3 Classical Chinese Poems You Must Know for Learning Mandarin
Many Chinese people cherish classical Chinese poetry, despite the fact that some of the most famous works were composed over a thousand years ago. Chinese Poetry Congress is a prime-time game show that has been running in China since 2016. Contestants from all walks of life - from professors to food delivery drivers - compete to unscramble lines of Chinese poetry, fill in missing verses, or recite as many lines as they can think of containing a certain word or phrase. While some critics say Chinese Poetry Congress doesn't align with modern interests, the show's popularity says otherwise. Fans of the show argue classical poetry is the foundation of Chinese literature and even Chinese culture, and it can offer a respite from the grinding search for novelty in today's information age. Moreover, they see classical Chinese poetry as the embodiment of good taste and upright morals, qualities which ideally would never go out of style.
Why Should You Learn Chinese Poetry?
Still, you may be thinking, "Why should I bother learning Chinese poetry? I barely know any poetry in my native language!" If you're like me, you haven't made a habit of memorizing or reciting poems in your day-to-day life. But consider this: most of us still remember nursery rhymes we learned as young children: I can recite "Humpty Dumpty" or "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" for you right now if you'd like! Experts say these simple poems boost language and cognitive development in kids, and they also make up a critical element of shared history and culture: in many cases, our grandparents learned the same rhymes when they were young.
It's the same with the Chinese poems below: most Chinese people learned these as kids, and the verses have stuck with them. These poems' simple structure and rhymes are easy to remember, and their subject matter creates connections to shared cultural values. Take it from me: your Chinese friends will be impressed if you can recite these poems! It's not just the novelty of a foreigner speaking Chinese, either. Knowing these poems shows you are invested in learning about Chinese culture and are interested in your Chinese friends' backgrounds.
Plus, by reciting these poems, you'll get some of the same language benefits as from learning nursery rhymes in your native language as a kid. It will help you develop an ear for Chinese, with its different syllables and tones. It will also help you learn words through repetition. Yes, some of them are classical, poetic words uncommon in modern Mandarin. But many of the words in the poems below still form the basic building blocks of Chinese today, such as 上，下，日，水 and more. You can practice these poems with a Speechling tutor and get feedback from a native speaker, who most likely also learned to recite them as a kid.
1. "咏鹅" (Yǒng É) | "An Ode to the Goose", by 骆宾王 (Luò Bīnwáng)
The Tang Dynasty is considered a golden age for Chinese culture, and poetry in particular. Luo Binwang (ca. 619–684) was a government official and one of the Four Paragons of the Early Tang, a group of brilliant poets of the time. He could recite poetry from the age of six and composed the following poem at the age of seven. This short poem's simple word choice and structure make it easy to memorize for both children and for Mandarin learners, yet its vivid imagery leaves a strong impression on the reader. Luo incorporates sound, movement, and color to create a dynamic portrait of the humble goose, his childlike wonder revealing the beauty of nature in this simple scene.
|鹅、鹅、鹅、||É é é,|
|曲项向天歌。||qū xiàng xiàng tiān gē.|
|白毛浮绿水、||Bái máo fú lǜ shuǐ,|
|红掌拨清波||hóng zhǎng bō qīng bō|
Goose, goose, goose,
Bend your neck towards the sky and sing.
White feathers float on the emerald water,
Red feet paddle the clear waves.
咏 (yǒng): to sing
鹅 (é): goose
曲 (qū): to bend
项 (xiàng): back of the neck
向 (xiàng): toward
天 (tiān): sky
歌 (gē): to sing
白 (bái): white
毛 (máo): feather
浮 (fú): to float
绿 (lǜ): green
水 (shuǐ): water
红 (hóng): red
掌 (zhǎng): lit. palm of the hand, sole of the foot, or paw; in this case, it's the goose's webbed feet
拨 (bō): to push
清 (qīng): clear
波 (bō): waves
2. "静夜思" (Jìng Yè Sī) | "Quiet Night Thoughts", by 李白 (Lǐ Bái)
Li Bai (ca. 701–762) continued the Tang Dynasty's poetic tradition. His work earned acclaim during his lifetime and he is still known as one of China's greatest poets. Chinese schoolchildren learn to recite his poems, including "静夜思", and his work has been translated into European languages since the 18th century. In fact, "静夜思" is the first Chinese poem I memorized when I learned Mandarin at college in the United States! The poem describes Li's melancholy at leaving his hometown during his role as scholar to the imperial court, a feeling which would have resonated with many officials of the time. Li expresses the Confucian virtue of filial piety, or honoring his native family, while still obeying his duty to the emperor.
|床前明月光，||Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,|
|疑是地上霜。||yí shì dì shàng shuāng.|
|举头望明月，||Jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè,|
|低头思故乡。||dī tóu sī gù xiāng.|
Moonlight shines before my bed.
Could it actually be frost on the ground?
I raise my head to gaze at the bright moon,
Then lower my head and think of home.
静 (jìng): quiet
夜 (yè): night
思 (sī): to think
床 (chuáng): bed
前 (qián): front, ahead
明 (míng): bright
月 (yuè): moon
光 (guāng): light
疑 (yí): to doubt, to suspect
是 (shì): to be
地上 (dìshàng): on the ground
霜 (shuāng): frost
举 (jǔ): to raise, to lift
头 (tóu): head
望 (wàng): to look towards, to gaze
低 (dī): to lower
故乡 (gùxiāng): hometown
3. "悯农" (Mǐn Nóng) | "Toiling Farmers", by 李绅 (Lǐ Shēn)
Li Shen (ca. 772?-846) earned recognition for his poetry the same year that he participated in the imperial examination. He passed the exam and embarked on a long career as an imperial official, serving five emperors before he retired. Unlike other Tang Dynasty poems, which focus on the beauty of nature or scholarly sentiment, "悯农" depicts ordinary farmers laboring in the fields. Li's personal experience with famine may have contributed to his respect for farmers: he grew up in the decades following the An Lushan Rebellion, which destroyed cropland and caused widespread starvation. To this day, parents and teachers in China recite this poem to encourage children to avoid wasting food and to be mindful of those who produced it.
|锄禾日当午，||Chú hé rì dāng wǔ,|
|汗滴禾下土。||hàn dī hé xià tǔ.|
|谁知盘中餐，||Shuí zhī pán zhōng ,|
|粒粒皆辛苦。||lì lì jiē xīn kǔ.|
Hoeing the field at noon,
Sweat drips on the grain and into the earth.
Who would have thought a bowl of rice
Contained such hardship in each grain?
悯 (mǐn): to pity; to show sympathy
农 (nóng): farmer
锄 (chú): to hoe; to weed
禾 (hé): grain
日 (rì): sun
当 (dāng): to be; during
午 (wǔ): noon
汗 (hàn): sweat
滴 (dī): to drip
下 (xià): down
土 (tǔ): earth; ground
谁 (shuí): who
知 (zhī): to know
盘 (pán): plate; dish
中 (zhōng): center; in the midst
餐 (cān): food
粒 (lì): grain
皆 (jiē): all; every
辛苦 (xīnkǔ): hardship
There's More Where This Came From!
If you enjoyed these three poems, you're in luck: China's poetic tradition stretches from the 11th century BCE to today, offering countless works to explore. Start with your favorite of the three and try reading other works by the same poet. Or dig into poems by other Tang Dynasty masters such as 王维 (Wáng Wéi) and 杜甫 (Dù Fǔ). Or if you're interested in a particular time period in China's history, check out the poetry of that era. And don't miss our article on Chinese novels with recommendations for Mandarin learners. The possibilities for exploring Chinese literature are pretty much endless!