The Song of Endless Sorrow

Original by Juyi Bai
Translated, from the Chinese, by Zixi Cai

Part 1

Long had the monarch longed for a true beauty.
For years he sought,
His efforts in vain.
In the house of the Yangs a girl was newly in her prime,
Behind the gates of gates,
No one ever knew.
Born with undeniable beauty she could not hide,
One day she was selected to attend the emperor by his side.
Glancing back her glamour blossomed,
Rouge turned grey at the sight of her smile.
In the chill of spring she bathed in the royal pond,
Lukewarm water cleansed her lustrous skin.
When the maids helped her up she was lightheaded,
For the first time she received the emperor’s favor.
Rosy cheeks, fairy hair,
Headdress of gold embellished her grace.
There she spent her nights cuddled,
In the warmth of flowery veils.
But nights of love were short. Before long the sun would rise,
Since then the monarch never summoned the morning court.
Feasts and frolics left her no leisure, in spring
His companion on travels, his lover every night.
In the palaces three thousand beauties were in his possession,
But his love for that three thousand,
She had in her possession.
A gilded house, some tender nights,
In the tower of jade, one mellow spring of feasts with wine.
Brothers and sisters all made nobles,
The House of Yang shone with gleam;
Pity on the fathers and mothers throughout the state,
In their hearts a pretty girl valued far more than a son.
From on high the palaces rose into the blue clouds,
Wind carried heavenly music over the hills, to everyone’s ears.
The song and the dance were slow, frozen notes in the air
Until the end of the day the emperor still desired more.
But then the drumbeat of war came and the ground shuddered,
Splintering the notes of  “The Song of the Feathery Rainbow Dress.”
Within the nine gates of the palace dust and ash arose,
Thousands and millions headed southwest.
Amidst them the emperor’s emerald standard wavered,
Ever going, ever stopping,
Hundreds of miles out from Chang’An.
His warriors would not march,
There was no other way,
In front of the horses,
The tender beauty was forever gone.
Fallen floral hairpins on the ground,
Emerald clip, golden finch, and her barrette made of jade.
No one could keep hold of these delicate jewels:
The emperor covered his face,
Yet save his girl he could not.
Peering back, his tears and her blood mingled and flowed. 

Part 2

Yellow ashes pervaded the air with dismal winds,
Along winding lanes, amidst entangling clouds,
The emperor mounted the towering Tower of Swords.
By the foot of the mountains few roved about,
Banners bore no light, the sun and the moon glimmered palely in the sky.
Western waters green, western mountains blue,
He thought of her at dawn, he thought of her at dusk.
In the summer palace moonlit nights burned his heart,
The sound of a tolling bell in the rain twisted his guts. 

