chinese poems

10 Well-known Chinese Poems to Boost Your Language Skills

I don’t know about you, but poetry was my least favorite part of English.

I remember sitting in class, thinking, why can’t people just say what they mean?

If you’re anything like me, you might be thinking I’m out of my mind suggesting that you study Chinese poems, but hear me out.

Truthfully, studying poetry in a second language makes learning Chinese very approachable.

Not only that, but poems also paint beautiful pictures of culture, history and emotions of the author. No matter how mysterious their words may seem, it’s truly inspiring to read colorful words dancing to a beautiful rhythm that reflect the writer’s true, heartfelt feelings.

In this post, I’m going to show you why studying Chinese poems is an excellent method for learning, tips for studying poems on your own and 10 classic Chinese poems every learner should know.
 


 

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Why Study Chinese Poems?

1. They’re digestible texts great for language exercises

Believe it or not, many people use poetry as their secret weapon for language learning. Reading in Chinese improves your grammar in general, but unlike short stories and textbook passages, poems are bite-sized texts that offer the same language outcomes and encourage thought-provoking discussions in the classroom. And because they’re smaller texts, they’re easier to form goals or habits around.

2. They reveal a lot about Chinese culture

Poems and other forms of literature reveal various perspectives and truths that a typical history textbook may lack. In addition to being a model for teaching language skills, poetry often contains references to epics, folk tales and stories of historical significance.

3. They’re just like songs—minus the music.

Singing along to Chinese songs improves pronunciation, while the lyrics seen on Chinese music videos can help with Mandarin practice and teach us new words. Poems offer the same benefits, and the great thing is that they’re generally shorter than songs. There’s a lot to learn from these short texts!

chinese poems

If you want to incorporate learning Chinese through poems, music and other forms of entertainment into your study routine, FluentU is a great place to be. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.

4. They allow you to analyze the language on a deeper level

Listening to and reciting Chinese poems allows you to internalize, thereby practice the sounds and rhythms of Mandarin, while also memorizing words together with stress. Additionally, your translations and comparisons with others’ literary interpretations open your eyes to the cross-linguistic differences between Mandarin and English, which gives a deeper appreciation for both languages.

Tips for Studying Poems on Your Own

1. Go with the classics

When it comes to literature, it’s best to start off with the classics, no matter what language you’re learning. Classic poems have been studied and analyzed time and time again and will always be relevant in learning about history, culture and language. Plus, these poems are most likely to have existing English translations, in case you ever get stuck when doing your own translation work.

2. Learn about the poets

Get a bit of background on the poets. Knowing which dynasty or historical period they’re from, their upbringing and any other details can offer insight or contextual information on the poem in question.

3. Do a literal translation of every character

Rather than tackling each line as a phrase, translate the characters one by one, looking up the different phrases (if any). From there, you can determine what definitions work best in the given context, as working from the literal translations will help eliminate the ambiguities of the poem. And for any unknown characters, try to identify the components before looking it up to improve your reading skills.

10 Well-known Chinese Poems to Boost Your Language Skills

Ready to tackle some Chinese poems? Here are 10 to get you started, along with some background information on each and key terms to avoid any confusion with the translations.

1. 李绅《悯农》(Lǐ Shēn “mǐn nóng”) — Li Shen’s “Sympathy for the Peasants”

Li Shen was born in 772 AD, living in the aftermath of the An Lushan Rebellion—the devastating uprising against the Tang Dynasty. The countryside continued to suffer from the damages and unrest, which ended up becoming the central theme of his poems. This one, in particular, was heard across the country.

锄禾日当午,
(chú hé rì dāng wǔ,)
Cultivating grains at noon,
汗滴禾下土。
(hàn dī hé xià tǔ.)
Sweat dripping into the earth beneath.
谁知盘中餐,
(shuí zhī pán zhōng cān,)
Who would have thought the food on your plate,
粒粒皆辛苦。
(lì lì jiē xīn kǔ.)
each and every grain, came from hard work?

