Kenneth Rexroth:

Translations from Chinese


Men Poets 
Su Wu
Wang Wei
Tu Fu (6)
Han Yu
Mei Yao Ch’en (4)
Su Tung P’o (2)
Kao Chi

Women Poets
Ts’ai Yen
Li Ch’ing-chao (4)
Kuan Tao-shêng
Huang O (2)
Sun Yün-feng (2)
Ch’iu Chin
Hsiung Hung



Men Poets




They married us when they put
Up our hair. We were just twenty
And fifteen. And ever since,
Our love has never been troubled.
Tonight we have the old joy
In each other, although our
Happiness will soon be over.
I remember the long march
That lies ahead of me, and
Go out and look up at the stars,
To see how the night has worn on.
Betelgeuse and Antares
Have both gone out. It is time
For me to leave for far off
Battlefields. No way of knowing
If we will ever see each
Other again. We clutch each
Other and sob, our faces
Streaming with tears. Goodbye, dear.
Protect the Spring flowers of
Your beauty. Think of the days
When we were happy together.
If I live I will come back.
If I die, remember me always.

SU WU (2nd century)




Deep in the mountain wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far off voice,
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

WANG WEI (701-761)




The windy forest is checkered
By the light of the setting,
Waning moon. I tune the lute,
Its strings are moist with dew.
The brook flows in the darkness
Below the flower path. The thatched
Roof is crowned with constellations.
As we write the candles burn short.
Our wits grow sharp as swords while
The wine goes round. When the poem
Contest is ended, someone
Sings a song of the South. And
I think of my little boat,
And long to be on my way.

TU FU (713-770)



The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.




It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.




The stream swirls. The wind moans in
The pines. Grey rats scurry over
Broken tiles. What prince, long ago,
Built this palace, standing in
Ruins beside the cliffs? There are
Green ghost fires in the black rooms.
The shattered pavements are all
Washed away. Ten thousand organ
Pipes whistle and roar. The storm
Scatters the red autumn leaves.
His dancing girls are yellow dust.
Their painted cheeks have crumbled
Away. His gold chariots
And courtiers are gone. Only
A stone horse is left of his
Glory. I sit on the grass and
Start a poem, but the pathos of
It overcomes me. The future
Slips imperceptibly away.
Who can say what the years will bring?




The lives of many men are
Shorter than the years since we have
Seen each other. Aldebaran
And Antares move as we have.
And now, what night is this? We sit
Here together in the candle
Light. How much longer will our prime
Last? Our temples are already
Grey. I visit my old friends.
Half of them have become ghosts.
Fear and sorrow choke me and burn
My bowels. I never dreamed I would
Come this way, after twenty years,
A wayfarer to your parlor.
When we parted years ago,
You were unmarried. Now you have
A row of boys and girls, who smile
And ask me about my travels.
How have I reached this time and place?
Before I can come to the end
Of an endless tale, the children
Have brought out the wine. We go
Out in the night and cut young
Onions in the rainy darkness.
We eat them with hot, steaming,
Yellow millet. You say, “It is
Sad, meeting each other again.”
We drink ten toasts rapidly from
The rhinoceros horn cups.
Ten cups, and still we are not drunk.
We still love each other as
We did when we were schoolboys.
Tomorrow morning mountain peaks
Will come between us, and with them
The endless, oblivious
Business of the world.




Isolate and full, the moon
Floats over the house by the river.
Into the night the cold water rushes away below the gate.
The bright gold spilled on the river is never still.
The brilliance of my quilt is greater than precious silk.
The circle without blemish.
The empty mountains without sound.
The moon hangs in the vacant, wide constellations.
Pine cones drop in the old garden.
The senna trees bloom.
The same clear glory extends for ten thousand miles.





The path up the mountain is hard
To follow through the tumbled rocks.
When I reach the monastery
The bats are already flying.
I go to the guest room and sit
On the steps. The rain is over.
The banana leaves are broad.
The gardenias are in bloom.
The old guest master tells me
There are ancient paintings on the
Walls. He goes and gets a light.
I see they are incomparably
Beautiful. He spreads my bed
And sweeps the mat. He serves me
Soup and rice. It is simple
Food but nourishing. The night
Goes on as I lie and listen
To the great peace. Insects chirp
And click in the stillness. The
Pure moon rises over the ridge
And shines in my door. At daybreak
I get up alone. I saddle
My horse myself and go my way.
The trails are all washed out.
I go up and down, picking my
Way through storm clouds on the mountain.
Red cliffs, green waterfalls, all
Sparkle in the morning light.
I pass pines and oaks ten men
Could not reach around. I cross
Flooded streams. My bare feet stumble
On the cobbles. The water roars.
My clothes whip in the wind. This
Is the only life where a man
Can find happiness. Why do I
Spend my days bridled like a horse
With a cruel bit in his mouth?
If I only had a few friends
Who agreed with me we’d retire
To the mountains and stay till our lives end.

