Try one of the big three: Du Fu, Li Bai and Wang Wei. Du Fu is the most varied, but generally serious and always deep. Li Bai is the opposite, romantic and colourful. The third, Wang Wei, is very Zen: most of his poems are deceptively simple nature pieces, reminiscent of haiku.
What's so special about Chinese poems?
The most distinctive features of Chinese poetry are: concision- many poems are only four lines, and few are much longer than eight; ambiguity- number, tense and parts of speech are often undetermined, creating particularly rich interpretative possibilities; and structure- most poems follow quite strict formal patterns which have beauty in themselves as well as highlighting meaningful contrasts.
How should I read a Chinese poem?
Like an English poem, but more so. Everything is there for a reason, so try to find that reason. Think about all the possible connotations, and be aware of the different possibilities of number and tense. Look for contrasts: within lines, between the lines of each couplet and between successive couplets. Above all, don't worry about what the poet meant- find your meaning.
Aren't Chinese poems untranslatable?
To an extent, yes. All poems lose something in translation, and the linguistic gulf between Chinese and English does mean that Chinese poems lose more than most. But a good poem can afford to lose quite a lot and still be worth reading. And a large part of the pleasure of reading these poems is precisely the opportunity they provide to explore other ways of thinking and of expression. The deeper you are willing to dig, the greater the rewards on offer.
About the Site
Do I need to know Chinese?
No. Each English translation can be read on its own, and they are annotated where necessary for an understanding of the work. You can also use the word-by-word translation to find the word order of the original, which makes the important parallelisms more obvious. Having said that, you will certainly get more from the site if you know at least some Chinese. Even being able to read the pinyin transliteration is a big help, allowing you to hear the music of the tones, the rhythm and the rhyme. Some understanding of Chinese characters opens up another dimension, as the components of each character are often significant. And of course, the more Chinese you know, the easier it is to understand the poem in the original, which is always the ideal.
How can I find a specific poem?
Finding translations of a particular Chinese poem is always tricky- titles are often untranslatable, or translatable in many ways. If you know the author, the best way is to go to that authorís index page and look through the titles for likely candidates. Otherwise, you can use the subject indexes, or search the site through the box on the homepage.
Can I search the site in Chinese?
No- all the characters (and pinyin) are images, not Chinese text code (to make the site accessible to those whose computers can't display Chinese text). Instead, you can search using words likely to be in the English translation. If you need a Chinese code text, Google will normally come up with one somewhere.
Can I print or download the site to use offline?
Please do! If you are only interested in the translations, all the translations of a particular poet are available on one page, linked to from the poet's index page.
Who are the translations by?
All the translations are original and unique to this site.
Where can I find out more?
Commentary on Chinese poems on the Internet is very scant, but there are some other sites with translations, linked to from here. More translations and commentary suitable for the non-specialist can be found in various books reviewed here.
Is this a for-profit site?
Definitely not. If you order a book from Amazon through one of the links on the site, you pay nothing extra, but Amazon makes a small contribution to the site's hosting costs.