Ruinous Beauty in "Song of Everlasting Sorrow"
Han's sovereign prized the beauty of flesh, he longed for such as ruins domains; for many years he ruled the Earth and sought for one in vain. A daughter there was in the house of Yang, just grown to maturity, raised deep in the women's quarters where no man knew of her. (Trans. Stephen Owen, 1996:442)
Chang hen ge (长恨歌), alternately translated as Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Song of Lasting Pain, or Song of Everlasting Regret, is a poem written by the renowned Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Bai Juyi (772-846, whose name is also romanized as Bo Juyi or Po Chü-i). Written in 806 or 807, the Song of Everlasting Sorrow is a long narrative poem that fictionalizes and laments the love affair of Emperor Xuanzong and the Precious Consort Yang (Mair, 2010; Mair, 2000; Minford & Lau, 2000; Owen, 1996; Fuller, 2018). Precious Consort Yang, or Yang Guifei, was said to have been so beautiful that she caused Xuanzong to abandon his duties and the progress made during his long reign. In popular Chinese imagination, Yang Guifei and her family’s abuse of power ultimately led to the An Lushan Rebellion of 755 to 763, and precipitated the decline of the Tang Dynasty (Owen, 1996). When Emperor Xuanzong and his retinue were forced to flee the capital city of Chang’an during the rebellion, the soldiers accompanying him mutinied and demanded the death of Yang Guifei. Emperor Xuanzong agreed and allowed a eunuch to strangle the Precious Consort. Shortly after, he abdicated the throne.
A celebrated example of the Confucian statesman, the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi was an imperial official who held various high-ranking posts throughout his career, including demotions and exiles due to court intrigues and his own socially critical poems. He was known for a plain style of poetry that was criticized by other Confucian scholars to be overly simplistic and written for the masses (Mair, 2010; Fuller, 2018). While an acknowledged master of the different and highly constrained forms of Chinese poetry, and famous for his poems of social criticism, the romantic Song of Everlasting Sorrow became famous during his own lifetime and remains his best-known poem.
Song of Everlasting Sorrow was written with 120 heptasyllabic lines in rhyming couplets and in quatrains organized into vignettes. In Herbert Giles’ translation of the poem, he elects to name the vignettes “Ennui,” “Beauty,” “Revelry,” “Flight,” “Exile,” “Return,” “Home,” and “Spirit-Land” (Minford & Lau, 2000). The poem itself romanticizes the discovery of Yang Guifei (also known as Taizhen), her elevation to the rank of Precious Consort above thousands of other women, her death during the flight from Chang'an, and the emperor’s deep and lasting sorrow after her loss. Such is his distress that he calls upon a Taoist magician to find her spirit and after a long search, the magician brings back symbols of Yang Guifei and the emperor’s eternal love.
In the tradition of all Chinese poetry, Song of Everlasting Sorrow is filled with allusions and symbolic imagery. In the first lines of the poem, Xuanzong is referred to as a nameless emperor of the Han, which was a common convention used by Tang Dynasty poets to avoid seeming to criticize their contemporary Tang emperors. The Han emperor seeks out a “state-toppling” beauty (Mair, 2000:272). As Minford and Lau (2000:883) note, this is a reference to an earlier poem that refers to a famously beautiful Han imperial consort, “one glance from whom would overthrow a city; two glances an empire.” A reference is also made to Ajiao, a consort whose loveliness inspired a Han emperor to claim he would build a golden room for her (Mair, 2000; Minford and Lau, 2000). The poem goes on to describe Yang Guifei’s beauty, her “tresses like cloud, face like a flower / gold pins that swayed to her step” and the adapted Indo-Iranian song and dance that she popularized: “Coats of Feathers, Rainbow Skirts” (Owen, 1996:442-443; Mair, 2000:273).
