Zizhi Tongjian


Zizhi Tongjian. 2018, https://img12.360buyimg.com/imgzone/s800x800_jfs/t3613/330/312173334/410082/f2010410/580717daN7bfe4e11.jpg. OpenChinaCart.

During the Northern Song Dynasty, an imperially sanctioned team of scholars compiled Zizhi Tongjian, a chronicle of Chinese history from the partition of the Kingdom of Jin in 403BCE to the final days of the Later Zhou Dynasty in 959CE (“1.1”). Politician, historian, and author Sima Guang spearheads the project. As suggested in the chronicle’s title, which means “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance,” Zizhi Tongjian aids rulers in self-cultivation, giving Confucian socio-political theories historical context and clarifying which policies or actions may be called proper or wise. Among the history’s 294 volumes, only Volumes 214 to 218 mention Yang Guifei. According to the Confucian historians’ view of the story, Emperor Xuan of Tang’s relationship with Yang illustrates the danger of nepotism, the importance of rulers’ authority over women, and the necessity of avoiding excessive royal luxury.

Zizhi Tongjian warns about the repercussions of political favoritism by detailing the immorality and incompetence of individuals who gain prestige through connections to Yang. Focusing on Yang and the emperor in “Song of Lasting Pain”, poet Bai Juyi only makes a seven-character-long remark on how Yang’s “sisters and brothers all / were ennobled and granted great fiefs,” but Sima’s team details the exact positions obtained by Yang Guifei’s father, uncle, and three cousins, plus the houses and possessions offered to Yang Guifei’s three sisters (Owen 443; Sima 63-64; vol. 215). The Yangs, as the book repeatedly refers to them collectively, have become a potent political force. An even larger group of people achieve political advancements, frame political opponents, or gain material benefits by befriending or bribing the Yangs to influence the emperor. These people include An Lushan, who makes himself Yang Guifei’s foster son. Zizhi Tongjian includes lurid details about an abnormally close relationship between Yang Guifei and An, as “the prized consort uses beautiful brocades to make a giant swaddling cloth to wrap Lushan” and “bathes son Lu(shan) three days after [declaring the foster relationship]” according to customs intended for infants (Sima 58; vol. 216). Amused by Yang Guifei and An’s bonds and disregarding rumors of any illicit affairs, the emperor grants An tremendous wealth and a series of positions with military power, fueling An’s eventual rebellion that almost shatters the empire (Sima 58; vol. 216).

In Yang Guifei’s cousin Yang Guozhong’s case, Zizhi Tongjian teaches that nepotism promotes officials who behave not necessarily traitorously but nonetheless incompetently. Believing that he has discovered a virtuous person, Yang Guozhong elevates to the position of Governor of Jiannan a man named Xianyu Zhongtong, whose “narrow and impatient temper” ends up causing the Tang government to lose the support of the Man and Yi people in Nanzhao (Sima 50-65; vol. 216). This incident demonstrates not only Xianyu’s incompetence as governor but also Yang Guozhong’s inability to correctly judge people. Individuals who rise to power thanks to their ties with Yang Guifei are depicted as lacking either loyalty or capability or both. According to the Confucian tradition, such virtues are more likely to result from proper practice of filial rituals, careful study of ancient classics, and rigorous preparations for the imperial examinations. Spending much time of his political career campaigning for examination reforms that emphasize testing the literati’s virtues, Sima, alongside his collaborators, highlights the importance of meritocracy and strongly attacks nepotism in Zizhi Tongjian (Sun 152). The historians quote palace examination candidate Zhang Tuan’s sarcasm towards the lack of substance in Yang Guozhong and in the practice of nepotism: “We rely on Right Minister Yang as if he were Mount Tai, but I take him as merely an ice mountain! After the bright sun rises, will we not lose what we rely on?” This quote comes from Kaiyuan Tianbao Yishi written by Wang Renyu around the end of the Tang Dynasty, a book full of supernatural occurrences and sensational gossips and thus not usually accepted as a credible historical source (“7.1”). The historians’ selection of this quote, therefore, indicates their strong inclination of discrediting the nepotistic network which traces back to Yang Guifei.