Key Terms:

 (chú) — (n.) hoe; (v.) to hoe; to weed
 (dī) — (n.) drop; (v.) to drip
谁知 (shuí zhī) — who would have thought; unexpectedly; (lit) who knows

盘中餐 (pán zhōng cān) — food on a plate
 (lì) — grain; granule; measure word for small round things
 (jiē) — each and every; all
辛苦 (xīn kǔ) — exhausting; tough; arduous; hard work

2. 王之渙《登鹳雀楼》(Wáng Zhīhuàn “dēng guàn què lóu”) — Wang Zhihuan’s “Climbing Stork Tower”

Wang Zhihuan was a Tang Dynasty poet best known for penning this poem, which has been included in the famous poetry anthology 唐诗三百首 (tángshī sānbǎi shǒu) or “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” along with another one of his works. Stork Tower is three levels tall, located between mountains and the Yellow River in Shanxi province.

白日依山尽,
(bái rì yī shān jìn,)
The sun sets behind the mountains,
黃河入海流;
(huánghé rù hǎiliú;)
and the Yellow River flows into the sea.
欲穷千里目,
(yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,)
To thoroughly enjoy a thousand-mile sight,
更上一层楼。
(gèng shàng yì céng lóu.)
climb up another level.

Key Terms:

白日 (bái rì) — daytime; the sun
(yī) — to go along with
 (jìn) — (v.) to end; to use up; (adv.) to the greatest extent
 (rù) — to enter
 (liú) — to flow; to spread
 (yù) — (n.) desire; want; (v.) to wish for; to want
 (qióng) — (v.) to use up; to exhaust; (adv.) thoroughly; extremely; (adj.) poor; destitute
千里 (qiānlǐ) — a thousand miles; a long distance
 (mù) — eye; item; section
更上一层楼 (gèng shàng yì céng lóu) — to take it a step further; to take it up a notch

3. 诗经《关雎》(shījīng “guān jū”) — Book of Songs’ “The Crying Ospreys”

One of the most famous poems comes from an ancient collection of songs that date back to 600 BCE. It’s a beloved song from Southern Zhou, which also includes Chinese animal sounds for onomatopoeia.

关关雎鸠,
(guān guān jū jiū,)
“Guan! Guan!” cry the ospreys,
在河之洲。
(zài hé zhī zhōu,)
On the islet on the river.
窈窕淑女,
(yǎotiǎo shūnǚ,)
Elegant and graceful is the lady.
君子好逑。
(jūnzǐ hǎo qiú.)
A fine match for the gentleman.

Key Terms:

(jiū) — (n.) turtledove; (literary) to gather
(zhī) — possessive particle equivalent to (de); him; her; it
 (zhōu) — island in a river; continent
窈窕 (yǎotiǎo) — elegant and graceful
淑女 (shūnǚ) — lady; wise and virtuous woman
君子 (jūnzǐ) — gentleman; nobleman
 (qiú) — mate

4. 王维《相思》(Wáng Wéi “hóngdòu”) — Wang Wei’s “Lovesickness”

18th-century influential poet Wang Wei wrote about one of China’s ancient symbols of love. Red beans, known as adzuki beans in other countries, represent yearning for love and fidelity. The original story tells that a woman waiting for her husband to return from war got sick and died from thinking about him too much. From her grave grew a red bean tree, pointing in her husband’s direction.

红豆生南国,
(hóngdòu shēng nánguó,)
Red beans grow in the southern lands,
春来发几枝?
(qiū lái fā jǐ zhī?)
How many branches fall when spring arrives?
愿君多采撷,
(yuàn jūn duō cǎixié,)
May the gentleman gather many of them
此物最相思。
(cǐ wù zuì xiāngsī.)
This is what makes him the most lovesick.

