Wang Wei — The Bamboo Grove

The Bamboo Grove

Wang Wei

701-761 CE
(translated by William P. Coleman)

Alone I sit, dark, among bamboos;
I pluck my qín, or whistle Taoist breathing.

Deep in forest, no one can know:
the bright moon visits me and shines.

I found the Chinese text and an English translation of this poem — along with the word-by-word literal translation I used to create this one — on p. 226 of Wai-Lim Yip’s book Chinese Poetry: an Anthology of Major Modes and Genres, Duke University Press, 1997; ISBN 0-8223-1946-2.

I also consulted the English translation in:

Seaton, JP. The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry. Seaton, JP. The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry. Boulder: Shambhala, 2006. ISBN 1-57062-862-9, p. 85.

And also:

Yu, Pauline. The Poetry of Wang Wei Yu, Pauline. The Poetry of Wang Wei. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. 0-253-17772-3, p. 204.

The grammar of Chinese allows poets to leave interpretive choices open, and it’s an unattainable ideal of translating to bring out possibilities without closing others. I try to use my sense of English to at least intrigue you. If I’ve succeeded, it’s best — even if you don’t know Chinese, which I don’t either — to follow up at the source I cite above and see the original word-by-word translation from which I worked. It’ll be richer than what I’ve given you. To understand the poem best, try to construct your own translation.

See the FAQ and the external links at Chinese Poems, a beautiful resource with many poems.

more Chinese poetry translations in this blog More Chinese poetry translations in this blog.
more Chinese poetry translations in this blog Home page for my Wang Wei translations.

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11 Responses to Wang Wei — The Bamboo Grove

  1. I read with interest your rendition of Wang Wei’s “The Bamboo Grove” and wish to discuss with you 2 points. (1) On your “whistle Taoist breathing” in line 2, I think no one can authoritatively say what Wang Wei had in mind by the word 嘯. It has been variously rendered as whistle, chant, croon, etc. I have simply used sing in my translation. My point is on “Taoist breathing” which may be out of place, given Wang Wei was a Buddhist. (2) On your “shine on each other” in line 4, although most phrases with the word 相 have to do with each other, in this context, it means a subject taking some action on an object, hence, 明(bright) 月(moon) 來(comes)相(taking the action of) 照(shining) with on me omitted.
    I am new to this hobby of translating classical Chinese poetry into English and have started a new blog Please visit it and give me your comments, kind and otherwise, but frank always. My translation of the poem is as follows:
    *Alone I sit, in the bowers of the bamboo trees,
    *My zither I pluck, then, long and loud I sing.
    *Deep in the forest, none knows I exist,
    *None but the moon, to me, solace you bring.
    Andrew W.F. Wong (11.3.2008)

  2. williampcoleman says:

    Thank you very much for visiting my page and for leaving your thoughtful comments.

    (1a) My source for “Taoist breathing” is the book I cited by Pauline Yu. p. 191 and p. 204. In part, her note reads, “a ‘whistle’ (xiao) was probably a combination of Taoist breathing techniques and whistling which was said to express feelings and was associated with harmonizing with nature and achieving immortality; the word has also been translated as ‘humming,’ ‘singing,’ and ‘crooning.’ The tradition of the xiao began during the Jin dynasty and has always been linked with Taoism.”

    (1b) Actually, the first Chinese poem I attempted to translate was “The Deer Enclosure,” which I did in response to reading the book “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei” by Weinberger and Paz. In it, they criticize several translations for not taking a sufficiently orthodox Buddhist line. For example, they dislike some translations for introducing an explicit narrator and using the word “I.” This attitude of theirs cooled my enthusiasm for Wang Wei for a while, since the philosophy they attribute to him is one I respect but have little personal sympathy for.

