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Style and Substance: A New Approach to Chinese Poetry Translations

Chinese poetry rhymed, scanned and followed a host of demanding rules. To bring over that character, and aided by books now available to the general reader, I have endeavoured to do four things in these translations. The first is to create faithful renderings that stand on their own as acceptable poems. The second to give some indication of the different Chinese poetry genres. The third is to convey the characters and personalities of the individual poets, which are quite distinct in the Chinese. And the fourth, which explains the bulky prose sections, is to provide the social background to Chinese poetry, the context in which poetry was written and understood. In place of the usual American free verse model, I have devised combinations of modified traditional styles, as these correspond more closely to the real nature of Chinese poetry.

Examples selected for translation are generally well-known pieces and cover all styles and genres, i.e. are representative of three thousand years of Chinese poetry, both the easy to translate poems and the much less so.

chinese poetry translations cover

Nature of Chinese Poetry

In keeping with the country’s social norms, the poetry of imperial China was exceptionally refined, musical and rule-governed. Proficiency in the art was expected of the educated classes, moreover — to know the better poems, and to compose their own offerings as occasion suggested.

Indeed, with its stress on ritual and custom, the literary past permeated China so thoroughly that many commentators have seen poetry as akin to religion, an attitude of mind or spirit that cleansed man’s soul, gave an awareness of the mystery and beauty of the universe, and evoked a feeling of tenderness and compassion for one’s fellow-men and the humbler creatures of life.

That poetry was much narrower in emotional range, themes and styles than its Indian and European counterparts, but it nevertheless combined images used variously with aural harmonies and fluid, often allusively evocative meanings.

The many popular translations of the great Tang poets may give the impression that they were all sages tippling at their wine and seeing off friends on long, heart-breaking journeys. In fact, Chinese poems are a good deal more varied, and are commonly grouped under these themes: love and courtship, the beautiful woman, the abandoned woman, eulogy and admonition, hardship and injustice, the wandering man, landscape, farming and reclusion, an imagined journey to the Celestial World, shamanist and Buddhist depiction of things, and remembrances.

The translations can be downloaded from here as a free ebook.

Sample Poems

2. SHIJING: Collecting Duckweed

Tell me, where is duckweed got?
In southern valleys, is it not?
Are not water-grasses found
on pathways close to flooded ground?

Where to lay the offerings out
but in baskets square and round?
or in pans and cauldrons with
a mingled, dark metallic sound.

And at the great ancestral hall,
beneath the gaze of ancestors,
on whose spirit do they call?
This unwed girl would offer hers.


Li Bai: A Lu Mountain Tune, sent to Minister Lu Xuzhou

I am the mad and elemental Chu
who’d sing the Phoenix and confound Confucius.
I too, with green jade staff in hand, at dawn
will leave the Yellow Crane Pavilion.

5. I laugh at distance, through Five Mountains
stride to find the great Immortals.
All my life I’ve loved to wander
through the mountains, wild and free.
The Lu Hills now are filled with blossom
    beneath the Southern Dipper star.
The nine folds of the Windscreen Mountains
    are clothed in cloud embroidery.
The shadows on the Shining Lake
    fall thick with green and inky light.

10. In front, the Golden Portico
    is opening into two far peaks.
And there the Silver River falls
    inverted from the Three-Stone Bridge,
and in the distance, rimmed in mist,
    the Incense Burner Waterfall.
The hazy cliff and precipice
          are far-off rising into blue.
The clouds are green and iridescent,
    crimson-touched by morning sun,
  birds that flit the length of sky
cannot traverse the lands of Wu.
I climb on higher, view the sight
of earth commingling with the heavens,
the Yangtze River, long and boundless,
    unreturning, flowing on.
The saffron clouds, ten thousand li,
    are interfolded with the wind.
Nine Rivers with their white-curled waves
beneath eternal snowy peaks.
20.  I love to sing of Lu Shan Mountains,
the sight of Lushan lifts my thoughts.

To stare, if idly, where Stone River
cleanses to the very heart.
The places Master Xie would walk
are marked by prints of sunken moss.
The alchemy of cinnabar
relieves me of my worldly cares.
And in the lute-strings of the heart
I find the three-fold Dao done.
25. Far off, I view the sought Transcendents
    at home within their coloured mists.

With lotus bloom in hand, at their
    Jade Capital I’ll pay my court.
But first I’d meet the Man of Han
beyond the fabled Ninefold Lands,
and greet Lu Ao as well, and roam
           the regions of Great Purity.


Wang Bo: Seeing Off Assistant Prefect Du Tang 

Seen from Chengdu walls it’s Shaanxi nears,
while you, past mist and snow, on Sichuan gaze.

For all the sadness, in our spirit stays
the faith that through the endless travelling days
our country furthers its true friends’ careers:
at the earth’s far doors, we stay as neighbours.

So at this new-come parting of the ways
let’s not be children now who’d show their tears.

77. QU POETRY: Autumn Thoughts

Ma Zhiyuan: Tune 'Tianjingsha.'

The dried-up vines, long-standing trees and evening crows,
a cottage, bridge that’s small, where water flows:
along the ancient road the west wind blows,
and so the evening sun goes down
        on people saddened, far, where no one knows.


Wen Tingyun: Tune ‘On the Water Clock at Night’

From incense burner, worthy jade,
these tears of bright red tallow fall:
unwelcome comes
    the painted autumn in the hall.

In time the brightest eyebrows fade,
and thin as clouds the crop of hair:
unwarmed the quilt is left the long night through.

For all that Wutong trees will pay their court,
and hard, unpausing is the third-watch rain:
there’s worse, the bitterness of which I speak, the thought

of being lost to you, to gaze on ground
hear leaf on leaf, soft sound on sound,
till, emptily, the dawn comes round.


The translations come with three additional ebooks, all free and in the pdf format.

Translations only: click here.
Background to the Translations: click here.
Notes on Poems 1 to 36: click here.
Notes on Poems 37-93: click here.