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The Song of Endless Sorrow 1

Bai, Ju-yi 2 (772-846 CE)

Lecherous Emperor Xuan-zong of the Tang dynasty desired a woman of matchless beauty.
Though he had searched for many years,
He had not met his ideal woman during his reign.
Raised and hidden away in a deep boudoir,
The girl of the Yang family had just come of age,
But no one ever noticed her.
With her innate beauty, she had high ambition for herself.
As expected, one day she was chosen to wait on the emperor.
How charming she was when she glanced back with a smile.
All the royal concubines paled in comparison.
On a cold day in Spring,
The emperor invited her to take her bath in the Fresh Flower Pool.
After bathing in the slippery hot spring,
Her skin shone like cream.
The maids supported her because her fragility made her appear to lack in strength.
It was at this moment that the emperor began to become infatuated with her.
Her hair was like clouds,
Her face was like a flower,
And her gold earrings dangled with her steps.
She spent Spring nights with the emperor behind the bed curtain embroidered with lotuses.
A night was too short for them;
They slept until noon.
From then on, the emperor no longer attended the dawn audiences.
She was his favorite and stayed busy waiting on his every whim.
During the day, they went on playful excursions;
During the night, the emperor stayed only in Yu-huan's room.
Of 3,000 royal concubines only she enjoyed his love.
Having made herself ready in her gold chamber,
Yu-huan waited for the emperor to spend the night.
After a banquet in a magnificent tower, the flavor of wine mixed with romantic sentiment.
Subsequently, all her sisters and brothers were appointed to advanced ranks.
The entire nation admired the glory of the Yang family.
Parents in China changed their minds
And preferred to have daughters rather than sons.
The top of the Fresh Flower Palace on Li Mountain pierced the clouds.
Its heavenly music drifted with the wind and could be heard everywhere.
The emperor never experienced enough of her light songs and slow dances accompanied by music
Even though he watched her perform all day.
Suddenly, the earth-shaking war drums 3 of rebel troops closed in on the capital.
The beating drums stopped the Dance of Flying Rainbow-Colored Cloth 4 taking place in the palace.
The emperor’s team of horses stirred up a dust storm in the capital.
Thousands of troops escorted the emperor as he fled south-westerly.
But ten miles into their flight,
The swaying flag decorated with jade and feathers suddenly stopped its advance.
The troops refused to move
And forced the beauty of the beauties, Yu-huan, to kill herself as they looked on.
Her feather headdress, gold birds, and jade hairpin fell to the ground,
But no one collected her jewelry.
The emperor covered his face, unable to save her.
As he glanced back, his tears fell, mingled with blood.
The bleak and chilly wind scattered yellow dust in the air.
The troops circled around the mountain path above the clouds
And finally ascended to Jian-ge Pass 5, their haven.
With few people traveling at the foot of the E-Mei Mountain,
The emperor’s flag lost its luster and the sun looked pale.
The Shu 6 River was green, as were the Mountains of Shu Range.
The verdant color caused the emperor to miss Yu-huan day and night.
When he saw the moon in his temporary palace,
Its color filled his heart with sorrow.
The tinkling of harness bells broke his heart during rainy nights.
After the situation improved, the emperor began his return to the capital.
When he passed by the Horse Hillside 7,
He lingered, reluctant to leave.
In this barren site, he could no longer see his beautiful love.
The emperor and his entourage looked at each other and were tearful.
When approaching the gate of the capital,
The troops loosened the reins and let the horses return by themselves.
The lotus flowers in Tai-yi Pool 8 and the willow trees in Wei-yang Palace remained the same.
The lotus flowers were like her face;
The willow branches were like her eyebrows.
Facing such a scene, how could he stop his tears from falling?
Perhaps he could have endured his sorrow in the spring wind,
But it was difficult for him to pass the night
With the leaves of phoenix trees falling in the autumn rain.
Autumn grass grows thickly around the Western Palace 9 and Nan-nei Palace 10
No one had swept away the red maple leaves covering the steps leading to the entrances.
The hair of those who used to sing and dance with Yu-huan had turned white.
The royal concubines had become old.
At night, the miserable emperor, surrounded by fireflies, thought quietly in the palace.
He could not fall asleep even after the wick of a solitary lamp had gone.
The night went so slowly that the night watchman's bell and drum seemed to sound late.
Galaxies faded away in the gradually brightened sky as dawn drew near.
The Yuan-yang 11 shingles were cold and covered with heavy frost.
Who would share his cold, emerald-colored quilt with him?
Many years had passed since Yu-huan's death,
But her soul had never visited the emperor's dreams.
One day a Taoist conjurer from Lin-yong City 12 visited the capital.
He could conjure the soul of the deceased through piety.
Moved by the emperor's sleepless longing for Yu-huan,
The conjurer strove to find her soul.
He mounted the clouds and rode the wind with lightning speed
And searched everywhere by ascending to the sky and descending to the earth.
Blue sky and underground water were boundless;
He could not find her in either expanse.
By chance he heard there was a heavenly mountain on the sea.
The mountain was located among the sea of imaginary clouds.
He found an exquisite tower surrounded by colorful clouds.
There were many graceful goddesses in the tower.
One of them was called Yu-huan.
Her snow-like skin and flower-like face were reminiscent of the real person.
The conjurer knocked on the jade door of the room in the west wing
And then asked a maid to announce his arrival to Yu-huan.
When the maid informed her that the emperor's messenger had arrived,
Yu-huan startled from her dream.
She pushed aside her pillow, picked up her clothing,
Rose from her bed, and began to pace back and forth.
Her hair was tousled by sleep.
Leaving her room even without straightening her hat,
She passed through many beaded curtains and screened-off rooms.
When the wind blew, her wide sleeves billowed upward.
This made it appear as though she was again performing the Dance of Flying Rainbow-colored cloth.
Her lonesome face, covered with tears, was like a peach flower after a spring rain.
Swallowing her tears with deep affection,
She asked the conjurer to thank the emperor for seeking her.
Since she and the emperor had departed,
Their voices and countenances had quickly faded from each other’s memory, becoming indistinct.
After their love in the Palace of Bright Sun 13 ended,
The days in heaven seemed endless to Yu-huan.
She turned her head and looked down towards the earth.
The capital of China was obscured by mist and dust.
She felt that the only way to express her deep love was to send back her wedding ring in its case.
She split both the ring and its case into two parts.
The emperor and she would each keep half a ring and half a case.
She hoped their love would endure as long as the gold ring.
She felt they would eventually meet someday
Even though they were separated by the distance between heaven and earth.
Before she parted with the conjurer,
She reminded him again and again to send her message to the emperor.
The message contained a secret oath between only the emperor and her.
Years ago, on the night of the seventh day of the seventh month 14,
They made this oath in the Palace of Eternal Life while alone:
"In the sky, we wish to be a pair of birds that fly together;
On the earth, we wish to be the branches that intertwine with each other."
The size of the universe and the life of earth are limited,
But the emperor's sorrow, like time itself, can never end.


