Custom Search

When Ping Li Plays the Lute

Li, He (790-816 CE)

The sad music from the lute made of Wu silk and Shu wood 1 reaches the Autumn sky.
The clouds over the empty mountain become so sorrowful
That they cease all movement.
Ladies Jiang-e shed tears on bamboo stalks 2;
Su-nü looks worried 3.
As Ping Li plays the lute in China 4,
The music is so melodious
Like a phoenix chirping
Or the jade from Kun mountain breaking on the ground.
Lotus flowers shed dewy tears;
Fragrant orchids smile.
The stifling tension before the twelve gates 5 melts away.
The twenty-three strings move the Jade Emperor 6.
The music pierces through the hole in the sky
Which Nü -wa 7 tries to mend with colorful stones.
Heaven startles; stones break; and thereby the autumn rain falls.
Like a dream,
The music enters the Southwestern Mountain.
The old patron goddess pricks up her ears to listen.
Old fish jump above waves and horned dragons dance.
Gang Wu 8, leaning against a laurel tree, is intoxicated by the music.
He cannot restrain himself from kicking up his dew-drenched foot.
The dew falls and wets the cold rabbit 9 beside him.


1 Wu refers to Zhejiang Province and Jiangsu Province. Shu is the short name of Sichuan Province. "The lute made of Wu silk and Shu wood" refers to the fact that the strings of the lute are made of Wu silk and that the frame of the lute is made of Shu wood.

2 When Emperor Yao became old, he abdicated his throne to virtuous Shun and married his two daughters, E-huang and Nü -ying, to him. "Ladies Jiang-e" refers to E-huang and Nü -ying. Emperor Shun reigned China for fifty years (2255?-2205? BCE). He died during a visit to the south. When E-huang and Nü -ying heard of Emperor Shun’s death, they cried. Their tears fell on bamboo stalks. In Chinese mythology, this explain why some bamboo stalks are speckled.

3 Su-nü was a daughter of Emperor Huang-di (yellow emperor), the ancestor of the Chinese people. Su-nü was an accomplished harpist and a goddess of song. This line says Li's music was so outstanding that even made the goddess of song sad.

4 The lute originated from the countries west of China. This line says that Ping Li plays Chinese music with a foreign music instrument.

5 "The twelve gates" refers to the gates of Chan-an City, the national capital of the Tang dynasty.

6 The Jade Emperor is the Supreme Deity of Taoism.

7 According to Chinese mythology, demons fought and broke the pillars of the heavens. Consequently, the heavens collapsed and the world was in chaos. Nü -wa, the wife of Emperor Fu-xi, used five-colored stones to mend the heavens.

8 In Chinese mythology, Gang Wu was banished to the moon due to his crime. The Jade Emperor told him that he could atone for his crime by felling a laurel there. However, whenever Wu chopped the tree, it would heal itself immediately. Therefore, Gang Wu remained on the moon and chopped the tree forever.

9 Chinese mythology holds that there is a rabbit on the moon constantly pounding herbs for the immortals. "The cold rabbit" in this line refers to this rabbit on the moon. The moon is colder than a mountain peak because the temperature is proportional to elevation.