The Song of Everlasting Sorrow - Medieval Chinese Literature
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Song of Everlasting Sorrow

About 800 AD, in the T'ang Dynasty, a poet named Bai Juyi wrote a poem called the Song of the Everlasting Sorrow. Bai Juyi tried to write poetry in simple ways that anybody would be able to understand. A lot of people liked his poetry. Bai Juyi's poem became very famous, and for hundreds of years after that children memorized it in school to recite.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is about a real man, the T'ang Dynasty emperor Hsuan Tsung, and his great love Yang Kuei-fei. Hsuan Tsung was a very powerful emperor who ruled for a long time. As he got older, though, he met a very beautiful young woman named Yang Kuei-fei, and fell deeply in love with her. The two of them spent all their time together for many years, sometimes fighting and making up in romantic ways. But the army was jealous. People thought that Yang's family was getting too much power because of the emperor's love for her. The army revolted against Hsuan Tsung, and, as Hsuan Tsung and Yang were running away, the army caught Yang and killed her. Hsuan Tsung got away and lived, but he gave up being emperor and let his son rule.

This poem is about how much Hsuan Tsung missed Yang after she was killed. Here it is:

Song of Everlasting Sorrow

China's Emperor yearning, for beauty that shakes a kingdom,
Reigned for many years, searching but not finding,
Until a child of the Yang, hardly yet grown,
Raised in the inner chamber, unseen by anybody,
But with heavenly graces that could not be hidden,
Was chosen one day for the Imperial household.
If she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell,
Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing.
Hair's cloud, pale skin, shimmer of gold moving,
Flowered curtains protected on cool spring evenings.
Those nights were too short. That sun too quick in rising.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Li Palace rose high in the clouds.
The winds carried soft magic notes,
Songs and graceful dances, string and pipe music.
He could never stop himself from gazing at her.

But the Earth reels. War drums fill East Pass,
Drown out The Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt.
Great Swallow Pagoda and Hall of Light,
Are bathed in dust - the army fleeing Southwards.
Out there Imperial banners, wavering, pausing
Until by the river forty miles from West Gate,
The army stopped. No one would go forward,
Until horses' hooves trampled willow eyebrows.
Flower on a hairpin. No one to save it.
Gold and jade phoenix. No one retrieved it.
Covering his face the Emperor rode on.
Turned to look back at that place of tears,
Hidden by a yellow dust whirled by a cold wind.

As Shu waters flow green, Shu mountains show blue,
His majesty's love remained, deeper than the new.
White moon of loneliness, cold moon of exile.
Bell-chimes in evening rain were bronze-edged heartbeats.
So when the dragon-car turned again northwards
The Emperor clung to Ma-Wei's dust, never desiring
To leave that place of memories and heartbreak.
Where is the white jade in heaven and earth's turning?

Lakes and gardens are still as they have been,
T'ai-yi's hibiscus, Wei-yang's willows.
A flower-petal was her face, a willow-leaf her eyebrow,
How could it not be grief just to see them?
Plum and pear blossoms blown on spring winds
Maple trees ruined in rains of autumn.
Palaces neglected, filled with weeds and grasses,
Mounds of red leaves spilled on unswept stairways.
Burning the midnight light he could not sleep,
Bells and drums tolled the dark hours,
The Ocean of Heaven bright before dawn,
The porcelain mandarin birds frosted white,
The chill covers of kingfisher blue,
Colder and emptier, year by year.
And the loved spirit never returning.

A Taoist priest of Ling-chun rode the paths of Heaven,
He with his powerful mind knew how to reach the Spirits.
The Courtiers troubled by the Emperor's grieving,
Asked the Taoist priest if he might find her.
He opened the sky-routes, swept the air like lightning,
Looked everywhere, on earth and in heaven,
Scoured the Great Void, and the Yellow Fountains,
But failed in either to find the one he searched for.
Then he heard tales of a magic island
In the Eastern Seas, enchanted, eternal,
High towers and houses in air of five colours,
Perfect Immortals walking between them,
Among them one they called The Ever Faithful,
With her face, of flowers and of snow.

She left her dreams, rose from her pillow,
Opened mica blind and crystal screen,
Hastening, unfastened, clouded hair hanging,
Her light cap unpinned, ran along the pavement.
A breeze in her gauze, flowing with her movement,
As if she danced Feathered Coat and Rainbow Skirt.
So delicate her jade face, drowned with tears of sadness,
Like a spray of pear flowers, veiled with springtime rain.

She asked him to thank her Love, her eyes gleaming,
He whose form and voice she lost at parting.
Her joy had ended in Courts of the Bright Sun,
Moons and dawns were long in Faerie Palace.
When she turned her face to look back earthwards
And see Ch'ang-an - only mist and dust-clouds.
So she found the messenger her lover's gifts
With deep feeling gave him lacquer box, gold hairpin,
Keeping one half of the box, one part of the hairpin,
Breaking the lacquer, splitting the gold.

"Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again."
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
"On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree."

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Copyright 2000 A.S.Kline, All Rights Reserved This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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