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