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Classical Chinese

生年不滿百 translation - The Years of Life Reach Not One Hundred

This is a translation of the Chinese poem 生年不滿百 (Shēng nián bù mǎn bǎi), from the Han dynasty collection 古詩十九首 (Nineteen Old Poems).A flaming torch

生年不滿百 shēng nián bù mǎn bǎi [life] [year] [not] [fulfil] [hundred] The years of life reach not one hundred,

常懷千歲憂 cháng huái qiān suì yōu [eternal] [bosom] [thousand] [year] [worry] yet the heart is in constant worry for a millennium.

晝短苦夜長 zhòu duǎn kǔ yè cháng [daytime] [short] [bitter] [night] [long] The day is short while the bitter night is long -

何不秉燭遊 hé bù bǐng zhú yóu [why] [not] [grasp] [candle] [roam] why not go wandering by candle light?

為樂當及時 wéi lè dāng jí shí [for] [happiness] [act] [in time] [time] Work for happiness without delay -

何能待來茲 hé néng dài lái zī [how] [can] [wait] [come] [herewith] how can you wait for the time to come?

愚者愛惜費 yú zhě ài xī fèi [fool] [one who] [love] [cherish] [expense] Fools cherish their expenditure,

但為後古嗤 dàn wèi hòu gǔ chī [but] [for] [later] [old] [laugh at] yet earn no more than laughter at the old from those in the future.

仙人王子喬 xiān rén wáng zǐ qiáo [immortal] [person] [_Wang_] [_Zi_] [_Qiao_] The immortal Wang Ziqiao -

難可與等期 nán kě yǔ děng qī [hard] [can] [with] [equal] [term] how difficult to be able to match him!

Notes on this poem

The line ‘何不秉燭遊’ contains the modern binome 秉燭 (bǐngzhú), meaning ‘by candlelight’. In the classical language, though, this could be interpreted more literally as ‘taking a candle’ or ‘grasping a torch’. As the meanings are pretty similar, I opted for the more elegant ‘by candlelight’.

A similar issue is presented by ‘愚者愛惜費’, which contains the modern binome 愛惜 (àixī). I chose to translate the characters separately as ‘love’ and ‘rue’, as they do not appear to form a binome in Classical Chinese.

Wang Ziqiao, in the penultimate line, is the name of a famous Daoist Immortal (仙人) who achieves either immortality or very long life in various legends.

Relevant books

Series: Nineteen Old Poems

  1. 行行重行行 Translation - Marching On and On
  2. 青青河畔草 Translation - Green, Green, Grass on the Riverbank
  3. 青青陵上柏 translation - Green, Green, Cypress on the Mound
  4. 今日良宴會 translation – Today we hold a splendid feast
  5. 西北有高樓 translation - A Tall Tower in the Northwest
  6. 涉江采芙蓉 translation - Crossing the River to Pick Hibiscus
  7. 明月皎夜光 translation - The Clear Moon Shines Brightly by Night
  8. 冉冉孤生竹 translation - Frail Bamboo Growing Alone
  9. 庭中有奇樹 translation - In the Courtyard there is a Strange Tree
  10. 迢迢牽牛星 translation - So Remote, the Draught Ox Star
  11. 迴車駕言邁 translation - I turn the carriage, pull the reins and set off
  12. 東城高且長 translation - The Eastern Wall is High and Long
  13. 驅車上東門 translation - I Ride My Chariot from the Upper East Gate
  14. 去者日以疏 translation - The Departed Are More Distant Daily
  15. 生年不滿百 translation - The Years of Life Reach Not One Hundred (this article)
  16. 凜凜歲云暮 translation - Bitterly Cold, the Year Ends
  17. 孟冬寒氣至 translation - In the First Month of Winter, Cold Air Arrives