A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems

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In making this book I have tried to avoid poems which have been translated before. A hundred and forty of those I have chosen have not been translated by any one else. The remaining thirty odd I have included in many cases because the previous versions were full of mistakes; in others, because the works in which they appeared are no longer procurable. Moreover, they are mostly in German, a language with which my readers may not all be acquainted.

With some hesitation I have included literal versions of six poems (three of the “Seventeen Old Poems,” “Autumn Wind,” “Li Fu-j?n,” and “On the Death of his Father”) already skilfully rhymed by Professor Giles in “Chinese Poetry in English Verse.” They were too typical to omit; and a comparison of the two renderings may be of interest. Some of these translations have appeared in the “Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies,” in the “New Statesman,” in the “Little Review” (Chicago), and in “Poetry” (Chicago).



The Method of Translation19
Bibliographical Notes21
Chapter I:
The Man-Wind and the Woman-Wind24
Master T?ng-t’u26
The Orphan27
The Sick Wife29
Cock-Crow Song30
The Golden Palace31
“Old Poem”32
Meeting in the Road32
Fighting South of the Castle33
The Eastern Gate34
Old and New35
South of the Great Sea35
The Other Side of the Valley36
Oaths of Friendship37
Burial Songs38
Seventeen Old Poems3948
The Autumn Wind48
Li Fu-j?n49
Song of Snow-white Heads50
To his Wife51
Li Ling52
Lament of Hsi-chün53
Ch’in Chia53
Ch’in Chia’s Wife’s Reply54
Chapter II:
Satire on Paying Calls in August57
On the Death of his Father58
The Campaign against Wu59
The Ruins of Lo-yang60
The Cock-fight61
A Vision62
The Curtain of the Wedding Bed63
Taoist Song64
A Gentle Wind64
Day Dreams66
The Scholar in the Narrow Street66
The Desecration of the Han Tombs67
Bearer’s Song68
The Valley Wind69
Chapter III:
Poems by T’ao Ch’ien7179
Chapter IV:
Inviting Guests81
Climbing a Mountain81
Sailing Homeward82
Five “Tz?-yeh” Songs83
The Little Lady of Ch’ing-hsi84
Plucking the Rushes84
Ballad of the Western Island in the North Country84
Song of the Men of Chin-ling86
The Scholar Recruit87
The Red Hills87
Dreaming of a Dead Lady88
The Liberator89
Winter Night90
The Rejected Wife90
People hide their Love91
The Ferry91
The Waters of Lung-t’ou92
Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River92
Tchirek Song93
Chapter V:
Business Men95
Tell me now95
On Going to a Tavern96
Stone Fish Lake96
A Protest in the Sixth Year of Ch’ien Fu97
On the Birth of his Son98
The Pedlar of Spells98
Boating in Autumn99
The Herd-boy99
How I sailed on the Lake till I came to the Eastern Stream100
A Seventeenth-century Chinese Poem100


By Po Chü-i:
An Early Levée115
Being on Duty all night in the Palace and dreaming of the Hsien-yu Temple116
Passing T’ien-m?n Street in Ch’ang-an and seeing a distant View of Chung-nan Mountain116
The Letter117
Rejoicing at the Arrival of Ch’?n Hsiung118
Golden Bells119
Remembering Golden Bells120
The Dragon of the Black Pool121
The Grain-tribute123
The People of Tao-chou123
The Old Harp125
The Harper of Chao125
The Flower Market126
The Prisoner127
The Chancellor’s Gravel-drive131
The Man who Dreamed of Fairies132
The Two Red Towers135
The Charcoal-seller137
The Politician138
The Old Man with the Broken Arm139
Kept waiting in the Boat at Chiu-k’ou Ten Days by an adverse Wind142
On Board Ship: Reading Yüan Ch?n’s Poems142
Arriving at Hsün-yang143
Madly Singing in the Mountains144
Releasing a migrant “Yen” (wild Goose)145
To a Portrait Painter who desired him to sit146
Having climbed to the topmost Peak of the Incense-burner Mountain148
Eating Bamboo-shoots149
The Red Cockatoo149
After Lunch150
Alarm at first entering the Yang-tze Gorges150
On being removed from Hsün-yang and sent to Chung-chou151
Planting Flowers on the Eastern Embankment152
Pruning Trees154
Being visited by a Friend during Illness155
On the way to Hangchow: Anchored on the River at Night155
Stopping the Night at Jung-yang156
The Silver Spoon156
The Hat given to the Poet by Li Chien157
The Big Rug157
After getting Drunk, becoming Sober in the Night158
Realizing the Futility of Life158
Rising Late and Playing with A-ts’ui, aged Two159
On a Box containing his own Works160
On being Sixty161
Climbing the Terrace of Kuan-yin and looking at the City162
Climbing the Ling Ying Terrace and looking North162
Going to the Mountains with a little Dancing Girl, aged Fifteen163
Dreaming of Yüan Ch?n163
A Dream of Mountaineering164
On hearing someone sing a Poem by Yüan Ch?n165
The Philosophers166
Taoism and Buddhism167
Last Poem168



Principal Chinese Dynasties

  • Han, 206 B.C.A.D. 220.
  • Wei, 220-264.
  • Chin, 265-419.
  • (Northern Wei, ruled over the North of China, 386-532.)
  • Liang, 502-556.
  • Sui, 589-618.
  • T’ang, 618-905.
  • Sung, 960-1278.
  • Yüan (Mongols), 1260-1341.
  • Ming, 1368-1640.
  • Ch’ing (Manchus), 1644-1912.


