Translation notes: Li Bai in Mandarin Duck Blades

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There are two interesting literary references in Chapter 2 of Mandarin Duck Blades that I want to dive into. First is a poem by Li Bai, and the other a proverb that originated from a poem by Emperor Zhengzong of Song.

I actually started translating Li Bai’s poem to get a better idea of the context and why Jin Yong chose it. The translation and explanation are so long that they warrant a standalone article on them. The translation of Emperor Zhengzong’s poem is essential to explaining the proverb so I’ve kept it in this post.

Li Bai’s poem

When the scholar makes his first appearance in the novel in Chapter 2, he is reciting a poem by Li Bai, a Tang dynasty poet who is acclaimed as one of the greatest and most influential poets in Chinese history.

For the unacquainted, the Tang Dynasty is regarded as the Golden Age of Chinese poetry. Li Bai and his friend Du Fu were two of the most prominent figures from the Golden Age, and their legacy persists to this day. Tang poems are taught in Chinese schools worldwide, featuring many of Li Bai and Du Fu’s famed works.

The Li Bai poem Jin Yong chose to incorporate in his writing is After getting drunk, I presenting a gift to nephew Gao Zhen (醉后赠从甥高镇). Aside from translating literally, the old translation made a notable mistake.

Translation comparison

Here’s the old translation:

When yellow gold pursues the hand, desire fades fast.
Yesterday’s bankruptcy makes the present court poor.
What matters make man unfettered in vain?
Perhaps it is better to burn the cloth on one’s head….

And here’s my translation for comparison:

Gold slips away and pleasure fades in an instant. Bankrupt yesterday and impoverished today. Why should a man boast with empty pride? Better to burn the turbans on our heads…

Zhao vs chao

The word 今朝 is read as jīnzhāo, which means today in this context. It’s used to as a contrast, a literary device, to show the difference between yesterday and today.

The translation mistook it as jīncháo, which means this today’s court.

Chinese is a high-context language that requires an understanding of cultural and situational context. In this example, the character 朝 has two pronunciations depending on the context it is used it, and it has multiple meanings depending on the conjugate character or context used. For example, 朝代 (cháodài) is literally court era, and it means dynasty.

Metal vs gold

The word 黄金 (huángjīn) is literally yellow metal. The character 金 referred to copper prior to 5th BCE, it was later expanded to mean metals in general, and then later on gold in particular. It is also used in modern day to refer to money. Differentiating between metal of gold depends on the context. Li Bai specified 黄金 in the poem to refer specifically to gold.

Examples of 金 compound words that refer to the metal:

  • 铂金 (bójīn) – platinum, literally platinum metal, meaning platinum
  • 合金 (héjīn) – alloy, literally combined metal, to mean alloy
  • 五金 (wǔjīn) – metalware, literally five metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, and tin
  • 金属 (jīnshǔ) – metals, literally belonging to (the category of) metals
  • 金星 (jīnxīng) – Venus, literally metal star because the planets are named after the elements

Example software 金 compound words that refer to gold:

  • 金发 (jīnfà) – blond, literally gold hair
  • 镀金 (dùjīn) – gild/gold-plated, literally plate with gold
  • 错金 (cuòjīn) – gold inlay, literally inlay with gold
  • 金色 (jīnsè) – gold (colour), literally gold colour
  • 纯金 (chúnjīn) – pure gold, literally pure gold

Proverb from Emperor Zhenzong’s poem

Aside from Li Bai’s poem, Jin Yong referenced a Chinese proverb that originates from a poem by Emperor Zhengzong of Song.

The old translation attributed the phrase to the poem. However, the phrase in the novel actually refers to the commonly-used Chinese proverb that has a slightly different meaning from the poem.

Translation comparison

Here’s the old translation and the footnote:

There is a saying “A book holds a house of gold.” [1]

[1] Allusion to Song Dynasty poem “There is no need for the rich to buy land, as plenty of food can be found in books. There is no need to invest in building a good house, as golden house can be found in books.”

And here’s my translation for comparison:

As the saying goes, there are houses of gold within books.

Poem translation

Original poem



Poem Exhorting Studying
No need to buy fertile land to become wealthy, there are thousands of bushels within books.
No need to build lofty halls to live in peace, there are houses of gold within books.
No need to lament having no followers when travelling, there are teams of carriages within books.
No need to fret over a lack of a good matchmaker when seeking a wife, there are beauties like jade within books.
If a man wishes to fulfil his life’s ambitions, he should study the Five Classics by the window diligently.


This poem reflects the Confucian values that permeated Chinese society, where academic achievement and mastery of classical texts were pathways to success and respect. It underscores the belief that knowledge and virtue, rather than wealth or birthright, were the true markers of nobility and worth.

The reference to the Five Classics is because they were central to Chinese education and civil service examinations in the Song Dynasty, and later unmade the official curriculum of the civil service examinations in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Proverb vs poem

The Chinese proverb uses the two lines from the poem: 书中自有黄金屋,书中自有颜如玉. This is literally: “There are houses of gold within books; There are beauties like jade within books.”

The figurative meaning is that if one was diligent in one’s studies, success and glory would follow. In the novel, the scholar is referring to this meaning rather than that there are houses of gold within books. It is used to show how ignorant the Four Xias of Taiyue are, and that they are only concerned about gold.

I translated the phrase literally so the Chang Changfeng’s respond makes sense, and it’s not that hard to infer the meaning from the literal translation. Though a more accurate understanding requires knowledge of the proverb.

Making comparisons

I mentioned in the previous blog post that I would stop pointing out errors in the old translation. However, I wanted to highlight how misunderstanding context can result in translations that actually changes the meaning quite a bit, hence I’m referencing it again.

I hope you enjoy the translation of Mandarin Duck Blades! Feel free to leave feedback and comments on the forum or in our Discord server.

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