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Chinese poetry

Poetry is the most highly regarded literary genre in China, including various sub-genres such as shi (诗), ci (词), and qu (曲). Poetry composition was among the basic skills required of every scholar or intellectual in the past. There has been a longstanding tradition that puts poetry at the heart of education. Confucius was quoted in the Analects as saying “If you do not learn the Classic of Poetry, you will not be fit to converse with.”

Complete Tang Poems, anthology of Tang dynasty poetry
Complete Tang Poems (《全唐诗》)
The poems collected in this anthology of poetry of Tang Dynasty alone amount to some 49,000.
Poetry was to be composed on diverse occasions: at parties, in civil service examinations, at seeing off a friend, or simply as a private channel ofexpression. Though with consistent importance and popularity over Chinese literary history, poetry reached its summit in Tang Dynasty. The collective contribution of numerous poets across successive dynasties earns China the reputation of “the kingdom of poetry”.

However, it might be fairly challenging, or even inaccessible, for a foreigner to appreciate Chinese poetry, especially classical poetry. More often than not, the vocabulary is old fashioned or too poetic in style, with compact, economical wording, making it difficult to decipher the meaning. A good knowledge of Chinese culture is required in the appreciation of a Chinese poem as well as its associations. Translators would often find it an almost impossible mission to fully render a Chinese classical poem into foreign language versions. A knowledge in reading pinyin Romanization of Chinese will be highly favourable in appreciating the rhythmical beauty of a Chinese poem, which makes the reading interesting.

Hopefully, the following selection of a few best-known Chinese poems may endear you to the richest and most beautiful Chinese literary form.

Selected Most Famous Chinese Poems

Guan Ju 关雎
Pinyin Romanization                   
English Translation                                      


guān guān jū jiū
zài hé zhī zhōu
yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ
jūn zǐ hǎo qiú

cēn cī xìng cài
zuǒ yòu liú zhī
yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ
wù mèi qiú zhī

qiú zhī bù dé
wù mèi sī fú
yōu zāi yōu zāi
zhǎn zhuǎn fǎn cè

cēn cī xìng cài
zuǒ yòu cǎi zhī
yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ
qín sè yǒu zhī

cēn cī xìng cài
zuǒ yòu mào zhī
yǎo tiǎo shū nǚ
zhōng gǔ yuè zhī
Wooing and Wedding 
By riverside a pair 
Of turtledoves are wooing; 
There's a maiden fair 
Whom a young man is wooing. 
Water flows left and right 
Of cress long here,short there; 
The youth yearns day and night 
For the good maiden fair. 
His yearning grows so strong, 
He cannot fall asleep, 
But tosses all night long, 
So deep in love,so deep! 
Now gather left and right 
Cress long or short and tender! 
O lute,play music light 
For the fiancée so slender! 
Feast friends at left and right 
On cresses cooked tender! 
O bells and drums,delight 
The bride so sweet and slender!
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

The opening poem in the Classic of Poetry, China’s earliest anthology of poetry, Guan Ju is one of the best known poems in Chinese literature, widely alluded to in later times or in everyday speech. The poem evokes a scene of ospreys calling “guan~guan~” on a river islet, and the theme is about a young noble’s longing for a good and fair maiden. Its poetic style is fairly typical of the poems in the Classic of Poetry, being made up of a group of four-syllable stanzas of four to eight lines each.

Jing Ye Si 静夜思(Thoughts on a Tranquil Night)
Pinyin Romanization            
English Translation
chuáng qián míng yuè guāng

yí shì dì shàng shuāng

jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè

dī tóu sī gù xiāng
Before my bed a pool of light.

Can it be hoarfrost on the ground?

Eyes raised, I see the moon so bright;

Head bent, in homesickness I'm drowned.
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

This is a most widely-chanted Chinese classical poem. Most Chinese kids get acquainted to Chinese classic poetry with this poem - in kindergartens! Li Bai (701~762), the author, is regarded as the greatest poet in Chinese history. The poem illustrates the scene of a poet missing his hometown at the sight of frost-like moon-light on the ground when lying on his bed in a sleepless night. The moon in Chinese cultural context is often associated with family reunion and celebration.

