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Friday, April 23, 2010

December Rain - 12 月の雨

Walking down the avenue,
Sunshine caressing with my cheeks.
People here and there are a few,
I care not who I should know,
Just wondering who I shall meet.

With a skip and jump in my stride,
Wish I could kiss every pretty boy in sight.
Now that December rain is all behind...
With a tune,
In my heart,
I shall sing...

Come out and join in a song or dance,
Enjoy the warmth and hear the birds.
See the newly sprouted green green grass.
Loosen up and smell the flowers around.

Life's not too bad if you dispel the clouds,
Just get out of that room!
Join in the fun
With the crowd...
And be yourself...

Now that December rain is gone,
Come out, come out where ever you are.
Life's too short to be cooped up,
Watch the world go by,
Say hello to someone,
And see them smile....
Now that December rain is past,
Come out come out where ever you are.
Put a smile on your face,
Sing a song or join in dance.
Why? You ask...
Just because December rain is past.

An inspiration after listening to this catchy Japanese tune of the same title and life in general with the Bobo. I know I should be working on my program instead of trying to set these words to the tune and putting it on FB. Outside is bursting with life.

The Drunken Imperial Concubine

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A modern sexier interpretation but incorrect since she was very rubenesque.

紫羅紅裙配胭脂, Her purple gauze silk and scarlet skirt match her rouge.
金釵翠玉鎖黛雲, Golden hairpins and jade clasps lock in her ravenous hair.
醉意氛氛蹺天陛, In tipsiness she teeters here and there while ascending the imperial steps,
漫舞輕騰霓裳曲. As if she was dancing lithely in the air to the tune of the "Rainbow Skirt".

I had the gem of an idea to this poem while jogging up the street. This is the result of going through several versions.


The tune of the "Rainbow Skirt and Feathered Dress" has 36 movements and was reputed to be the composition of the Tang Emperor Yuan Tsung. The music and the dance were lost in the An Lu Shan rebellion. As it was considered as an ill omen piece of music and sign of decadence that it was never revived in the succeeding reigns of the dynasty until two hundred years later, when it was revived and improved on by the Overlord and Lady (李後主大周后) of the Later Tang (a totally different dynasty but shared the same last name). When Nanjing fell to the Sung forces, the Overlord Liyu ordered it destroyed. In 1186 during the Sung Dynasty, The 18 movements were rediscovered by 姜白石(姜夔) in Changsha. Whether it is the melody or the lyrics survived to this day, I do not know.

More or less historically correct of the kind of dress worn in the T'ang period. Note the similarity to the kimono of which it was modelled upon. Most of the Japanese culture was adopted from the T'ang Era. Another excellent example is the Gagaku Imperial Court Music.

Yang Gui Fei - Imperial Concubine Yang was considered to be one of the four greatest beauties in Chinese history. All had tragic lives and hence the saying, "Since time immemorial, a great beauty, a tragic life." 自古紅颜多簿命). Her story is well known to Chinese children (not those solely brought up in western education) as Hansel and Greta is to western children. When she died, she caused an empire to collapse around her skirt.

Peking opera interpretation of the imperial regalia of the Ming Dynasty as perceived by the common people.

"The Drunken Concubine", also known as the "Hundred Flower Pavilion" (百花亭) is a Peking opera. It was first played during the reign of Emperor Chien Lung in the Ching Dynasty. The role of the imperial concubine to date was best performed by a man - Mi Lan Fang (梅蘭芳). In the old days, like Kabuki, women are not allowed on stage.

A close up of the headdress and costume.


It had been more than five years since I first composed this poem.  Only one character was changed to make the second and fourth line rhyme without changing the original intent of the poem.

紫羅紅裙配胭脂, Her purple gauze silk and scarlet skirt match her rouge,
金釵翠玉鎖黛雲, Golden hairpins and jade clasps lock in her ravenous hair.
醉意氛氛蹺天陛, In tipsiness, teetering here and there, she ascends the imperial steps,
漫舞輕騰霓裳  As if dancing lithely in the air to the tune of the "Rainbow Skirt".

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Kingdom & The Beauty

Shaw Brothers' Production starring Lin Dai 林黛.  Her life like in the movie, died of a tragic suicide over love.

一瞥驚鴻影, A stolen glance startled the swan1,
相逢似夢中. Our chance meeting was like a dream.
廣寒身未到, The moon2 yet to be reached,
分手太匆匆... Too hurriedly we had parted...

This is the main song in the movie, "Kingdom and the Beauty"


1. Actually an eastern bean goose or the great wild goose. There is no graceful connotation for goose in English - "A silly goose" is the first thing comes to an English reader's mind.

2. The moon is also known as the Palace of the Great Cold. This where the goddess 嫦娥, Chang O lived or banished to (depending on the source). In the movie version, the Ming Emperor Chen Te 正德 played hookey and on a whim stole out of the dreary palace and escaped to the prosperous south for an extended outing. There he met the heroine, fell in love with her and had an affair with her. However the very next day, the imperial retainers sent by his mother discovered his location and was forced to head back to the Capital. A movie ploy to make the Emperor look good. For added embellishment to the story, the chief eunuch came out with a plan to fill the mind of the Emperor with pretty dancing girls. The easily excitable emperor soon had her completely out of his mind.

In the meantime, the heroine bore the emperor a son and became sick yearning for him. A family friend took pity and journeyed all the way from the South to the capital in the north (some 800 miles). On the way he recounted the liaison of the heartless Emperor for all to hear (in a rap like song - remember this was in the 60s!). Finally he reached the capital and through a series of situations, the emperor finally remembered as if woken from a dream; went to see the Empress Dowager and vowed to make the now remembered lover the Empress. The mother refused on the grounds that the girl was a nobody (an extremely flimsy pretext since the founder of the Ming Dynasty was once a upon a time, a lout who had to become a monk to escape starvation).  The Emperor said that he would rather throw away the throne for the girl. To break the stalemate, the prime minister offered to adopt the girl as his god daughter... Finally the imperial edict came to fetch her. When at last the imperial entourage arrived at the Palace, she expired from her sickness and long journey.

The producers took many liberties to make the movie look good. According to popular stories of that time, Emperor Chen Te was a licentious ruler. In unofficial histories, he did travel to the South for pleasure and indeed had an affair with a girl there. She was made into an Imperial concubine. Unlike the movie, she was soon out of imperial favour there were several new favourites came after her. Another story version: The Empress once asked the Emperor what was so beautiful about this concubine and when the Emperor replied that it was her eyes, the jealous woman had them plucked and served on a dish to the Emperor exclaiming, "Here are her beautiful eyes. You can now always be near them!" Chen Te became Emperor at the age of 14 and died at 30. For more info see

The last two lines of the poem alluded to another famous story of the Tang Emperor Ming Huang and his imperial concubine Lady Yang. After she was forced to commit suicide during their flight from the capital arising from a rebellion, the emperor abdicated and thought of her ceaselessly. He would die happy if he could just get another glimpse of her.  So with the help of a Taoist priest a tryst was arranged. As if in a dream, he saw her descending from the moon to see him. Time was too brief when she finally departed leaving the Emperor even sadder. Yang Gui Fei was also granted the title of "Great Fidelity". This is a name given for a nun, a Tang Court ploy to avoid embarrassing situations created when foreign kings came asking for an imperial marriage with an imperial princess. The ploy is to make her a nun. After the situation had passed, she was then reverted to laity.