HAN YU (768-824)




Do not be offended because
I am slow to go out. You know
Me too well for that. On my lap
I hold my little girl. At my
Knees stands my handsome little son.
One has just begun to talk.
The other chatters without
Stopping. They hang on my clothes
And follow my every step.
I can’t get any farther
Than the door. I am afraid
I will never make it to your house.

MEI YAO CH’EN (1002-1060)



Heaven took my wife. Now it
Has also taken my son.
My eyes are not allowed a
Dry season. It is too much
For my heart. I long for death.
When the rain falls and enters
The earth, when a pearl drops into
The depth of the sea, you can
Dive in the sea and find the
Pearl, you can dig in the earth
And find the water. But no one
Has ever come back from the
Underground Springs. Once gone, life
Is over for good. My chest
Tightens against me. I have
No one to turn to. Nothing,
Not even a shadow in a mirror.




In broad daylight I dream I
Am with her. At night I dream
She is still at my side. She
Carries her kit of colored
Threads. I see her image bent
Over her bag of silks. She
Mends and alters my clothes and
Worries for fear I might look
Worn and ragged. Dead, she watches
Over my life. Her constant
Memory draws me towards death.




Who says that the dead do not think of us?
Whenever I travel, she goes with me.
She was uneasy when I was on a journey.
She always wanted to accompany me.
While I dream, everything is as it used to be.
When I wake up, I am stabbed with sorrow.
The living are often parted and never meet again.
The dead are together as pure souls.





“The weakest wine is better than warm water.
Rags are better than no clothes at all.
An ugly wife and a quarrelsome concubine
Are better than an empty house.”

The weaker the wine,
The easier it is to drink two cups.
The thinner the robe,
The easier it is to wear it double.
Ugliness and beauty are opposites,
But when you’re drunk, one is as good as the other.
Ugly wives and quarrelsome concubines,
The older they grow, the more they’re alike.
Live unknown if you would realize your end.
Follow the advice of your common sense.
Avoid the Imperial Audience
Chamber, the Eastern Flowery Hall.
The dust of the times and the wind of the Northern Pass.
One hundred years is a long time,
But at last it comes to an end.
Meanwhile it is no greater accomplishment
To be a rich corpse or a poor one.
Jewels of jade and pearl are put in the mouths
Of the illustrious dead
To conserve their bodies.
They do them no good, but after a thousand years,
They feed the robbers of their tombs.
As for literature, it is its own reward.
Fortunately fools pay little attention to it.
A chance for graft
Makes them blush with joy.
Good men are their own worst enemies.
Wine is the best reward of merit.
In all the world, good and evil,
Joy and sorrow, are in fact
Only aspects of the Void.

SU TUNG P’O (1036-1101)



I raise my cup and invite
The moon to come down from the
Sky. I hope she will accept
Me. I raise my cup and ask
The branches, heavy with flowers,
To drink with me. I wish them
Long life and promise never
To pick them. In company
With the moon and the flowers,
I get drunk, and none of us
Ever worries about good
Or bad. How many people
Can comprehend our joy? I
Have wine and moon and flowers.
Who else do I want for drinking companions?





Other oxen have long curly horns.
My ox has a long bare tail.
I tag along behind,
Holding it like a flute or a whip.
We wander from the Southern hill
To the Eastern cliffs.
When he is tired or hungry,
I always know what to do.
Sunset, my ox ambles slowly home.
As he walks along,
I sing a song.
When he lies down,
I do too.
At night in the barn
I sleep by his side.
I am old. I take care of my ox.
I have nothing else to do.
I only worry that some day
They will sell my ox
To pay their taxes.

KAO CHI (1336-1374)



Women Poets





I was born in a time of peace,
But later the mandate of Heaven
Was withdrawn from the Han Dynasty.

Heaven was pitiless.
It sent down confusion and separation.
Earth was pitiless.
It brought me to birth in such a time.
War was everywhere. Every road was dangerous.
Soldiers and civilians everywhere
Fleeing death and suffering.
Smoke and dust clouds obscured the land
Overrun by the ruthless Tatar bands.
Our people lost their will power and integrity.
I can never learn the ways of the barbarians.
I am daily subject to violence and insult.
I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn.
But no one knows my agony and grief.