Sima’s team also shows how emperors have a paternalistic duty to guide royal ladies and how Emperor Xuan’s failure to fulfill such personal duties with Yang Guifei subverts the social order. The Confucian yin-yang theory of the universe expects women to demonstrate yieldingness and men to become powerful guides for women. Under many circumstances, Emperor Xuan fulfills these gender-based duties. In 727, “his majesty orders women below the ranks of consorts and concubines to cultivate silkworms in the palace in the hope of letting them know about womanly work,” echoing Han Dynasty scholar Ban Zhao’s admonitions for her daughters to focus on domestic labor and have “wholehearted devotion to sew and weave”(Sima 34, vol. 213; de Bary 824). Even with his most beloved Consort Yang, the emperor twice sends her away to the Yangs’ private households because of her waywardness (Sima 86; vol. 215, 34; vol. 216). Disciplining Consort Yang, however, proves emotionally draining for the emperor. The first time he sends her away, Zizhi Tongjian describes him to appear “unhappy, and even until the middle of the day he has not yet eaten. If attendants fail to fulfill his orders in any way, they are all whipped with a stick” (Sima 86; vol. 215). Yang Guifei is soon brought back, demonstrating that the emperor’s male authority has yielded to his romantic attachments to Yang (Sima 86; vol. 215). This failure of Emperor Xuan as a Confucian male causes massive shifts in gender norms, and just like in “Song of Lasting Pain” ordinary folks are singing “don’t be happy about begetting a son and don’t be sad with a girl” (Owen 443; Sima 86; vol. 215). Since the Confucian natural order dictates the emperor to not only guide women as a male but also guide his people as a monarch, his failure in the first task causes a subversion of gender roles on the national scale—an immoral change that shakes the yin-yang order of the cosmos in Confucian eyes.

Zizhi Tongjian also illustrates how sometimes the emperor is expected to sacrifice his love for Yang out of practical necessity rather than Confucian principles. Eunuch Gao speaks in a realist manner when advising the Emperor to kill Yang to appease mutinying troops: “Guifei is indeed guiltless, but the generals and soldiers have already killed Guozhong, and seeing how Guifei remains by your majesty’s side, how can the generals and soldiers settle down” (Sima 14; vol. 218). Gao invokes here not moralizations about whether Yang Guifei should be blamed as the source of national turmoil but the simple yet harsh fact that the emperor would be killed if nothing drastic is done. Either moralistically speaking or practically speaking, romance proves unimportant in Zizhi Tongjian. Unlike Bai Juyi who depicts Yang Guifei’s origins as those of a pure virgin who “no man knew of,” the historians refrain from telling an idealistic love story, presenting the uncomfortable truth that Yang Guifei is originally married to the Emperor’s son King Shou (Owen 442; Sima 27; vol. 214). Zizhi Tongjian also contains no poetic description of Consort Yang’s beauty and only states that “Taizhen has flesh and posture that are plump and beautiful, knows musical patterns, possesses traits that are alert and quick, and is good at satisfying the Emperors’ wishes” (Sima 45; vol. 215). The last two phrases characterize Consort Yang as a woman adept at currying favor and not the emperor’s fated lover.

Sima Guang
Peng, Jiang. Sima Guang. http://p.ananas.chaoxing.com/star3/o
rigin/5694a19ee4b0e85354b6df2c.jpg. Chaoxing Faxian.

Zizhi Tongjian cautions emperors against not only indulging their women but also indulging themselves in extravaganza, which can also lead to social chaos like the An Lushan Rebellion. Again, the Emperor proves not completely inadept at fulfilling Confucian expectations. In 734, “the emperor plants wheat in the garden and leads the crown prince and others in mowing the weeds” in the hope of “letting [them] know the difficulties of farm work” (Sima 9, vol. 214). The emperor values a plain lifestyle, knowing how profligacy tramples on the hard work of the people and violates a ruler’s reciprocal duty to care for his country. Nevertheless, the emperor apparently forgets this lesson as he later holds a series of banquets and acquires all kinds of treasures for himself, Yang Guifei, and other favored individuals, and Sima breaks away from the historical narrative to offer a personal commentary on the emperor’s extravagance: “The sage sees the Way and virtuous power as beauty, humanness and rightness as happiness; so even though he lives in thatches made of grass, walks on steps made of dirt, wears poorly-made clothes, and eat humble foods, he still only fears being overly attended to and thus tiring the people and wasting money” (57; vol. 218). Sima also laments how people across the country follow the emperor’s poor example and develop a culture of extravagance (86; vol. 215). In addition to making these moralistic comments, Sima presents at the same time some practical considerations: “When people’s ruler demonstrates to others how he worships glory and luxury, this is just enough for great thieves to be attracted”(57; vol. 218). Referring to An Lushan as a great thief, Sima argues that even if an emperor fails to fully recognize the immorality of self-indulgence, he should still shun extravagance to avoid stirring the jealousy of potential rebels.

Considering the national misfortunes that follow political nepotism, female waywardness, and palatial extravagance in Emperor Xuan and Lady Yang’s story in Zizhi Tongjian, one can conclude that Sima and his team are teaching rulers what not to do when governing the country according to the Confucian Way. These historians not only seek a relatively truthful representation of the past but also search out opportunities to teach future rulers Confucian lessons, so although Zizhi Tongjian remains and will always remain one of the most authoritative Chinese historical sources, one must always keep in mind the didactic Confucian undertone behind the words and think critically about what really happened.