Those who wish to assure themselves that they will lose nothing by ignoring Chinese literature, often ask the question: “Have the Chinese a Homer, an Aeschylus, a Shakespeare or Tolstoy?” The answer must be that China has no epic and no dramatic literature of importance. The novel exists and has merits, but never became the instrument of great writers.

Her philosophic literature knows no mean between the traditionalism of Confucius and the nihilism of Chuang-tz?. In mind, as in body, the Chinese were for the most part torpid mainlanders. Their thoughts set out on no strange quests and adventures, just as their ships discovered no new continents. To most Europeans the momentary flash of Athenian questioning will seem worth more than all the centuries of Chinese assent.

Yet we must recognize that for thousands of years the Chinese maintained a level of rationality and tolerance that the West might well envy. They had no Index, no Inquisition, no Holy Wars. Superstition has indeed played its part among them; but it has never, as in Europe, been perpetually dominant. It follows from the limitations of Chinese thought that the literature of the country should excel in reflection rather than in speculation. That this is particularly true of its poetry will be gauged from the present volume. In the poems of Po Chü-i no close reasoning or philosophic subtlety will be discovered; but a power of candid reflection and self-analysis which has not been rivalled in the West.

Turning from thought to emotion, the most conspicuous feature of European poetry is its pre-occupation with love. This is apparent not only in actual “love-poems,” but in all poetry where the personality of the writer is in any way obtruded. The poet tends to exhibit himself in a romantic light; in fact, to recommend himself as a lover.

The Chinese poet has a tendency different but analogous. He recommends himself not as a lover, but as a friend. He poses as a person of infinite leisure (which is what we should most like our friends to possess) and free from worldly ambitions (which constitute the greatest bars to friendship). He would have us think of him as a boon companion, a great drinker of wine, who will not disgrace a social gathering by quitting it sober.

To the European poet the relation between man and woman is a thing of supreme importance and mystery. To the Chinese, it is something commonplace, obvious—a need of the body, not a satisfaction of the emotions. These he reserves entirely for friendship.

Accordingly we find that while our poets tend to lay stress on physical courage and other qualities which normal women admire, Po Chü-i is not ashamed to write such a poem as “Alarm at entering the Gorges.” Our poets imagine themselves very much as Art has portrayed them—bare-headed and wild-eyed, with shirts unbuttoned at the neck as though they feared that a seizure of emotion might at any minute suffocate them. The Chinese poet introduces himself as a timid recluse, “Reading the Book of Changes at the Northern Window,” playing chess with a Taoist priest, or practising caligraphy with an occasional visitor. If “With a Portrait of the Author” had been the rule in the Chinese book-market, it is in such occupations as these that he would be shown; a neat and tranquil figure compared with our lurid frontispieces.

It has been the habit of Europe to idealize love at the expense of friendship and so to place too heavy a burden on the relation of man and woman. The Chinese erred in the opposite direction, regarding their wives and concubines simply as instruments of procreation. For sympathy and intellectual companionship they looked only to their friends. But these friends were bound by no such tie as held women to their masters; sooner or later they drifted away to frontier campaigns, remote governorships, or country retirement. It would not be an exaggeration to say that half the poems in the Chinese language are poems of parting or separation.

Readers of these translations may imagine that the culture represented by Po Chü-i extended over the whole vast confines of China. This would, I think, be an error. Culture is essentially a metropolitan product. Chü-i was as much dépaysé at a provincial town as Charles Lamb would have been at Botany Bay. But the system of Chinese bureaucracy tended constantly to break up the literary coteries which formed at the capitals, and to drive the members out of the little corner of Shensi and Honan which to them was “home.”

It was chiefly economic necessity which forced the poets of China into the meshes of bureaucracy—backed by the Confucian insistence on public service. To such as were landowners there remained the alternative of agricultural life, arduous and isolated.

The poet, then, usually passed through three stages of existence. In the first we find him with his friends at the capital, drinking, writing, and discussing: burdened by his office probably about as much as Pepys was burdened by his duties at the Admiralty. Next, having failed to curry favour with the Court, he is exiled to some provincial post, perhaps a thousand miles from anyone he cares to talk to. Finally, having scraped together enough money to buy husbands for his daughters, he retires to a small estate, collecting round him the remnants of those with whom he had shared the “feasts and frolics of old days.”

I have spoken hitherto only of poets. But the poetess occupies a place of considerable importance in the first four centuries of our era, though the classical period (T’ang and Sung) produced no great woman writer. Her theme varies little; she is almost always a “rejected wife,” cast adrift by her lord or sent back to her home. Probably her father would be unable to buy her another husband and there was no place for unmarried women in the Chinese social system. The moment, then, which produced such poems was one of supreme tragedy in a woman’s life.

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