1 This poem describes the love between Emperor Xuan-zong of the Tang dynasty and his consort, Yu-huan (jade bracelet) Yang. Her beauty was so mesmerizing that the emperor no longer paid attention to state affairs. Consequently, the government became corrupt. One day, the rebel troops attacked the capital and the emperor fled. Ten miles into his flight, his escort of troops refused to move. There was a standoff between the emperor and his troops. Six generals demanded that the emperor sentence Yu-huan to death. In their opinion it was she who had ruined the nation. Reluctantly, Emperor Xuan-zong ordered her to commit suicide. After she died, the emperor missed her very much and lamented the fate that had separated him from his love.

2 Le-tian was Ju-yi Bai's alternate first name. In his late years, he called himself "Xiang-shan (fragrant mountain) Ju-shi (the Buddhist laity)" or "Zui-yin (improvise poetry when intoxicated) Xiang-sheng (mister)". His ancestral home was in Xia-gui City (present Wei-nan City in Shaanxi Province). His family was an eminent clan in Tai-yuan City (in present Shanxi Province). After he died, the emperor honored him by giving him a posthumous name "Wen (writer)". Therefore, later generations called him "Bai-wen-gong (mister)". Bai passed the Advanced Exam in 800 CE. He was given the position of Editor in the Department of Confidential Documents and Official Dispatches. Later, he was an advisor and then the Official Promoting Virtue. Because he offended influential officials, he was demoted to the position of official in charge of military affairs in Jiang-zhou City. In the beginning of the Chang-qing Period, he was the Mayor of Hang-zhou City. In the beginning of the Bao-li Period, he was the Mayor of Su-zhou City. Later, he was appointed as the Minister of Punishments.
    Bai was a great poet, essayist, and literary theorist. He promoted a new style of poetry and argued that poetry should continue the legacy of The Book of Poetry: beautiful and sharp. His poetry bravely revealed the dark side of society and featured simple language. Whenever Bai completed a poem, he would go to the countryside to find a common old woman or a young child, and then read his poem to them. If they could not understand the poem, he would revise it until they could. His practice of using simple language made his poems very popular.
    Ju-yi Bai wrote a preface to his poetry book, The Lo River. It says, "I read classical and contemporary poetry. [¼ ] I observe that poems are born of banishment, exile, cold, hunger, illness, separation, old age, and death. Poets wrote poems to express their feelings. Consequently, nine out of ten Chinese poems are sentimental. It seems that most writers are unfortunate. Especially, talented poets die young. Clearly, peaceful eras are few and troubled times are abundant. I am not eloquent, but I love to write poems and essays. From my youth to the present, I have written several thousand poems. [¼ ] Although I am over sixty, I am still healthy. The salary of my position frees me from cold and hunger. [¼ ] From Spring 829 to Summer 834, I lived near the Lo River. During this period, I wrote four hundred and thirty-two poems. With the exception of the more than ten dirges for my son, the rest of my poems were written while I drank wine or listened to music. I lived in leisure and fully enjoyed life. I did not write a single word of anguish or heave a single sigh. When I am happy, I cannot pretend I am not. My happiness is rooted in being content with what I have. Being provided for and living leisurely expand my happiness which is expressed through wine and music and decorated with mountains, rivers, breezes, and the moon. If this cannot make me happy, where should I find my happiness? [¼ ] I wrote these poems to show posterity not only that there was a happy and easygoing old man who lived in Dong-du (east-capital) City but also that there were poems representing peace and prosperity during the Da-he Period."
    Ju-yi Bai wrote to Zhen Yuan, "The six classics are the most important books in Chinese literature. The Book of Poetry is the most important volume in the six classics. Why? These poems are the vehicle that sages use to touch one’s heartstrings in order to promote peace in this world. In order to touch one’s heartstrings, a poet must have passion and refine his rhetoric; a poem must sound melodious and contain profound meanings. The root of poetry is its passion; the seedling is its rhetoric; the blossoms are its sound; the fruits are its meaning. From sages to idiots, small animals like fish or pigs, mythical figures like gods or ghosts, they all possess energy even though they belong to different kinds; they all possess feelings even though they have different appearances. All