A Tatar chief forced me to become his wife,
And took me far away to Heaven’s edge.
Ten thousand clouds and mountains
Bar my road home,
And whirlwinds of dust and sand
Blow for a thousand miles.
Men here are as savage as giant vipers,
And strut about in armor, snapping their bows.
As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself.


The sun sets. The wind moans.
The noise of the Tatar camp rises all around me.
The sorrow of my heart is beyond expression,
But who could I tell it to anyway?
Far across the desert plains,
The beacon fires of the Tatar garrisons
Gleam for ten thousand miles.
It is the custom here to kill the old and weak
And adore the young and vigorous.
They wander seeking new pasture,
And camp for a while behind earth walls.
Cattle and sheep cover the prairie,
Swarming like bees or ants.
When the grass and water are used up,
They mount their horses and drive on their cattle.
The seventh stanza sings of my wandering.
How I hate to live this way!


I have no desire to live, but I am afraid of death.
I cannot kill my body, for my heart still has hope
That I can live long enough
To obtain my one and only desire —
That someday I can see again
The mulberry and catalpa trees of home.
If I had consented to death,
My bones would have been buried long ago.
Days and months pile up in the Tatar camp.
My Tatar husband loved me. I bore him two sons.
I reared and nurtured them unashamed,
Sorry only that they grew up in a desert outpost.
The eleventh stanza — sorrow for my sons
At the first notes pierces my heart’s core.


I never believed that in my broken life
The day would come when
Suddenly I could return home.
I embrace and caress my Tatar sons.
Tears wet our clothes.
An envoy from the Han Court
Has come to bring me back,
With four stallions that can run without stopping.
Who can measure the grief of my sons?
They thought I would live and die with them.
Now it is I who must depart.
Sorrow for my boys dims the sun for me.
If we had wings we could fly away together.
I cannot move my feet.
For each step is a step away from them.
My soul is overwhelmed.
As their figures vanish in the distance
Only my love remains.
The thirteenth stanza —
I pick the strings rapidly
But the melody is sad.
No one can know
The sorrow which tears my bowels.


The seventeenth stanza. My heart aches, my tears fall.
Mountain passes rise before us, the way is hard.
Before I missed my homeland
So much my heart was disordered.
Now I think again and again, over and over,
Of the sons I have lost.
The yellow sagebrush of the border,
The bare branches and dry leaves,
Desert battlefields, white bones
Scarred with swords and arrows,
Wind, frost, piercing cold,
Cold springs and summers
Men and horses hungry and exhausted, worn out —
I will never know them again
Once I have entered Chang An.
I try to strangle my sobs
But my tears stream down my face.

TS’AI YEN (ca. 200)




Red lotus incense fades on
The jeweled curtain. Autumn
Comes again. Gently I open
My silk dress and float alone
On the orchid boat. Who can
Take a letter beyond the clouds?
Only the wild geese come back
And write their ideograms
On the sky under the full
Moon that floods the West Chamber.
Flowers, after their kind, flutter
And scatter. Water after
Its nature, when spilt, at last
Gathers again in one place.
Creatures of the same species
Long for each other. But we
Are far apart and I have
Grown learned in sorrow.
Nothing can make it dissolve
And go away. One moment,
It is on my eyebrows.
The next, it weighs on my heart.

LI CH’ING-CHAO (1084-1151)



Search. Search. Seek. Seek.
Cold. Cold. Clear. Clear.
Sorrow. Sorrow. Pain. Pain.
Hot flashes. Sudden chills.
Stabbing pains. Slow agonies.
I can find no peace.
I drink two cups, then three bowls,
Of clear wine until I can’t
Stand up against a gust of wind.
Wild geese fly over head.
They wrench my heart.
They were our friends in the old days.
Gold chrysanthemums litter
The ground, pile up, faded, dead.
This season I could not bear
To pick them. All alone,
Motionless at my window,
I watch the gathering shadows.
Fine rain sifts through the wu-t’ung trees,
And drips, drop by drop, through the dusk.
What can I ever do now?
How can I drive off this word —




Warm rain and soft breeze by turns
Have just broken
And driven away the chill.
Moist as the pussy willows,
Light as the plum blossoms,
Already I feel the heart of Spring vibrating.
But now who will share with me
The joys of wine and poetry?
Tears streak my rouge.
My hairpins are too heavy.
I put on my new quilted robe
Sewn with gold thread
And throw myself against a pile of pillows,
Crushing my phoenix hairpins.
Alone, all I can embrace is my endless sorrow.
I know a good dream will never come.
So I stay up till past midnight
Trimming the lamp flower’s smoking wick.



