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Famous poetry: 《咏鹅》Ode to Geese by Luo Binwang

This well-known nursery jingle that Chinese kids learn in kindergarten was written 1400 years ago, by Tang Dynasty poet Luo Binwang, who, in the tradition of great artists everywhere, did some jail time for dissing the reigning empress. You don’t get much sense of Luo’s rebellious side in this short poem, though – it’s about geese, and that’s about it.

This well-known nursery jingle that Chinese kids learn in kindergarten was written 1400 years ago, by Tang Dynasty poet Luo Binwang, who, in the tradition of great artists everywhere, did some jail time for dissing the reigning empress. You don’t get much sense of Luo’s rebellious side in this short poem, though – it’s about geese, and that’s about it.

I’m probably going to say this a billion more times on this blog, but seriously: this poem is 1400 years old. Think about that. English, as we know it, did not exist at the time. You’re about to read something that was written a couple of hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire. The more things change, the more geese stay the same.

Some language stuff

This poem is only four lines long, and also contains some simple, modern characters. That said, the language is one degree harder than Li Bai’s Quiet Night Thought, China’s most famous poem, which I translated here. Quiet Night Thought is a great introduction to how Tang poetry works, a careful selection of characters that paint a picture, so if you haven’t read that one, try it first before you do this one.

There are a couple of harder characters in here you should not expect to know, so reading this is an exercise in going slow, learning new characters and after each line, trying to imagine the scene the author is painting with the characters he chose. As with Quiet Night Thought, this poem has almost no grammar, it’s just nouns and verbs, so don’t try to make English sentences out of the characters, just let the meaning of the characters wash over you and picture the meaning of each one.

One thing to draw your attention to (and I don’t think I’m spoiling much here): the opening line is simply, 鹅鹅鹅 é é é, which means “geese, geese, geese”. But you’ll also notice that the sound of the word “geese” (é) also sounds like geese honking. So, this does double-duty as a noun and an onomatopoeia.

《咏鹅》

鹅鹅鹅,
曲项向天歌。
白毛浮绿水,
红掌拨清波。

Show English translation »

Ode to Geese

Geese, geese, geese,
Crooked necks towards heaven they sing,
White feathers float on green water,
Red feet push up clear waves.

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