Chinese Poems
May 19, 2008 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Chinese Poems is a simple, no frills site with over 200 classical Chinese poems, mostly from the Tang period. The poems are presented in traditional and simplified chinese characters, pinyin and English translation, both literal and literary. Here's Du Mu's Drinking Alone:
Outside the window, wind and snow blow straight,
I clutch the stove and open a flask of wine.
Just like a fishing boat in the rain,
Sail down, asleep on the autumn river.

Among other poets featured are Li Bai (a.k.a. Li Po), Du Fu and Wang Wei. As a bonus, here's the entire text of Ezra Pound's Cathay, most of whom are from Li Bai originals.
posted by Kattullus (15 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Here's Ezra Pound's version of Li Bai's Seeing Off a Friend, followed by the two English translations on the Chinese Poems site:

Taking Leave of a Friend

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.
Mind like a floating white cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old aquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing


Green hill across north wall
White water wind east city
This place one do parting
Lone tumbleweed ten thousand li journey
Drift clouds traveller thought
Set sun old friend feeling
Wave hand from this go
Neigh part horse call


Green hills above the northern wall,
White water winding east of the city.
On this spot our single act of parting,
The lonely tumbleweed journeys ten thousand li.
Drifting clouds echo the traveller's thoughts,
The setting sun reflects my old friend's feelings.
You wave your hand and set off from this place,
Your horse whinnies as it leaves.
posted by Kattullus at 9:34 AM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

My favorite Du Mu poem, "Pien River Blocked by Ice"

For a thousand miles along the river, when the ice begins to close,
Harness jades and girdle jaspers tinkle at the jagged edge.
The drift of life’s no different from the water under the ice
Hurrying Eastward day and night while no one notices.

Thanks for the post, Kattullus!
posted by SaintCynr at 10:14 AM on May 19, 2008

They've forgotten my favorite by Su Shi (or Su Tung-p'o):

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

And one of my favorites I've always seen listed as Unknown so I may have to dig around and see if they have it credited:

Here at the frontier, there are falling leaves.
Although my neighbors are all barbarians,
And you, you are a thousand miles away,
There are always two cups on my table.

posted by JaredSeth at 10:26 AM on May 19, 2008 [4 favorites]

JaredSeth -- good call! I remember translating that Su Dongpo poem a while back for a blog review of a book called 中国文人的非正常死亡 ("The Unnatural Deaths of Chinese Literati"). I did it as

In raising children, all would hope for wit;
But I, whose life was ruined by cleverness,
Wish only for my boy to be a lout.
He’ll rise to Minister with no distress.

I was never all that big on Li Bai -- a lot of his poems have a bit too much of the "HAI GUYZ YOU WONT BELIEVE HOW DRUNK I GOT LAST NIGHT" to them for my liking -- but there are a few good ones. "Sent to Du Fu below Shaqiu City" is a really nice one, though I don't care for the version they have there. Hamill's translation has its own faults (particularly the first stanza, which is nice but totally wrong), but I think it really nails the end of the poem:

Shandong wine can't get me drunk.
The local poets bore me.
My thoughts remain with you,
like the Wen River, endlessly flowing.

Li's 自遣 (here, "Amusing Myself" - Cooper translates it nicely as "Abandon") is good, but I much prefer the Meng Haoran poem 春晓 "Spring Dawn" on which it's based.
posted by bokane at 10:43 AM on May 19, 2008

I feel a little bad for writing off some of Chinese poetry for so many years, but it was during the reading of Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber), when we were assigned three chapters a night on top of our usual class load, that I got in the habit of going 'Oh hey, ten pages of poetry!' and skipped right on ahead through them. I did go back and read a few but to be honest they didn't do much for me. Some of these do.