To the tune “Everlasting Joy”

The sun sets in molten gold.
The evening clouds form a jade disk.
Where is he?
Dense white mist envelops the willows.
A sad flute plays “Falling Plum Blossoms.”
How many Spring days are left now?
This Feast of Lanterns should be joyful.
The weather is calm and lovely.
But who can tell if it
Will be followed by wind and rain?
A friend sends her perfumed carriage
And high-bred horses to fetch me.
I decline the invitation of
My old poetry and wine companion.
I remember the happy days in the lost capital.
We took our ease in the women’s quarters.
The Feast of Lanterns was elaborately celebrated —
Gold pendants, emerald hairpins, brocaded girdles,
New sashes — we competed
To see who was most smartly dressed.
Now I am withering away,
Wind-blown hair, frosty temples.
I am embarrassed to go out this evening
Among girls in the flower of youth.
I prefer to stay beyond the curtains,
And listen to talk and laughter
I can no longer share.





You and I
Have so much love,
That it
Burns like a fire,
In which we bake a lump of clay
Molded into a figure of you
And a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
And break them into pieces,
And mix the pieces with water,
And mold again a figure of you,
And a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.
In life we share a single quilt.
In death we will share one coffin.

KUAN TAO-SHÊNG (1262-1319)



To the tune “Soaring Clouds”

You held my lotus blossom
In your lips and played with the
Pistil. We took one piece of
Magic rhinoceros horn
And could not sleep all night long.
All night the cock’s gorgeous crest
Stood erect. All night the bee
Clung trembling to the flower
Stamens. Oh my sweet perfumed
Jewel! I will allow only
My lord to possess my sacred
Lotus pond, and every night
You can make blossom in me
Flowers of fire.

HUANG O (1498-1569)


To the tune “The Fall of a Little Wild Goose”

Once upon a time I was
Beautiful and seductive,
Wavering to and fro in
Our orchid scented bedroom.
You and me together tangled
In our incense filled gauze
Bed curtains. I trembled,
Held in your hands. You carried
Me in your heart wherever
You went. Suddenly
A bullet struck down the female
Mandarin duck. The music
Of the jade zither was forgotten.
The phoenixes were driven apart.

I sit alone in a room
Filled with Spring, and you are off,
Making love with someone else,
Happy as two fish in the water.

That insufferable little bitch
With her coy tricks!
She’d better not forget —
This old witch can still
Make a furious scene!





On the last year’s trip I enjoyed this place.
I am glad to come back here today.
The fish market is deep in blue shadows.
I can see the smoke for tea rising
From the thatched inn.
The sands of the river beaches
Merge with the white moon.
Along the shore the willows
Wait for their Spring green.
Lines of a poem run through my mind.
I order the carriage to stop for a while.

SUN YÜN-FENG (1764-1814)



Traveling homesick with the West wind,
The dust of my cart rises to the evening clouds.
The last cicadas drone in the yellowing leaves.
In the sunset a man’s shadow looms like a mountain.
One by one the birds go to roost.
I wander aimlessly and never go home.
I pause above a stream and envy the fisherman
Who sits there in solitude and leisure,
Thinking his own elegant thoughts.





All alone with my shadow,
I whisper and murmur to it,
And write strange characters
In the air, like Yin Hao.
It is not sickness, nor wine,
Nor sorrow for those who are gone,
Like Li Ch’ing-chao, that causes
A whole city of anxiety
To rise in my heart.
There is no one here I can speak to
Who can understand me.
My hopes and visions are greater
Than those of the men around me,
But the chance of our survival is too narrow.
What good is the heart of a hero
Inside my dress?
My perilous fate moves according to plan.
I ask Heaven
Did the heroines of the past
Encounter envy like this?

CH’IU CHIN (1879?-1907)




Time is engraved on the pale green faces
Of the floating lotus leaves.
Our hearts are a sea, a lake,
Finally a little pond, where
Spider webs interlock over the round leaves,
And below them our longing
Is only a single drop of dew.

Sometimes, suddenly the old story overcomes us.
Time triumphs then.
And lets down its hair —
Shadowy black,
Trailing like a willow.

The old melancholy
Comes from the land of longing.
The colors of the sunset thicken.
The shadows grow fast on the water.
You can tear them,
But not tear them away.

HSIUNG HUNG (b. 1940)


These translations are from Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1956); Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1970); The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (Herder & Herder, 1972; New Directions, 1982); and The Complete Poems of Li Ch’ing-chao (New Directions, 1979). (The latter two volumes were translated in collaboration with Ling Chung.) All are copyrighted by Kenneth Rexroth and reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

See also Rexroth’s essay on Tu Fu.

Other Rexroth Translations