This poem is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that it’s hard to overstate just what a big deal it is. The verse is so famous in China that most people can recite it from memory, and it’s often read aloud during the Mid-Autumn festival, when families gather to gaze at the night sky. It appears in endless musical adaptations, and movies, and on greeting cards… you get the idea.
It was written by the celebrated Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, also sometimes called Li Po, who lived from 701-762 AD, and like good poets everywhere, was a bit of a wistful, drunk romantic who was married way more than once. One of the main themes throughout much of Li Bai’s poetry is the sadness of being separated from one’s friends, family and hometown. It’s easy to imagine how far away and alone a traveler might have felt in an age without phone, email, or mechanization.《静夜思》jìng yè sī, or Quiet Night Thought, falls right into this category with its main themes being the moon and homesickness.
Anyway, this poem rhymes in Chinese, so it’s best read aloud. I tried to translate it in such a way that the order of the English words generally matches the order of the Chinese words – hopefully this makes it a little easier to get. I have also placed spaces between some characters to give you some clues about which can be understood as a separate word, and which concepts should be understood together. The original, however, has no spacing.
Remember, this is a poem, not prose. So, the author doesn’t spell out every single I, You, and My. In fact, he leaves those words out all together. Instead, he paints a picture with carefully chosen characters. So, if this is your first attempt at reading Chinese poetry, I recommend you take it line by line, first understand the meaning of each character, and then try to imagine their meanings all together, and see if you can get a mental image of the scene.
For an ancient work of fine art, this poem is comprised of surprisingly basic characters, but there’s an advanced word or two sprinkled in. Probably most difficult is this one:
疑 yí – Poets sure do love to compare things to other things, and in Chinese, this is one of the words that lets them do it. It’s a literary way to say “as if”, or “seem like”. So 疑是 means “As if it is _______” or “Seems like it is _______”. It’s a little difficult because in modern Chinese, this character is usually related to doubt or suspicion, but that’s not the way it’s being used here.
I should also probably clarify that 望 wàng has quite a few definitions, and the one used here is “to gaze towards”.
Not all of Li Bai’s works are so simple, but if you’d like to get a little deeper into the world of Tang poetry, you might consider picking up this narrative Biography of Li Bai for Kindle, or an English translation of his works.