Thursday, August 18, 2010
Best while listening to the main theme of the “Last Emperor”
飛騰烟火報九霄 Incense smoke reporting fast to the Nine Heavens1.
暗思偷望有誰在 Furtive looks… wondering who’s in sight…
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.
德配天地淺如紗 Where paragons of virtue 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.
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 pacified the West promoting to nobility,
戰戈掃北能一臉 War halberds swept the North, yet only a glance I get of you.
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 her tears for the welfare of the empire.
Inspired by the main theme of the “Last Emperor”. 18 Aug 2010
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…
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 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 and find out who the flute player was.
The prime minister searched till he came to Mt. Hua (華山) a hundred or so miles away where he heard from a woodcutter there was a young hermit named Xiao Shi (蕭史) who made his home at the mountain top and 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 both played flute music together, male and female phoenixes responded to their music, descended from the heavens and danced
around them. The Duke then built this Phoenix Terrace for them. One day as they played, the husband mounted on a dragon and she on a phoenix to ascend into 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 buried had it under a stone in the garden. When she died, she was buried under a nearby plum tree.
Soon her father, the 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 they were destined lovers, she was allowed by Yama, 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 husband 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 the Sung capital of Hangchow for an audience with the emperor, 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 who passed the imperial examinations. 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 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 as she was departing for home (the parents faked illness as a ruse to get her home). When he realized his mistake after
she was gone, he hurried after her. Alas he was too late as she had 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 passed by the place, a thunderstorm broke out and the grave was suddenly split open where upon she leapt into it.
The grave immediately resealed itself whence a pair of butterflies was seen hovering from the grave before departing together. The lovers had turned into butterflies to be united forever. A pair of butterflies now symbolizes ill-fated lovers who can be reunited after death.
I did not use the character 媢 as it has a negative connotation.
For more details see