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Thursday, August 19, 2010

無題 Untitled

Best while listening to the main theme of the "Last Emperor"

無題 Untitled

遲疑慢步許心願 Stepping forth slowly in hesitation, desiring a wish,
飛騰烟火報九霄 Incense smoke reporting fast to the Nine Heavens1.
玉手共奉金鐲垂 Jade hands raised in supplication, golden bracelets slid,
暗思偷望有誰在 Secret thoughts, furtive looks… Wondering who's in sight…

黑光四射眼神威 Flashing black eyes radiating with prestige,
白顏五官劍眉齊 Winsome features, fair of complexion, brows knitting like swords.
笑容偷偷奪我魂 His smiles secretly robbing me of my very soul,
若能宵宵伴吾心 Longing that each and every night his heart is near.

侯爺宫闈深似海 Palaces of nobility are deep as the ocean,
德配天地淺如紗 Paragons of virtue to them are silk gauze thin.
祥雲渺遠難此到 Auspicious clouds far and misty can never step into here,
戀意沉沒化為灰 The thought of loving him sank, haplessly turning into ashes.

羅網疏疏而不漏 Silken nets though sparse yet nothing slips through,
耀武征東謝皇恩 Glorious might subdued the East2 thanking Imperial favours.
光劍平西拜為爵 Naked swords agleam, the West pacified and nobility granted,
戰戈掃北能一臉 War halberds swept the North, yet only a glance I get of you.

鳳凰臺上鳳凰泣 A phoenix weeps on the Phoenix Terrace3,
牡丹亭中牡丹寵 Peonies are only beloved in the Peony Pavilion4.
梨花帶雨慕蝶夢 Pear blossoms dripped wet with rain5, envying the dream of butterflies6,
誤認淚灑江山穩 As others mistook my tears for the welfare of the empire.

Inspired by the main theme of the “Last Emperor”.  18 Aug 2010

A myriad of questions is left unanswered. On the surface we know she is in a temple burning incense and praying. Why at a hesitating pace? Why the furtive looks? Was she hiding something or looking for someone? The mystery deepens.

In the 2nd stanza we find out that there is a handsome man in her life. By chance did she just saw him on her the way to the temple? An accompanying guardsman perhaps? Or someone she had known before? Was going to the temple a pretext to get out of her surroundings for another glimpse of him? Was there any mutual attraction? Did he even know of her yearning for him? Finally who is this lady? All we know that she is from a rich family background.

In the 3rd stanza we finally find out that this mysterious lady was from the palace. But of what rank and marital status? The palace is a place where only the Emperor and the castrati may freely enter. All other males are forbidden though there may be exceptions made in the day but not at night. It is a viper's nest filled with intrigue, steeped in danger and where life is cheaper by the dozen. It is a giant cage where youth and beauty are pined away and they may not even get a glimpse of the emperor in their entire lives. However the successful ones will ride to the clouds and mount the pinnacle of undreamt power and luxury.

Now we have a better understanding of her feelings but we still do not know of her true intention. Praying for the welfare of the country or just for his safety? At least now we know her affection was returned. He had to elevate his social standing by distinguishing himself in battlefields so as to become ennobled. To be granted an imperial banquet in his honour is the only way he could enter the palace. Still non-physical barriers are insurmountable. We are still not sure of her status. Was she an imperial concubine? Or just someone born into such loftiness that even with all his merits he could not fly to her side? Or is it because of the futility that she would not give him a second look?

In the last stanza her identity was finally revealed - a woman belonging to the most august station of the empire. Whether she belonged to the emperor before the temple offerings were made we do not know. Could it be during the warring years that she was selected into the imperial harem? Only the lovers know of their plight whereas everyone else thinks her tears are the joy for the stability and prosperity of the empire... Each of them now burdened by their own responsibility to the country, their family and everyone else except being true to themselves. The allusion to the three different stories also meant to reinforce that true love is intended for the destined one. For example love will not blossom if the couples were mixed.