Historically Lady Yang was the emperor's daughter-in-law from a minor son. When his favourite concubine died, the Emperor was raging about like a bear. To keep peace and for the sake of their safety, the chief eunuch arranged for the emperor to espy Lady Yang bathing in the Pool of Flower Purity. (Historically, he was in his 60's and she was in her late teens when the peeping Tom episode took place!) The Emperor was smitten, soon had his son divorced her before appropriating her for himself after a period of decorum has passed after serving as a nun.

Another case of incestuous relation in the eyes of Chinese tradition. Well that's another story to be told.

No Taxes Today!

A replica for tourist attraction. Notice how the inscription for "No Taxes Today" is barely visible. Also there is no indication stating that it was erected by imperial order.

Ren Ke Pu (任克溥) passed the imperial exams in the 6th year of the reign of Emperor Shun Chih during the Ching Dynasty. He became the Right Minister of Justice of the Right and finally in the same department as the Minister of the Left. He ranked 3rd in his family and because he used superior wit to twist situations to his advantage and subduing his opponents at the same time, he was nicknamed “Ren the third - the Scorpion” by the locals.

During the reign of the 2nd Ching Emperor Kang Hsi, Ren Ke Pu retired to his hometown of Dung Chang (東昌) Prefecture. Due to year long floods, life was miserable for its inhabitants. Taxes were high and continued on the rise. Soon grumblings turn into anger. Ren Ke Pu petitioned to the throne three times and each time he received no news for any relief or tax decrease. Just when Ren Ke Pu became extremely worried and angry at the bureaucracy, he received news from the Capital that the Emperor is passing through the Prefecture on his Southern Inspection of the Empire. His worries finally turned into joy.

Emperor Kang Hsi reached Dung Chang. Ren Ke Pu was at the wharf to receive the imperial entourage. The moment the Emperor stepped off from his imperial barge, Ren Ke Pu kowtowed and immediately petitioned to the Emperor in a loud voice,

“Your minister, Ren Ke Pu pays his respects to His Most August Majesty. Your minister reports that Dung Chang has suffered from the year long floods. All summer grains are destroyed. By the immeasurable grace and blessings of my Lord, please grant the drought stricken people another boon of tax decrease.”

The Emperor’s countenance darkened even before Ren Ke Pu had finished and thought to himself,

“This rascal, Ren Ke Pu had just retired and is already showing such partiality towards his hometown! Three times you petitioned us to have taxes reduced, three times We had overlooked your digressions only because you are a loyal minister. Now you are behaving like a gadfly, given an inch, you dare take a foot. You only know of your hometown and nowhere else in my empire!”

The agitated Emperor was about to explode when he checked himself, “This is no good. Ren Ke Pu is only thinking of my people’s sufferings. If I punish him, people will call me a tyrant. But if I acquiesce to his petition, it will become a precedent for all other counties along the prefecture. They will ask for the same treatment. Definitely this will not do. The Treasury will be empty in no time! Definitely not!

Then the wily Emperor had a brilliant solution to his dilemma and announced for all to hear,

“Petition granted! There will be no taxes for today!”

When Ren Ke Pu heard this, he muttered to himself,

“What a stingy king! All these work and what do I get in the end? Just one lousy day of no taxes! What more can I do? The petition has been 'granted' by the Emperor and there is no way I can argue any further. Better go with the flow and thank him.”

Though he was dissatisfied to the core knitting his brows in frown, he resigned to the situation,

“I thanked the immeasurable grace of His Majesty!”

With that, the imperial carriage went about on its way. Suddenly Ren Pu Ke's face brightened up in glee. Hurriedly he got hold of his servant and whispered into his ear,

“Go immediately and get the things done as I had instructed you. Do it as fast as you can!”

A few days later after inspecting the area, Emperor Kang Hsi witnessed first hand the effects of the aftermath of the floods. What Ren Ke Pu had reported was not false. Being a wise ruler, the Emperor sincerely realized that he had greatly wronged the good minister and felt abashed to face his people. Just before leaving Dung Chang, the Emperor allowed Ren Ke Pu to accompany him to sight-see the Prefecture’s Moat.

Now this Moat is very different from others. As a result of constant dredging since it was built a few thousand years dating back to the Spring and Autumn period, it had become the largest man made anchorage system in northern part of the Yangtze River. It was early autumn and one can cast their eyes afar and...

Just look at the vast expanses draped in mists like gauze,
Dancing plumes of pampas grass fill the air.
Clouds stained red by the setting sun,
Golden sheen reflected off by reedy heads.
Clear waters a sparkle, shimmering waves in brilliance,
What a great lipstick pink sunset this is!
An autumn's lake tinged with a glow like Tiger's Eye.


Meanwhile, on the imperial barge, Emperor Kang Hsi was in a cheerful mood. Then on a whim, he pointed at the banquet tables and said to Ren Ke Pu,

“Two plates of beans.” (兩碟豆).

Ren Pu Ke understood that the Emperor was having a couplet joust with him. So he answered,

“One jug of oil.” (一甌油).

The Emperor had no intention of letting him off so easily and remarked,

“What We said were two butterflies in fight! Two butterflies fighting right now.”

Note: The crafty Emperor changed the meaning of his words as though he was commenting on the motif of the porcelain dish to make Ren Ke Pu look bad. The words plate and bean are Chinese homonyms for butterfly and fight.

Ren Ke Pu then pointed at the surface of the lake and replied,

“Your minister was merely matching with an egret in wading, One egret playing in the water.”

Note: Ren Pu Ke pointed to the lake this time explicitly to show that the Emperor had also misunderstood his words. Again word play for the indicated objects.

The Emperor let out a hearty laugh at the witty comeback. Actually, he was apologizing to him in secret for his earlier misunderstanding of the minister. However because of protocol, he could not say it openly. He gazed at the lake and gravely uttered,

“Naturally the green waters have no worry, only the wind causes it to frown.”

A praise alluding to Ren Ke Pu’s constant worry for the country and the people. Ren Ke Pu calmly replied,

“Actually the verdant mountain is not old, but the snow made it so.”

An allusion that the emperor had been aged by weariness from the burden of the State.

“Well said, very well said indeed!” exclaimed a delighted Emperor.

While praising Ren Ke Pu, the Emperor took up a brush and wrote the couplet in his imperial hand and said kindly,

“Our beloved Minister, I shall now bestow upon you this scroll to hang in your Hall of Osmanthus and Pine!”