Works Cited:

De Bary, Wm. Theodore, Irene Bloom, Wing-tsit Chan, and Joseph Adler. Sources of Chinese Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

Peng, Jiang. “1.1 Songchu Wenzhi Daoxiang de Queli 1.1 宋初文治导向的确立 [1.1 Establishment of the Trend of Cultured Governance during Early Song Dynasty].” Chaoxing Faxian, http://mooc1.ppsuc.edu.cn/nodedetailcontroller/visitnodedetail?courseId=202289794&knowledgeId=134683644. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

—. “7.1 Dui Zizhi Tongjian Caiyong Biji Xiaoshuo de Piping 7.1 对《资治通鉴》采用笔记小说的批评 [7.1 Criticism on Zizhi Tongjian’s Use of Folk Stories].” Chaoxing Faxian, http://mooc1.ppsuc.edu.cn/nodedetailcontroller/visitnodedetail?courseId=202289794&knowledgeId=134683666. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

—. Sima Guang. http://p.ananas.chaoxing.com/star3/origin/5694a19ee4b0e85354b6df2c.jpg. Chaoxing Faxian.

Sima, Guang. Zizhi Tongjian. Chinese Text Project, 1084, https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&res=745983&remap=gb.

Sun, Fuxuan. “Testing Prose Poems in the Imperial Examination in Tang and Song Dynasties.” Journal of Zhejiang University (Humanities and Social Sciences), vol. 38, no. 3, May 2008, pp. 150–58.

Zizhi Tongjian. 2018, https://img12.360buyimg.com/imgzone/s800x800_jfs/t3613/330/312173334/410082/f2010410/580717daN7bfe4e11.jpg. OpenChinaCart.

The Drunken Concubine

Peking Opera as a genre contains a diverse array of pieces and is distinguished from other genres through its use of the Pekingese dialect, also known as Mandarin (“The Peking Opera”). Presented here is a 1956 recording of the renowned piece The Drunken Concubine. The Anhui-born artist Wu Hongxi purportedly composed the piece in the early 19th century, but generations of artists have continuously modified the details, granting the piece a rich assortment of artistic forms including comedic cross talks, face painting, singing, dancing, and acrobatics (Lai). Although the opera presents a story completely from Yang Guifei’s female perspective, no women traditionally acts in this theatrical masterpiece.

Certain phrases in the opera, such as “‘beauteous things’ ‘[begotten]’ by ‘Heaven'” in Yang’s self-introduction, are borrowed from Bai Juyi’s “Song of Lasting Pain” (Owen 442). However, unlike Bai’s poem, The Drunken Concubine concerns itself with events before An Lushan’s rebellion and focuses only on Yang as the main character, without featuring any actor playing Emperor Xuan of Tang. Furthermore, unlike Bai’s version of the emperor who devotedly loves Prized Consort Yang, the emperor in the opera spends the night away in the Western Palace with some other woman, leaving a saddened and slightly piqued Yang drinking alone at the Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers (Lai). Influenced by alcohol, Yang breaks a number of behavioral norms for women in the palace, angrily yet lovingly nicknaming the emperor “Li the Number Three Son” and playfully taking the hat off Eunuch Gao, whose face is painted like a clown, after bantering with Gao and Eunuch Pei (Mei 32:16-43:38). Featuring somewhat frivolous comedy, this piece is intended to simply entertain the viewers, as indicated in a piece of advice from Pei, Gao, and a half-drunk Yang: “Living in this world is like a spring night’s dream . . . so just seek happiness on your own and drink a few cups” (Mei 16:17).

A sad reality, however, proves evident in how the opera has been traditionally produced. Out of the fear that the intermingling of sexes would promote immorality, social conventions of Qing Dynasty forbade women from watching and participating in Peking Opera, except for those pieces performed at temples for female viewers only (“The Peking Opera”). As a result, Yang Guifei has always been played by men who put on stereotypically female traits, such as covering one’s face with a fan when drinking and holding out “orchid fingers,” a hand gesture supposedly showing feminine grace. One should admit, nevertheless, that the training process for these actors proves extremely rigorous, and Mei Lanfang who played Yang in the video above at the age of 62 deserves the most heartfelt applause for his masterful skills.

Works Cited:

Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, The. “Jingxi.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc, 18 Oct. 2016, https://www.britannica.com/art/jingxi.

