Asian Culture and Arts - 2005-2006





Reading Supplement to "A Song of Unending Sorrow"


The Chinese poem "A Song of Unending Sorrow" in your reading assignment is translated by Witter Bynner, in Anthology of Chinese Literature, pp.266-269.

The story of the poem, the romance between Tang Emperor Xuan-zong and his Prized Consort Yang Guei-fei, is a popular Chinese story having been adapted into many forms of literary and artistic expressions through generations. Its influence has extended to Japan, which can be felt all through the narrative of Tale of Genji. It is not only a tragic tale between lovers, but it reflects on the theme of unpredictable human fate at the same time recording an important piece of Chinese history. The An Lu-shan rebellion narrated in the poem became a major turning point in Tang Dynasty, where one of the most powerful and prosperous Chinese empires turned sharply to decline.

When the poem was first published, it was accompanied by a prose narrative (which is in many ways just as lyrical as poetry in classical literary style) written by Cheng Hong. I am attaching this prose account here for your reference:

Cheng Hong (early 9th Century), An Account to Go with the “A Song of Unending Sorrow”

--translated by Stephen Owen, in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, pp. 448-452

During the Kai-yuan Reign, the omens of the Stair Star showed a world at peace, and there were no problems throughout all the land within the four circling seas. Xuan-zong, having been long on the throne, grew weary of having to dine late and dress while it was still dark for the dawn audience; and he began to turn over all questions of government, both large and small, to the Assistant Director of the Right, Li Lin-fu, while the Emperor himself tended either to stay deep in the palace or go out to banquets, finding his pleasure in all the sensual delights of ear and eye. Previously the Empress Yuan-xian and the Consort Wu-hui had both enjoyed His Majesty’s favor—but each in turn had departed this world; and even though there were in the palace over a thousand daughters of good families, none of them really caught his fancy. His Majesty was fretful and displeased.

In those days every year in December the imperial entourage would journey to Hua-qing Palace. The titled women, both from the inner palace and from without, would follow him like luminous shadows. And he would grant them baths in the warm waters there, in the very waves that had bathed the imperial sun. Holy fluids in a springlike breeze went rippling through those places. It was then that His Majesty’s heart was smitten: for he had truly come upon the one woman, and all the fair flesh that surrounded him seemed to him like dirt. He summoned Gao Li-shi to make a secret search for this woman in the palaces of the princes; and there, in the establishment of the Prince of Shou, he found the daughter of Yang Xuan-yan. She had already become a mature woman. Her hair and tresses were glossy and well arranged; neither slender nor plump, she was exactly of the middle measure; and there was a sensuous allure in her every motion, just like the Lady Li of Emperor Wu of the Han. He ordered a special channel of the warm springs cut for her and commanded that it be offered to her gleaming fineness. When she came out of the water, her body seemed frail and her force spent, as if she could not even bear the weight of lace and gauze; yet she shed such radiance that it shone on all around her. His Majesty was most pleased. On the day he had her brought to meet him, he ordered the melody “Coats of Feathers, Rainbow Skirts” played to precede her. And on the eve when their love was consummated, he gave her, as proofs of his love, a golden hairpin and an inlaid box. He also commanded that she wear golden earrings and a hair-pick that swayed to her pace. The following year he had her officially listed as Gui-fei, Prized Consort, entitled to half the provision as an empress. From this point on she assumed a seductively coy manner and spoke wittily, suiting herself to His Majesty’s wishes by thousands of fetching ways. And His Majesty came to dote on her ever more deeply.