The Emperor looked at the aged white haired minister. He wanted to speak but refrained from doing so. He was thinking about a three year tax exemption for the region. However he could not rescind the very words he had spoken on the wharf that day without showing everyone that he was in error. The Emperor shook his head and let out a sigh.

The very next day on his way back, the Emperor espied a brand new stone stele erected on the wharf of the Dung Chang Moat. There were four large characters inscribed on the main column, visible for all to see,

“No Taxes Today” (今日無稅).

On the side were the words, “Erected by Imperial Order” (敕立). On seeing these words, the Emperor flew into a thunderous rage.

“Who is responsible for this!”

Ren Ke Pu immediately knelt down.

“Reporting to His Majesty, this was done under the supervision of your minister Ren Ke Pu”.

“You dare! You dare do such a thing! Since when did We give you such an edict?”

“A few days ago, when your Minister was receiving your Majesty on the wharf. All present distinctively heard Your Majesty said it loud and clear.”

“Today becomes another today. How many todays are there going to be? According to you, no taxes will ever be collected again!”

“Your humble minister would not dare to second think His Majesty. The 'golden mouth and jade words' of His Majesty are immutable and cannot be flouted. Your minister does not have the gall to change a single word.”

“So you are not afraid having your head lopped off then?”

“Your Minister had given his body to the country. The lives and properties of my entire family are already at the mercy of His Majesty. This minister has no greed in prolonging his life but he also understands that His Majesty is a wise and benevolent ruler. He would not kill his ministers recklessly.”

Actually Emperor Kang Hsi, had already guessed who the culprit was. In the first place, he was sorry for doubting Ren Pu Ke's loyalty and in the second place, he too had contemplated in exempting taxes for a time. Ren Ke Pu’s request would be granted if not for the fact that in doing so would exposed the his error to the world. This can never be allowed! So on hearing the minister’s words, the Emperor took the opportunity to save face and exclaimed,

“What steely mouth and fangs you have! Alright then, We shall start the first stanza using the current scenery as the theme. Complete the couplet's second half using the same scenery. Match it well and We shall allow ourselves to accede to your request - henceforth from this day onwards, there shall be no taxes levied on all shipping. On the other hand, We shall allow you to use this stone stele as your suicide implement!”
The angry Emperor then pointed at the lotus blossoms growing in the water,

“From the pond, lotus blossoms protruded like red clenching fists. Punching who?”

Ren Ke Pu looked to his left and then to his right. He saw on the esserteauiana fields on the river banks and pointed at them,

“On the banks, esserteauiana leaves stretched out like green slithering hands. Grabbing who?”

The conceded Emperor nodded his head at such eloquence and exclaimed in praise,

“What a scorpion this Ren the third is!”

From that day onwards, Dung Chang Harbour became a free port and as a result business boomed; growing wealthier by the day. The stone stele remained erected on the wharf until 1967 when it was destroyed by the Red Guards during Liberation.

Translated from a Chinese newspaper article. For the original text, google the phrase, "今日無稅" or I can email you a copy.

Now the inscription is clearly visible even from a distance. Tourist money at stake!

An Unsavory Room

Closest cracked moon I could find.

As the Imperial Exams1 drew near, candidates all over the empire began to congregate in the capital. The rooming situation became so bad that even complete strangers had to share rooms. One candidate arrived late and found himself in an impossible situation. He begged to be allowed to spend the night in the barn. Even this was not possible as they were fully filled with horses and mules belonging to the lodgers.

At last the exasperated candidate pestered one innkeeper so much that he was finally told that there is always an empty room at this certain inn because of its unsavory condition. The scholar replied that it is better to have room and shelter than be drenched in the impending rain. However he warned the innkeeper that he would have a taste of his sword2 if this was a ploy to be rid of him.

When the scholar arrived at the said inn, once more he was told that there was no room available. The scholar was aghast and angrily demanded,

“Is there or is there not an empty room in your establishment? Mr. so and so from a few streets up said you always have an empty room!”

A bemused innkeeper laughing out aloud,

“Yes and no!”

“Now what kind of answer is that!”

“When you first you asked if there was any available room, I honestly told you there was none. All rental rooms are occupied; but now you asked me if there was an empty room… Why, that’s a different story. Indeed I have such a place.

“What kind of shell game you are playing with me! I see no difference at all.”

“Certainly there is! That empty room is not meant for rental. It had remained so for several years due to its unsavory condition. We locals avoid talking about it.”

“I don’t care if it is unsavory or not! Just give me that room. I am tired and in no mood for such semantic games!”

“Sir, you simply don’t understand… I’m just trying to be oblique. If you must know, I'll be frank with you... You see, the room is haunted! At the beat of the 3rd watch, a ghost will appear and those who stayed were all frightened out of their wits. I almost got sued for renting out that room, not to mention that each time I was rudely jolted from my sleep. This old man needs his sleep!”

The scholar did not know what to believe but after a moment’s reflection, he replied,

“I will have that room regardless of the state it is in. I have done nothing wrong in my life, why should I be afraid of a mere ghost. As an upright gentleman, I’m sure it will be more frightened of me3! Besides I have my trusty sword here with me.”

“Hmmh! It is free if you wish to spend the night there. Just don’t run screaming to me in the middle of the night! You have been warned.”

With that the scholar was shown to the room. The room was very dusty but livable, otherwise it just looked like any other ordinary room.

“I rather spend the night with the ghost in the room rather than be drenched in the cold night rain!” grumbled the scholar.

Very soon the candle was blown out and the scholar retired to bed. The rains came and kept him awake. Finally it stopped and the scholar was able to doze off. However peaceful sleep was not in the cards as he was soon rudely awakened by soft groaning and moaning. As the sounds grew louder, the scholar became more irritated. He peeked out of the bed and was getting ready to slice up whoever the practical joker may be out there. Peering into the darkness and with the help of the moonlight beaming through a nearby window, he was able to discern a white translucent wraith-like apparition forming in the room. The temperature seemed to drop several degrees. Soon it coalesced into a shape of a young man. Tingles crept up the scholar’s spine. The apparition did not move or pay attention to anyone or anything. It just stood with its back facing the scholar and staring at a blank wall. Its wailing was like a chant of some sort; peppering the rhythm with sorrowful sighs. An hour or so, the apparition turned around and began to pace the room, walking towards our hero who abruptly fainted right in the bed, still holding his sword.

The next day the innkeeper woke up to a beautiful morning. He was glad to have a peaceful night with no screaming guest. Suddenly his smugness left him and grew gravely concerned… But, of course the guest is dead in the room! Must have been frightened to death by the ghost! Otherwise how could there be no screaming in the night! And with that horrible thought, he took off to the haunted room like one being chased by creditors. As he approached the place, there was no sign of life. Greatly alarmed, regretting his decision of last night,

“This is bad for business. Tons of trouble from the authorities now! What a tottering old fool I am! This is what you get for teaching that pestering fool a lesson! Woe is me! Woe is me!”