Lai, Xinxia. “Tan Shi Shuo Xi–Gui Fei Zui Jiu 谈史说戏—贵妃醉酒 [Talking about History and Speaking about Theatre–The Drunken Concubine].” Nankai University, 23 Feb. 2007, http://news.nankai.edu.cn/gnjt/system/2007/02/23/000004611.shtml.

Mei, Lanfang. Jingju Guifei Zuijiu Mei Lanfang 1956 京剧《贵妃醉酒》梅兰芳 1956 [Peking Opera The Drunken Concubine Mei Lanfang 1956]. 1956. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87uK2z3dNsI&feature=youtu.be.

Orchid Fingers. https://b-ssl.duitang.com/uploads/item/201111/01/20111101174444_ryj4k.thumb.1400_0.jpg. Duitang. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

“The Peking Opera.” Chinavine, https://chinavine.uoregon.edu/subject/the-peking-opera/. Accessed 13 Jan. 2019.

Yang Guifei Romantic Vacation Getaway

Huaqing Hot Springs. Courtesy of Gisling, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12641134.

Would you like to spend some quality time with your empire-toppling love—without all the empire-toppling drama? Look no further than the Huaqing Hot Springs, where between the hours of 7:30 AM and 6:30 PM, you can visit the site where the romance between Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong first blossomed.

Yang Guifei entering her bath. Courtesy of Alex Kwok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1305844.

Huaqing Hot Springs is located about 25 km east of Xi’an (formerly Chang’an, the western capital of the Tang dynasty), and was constructed at the behest of Xuanzong himself in 723. The site enjoys not only naturally-occurring hydrothermal springs that are said to cure disease, but also beautiful, scenic views of mountains and flower gardens to set your mind and soul at ease. A statue of Lady Yang herself graces this historic site, adding a hint of invigorating tragedy to your romantic getaway.

Guifei Pond and Lianhua Pond. Courtesy of Alex Kwok, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1305844.

What’s more, while in the area, you can also hike or take a cable car to the peak of Mount Li to find a spectacular panoramic view of Xi’an, or hop on Tourist Bus 306 to see the famous Terracotta Warriors of Qin Shi Huang only 10 minutes away.

No matter what you choose to do, you and your love are sure to have eyes only for each other. Watch out!

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow

“The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” is a novel written by Wang Anyi that shares the same name (different here due to various translations) as the original poem by Bai Juyi. When compared to the original poem, there are many similarities. The story itself takes place in 20th century China. It follows the life of Wang Qiyao, a woman obsessed with fame and fortune, who, like Yang Guifei, comes from insignificant beginnings. She reaches the peak of her life after placing third at a major Shanghai beauty pageant, but afterward, she struggles throughout her life with maintaining interpersonal relationships. Wang goes through many relationships, but can never hold onto one for too long. In particular, she suffers greatly from a “forbidden love” between a man 30 years younger than her. This runs in parallel to the “forbidden love” between the Yang Guifei and the elderly Emperor in “Song of Lasting Pain.” Additionally, much of the pain she feels throughout her life stems from not having any proper romantic partners, similar to how the Emperor no longer had one after Yang Guifei’s death. Finally, both Wang Qiyao and Yang Guifei are murdered by strangulation. In Wang’s case, she was strangled by a con artist who she befriended, while Yang was strangled during the An Lushan Rebellion. Neither death was graceful whatsoever.

With so many different parallels between the two stories, even though they take place in completely different eras, it’s clear that Yang Guifei’s story can transcend time and be retold even in a more modern setting.

Works Cited

Zeng, Yan. “Relationship between Bai Juyi and Wang Anyi’s Everlasting Regret.” Journal of Chongqing Jiaotong University, vol. 13, no. 2, Apr. 2013, pp. 82–84.

An Account to Go with the “Song of Lasting Pain”

“An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” by Chen Hong retells Yang Guifei’s tragic story, but adds in more context and even commentary to help enhance readers’ experiences, making it easier for them to follow the story and form their own opinions on it. Of course, this account raises the questions of “Are there things in the poem that cannot be expressed in prose?” While in my other blog post, I mentioned that “Song of Lasting Pain” uses vivid descriptions and allusions to enhance the poem, I also feel “An Account to go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” also uses these same devices. Freed from the constraints of poetry, especially its syntax and style, Chen Hong still uses certain devices from “Song of Lasting Pain” to provide readers with a fulfilling and thought-provoking retelling of Yang Guifei’s story.

