Three Chinese Poets

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First edition
(publ. Penguin/Viking)

Three Chinese Poets is a book of poetry by the titular poets Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu translated into English by Vikram Seth. The Three Poets were contemporaries and are considered to be amongst the greatest Chinese poets by many later scholars. The three have been described as a Buddhist recluse, a Taoist immortal and a Confucian sage respectively. Though this trichotomy has been criticised as simplistic and artificial, it can act as a guiding approximation. They lived in the Tang Dynasty and the political strife at that time affected all of their lives very much and this impact is evident in the poetry of all three.

It is not clear whether Wang Wei and Li Bai ever met, but they had a mutual friend in Meng Haoran. Li Bai and Du Fu did meet and in fact Du Fu greatly admired Li Bai.

In the introduction of Three Chinese Poets, Seth talks about the influence of translations on his life and work; that while sometimes he has been so moved by a translation that he learnt another language to read the original, he doubts that he would ever be able to do this as much as he wished to. However, he says that Charles Johnston's translation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Richard Wilbur's translation of Molière's Tartuffe and Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Iliad have helped him enter worlds without which would have been out of his reach. He states that he avoided the style and philosophy of the famous translations by Ezra Pound which was to read and deeply understand a poem then to create an approximate translation inspired by the original - the judge of the merit being whether the new poem is a good poem in the new language. Instead he wanted to follow the example of the translators mentioned above to retain a greater fidelity and to try to preserve structure such as rhyme. He stresses that while he has tried not to lose meaning, he has often failed, explaining that because each word is much more important in poetry, the problem of losing associations of words is much greater than when translating prose. He also makes note that any satisfaction derived from the tonality of the poems is necessarily lost because of the non-tonality of English.


  • Wang Wei
    • Deer Park
    • Birdsong Brook
    • Lady Xi
    • Grieving for Meng Haoran
    • Remembering my Brothers in Shandong on the Double-Ninth Festival
    • The Pleasures of the Country
    • Autumn Nightfall in my Place in the Hills
    • Zhongnan Retreat
    • Living in the Hills: Impromptu Verses
    • Lament for Lin Yao
    • Ballad of the Peach Tree Spring
  • Li Bai
    • In the Quiet Night
    • A Song of Qui-pu
    • The Waterfall at Lu Shan
    • Question and Answer in the Mountains
    • Seeing Meng Hoaran off to Yagzhou
    • Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute
    • The Mighty Eunuchs' Carriages
    • Drinking Alone with the Moon
    • Bring in the Wine
    • The Road to Shu is Hard
  • Du Fu
    • Thoughts while Travelling at Night
    • Spring Scene in Time of War
    • Moonlit Night
    • The Visitor
    • Thoughts on an Ancient Site: The Temple of Zhu-ge Liang
    • The Chancellor of Shu
    • An Autumn Meditation
    • Dreaming of Li Bai
    • To Wei Ba, who has Lived Away from the Court
    • The Old Cypress Tree at the Temple of Zhu-ge Liang
    • A Fine Lady
    • Grieving for the Young Prince
    • Ballad of the Army Carts