant,
these cold thoughts—how can I hash them out?

If we met today, you wouldn’t recognize me:
this ashen face, my hair like frost.

In a dream last night suddenly I was home,
standing by our bedroom window
where you sat combing your hair and putting on your makeup.

You turned to gaze at me, not speaking,
as tears coursed down your cheeks.

Year after year will it continue to break my heart—
this grave illuminated by ghostly moonlit pines?

Visiting the Temple of the God of Mercy during a Deluge
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The silkworms age,
The wheat yellows,
The rain falls unrestrained flooding the valleys,
The farmers cannot work their land,
Nor can the women gather mulberries,
While the Immortals sit white-robed on elevated thrones.

Our Lives
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

To what can our lives be likened?
To a flock of geese alighting on snow,
leaving scant evidence of their passage.

To what can our lives be compared?
To a flock of geese fleeing an early snow,
all evidence of their passage quickly melting.

To what can our lives be compared?
To a flock of geese alighting on snow,
leaving a few barely visible feathers.

To what can our lives be compared?
To a flock of geese alighting on snow,
leaving a few frozen tailfeathers.

To what can our lives be compared?
To a flock of geese alighting on snow,
leaving invisible droppings.

Mid-Autumn Moon
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sunset’s clouds are distant, the air clear and cold,
the Milky Way silent, the moon a jade plate.
Neither this vista nor this life will last long,
so whose eyes will admire this bright moon tomorrow?

Benevolent Moon, an excerpt from “The Moon Festival”
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Rounding the red pavilion,
Stooping to peer through transparent windows,
The moon shines benevolently on the sleepless,
Knowing no sadness, bearing no ill...
But why so bright when we sleep apart?

“The Moon Festival”
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

“Where else is there moonlight?”
Wine cup in hand, I ask the dark sky,
Not knowing the hour of the night
in those distant celestial palaces.

I long to ride the wind home,
Yet dread those high towers’ crystal and jade,
Fear freezing to death amid all those icicles.

Instead, I begin to dance with my moon-lit shadow.
Better off, after all, to live close to earth.

Rounding the red pavilion,
Stooping to peer through transparent windows,
The moon shines benevolently on the sleepless,
Knowing no sadness, bearing no ill...
But why so bright when we sleep apart?

As men experience grief and joy, parting and union,
So the moon brightens and dims, waxes and wanes.
It has always been thus, since the beginning of time.

My wish for you is a long, blessed life
And to share this moon’s loveliness though leagues apart.

Su Shi wrote this famous lyric for his brother Ziyou (1039-1112), when the poet was far from the imperial court.

"Red Light District"
by Su Shi
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A lonely sick old man,
my frosty hair disheveled by the wind.
My son’s mistakenly pleased by my ruddy complexion,
but I smile, knowing it's the booze.


For fear the roses might sleep tonight,
I’ll leave a tall candle as a spotlight
to remind them of their crimson glory.
—Su Shi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

For fear the roses might sleep tonight,
I’ll light a candle to remind them of their crimson glory.
—Su Shi, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Red Peonies
by Zhou Bangyan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Such bitterness defies expression:
thus I accept that she’s gone for good,
and too far for letters.

Even if cleverer fingers could preserve both rings, [1]
what we had has dissipated, like windblown mists,
like clouds thinning.

Now the apartment we shared stands empty
and dust has long since settled to an ashen seal,
making me think of roots removed and leaves shed,
of those red peonies she planted then deserted.

On a nearby island the iris blossoms,
but by now her boat nears some distant shore,
with us at opposite ends of the world.

It’s vain to recall her long-ago letters:
all idle talk now, all idle chatter.
I’d like to burn the whole lot of them!

When spring returns to the river landing,
perhaps she’ll send me a spray of plum blossoms; [2]
then, for the rest of my life,
wherever there are flowers and wine,
I’ll weep for her.

[1] The Empress Dowager of Qi separated complexly linked rings of carved jade by smashing them to pieces.
[2] In Chinese poetry the pear blossom symbolizes the transience of life and the ephemeral beauty of nature.

A Song of Two Voices
by Zhou Bangyan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

“About to depart, still I linger in the lamplight,
broken-hearted. The vermilion door beckons.
But there’s no need for waterfalls to stain your cheeks:
I’ll return by the time the wild roses fade.”

“Dancing here with your hand on my waist, keeping time,
allowing others to watch as I try not to cry,
do you see the glowing embers in the golden brazier?
Don’t let your love so easily become ashes!”


A cicada drones sadly in the distance
as I contemplate my journey.
What use are ten thousand tender sentiments,
with no one to receive them?
—Zhou Bangyan, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

by Zhou Bangyan
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dawn’s clouds hang heavy,
frost stiffens the grass,
mist obscures the battlements.

The well-oiled carriage stands ready to depart,
the cup of parting nearly drained.

Hanging low enough to brush our faces, willow limbs invite being tied into knots.
Concealing rouged tears, she breaks one off with her jade hands.
Here on the banks of the Han she wonders where the wild goose wandered:
For so long now there’s been no word of him.

The land is vast, the sky immense,
the dew cold, the wind brisk,
our surroundings devoid of other people,
the water-clock disconsolate.

Here arise a myriad complications,
but hardest of all is to separate so easily.

The wine cup is not quite empty,
so I counsel the clouds to hold back,
the setting moon to remain above the western tower.

The silken girdle’s sheen safely hidden;
the patterned quilt discreetly folded up;
the linked rings severed;
the delicate perfume dispersed...

Lin Huiyin (1904-1955), also known as Phyllis Lin and Lin Whei-yin, was a Chinese architect, historian, novelist and poet. Xu Zhimo died in a plane crash in 1931, allegedly flying to meet Lin Huiyin.

The Day after the Rain
Lin Huiyin (1904-1955)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I love the day after the rain
and the meadow's green expanses!
My heart endlessly rises with wind,
gusts with wind ...
away the new-mown grasses and the fallen leaves ...
away the clouds like smoke ...
vanishing like smoke ...

Music Heard Late at Night
Lin Huiyin (1904-1955)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

for Xu Zhimo

I blushed,
hearing the lovely nocturnal tune.

The music touched my heart;
I embraced its sadness, but how to respond?

The pattern of life was established eons ago:
so pale are the people's imaginations!

Perhaps one day You and I
can play the chords of hope together.

It must be your fingers gently playing
late at night, matching my sorrow.

Xu Zhimo's most famous poem is this one about leaving Cambridge. English titles for the poem include "On Leaving Cambridge," "Second Farewell to Cambridge," "Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again,"  and "Taking Leave of Cambridge Again."

Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again
Xu Zhimo (1897-1931)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Quietly I take my leave,
as quietly as I came;
quietly I wave good-bye
to the sky's dying flame.

The riverside's willows
like lithe, sunlit brides
reflected in the waves
move my heart's tides.

Weeds moored in dark sludge
sway here, free of need,
in the Cam's gentle wake ...
O, to be a waterweed!

Beneath shady elms
a nebulous rainbow
crumples and reforms
in the soft ebb and flow.

Seek a dream? Pole upstream
to where grass is greener;
rig the boat with starlight;
sing aloud of love's splendor!

But how can I sing
when my song is farewell?
Even the crickets are silent.
And who should I tell?

So quietly I take my leave,
as quietly as I came;
gently I flick my sleeves ...
not a wisp will remain.

(6 November 1928)


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.

The HyperTexts