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Imagery in Ancient Chinese Poems —  Expressing Emotions through Visible Objects

In ancient Chinese history, Poetry had been considered the highest literary type.

 

Besides compendious words and melodic rhythms, imagery (or Yixiang) is an artistic and important means to express delicate emotions.

 

Instead of expressing feelings directly, most ancient poets, through artistic observation or traditional literary views, fuse invisible emotions and deep significance into visible objects and objective scenes, which made ancient Chinese poems allusive, symbolic, and metaphorical.

 

Here's a list of the commonest Chinese imageries in ancient poems, with explanations and examples.

Celestial

Celestial Body

Moon 月: Love, Virtue, Family, Nostalgia, and Beautiful Times.

Love

 

  • 愿我如星君如月,夜夜流光相皎洁。Fan Chengda (1126 — 1193)

 

Wishing I were the star and you were the moon, bathing light of each other every night.

poetry imagery of moon and star

Virtue

 

  • 俱怀逸兴壮思飞,欲上青天揽明月。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

With an ambitious desire to fly up high, and pluck the moon from the sky.

Homesickness

 

  • 露从今夜白,月是故乡明。 Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

Dew turns into frost since tonight, the moon viewed at home is more bright. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

Great Wall of China Under the Moon

Moon Shining on the Great Wall, Photo from Official Site of Jinshanling Great Wall.

Nostalgia, Sentimental for Withering Away of Beautiful Times.

 

  • 小楼昨夜又东风,故国不堪回首月明中。Li Yu (937 — 978)

 

The east wind breezed lodge last night, perished motherland was unbearable to recall under the moonlight.

Sunset 夕阳: Desolate, Lost, Beautiful but Ephemeral Things.

 

  • 夕阳无限好,只是近黄昏。Li Shangyin (about 813 — 858)

 

The setting sun is infinitely perfect, yet resignedly heading to twilight.

sunset
Phenomenon

Natural Phenomenon

Ice 冰: Noble and Loyal.

 

  • 洛阳亲友如相问, 一片冰心在玉壶。Wang Changling (698 — 757)

 

If family and friends in Luoyang ask about me, my heart is pure as ice in the jade jug as I will always be.

Floating Clouds 浮云: People Far Away From Home, or Unjust Hinder Forces.

 

People Away From Home

 

  • 浮云游子意,落日故人情。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Floating clouds are like parting travelers, lingering sunset is like longing for friends.

 

Hinder Forces

 

  • 不畏浮云遮望眼,只缘身在最高层。Wang Anshi (1021 — 1086)

 

With no fear that floating clouds might cover my vision, since I am standing at the highest position.

Distant View of Huangshan Mountain, or Yellow Mountain

Seas of Cloud on Range of Huangshan Mountains or Yellow Mountains, Photo from Huangshan Official Site.

East Wind 东风: Spring or Spring Breeze.

 

  • 东风夜放花千树。更吹落、星如雨。Xin Qiji (1140 — 1207)

 

One night's east wind blossomed thousands of trees, flower lanterns shining and fireworks falling, as star rain.

 

 

West Wind 西风: Autumn, Desolate, Melancholy, and Wane.

 

  • 昨夜西风凋碧树。独上高楼,望尽天涯路。Yan Shu (991 — 1055)

 

One night's west wind withered green trees. Ascending the tall building solitary, I try to see the world at the end of the pathway.

Yueyang tower next to Dongting lake
Landscape

Natural Landscape

 

 

Green Mountain 翠微: Green Mountains, or Emerald Color, Such as Green Lakes, Rivers, and Plant.

 

  • 江涵秋影雁初飞,与客携壶上翠微。Du Mu (803 — 852)

 

The river reflects the beauty of autumn and wild geese fly the south, I would take wine and climb the mountains with friends.

 

 

Frontier Mountains 关山: Symbols of Borders or Places Afar.

 

  • 万里赴戎机, 关山度若飞。Ballad of Mulan (420 — 589)

 

Marching to the battlefield for miles and miles, crossing the frontier mountains as in flight.

the great wall of china

Running Water 流水: Sorrow and Past Time.

 

Sorrow

 

  • 问君能有几多愁? 恰似一江春水向东流。Li Yu (937 — 978)

 

How much sorrow do I bear in my heart? Just like the endless river running toward the east.

 

Past Time

 

  • 世间行乐亦如此,古来万事东流水。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Joy in the world is also the same, everything in the past flew away as water run east.

Farmland and Ancient Buildings Next To Upper Reaches of Yellow River or Huang He in Ningxia Province

Farmland and Ancient Buildings Next To Upper Reaches of Yellow River or Huang He River in Ningxia Province, Photo by Li Peng.

Place

Place

Eastern Fence 东篱: Relaxing, Elegant, and Tranquil Hermit Life.

 

  • 东篱把酒黄昏后,有暗香盈袖。Li Qingzhao (1084 — 1155)

 

Drinking wine till dusk by the east fence, the aroma of chrysanthemum filled my sleeves.

West Building 西楼: Sorrow, Lonely, and Sad.