Hurriedly he ran into the room, breaking the door down in the process. He saw a still body lying in the bed. By now the innkeeper had become very fearful of the way events being unfolded before his eyes. Straight away he rushed to the bed and just as he was about to place his hands on the body…
The scholar suddenly sprang up in a defensive posture; brandishing his sword menacingly, startling the innkeeper to no end.

“What’s the meaning of this!” demanded the scholar.

“What the hell are you doing with that weapon! Are you trying to kill me?”

“What? You broke down the door and rushing in like some black inn brigand4!”

“Hold your tongue! If I’m one, it would be done in the darkness of the night and not in broad daylight. I just came to check and see if you were dead!”


“Didn’t the ghost appear last night?”

“Oh indeed it had. With its groaning and moaning, I could hardly get a wink or two. And now that I am peacefully asleep, I am being frightened to death by you instead!”

“Weren’t you a bit least frightened by that ghost?”

“Hah! As I had told you before, being an upright person, I am not frightened by such mere apparition!” Our scholar said, lying through his teeth.

The innkeeper was more impressed by the words than by that gleaming sword. Soon both calmed down and were greatly relieved.

“What I don’t understand is why does the ghost keep muttering to itself the entire night?”

 “Oh, it is a long story and quite sad too. You see, a few years back, a scholar not much older than yourself came to lodge at that very room for the Imperial Exams. Really quite a likeable fellow. But something must have happened during the first night. He began muttering to himself the very next day. When the Exams began, he did not leave. He spends all his time mumbling to himself in the room.”
“After a few weeks or so, everyone was getting worried and was alarmed at his odd behaviour. At first all of us thought that he must have been possessed by some fox fairy5. We spied on him on several occasions but found no such nightly visitation. All he did was to pace up and down the room, muttering away to himself. As rent was paid, I can do nothing. Didn’t bother anyone at all but just kept to himself with his strange behaviour. Soon afterwards he fell sick and within the year or so his health deteriorated so much that a doctor was called in. That poor boy, even in his illness, he could not stop muttering in nonsense. Didn’t even have the heart to throw him out when his funds dried up! Not too soon afterwards he passed away. Such tragedy. Really pitiful and so out of kindness, I paid for his funeral expenses and had the poor chap buried5. Exactly 49 days 6later, he started to haunt the room. Since then no one dared go in even in the day. You are the first to spend the entire night with no trace of fear. Indeed, you are truly an upright person you claimed to be. By the way, did you figure out his ramblings?”

“No I didn’t. Not a single word uttered. As in life, the ghost is as deranged as ever. Hmmm… Wait a minute! Let’s go and find out!”


“During the entire haunting, he kept staring at the north wall of the room... There must be some reason for it.”

Like zombies they walked to the wall, looking for clues. Finally when they reached the wall, they espied a tiny column of graffiti. Apparently the work of some rascal. On it was the following characters,

The lattice window fracturing the moon.

Obviously a challenge meant for subsequent literate lodgers. Looking hard at the phrase for a few moments, a smile lit up on the scholar’s face and said to the innkeeper,

“Dear uncle8, what would you do if I rid you of the ghost?”

“Eh? What’s that you say?… Really? if I am not mistaken then I will be forever in your gratitude!”

“I don’t need your eternal gratitude! Just free food and lodging until the Imperial Exams are over!”

“Hah! Not even those Taoist priests and Buddhist monks could exorcise the apparition! If you can do that, not only will there be free food and lodging but a nightly pot of wine as well!”

“You won’t go back on your words?”

“Sir, even though I’m not from the genteel class, The one thing I have is integrity! You gravely insult me Sir!”

“By tomorrow your ghost will be gone forever. So let me go back to my sleep now!”

“Yes milord! I shall let no one disturb you. When you are awake, food shall be brought to you personally by me!”

Already, a gleeful innkeeper was thinking of the future money made from that room once more. After a good meal, in the following evening, the scholar read his books and went to bed at his usual hour. Right on the dot, at the appointed beat of the 3rd watch, sounds of groaning and moaning were heard once more. The apparition appeared and formed at the usual spot. Our hero was more than ready this time.

“Will you stop groaning and moaning! You are making such a ruckus! Loud enough to wake the dead! If you want to say something, then at least enunciate the words properly so that I can hear what you are babbling about. You are shaming our class and station with your pathetic eloquence!”

The apparition was taken quite aback as no one had so rudely addressing at him in his present state. It turned around to face the speaker. It had a sad but winsome looking face of a young man, barely older than the scholar. Apparently the scholar's words of shame had some effect on him. The mouth gaped open and began to recite clearly in a hollowed out voice,

“花窗攕碎月…花窗攕碎月…”The lattice window fracturing the moon…The lattice fracturing the moon…”

“Oh ho! Just as I suspected… You couldn’t complete the couplet and died in regret – thinking if you can’t complete such a lowly piece of literary junk, how could you expect to pass the lofty Imperial Exams?”

“Eh? Answer me! Am I right or wrong?”

For once, the ghost stopped muttering and stood in silence, patiently staring at the scholar, as if awaiting true words from Buddha himself. The scholar sighed and said,

“I really don’t know if I should take pity on you or be ashamed of your lack of learning. I guess I have no choice! if I let you go on haunting forever, nary a good night’s sleep I'd get with all that noise you’re making. So for my sake and yours, here’s a rather simple matching end to your couplet. Be gone and leave me in peace!”

When the ghost heard the words, he looked stunned and astonished. He began repeating the matching line a few more times. Then for a fleeting moment, a smile broke out on its face but sadness soon returned. Shaking his head as if to acknowledge his lack of literary savvy… Finally, with a sigh, the ghost bowed to the scholar in acknowledgment and began to fade away in contentment.

The next morning, the innkeeper came knocking on the room gently. Our smug scholar was in a much happier mood having a good night’s sleep and a job well done.
“The ghost will never haunt your establishment anymore. It has been put to rest!”

“What did you do?” exclaimed the innkeeper with a not too sure a look on his face.

“If you don’t believe it, just go to the north wall and see.”

The innkeeper went and looked at the wall. Five more characters were added to the left of the original column9.

“You scholars are always such a tease and show off. You know I can’t read, let alone know what’s going on!”

The scholar explained the whole story but was surprised when the innkeeper got up in silence, deep in thought and went outside. Soon he came back and straight away went to the wall and began berating,

“Oh no you don’t! All these years of nothing but trouble and grief to me. No more trouble! No more grief! One practical joke and one innocent life lost! I shall put an end to this nonsense once and for all. You scholarly braggarts!”
With that, the innkeeper took out a wet cloth and wiped out all the writing on the wall.

And that’s the end of the story my dear friends.

What? That's the end of the story? I’m sure you all are asking the same question – Where's that damn answer? Don’t worry, I’m not that rascal in the story turning my friends into obsessive apparitions. This is just to let some of you be the hero of the story and try your hand at completing the couplet. One possible answer appears at the end of the notes.

