Bai Juyi (772-846) was a seminal Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty. He wrote in a direct and accessible style and was extremely popular, influential both in China and Japan. He served in various positions as a government official, though he spent a few years in exile for his outspoken views on government early on in his career. He was well-known for both his socially conscious narrative poetry, as well as his touching personal lyrics.
“The Song of Everlasting Sorrow” is one of his most famous poems, mythologizing the love affair of Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei which took place during the An Lushan Rebellion, the beginning of the decline of the Tang Dynasty.
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow
– by Bai Juyi
The Han emperor, lover of women, desired a beauty
Worthy of destroying an empire.
Reigning for years and years, he looked,
But he could never find one.
Meanwhile, in the Yang household was a young girl
Just at the brink of maturity.
She was rarely ever allowed to leave her room,
And few had ever seen her.
Her beauty was obvious to all who knew her.
Once seen, it was impossible to ignore.
One day, she was chosen for a chance
To entertain the emperor.
A flash of her eyelashes and a giggle from her
Aroused a great many feelings of lust.
All the powdered faces of the six palaces
Paled in comparison.
On a cold day in spring, the emperor invited her
To bathe at the pool at Hua Qing Palace.
There the warm water smoothly slipped
Off her creamy white skin.
The palace maids helped her out of the pool
As she was too delicate to lift a finger.
This marked the true beginning of her
Receiving the emperor’s favor.
Her face like a flower and her luscious hair
Adorned with gold and dangling pearls,
Warm under a cotton-rose covered canopy,
They spent a night together in spring.
That night seemed so bitterly short
They waited until noon to leave.
From this time onward, the emperor missed
Every morning session of court,
And he lavished gifts and banquets upon her
Until he did almost nothing else.
Each day, they went out and traveled together,
And each night, they made love.
Although in the palace were three thousand women
And none were not extraordinarily beautiful
All the love he had for them
He gave to one alone.
In her golden house, she made up her face to perfection,
And all her charm made him love her more.
At the completion of every feast at Jade Mansion,
They were giddy and surrendered to spring.
All her brothers and sisters received imperial land,
And an enviable glow lit their doorstep.
And so, all under heaven, when about to give birth,
No longer wanted sons, but only daughters.
The high points of Hua Qing Palace
Touched clear, blue skies.
Music of the immortals floated on the wind,
And everyone everywhere could hear it.
The sound of woodwinds and strings
Shaped slow dances and songs.
All day every day the king looked on,
But he could never get enough,
Until one day the war drums of Yu Yang thundered
And the ground trembled in its wake
Dismantling the melody of the dance they called
“The Rainbow Dress and the Feather Gown.”
High above the city’s tall towers
Rose clouds of smoke and dust.
Many thousands of chariots and soldiers
Fled Chang An for the south.
The imperial banner rocked back and forth
And stopped and started several times.
They had gone but thirty miles
Before they suddenly halted.
All six regiments refused to march any further,
And so, the emperor had no choice.
His love’s slender body writhed in pain
As she lay dying before the horses.
Her extravagant headdress and kingfisher crown,
Gold sparrow pin and jade hair clasp,
All plummeted to the ground,
But no one picked them up.
His Majesty covered his face.
He knew couldn’t save her.
As he turned his head away, blood
And tears ran down his cheeks.
As yellow dust leapt about in a frenzy
And the wind was cold and bleak,
They walked a winding trail among the clouds
Near the gateway at Mount Jian.
On the road beneath Mount Emei as well,
Few people could be found.
There the imperial banner had lost its luster.
Even the sunlight seemed thin,
But the rivers and streams of Shu stayed blue
And the mountains of Shu stayed green.
And our liege from dawn to dusk
Thought of her and her alone.
From his temporary palace, he gazed at the moon
And the pain on his face revealed his sorrow
While wind chimes swaying in the wind
Gave off a distressing sound.
After some time, when order was restored,
He took control of the imperial chariot.
He returned to the place that haunted his memories
And could not bare to leave it.
Below the slopes of Ma Wei Station,
Among the mud and the dirt,
He did not see her face like jade, only
The abandoned area of her death.
He and his ministers turned toward each other
And drowned their clothes in tears.
Gazing eastward toward the capital,
Their horses took them home.
There they inspected the ports and gardens
And all seemed the same as before,
Including the lotuses of Tai Ye
Shaped like her face
And the willows of Wei Yang
Shaped like her eyebrows.
Facing them, what could he do
But let the tears flow?
Gone were the days of spring where a breeze
Brought him the scent of peach blossoms,
Now replaced by melancholy autumn winds
And leaves that keep falling and falling.
Palaces to the West and South
Were overrun with grasses,
Their steps covered with red leaves
No one had swept away.
The hair of the Pear Garden performers
Was now sprinkled with white,
And maids and eunuchs at the Empress’s palace
Had grown much older still.