of them respond to the sound that reaches them. Their feelings respond to the passion that touches their heartstrings. Sages understand this principle. Consequently, when they write essays, they use the six classics as their model. When they write poems, they apply music rules to make their poems sound melodious. Sound has rhyming schemes and themes of poetry can be classified into the types of virtue contained in the six classics. If the rhyming scheme is harmonious, a line will flow smoothly. If a line flows smoothly, the readers will be attracted to the poem. If the theme of a poem matches any type of virtue contained in the six classics, then the ready-made phrases contained in the classics may help the poet fully express his passion. If a poem is full of passion, it will easily touch a reader’s heartstrings. If poetry contains profound meanings refined with delicacy and subtlety, then it will endow the society with spirit and harmony, and guide the entire nation toward a promising future through its sadness and happiness. [¼ ]
    "Since the office of collecting poems was eliminated by the government during the Qin dynasty, the government has failed to use poetry to examine its policy and people have failed to use poetry to express their needs. Consequently, the government has become corrupt and has lacked means for improvement. [¼ ] I lament the collapse of Chinese poetry. Because of my disappointment I strive to turn the tide despite my lack of talents. Sometimes I even forget to eat regularly and sleep at night. Alas! I must tell you how frustrated I have been: When I was six or seven months old, my nanny carried me to a screen decorated with calligraphical work. She taught me two characters on the screen: Wu (none) and Zi (word). I could not speak, but I memorized them in my heart. Later, people put these two characters in front of me, said a word, and asked me to point to the character that they just said. They tested me a hundred times, but I never failed a single test. This showed that my destiny was to be a poet. When I was five, I learned to write poems. When I was seven, I mastered rhyming schemes. When I was fifteen, I learned that passing the Advanced Exam is a great honor. Consequently, I persevered in study despite my adverse circumstances. Since I was twenty, I have studied classical poetry during the day, read books at night, and studied contemporary poetry in between. Therefore, my tongue and mouth became sore; my hands and elbows became callused. Even when I reached adulthood, I appeared very thin. Before I became old, my teeth and hair started to decay. I cannot see well either. I pity myself because all these symptoms resulted from my dedication to studying and writing. [¼ ] Since I worked for the government, I have become old and gained more experiences. When I speak to people, I ask them about current affairs. When I read books or study history, I try to learn lessons from them. I finally realize that essays are written to meet the demands of an era. A poem is written to respond to an event that has occurred. When Emperor Xiang-zong inherited the throne, he appointed a man of integrity to be his prime minister. The emperor frequently ordered government officials to seek the country's problems and then solve them. At that time I was a member of the Royal academy and an advisor to the emperor. I gave the emperor my advice frequently. However, there were occasions when it was difficult for me to write my thoughts in the form of a formal proposal. Instead, I would write my ideas of solving problems and correcting shortcomings in the form of poetry. Through these means my ideas might win the support of the masses of the people. I hoped that one day the emperor would hear my voice through them. There are three reasons that I should write this kind of poem: First, they may broaden the emperor’s vision and help the government design useful policies. Second, it fulfills my duty and repays the emperor’s appreciation of my abilities. Third, it realizes my life goals. Unexpectedly, I began to regret my pursuit before I could fulfill my dreams. Slander began to bombard me before the emperor had a chance to read my poems. [¼ ] Those who are in a different party from mine said that I write poems to gain fame or slander my opponents. Those who are in the same party as mine such as Seng-ru Liu criticized my straightfordness. Even my wife and children consider my dedication to poetry worthless. Except for you, anyone who appreciated my poetry died soon after reading it. Now you are the only one who considers my devotion to poetry worthwhile. You have suffered hardship for ten years. Alas! Does this mean the Creator wants to destroy the principles of nature and the principles of virtue or prevent