Chun Wang 春望
Pinyin Romanization                   
English Translation
guó pò shān hé zài
chéng chūn cǎo mù shēn

gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi

hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn

fēng huǒ lián sān yuè

jiā shū dǐ wàn jīn

bái tóu sāo gèng duǎn

hún yù bù shèng zān.
On war-torn land streams flow and mountains stand;

In towns unquiet grass and weeds run riot.

Grieved over the years, flowers are moved to tears;

Seeing us part, birds cry with broken heart.

The beacon fire has gone higher and higher,

Words from household are worth their weight in gold

I cannot bear to scratch my grizzled hair;

It grows too thin to hold a light hair pin.
(Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Du Fu (712~770) enjoys equal fame to Li Bai in Chinese classical poetry. Styled as the “Poet-Historian” and “Poet-Sage” by critics, he impresses the reader with his concern for the fate and sufferings of the country and the people expressed in his poetry, though his works are actually wide-ranged. This poem depicts the state of dilapidation and mess as well as the poet’s feeling of unrest after the Tang imperial capital Chang’an was captured by rebel forces in the An-Shi Rebellion (755~763).

Farewell, Cambridge 再别康桥

Pinyin RomanizationEnglish Translation                                     

Zài Bié Kāngqiáo
Qīngqīng de wǒ zǒu le
zhèngrú wǒ qīngqīng de lái
wǒ qīngqīng de zhāoshǒu
zuòbié xī tiān de yúncai。
Nà hépàn de jīn liǔ
shì xīyáng zhōng de xīnniáng
bōguāng lǐ de yàn yǐng
zài wǒ de xīntóu dàngyàng
Ruǎnní shàng de qīng xìng
yóuyóu de zài shuǐdǐ zhāoyáo;
zài Kāng hé de róu bō lǐ
wǒ gānxīn uò yì tiáo shuǐcǎo!
Nà yú yìn xià de yì tán
bú shì qīngquán, shì tiānshang hóng
róusuì zài fú zǎo jiān
chéndiànzhe cǎihóng shìde mèng
Chēng yì zhī cháng gāo
xiàng qīngcǎo gèng qīng chù màn sù
mǎnzài yì chuán xīng huī
zài xīng huī bānlán lǐ fànggē。
Dàn wǒ bùnéng fànggē
qiāoqiāo shì biélí de shēngxiāo;
xiàchóng yě wèi wǒ chénmò
chénmò shì jīnwǎn de Kāngqiáo。
Qiāoqiāo de wǒ zǒu le
zhèngrú wǒ qiāoqiāo de lái
wǒ huī yi huī yīxiù
bú dàizǒu yí piàn yúncai
Leaving the Revisited Cambridge
Quietly now I leave the Cam,
As quietly as I came.
Gently wave farewell the clouded
Western sky aflame---

There the golden willow stands
a bride of sunset's glow.
How its dancing ripples glint
and stir my heart below;

crowded rushes wave in water
bouncing with the weed
flowing slick by soft-soil'd banks---
I long to thus proceed!

Duckweed-crumpled rainbow's pool
of iridescent dream
pure as springs 'neath elmtree's bough---
O search the shrouded stream;
Punt toward the yonder whence
the emerald fields lie;
Return with joyous song engulfed
by tranquil starlit sky.

But as for me, I cannot sing
this muted summer's evening;
Even insects hush, as silence
plays the flute for leaving.

Stealth'ly now I part from Cam,
As bid farewell I must.
Waving sleeve so gently lest
a cloudspeck I should dust.
(Translated by Silas S. Brown)
Farewell to Revisited Cambridge, Xu Zhimo, modern Chinese poetry
Xu Zhimo (1897~1931) was a leader of China’s modern poetry. Farewell, Cambridge records Xu’s sentiments of sorrows at departing from Cambridge where he had studied between 1920 and 1922. It is at Cambridge that Xu fell in love with English romantic poetry represented by Keats and Shelley, and was influenced by French romantic and symbolist poets. The poem is Xu Zhimo’s signature work, most frequently recited at shows and performances.


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