Chinese Poems: Themes and Subject Matter

Poetry has just as wide a range of subject matter in Chinese as it does in western languages. Traditionally, it is grouped under eleven themes of life: 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 early poetry was not primarily a means of transmitting knowledge otherwise inaccessible, but rather a way of resolving the inner stirrings of the mind and then channelling them into clear intent. As James Lui summarizes them, the later Chinese poetry sought many ends: to encourage personal morality, reflect the people's feelings towards government and expose social evils, aspire to ya (refinement, correctness and elegance), imitate the

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ancients, obey the metrical rules without becoming too ornate and artificial, and put more stress on theme than style. At its most basic, poetry was how the poet felt — an essential sincerity that can never be overlooked in translation. Some examples may make matters clearer.

The Abandoned Woman

The first and famous example, much admired by Li Bai and other Tang poets, is that of Ban Jiezu (c.48-6 BC):

Cut full and fresh from clear Qi silk,
as snow or frost, in sheerest white,
this fan of 'conjoined happiness'
is round as moon is, full and bright.
With fan retrieved from breast or sleeve
my lord can make a welcome breeze,
but still I fear that autumn comes
when cool winds quench the summer's heat,
and in a box is locked away
our love, before it is complete.

The second is the Jade Stairs Lament by Xie Tiao (464-99):

At evening, beaded curtains in the hall
are drawn. The fireflies, having flown, then fall.
I’m sewing at this flimsy dress till dawn,
with not forgotten hopes of you, my lord.

This is again a famous piece, written well before the Tang dynasty, but repeating the refined elegance of the previous poem. Xie Tiao’s style in fact became the model for court poetry in the Liang dynasty (502-55).

The third example comes from the Ci poetry of Wen Tingyun (813-870), and retains some of its 'singing' quality:

Since my lord has gone away
I have no heart to love another.
If nail marks on my face appear
     they’re only as such dreams uncover.
I thought the sashes tied
     would serve to bind us close together.
A boy that on my dress has stood
     has wrecked the bounty of my lover.

My hair’s disordered, out of place,
     the hair-pin broken,
and much confusion that
vermilion screens are made to cover,
and tears, such running tears,
     the which cosmetics have to smother.
Your concubine is faithful as
     the cypresses on Southern Hills.
She has no heart, my lord, to love another.

The first line sets the theme and the implied reproaches. The ‘boy’ of line 5 is just someone mischievous: other manuscripts have ‘monkey’. It’s an intimate address, as shown by 郎君 (láng jūn: young-woman lord) used by a woman to her husband. Cosmetics were popular in all classes of wealthy women. Cypresses were emblems of integrity and faithfulness.

The Wandering Man

A Night of Blossom and Moonlight on the Yangtze in Springtime by Zhang Ruoxu (7-8th Centuries):

The tide wells in, this Yangtze spring,
     and interfingers with the sea:
the moonlight and the sea itself,
     are borne together on the tide.
in wave on wave the waters run
     a thousand sparkling moonlit miles.
So is the springtime moon, which lacks
     a habitat or place to hide.

Throughout, the sinuous Yangtze coils
     about the fragrant river-lands.
On flowering trees the moonlight falls
     in fashionings of frozen rain.
The intervening air is thin
     and veiled with hoar-frost's misty haze.
The scattered islets, sandy white,
     are indistinct in mist again.

The sky above the river seems
     but one great whole, and clear of dust,
10. and brilliant in the void, the moon
     is slowly wheeling on alone.
What man was first to see the moon
     from this same stretch of river bank?
What year was first that on mankind
     this river's flood of light was thrown?

Our human life goes on, unending
     generation to generation.
The moon but follows on a course,
     no year will ever see it stay.
I do not know for whom the moon
     is waiting or is seeing off.
I only find the Yangtze flow
     brimming, silent on its way.

That white cloud, the travelling man,
     is small and dwindles till he's gone.
And on the bank, the maples find
     his sadness near unbearable.
On what frail craft must this one man
     be housed tonight so far from home?
20. On what far house and woman there
     must moon exert its wistful pull?

And in that curtained window space
     the brilliant moon will linger on,
and on that separated one
     and on her dressing table stay.
On loveliness it stamps its mark,
     nor can the curtain close it off.
And when on fulling-block it falls
     and not for long is brushed away.

We both are gazing with the same
     togetherness that is no news.
Would that I could answer with the light
     the radiant moon-beams give to her:
the wild geese fly, but never far,
     nor do they reach to moonlight’s end:
the fish and dragons dive and play
     but neither's good as messenger.

Last night and by a quiet pool
     I dreamt the springtime flowers fell,
30. and grievously, and far from home
     when we're but half-way through the spring:
the water swelling with the spring
     has reached its end and ebbs away;
on Yangtze pools the low-hung moon
     continues in its westering.

How heavily the moonlight slants
     until dissolved in coastal mists.
From north to south an endless road
     where all our journeyings must start.
So many going home tonight
     are travelling by this self-same moon,
which now, and settling in the trees,
     gives thoughts that must disturb the heart.

Zhang Ruoxu is really known for only one poem, one long, wonderful and extraordinarily influential poem: A Night of Blossom and Moonlight on the Yangtze in Springtime. Described by the twentieth-century century poet Wen Yiduo as ‘the poem of all poems, the summit of all summits’, the piece breaks with the Six Dynasty manner and anticipates the content and style of the high Tang. The poem has nine quatrains and three sections. The first section depicts the moonlit Yangtze River in spring. The second and third sections regret the ephemeral nature of life, commenting on the sorrow of travellers and the loved ones they leave behind. Both themes would become important in Tang and later poetry.

