Learn a classical Chinese poem

Whether your interests are in learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, backpacking or cooking, you are probably constantly challenging yourself to get better at it. You will usually need to make some effort in order to see an improvement. The Chinese adage “欲穷千里目, 更上一层楼. (Yù qióng qiānlǐ mù, gèng shàng yī céng lóu.)” advises that to get a better view, one should climb to a higher level. In other words, it encourages people to go the extra mile to get what they wish to achieve.

(lóu) is a level or story of a building or tower. 上楼 (shànglóu) means to go upstairs. In the above saying, the level of a tower is employed metaphorically to represent a superior state. In fact, 更上一层楼 (gèngshàngyīcénglóu) has become an idiom that means to take it up a notch, to make an improvement, or to attain a higher level.

This often quoted saying is actually the second half of a short classical Chinese poem written by 王之涣 (Wáng Zhīhuàn) of the Tang Dynasty. The poet received the inspiration for the poem while enjoying the grand view from a well known tower named 鹳雀楼 (Guàn Què Lóu). The Chinese word for a poem is (shī). You can see from this piece how it is often necessary to rearrange the words in a poem to fit them to a particular line length, cadence and rhyming scheme. Therefore, a peom may sound quite different from normal speech, and thus a little harder to interpret. For the blog posts at this site and in the book “Learn Chinese through Songs and Rhymes“, I’ve taken care to select mostly songs and rhymes with verses that more or less follow the normal word order in everyday speech. Nevertheless, even a beginner could enjoy a little exposure to the beauty of some excellent classical Chinese poems.

登鹳雀楼 (Dēng Guàn Què Lóu Scaling the Guanque Tower)

白日依山尽,
Bái rì yī shān jìn,
Sunlight stops at the mountain peak;

黄河入海流.
Huánghé rù hǎi liú.
The River ends at the sea.

欲穷千里目,
Yù qióng qiānlǐ mù,
Why not set your eyesight free?

更上一层楼.
Gèng shàng yī céng lóu.
A hike grants more to see.

(dēng) means to climb, to mount or to ascend, as in 登山 (dēngshān mountaineering). This word also means to enter into a record, such as in 登记 (dēngjì).

The river referred to in this poem is the Yellow River, or 黄河 (Huánghé).

(liú) means to flow. As it describes the motion of a liquid, it takes on the “water” word radical. You might want to review a previous blog post that talks about the water radical.

As a noun, (yù) means desire. In classical Chinese, it means wanting to do something. This word is also means “on the point of”, as in 欣喜欲狂 (xīnxǐ yù kuáng so happy as if one were on the verge of going out of one’s mind).

As an adjective, (qióng) means poor or at the limit of one’s resources. In classical Chinese, this word is also used as a verb that means to do or to explore to the full extent.

(mù) is the formal Chinese word for eyes. It is a part of many other words pertaining to eyes or eyesight.

This poem follows the standard form of a Chinese poem containing five characters per line. Notice the perfect parllelism in each of the two pairs of verses. For example, 白日 (bái rì white sun) matches 黄河 (Huánghé Yellow River). 依山 (yī shān by the mountain) and 入海 (rù hǎi into the sea) are adverbial phrases, and (jìn to end) and (liú to flow) are both verbs. The rhyming scheme employed is ABCB. Next time you come across another classical Chinese poem, try to analyze and appreciate the care and thoughts put into the verses by the poets.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. keithy
    Aug 16, 2013 @ 11:18:56

    This may be a coincidence but the third character in lines 3 and 4 are both numbers: 千 and 一.

    Reply

    • likeabridge
      Aug 16, 2013 @ 11:44:54

      Keithy,

      Thanks for pointing this out. It’s not a coincidence. There’s more to this poem for you to explore than what I’ve touched upon in the blog post. For instance, 千里 (qiānlǐ) corresponds to 一层 (yī céng), an adjective-noun combination; and 穷 (qióng) corresponds to 上 (shàng), which is used as a verb. Even the tones of the words within each line and those of the rhyming characters are designed to make the poem sound good when read aloud.

      Reply

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