people from using poetry to express their problems to the government? If not, I wonder why those who are dedicated to poetry have suffered so much. From another perspective, when I think of my abilities, I am only an ordinary man from Guan-dong District and know nothing about calligraphy, painting, chess, or gambling, which are indispensable means to gain popularity. It shows that how limited my wisdom is. When I attended the Advanced Exam, I did not have any relatives who served in the emperor's court and I did not know any of the high officials. I have advanced my career in slow steps and fought on the literary battlefield with bare hands. Within ten years, I passed the Basic Exam, the Middle Exam, and the Advanced Exam. I became famous and assumed a high office. When I served the emperor's court, I had the opportunity to associate with the able and worthy. In the past, I gained fame by means of writing. It is appropriate that in the end I am punished due to my writing. [¼ ] Several months ago, I started to gather poems from my bags and chests. I divided my old and new poems into chapters based on their types. Since I began to serve as an advisor, I have written poems about beauty, satire, inspiration and comparison. From the Wu-de Period to the Yuan-he Period, I wrote many of them in new folk style. The title assignment to each poem was based on the event to which it referred. I call this type of poem allegorical. While I was at home after a day’s work or I stayed home idle to recuperate, I wrote poems to show that I lived in peace and content, and cultivated my moral character. There are one hundred poems of this type. I call them leisure poems. Occasionally, I loved to analyze an event based on the principles of virtue. With strong feelings toward a subject, I wrote down my sighs and songs. I call this type of poem sentimental. For the rest of my poems with various rhyming schemes, I call them miscellaneous. In total, there are about eight hundred poems divided into fifteen chapters. I will present them to you when we meet again.
    "Ancient sages say, 'When one does not have the opportunity to utilize one's talent, one should cultivate one's moral character. Once one has the opportunity to utilize one's talent, one should have the ambition to save the world.' Though I am not wise, I use their words as my motto. A gentleman should promote virtue and patiently wait for his turn. When his turn arrives, he should go all out as vigorously as a dragon riding clouds or an eagle riding the wind. When his turn fails to come, he should retire from public life, as lonesome as a leopard hidden in the mist or a wild goose gliding in the sky. Thus, one is always happy whether or not one can utilize one’s talent. My goal is to save the world. I cultivate my moral character to wait for my turn: I pursue virtue to gain integrity and write poetry to promote virtue. My allegorical poems show my ambition to save the world. My leisure poems reveal my pursuit of virtue. One will understand my philosophy after reading my poems. [¼ ] The ideas of my allegorical poems are radical and their descriptions are true. My leisure poems advocate peace rather than pleasure and their rhetoric clings to outworn ideas. Thus, I only speak truth and write stale words. No wonder people are not interested in my poems. In China, you are the only one who loves my poems. [¼ ] When we are successful, we use poems to prevent each other from corrupted living. When we suffer hardship, we write poems to encourage each other. When we part, we console each other with poems. When we live in the same city, we entertain each other with poems. [¼ ] Those who understand me consider me a god of poetry. Those who do not understand me consider me bewitched by poetry. Why? I work my heart out and enslave my voice and spirit day and night without feeling hardship. If it is not because I am bewitched, then what is the cause? Occasionally, I face a beautiful scene with friends. It may be when we sit in a garden after a banquet or after we become intoxicated on a moonlit night. We improvise poems without feeling our age. Even riding a phoenix or crane or visiting a paradise like Peng-lai Mountain or Ying-Zhou City is not as interesting as writing poetry. If I am not a god, how can all this be? [¼ ]"
    Zhen Yuan wrote a preface for Ju-yi Bai's Collected Works up to the Chang-qing Period. It says, "Ju-yi Bai is a versatile writer. His allegorical poems are powerful enough to prod readers into action. His leisure poems show how he amused himself. His sentimental poems express his feelings properly. His long poems are rich; his short poems are full of passion. His criticisms are appropriate. His reports are true. His proposals are straightforward. His analysis is complete."