This story was told by my maternal grandmother when I was a child. She was an illiterate woman. She was especially proud in recounting stories with literary values. In those days, I was more intrigued by the eerie circumstances and excitement than the story’s couplet. However as I grew older, I began to appreciate the couplet more than the story itself. I believe this is a Cantonese story because the matching end of the couplet contains colloquial Cantonese terms that a Mandarin speaker may not understand.
1. For more info see,,

2. Not all scholars are bookworms. Some are well versed in the martial arts (文武雙全) too but they are a rare breed.

3: Old Cantonese saying, 人怕鬼三分, 鬼怕人七分 (man is afraid of ghosts by 30%, ghost is scared of man by 70%). The logic being the emanating Yang Chi (陽氣) of an upright person will dispel the Yin Chi (陰氣) of a ghost)

4. Unlike the safe and sound hospitality industry of today, in old China or anywhere else for the matter, travelers are skittish about places they stayed for the fear of being robbed and killed. Such places are termed in Chinese as “black inns”(黑店).

5. A euphemistic term for a fox demon (狐狸精). It is believed that foxes turned themselves into beautiful women to seduce young men for their Yang vitality to nourish their own Yin counterpart. Has the same connotation as the word “vixen”.

6. It was considered an extremely virtuous deed in helping to bury the dead, in old China. More meritorious if the dead could be brought back to its hometown for burial.

7. It is believed that the lower soul (魄) would return to see its corpse and bid farewell to the family for the last time after 49 days (七七四十九日). The superior soul (魂) had long departed to heaven etc the moment the person died.

8. A polite term for an elderly person. In this case the scholar is ingratiating himself to the innkeeper.

9. Traditional Chinese is written from top to bottom, from left to right. When vertical writing is not possible, it is written from left to right. The modern style used in mainland China is from right to left.

The moment has arrived…

花窗攕碎月 The lattice window fracturing the moon.
曲行抝攣風 The crooked lane warping the wind.

Complete My Couplet Or Your Head Please!

This battling of wits took place during the Three Kingdoms period (184 AD - 220 AD) from which the novel, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is based upon. The three principals in this episode are the antagonists Zhou Yu (周瑜) and Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮, also known as Kung Ming,孔明), and peace broker Lu Su (魯肅), advisor and subordinate to Zhou Yu.

Here’s a link to an excellent English translation of the novel,

The 3 principal characters in the story are not simply powerful men of position - military strategists, advisors, governor or generals. They are highly respected as poets and scholars in their own right. Even Cao Cao, so vilified in literature and with the mass populace, was highly regarded for his literary skills. Without further ado, here’s my translated version with all its embellishments.

"Feast at the Bronze Bird Terrace" where Cao Cao's generals show off their archery skills to win a rare silk gown as prize. In the end, the fabric was soiled and torn when every participant came forward to claim it. Wily Cao Cao then awarded each claimant a gown saying, "I am here to see your skills. What importance is a silk gown to me!"


When Zhuge Liang left for Jiangdung (江東), his intent was to form an alliance against Cao Cao. The atmosphere was laden heavily with plots and counterplots. It was not just a meeting where a bunch of Confucian scholars gathered to comment on the moon and stars in a language crouched in vague terms of diplomacy but an intensely violent tirade of insults hurled at each under the guise of literary savvy; in a life and death war of words where lips were akin to dancing spears and tongues were but swirling swords; where fates of empires hung in delicate balance. Truly a battle between a dragon and a tiger waged!

Zhuge had intended to use the combined forces of Sun and Liu to defeat Cao Cao. So he came alone to persuade Sun Quan (later the Emperor of Eastern Wu) to the common cause. The commanding officer of Eastern Wu was Zhou Yu, another brilliant strategist. He saw in Zhuge Liang almost a seer who seemed to know events before hand, abilities rivaled those of heaven. Zhou was jealous (professional jealousy?) and formulated a plan to eliminate him.

One day, Zhou invited Zhuge to a banquet. On the surface just a gay old time among friends – bouts of drinking and competition in poetry composition1. As penalty, the losing party is made to drink 3 more cups of wine. However, Zhuge knew of his real intent and clearly asked Lu Su be invited as well - to act as a fair judge and witness to their joust of words. Zhou agreed most heartily (as we know that Lu is his subordinate).

During the banquet, Zhou once more mentioned the penalty. Zhuge knowing his real intention, calmly suggested,

“Why such an easy penalty? Hardly worth the excitement that we all wanted! Say… How about staking our heads? This should prove interesting to the losing party in presenting his own head to the victor!”

This was exactly what Zhou wanted to hear and could not believe his luck that Zhuge fell into his trap so easily. However, Lu stood up quickly, waving his hands frantically saying that this is too harsh a penalty. With a gesture of his hand, Zhou bade him to sit down and said gleefully,

“I’m just teasing with his Excellency. But then how can I do him honor and yet refusing his request at the same time? ”

“There’s no harm!” replied a smiling Zhuge.

Zhou rose from his seat and exclaimed,

“If that’s the case, I shan't be courteous! Here’s my opening to the couplet!”

“With water it’s a stream2, without water it’s only a servant.”
“Throw away the water in the stream, add a bird and it’s a chicken”.
“A smug cat more ferocious than a tiger! A phoenix losing its feathers, far sadder looking than a chicken!”


Purported battle site at the Red Cliff. Not that impressive as in the movie eh? The exact site is subject to debate as the Yangtze River had changed its course during the centuries. Taken by a Japanese tourist.

The meaning was clear, that you, Zhuge Liang so favored by Liu Bei (later Emperor of Shu Han) is nothing more but a servant; so smug like fish in water; so high and mighty like a ferocious tiger coming down the mountain; So where are your prowess and prestige now that you have entered Eastern Wu? Nothing more than a plucked phoenix, looking worse than a chicken!

When Zhuge heard the words, he knitted his brows and said to himself,

“You Zhou! This is really uncalled for, insulting me like that. I have no real power at my side do I? Well then, let me douse your smugness a bit!”

“Where there’s wood, it's chess3, when there’s none, it’s only a ‘him’.”
“Rid the wood from the chess, add on a deficiency and it’s bullying.”
“A Dragon wallowing in shallow waters taunted by shrimps, a tiger in the open4 bullied by curs!”


(Meaning that Zhou is nothing but a petty bully and indeed if your words are true, then I’m a dragon wallowing in the shallows of Eastern Wu, bullied by the likes of you, nothing more but a shrimp!)

How could Zhou tolerate such obvious insults? The moment he heard that he was being compared to shrimps and dogs, his face changed abruptly, and brandished his sword menacingly,

“Kung Ming, you rascal, you forget your manners!”

On seeing how the situation had escalated to a dangerous level, Lu rose from his seat, waving his hands frantically and said to both of them,

“My Commander! Your Excellency! Please listen to what I have to say first, I too have a matching end. Both of you; your comments, please.”

“With water there’s the province of Hunan, without water it’s mutual dependence.”
“Remove the water from Hunan, add rain and it becomes frost.”
“We sweep snow in front of our homes, bother not icicles hanging from eaves of others!”