Key Terms:

红豆 (hóngdòu) — Chinese symbol of love and fidelity; red beans; red mung beans; adzuki beans
(zhī) — branch; stick; measure word for stick, pencil, rod, etc.
 (yuàn) — to hope; to desire
 (cǎi) — (n.) collection; (v.) to pick; to extract
 (xié) — to collect; to pluck
 (cǐ) — this; these
 (wù) — thing; object; matter
相思 (xiāngsī) — (n.) lovesickness; (v.) to yearn; to pine

5. 余光中《乡愁》(Yú Guāngzhōng “xiāngchóu”) — Yu Guangzhong’s “Nostalgia”

Yu Guangzhong recently passed in 2017. A contemporary Taiwanese poet, he was best known for his piece “Nostalgia,” which highlighted the displacement and longing for cultural unity between the mainland and the Chinese diaspora.

小时候
(xiǎoshíhou)
When I was a child,
乡愁是一枚小小的邮票
(xiāngchóu shì yī méi xiǎo xiǎo de yóupiào)
Nostalgia was a tiny postage stamp.
我在这头
(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,
母亲在那头
(mǔqīn zài nà tóu)
My mother, on the other.
长大后
(zhǎng dà hòu)
When I was older,
乡愁是一张窄窄的船票
(xiāngchóu shì yī zhāng zhǎi zhǎi de chuán piào)
Nostalgia became a small ship ticket.
我在这头
(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,
新娘在那头
(xīnniáng zài nà tóu)
My bride, on the other.
后来啊
(hòulái a)
Later,
乡愁是一方矮矮的坟墓
(xiāngchóu shì yīfāng ǎi ǎi de fénmù)
Nostalgia was a shallow grave.
我在外头
(wǒ zài wàitou)
I, on the outside,
母亲在里头
(mǔqīn zài lǐ tou)
My mother, on the inside.
而现在
(ér xiànzài)
And now,
乡愁是一湾浅浅的海峡
(xiāngchóu shì yī wān qiǎn qiǎn de hǎixiá)
Nostalgia is a gulf, a shallow strait.
我在这头
(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,
大陆在那头
(dàlù zài nà tóu)
The mainland, on the other.

Key Terms:

乡愁 (xiāngchóu) — homesickness; nostalgia
 (méi) — piece; measure word for coins, rings, badges, satellites, etc.
(tóu) — side; head; top; beginning; end; measure word for livestock
 (zhǎi) — narrow; badly off
 (fāng) — square; side; place; measure word for square objects
坟墓 (fénmù) — grave; tomb
(ér) — and; and so; as well as
 (wān) — bay; gulf
 (qiǎn) — shallow; light (in color)
海峡 (hǎixiá) — channel; strait
大陆 (dàlù) — mainland; continent

6. 王维《终南山》(Wáng Wéi “zhōng nán shān”) — Wang Wei’s “The Zhongnan Mountains”

Located south of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, the Zhongnan mountains are historically known as a dwelling for Taoist hermits, possibly since before the Qin Dynasty. You can also listen to the audio file to improve your listening skills.

太乙近天都,
(tài yǐ jìn tiān dū,)
The Taiyi Mountains near the Heavenly Capital
连山到海隅。
(lián shān dào hǎi yú)
Connects to the mountains to the corner of the sea.
白云回望合,
(báiyún huí wàng hé,)
Clouds, when I look back, close behind me,
青霭入看无。
(qīng ǎi rù kàn wú.)
Mists, when I enter them, are gone.
分野中峰变,
(fēnyě zhōng fēng biàn,)
A central peak divides the two sides of the Mountains,
阴晴众壑殊。
(yīn qíng zhòng hè shū.)
And sunny or cloudy alters in many remarkable gullies.
欲投人处宿,
(yù tóu rén chù sù,)
Needing a place to stay the night,
隔水问樵夫。
(gé shuǐ wèn qiáo fū.)
I ask the wood-cutter over the river.