In “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain,’” more context is provided to the reader. One restraint that is associated with poetry is its limited number of characters. This means that poets may have to cut out certain aspects of a story, such as context. However, in prose, providing context is far easier. For example, in “Song of Lasting Pain,” Bai Juyi references the “kettledrums of Yu-yang,” a rather obscure reference, when referring to the start of An Lushan’s Rebellion (Owen, 443). However, in “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain,’” Chen Hong directly explains the context behind the rebellion, using an entire paragraph to do so (Owen, 449). Often, vast amounts of context simply cannot be provided in poetry, but in prose, free from such restraints, viewers are given a clearer story and understanding through the afforded context of the piece, which is certainly the case in “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain. ’”

One of the most notable aspects of “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” is its commentary section after the conclusion of the story. This is a more “meta” section that takes the viewer out of the story. This section mainly consists of Chen Hong’s thoughts about “Song of Lasting Pain. ” He states, “It is my supposition that [Bai Juyi] was not only moved by the event, but he also wanted to offer warning about such creatures that can so enthrall a man, to block the phases by which troubles come, and to leave this for the future” (Owen, 452). This commentary provides readers with the motivation of the original author of “Song of Lasting Pain,” as they learn potentially why he wrote it. While Bai Juyi may have thought that it’s important to be cautious of women who are too beautiful, it’s still a matter of whether or not viewers are convinced by this statement. As such, this commentary section can help shape viewers’ own opinions on Yang Guifei and the impact she has on not just the story, but history itself.

A common misconception with prose is that it cannot be “poetic,” but this is far from the case. Although in my previous blog post on “Song of Lasting Pain” I discussed how vivid the descriptions of love were in the poem, prose can be poetic and emotional as well! “An Account to Go with ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” also contains vivid descriptions of the love between the Emperor and Yang Guifei: “Holy fluids in a springlike breeze went rippling through those places. It was then that His Majesty’s heart was smitten” (Owen, 443). Like the poetic descriptions in the poem itself, this kind of descriptive, vivid prose really shows readers the depth of the love that the emperor had for Yang Guifei. Clearly, prose can also be as descriptive and emotion-evoking as actual poetic text.

While allusions are not a major aspect of “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain,’” they certainly are present, just like in the poem itself. In “Song of Lasting Pain” Bai Juyi makes an allusion to Lady Li and Emperor Wu. Similarly, Chen Hong references Lady Li when describing Yang Guifei: “There was a sensuous allure in [Yang Guifei’s] every motion, just like the Lady Li of Emperor Wu of the Han” (Owen, 443). In prose, allusions are not as vital because more time can be spent on providing context, but I thought it’d still be important to note its usage here to show that allusions are not simply exclusive to poetry.

Prose can use the same types of literary elements that poetry can, and in combining them with the freedom that writing in prose provides, can provide readers with a reading with more context and understanding, while still retaining the emotional connection that poetry often makes with its readers. “An Account to Go with ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” exemplifies this phenomenon. Readers, especially those who are not as familiar with Chinese history, are provided with the necessary context to thoroughly enjoy Yang Guifei’s story. In “Song of Lasting Pain,” some references and even allusions may not reach those who are not familiar with Chinese history. So, in a sense, the “An Account to Go with ‘Song of Lasting Pain’” may be seen as a more accessible version of Yang Guifei’s story, while still retaining much of the beauty seen in the poetry version.

Works Cited:

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.


Song of Lasting Pain

“Song of Lasting Pain” by Bai Juyi is a depiction of Yang Guifei’s story through the usage of poetry. While this story has various different depictions and retellings, “Song of Lasting Pain” focuses heavily on the pure and eternal emotions felt between Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong, spending little time on the rebellion aspect of the story. The poetic format of “Song of Lasting Pain” allows readers to more deeply understand and empathize with the feelings felt by both Yang Guifei and Emperor Xuanzong, while other literary elements, like allusion, also enhance readers’ experiences.

The most striking aspect of “Song of Lasting Pain” is the profound descriptions of emotion, especially love. Early on in the poem, readers begin to understand how deeply the Emperor loves Yang Guifei: “In the harems there were beauties, three thousand there were in all, but the love that was due to three thousand was spent on one body alone” (Owen, 443). The Emperor had the power to involve himself with any number of women in his harem, but despite that, he chose to devote himself solely to Yang Guifei. This deep, vivid description can actually evoke multiple senses from viewers, awakening their imagination. Using poetry, Bai Juyi effectively shows, rather than just tells, readers just how much Yang Guifei and the Emperor loved each other.

