The Beauty of Tang Poems and Chinese Calligraphy


Last updated on 2015/07/01
( ! ! ! still under construction ! ! ! )

Marie L. Sun and Alex K. Sun
(Mother and Son)

This book is dedicated to the memory of my dear parents, Mr. Tieqing Luo and Ms. Wu Ma, who inspired Marie's early interest in and appreciation of Tang poetry and Chinese calligraphy.

This book translates 50 of the most famous and popular Tang poems displayed in beautiful Chinese calligraphy, most are written by modern pen, only a few by brush pen. This book provides brief biography information about the 24 poets, except for the most famous poet, Li Bai, with more details. Reading through Li Bai's portion, reader would be able to look into the customers and social structures of Tang Dynasty. Since the more understanding of the history background, the more one would appreciate Tang poetry, some history information are mentioned along with the poem.

When translating Tang poems into English, the poems' forms, regulations, and rhyming schemes are naturally difficult to replicate precisely. This book attempts to retain the poems' original charm, flavor, and soul, while adhering as closely as possible to those original forms, regulations and rhyming schemes. The essentialist, minimalist, ambiguous, and rhythmic spirit of Chinese poems is often lost in flourished occidental translations trying to explain and make sense of too much. For example, in most cases, there is no overt subject in Chinese poems, though the first person viewpoint is usually understood. Thus, the subject "I" is often inserted as the assumed viewpoint in occidental translations. This book attempts to avoid such assumptions except in the most obvious cases.

I hope you'll find pleasure and enjoy in reading the book, and further more trying to interpret any of the Tang poems in your own comprehensive way and share with your friends.

Tang poems, poet Li Bai, Li Po 李白 故人西辞黄鹤楼 烟花三月下扬州 孤帆远影碧空尽 唯见长江天际流
poem #02

Seeing off Meng Haoran for Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower     Li Bai

My old friend departs the west at Yellow Crane Tower,

* * *

In the spring of 730, Li Bai at age 29 heard that Meng Haoran, Li Bai's admirer, was going to take a trip to Yangzhou 揚州, Li Bai managed to travel to Jiangxia, today's Wuchang district, Hubei province 今之武昌区, 湖北省 to meet with Meng for several days and then they parted at the Yellow Crane Tower. Li Bai wrote this famous poem for the farewell occasion describing his respectable idol's departure.

The poem is filled with affection, printed with brilliant spring beauty and pushed by the endless powerful Yangtze River. All that carried away was the ardent heart of Li Bai while seeing his idol's lone boat vanished at the distant horizontal line.

Traditional Chinese

黃鶴樓送孟浩然之廣陵   李 白


Simplified Chinese with pinyin

黄 鹤 楼 送 孟 浩 然 之 广 陵                                 
huáng hè lóu sòng mèng hào rán zhī guǎng líng       

故 人 西 辞 黄 鹤 楼,
gù rén xī cí huáng hè lóu ,

烟 花 三 月 下 扬 州。
yān huā sān yuè xià yáng zhōu 。

孤 帆 远 影 碧 空 尽,
gū fán yuǎn yǐng bì kōng jìn ,

唯 见 长 江 天 际 流。
wéi jiàn cháng jiāng tiān jì liú 。

* * *

The poems, poet Li Bai 李白 早发白帝城 朝辞白帝彩云间 千里江陵一日还 两岸猿声啼不尽 轻舟已过万重山

poem #08

Set Out Early from Baidicheng       Li Bai

With Baidi enshrouded in tinted clouds, I left at early dawn,

* * *

Traditional Chinese

早發白帝城      李白 


Simplified Chinese with pinyin

早 发 白 帝 城           李白
Zǎo fā bái dì chéng      lǐ bái  

朝 辞 白 帝 彩 云 间,
cháo cí bái dì cǎi yún jiān,

千 里 江 陵 一 日 还。
qiān lǐ jiāng líng yī rì huán.

两 岸 猿 声 啼 不 尽,
liǎng àn yuán shēng tí bù jìn,

轻 舟 已 过 万 重 山。
qīng zhōu yǐ guò wàn chóng shān.

* * *

Tang poems, poet Du Fu 杜甫 春望
 国破山河在 城春草木深 感时花溅泪 恨别鸟惊心...

Poem #13

A Spring Observe       Du Fu

A homeland in ruins, the rivers and mountains remain by;
Spring comes to town, ....

* * *

Traditional Chinese

春望                   杜甫


Simplified Chinese with pinyin

春望                 杜甫
chūn wàng         Dù fu

国 破 山 河 在,    城 春 草 木 深。
Guó pò shān hé zài,     chéng chūn cǎo mù shēn

感 时 花 溅 泪,    恨 别 鸟 惊 心。
Gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi,    hèn bié niǎo Jīng xīn

烽 火 连 三 月,    家 书 抵 万 金。
Fēng huǒ lián sān yuè,    jiā shū dǐ wàn jīn

白 头 搔 更 短,    浑 欲 不 胜 簪。
Bái tóu sāo gèng duǎn    Hún yù bùsh èng zān.