Key Terms:

太乙 (tài yǐ) — Taiyi Mountains, used interchangeably with 终南山 (zhōng nán shān) and 周南山 (zhōu nánshān)
天都 (tiān dū) — Heavenly Capital
(lián) — (v.) to link; to join; (adv.) continuously
(yú) — corner
 (wàng) — towards; (v.) to hope; to expect; to look towards; to gaze (into the distance)
 (hé) — (v.) to close; to shut; to fit; (adj.) whole
 (qīng) — (n.) grass; (adj.) blue-green; black
 (ǎi) — mist; haze; cloudy sky
 (wú) — none, nothing
分野 (fēnyě) — boundary; dividing line between distinct realms
 (fēng) — (n.) peak; summit; (adj.) mountain-like
 (biàn) — (n.) unexpected turn of events; rebellion (v.) to become; to alter; (adj.) changed
阴晴 (yīn qíng) — overcast and sunny; weather
 (zhòng) — (n.) multitude; crowd; (adj.) many; numerous
 (shū) — (adj.) different; remarkable; (adv.) really; extremely
 (tóu) — to cast; to throw oneself; to place oneself in the hands of; seek refuge
 (chù) — place; spot; office; department; measure word for locations
宿 (sù) — stay over night
 (gé) — (n) partition; (v.) to divide; to separate
樵夫 (qiáo fū) — woodman; woodcutter

7. 苏轼《题西林壁》(Sū Shì “tí xīlín bì”) — Su Shi’s “Written on the Wall of the West Woods Temple”

Su Shi was a jack of all trades back in the Song Dynasty. After visiting the mountains, he wrote this poem with the intention of reminding readers to not be blinded by personal prejudices so that we can see things as they really are.

横看成岭侧成峰,
(héng kàn chéng lǐng cè chéng fēng,)
A mountain range in panorama becomes a peak from the side,
远近高低各不同。
(yuǎnjìn gāodī gè bùtóng.)
Far, near, high and low, with no two alike.
不识庐山真面目,
(bù shí lúshān zhēnmiànmù,)
I do not to know the true face of Lushan Mountain;
只缘身在此山中。
(zhǐ yuán shēn zài cǐ shānzhōng)
Only because I myself am in the mountain.

Key Terms:

 (héng) — horizontal
 (kàn) — to see
(lǐng) — mountain range
(cè) — (n.) side; (v.) to incline towards; to lean; (adj.) lateral
 (chéng) — (v.) to become; to complete; (adj.) capable
 (gè) — each; every
不识庐山真面目 (bù shí lúshān zhēnmiànmù) — (fig.) can’t see the forest for the trees; (lit.) not to know the true face of Lushan Mountain
 (yuán) — cause; reason; karma; fate
 (shēn) — body; person; life

8. 诗经《桃夭》(shījīng “táo yāo”) — Book of Songs’ “The Peach Tree Tender”

In Chinese culture, peach trees as a whole (and the fruits themselves) are symbolic of health, longevity, vitality and in some cases, immortality. Here’s another poem from the Book of Songs featuring peach tree symbolism.

桃之夭夭,
(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,
灼灼其华。
(zhuó zhuó qí huá)
Vivid and bright its flowers.
之子于归,
(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed
宜其室家。
(yí qí shì jiā)
Is fitting for the house.

桃之夭夭,
(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,
有蕡其实。
(yǒu fén qí shí)
Its seedlings abundant indeed
之子于归,
(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed
宜其家室
(yí qí jiā shì)
Is fitting for the home.

桃之夭夭,
(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,
其叶蓁蓁。
(qí yè zhēnzhēn)
Its leaves luxuriant and lush.
之子于归,
(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed
宜其家人。
(yí qí jiā rén)
Is fitting for the family.

Key Terms:

桃之夭夭 (táo zhī yāo yāo) — (idiom) the peach trees are in full blossom
(zhuó) — (v.) to burn; to scorch; (adj.) bright; luminous
(qí) — its; their; his; her; (adj.) such
(huá) — (n.) flower; China; (adj.) flowery; splendid
(zǐ) — child; seed; egg; small thing
(yú) — to; in; on; for; in regard to; when
(guī) — to return; to give back to; to be taken care of; to marry
(yí) — suitable; appropriate
室家 (shì jiā) — house; couple; family; household
(fén) — (n.) hemp seeds; (adj.) abundant; luxurious
其实 (qí shí) — in fact; in reality; really
家室 (jiā shì) — wife; family; residence
(zhēn) — abundant; luxuriant

9. 张继《枫桥夜泊》(Zhāng Jì “fēng qiáo yè bó”) — Zhang Ji’s “Night Mooring at Maple Bridge”

Zhang Ji is a Tang Dynasty poet who shared his experience of passing through Gusu City (now known as Suzhou City), fighting his homesickness and loneliness by describing the sights and sounds.