When narrating her death, Bai Juyi creates the imagery of her delicate "moth eyebrows" (蛾眉) – a reference to the Precious Consort's popularized style of make-up – being trampled beneath soldiers' horses. Later, when a Taoist magician finds Yang Guifei’s spirit on behalf of Xuanzong, she takes an inlaid box and a golden hairpin, and breaks them in two so that Xuanzong may keep one half and she the other (Owen, 1996). Traditional imagery representing inseparable and eternal love is evoked in the closing stanza of the poem; Bai Juyi writes of “birds that fly on shared wing” and “branches that twine together” (Owen, 1996: 447). Other Chinese love imagery is scattered throughout the poem, such as when Xuanzong returns to a palace bereft of Yang Guifei after the rebellion, where he is unable to sleep and stays awake beneath the “stream of stars” (Owen, 1996:445). The “stream of stars” or the “river of stars” is a Chinese name for the Milky Way which is also strongly associated with the tragic folk tale of the Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, two lovers who were banished to different sides of the celestial river.
翠华摇摇行复止，西出都门百余里 六军不发无奈何，宛转蛾眉马前死 花钿委地无人收，翠翘金雀玉搔头
Swaying plumes of the royal banners were moving ahead, then stopped west of the gates of the capital, just over a hundred miles. The six-fold army would not set forth, nothing could be done, and the fragile arch of her lovely brows there perished before the horses.
Her flowered hairpins fell to earth, and no one picked them up, the kingfisher wing, the sparrow of gold, the jade pick for the hair. (Trans. Stephen Owen, 1996:444)
Though Yang Guifei was blamed for the An Lushan Rebellion which marked the beginning of the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the strong emphasis on tragic romance in Song of Everlasting Sorrow helped to rehabilitate her image. While still relatively critical of the inattentiveness of Xuanzong as an emperor, the poem itself overwhelmingly focuses on the love in their relationship and the pain that it caused, not only for the two lovers but for the empire. Rendering their ruinous love with masterful lyricism, Bai Juyi takes artistic license with details about the Precious Consort's death before the solders' horses; in historical accounts, Yang Guifei was strangled by a eunuch (Owens, 1996). He also writes out the more sordid details included in his friend Chen Hong's "An Account to Go with the 'Song of Lasting Pain'," such as the fact that Yang Yuhuan (the given name of Yang Guifei) had been a wife of one of Xuanzong's sons before the emperor discovered her and made her his own concubine (Owen, 1996). Similarly, Bai Juyi's poem makes no reference to the rumors that Yang Guifei had an affair with An Lushan.
In his lifetime, Bai Juyi complained about the extreme popularity that Song of Everlasting Sorrow enjoyed over his preferred poems of social criticism, and indeed the widespread influence of his romantic ballad cannot be overstated (Mair 2010: 309). Throughout Chinese history, his poem has inspired many vernacular stories, dramas, paintings, and other poems; later generations of scholars and artists used allusions to Yang Guifei to criticize or defend their contemporary governments. In Japan, Song of Everlasting Sorrow had a similarly strong impact on Japanese drama, literature, and culture; Yang Guifei became a legend and a Shinto Deity (Ng, 2016). Murasaki Shikibu references and quotes lines from Song of Everlasting Sorrow in the 11th-century novel The Tale of Genji (Ng, 2016). In modern times, Wang Anyi’s novel on the changing times of 20th-century Shanghai borrows its title, Song of Everlasting Sorrow, from Bai Juyi’s poem. For centuries, the themes of sensuality, beauty, enduring love and loss, and ruin contained in the lines of Song of Everlasting Sorrow have captivated and inspired readers.
Heaven is lasting, earth long-standing, but there is a season for their end; This regret stretches on and farther, with no ending time. (Trans. Paul Kroll in Mair, 2000:278)
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Figure 1: Qian Xuan. (13th century). Consort Yang Mounting a Horse [Handscroll]. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://asia.si.edu/object/F1957.14/
Figure 2: Genki. (1785). Yang Guifei with Peonies [Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk]. The Met Museum. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/53405
Figure 3: Anonymous. (Mid-12th century). Emperor Xuanzong's Flight to Shu [Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk]. The Met Museum. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/40055