Sui Palaces 1

Li, Shang-yin 2 (812? A.D.-858 A.D.)


Emperor Yang 3 traveled south toward his vacation home.
Being in such a good mood, he did not even impose a customary curfew.
Inside the nine levels 4, who cared about the admonishing letters 5?
When the spring wind blew,
The entire nation had to cut silk for the palace.
Half was used for horse equipage 6, half for sails.


Purple Fountain Palace 7 trapped smoke and clouds;
Emperor Yang desires to take Wu City 8 as his home.
If the imperial seal had not passed to the sun-corner 9,
The silk sail would have traveled to far horizons.
Now there are no more fireflies in the rotten grass 10;
Only evening ravens remain on the enduring weeping willows 11.
If Emperor Yang met the Last King of Country Chen in the underworld,
Would it be proper for him to request the dance of “The Backyard Flowers” again 12?

1 Sui palaces refer to the three vacation palaces Emperor Yang built in Jiangdu County (now Yang City in Jiangsu Province): Jiangdu Palace, Xian-Fu (showing good fortune) Palace and Ling-Jiang (river view) Palace.

2 Li lived in an era during which the government was corrupt. Starving peasants had no way to make a living. This social crisis was leading toward a peasant uprising. In 874 A.D., Chao Huang fomented a revolt and killed eight million people. Li had the vision to foresee this crisis and wrote this poem as an warning. If the Chinese government had been influenced by this poem and had made a drastic change to improve peasants’ lives, then this historical massacre could have been avoided.

3 Emperor Yang was the second and last emperor in the Sui dynasty. He was the second son of Emperor Wen. Yang killed his father and usurped the throne. To satisfy his selfish desire, he actually ordered the construction of the Great Canal for traveling to his vacation home. The canal started from Tong County in Hebei Province in the north, passed through Shandong and Jiangsu Provinces, and ended in Hang County in Zhejiang Province in the south. It is still the longest (1273 kilometers) man-made canal in the world. From 605 A.D. to 616 A.D., Emperor Yang visited Jiangdu County, where his vacation home was located, three times via this canal. His cruise ship was 300 feet long, 45 feet tall, and had four decks. There were three superstructures on the top deck: a council chamber, a shrine, and the emperor’s personal quarters. The two middle decks had 120 rooms. All the rooms were decorated with gold and jade. The bottom deck was occupied by eunuchs and maids. The queen had her own ship, which was slightly smaller. The aristocrats, officials, monks, and guests shared a thousand ships. The royal guards also occupied several thousand ships. The entire fleet stretched 100 miles. The cavalry escorted the fleet along both shores. Local people had to provide the necessities when the fleet arrived. Emperor Yang's travels were a great drain on resources.

4 The nine levels refer to the palace surrounded by many walls.

5 When Emperor Yang visited Jiangdu County the third time, Officials Zong Ren, Min-Xiang Cui and Ai-Ren Wang sent letters to admonish his extravagance. These three officials were all killed.

6 The silk piece was put under the saddle, hung along both flanks of a horse, and was used to block mud.

7 Purple Fountain is the name of a rivulet located north of Chang-An, the capital city of the Sui dynasty. Here Purple Fountain refers to Chang-An.

8 Wu City was Jiangdu County (now Yang City).

9 After Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty was assassinated by Hua-Ji Yu-Wen, China was in chaos for some time. Ultimately, Yuan Li, the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, unified China.
    A brow bone that juts out with a convex shape is called a sun-corner. The History of the Tang Dynasty says that Yuan Li had a sun-corner, which give him the physiognomy of an emperor. Here the "sun-corner" refers to Yuan Li.

10 There was "Firefly Release Yard" in Jiangdu County. The officials collected fireflies in larger containers. When emperor Yang traveled during the night, he ordered his officials to release fireflies. The light illuminated the mountains and valleys. Due to overhunting, the fireflies almost became extinct. Here this line means that the Firefly Release Yard became a ruin of rotten grass.

11 The poem "The Willows on the Sui Banks" written by Ju-Yi Bai says,
"During the Da-Ye Period of his reign,
Emperor Yang ordered people to plant willow trees along the Great Canal.
West to the Yellow River, east to the Huai River,
The green scenery extended one thousand miles."
    The Sui Banks refers to the banks of the Grand Canal. A raven is a symbol of bad luck in Chinese.

12 "The Backyard Flowers" is the short name of the melody "The Jade Tree and the Backyard Flowers". While Emperor Yang was drunk on the Chicken Platform at Wu Mansion in Jiangdu County, he dreamed that he met the Last king of Country Chen, who was also a extravagant monarch, and ordered Li-Hua Zhang, the king's favorite concubine, to dance to "the Jade Tree and the Backyard Flowers".