(Meaning, let’s think of the Hunan situation first. Hunan is where Cao Cao is based at. Let not the fisherman reaps the rewards of the clam and snipe5. So let us concentrate what’s on hand first.)

When Zhou heard the words, his anger was somewhat mollified. Of course he was not satisfied. An insult was still an insult and no objective still in sight. Knitting his brows and rolling his eyes, he thought of a start to another couplet and said,

“Your Excellency, I still have a couplet for you to match, wondering if you could do it.”

Neither Zhuge would back down and replied,

“Please do, I have no objection!”

“With a hand6, it meant chosen, without one, it’s only a clown,”
“Throw away the hand, add a female and why it’s a little girl!”
“In Longzhong, so many uglies7, within a hundred miles – hard to pick a pretty girl!”


The so called Longzhong girls refer to the place where the wife of Zhuge came from. She is well known for her ugliness but as the daughter of the famed geomancer, Wong Shi Gung (黃石公) she mastered the art of divination from her father. She played a pivotal role in helping Zhuge formulate the so called Longzhong Plan8. Even though the “wondrous uglies” of Longzhong was an unbridled direct reference to the ugliness of Zhuge’s wife, on a different level of thought, it was to mock Zhuge’s reputation of being such a seer of knowing everything before any divination was made; from the outcome of a throw of dice to victories or defeats long before what was planned in military tents. Alas! What a pity that despite your powers, you cannot have a pretty girl for wife. Far worse than I am! (Zhou has a famed beauty for a wife). For a clown to marry an ugly woman is down right the most appropriate thing to do!

Another view of the purported battle site. Although it is not known if this is the actual site, the inscription is more than a thousand years old. Rember the battle took place even longer in the past sometime in A.D. 208/209

Zhuge is not one to be trifled with or one who could be so easily be suffocated in this nest of stifling hot air insults. Quickly a clever match was born in his mind. Calmly he fanned9 himself and replied sarcastically,

“My dear Commander, what a great sense of humour we do have there! I too have a witty ending to your stanza. I am much obliged and all ears to any correction.”

“If there’s wood, it’s a bridge, without any, it’s Qiao” (a last name)
“Throw away the wood from the bridge, add a female and oh ho it’s pampered beauty!”
“Jiangdung beauties, Big Qiao and Little Qiao,”
“So great protection10 just for sisters Qiao from being caged in the Bronze Bird Terrace11!”


An allusion referring to the two great beauties of that time, the daughters of Jiangdong’s elder statesman Qiao, known collectively as Big Qiao and Little Qiao. The elder sister was married to the Lord of Eastern Wu, Sun Ce (孫 策) while the younger one was married to Zhou. On the eve of attacking Eastern Wu, Cao Cao had sworn before his the troops as they were deployed on the North Shores vowing,

“In the past, elder statesman Qiao and I made a marriage pact because his two daughters are rare beauties. Later for whatever reason, they were married off to Sun Ce and Zhou Yu instead! On the banks of River Zhang (漳in Hunan), my Bronze Bird Terrace is now complete. If I'm able to subdue Jiangnan (江南) I'll marry the two Qiaos and place them in my Terrace and enjoy their delights for my retirement. To my grave I go without regret!”

In alluding to this story, the great Tang poet, Tu Mu had written the poem “Red Cliff12”,

折戟沈沙鐵未消, Alas, broken halberds buried within the sand, its iron not completely rusted,
自將磨洗認前朝. On rubbing and washing, I recognized it came from the former dynasty,
東風不與周郎便, If the east wind helped not that boy of Zhou...
銅雀春深鎖二喬. Surely a deep cage the Bronze Bird for the two beauty Qiaos it will be!

What Zhuge’s match meant was, although my wife is ugly, she is much better than yours as she does not need such high maintenance. If it was not for that fateful day, your wife, Little Qiao would be abducted by Cao Cao and be locked up in the Bronze Bird Terrace to be his toy.

To Zhou, this kind of insult proved too much for him to bear, maddening him to the point that his hairs bristled with rage and eyes flashed wickedly like a tiger’s. Wishing that he could swallow Zhuge in one gulp, he unsheathed his sword once more, ready to slash his adversary to pieces. Zhou’s action frightened Lu almost to the brink of death. If Zhuge is killed at this moment, not only the plan of unity goes up in flames faster than a twinkle of the eye, all of Eastern Wu will fall under the full brunt of Liu Bei’s unleashed fury. Under no circumstance can this be allowed to happen. Lu ran quickly between the two men, snatching the sword from Zhou and quickly said,

An older picture of the area, again by another Japanese tourist.

“Commander, you must not! Keep in mind the utmost importance of your country’s affairs is at stake! What I heard are sharp daggers pointing at each other. This will affect the cordial relations enjoyed by the Suns and the Lius. Please reconsider and let us return to our seats as I still have one more stanza to be presented to both of you.”

“If there is wood, it is a manger, if not, then it must be Cao.”
“Throw away the wood and add rice to it and it will be a mess!”
“Today’s plan is to defeat Cao, when the dragon and tiger battles, surely an ensuing disaster will result!”


Although Zhou is petty and jealous of the capable13, the importance of defeating the forces Cao Cao and the welfare of his country are paramount, he is not that too befuddled a person. After hearing Lu’s counsel, he had no choice but to temper himself. As for Zhuge, for the sake of the needed goodwill of Eastern Wu, he too has to stop taunting and provoking Zhou. With Lu’s successful pacifying tack, the bout of spearing lips and barbed tongues eased in temporary truce and wiith that the drama of swords being unsheathed and bows being brought out soon died away. Later the combined forces of Sun and Liu under the direction of Zhou and Zhuge14, a huge victory at the Battle of the Red Cliffs was won, thus establishing the triumvirate hegemony of Wei, Shu and Wu.


I did not attempt to translate the original text as for verbatim. It would it be hard on readers not familiar with Chinese idioms and allusions. Also the semi classical language style tends to repeat the same thing over, much to the annoyance of non-Chinese readers. At the same time I would like to retain the flavour of the original language as much as possible. My notes and explanations are peppered throughout mixed with the original explanatory text for smoother reading. The Chinese text is included at the end of the notes section for those interested. The greatest difficulty lies in choosing the many versions available. Unfortunately I do not know which text is the original. In the end, I mix and match the parts that made most sense under the circumstances.

The couplets in the story are constructed in a rather formulaic pattern in the first four lines with each line consisting of 5 characters. The meaning of the character changes as radicals are added or subtracted from the root word.

Add this to this and it becomes…
Take this away and it becomes…

However the poem sparkles when the last two 7 character lines are finally constructed, revealing the full intent and meaning of the entire poem. The best couplets, at least in Cantonese and in my opinion, are the transformed word is a homonym of the original word.

This story took place just after Cao Cao had defeated Liu Bei and sent Zhuge for an alliance, just as in part 1 of the movie.