    But then a series of events made me question the “orthodoxy” of Wang Wei’s Buddhism:
    * I read the note quoted above, by Pauline Yu.
    * I found Wang Wei poems that seemed to need an explicit narrator. “The Bamboo Grove” is an excellent example: technically one could perhaps render it without a narrator, but it would become tortured and lose a lot of meaning. Notice that both you and I had to use the words “I” and “me” several times in our translations.
    * I found other Wang Wei poems that seemed to be implicitly, or even explicitly, Taoist. For example, “My Retreat at Chung-nan Mountain,” which uses the word “tao” in the first line — although many translators obstinately (?) render it as “Buddhist.”
    * I was surprised to find out that Su Tung P’o, who is far more subjective than Wang Wei, was also a Buddhist. So, apparently, Buddhism must include a wider variety of ideas than I’d previously thought.

    Since noticing these things, I imagine Wang Wei’s poems as expressing a complex, sophisticated combination of Buddhism and Taoism. With both pictures in mind, I find poems like “My Retreat at Chung-nan Mountain” very profound intellectually.

    (2) If, as you say, the usual meaning is “mutual,” you haven’t convinced me that Wang Wei didn’t also have that connotation in mind. Wai-Lim Yip suggests the related connotation: “to keep him company by shining.” I feel that much of the meaning of poetry is in connotations, allusions, and ambiguities. However, I do agree that I’m dissatisfied with my present wording — it doesn’t really say what I want it to — and it suggests instead something too banal.

    I like your version. Certainly it succeeds well considering your commitment to reproduce the original rhyme scheme — which is hard in English because there are fewer rhymes than in Chinese. Specific comments. (1) I think the word “bower” hasn’t been used in English for at least a hundred years except in poetry, so I feel it’s too sentimental. (2) I don’t like your use of “zither.” Most readers of English won’t know that word — and those who do will associate it too strongly with Anton Karas playing while Orson Welles flees through the sewers of Vienna in “The Third Man.” Also, as that movie suggests, the zither, although physically similar to a qín, has very much the wrong sound. However, I think my version (“lute”) also has the wrong associations and the wrong sound. Even worse, I think my “strum” is not as good as your “pluck.” So, I’ve made some revisions to my version in response to your comments — although not perhaps in the way you suggested. Thank you again!

    — Bill

  3. Dear Bill, Thank you for your prompt and very learned reply. On your comments/suggestions first. (1) I have used bowers for the b sound to go with bamboo trees. I have used the plural so that it will not be confused with a lady’s bower, a boudoir, a room. It appears that if, as you say, most readers do not know the word, it becomes problematic. I have therefore changed it to shade. (2) I have picked zither to represent the instrument because my mind’s picture is that of the poet sitting down plucking an instrument placed on a low table, and being ancient and Chinese, zither is a natural choice, not the piano or harpsichord. Others might picture it as an instrument held, a lute, mandolin, pipa, etc I have actually read guitar and piano translations. Since they are all string instruments, although I can live with zither, I will change it to strings. Now on your reply. (1a) When I said your Taoist breathing might be out of place, in addition to Wang being a Buddhist, I had also wanted to say you have used words to explicitly say the poet is doing something Taoist which might not even implicitly be in the original poem. I am sorry for not having made myself clear. Coming to think of it, I have yielded to similar temptations, for instance, the moon and solace in my line 4. I have now changed it to read: yet Comes the moonlight, on me, ever a-shining. (1b) I have no wish to get involved in the controversy of whether Wang was a Buddhist or a Taoist. Most Chinese in the old days were a combination of 3, Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist, in that order. You might have been right to say that Wang was a cpmplex, sophisticated combination of Buddhism and Taoism, but I must say with Conficianism ever present. The question I ask myself is, “How much should one read into the original poem?” I have no answer to that. (2) Mine is a dictionary interpretation which most Chinese speakers would take as correct, as in 相勸, 相阻. But even for 相照, it does not have to be interpreted as subject-action-object, but as mutual as in 肝胆相照. You are personifying the moon which is often done in Chinese poetry, but even with personification, one does not have to shine back onto the moon. Now, thanks to your stimulating ideas in our correspondence, my rendition of the poem is revised as follows:
    *Alone I sit, in the shade of the bamboo trees,
    *My strings I pluck, then, long and loud I sing.
    *Deep in the forest, none knows I exist, yet
    *Comes the moonlight, on me, ever a-shining.
    Yours, Andrew.