Aside from showing readers the relationship between Yang Guifei and the Emperor, the pure emotion and eternal love that is depicted in the beginning of the poem also heightens the tragedy of Yang Guifei’s death, allowing readers to more deeply empathize with the Emperor’s loss. “Song of Lasting Pain” only spends about five stanzas depicting the rebellion and Yang Guifei’s subsequent death, but even in this small part of the poem, the Emperor’s sorrow is clearly shown: “Her flowered hairpins fell to earth, and no one picked them up, the kingfisher wing, the sparrow of gold, the jade pick for the hair. Our lord and ruler covered his face, unable to protect her; he looked around, and blood and tears were flowing there together” (Owen, 444). As readers, we’re able to clearly imagine this scene occurring and understand how helpless and despaired the Emperor feels. Even after the depiction of the rebellion, readers receive further descriptions of the Emperor’s lament:

“When he was home, his pools and parks

were all as they had been before,

there were lotuses in Tai-ye Pool,

and willows at Wei-Yang.

But the lotuses looked like her face,

and the willows seemed like her brows,

before such scenes how could he stop

tears from streaming down?” (Owen, 443-444)

Even long after her death, the Emperor continued to see Yang Guifei wherever he went and could not move on from her, further showing readers his deep, eternal love for her. These vivid descriptions allow readers to better imagine the heartbreak and pain he went through as he walked away from the lifeless Yang Guifei, forced to return to his life without her. As such, readers can empathize with the love and the tragedy that is depicted in “Song of Lasting Pain.”

Allusion in poetry can bring forth more context and provide readers with far better understanding. One usage of allusion in “Song of Lasting Pain” is foreshadowing. In the opening stanza it reads, “Han’s sovereign prized the beauty of flesh, he longed for such as ruins domains” (Owen, 443). This refers to the story between to the Emperor Wu of Han and Lady Li because the characters for “ruins domains” come from a song Lady Li’s brother Yanian sang to the Emperor. This story has similar parallels to Yang Guifei’s, as Li’s entire family corrupted the emperor’s harem and were later all killed. This allusion to another historical beauty helps push readers to discover connections between separate historical events and distill timeless philosophies instead of just forming a reaction to a single event, which in this case, would be solely to “Song of Lasting Pain.” Additionally, due to the nature of writing Chinese poetry, poets often rely on allusions to expand on meaning in their poems because of the limited number of characters used. Without allusions, it may be impossible to fit everything the author would like to say within the strict poetic format. Thus, allusions can actually help preserve the beauty of Chinese poetry syntax. However, it’s also important to note that at the time this was written, it’s plausible that many of the people who read poetry were familiar with the aforementioned story between Emperor Wu and Lady Li. But today, it’s possible that many readers of “Song of Lasting Pain” may not be, which prevents them from wholly understanding and appreciating the work this poem does. So, while allusion is a vital way of enhancing a poem story, it can hinder some readers’ experiences if they lack of prior knowledge. But, of course, conversely, if readers do understand the references, the reading experience can instead be enhanced.

“Song of Lasting Pain,” with its vivid descriptions, causes readers to feel empathize deeply with the Emperor, understanding both the depth of his love for Yang Guifei and his subsequent sadness after her death. Other poetic elements, such as allusion, can further enhance readers’ experiences, allowing them to make connections between different parts of histories. Allusions also allow poetry to fit more meaning into its few characters, thereby preserving its syntax. Of course, vivid descriptions and allusion are not exclusive to poetry, but they are still of utmost importance in “Song of Lasting Pain,” providing readers with a fulfilling, heart throbbing experience while also preserving the beauty of Chinese poetry syntax.

Works Cited:

Owen, Stephen. An Anthology of Chinese Literature : Beginnings to 1911. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.

The Qing and Ping Tune

Original poems by Li Bai and translations by respectively Andrew Wong, Andrew Wong, and Betty Tseng

Unlike any other text introduced on this website, Li Bai’s three quatrains to “The Qing and Ping Tune” were said to have been composed during Prized Consort Yang’s lifetime. Serving in the Hanlin Academy, an institution tasked with drafting official documents, Li allegedly wrote these poems at the emperor’s request some time between 742 and 744, when the emperor and his beloved consort were enjoying the beautiful view of peonies at the Aloewood Pavilion (Xie). Rising to the challenge of a stringent word limit, Li’s quatrains use imageries, allusions, and environmental depictions to convey Lady Yang’s flowerlike beauty.

Compared to Bai Juyi, author of “Song of Lasting Pain,” Li faces even more constraints in terms of syntax, as the poems are sung to “The Qing and Ping Tune” and are limited to 28 characters each. However, Bai and Li draw from a common literary tradition and use similar figurative language to create powerful impressions through just a few words. Like Bai who compares Yang’s face to “a flower,” Li exclaims that “in flowers, [one can] see her face,” likely pointing to the peonies in front of the royal couple to pay tribute to Yang’s elegance (Owen 442, “其1”). The two poets also adopt similar allusions. Like “the Maid Shuang-cheng” in “Song of Lasting Pain,” the “Hills of Emerald” and the “Jasper Terrace” in Li’s poem refer to features associated with the mythological Queen Mother of the West, suggesting that Yang’s beauty has reached a divine level (Owen 446, “其1”). Finally, Bai and Li touch on the same natural elements to create a similar romantic atmosphere. Both poets speak of the spring breeze, which is associated with the germination of life and thus romantic love (Owen 445, Tseng).

