Song poetry – PAINTING (画)

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画 Painting

(宋)无名氏 (Author: Anonymous, Song Dynasty)

远看山有色, faraway see mountain have color
近听水无声。 nearby hear water no sound
春去花还在, spring go flower still exist
人来鸟不惊 people come bird no startle

Translation:

We see a mountain; though distant, its colors still glow.
We hear only silence, but nearby the waters flow.
Spring left, but its flowers are still bright.
People came, but no birds take flight.

Translation Notes:

This website translates ancient Chinese poems that have deep meaning and emotional resonance. We try to recreate some of the feeling and message of the poems at the cost of not being able to retain the original poem’s structure or rhyme scheme. With this poem, however, we have taken a different approach because, while we think it is very clever, we don’t think it attempts to be particularly profound. Using a series of contradictions, it describes the mountains, rivers, flowers and birds in a painting, and notes how different these objects are in real life.

The poet uses parallelism in the first two lines, a technique that pairs each word in the first line with a word from the next line that is either similar or the complete opposite. In this poem the word combinations are far/near, see/hear, mountain/water, have/without, and color/sound. The couplet can be read either horizontally or vertically, and its structure hints at the meaning: the painting has many points in common with life, but it fundamentally contradicts it. The poem is also structured around a series of verbs. The second word in each line is a verb that is the opposite of the corresponding verb in the previous line, see/hear, go/come. Like all the poems in this site, “Painting” also rhymes and scans. Our translation rhymes and retains the original structure of the opposing verbs as the second word of each line, but it lacks the parallelism of the original couplet, and it does not scan well. This poem was fun to translate, and we encourage readers to try their own hand at recreating this poem’s use of contradictions.

It is debatable as to who wrote this poem. Some believe that it was written by Wang Wei during the Tang dynasty, while others suggest that it was written by an anonymous poet during the Song dynasty. It is not a typical Wang Wei poem, as it is not imbued with a Buddhism-oriented spirit, but, since Wang Wei was a great painter as well as a great poet, he may have chosen to write a few lines on the nature of painted art.


Translated by Jean Yuan

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