月落乌啼霜满天,
(yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān)
The moon sets and crows caw as frost fills the atmosphere
江枫渔火对愁眠。
(jiāngfēng yúhuǒ duì chóumián)
Under the riverside maple trees, the fisherman’s light disrupts my sleep.
姑苏城外寒山寺,
(gū sū chéng wài hán shānsì,)
Outside Gusu City is Hanshan Temple,
夜半钟声到客船。
(yèbàn zhōng shēng dào kèchuán)
At midnight, the sound of bells reaches the ferry.

Key Terms:

 (luò) — to fall; to set (of the sun); to lag; to sink; to decline; to recede
 (tí) — to cry; to crow; to hoot
 (shuāng) — frost; frosting
满天 (mǎn tiān) — whole sky
 (yú) — (n.) fisherman; (v.) to fish
 (chóu) — to worry about
(mián) — to sleep; to hibernate
姑苏城 (gū sū chéng) Gusu City, now Suzhou City
寒山寺(hán shānsì) — Hanshan Temple; Cold Mountain Temple
客船 (kèchuán) — passenger ship; ferry; yacht; ocean liner; cruise ship

10. 孟浩然《过故人庄》(Mèng Hàorán “guò gùrén zhuāng”) — Meng Haoran’s “Visiting an Old Friend’s Farmhouse”

Also featured in “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” Meng Haoran references the Double Ninth Festival, an ancient Chinese holiday with traditions of drinking chrysanthemum tea.

故人具鸡黍,
(gùrén jù jī shǔ,)
An old friend prepares chicken and millet,
邀我至田家。
(yāo wǒ zhì tiánjiā.)
and invites me to his farmhouse.
绿树村边合,
(lǜ shù cūn biān hé,)
Green trees surround the entire village;
青山郭外斜。
(qīng shān guō wài xiá.)
Green hills stretch beyond the town.

开轩面场圃,
(kāi xuān miàn chǎng pǔ,)
Open the pavilion window facing the courtyard and orchards
把酒话桑麻。
(bǎ jiǔ huà sāng má.)
raise our wine glasses, and speak of hemp and mulberry.
待到重阳日,
(dài dào chóngyángrì,)
We wait until the day of the Double Ninth Festival,
还来就菊花。
(háilái jiù júhuā.)
to return here and admire chrysanthemums.

Key Terms:

 (jù) — (v.) to have; to provide; (n.) tool; device; measure word for devices, coffins, dead bodies
 (yāo) — to invite; to request; to seek
(cūn) — village
 (biān) — side; edge; border; boundary
 (hé) — (v.) to close; to add up to; to gather together (adj.) whole
 (guō) — outer city wall
 (xiá) — inclined; slanting
(xuān) — pavilion with windows
 (miàn) — (v.) to face; (n.) surface; measure word for flat surfaces, such as flags, mirrors etc; (adj.) spineless
 (chǎng) — field; scene; stage; courtyard
 (pǔ) — garden; orchard
把酒 (bǎ jiǔ) — to raise one’s wine glass
 (dài) — to wait; to deal with; about to
重阳 (chóngyáng) — 9th day of the 9th lunar month; Double Ninth or Yang Festival
 (jiù) — (v.) to approach; to move towards; to engage in; (adv.) just; only; already

 

Now these Chinese poems weren’t so bad, were they?

Try translating these on your own and feel free to compare with the ones above. While no two people will share the exact same translation, this type of language exercise really gives you a new appreciation of Mandarin and its simplicity of characters without compromising the meaning or message of the poems.
 

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