  4. Dear Bill, When I replied yesterday, I was in such a big hurry that my response to your (2) proved confusing and my revised last line inadequate. Now let me again, in a hurry (Saturday afternoon HK time), let you have the proper last line:
    *Comes the moonlight, as ever, on me, shining.
    I will come back to you Monday on my response to your (2).
    Yours, Andrew.

  5. Dear Bill, I am sorry for being unable to continue yesterday as promised. My proper response to your (2) should be: Mine is a dictionary interpretation which most Chinese speakers would take as correct, as in 好言相勸(persuade), 出手相助(help), and the same goes for 相照(shine on). There are indeed 2 parties but one is the subject and the other, the object. Although 相照 can be interpreted as mutual, as in 肝胆相照, the context here dictates a subject-action-object(object can be omitted) interpretation, particularly in view of the word 來(come) 相照(to shine on me). Sorry, my digression into personification is wrong. The moon is personfied in yours, in mine, and in the original. Now, back to my line 4 — I have second, third, etc. thoughts again, and am considering reverting to the stronger “none but the moon” (instead of ther weaker “yet comes the moonlight”) formulation, probably to be followed by “you come, as ever, a-shining”. Yours, Andrew.

  6. williampcoleman says:


    Thanks again for your continued interest and helpful replies. I acknowledge what you say about (2), but I don’t yet see how to say what I want so that it also meets your objections. Actually, the last line of your translation is closer to what I want than my own is — although I would make one change: “a-shining” is another expression i think English-speakers would find too quaint, limited to poetry and not usable in ordinary conversation. So, I might suggest you change it to perhaps something like, “Comes the moonlight, ever on me, shining.” This captures both your idea that it ought to be the moon that shines, but also my idea that there should be some covert suggestion that Wang shines too.

    Thanks for your remark about thinking that Confucianism should be in the mix. Although I’m constantly reading books about Chinese poetry and history, I’m aware that I’m so limited, not only by not knowing the language, but also the culture. (Very different from my translations from Ancient Greek, which I started studying in high school, 50 years ago.) I know a fair bit about Taoism, little about Buddhism, and near zero about Confucianism.

    A basic question, before I answer what you wrote about the qin. According to many translations, the title seems to be “Bamboo lodge” or “Bamboo hut.” Yet you and I have both translated the body of the poem as if he were outdoors, a long walk from his home, in a grove of bamboo that was only metaphorically a “lodge.” Do you think he’s outdoors or indoors?

    The reason I ask is that your comments have started me searching the web to find out about the qin. I hope soon to make a post about instruments, since Meng Haoran also mentions his qin.

    The Chinese instruments I’ve seen that look like zithers all seem too large to carry if you were out for a long evening stroll, but they would be appropriate indoors, perhaps in a “lodge.”. See the page Chinese musical instruments which shows examples.

    On the other hand, that same page shows a painting of a zither-like instrument being played outdoors. That same site has another page Liu Fang pipa and guzheng video demo, which offers (scroll about 1/3 down the page) a video of Liu Fang playing a pipa in a tune “The King Chu doffs his Armour” that she thinks may have been composed by Wang Wei.

    What do you think? I’m very puzzled about this, by now.

    — Bill

  7. Dear Bill, Sorry for not replying sooner. On your 3 points: (1) what is the qin? (2) the house, real or metaphorical? and (3) Wang Wei also shining?

    (1) Thank you for the link Liu Fang pipa and guzheng video demo. It is very interesting. But in my mind’s eyes, I can see the guzheng only, and not the pipa. I can see an instrument lying flat and not being held. This fits in with the word fu meaning then or again, a picture of Wang Wei sitting to play the instrument, then standing to sing (my version) or breathe out (your version). Of course, the same can be said of the pipa which is normally played in a sitting position, but Wang Wei will have to first put away the pipa which, again, can be readily done. To complete my picture, please also consider (2).

