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Chinese Poetry Translations

Chinese Poets: English Translations

These are modern English translations of poems by some of the greatest Chinese poets of all time, including Du Fu, Huang O, Li Bai, Li Ching-jau, Li Qingzhao, Po Chu-I, Tzu Yeh, Yau Ywe-Hwa and Xu Zhimo.



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.

Li Bai (701-762) was a romantic figure who has been called the Lord Byron of Chinese poetry. He and his friend Du Fu (712-770) were the leading poets of the Tang Dynasty era, which has been called 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.



Moonlit Night
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
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 it as it disappears;
its plaintive calls cut through you.

The indignant crows ignore you both:
the bickering, bantering multitudes.

Du Fu (712-770) is also known as Tu Fu. The first 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.'



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.

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 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
brings 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?

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.



Star Gauge
Sui Hui (c.351-394 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!

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.



Reflection
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?

Due to the similarities in names, 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 later by other poets were attributed to her.



Waves
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...



Monologue
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?

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.



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

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



'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) 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.



Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by 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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Do you not see
that we
have become like branches of a single tree?



Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I could not sleep with the full moon haunting my bed!
I thought I heard―here, there, everywhere―
disembodied voices calling my name!
Helplessly I cried 'Yes! ' to the phantom air!



Tzu Yeh (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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 (circa 400 BC)
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.

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



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.

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.



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)

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.'

Keywords/Tags: China, Chinese, made in China, translation, love, desire, passion, bed, bedroom, bedtime, night, affair, affairs
Monday, March 8, 2021
Topic(s) of this poem: made in china,translation,love,bittersweet love,affinity and love,affair,affairs,bedtime,night
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