I think it probably had to do with the flowers. They just wouldn't shut up about those damn flowers.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:26 AM on May 19, 2008

I have a real fondness for some poems from this era, although I really know next to nothing about the era or Chinese poetry in general. There is one poem I read a long time back which I'm always on the lookout for, but I've forgotten its name and the translator of the version I read. It has a line that goes something like "bureaucrats fatten in the capitol / While a poet goes cold and hungry." I think it was either in a poem by Tu Fu or in a poem addressed to him, maybe by Li Po, does anyone happen to know it?

Anyways, great site, thanks Kattullus.
posted by whir at 12:13 PM on May 19, 2008

I am discovering this for the first time thanks to this post. Thank you!
posted by ducksauce at 1:12 PM on May 19, 2008

whir - Definitely sounds like Du Fu. One of his more famous poems has the couplet

朱门酒肉臭 In noble households wine and meat spoil
路有冻死骨 On the road lie the bones of those who froze to death.

Can't find a full translation of it at the moment - it's a pretty long one - but there must be something out there, probably by Stephen Owen.
posted by bokane at 8:39 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love the literal translations. They remind me of Zukofsky's 80 Flowers (probably because translations like these heavily influenced those poems).

I wish there was audio for some of these. How important are sonic effects in Chinese poetry--anyone know?
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 9:10 PM on May 19, 2008

Hypocrite_Lecteur: Rhyme and tonal prosody are key in the 律诗 regulated-verse poems that encompass the majority of Tang poetry. In regulated verse, lines come in lengths of five or seven, with each character being assigned to the 平 'level' or 仄 'oblique' tonal category based on which of the four tones of Middle Chinese it had.
Lines followed set level/oblique patterns, analogous to but not quite the same as meter in English verse; skilled poets could sometimes emphasize a word by using a level character where an oblique one might be expected or vice versa, analogous to flipping a metrical foot in English poetry. 九月九日忆山东兄弟 "Thinking of my brothers to the east of the mountains on the Double-Ninth festival" by 王维 Wang Wei, besides being a great poem about homesickness, makes for a nice example of this:

独在异乡为异客,Alone in a strange land, and I a stranger,
每逢佳节倍思亲。Come holidays my thoughts of home renew.
遥知兄弟登高处,In my mind's eye, my brothers climb the hill,
遍插茱萸少一人。Adorned with dogwood - but there's one too few.

On the other hand, many of the sound features of Engilsh poetry - alliteration, assonance, consonance, meter - aren't present in classical Chinese poetry.
posted by bokane at 12:51 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Thanks a lot, much appreciated.
posted by nicolin at 1:52 AM on May 20, 2008

bokane, that's another great translation of the Su Shi. I can't recall where I cribbed the one I posted earlier, as it's been sitting in my quotes file for ages.

Chinese poetry is another one of those subjects I've always meant to investigate further, but never got around to. Thanks so much for this post. It's stuff like this that keeps me compulsively refreshing Metafilter.
posted by JaredSeth at 3:34 AM on May 20, 2008

Thanks from me also. I studied Chinese for a few years at secondary level and found poetry like this beautiful and just slightly out of reach. The way this site is laid out is just right for me, I particularly like the character to word translation. Showing it to my 11 year old daughter who's just starting Chinese at school. Cheers.
posted by ozjohn at 5:15 AM on May 20, 2008

To nitpick the translation of "Drinking Alone", I have issues with two of the nouns used. 缸 isn't a 'flask' but more like a squat clay pot, 蓬 isn't a sail but the thatched covering on the boat.

To me, being precise about the nouns helps with painting a more accurate word-picture. Here, 缸 corresponds with the verb in the title, '酌', which is more about pouring the wine than drinking. Being under '蓬' instead of a sail conveys more isolation, and a fishing boat doesn't necessarily have sails.

Li Bai's other poem, about being seen off, makes a nice companion piece to the "Seeing off A Friend" linked above.
posted by of strange foe at 11:41 AM on May 20, 2008

300 Tang poems.
posted by ersatz at 2:31 PM on May 20, 2008

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