In ancient China, buildings in the west usually are for guests or women to live in, which made them the places where people feel homesick or pining for beloved ones. West is also the direction the sun and moon set, and cold autumn in the Five Elements Theory.

 

  • 雁字回时,月满西楼。Li Qingzhao (1084 — 1155)

 

With wild geese returning, moonlight would shine on the whole west building.

Ancient Chinese Architecture Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai, Built in the Year 857.

Ancient Architecture Foguang Temple on Mount Wutai, Built in the Year 857.

Road-side Pavilion 长亭: Farewell.

 

In ancient China on side of roads, every ten miles would be set a pavilion, for tourists to rest and farewell.

 

  • 长亭驻马未能前,井邑苍茫含暮烟。Wang Changling (698 — 757)

At a roadside pavilion having to let my horse stop, I saw vast villages enveloped in dusk fog.

Nanpu 南浦: Farewell.

 

In ancient literature, Nanpu represents the farewell place along rivers or lakes.

 

  • 南浦春来绿一川,石桥朱塔两依然。Fan Chengda (1126 — 1193)

 

Spring turns the Nanpu water green; the old stone bridge and red pagodas yet remain.

Pagoda, stone arch, lotus, and lake.
Plant

Plant and Flower

Willow 柳: Farewell, Travel, and Departing.

 

Willow in Chinese sounds like "stay"; hence, in ancient China, a willow twig had been a necessary gift for farewell.

 

  • 春风知别苦,不遣柳条青。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Spring breeze knows parting sorrow, (so) it did not green the leaves of willow.

Chinese Parasol Tree 梧桐: Loneliness and Sorrowful.

 

  • 金井梧桐秋叶黄, 珠帘不卷夜来霜。Wang Changling (698 — 757)

 

Next to the fancy well parasol trees turning yellow, without rolling up bead curtains can feel the coming frost.

 

Hardy Banana 芭蕉: Solitary and Gloomy.

 

  • 觉后始知身是梦,更闻寒雨滴芭蕉。 Xu Ning of the Tang Dynasty (618 —907)

 

Woke up realizing my life is as wandering as in dreams, felt more solitary hearing cold rain dripping on Hardy Banana leaves.

Plants and Flowers of Lingering Garden in Rainy Day

Plants and Flowers of Lingering Garden in Rainy Day, Picture from Gusulian Lvren. 

Pines and Cypresses 松柏: Strong, Honest, Upright, and Persistent.

 

  • 后来富贵已凋落,岁寒松柏犹依然。Liu Yuxi (772 — 842)

 

Gradually wealth and honor went with time, yet pines and cypresses remain the same.

Twinned Trunks 连理枝: Loving Couple.

 

  • 在天愿作比翼鸟,在地愿为连理枝。Bai Juyi  (772 — 846)

 

In the sky wish to be inseparable love birds; on the earth wish to be eternally twined branches.

Mulberry Elm 桑榆: Sunset, Old Age, Waning Phase.

 

  • 莫道桑榆晚,为霞尚满天。Liu Yuxi (772 — 842)

 

Do not say mulberry elm is late, for sunset glow is still lighting the whole sky.

sunset glow

Red Bean 红豆: Love and Lovesickness.

 

  • 玲珑骰子安红豆,入骨相思知不知。Wen Tingyun  (about 812 — 866)

 

Red beans inlay in the dice, is my deep longing carved in bones.

Plum Blossom 梅: Strong, Unbending, and Pure.

  • 墙角数枝梅,凌寒独自开。Wang Anshi (1021 — 1086)

At the corner a few flowers of plum, against frigid they sole bloom.

Orchid 兰: Virtuous, Noble, Elegant, and Pure.

 

  • 兰生幽谷无人识,客种东轩遗我香。Su Zhe (1039 — 1112)

 

Orchids in the deep valley have no one to recognize, planted in my sunny yard they sent elegant fragrance.

Orchid flowers

Chrysanthemum or Asters 菊: Noble and Faithful.

 

  • 采菊东篱下,悠然见南山。Tao Yuanming (about 365 — 427)

 

Freely picking asters on the fence east side, leisurely the south mountain came into sight.

 

Falling Flowers 落花: Melancholy, Sorrow about Ephemeral and Impermanent Life.

 

  • 流水落花春去也,天上人间。Li Yu (937 — 978)

 

Falling flowers and running water went with spring, as paradise left me wandering.

 

Bamboo 竹: Faithful, Graceful, and Integrity.

 

  • 宁可食无肉,不可居无竹。Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

 

Rather eating without meat, than living without bamboo thicket.

Bamboo Thicket and Arch Door of Lingering Garden

Bamboo Thicket and Arch Door of Lingering Garden, Photo from The Official Site of Liuyuan. 

Lush Grass or Weed 草: Desolation, Sorrow of Parting, or Hope.

 

Desolation

 

  • 过春风十里, 尽荠麦青青。Jiang Kui (about 1155 — 1221)

 

Before it was miles of flourishing streets, now it is endless wheat and weeds.

