Chinese Classic Poetry Verses - Part One

Julie Shu, Librarian, International Languages Department,
Classic Poetry or the Book of Songs written in traditional Chinese characters against a Chinese painting.

Ancient Chinese classic poems are complex works of art. As far back as 3,000 years ago, Chinese poets composed the beautiful work called Book of Songs and Elegies of the South. They later created more splendid poetry during the Tang and Song dynasties. Throughout centuries, people have cited these poems in their daily lives and writings. The following are some well-known verses translated into English in three parts. This first set of poems talk about life.

  1. To the Tune of “Green Jade Cup” (excerpt), by Xin Qiji. CE 1140 - 1207
    青玉案 (宋)辛弃疾
    A thousand times I search for her in the crowd. And, suddenly turning my head, discover her where the lantern lights are dim. (Translation by Yang Xianyi & Dai Naidi)

  2. Bring in the Wine, by Li Bai. CE 701 - 762
    将进酒 (唐)李白
    See how the Yellow River's waters move out of heaven, entering the ocean, never to return.
    See how lovely locks in bright mirrors in high chambers, though silken-black at morning, have changed by night to snow...Oh, let a man of spirit venture where he pleases, and never tip his golden cup empty toward the moon! Since heaven gave the talent, let it be employed! Spin a thousand pieces of silver, all of them come back! (Translation unknown)
    君不见,黄河之水天上来,奔流到海不复回. 君不见,高堂明镜悲白发,朝如青丝暮成雪. 人生得意须尽欢,莫使金樽空对月. 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来.

  3. To the Tune of “Song of Picking Mulberries”, by Xin Qiji. CE 1149 - 1207
    采桑子 (宋) 辛弃疾
    While young, I knew no grief I could not bear; I’d like to go upstairs. I’d like to go upstairs to write new verses with a false despair. I know what grief is now that I am old; I would not have it told. I would not have it told, but only say I’m glad that autumn’s cold. (Translation by Xu Yuanchong)
    少年不识愁滋味,爱上层楼. 爱上层楼,为赋新词强说愁. 而今识尽愁滋味,欲说还休,欲说还休,却道天凉好个秋!

  4. To the Tune of “The River All Red” (excerpt), by Yue Fei. CE 1103 - 1142
    满江红 (宋) 岳飞
    [Author's note: Yue Fei was a Chinese military general who is best known for leading the Southern Song forces in the wars in the 12th century between the Southern Song and the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty of northern China before being put to death by the Southern Song government in 1142. He has been widely seen as a patriot and national folk hero in China.]
    To dust is gone the fame achieved in thirty years; like a cloud-veiled moon, the thousand land disappears. Should youthful heads in vain turn grey, we would regret for aye. (Translation by Xu Yuanchong)
    三十功名尘与土,八千里路云和月. 莫等闲,白了少年头,空悲切.

  5. A Song (excerpt), by Cao Cao. CE 155 - 220
    短歌行 (东汉) 曹操
    [Author's note: The poet is a central figure of the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). The poem expressed the poet’s thirst for finding talents and ideas, and his ambition of uniting the three Kingdoms.]
    Wine before us, sing a song. How long does life last? It is like the morning dew; sad so many days have passed. Sing hey, sing ho! Deep within my heart, I pine, nothing can dispel my woe, save Du Kang, the god of wine. (Translation by Yang Xianyi & Dai Naidi)
    对酒当歌,人生几何?譬如朝露,去日苦多. 慨当以慷,忧思难忘. 何以解忧?唯有杜康.

  6. Autumn Thoughts, by Ma Zhiyuan. CE 1250 - 1321
    天净沙•秋思 (元)马致远
    Over old trees wreathed with rotten vines fly evening crows; under a small bridge near a cottage a stream flows; on an ancient road in the west wind a lean horse goes. Westward declines the sun; far, far from home is the heartbroken one. (Translation unknown)
    枯藤老树昏鸦,小桥流水人家,古道西风瘦马. 夕阳西下,断肠人在天涯.

  7. On the Plain of Imperial Tombs, by Li Shangyin. CE 813 - 858
    登乐游原 (唐) 李商隐
    [Author's note: Li Shangyin lived at a time when the Tang Dynasty, after two hundred years of glorious reign, was fast declining, and the poet was frustrated with the officialdom.]
    At dusk my heart is filled with gloom, I drive my cab to ancient Tomb. The setting sun seems so sublime, but it is near its dying time. (Translation by Xu Yuanchong)
    向晚意不适,驱车登古原. 夕阳无限好,只是近黄昏.

  8. After Passing the Highest Imperial Examinations, by Meng Jiao. CE 751 - 814
    登科后 (唐) 孟郊
    [Author's note: Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China to select candidates for the state bureaucracy. The poet was very excited after passing the highest level exam at the age of 46.]
    Why even mention the shabby old days? This morning I roll free, my thoughts boundless. Spring winds is joy below my fast horse’s hooves as I race to see all Changan’s (the Capital city) flowers in just one day. (Translation by Tony Barnstone & Chou Ping)

  9. Drinking Wine (excerpt), by Tao Yuanming. CE 365 - 427
    饮酒(东晋) 陶渊明
    [Authors note: The poet is the first idyllic poet of China.]
    I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge, see the southern mountain, calm and still (Translation by Burton Watson)

Further Reading

A Golden Treasury of Chinese Poetry: 121 Classical Poems

Poems of the Masters = Qian jia shi: China's Classic Anthology of T'ang and Sung Dynasty Verse

Song ci
Xinsen Nie; Xianyi Yang; Gladys Yang

Golden treasury of Tang and Song Poetry