However, unlike in “Song of Lasting Pain,” An Lushan’s rebellion and Yang’s eventual death apparently have not yet occurred and do not seem to shadow the happiness Lady Yang brings to the emperor: “Released into infinite spring breezes are his countless worries” (Tseng). Like Bai, Li does allude to the allure of “[Zhao] Feiyan” and the so-called “all forsaking beauty” of Lady Li, which led to disruptions of court affairs during Han times, but the allusions seem more like illustrations of Yang’s bewitching charm than signs of the emperor’s increasing disregard for duties (Owen 442, 447; “其2;”Tseng). After all, Li himself as a titular Daoist cleric and an avid drinker tended to disregard social norms and follow inner drives like the emperor did with Prized Consort Yang (Owen and Roxnam).

Zhiqian, Zhao. Peony. 1862, https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/as/original/DP161401.jpg. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lady Yang has traditionally been associated with peonies.

Works cited:

Owen, Stephen, and Robert Oxnam. “Great Tang Poets: Li Bo (701-762).” Asian Topics, 2019, http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/at/libo/lb02.html. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Li Bai.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Jan. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Li-Bai.

Tseng, Betty. “319 Li Bai – Qing Ping Diao San Shou Qi San 319 李白 – 清平調三首其三” [319 Li Bai – The Third of Three Pieces to ‘The Qing and Ping Tune’]. English Translation of Chinese Poetry —— 中文詩詞英譯, 23 Nov. 2010, https://28utscprojects.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/319/.

Wong, Andrew. “Classical Chinese Poems in English: 李白 Li Bai: 清平調 3首 其1 To the Qing and Ping Tune (for Lady Yang), I of 3.” Classical Chinese Poems in English, 1 June 2010, http://chinesepoemsinenglish.blogspot.com/2010/06/li-bai-1st-of-three-verses-to-qing-and.html.

—. “李白 Li Bai: 清平調 3首 其2 To the Qing and Ping Tune (for Lady Yang), 2 of 3.” Classical Chinese Poems in English, 2 Aug. 2010, http://chinesepoemsinenglish.blogspot.com/2010/08/li-bai-2nd-of-three-verses-to-qing-and.html.

Xie, Fangde, et al., editors. Qian Jia Shi Ping Dian Yi Shi 《千家诗》评点译释 [Comments and Notes on Poetries of a Thousand Poets]. 1st ed., Hua Zhong Li Gong Da Xue Chu Ban She, 1992.

Zhao, Zhiqian. Peony. 1862, https://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/as/original/DP161401.jpg. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Feathered Coats, Rainbow Skirts

Not only because it is woven throughout so many tellings of the Yang Guifei story, The Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat enjoys a fame equal to—and perhaps even beyond—the Yang Guifei story itself. It is said to have originated from the moon palace, and legend tells us that Emperor Xuanzong heard the piece when touring there with the help of Daoists. Only after did Emperor Xuanzong attempt to replicate the beautiful tune.

More historically, the piece does originate from the 8th century Tang, surviving to the present day. Some speculate that the piece’s origin involves importation of a foreign tune called “Brahman Song” by an official named Yang Jingshu from Xiliang; however, it is equally likely that the Emperor himself composed this piece. The version of the song we have today dates back to Jiang Kui, a southern Song poet who discovered it in old music books. The version you hear here is published by Beijing Zhongchang Shidai Yinxiang Chuban Youxiangongsi.

The piece is intended to accompany female dancers dressed as fairies. As for the tune itself, it is a slow, soothing piece with some touches of dissonance throughout. It seems to wander through warm and cool tones, building and falling with no set melody, finally arriving at section that seems to offer comfort and hope before concluding with an unresolved note. It does seem to evoke the supernatural, languid nature of the moon as well as the mystery of those who must live there.

Works Cited:

Fu, Junlian, and Huilin Li. “‘Ni Chang Yiu Yi Qu’ Xin Kao 《霓裳羽衣曲》新考 [New Research on ‘Feathered Coats, Rainbow Skirts’].” Journal of Gansu Radio & TV University, vol. 25, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 1–5.

Nichang Zhongxu Diyi 霓裳中序第一 [The First Middle Sequence of Rainbow Skirts]. 17 May 2018, https://www.ximalaya.com/yinyue/4187378/. Ximalaya.com.