At this time the Emperor made a tour of his nine domains and offered the gold-sealed tablets in ceremonies on the Five Sacred Peaks. On Mount Li during snowy nights and in Shang-yang Palace on spring mornings she would ride in the same palanquin as the Emperor and spend the night in the same apartments; she was the main figure of feasts and had his bedchamber all to herself when he retired. There were three Great Ladies, nine Royal Spouses, twenty-seven Brides of the Age, eighty-one Imperial Wives, Handmaidens of the Rear Palace, Women Performers of the Music Bureau—and on none of these was the Son of Heaven the least inclined to look. And from that time on, no one from the Six Palaces was ever again brought forward to the royal bed. This was not only because of her sensual allure and great physical charms, but also because she was clever and smart, artful at flattery and making herself agreeable, anticipating His Majesty’s wishes—so much so that it cannot be described. Her father, her uncle, and her brothers were all given high honorary offices and were raised to ranks of Nobility Equal to the Royal House. Her sisters were enfeoffed as Ladies of Domains. Their wealth matched that of the royal house; and their carriages, clothes, and mansions were on a par with the Emperor’s aunt, Princess Tai-chang. Yet in power and the benefits of imperial favor, they surpassed her. They went in and out of the royal palace unquestioned, and the senior officers of the capital would turn their eyes away from them. There were doggerel rhymes in those days that went:

If you have a girl, don’t feel sad;
If you have a boy, don’t feel glad.


The boy won’t be a noble,
But the daughter may be queen;
So look on your daughters now
As the glory of the clan.

To such a degree were they envied by people.

At the end of the Tian-bao Reign, her uncle Yang Guo-zhong stole the position of Chancellor and abused the power he held. When An Lu-shan led his troops in an attack on the imperial palace, he used punishing Yang Guo-zhong as his pretext. Ton Pass was left undefended, and the Kingfisher Paraphernalia of the imperial entourage had to set out southward. After leaving Xian-yang, their path came to Ma-wei Pavilion. There the Grand Army hesitated, holding their pikes in battle positions and refusing to go forward. Attendant officers, gentlemen of the court, and underlings bowed down before His Majesty’s horse and asked that this current Chao Cuo be executed to appease the world. Yang Guo-zhong then received the yak-hair hat ribbons and the pan of water, by which a great officer of the court presents himself to the Emperor for punishment, and he died by the edge of the road. Yet the will of those who were with the Emperor was still not satisfied. When His Majesty asked what the problem was, those who dared speak out asked that the Prized Consort also be sacrificed to allay the wrath of the world. His Majesty knew that it could not be avoided, and yet he could not bear to see her die, so he turned his sleeve to cover his face as the envoys dragged her off. She struggled and threw herself back and forth in panic, but at last she came to death under the strangling cord.
Afterward, Xuan-zong came to Cheng-du on his Imperial Tour, and Su-zong accepted the succession at Ling-wu. In the following year the Monster himself [An Lu-shan] forfeited his head, and the imperial carriage returned to the capital. Xuan-zong was honored as His Former Majesty and given a separate establishment in the Southern Palace, then transferred to the western sector of the Imperial Compound. As time and events passed, all joy had gone from him and only sadness came. Every day of spring or night of winter, when the lotuses in the ponds opened in summer or when the palace ash trees shed their leaves in autumn, the performers of the Pear Garden Academy would produce notes on their jade flageolets; and if he heard one note of “Coat of Feathers, Rainbow Skirts,” His Majesty’s face would lose its cheer, and all those around him would sob and sigh. For three years there was this one thing on his mind, and his longing never subsided. His soul sought her out in dream, but she was so far away he could not reach her.

It happened then that a wizard came from Shu; and knowing that His Majesty was brooding so much on Yang the Prized Consort, he said that he possessed the skills of Li the Young Lord, the wizard who had summoned the soul of Lady Li for Emperor Wu of the Han. Xuan-zong was very pleased, and ordered him to bring her spirit. The wizard then used all his skills to find her, but could not. He was also able to send his spirit on journeys by riding vapors; he went up into the precincts of Heaven and sank down into the vaults of the Earth looking for her; but he did not meet her. And then again he went to the margins and encircling wastelands, high and low, to the easternmost extreme of Heaven and the Ocean, where he strode across Fang-hu.

He saw there the highest of the mountains of the Undying, with many mansions and towers; at the end of the western verandah there was a deepest doorway facing east; the gate was shut, and there was written “The Garden of Tai-zhen, Jade Consort.” The wizard pulled out a hatpin and rapped on the door, at which a young maiden with her hair done up in a double coil came out to answer the door. The wizard was so flustered he couldn’t manage to get a word out, so the maiden went back in. In a moment another servant girl in a green dress came out and asked where he was from. The wizard then identified himself as an envoy of the Tang Son of Heaven and conveyed the command he had been given. The servant said, “ The Jade Consort has just gone to bed; please wait a while for her.” Thereupon he was swallowed up in a sea of clouds with the dawn sun breaking through them as down a tunnel to the heavens; then the jasper door closed again and all was still and without a sound.