Due to the length of the Yangtze river, the regions are divided as follows, Jiandung (river east), Jiangnan (river south, i.e. all lands south of the River) and Jiangxi (Kiangsi, actually a contraction of Jiangnan xi). There is no such place as “Jiangbei, (river north). The exact site of the Battle of Red Cliff is subject to debate as the River had altered course through the centuries. For more info see

1. Favourite pastime of the literati not unlike today’s rounds merriment in Chinese dinners - of course minus the scholarly aspect of it.

2. The stream refers to Liu Bei. An apt reference as he was not looked upon by Zhou as someone great. Though not great as a river, it is nevertheless, an important component in agricultural China.

3. Chess is the second of the Four Accomplishments (琴棋書畫). The rest of the scholarly pursuits are playing the zither, the ability to write calligraphy and to paint. Here Zhuge refers Zhou as a bogus scholar. He is nothing more than just a bully.

4. 平川 or 平陽 are places known for its flat and open areas. Nothing remarkable about the surrounding landscape, hence a synonym for boring open flat areas or fields.

5. An age old adage: when the snipe and clam grapple, the fisherman profits (鷸蚌相爭漁翁得利), that is, the third party benefiting from the tussle between two rivals.

The story came from the Age of Warring States (prior to the unification of China under the first Emperor). On hearing that the State of Chao was toying with the idea of invading the State of Yen, Su Dai (蘇代) on behalf of the Yen king went to Chao to persuade King Hui to abandon his enterprise. He told this story to the king,

“On my way here, I was about to cross River Yi, (易, a river in Hubei), when I espied a fat juicy clam exposing itself to catch some warmth in the sun. Just then a snipe came and decided to peck at the tasty morsel. The clam at once shut its shells gripping the beak of the snipe tightly in the process. The snipe said,

If it doesn’t rain today, or tomorrow, you will die from exposure of the sun.”

The clam replied,

“If I don’t free you today, or tomorrow, you will die from starvation!”

Neither snipe nor clam would budge, whence came along a fisherman and caught them both. Su warned that both Chao and Yen are like the snipe and clam. Just beware that the State of Chin is the fisherman. Upon hearing the story, the king abandoned his idea of conquering Yen. Apparently this is not some made up tale of caution. In May 5, 1988, New York times published the following article:

“A fisherman, while on Plymouth Beach, last Friday, captured a gull in a rather peculiar predicament. Firmly pinched upon the bill was a clam about the size of a man’s palm. The clam weighed enough to keep the head of the gull hanging downward, and thus effectually prevented any long flight, while it was evidently exhausted in trying to escape from its strange captor. It is thought that the gull, seeing the clam’s snout protruding, endeavored to seize the dainty morsel, was in turn gripped by the hard shells of its intended victim.”

6. The Chinese version which I used, has the radical was wood. I thought the hand radical used was more appropriate.

”Where there is wood, it is a handcuff, Without it, it’s a clown.Take away the wood from the cuff, add a female and it’s a girl.


7. In another version, the characters used were長得丑 “so many uglies grown”. I prefer the version with 多奇丑 (“so many uglies”) as the characters are far more poetically elegant than the more vernacular term.In Longzhong – so many home grown uglies, within a hundred miles, hard to pick a pretty girl!”隆中女子長得丑(醜),百里難挑一個妞


9. Zhuge Liang is always depicted as an elderly man with a big black ellipsoidal fan trim with white feathers near the handle.

10. One version used the name of Cao, Cao instead.

曹操銅雀鎖二Cao Cao’s Bronze Bird (Terrace) to cage the two beauties.I used the other version as it is more appropriate in taunting Zhou in implying that he takes much effort to protect his women where as he, Zhuge needed no such effort (in actuality, no one would want his ugly wife but that’s not the point!)

11. Bronze Bird Terrace 銅雀臺 also known as the Copper Bird Pavilion in some translations was built by Cao Cao for his retirement. Cao Cao was accused to be a very sensuous man in the novel. The terrace is located in Santai Village in Linzhang County of Hubei. It was reputed that Cao Cao took the oath here to rouse his troops before launching the Battle of the Red Cliff. Least his descendants should forget him, he wanted to be buried near the Terrace so that they could see his tomb whenever they are at the Terrace. By the time of the Sung Dynasty, most of the buildings were destroyed mainly by floods and finally by flames of wars. Today one can still see vestiges of the site.

One may wonder that it did not have a loftier or a more majestic name, such as dragon or phoenix. To do so would mean that he was openly usurping the throne. Officially, he was still the prime minister of the Han Emperor who is now a mere puppet in name only. As a matter of fact, the Bronze Bird Terrace was flanked on both sides by two other terraces known as the Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix – meaning, that he is the king maker, even the emperor and empress are there by his side. Cao Cao had vowed that he as long as he was alive, the throne will never be usurped which he faithfully kept. That doesn’t mean that his son could not do it. In the end, he was posthumously titled, Emperor of Wei.

Here’s a link to another story held at this Terrace, “Feast At Bronze Bird Terrace”

12. The broken halberd buried in the sand alludes to a terrible battle once fought here. The Former Dynasty refers to the Three Kingdom era as this poem was written in the Tang period. The East wind signifies to the fortuitous change for the Southern navy when fire ships sent by Cao Cao’s fleet back fired on their ships. The Qiao Beauties here represented the fate of the country.

13. For more accurate account of Zhou Yu see

14. Contrary to popular belief, Zhuge Liang did not play a prominent role in the Battle of Red Cliff. It was Zhou You and Lu Su who mainly directed the operations in the battle against the invading armies of Cao Cao from the north in A.D. 208. In fact, long before Zhuge Liang's famous Longzhong Plan5 came into view, on which the Three Kingdoms of Cao, Sun and Liu was formed, Lu Su foresaw not only this happening but also a possible establishment of the Northern and Southern Han (the so called Six Dynasties Period). In the novel, Zhuge Liang was elevated to a higher status than Zhou Yu in every aspect of this life. Historically, it quite the opposite. There was a saying at that time: "Should the tune be in error, Zhou Yu takes note. (曲有誤, 周郎顧)”. However it is true that Zhuge is his nemesis. His last words being: "Having born Yu, wherefore also Liang? (既生瑜, 何生亮?)”

