Friday, June 4, 2010
Here’s a superb animation with the poem set to music. Of course the original music is lost.
北方有佳人, From the north came a ravishing maiden,
絕世而獨立. Whose beauty stood alone.
一顧傾人城, At a glance, cities fall,
再顧傾人国. Once more, empires collapse.
寧不知倾城與倾国, Care not whether cities fall or empires collapse,
佳人難再得. Such beauty never comes around twice.
This is the story of Emperor Han Wu Ti and Madam Li (漢武帝李夫人). The Emperor had 3 passions - power, women and music. Court Composer, Li Yannian (李延年) wanted to gain imperial favours and so he composed the above lyrics. On hearing the words, the startled emperor inquired if there is indeed such a beauty. The already bribed older sister of the Emperor, Princess Ping Yang (平陽公主) then casually remarked that there is indeed such a beauty in the form of the court musician's sister.
She rebuked at their stupidity, "It is for the sake of the welfare of our family that I will not see him. He cares only for my beauty and nothing else. By denying him even a glimpse, he will not be able to see me in a state of diminished beauty. My beauty will forever be enshrined in his mind. After I'm gone, you all will know unbounded wealth and glories!"
In his old age, the Emperor dabbled in mysticism to attain immortality but only enriched the pockets of Taoist priests and ending with deadly consequences including the execution of the crown prince on false charges of rebellion. When the truth finally came out, it was too late. Part of the cause of the demise of the Han Dynasty was due to his foolishness in his old age which the Emperor did not learn from his past mistakes.
There was a time when some pills of immortality were finally ready for the Emperor's consumption. Just as he was about to take them, this minister suddenly grabbed them and ate it himself. The Emperor was so enraged that he ordered immediate execution. The wily minister remarked calmly to him that such an order cannot be carried out. The astonished Emperor asked for the reason.
"If the pills were indeed that effective, then nothing can do me harm now that I am an immortal. If I get be killed, then the pills are false. Your Majesty's sacred name would forever be sullied in history as a befuddled ruler!"
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
This is the incense burner I had in mind when I started on this poem, imagining smoke engulfing the lid. How people used it to seek divine help and answers; yet it could not foretell its own coming demise when incense stopped burning.
木魚長敲驚乾坤. Incessant beats from the wooden fish1 alarming the Universe.
聖杯落地解天意, Sacred cups2 a cast to determine Heaven's will.
難測人性比海深. Deeper than the deepest ocean is to plumb the nature of man.