Part 3

The odds suddenly turned, and he returned to the old palaces,
Midway through he paused long by her grave, hesitant to leave.
Down by the hills, in the depth of the soil,
Where her blood had been shed, her fairy face he could not see.
He and his ministers looked at each other, their clothes wet with tears,
Staring at the east, letting the horses run wild back to the capital gate.
Upon their return the ponds and the gardens remained still,
Lotus in the royal waters, willows by the Middle Palace.
Lotus her face, willow her brows,
At the sight of these, how could his tears not fall?
When vernal breezes again signaled peach and plum blossoms,
When autumnal rain once more heralded falling sycamore leaves.
Western palace and southern court,
Autumnal weeds were overgrown,
Fallen leaves filled the stairs,
Crimson color left unswept.
His protegés in the Pear Garden grew white hair anew,
Deep in the palace of the queen, even her maids had aged.
At nightfall fireflies flew around and sorrows inhabited his heart,
The lonesome lamp went out well before he could fall asleep.
Bell chimes and drumbeats came late,
Lengthening the lingering night.
Light of faraway galaxies glimmered,
Forecasting the coming daybreak.
Yet pairs of lovebird tiles were bitter cold,
Laden with frost flowers layers thick,
Kingfisher-decorated quilt was chill,
With whom could he share?
For years and years they had been parted,
But never had her shadow returned to his dreams.
A Taoist sage was invited to the grand palaces,
Well-trained to send for spirits well-remembered.
For the Highness’s yearning heart,
The sage eagerly searched for hints.
Up in the air, riding the flow,
Fast as a flash of lightning crossing the sky.
Bordering the heavens, down in the netherworld,
None could find her, nowhere on earth.
Suddenly the sage learned of holy mountains,
Holy mountains overseas, afloat in the misty void;
Exquisite edifice imposing on the rising cloud,
In which elegant fairies spent their days.
Amongst the fairies one bore the name “Ever True,”
Snow was her skin, petals her face, all that may offer a clue.
In the western chamber of the golden palaces the jade bolt was sounded,
One to another the maids had the name of the new guest relayed;
Upon hearing the monarch’s messenger had sent,
Behind nine-fold curtains the soul asleep was startled.
Gathering her clothes, pushing her pillow aside,
She rose up from her bed and paced her room,
Pearl curtains and silver screens turned open as she hurried out.
Her coiffure half tipping, freshly awaken from her sleep,
With rumpled headdress she rushed down the hall;
A waft of winds lifted her fairy sleeves afloat,
As though she was dancing along the “Song of the Feathery Rainbow Dress.
Tears of grief streamed across her pearly face,
Like a twig of pear blossom in spring rain;
In her vision she gazed at the monarch ardently with grateful eyes,
Since they parted his voice and face had been obscured in the distance;
In the imperial court this love ended long before,
In the heavenly palace it still had days and nights to go;
Turning back she stared down at the earthly dwellings,
Chang’An could not be seen through mist and ashes afloat.
Only old collections could carry her love,
Her golden hairpin she split in two,
Her jeweled chest she cut in half,
One she kept the other she sent.
“May our hearts be firm, firm as these gilded hairpins,
One day we will meet, in heaven or on earth.”
Upon parting she keenly reminded his envoy of her message,
In her words there were vows,
Vows familiar to only her lord and her.
On the seventh day, in the seventh month,
In the Palace of Longevity,
When no one else was around.
Right as the bells for midnight tolled,
And this he whispered, so this she heard:
“May we be birds, our wings adjoining,
Up into the sky together we will rise,
Should we be trees, our branches interlinked,
Down in the fields together we will sprout.”
Heavens and lands with their infinite years,
Till they had their day,
This love will stay unrequited, this sorrow unceasing.

Translator’s Note

The poem, “长恨歌 (Chang Hen Ge, The Song of Endless Sorrow)” is arguably one of Juyi Bai’s most popular poem in China, from which a multitude of love quotes are still frequently revisited by the young nowadays. It beautifies the tragic love story between the Xuanzong Emperor of Tang Dynasty and his charming concubine, Lady Yang. The poem can be divided into three parts story-wise: first the poet elaborates on how the two lived a hedonistic life in the royal palaces, foreshadowing the coming disaster; the second part starts with line 36 (“The drumbeat of war…shuddered”), when a trusted general of the emperor instigated a rebellion that altered the fate of the once prosperous Tang Dynasty, marking a critical point in the story as well. While on exile, the emperor was forced to kill his beloved. The third part starts with line 61 (“The odds…palaces”), when the emperor returned to the capital and began to try every means to see his lady once more. Chinese folklore comes to be involved in the theme as well. The fate of the state and the fate of the couple were intertwined throughout, providing insights into the historical events while giving this love poem a deeper takeaway.

Surprisingly, this poem was left out in the collection of Herbert A. Giles’s translations of Bai’s poems. Many poems less known in China by the public were included in that anthology. 

Juyi Bai was primarily a writer of realism, capturing the sufferings of the poor while he was a low-ranking local official. Weighing the instructive value of poems more than their formats and rhetoric, Bai was the informal leader of a group of poets who defied the hackneyed court poetry at that time. His lines, simple but concise as they are, were said to be sung in the streets by all in his time.

Juyi Bai (772-846) (more often appearing as “Pio Chu-yi” in the Wade-Giles romanticized format) was a Tang Dynasty Chinese poet, usually ranked alongside other prominent Tang Dynasty poets such as Li Bai(“Rihaku”), Du Fu and Wang Wei. His political career had a quick end when he was banished to a minor post, in return saving him much effort as he pursued his interests in poetry and prose.

Zixi Cai is currently a student at Shenzhen Foreign Languages School, Guangdong, China. She became interested in the translation of Chinese poetry after spending a year in the US as an exchange student.