Original Chinese Text













諸葛亮所對這句下聯的意思是說,我的夫人雖然貌醜,但總會比你強,說不定哪一天你的媳婦小喬就會被曹操擄到銅雀臺上去,變成曹操的玩物。 對于周瑜來說,這樣的戲言哪能接受得了,氣得他怒髮衝冠虎目圓瞪,恨不得一口把諸葛亮吃下去,側身抽劍就要刺孔明。這可嚇壞了魯肅。因爲魯肅知道,要想破曹,那只能是孫劉聯軍攜手同心,共禦強敵,才有勝利的希望。如果這時把諸葛亮殺了,不但孫劉聯合毀于一旦,而且還會招致劉備的全力報複,真到那時東吳就有國破家亡的危險,這一步是萬萬走不得的。




周瑜雖心胸狹窄嫉賢妒能,但在抵抗曹兵保家衛國方面他還不糊塗,聽了魯肅的勸告,也就暫時把心中的怒火壓了下來。諸葛亮本來就是爲與東吳聯合而來,就更加不會與周瑜斤斤計較。于是,一場唇槍舌劍的爭鬥在魯肅的勸解下也就暫時平息下來,那劍拔弩張的氣氛也隨之緩解了。 後來,孫劉聯軍在周瑜和諸葛亮的指揮下,于赤壁大破曹軍,取得了空前的勝利,從而奠定了魏蜀吳天下三分的局面。

A Bygone Era

A Bygone Era

神道上, 花盤底. Sacred Way1 under the steps of flower pot bottoms2,
玉手鐲, 巾帕飄. Bracelets on jade hands3, handkerchiefs wafting in the wind.
珠釵搖, 柳腰垂, Pearl strands dangling, slender waists swaying in unison.
春顏爽, 誰知心. Though joys are on their faces, what lurks in their hearts no one knows.

This poem was inspired when I heard the main theme of the “Last Emperor” which was set to words in a Chinese video store. In my mind, I could see rows of Manchu court ladies following the imperial cortege or entourage on the “Sacred Way” visiting the imperial tombs on a spring day. Though smiles are on their faces (a rare chance out of the palace prison) but no one except themselves know what sorrows are in their hearts, what memories, lost opportunities, dreams they once harboured are buried along with the dead emperor. Their youth wasted in their golden cages. Even in death, they may never be able to leave the Forbidden City…

Included are video clips that I spliced from a 1975 Shaw production of the “Empress Dowager” (倾國傾城 - Beauty so great that cities are ruined and empires collapsed. This phrase came from a poem. For more info see and “The Last Tempest” (瀛臺泣血, Sorrow in the Terrace of the Ocean). This to help in conveying the flavour of the poem - the women walking gaits, their ubiquitous handkerchiefs and dangling accoutrements.

Most scenes are self explanatory. However some clarifications: Starting with the scene when some rectangular tablets were thrown into a tray. These contain names of rejected candidates who are vying to be selected as Court Concubines (妃). The rejected ones are then given lesser ranks. The process is quite unlike selection of US presidential candidates. In this case the Empress Dowager selects those she likes before finalists are given to the Emperor to decide.

Besides being a virgin, they are inspected by senior female imperial members for defects in the body, having foul smell and checking for their poise and demeanor before reaching the last stage to be viewed by the Empress Dowager herself. By law, all Manchu girls are registered with the Imperial Household Bureau the moment they are born.

The celebration of the birthday of the Empress dowager began with the scene with this gorgeous round decoration with a red character of longevity surrounded by lemon yellow flowers.  Whether this is a center piece for the table or some giant cake I am not sure. The feast is given to officials to show imperial gratitude. The Imperial family had already eaten. Manchu Court protocol,dictates a hundred dishes to be placed on a long table for the main meal. This is only for show, a feast for his eyes. His favourite foods are placed near the front of the table. Whatever left uneaten is then distributed and shared among to those in attendance. Similarly the Empress and Imperial Concubines dine alone unless summoned by the Emperor. Each residence in the palace has its own kitchen. Of course the number of dishes is accorded by the virtue of their rank.

Peking opera is the favourite pastime of the Empress Dowager, especially those with longevity themes. Sometimes she would participate in plays, often dressing as the Goddess of Mercy! Indeed her nickname is "Old Buddha". The Chinese photographer lady is "Princess" Der Ling who later wrote books about Imperial Court life, one of which is "The Imperial Incense Burner". She was a daughter of an official posted as a foreign minister to France. The Empress Dowager was curious about her western clothes. After serving 2 years in the Ching Court, she married to an American. She was mortally injured by a hit and run grocery cart driver outside the south gates of University of California, Berkeley in November, 1944.

This was an era of about 110 years ago; the video clips are from a 35 year old movie. Time passes but in a twinkle of an eye. Even those with such absolute power over life and death are but in the end, equalized by Death himself. Cherish the times we have; we are but a mere short life span on this earth.


1. The main road leading to imperial tomb.

2. These flower pot bottoms are slang for Chinese "high heels". Instead of having a spike at the end of the shoe, it has a raised block in the center causing slight instability while walking in them. Manchu women do not wear such “high heels”until emperors began having this fetish of bound feet of Chinese women. Manchu laws forbade such practice for its women. To counter this “willow swinging gait”, Manchu women invented this contraption to simulate the sway like willow blowing in the wind.   Handkerchiefs are used to enhance their walking movements and counterbalance the overall effect of their gait. These shoes are worn in the court by high ranking women. Lowly servants do not wear them because of practical reasons. You can see a glimpse shot of the flower pot bottoms in the video clip.

3. This is not a mistranslation – it is Jade hands not jade bracelets. Jade hands mean beautiful hands, skin pale and smooth like jade. The green color jade is not popular with the Chinese until the 20th century. The best jade is of a certain white translucent color, known as “mutton fat jade” (羊脂白玉). It is extremely rare even in the old days.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Chinese Couplet Love Story

雙手推開窗前月. With both hands I pushed open the windows, revealing the moon.

一石擊破水中天. With one stone, I shot at the pond, cracking up Heaven!

This little gem came from a wedding night during the Sung Dynasty, about a thousand years ago. On that night, one famed scholar married the sister of the greatest poet of the time, Su Dong Po. As he approached the bridal chambers, a pair of jade hands slipped through the door with a piece of paper. The doors were then slammed shut and locked. On the note was the first part of the couplet. The poor groom was denied entry until the 2nd part of the couplet was completed by him. Like a zombie, he paced up and down the corridor; acting out with his hands in imitation of pushing a window open; muttering away the first half of the couplet repeatedly.

Su Dong Po had always known that his sister is an extremely talented woman who loves to throw literary obstacles to humble and cut every literati down to size. Even as big brother, he was no stranger in receiving the butt of her antics.

Though the bride loves the groom she thinks his talents are not worthy of her. Su Dong Po, could not help his brother-in-law (also his student) directly as this will lessen the groom's talents even more in the eyes of the sister. Finally he came up with an idea and tossed a pebble into the pond. The startled groom was able to get the hint and completed the couplet; thus gaining entry into the bridal chamber.

For those who are not well verse in the subtleties of the flowery language... On the surface, the couplet paints a beautiful description of metaphorical actions. The hidden meaning is deep and cryptic if one does not know the circumstances...

What the couplet really says is: "If you are really that TALENTED, you will be able to ENTER my chambers tonight and enjoy the DELIGHTS that lay within". So his answer was very apt. "With one HARD implement, I shall CRACK you open". Yep, people in those days were more elegant.

NOTE: Each character in the first part of the couplet matches or contrasts the corresponding character in the 2nd part, both in content and meaning they convey. Eg. two hands matches one stone. "push open" vs "cracking up", "moon in window" vs "heaven in pond". There are more rules and constraints to consider in composing good couplets. A great literary pasttime of old where scholars also held drinking bouts.