Fireflies flew through the air outside the palace,
But the emperor, lost in thought, stood still.
Though his lamp no longer gave light,
He could not fall asleep.
The bells and drums each rang out a little late
Sounding the start of another endless night.
Though the Milky Way filled the sky with light,
He longed for the break of day.
Tiles engraved with mandarin ducks were cold,
And the frost on the ground was heavy.
He lay under a thick green quilt,
But who to share it with?
So long had the dead and the living been apart,
For at least a year, if not more.
Her soul had not once entered his dreams
And paid a visit to His Majesty.
A Daoist priest was called upon from afar
To seek the emperor in the capital.
He could use his understanding of spirits
To call back the souls of the dead.
His Majesty spoke of how much he missed her,
Of how he tossed and turned at night,
And so, he implored upon the priest
To search with all his might.
The priest glided magically through the air,
Quick like lightning.
Throughout all of the heavens and the earth,
He looked for the emperor’s lost love.
He flew through the endless blue skies,
Drifted down to the Yellow Springs,
But in both these places,
She could not be found.
Suddenly, he heard of a place above the sea,
A mountain where immortals lived
And few could ever hope to find,
Set among a maze of fog.
There he saw an exquisite tower rising
Through many colored clouds
Where lived a great many immortals,
All with feminine grace.
Among the many was one
Given the name Tai Zhen.
The aura surrounding her snow-white skin
Suggested he had finally found her.
The priest knocked on a door made of jade
Of a wing of a golden tower.
He sent a message through her maids,
Xiao Yu and Shuang Cheng,
Saying the Son of Heaven
Had sent him to this place.
She had been laying under a canopy of flowers
And dreaming, when she was startled awake.
She reached for her robe, pushed aside her pillow,
Paced back and forth, unsure how to respond.
She slowly made her way through
Pearl curtains and silver screens.
Her plentiful hair was heavy on one side
Showing she had just been sleeping,
And her crown of flowers was crooked
As she entered the main hall.
Her sleeves fluttered in the wind
As if she were a goddess,
Just as she had seemed before, when dancing to
“The Rainbow Dress and the Feather Gown.”
Her face, as lovely as jade,
Was stained with tears,
Looking like a pear blossom
On a rainy day in spring.
Full of feeling, she fixed her gaze on the priest
And thanked the emperor for everything.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen him,
His voice seems unfamiliar now.
The feelings of love and warmth I felt
In Zhao Yang Palace have gone.
Where I dwell now at Peng Lai Palace,
Days and months never seem to end.
When I tilt my head down to look
At the place where mortals live,
I cannot see Chang An,
Only dust and fog.
I wish to send him tokens of my affection
To express the depth of my feelings,
Including this case inlaid with jewels
And this golden hairpin,
But I’ll break off a piece of the pin,
And I’ll tear off a side of the box,
And keep these pieces for myself
To hold onto my memories.
I ask him to hold steady in his devotion,
Constant and enduring as these jewels.
Whether in Heaven above or in the world below,
I hope we will meet again.”
When the priest was about to part, she asked him
To hand the emperor a message.
In it, she spoke of a vow they’d made
That only they two would know.
On the seventh day of the seventh month,
In the Hall of Immortality,
At midnight, with no one else around,
They had recited this vow:
“Among the heavens we shall be
Birds together flying wing to wing.
On the earth we shall be
Two branches braided in love.”
Though Heaven one day will meet its end
And the Earth will be destroyed,
Only this sorrow shall remain,
Forever and ever without end.
Bai Juyi. “Chang Hen Ge.” Bai Juyi Shixuan. Hong Kong: Zhong Liu Publishing Company.
Bai Juyi. “The Song of Everlasting Regret.” Trans. Wikisource. Wikipedia. Web. 3 May 2012.
Bai Juyi. “The Song of Everlasting Regret.” Trans. Ying Sun. Musicated. 11 Nov. 2008. Web.
3 May 2012.
Bo Juyi. “The Everlasting Wrong.” Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations.
Trans. Herbert Giles. Ed. John Minford and Joseph S. M Lau. New York: Columbia
University Press, 2002. Print.
Po, Chü-i. “The Everlasting Sorrow.” The White Pony. Trans. Ching Li. New York: The John
Day Company, 1947. Print.
Po, Chü-i. “The Song of Everlasting Grief.” Renditions. Trans. Mimi Chan and Piers Gray.
Vol. 14: Autumn 1980. 79-84. Print.
Translation Copyright ©2012, by Joshua Bocher. All Rights Reserved.
Joshua Bocher is currently a graduate student at Harvard University doing research on Chinese poetry and poetics. Before attending Harvard, he lived in Taiwan for over two and a half years. Joshua’s poems and translations have been published in several publications, including Clerestory, Issues, TYPE, The Brown Literary Review, and The Brown Classical Journal.