3 "The War drums" refers to ancient drums used on horseback.

4 The dance music was composed by Emperor Xuan-zong. It is said that he heard this heavenly music while visiting the Moon Palace in his dream. In Chinese mythology, the moon is a goddess' palace. In this dance, girls attach two long pieces of colored cloth to their sleeves. The girls continue to throw the pieces of cloth up towards the sky and then shake them as they drop. This is the reason the dance gained its name. One may view the following two videos entitled "Dance of Flying Rainbow-Colored Cloth" to see how the dance is performed:

5 "Jian-ge" means "sword pavilion". Jian-ge Pass, a.k.a. Jian-men Pass, is located north of present day Jian-ge-xian City in Sichuan Province.

6 Shu is the short name for Sichuan Province.

7 The Horse Hillside was the place where Yu-huan committed suicide.

8 Tai-yi Pool was a pool in the palace.

9 The Western Palace was Tai-ji Palace.

10 Nan-nei Palace was also known as Xing-qing Palace.

11 "Yuan-yang" means mandarin ducks in Chinese. They walk in pairs, a male and a female. They symbolize an affectionate couple.

12 Lin-yong City is now called Yong-lai-xian City and is located in Sichuan Province.

13 The Palace of Bright Sun was the palace where the beautiful queen, Fei-yan (flying swallow) Zhao lived. She was the wife of Emperor Cheng-di in the Han dynasty. Here the name of the palace refers to the palace where Yu-huan lived while she was alive.

14 According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the seventh day of the seventh month is Chinese Valentine's Day.