Rain on the Wutong Tree / Rain on the Paulownia Tree

A statue of Bai Renfu / Bai Pu in Zhengding. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Rain on the Wutong Tree (also translated as Rain on the Paulownia Tree) is one of the three extant plays written by Bai Pu (1226-1307) in the early Yuan dynasty. It tells the story of Yang Guifei, Emperor Xuanzong’s infatuation with her, and her demise of as a result of An Rokshan’s rebellion; however, it has a different focus than the Song of Lasting Pain” or its prose “Account.” There is no magical journey into heaven to speak to the spirit of Yang Guifei, guaranteeing a future reunification for the couple in the afterlife. Rather, after Yang Guifei’s death, tragically performed on-stage all the way until the final act is carried out, she is never heard from again except in a dream. Perhaps this is due to the constraints of theater, but the aging Emperor is left instead only with his memories, his regrets, and the sound of the rain falling on the branches of the wutong tree, disrupting him from the dream.

Indeed, in this version of the story, the lovers’ affair is not so otherworldly as the Emperor himself would like to believe. The Precious Consort participates in a duplicitous affair with the fat, conniving An Rokshan after being raped by him (though this latter detail is removed from some versions of the play). The “affair” plot point appears in other tellings of the Yang Guifei story, though it more often does not appear, and understandably. Without this development, the story is a more tragic and pure love story, but with it, the story becomes much more focused on the hubris of Emperor Xuanzong: his lack of focus on the affairs of court (“Wearied of setting on order the affairs of court / All I want to do is / Drink heartily in Zhaoyang Palace . . .” [121]), his inability to recognize good and loyal ministers (“My eyes do not recognize people for what they are,” referencing a line thought to have actually been spoken by the historical Xuanzong, “If I had listened to Zhang Jiuling [about being suspicious of An Rokshan], none of this would have ever happened” [135]), and his obsession with a woman who may not even love him back. The first half of the play is full of dramatic ironies that the audience would instantly recognize, such as, “Sir [Zhang Jiuling], don’t act as if you were Wang Yan recognizing Shi Le for what he was.” This refers to Wang Yan’s prediction that a young Shi Li would “disorder the empire,” which would be proved right when Shi Li went on to found the Latter Zhao dynasty (117).

Yang Guifei does request that Xuanzong pledge a vow of eternal love, which he does beneath the wutong tree on the night the celestial lovers Buffalo Boy and Weaving Maiden are said to make their once-a-year rendezvous. This dream-like conversation is the central scene in the play. Whether Yang Guifei’s feelings toward the Emperor in this version of the story are earnest, though, remains unclear; she performs one substantial dialogue (120), but delivers few additional, short lines thereafter. Instead, the play remains very much concerned with the experience and especially emotions of Emperor Xuanzong. In addition to monologues and dialogues, much of the story is told through Xuanzong’s poetic songs. He is the only one who sings, and does so at length and passionately, and never more than the final scene of the play, in which he describes in roughly four pages of text the grief the sound of the rain on the wutong tree evokes in him. Ultimately, the play serves less to celebrate the love between the Precious Consort and Emperor, but to showcase the Emperor’s outpouring of love and grief, the tragedy of his life. It displays its version of the story realistically, and therefore vividly and painfully, with no release from the tragedy at the play’s conclusion. Confucianism is invoked in just the second line of the play (113), and the play, like the story itself beyond it, indeed adheres to a Confucian ethic. Xuanzong’s obsession with Yang Guifei tipped the yin yang balance between public and private, duty and pleasure, and male and female power, both in the family and in the government. Tragedy of this scale, then, seems like the only natural outcome.

Works Cited

Monks, Bandits, Lovers, and Immortals: Eleven Early Chinese Plays. Translated and Edited by Stephen H. West and Wilt L. Idema, Hackett Publishing Company, 2010, pp. 105-154.

Gazing on Huaqing Palace at Daybreak

“Gazing on Huaqing Palace at Daybreak” works to build a contrast between a fleeting beauty in nature and the seeming immortality of the Emperor. The Warrior Emperor’s body will never die, which contrasts Yang’s fate. He seeks immortality and longevity. However, the Emperor certainly was not immortal, conflicting reality with perception. The Emperor’s perceived immortality could reflect a mindset at the time: the emperor was inherently linked with the Heavens, and he sought what was in his best interest. The emperor was focused on building an empire and a palace, which the poem establishes. This reflects the historical times: internal actors were at war and were vying for land and power. Furthermore, this poem uses jade as a symbol of beauty, which is similar to the painting “Emperor Xuanzong’s Flight to Shu,” which is also on this website.

Works Cited

Owen, Stephen. “Interlude: Emperor Xuan-Zong and Yang the Prized Consort.” Anthology of Chinese Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.