Chinese Poem: “Thinking on a Quiet Night” 靜夜思

By Ben Hedges, NTDTV
June 1, 2016 Updated: June 1, 2016

This is the first poem that most students learn when they begin to study classical Chinese. That doesn’t mean it the best poem ever, but it is one of the most classic textbook examples of Chinese poetry.

Written by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, this poem is called, 靜夜思 Jìng yè sī, Jìng means tranquil, yè means night and sī means to think, so we can translate the title as “Thinking on a Quiet Night.”

Let’s now take a look at the first line.

床前明月光 Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng

床 chuáng means bed, and 前 qián, in this context means “in front of” and the Chinese put character describing position after the character for the thing they are describing position in relation to. So 床前 chuáng qián literally “bed in front” means “in front of the bed.”   

Next we have three characters 明月光 míng yuè guāng, so míng means “bright”, yuè means “moon” and guāng means “light.” So these three together mean “bright moon light.” Thus the whole line means “In front of the bed (there is) bright moon light.”

Now for the second line.

疑是地上霜 Yí shì dì shàng shuāng

疑 yí means “to suspect” and is the same 疑 yí as in the modern Chinese word 懷疑 huái yí “to suspect” but we are not talking about suspecting a bad thing here. You could also translate it as seems like, which in modern Chinese is 好像 hǎoxiàng. Then we have 是 shì which is basically the same meaning as in modern Chinese, it means “is.”

Then we have three characters, 地上霜 dì shàng shuāng, dì means “the ground” and shàng means “on,” and if you remember from the first line, the Chinese put position words after the thing they are describing position in relation to. So 地上 dìshàng “ground on” comes to mean “on the ground.” Then the last character 霜 shuāng means frost. So these three characters together mean “frost on the ground.” And the whole line means “Seems like there is frost on the ground.”

So these two lines together refer to the scene that Li Bai was describing,  that the moon was shining so brightly outside the window in front of his bed, that the ground outside the window was lit up and looked white, as if there had been a frost.

Now for the third line 舉頭望明月 jǔ tóu wàng míng yuè

So jǔ means “to raise” and tóu means “one’s head” so together this means “raise the head.” It is worth noting however that in modern Chinese you don’t say jǔ tóu to mean raise the head, you say 抬頭 tái tóu.

Now let’s look at the next three characters. 望明月 wàng míng yuè. Wàng means “to gaze into the distance” and it can be seen in the modern Chinese word 希望 xīwàng which means “hope.” In this context we can translate the single character as “gaze at.” Now these next two characters míng yuè mean “bright moon.”

So the whole line 舉頭望明月 jǔ tóu wàng míng yu  means “(I) raise (my) head and gaze at the bright moon.”

Now on to the next and final line.

低頭思故鄉 dī tóu sī gù xiāng

 

So dī means low but in this context it is used as a verb meaning “to lower.” Then we have the character tóu again meaning head, so together it means “to lower one’s head.” Then we have the character 思 sī to think, and the two character gùxiāng which together mean “hometown.”

 

So the whole line can be translated as “(I) lower (my) head and think of (my) hometown.”

 

 

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