Sorrow of Parting

 

  • 青青河边草,绵绵思远道。Yuefu of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

 

Lush and endless grass along the river, like eternal pining for my beloved one afar.

Hope

 

  • 离离原上草,一岁一枯荣。Bai Juyi  (772 — 846)

 

Lush grass on the ancient plain, every year they wither and green.

grass under sunshine
Animal

Animal

Swallow 燕子: Love or Spring.

 

Love

 

  • 落花人独立,微雨燕双飞。Yan Jidao (1037 — 1110)

 

Amid falling flowers I stand alone, in drizzle swallows fly as a couple.

Spring

 

  • 几处早莺争暖树,谁家新燕啄春泥。Bai Juyi  (772 — 846)

 

A few orioles vie for sunny trees; some new swallows peck vernal mud.

Swan Goose 雁: Letter or Message from Beloved Ones from Afar, Solitude, and Homesickness.

 

In ancient times, people used to send letters using swan goose.

Letter or Message

 

  • 鸿雁几时到?江湖秋水多。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

When swan goose can bring your letter? The world today is full of danger.

Homesickness

 

  • 戍鼓断人行,秋边一雁声。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

Garrison's drums cut off people's trek; the border's autumn sky came a swan goose honk.

swan geese

Large Swan 鸿鹄: Great Ambition.

 

  • 君负鸿鹄志,蹉跎书剑年。Meng Haoran (689 — 740)

 

Ambitions of you are lofty and great, talents of you have been delayed over a decade.

Cicada 蝉: Noble and Pure.

 

Since cicadas eat clean plant juice and live on tall trees, they became symbols of nobility and virtue.

 

  • 居高声自远,非是藉秋风。Yu Shinan (558 — 638)

 

Standing high the voices travel far as they go, not relying on the help of the autumn blow.

Partridge 鹧鸪: Sadness, Difficult, and Desolate.

 

  • 宫女如花满春殿,只今惟有鹧鸪飞。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

The palace was once filled with ladies of flowery, now lingered by partridges on ruins of dreary.

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty

Taiye Chi Lake of Daming Palace, the Imperial Palace of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Photo from Yue Xi'an

Cuckoo 杜鹃: Sorrow of Parting, Homesickness, and Nostalgia.

 

  • 其间旦暮闻何物?杜鹃啼血猿哀鸣。Bai Juyi  (772 — 846)

 

Day till night what sounds can one expects? Sorrowful crying of cuckoos and woeful howling of apes.

Crow 乌鸦: Decay and Desolate.

 

  • 斜阳外,寒鸦万点,流水绕孤村。Qin Guan (1049 — 1100)

 

Setting sun beyond, thousands of crows scattering in the sky, and a stream circling a lonely village.

Ape Cry 猿啼: Grieved and Miserable.

 

  • 风急天高猿啸哀,渚清沙白鸟飞回。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

The wind is swift, the sky is lofty, and apes are crying; the islet is lush, the beach is white, and birds are circling.

Changjiang river
Ware

Ware

Qin Se 琴瑟: Harmonious Relationships.

 

Qin and Se are two Traditional Musical Instruments, and the sound of their ensemble is very beautiful and melodic.

 

  • 琴瑟在御,莫不静好。The Classic of Poetry, or The Book of Songs, or Shijing, compiled by Confucius (551 BC  — 479 BC).

 

Together we play Qin and Se, everything is convivial and peaceful.

Du Kang 杜康: Wine.

 

Du Kang was the inventor of wine, who was believed to be the King Si Shaokang (about 1972 BC — 1912 BC) of the Xia Dynasty (about 2070 BC — 1600 BC).

 

  • 何以解忧,唯有杜康。Cao Cao (155 — 220).

 

What can ease the sorrow down? Only the Du Kang.

Qiang Flute 羌笛: Desolate and Dreary.

 

Based on the sound of the musical instrument Qiang Flute originated from a relatively desolate western region.

 

  • 羌笛何须怨杨柳,春风不度玉门关。Wang Zhihuan (688 — 742)

 

No need to use the Qiang flute to play sorrowful parting willow songs, no spring breeze ever crossed the Yumen pass.

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate of the Han Dynasty, An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected Middle Kingdom and West Regions

Ruins of Yumen Pass or Jade Gate of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), An Important Gateway in the Silk Road that Connected the Middle Kingdom and West Regions — Dunhuang City, Gansu Province

Behavior

Behavior

Lean on Balustrade 凭栏: Sorrow from Missing Loved Ones, Hometown, or Unfulfilled Ambition.

 

  • 独自莫凭栏,无限江山,别时容易见时难。Li Yu (937 — 978)

 

Do not lean on balustrades alone; the vast lost motherland, easy to leave but hard to see again.

Ascend on Height 登高: Ambition or Sorrow (usually about life and patriotism). 

 

  • 万里悲秋常作客,百年多病独登台。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

Miles away in autumn I pine for being a wanderer for too long; in late years with sicknesses I ascend to this height alone.

Pavilion on Peak of Mount Hua

Pavilion on A Peak of Mount Hua

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