Farming and Reclusion

On Drinking Wine No. 5 by Tao Qian:(365-427):

I made my home here, in this human place
that has no noise of any cart and horse.
Of me you ask, good sir, how can that be?
I say the heart will find its natural course.
5. There's chrysanthemums to pick, and I have sight,
at leisure, of the far-famed Southern Hills.
The mountain air brings beauty, day and night.
Birds flown together nest as each one wills
with something deeper that I would explain
10. if words had not so lately lost their force.

Tao achieved a local standing, but his reputation was made in the Tang dynasty, when poets like Du Fu and Li Bai, unhappy with court life, came to admire his rugged independence. His pentasyllabic verse forms became a staple of the Guti, or old-style, Unregulated Shi poetry. The original is rhymed xaxaxa xaxa.

The difficulty in translation is conveying Tao’s honesty and simple elegance without the diction becoming too pedestrian. I have rhymed this piece on alternate lines and used two rhymes, as does the original, but made something more of the last two lines. These are commonly rendered as something like: In this return there is a fundamental truth, / I am going to explain it, but have already forgotten the words. The reference may be to the Daoist saying: The Tao can be explained is not the eternal Tao (or truth), but I suspect Tao Quin is saying something more, that poetry is not a painless juggling with words but expressing the essence of an experience that has been actually lived, often painfully so. The chrysanthemums alluded to were grown by Tao in his garden, but also refer to extended life. The Southern Mountains are a symbol of immutability.


Prelude to the Oriole's Song by Wu Wenying: (1200-1260):

1. This plague of cold still lingers on,
     and I have drunk enough of wine.
2. Behind me now I close a door
     of finely fashioned aloe wood.
3. I note the swallows have come late this year
     about the oriental wards.
4. The spring indeed is almost gone,
     or so it would be understood.
5. Our Qing Ming festival of painted
     boats has also slipped away,
6. and mists on Wu’s old palace steps
     have dwindled into ghosts of trees.
7. I think somehow of travellers
     unsettled, lifting with the wind,
8. as catkins do, so ever changing,
     insubstantial as the air.

9.  So went ten years. I tied my horse
10. at West Lake to the willows there.
11. And what I sought was scented dust,
       or yielding vapour, as it were.
12. I followed petals to their source,
      red petals to a fairy cove,
13. in secret one brocaded girl
     would proxy what you felt for her.
14. A silver screen was your support:
     the spring is vast, the dream but short.
15. The rouge-tinged broken tears were shed
     on singing fan and golden thread.
16. The dykes should empty at the dusk
17. although the sunlight touched us both.
18. The birds fly home: why think of that?

19. Unnoticed, orchids soon grow old,
20. but pollias are hardier things.
21. Lingering at the water villages
     I stay on here, in thought, alone.
22. Six Bridges, which we parted at,
     I visited, but nothing stirred.
23. All flowers wilt when love grows cold,
24. as jade and fragrance when interred.
25. How many bouts have wind and rain?

26. Like the water were your glances,
27. your brows light-brushed as distant hills.
28. Far lights of the fishermen recalled
       spring’s swelling waters where we slept.
29. I still remember, well remember,
          how on those short oars, this our boat,
             our Peach Root boat, was rowed across.
30. In quarters of the courtesans
31. are poems always, much on parting,
       like shadows on unpainted walls.
32. The ink is pale, perhaps with tears
         diluted, or with dust and loss.

33. From this pavilion I gaze
34. on green hills and the far horizons,
35. regret my tangled hair is now
       as rootstocks of the ramie class,
36. mull over, secretly, the traces
       of parting tears and spent saliva:
37. they stain this handkerchief of silk.
38. That phoenix has but drooping wings:
39. mythologies won’t fill the glass.
40. I want to write for you a letter
41. of still and everlasting sorrow,
42. but into the blue mists of the sea
      fall flights of the migrating geese.
43. I weave in vain unvanished longing
      into what zither strings I’ve got:
44. a thousand miles away your soul
      is in the south somewhere. With this
45. hurt song I think to summon you:
is heart not broken by such things?

The best of Wu’s 350-odd Ci poems surviving are carefully constructed, with a marked emphasis on musicality, elegant diction and indirect allusion. The Prelude to the Oriole’s Song is indeed the longest Ci poem in existence, and orchestrated on several levels of meaning. It may have been Wu’s attempt to weave unrelated romantic episodes into a larger narrative, one giving meaning to diverse phases of his life. Though the poem has four sections — lament for spring’s passing, joy of union, pain of separation and a remembrance of the dead — the images are not logically arranged but spring up as though from some tangled and melancholy inner state.

The first section is set in the present. The Qingming festival is held on the 3rd, 4th or 5th of April. The late-come swallows indicate that spring is over. The clearing mists and catkins may allude to another poem, a Ci song. The second section consists of flashbacks. On West Lake in Hangzhou there were always pleasure boats, often accompanied by singing girls and cooking galleys. All women used cosmetics extensively in Song times: wives, concubines, courtesans and the many grades of ‘singsong’ girl. One woman in particular seems to be remembered in this section, however, and is compared to well-known stories of encounters with fairy maidens. The sunset with its departing gulls and egrets rounds off the matter.

The third section is steeped in nostalgia and the pain of separation. The comparisons to water and hills are conventional epithets, but given a personal resonance here. These and the fishermen’s lights recur in Wu’s poetry, and have some special significance for him, as do poems written on unpainted or now decaying walls. The fourth section begins, as does the first, where the poet has shut the door to the past. The woman met or entertained in pleasure houses is now somewhere else, though the poet broods of the images of separation: handkerchief, tears and saliva. The last line parallels the last line in the first section: the hopelessness of the inevitable.


Only four themes are shown on this page (with the first illustrated by three different poets and poetry styles) but many more are given in the free Chinese Poetry ebook.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.

Translation issues are explored in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.