A plausible scenario but actually it is a gay inspired theme; hidden in the style of a straight classical Chinese allegorical story. Just like in the story there are insurmountable non-physical barriers. Yes, a glimpse from his black flashing eyes caused a heartbeat to stop. The names or rather the name of the guilty are encoded in the original text and is for the interested astute reader to discover. But then in real life things are much more complex and not straight forward. So many questions still remain in one's mind...


1. It is believed that there are 9 levels of heavens. Beyond that, it is nothingness or Nirvana where senses no longer exist.

2. An illusion to the campaigns of the Seet (薛)family of Ren Gui (仁貴) and his son Ding San (丁山) during the Tang Dynasty in expanding the borders of China. The East refers to the Korean campaign, the Turks in the West and the Huns in the north. There is debate whether Ding San is a real historical character as he was not recorded in the annals of Tang Books as a son of Ren Gui. The Seet family was ennobled to the highest military ranks.

In popular culture, a son of Ding San killed the mule headed son of Empress Wu Zetian who then proceeded to exterminate the entire clan of over a hundred people. Hence the Chinese word for “seed of sin” is written with the character of the surname, Seet with the character of son underneath it 孽. In the story, the wife of Ding San, Fan Lihua (樊梨花) once killed the Green Dragon Spirit of the East (in the form of the barbarian enemy) on the battlefield while she was pregnant. The spirit entered her to become her son to wreck revenge.

3. An allusion to lyrics in the story, "Recalling Flute Sounds On The Phoenix Terrace", 鳳凰臺憶簫. During the Age of Warring States, the daughter of Duke Mu (秦穆公) of the Chin State (the 22nd ruler before Chin Shih Hwang Ti - the first emperor of China) grew up loving jade. Thus she was named "Toying with Jade" 弄玉. She was beautiful and a skilled musician especially playing the Chinese panpipes 笙. When her father wanted to marry her off, she steadfastly refused to marry anyone who is not skilled in panpipes. The loving father allowed her to her whims. One night as she was playing the panpipes under the moon, she heard flute music wafting and harmonizing divinely with her panpipe music. This happened again and again for the next few nights. The princess reported the news to her father who then ordered his prime minister Meng Ming to follow the direction indicated by the princess to find out the mysterious player.

The prime minister searched until he came to Mt. Hua (華山) a hundred or so miles away where he heard from a woodcutter that there was a young hermit named Xiao Shi (蕭史) who made his home at the mountain top and also a flute player. The prime minister found him at the Bright Stars Cliff and brought him back to the palace. The couple got married under the blessing of the Duke. Xiao Shi taught his wife flute music. Within a decade she attained the level of imitating sounds of phoenixes. When they played flute music together, male and female phoenixes responded.  From the heavens they descended and danced
around the couple. The Duke then built this Phoenix Terrace for them. One day as they played, the husband mounted on a dragon and the princess mounted on a phoenix.  Together they ascended into the realms of immortality.

The lyrics was set to an earlier song which is now lost. To distinguish this poem from others with a similar structure, it was called "Separation set to the tune of Recalling Flute Sounds On the Phoenix Terrace".

4. An allusion from the opera, "Peony Pavilion". A girl of sixteen fell asleep under the Peony Pavilion in her summer house at Ningnan (Nanjing). In her dream, she met a young man whom she had never seen in her life and became lovers and as they were about to embark on a life together when she was rudely woken by a falling peony petal. She pined for the lost life and from this unrequited love she fell sick. Knowing her impending doom, she drew a portrait of herself and had it buried under a stone in the garden. When she died, she was buried under a nearby plum tree.  Soon afterwards, the father, Governor Tu left Hangchow to quell a rebellion.

Three years later, on a journey from Canton to Hangchow for the imperial examinations, a young scholar stopped at Nanan where he fell ill. He was given a resting place in the summer house in the Tu family garden. The discovery of the dead girl's portrait under the stone led to many hours of yearning for her until at last she appeared to him in a dream.

As destined lovers, she was allowed by Yama, the Lord of the Hades to return to earth to renew where they had left off in the dream. Following her bidding, he opened her coffin and she came back to life.

