Five Chinese Poems

Some time ago, I acquired a fan, because sitting in court in summer is hot, and also because one needs a fan in order to whisper behind it. The particular fan I purchased has several poems written on it in Chinese characters.

(As I suspected based on the forms of the poems, it turns out that they are in Chinese — as opposed to Japanese, Korean, etc. — but now I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Front of Fan

After several months of being continually annoyed because I have no idea what’s written on it, I finally made a note to myself to go home and try to translate them. Since there don’t seem to be easily findable English translations for all of these poems online, I thought I would share my translations.

Please be warned, however: I don’t speak Chinese at all and am only using my knowledge of Japanese (plus my ability to use a dictionary) to create these translations. If anyone does speak Chinese and would like to offer me some correction, I will gladly take it!

Each of the poems in small handwriting on the front of the fan refers to one of the seasons. The large poem on the back of the fan refers to all four of the seasons.


Back of Fan

Mountain and River Practice

春山淡 冶而如笑 Spring on the mountain is pale,
Heated, and yet it seems to laugh;
夏山蒼 翠而如滴 Summer on the mountain is green,
Emerald, and yet it seems to drip like liquid;
秋山明 浄而如妆 Autumn on the mountain is brilliant,
Pure, and yet it seems to adorn itself;
冬山慘 淡而如睡 Winter on the mountain is gloomy,
Pale, and yet it seems to sleep.

This poem is by Guo Xi [郭熙] (c. 1020 – c. 1090), a painter who wrote an important book on landscape painting: Linquan Gaozhi 林泉高致 (“The Lofty Message of Forest and Streams”). The poem is from his treatise on painting mountains and waters.

There actually is a translation of this poem online on Guo Xi’s Wikipedia page.


Poem 1

Spring River Evening Scene for Hui Chong’s Painting

竹外桃花三兩枝 Beyond the bamboo, the peach tree blossoms,
two or three branches;
春江水暖鴨先知 If the river waters in spring are warm,
the ducks are first to know.
蒌蒿滿地蘆芽短 The earth is filled with beach wormwood;
the reeds send out small shoots;
正是河豚欲上時 Now it is the season when the river dolphins
want to come up.

The author of this poem is Su Shi [苏轼] (1037 – 1101). He was kind of a big deal.

I was able to find a couple of English translations of this poem (or parts of it), and they give the last line as something like, “Now it is time for the pufferfish to come to market”. But “河豚” can mean either pufferfish or river dolphin, and I think the dolphin is a much prettier image. (I’m open to correction, though!)


Poem 2

The Little Pond

泉眼无声惜细流 Seeing the spring of water, pity flows soundlessly in a fine stream.
樹陰照水愛晴柔 The dark plants are illuminated by liquid love, clear and gentle.
小荷才露尖尖角 Only the sharp points of the tiny lotus blossoms are exposed;
早有蜻蜓立上頭 In the early morning, there are dragonflies standing up on their heads.

The summer poem is by Yang Wanli [楊萬里] (1127 – 1206). Wikipedia doesn’t have much to say about him, but I think this poem has some of the most beautiful imagery of the set.


Poem 3

Mountain Walk

遠上寒山石徑斜 In the remote heights of the cold mountain, the stone path slopes.
白雲深處有人家 Deep in the white clouds is someone’s home.
停車坐愛楓林晚 Stop the cart; sit in the beloved maple grove at night.
霜葉紅於二月花 In two months, frost will blossom on the red leaves.

The third poem is by Du Mu [杜牧] (803 – 852). As is typical of his style, this one addresses themes of impermanence and juxtaposes colloquial images with classical ones.


Poem 4

River Snow

千山鳥飛絕 On a thousand mountains, the birds have flown away;
万徑人蹤烕 On ten thousand paths, human footprints are no longer there.
孤舟蓑笠翁 An old man with a solitary little boat, a straw raincoat, and a bamboo hat
獨钓寒江雪 Drops his lure through the cold snow on the river, alone.

The final poem is by Liu Zongyuan (773 – 819), who, after his exile from the imperial court, produced a number of poems, stories, travelogues, and essays. Apparently, this particular poem has inspired a number of paintings.

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