Chinese Poem: 早发白帝城 (Zǎo fā bái dì chéng)

Here’s another Chinese poem I’ve recently memorised, named 早发白帝城 (Zǎo fā bái dì chéng) by 李白 (Lǐbái) :



Zhāo cí bái dì cǎiyún jiān,
qiānlǐ jiānglíng yí rì huán,
Liǎng’àn yuán shēng tí bú zhù,
qīngzhōu yǐguò wàn chóngshān.


Here’s my suggested translation, followed up with an explanation:

Setting off early from White Emperor City

Departing early from White Emperor — amongst many-hued clouds,
Three-hundred miles to Jiang Ling — arriving within the day,
On both banks the apes cry out repeatedly,
My skiff has passed ten thousand mountains.

 Translation notes / thought processes:

Line 1: Used “early” instead of “morning” for 朝 zhāo for brevity. 辞cí was tough because it means “take leave”, “discharge”, but in English “depart” is shorter and has less ambiguity. 白帝bái dì is translated to “white emperor” without “city”, as “city” is mentioned in the title of the poem. 彩云cǎiyún could be “many-coloured clouds” and has been variously translated by others, I picked “hue” since it is a rarer word than “colour” (more fitting a poem)

Line 2: 千里qiānlǐ — in none of the other translations I found did anyone cater for this specific technicality. 里lǐ is not the same as an English “mile” but it’s an ancient Chinese mile. Apparently ancient Chinese miles are “usually about a third as long as the English mile”. 千里qiānlǐ does mean “a thousand miles” — but they are a thousand Chinese miles, which should mean about ~300 English miles. Making the translation 300 miles makes it more realistic to imagine the scope and size of the voyage in English. He speaks of making this voyage in a single day in his skiff, this would seem much more realistic for 300 (English) miles than for 1000 (English) miles. Note that I have not looked up exactly how many miles 里lǐ was at this specific point in time of this poem, just general usage which has varied over time. 还 huán doesn’t mean “arrive” but “return”, but as far as I know he is implying he made the complete trip within a day (not a round trip).

Line 3: This line is quite directly translated.

Line 4: I found “skiff” as a good translation for 轻舟qīngzhōu, 舟zhōu just means “boat” 轻qīng means “light”, “skiff” seems to capture nicely the fact that he was on an insignificant, gentle and small vessel. I added in the pronoun “my” hesitantly. There are no pronouns in the original poem and I care a lot for precision of translation. The pronoun however does add an intimate feel. The sentence is about passing ten thousand mountains, sure — the boat passed them and the poem says that, but I wanted to add in some sentiment about it being “him and his boat” together on the voyage. It adds some feeling about how it was just the two of them, aside from the apes calling, he was alone. “the skiff” was another option but I chose against it for this reason mentioned.


8 Replies to “Chinese Poem: 早发白帝城 (Zǎo fā bái dì chéng)”

  1. Shawn – not knowing much… I like the rhythm of the English translation… Happy Birthday Saffi for today too…

  2. My suggestion…and I would suggest you also consider the history/context of the poem before translation…direct translation is fine, but the poet is really happy back home after a two year exile from the emperor, thus he is so eager to go back home from a remote location…I added the context in, hopefully it will help the translation of ancient Chinese poems.

    Morning Departure from City Baidi
    Author: Bai Li(AD701-AD762, Tang Dynasty)
    Translator: Lei Fan 2016 in Chicago

    Farewell City Baidi, a place surrounded by cloud with hundred hues,
    Although thousand miles away, back to Jiangling, one day is all it takes.
    The whistles of the monkeys has not yet faded along the river banks,
    My buoyant boat has already passed all the mountains and ridges, takes me home.

    Love to discuss more Chinese poem translations

    1. Lei Fan thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

      Great comment. As you’re aware translation of poems is multi-dimensional and really a matter of constrained design. I like your translation for finding accuracy from the angle you mentioned — it definitely adds an additional layer to understanding the original poem. Awesome!



  3. Thanks for sharing your translation. “Skiff” is a great touch, and an improvement over “light boat,” which is used by so many others. I agree with Lei that the fact that he is returning to the emperor’s service (and therefore to Jiangling) is important context, so you might even consider using that word. “Ape” is not the word I would choose for 猿, which has a very specific meaning in classical Chinese poetry, referring to the gibbon as opposed to the monkey or macaque. I know two syllables may be harder to work with than one, (constrained design) but there weren’t any apes in China in the Tang dynasty! Also, there are several good YouTube clips of gibbon cries that would give you an idea of what the poet actually heard (or thought of) when he was writing the poem.

  4. Hi
    I memorized this poem on a trip to China but would love to hear it read aloud as I’ve lost the sounds and rhythm.

  5. What is the metaphorical meaning of the last two lines:
    “On both banks the apes cry out repeatedly,
    My skiff has passed ten thousand mountains.”

    Kindly explain. Thank you.

    1. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a literal description of the “epic journey” of the author.

  6. A great poem of the Tang Dynasty but frankly you desecrate it by using the so-called simplified characters which are a grotesque mockery of the beautiful, symmetric traditional Chinese characters.

    The best translation is from the White Pony collection — or my own interpretation that evokes the poem’s meaning — liberation from confinement into the open vista of natural beauty and movement of clouds, rivers and mountains; escaping rapidly to freedom and leaving the jabbering of the surrounding crude officials who imprisoned him far behind, reaching safety after being deprived for so long 15 miles an hour is a plausible speed

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