Xi Biren 西鄙人

The name "Xi Biren" 西鄙人 is an alias meaning "a humble person from the western border." Xi's real name is unknown, as are his birth year and birth place. In fact, there are no known records of his past or background. Only one of his poems, "Geshu Ge" or "Song of Geshu 哥舒歌" -- describing the famous Tang General Geshu Han's 哥舒翰 * early life on the western frontier -- is in the the popular anthology "Three Hundred Tang Poems."

poem #49

Geshu Song         Xi Biren

The Big Dipper hanging up high,

* * *

Traditional Chinese

哥舒歌                 西鄙人

北斗七星高, 哥舒夜帶刀。 
至今窺牧馬, 不敢過臨洮。 

Simplified Chinese with pinyin

哥 舒 歌                  西 鄙 人
Gē shū gē               xi bì rén

北 斗 七 星 高, 哥 舒 夜 带 刀。 
Běi dǒu qī xīng gāo, gē shū yè dài dāo

至 今 窥 牧 马, 不 敢 过 临 洮。
Zhì jīn kuī mù mǎ, bù gǎn guò lín táo

Click here to listen to a recitation of the poem in Mandarin Chinese   朗颂此诗   and to view a transliteration into pinyin (click the small speaker icon in the lower right hand side box once you are redirected to the Google Translate page. Not all devices, such as iPads, some eReaders, and certain cell phones, are supported).

* * *

Geshu 哥舒  (Full name Geshu Han 哥舒翰) was a famous general of the Tang Dynasty who defeated multiple Tufan 吐蕃 attacks and hence created himself a sensational name among the Tufan tribes. Poet Xi Biren wrote this poem to praise the brave, invincible General Geshu's outstanding achievement which well protected the Lingtao area - in general, the area along the east side of Tao River.

In 748, when Geshu stationed at Qinghai Lake 青海湖 area, his Shenwei army was once defeated by Tufan, soon he built a base called Yinglong Castle 應龍城 on an island in the lake itself, as defensive post against Tufan. Since then, With the right strategies and always be prepared in advance, he won every battle Whenever Tufan attacked this outpost. Therefore, it was also said that Tufan forces did not dare to come close to Qinghai Lake. Lintao located further southeast of Qinghai Lake by the east side of Tao River hence was well protected. In the poem, Lintao actually means the Tao River. An excellent military expert, the invincible general yet had a tragic ending.

In 755, Geshu took a sick leave from the western border frontier back in Chang'an to treat probably gout and arthritis disease. The same year An Lushan rebellion broke out at Fanyang 范陽, near modern Beijing, and quickly advanced southwest, capturing the eastern capital Luoyang 洛阳. In February 756, An Lushan declared himself Emperor of new state of Yan 燕, and was ready to break through the most important fort - Tongguan/Tong Pass 潼关 - to invade Chang'an.

Tongguan, located between Chang'an 长安 and Louyang 洛阳, is about 150 miles to the west of Luoyang and 80 miles (all estimated number) to the east of Chang'an. It is on the south side of the Yellow River with rapid turbulance flowing through and on the north side of precipitous Qinling 秦岭. The path to Tongguan was very narrow only allowing one war chariot at a time and its terrain was difficult to pass through either. Due to its geographical significance, it was the most important military strategic fort to Chang'an and its subordinate areas. Anyone wanted to get into Chang'an from the east or leave Chang'an to the east must go through Tongguan - the only pass. View Tongguan on Google map.

Geshu was called in by court to fill in the empty spots left by generals Feng Changqing and Gao Xianzhi 封常清 與 高仙芝 to defend Tongguan against the rebel forces. The two capable generals, Feng and Gao, were just beheaded by the court for not following the military strategies issued by the court.

Upon investigation on the terrain of Tongguan, General Gush knew the only and the best way to defend Tang would be the defensive strategy, the same strategy that the two previous generals took.

Without any other options, he was forced to follow flawed military strategies as a result of intrigue and machinations on the part of the corrupt and incompetent Prime Minister Yang Guozhong 楊国忠, cousin to Yang Guifei 揚貴妃 - Emperor Tang Ming Huang's favorite consort.

Geshu took the order and overwhelmingly lost this key battle. In the battle, only 8,000 soldiers survived and returned to the base out from 200,000. More than 90 percent of their forces were perished. His subordinates saw the hopeless future, intoxicated Geshu, bound him to a horse and took him to surrender to the rebels. Geshu was killed in the rebel army's jail the next year.

The An Lushan Rebellion ended in February 763, left a widely divided country with continuing local wars, border region?? uprisings, the Silk Road around northwest region was cut off, the international trading was interruped for almost 80 years. After bitterly losing this major battle, the Tang Dynasty began its precipitous downward spiral and finally ended in 907.

The An Lushan Rebellion was a watershed moment for the Tang Dynasty and General Geshu was its key military figure.

Tang poems, poet Zhang Ji 张继 枫桥夜泊 月落乌啼霜满天 江枫渔火对愁眠 姑苏城外寒山寺 夜半钟声到客船
poem #50

A Night-Mooring at Maple Bridge     Zhang Ji


Traditional Chinese

楓橋夜泊     張繼


Simplified Chinese with pinyin

枫 桥 夜泊              张 继
Fēng qiáo yè pō     zhāng jì

月 落 乌 啼 霜 满 天,
Yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān,

江 枫 渔 火 对 愁 眠。
jiāng fēng yú huǒ duì chóu mián.

姑 苏 城 外 寒 山 寺,
Gū sū chéng wài hán shān sì,

夜 半 钟声 到 客 船。
yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán.

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