When they are children, most Malaysians are taught the standard nursery rhymes and songs that help them improve their language skills.
These verses and songs are ingrained in the memory even into adulthood. After all, one may not have sung Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in ages, but most can remember the lyrics with ease.
Children in the Chinese community are often taught a selection of poems that are meant to be memorised and recited later.
Like English nursery rhymes and Malay songs, these Chinese poems often have a long history and are passed down from generation to generation.
Interestingly, some of these poems are written in an archaic form of Chinese writing, which is equivalent to reading Shakespeare’s works as he wrote them in 16th/17th-century English.
These poems, like those of other languages, offer an interesting insight into Chinese culture through the ages and sometimes bear deeper meanings than one might think.
Here are five translated classic poems to impress Chinese friends with:
1. Spring Morning (Meng Haoran)
I wake up with the sun up high.
Birds chirp everywhere in the sky.
Last night, a rainstorm passed by.
Flowers must have fallen down.
A cheerful and simple poem for a good day, it describes the poet’s contentedness on waking up on a beautiful spring morning.
2. Thoughts in the Silent Night (Li Bai)
Moonlight reflects off the front of my bed.
Could it actually be the frost on the ground?
I look up to view the bright moon,
And look down to reminisce about my hometown.
A poem suited for Malaysians pining for the comforts and warmth of home, it tells of Li Bai’s isolation and homesickness as the moon shines brightly above him.
Li Bai was a prolific poet who would write over a thousand poems throughout his life, often describing the beauty of nature and the unpleasantness of court politics.
3. Toiling Farmers (Li Shen)
Farmers weeding at noon,
Sweat down the field soon.
Who knows food on a tray,
Thanks to their toiling day?
This poem by Tang poet Li Shen discusses the hard work of a farmer, how he works in the scorching sun to the point that his sweat waters the fields.
The poem points out that the farmer is the person responsible for filling people’s bowls with food and without his hard work, no one would eat. Some Chinese parents like to use this poem to remind their children to not waste food.
4. An Ode to the Goose (Luo Binwang)
Goose, goose, goose,
You bend your neck towards the sky and sing,
Your white feathers float on the emerald water,
Your red feet push the clear waves.
This simple poem was written by the Tang Dynasty poet, Luo Binwang, and is considered a particularly simple and memorisable poem.
He apparently wrote his poem when he was seven years old, probably after being excited and inspired by the sight of a goose.
5. Seven Steps Verse (Cao Zhi)
People burn the beanstalk to boil beans,
Filtering them to extract juice.
The beanstalks were burnt under the cauldron,
And the beans in the cauldron wailed:
“We were originally grown from the same root;
Why should we hound each other to death with such impatience?”
To understand this poem, one must understand Cao Zhi’s circumstances when he wrote it. He was the younger brother of Cao Pi, heir and successor of the famed Chinese warlord Cao Cao, during the Three Kingdoms period.
Jealous of his brother’s intelligence and literary prowess, Cao Pi accused his brother of disloyalty and threatened to have him executed.
He would only spare Cao Zhi if the latter could come up with a poem within the next seven steps he took. Cao Zhi came up with this poem, using it as metaphor for his unhappy situation.
Feeling guilty, Cao Pi would spare his brother from the sword and would impose a far lighter punishment of demotion instead.
The Seven Steps Verse is still invoked to this day when members of the same family or group have disagreements with each other.