The wizard held his breath and did not move his feet, waiting at the gate with folded hands. After a long time, the servant invited him to come in and said, “The Jade consort is coming out.” Then he saw a person with a bonnet of golden lotuses, wearing lavender chiffon, with pendants of red jade hanging from her sash and phoenix slippers, and seven or eight persons in attendance on her. She greeted the wizard and asked, “Is the Emperor well?” Then she asked what had happened since the fourteenth year of the Tian-bao Reign. When he finished speaking, she grew wistful and gestured to her servant to get a golden hairpin and inlaid box, each of which she broke in parts. She gave one part of each to the envoy, saying, “Express my gratitude to the Emperor and present him these objects as mementos of our former love.”

The wizard received her words and these objects of surety; he was ready to go, but one could see in his face that something was troubling him. The Jade Consort insisted that he tell her what was the matter. Then he knelt down before her and said, “Please tell me something that happened back then, something of which no one else knew, so that I can offer to His Majesty as proof. Otherwise I am afraid that with the inlaid box and the golden hairpin I will be accused of the same kind of trickery that Xin Yian-ping practiced on Emperor Wen of the Han.” The Jade Consort drew back lost in thought, as if there were something she were recalling with fondness. Then very slowly she said, “Back in the tenth year of Tian-bao Reign, I was attending on His Majesty, who had gone to the palace of Mount Li to escape the heat. It was autumn, in the seventh month, the evening when the Oxherd and the Weaver Star meet. It was the custom of the people of Qin on that night to spread out embroidery and brocade, to put out food and drink, to set up flowers and melons, and to burn incense in the yard—they call this ‘begging for deftness.’ Those of the inner palace hold this custom in particularly high regard. It was almost midnight; and the guards and attendants in the eastern and western cloisters had been dismissed. I was waiting on His Majesty alone. His Majesty stood there, leaning on his shoulder, then looked up at the heavens and was touched by the legend of the Oxherd and Weaver Star. We then made a secret vow to one another, a wish that we could be husband and wife in every lifetime. When we stopped speaking, we held hands, and each of us was sobbing. Only the Emperor knows of this.”

Then she said sadly, “Because of this one thought so much in my mind, I will be able to live on here no longer. I will descend again to the world below and our future destiny will take shape. Whether in Heaven or in the world of mortal men, it is certain that we will meet again and form our bond of love as before.” Then she said, “His Former Majesty will not be long in the world of men. I hope that he will find some peace of mind and not cause himself suffering.”

The envoy returned and presented this to His Former Majesty, and the Emperor’s heart was shaken and much afflicted with grief. For days on end he could find no cheer. In the summer of that year, in the fourth month, His Majesty passed on.

In winter of the first year of the Yuan-he Reign, the twelfth month (February 807), Bo Ju-yi of Tai-yuan left his position as Diarist in the Imperial Library to be the sheriff of Chou County. I, Chen Hong, and Wang Zhi-fu of Lang-ya had our homes in this town; and on our days off we would go together visiting sites of Undying and Buddhist temples. Our discussion touched on this story, and we were all moved to sighs. Zhi-fu lifted his winecup to Bo Ju-yi and said, “Unless such an event finds an extraordinary talent who can adorn it with colors, even something so rare will fade away with time and no longer be known in the world. Bo Ju-yi is deeply familiar with poetry and has strong sentiments. Why doesn’t he write a song on the topic.” At this Bo Ju-yi made the “Song of Lasting Pain (or, Unending Sorrow).” It is my supposition that he was not only moved by the event, but he also wanted to offer warning about such creatures that can so enthrall a man, to block the phases by which troubles come, and to leave this for the future. When the song was finished, he had me write a prose account for it. Of those things not known to the general public, I, not being a survivor of the Kai-yuan, have no way to know. For those things known to the general public, the “Annals of the Reign of Xuan-zong” are extant. This is merely an account for the “Song of Unending Sorrow.”

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