Custom Search

The Lute 1

Bai, Ju-Yi (772-846 CE)


    In 815 CE I was demoted 2 to deputy mayor of Jiu-jiang City. One evening in the autumn of the next year, I saw a guest off at the junction of the Pen River and the Yangtze River. While I was there, I heard someone in a boat playing the lute. It resounded like a bell which was in the style of popular music heard in the capital. I traced the sound and went to ask who was playing. I discovered that the musician was a female singer from the capital. She had studied music with Masters Mu and Cao. When she was old and no longer beautiful, she married a merchant. Attracted by her music, I ordered some wine and asked her to play a few of her favorite songs. After she finished playing, she was sorrowful. She told me that she was happy and carefree when she was young, but that she is now haggard and drifts from place to place. Even though I have been demoted for two years, I have always been content with what I have had. After hearing her story, her misfortune inflicted self-pity on me for my exile. That is why I am writing this poem for her and calling it "The Lute".


I saw a guest off at the pier of Jiu-jiang City.
The maple leaves and reed flowers rustled in the autumn wind.
I dismounted from my horse to meet my guest in a boat.
We raised our wine glasses to drink,
But there was no music for entertainment.
Drinking failed to dispel our sorrow.
Soon my guest would sadly part from me.
The vast river was drenched in moonlight.
Suddenly I heard lute music from across the water nearby.
I forgot to return home and my guest delayed his journey.
We traced the sound and went to ask who was playing.
The lute sound stopped, but the musician hesitated to reply.
We moved our boat closer and invited the musician to meet us.
I ordered more wine and food, and lit more candles.
We invited the musician again and again.
Finally she agreed to join us.
When she came out,
She cradled her lute, half hiding her face.
After she moved the pegs, adjusted the strings, and tested the tune,
Her passion welled up on her face even before she began to play.
The sound from the strings was low and full of contemplation.
It seemed to lament her unfortunate life.
She lowered her eyebrows and continued to play
While her fingers were running freely with improvisation.
The music vented the sorrows in her mind.
She lightly gathered strings, slowly strummed them and then plucked them.
She first played “the Flying Rainbow-colored Cloth”, then “Recording Summary”.
Thick strings rumbled like torrential rain.
Fine strings tinkled like a whisper.
Rumbling and tinkling mingled in her music
Like large and small pearls dropping onto a jade plate.
Sometimes the music was like an oriole’s chirp drifting down through the flowers in the tree.
Sometimes its pace slowed down like a spring reaching a sandy shore.
The sound from the strings, like water beginning to freeze, gradually stopped.
It was because the music aroused her latent sorrow.
At this moment, silence was better than any sound.
All of a sudden loud music began
Like water splashing when a silver bottle accidentally burst
Or like cavalry suddenly attacking with their swords and lances roaring.
At the end she withdrew her pick and scratched across the middle of her strings.
A single sound like a piece of silk being torn apart rose from four strings.
The neighboring boats to the east and west of us were quiet.
All we noticed was the white autumn moon reflecting from the center of the river.
After placing her pick between strings,
She straightened her clothes and assumed a solemn expression.
Then she said that she originally came from the capital.
Her home was near the Dismounting Tomb 3.
She mastered the lute at thirteen.
Her name was placed atop the list at the Royal Theater.
After she finished a song, even her teachers admired her great talent.
When she dressed in her finery, all the actresses were jealous of her beauty.
The young men around the Five Tombs 4 competed to send her gifts.
A single song she performed could win her innumerable bolts of red silk.
She frequently broke her gold hairpins and silver combs
Because she used them as musical instruments for tapping or striking.
Her red silk skirt was often stained at a party by an overturned wine glass.
She was carefree year after year.
The autumn moon and spring wind passed without notice.
Her brother joined the army and her aunt died.
Evenings passed and mornings came.
She was no longer as beautiful as she used to be.
There were few visitors at her door
And few horses and carriages stopped by her house.
When she was no longer young,
She married a merchant who valued profit more than love.
Last month her husband went to Jing-De City to purchase tea
And left her in an empty boat at the mouth of the river.
Only cold water and the bright moon circled around her boat.
In the middle of night she dreamed about her youth.
She cried in her dream;
Her tears ran down her face and ruined her makeup.
I sighed after listening to her music.
Hearing her story made me even sadder.
I felt we must have known each other for a long time
Because we were both unfortunate wanderers.
I have been ill at Jiu-jiang City
Since I was in exile from the capital last year.
Jiu-jiang City is remote and lacks musicians.
All year long I cannot hear good music.
I live in the low wetland near the Pen River.
My house is surrounded by yellow reeds and bitter bamboos 5.
All I can hear are the sad cries of cuckoos and apes.
Whenever flowers bloom on a spring morning
Or the bright moon hangs high on an autumn night,
I often fetch wine and drink alone.
Although there are some folk songs and country flutes,
They are coarse, jarring, and unpleasant.
When I heard her lute music tonight,
I felt that the music came from heaven
And my ears temporarily regained their sensitivity.
We asked her not to refuse our request
That she return to her seat and play another song for us.
I said I would write this poem to be her lyrics.
She was moved and stood there for quite a while.
Then she sat down and tightened the strings.
The pace turned fast;
The sound was more sorrowful than that she had played before.
All the people in our boat could not help but cover their faces and weep.
With my green sleeves drenched in tears,
I, the Deputy Mayor of Jiu-jiang City, wept the most bitterly in the boat.


1 The following video, entitled "An Overlord Removed His Armor", shows how powerful lute music can be:

2 Bai originally was the Prince's tutor. In June 815 CE, Prime Minister Yuan-heng Wu was assassinated by a warlord. Bai proposed that the government should investigate the incident. Powerful officials criticized him for acting beyond his office. Therefore, he was demoted to Deputy Mayor of Jiu-jiang City.

3 Dismounting Tomb was an emperor's tomb. People who visited there had to dismount from their horses to pay respect. That was how the place gained its name.

4 The Five Tombs were the tombs of five emperors in the Han dynasty. Those who lived in that neighborhood were wealthy.

5 Chinese eat young bamboo shoots. Older ones are bitter.