chinese poems

10 Iconic Chinese Poems to Deepen Your Cultural Knowledge

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.

In this post, I’m going to show you 10 Chinese poems to get you started, along with some background information on each and key terms to avoid any confusion with the translations.


1. 悯农 (Sympathy for the Peasants)chinese poems

Written by: 李绅 (Li Shen)

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.

(chú hé rì dāng wǔ,)
Cultivating grains at noon,

(hàn dī hé xià tǔ.)
Sweat dripping into the earth beneath.

(shuí zhī pán zhōng cān,)
Who would have thought the food on your plate,

(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. 登鹳雀楼 (Climbing Stork Tower)

Written by: 王之渙 (Wang Zhihuan)

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.

(bái rì yī shān jìn,)
The sun sets behind the mountains,

(huánghé rù hǎiliú;)
and the Yellow River flows into the sea.

(yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,)
To thoroughly enjoy a thousand-mile sight,

(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. 关雎 (The Crying Ospreys)

Part of: 诗经 (The Book of Songs)

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.

(guān guān jū jiū,)
“Guan! Guan!” cry the ospreys,

(zài hé zhī zhōu,)
On the islet on the river.

(yǎotiǎo shūnǚ,)
Elegant and graceful is the lady.

(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. 相思 (Lovesickness)

chinese poems

Written by: 王维 (Wang Wei)

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.

(hóngdòu shēng nánguó,)
Red beans grow in the southern lands,

(qiū lái fā jǐ zhī?)
How many branches fall when spring arrives?

(yuàn jūn duō cǎixié,)
May the gentleman gather many of them

(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. 乡愁 (Nostalgia)

Written by: 余光中 (Yu Guangzhong)

Yu Guangzhong passed away 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.

When I was a child,

(xiāngchóu shì yī méi xiǎo xiǎo de yóupiào)
Nostalgia was a tiny postage stamp.

(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,

(mǔqīn zài nà tóu)
My mother, on the other.

(zhǎng dà hòu)
When I was older,

(xiāngchóu shì yī zhāng zhǎi zhǎi de chuán piào)
Nostalgia became a small ship ticket.

(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,

(xīnniáng zài nà tóu)
My bride, on the other.

(hòulái a)

(xiāngchóu shì yīfāng ǎi ǎi de fénmù)
Nostalgia was a shallow grave.

(wǒ zài wàitou)
I, on the outside,

(mǔqīn zài lǐ tou)
My mother, on the inside.

(ér xiànzài)
And now,

(xiāngchóu shì yī wān qiǎn qiǎn de hǎixiá)
Nostalgia is a gulf, a shallow strait.

(wǒ zài zhè tóu)
I, on this side,

(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. 终南山 (The Zhongnan Mountains)

Written by: 王维 (Wang Wei)

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.

(tài yǐ jìn tiān dū,)
The Taiyi Mountains near the Heavenly Capital

(lián shān dào hǎi yú)
Connects to the mountains to the corner of the sea.

(báiyún huí wàng hé,)
Clouds, when I look back, close behind me,

(qīng ǎi rù kàn wú.)
Mists, when I enter them, are gone.

(fēnyě zhōng fēng biàn,)
A central peak divides the two sides of the Mountains,

(yīn qíng zhòng hè shū.)
And sunny or cloudy alters in many remarkable gullies.

(yù tóu rén chù sù,)
Needing a place to stay the night,

(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. 题西林壁 (Written on the Wall of the West Woods Temple)

chinese poems

Written by: 苏轼 (Su Shi)

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.

(héng kàn chéng lǐng cè chéng fēng,)
A mountain range in panorama becomes a peak from the side,

(yuǎnjìn gāodī gè bùtóng.)
Far, near, high and low, with no two alike.

(bù shí lúshān zhēnmiànmù,)
I do not to know the true face of Lushan Mountain;

(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. 桃夭 (The Peach Tree Tender)

Part of: 诗经 (The Book of Songs)

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.

(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,

(zhuó zhuó qí huá)
Vivid and bright its flowers.

(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed

(yí qí shì jiā)
Is fitting for the house.

(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,

(yǒu fén qí shí)
Its seedlings abundant indeed

(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed

(yí qí jiā shì)
Is fitting for the home.

(táo zhī yāo yāo,)
The peach tree budding and tender,

(qí yè zhēnzhēn)
Its leaves luxuriant and lush.

(zhī zǐ yú guī)
The maiden to be wed

(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. 枫桥夜泊 (Night Mooring at Maple Bridge)

Written by: 张继 (Zhang Ji)

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.

(yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān)
The moon sets and crows caw as frost fills the atmosphere

(jiāngfēng yúhuǒ duì chóumián)
Under the riverside maple trees, the fisherman’s light disrupts my sleep.

(gū sū chéng wài hán shānsì,)
Outside Gusu City is Hanshan Temple,

(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. 过故人庄 (Visiting an Old Friend’s Farmhouse)

chinese poems

Written by: 孟浩然 (Meng Haoran)

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

(gùrén jù jī shǔ,)
An old friend prepares chicken and millet,

(yāo wǒ zhì tiánjiā.)
and invites me to his farmhouse.

(lǜ shù cūn biān hé,)
Green trees surround the entire village;

(qīng shān guō wài xiá.)
Green hills stretch beyond the town.

(kāi xuān miàn chǎng pǔ,)
Open the pavilion window facing the courtyard and orchards

(bǎ jiǔ huà sāng má.)
raise our wine glasses, and speak of hemp and mulberry.

(dài dào chóngyángrì,)
We wait until the day of the Double Ninth Festival,

(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

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.


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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