    (2) The house, hut, cottage, lodge must be real. It was a part of Wang Wei’s family estate, a part where bamboos were grown with the house located in the bamboo grove, forest, etc. The instrument, therefore, does not have to be light so as to be carried for a distance.

    (3) I continue to be of the view that it is the moon shining with Wang Wei on the receiving end. I have now revised this lats line to read “None but the moon, to me she comes a-shining.” Please see my blog

    I will soon be posting Wang Wei’s Deer Park/Enclosure which I have entitled Deer Range. Hope to meet you there.

    Best wishes, Andrew Wong.

  8. Larry Elder says:

    With interest I have read all of these comments. I am here at this site because of my researching Wang Wei…after having spent the past four years translating 174 of his poems…regarding “Bamboo Grove” my rendition is this:

    Inside a Bamboo Auditorium

    Sitting alone inside a secluded bamboo grove
    Playing the qin, making repeated long and strong whistles

    No people aware of this deep forest
    Bright moonlight arrives, we reflect each other

    As you can see I favor the word “auditorium”…even though it sounds somewhat absurd here…rather I meant a place where music is played and heard…and English has no other word…I also favor the word “qin”…the original, as no word in English is adequate…the qin is the qin. I believe Wang Wei is outside, and when the moonlight arrives, it shines on him, and he, if he is in chan…deep and profound meditation, reflects it back…like a good Buddhist.
    Wang Wei is all three beliefs..Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhist…but Chan Buddhist a wonderful Chinese blend of Tao and Buddha, and as a bureaucrat well versed in Konzi

  9. Benet says:

    It seems there are as many versions as there are translators, but I can detect certain common understandings:
    1. The action takes place outside a lodge (equivalent to a log cabin in Scandinavia?) in the middle of a bamboo grove
    2. The poet is all alone with only the moon to keep him company
    3. I’ll vote for the use of ‘qin’ for the instrument concerned
    4. For ‘xiao’, since it actually does not mean ‘singing’ I’ll vote for ‘whistling’
    5. I agree with Andrew that while the moon shines on Wang, he does not have to shine back, though he might reflect some of it back to the moon – an academic point. So, my rendering is:
    I’m sitting alone in a dark bamboo grove,
    And playing the qin while whistling along in harmony.
    No one ever comes to the deep bamboo grove,
    And only the moon above is keeping me company.
    Win some, lose some – c’est la vie!

  10. A couple of days ago, I posted my revised rendition of this poem on my other blog on the Hong Kong Economic Journal . As a result of discussion with bloggers there (and to them I am most grateful), I have now further revised my rendition as follows:-:

    Wang Wei (701—761): The Bamboo Grove Pavilion

    1 Alone I sit in the shade of bamboos serene,
    2 I pluck my strings, and long I whistle, I sing.
    3 Deep in the forest, no one knows I exist,
    4 None but the moon, to me she comes a-shining.

    Translated by Andrew W.F. Wong (Huang Hongfa) 譯者: 黃宏發
    18 February 2008 (revised 22.2.08; 26.2.08; 7.3.08; 14.3.08; 15.3.08; 17.3.08; 19.3.08; 10.4.08; 11.4.08) (text and notes further revised 26.8.11; 27.8.11; 28.8.11)

    You will wish to note I have made 3 major changes:
    (1) The word 館 in the title is now rendered as “Pavilion”;
    (2) I have added “serene” to cover the other meaning of the word 幽 in line 1; and
    (3) The word 嘯 in line 2 is now rendered primarily as “whistle” while retaining in the rendition the word “sing” taken to mean “to utter a series of (words or) sounds in musical tones”..

  11. Dear Bill, I have also written on your “Wang Wei–The Deer Enclosure” post. Grtaeful for your response. Andrew.

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