Later the scholar left for Hangchow to take his imperial examinations. However there was a delay in the announcement of the successful candidates due to invasion of northern Jiangsu led by a rebel leader with assistance from the Jurchen Tartars. The daughter was worried for her father and sent the husband to see him taking her portrait as identification and surety. Unfortunately for the son-in- law, the governor accused him for being a grave robber as the news of the opened coffin had by now reached him. After returning to  Hangchow, the Sung capital to have an imperial audience, the son-in-law was given a flogging but
was prevented from execution when a party of officials came looking for the missing Number One Scholar. Finally in an audience with the emperor, the son-in-law was able to prove his innocence with the help of his wife. The opera ends with the usual official promotion, family reconciliation and reunion.

5. A reference to a line in the Tang poem, Po Chuyi's "Eternal Sorrow (長恨歌), "A sprig of pear blossom drenched in spring rain" (梨花一 枝春带雨) to describe the beauty of Yang Guifei (楊貴妃) in a tearful posture. Now it is used to describe a beauty in sorrow.

6. A reference to the ill-fated pair of lovers in the "Butterfly Dream" (蝴蝶夢). A girl disguised herself as a man for further studies (in those days women were not allowed to study abroad!). She fell in love with her classmate. However, for three years he did not realize her identity even when she gave him hints whe she departed for home (the parents faked illness, as a ruse to get her home). When he realized his mistake after she had gone, he hurried after her. By the time he reached her, it was too late as she had been betrothed to another man through an
arranged marriage by her parents. He pined away and died. In order to get her to agree to the marriage willingly, the two families allowed her bridal sedan to pass by her lover's grave. As the procession neared the vicinity, a thunderstorm broke out and the grave was suddenly split open where upon she leapt into it. Then the grave immediately resealed itself whence a pair of butterflies was seen hovering from the grave before flying away. The lovers had turned into butterflies to be united forever. A pair of butterflies now symbolizes ill-fated lovers.

I did not use the character 媢 as it has a negative connotation.

For more details see

UPDATE - 29 Aug 2016

It has been six years since I had visited this poem.  Now it is time for an update as knowledge of the language has increased.  The changes were made as I used the poem to practised my Chinese brush writing that I started to learn about two years ago. The changes are highlighted in red.


但願夜夜侍君郎. If only that each and every night that I may serve by your side.



牡丹亭下牡丹. Peonies are glorious only under the Peony Pavilion

1 comment:

  1. The poem is updated with a few words changed. 27 Aug 2015

    遲疑慢步許心願Stepping forth slowly in hesitation desiring a wish,
    烟火飛騰報九霄Incense smoke reporting fast to the Nine Heavens.
    玉手共奉金鐲垂Jade hands raised in supplication, golden bracelets slid,
    暗思暗望有誰人Secret thoughts, furtive looks… Wondering who’s in sight…

    黑光四射眼神威 Flashing black eyes radiating with prestige,
    白顏五官劍眉齊 Winsome features, fair of complexion, brows knitting like swords.
    笑容偷偷奪我魂 His smiles secretly robbing me of my very soul,
    若能夜夜身相伴 Longing that each and every night we are two together.

    侯爺宫闈比海深 Palaces of nobility are deep as the ocean,
    德配天地薄如紗 Where paragons of virtue to them are silk gauze thin.
    祥雲渺遠難此到 Auspicious clouds far and misty can never step into here.
    戀意沉沒化成灰 The thought of loving him sank haplessly - turning into ashes.

    羅網疏疏而不漏 Silken nets though sparse yet nothing slips through,
    耀武征東謝皇恩 Glorious might subdued the East2 thanking Imperial favours.
    光劍平西拜為爵 Naked swords agleam, the West pacified and nobility attained.
    戰戈掃北能一臉 War halberds swept the North, only a glance I get of you…

    鳳凰臺上鳳凰泣 A phoenix weeps on the Phoenix Terrace,
    牡丹亭下牡丹寵 Peonies are beloved only under the Peony Pavilion.
    梨花帶雨慕蝶夢 Pear blossoms dripped wet with rain, envying the dream of butterflies,
    錯認淚為江山穩 As others mistook my tears for the welfare of the empire.