Song of Yuanyuan


Wrote during the Ming-Qing transition, Chinese poet Wu Weiye (1609~1671) was classified under the category of “officials who served two dynasties” (贰臣, erchen). He held office under the Qing from 1654 to 1656 and later regretted it.  Wu’s post-1644 writings are stuffed with lamentation for the fall of the Ming Dynasty, nostalgia for the world before its collapse, and, after his journey north to take office late in 1653, regret and anguish over his own irresolution and compromises. Most people have accepted Wu’s version of events — that he unwillingly took office under pressure from his family and the Qing authorities.

Honored as a “poet-historian” (诗史, shishi), Wu Weiye often chose to write longer ancient-style poems and ballads, forms that lend themselves to elaboration of descriptive and narrative detail, unfolding arguments, and shifting perspectives. In his famous “Song of Yuanyuan” (圆圆曲, Yuanyuan Qu), he put individual’s perspective against historical upheavals. According to various miscellanies and historical sources, the courtesan Chen Yuanyuan (1624~1681) was taken captive when Beijing fell to the rebels in 1644. Outraged at this turn of events, her lover Wu Sangui (1612~1678), military commander of the strategic Shanhai Pass, the eastern terminus of the Great Wall, joined forces with the Manchus and marched upon Beijing to facilitate the Manchu conquest. Wu did not make “Song of Yuanyuan” a warning against moral decadence and sensual indulgence, but remains sympathetic to Yuanyuan, who in the poem comes to stand for the helplessness and confusion of individual caught in cataclysmic turmoil.

English translation by Huang Zhangwei

Song of Yuanyuan

Wu Weiye

No sooner His Majesty committed suicide
Quit the world of horror
The General defeated the enemy in mountain-pass battles
Recaptures the capital in terms of honor

Soldiers were coached to cry for the emperor’s death
In their white mourning rags and sign
The General was so angry that his hair uplifted his hat
Simply for a beautiful concubine

Ostensibly the wanton woman may not be his only beloved
The rebel’s defeat mainly due to looting corruption
Swiftly striking them down by blitzkrieg
Expected a reunion

Always remember when he met her
At Mr. Tien’s house—the first sight scene
The singing and dancing of aristocratic entertainment
Topped by her flowered beauty to the extreme

The host allowed the General to pick her up
In a concubine marriage
And the royal relative’s geisha girl
Waiting for his ornamented wedding carriage

Who was such a girl?

She was born and raised
In a Soozhou’s romantic neighborhood in peace
Nicknamed Yuan Yuan
As pretty as fabulous silk masterpiece

Ever dreamed of getting inside an ancient royal garden
So happily milling around with roaming pace
Then ushered and fanned by palace girls
All the way to the King’s place

Probably she’s destined to be a countryside lotus-picking girl
And to be chosen later for a king
No wonder in front of where she lives
Provides such surrounding ponds like a ring

She was virtually kidnapped away in a boat
By a rich and strong man, can’t be defying
The departing twin oars
Splashing the river like flying

How unfortunate she was
In her youngster years
At that time the Beauty can do nothing
But bursting into tears

In a palace, to so many pretty girls
With bright teeth, sparkling eyes, who cared to pay attention
One of the royal relatives
Managed to have her released from palace administration

Then totally shut in a noble family’s confine
She was taught to sing new songs and learning her new line
The purpose was to please the guest
Until the guest drank to tipsy sunset and rest

Into all ears
The enchanting music rings
Who knows her melancholy
Fiddled among the strings

The noble General was young and smart
Making choices amidst pretty girls’ noise
Simply he can free any bird from a cage
By an order of his voice

As fairy goes, the once-a-year reunion
Of the Cowboy and Weaver-Girl on separate side of Milkway
Can be realized now to cross the bridge made by magpies
In any day of a year, at any time of a day

But pushed by urgent military orders
The General was reluctantly gone
Left behind a reunion promise
That subsequently made everything wrong

That reunion promise, so lovely and so hard to deliver
What a pity
Until suddenly one day
The rebels were all over the city

When viewing from upstairs
Willows beside her house excitedly changed a lot
In watchful eyes of a woman
It’s a sea of bewildered catkins on the spot

Sealing up her house
The search of the Beauty was going on
Shouting the best dancer’s name
Out! out of the luxurious building to come on down

Eventually were it not the victory
Of the General’s army to get her back
How could she be returned safely
On a single horseback

The messengers repeated the calling all along
“She is coming!”
Still shocked by her disastrous journey
Her unruly hair yet to be combing

Right there on battlefield
She was welcomed by candlelights and spears
She cannot help crying joyfully
Mingled her rouge with tears

Beating the drums, blowing the bugles
The General’s army marching toward the west
Along the road of Golden Cow
Thousands of war chariots progressed chest to chest

Sporadically she put herself up
In a valley-side guest house
Even the waning moon above the mountain-pass
Mirrored the Beauty with applause

As the news spread back to her native land
Time really flies as you see
Already counted it’s the tenth year frost
Standing there the old red tree

The geisha teacher—alive and well
Was still kicking around
The silk-cleaning girls remembered their companion
Knowing now she was safe and sound

Just like those busy swallows
In the same muddy nest, in the same days of old
Now the Beauty flew to the top
Becoming a phoenix in gold

Holding a wine-cup, some one usually felt sad
Thinking about old age
And someone’s husband
Titled the Prince on national stage

During those years
She was very much disturbed by her fame
But noble lords and leaders’ desire on her
Remained the same

As the Beauty says:
“Buy me off with a bushel of pearls
That brought up thousands of bushels’ unhappy elements
As it whirls”

“That made me wantoning
Over countless mountains and rivers in a haste
Ended up with, as evidenced by
My skinny and fragile waist”

Don’t blame stormy wind blowing the withering flowers
Looks like the destiny is unsound
As time goes by
The springtime and fortune will come around

Supposed the prettiest woman in history
Might destroy a nation or a city
Undoubtedly the General’s fame
Came up and down with the Beauty

Should a spouse have anything to do
With the existence of a nation
Irresistibly the General was tightly bound
By love and desire in combination

Members of the General’s family were all killed
Dead body’s bones became ashes and ashes it laid
Merely left the Beauty’s big name in history
O’ What a price the General has paid

Don’t you see
The ancient king’s place of love
Where the twin ducks swim happily to and fro
The beautiful girls of Yue country
Just like countless flowers as many generations grow

Now the once fragrant garden path
Is dusty and weedy
Only the birds are still chirping:
“What a pity!”

The once most fantastic palace corridor of Wu Dynasty
Which can produce musical sound with each stepping on
Except the silent courtyard moss is evergreen
Everything else together with the Beauty is all gone

Within a scope of ten thousand miles
The stage moved to the old southwest
Changing things like shifting musical tones
Whether comedy or tragedy, history will judge best

Comparing the songs singing in palace of Wu Dynasty
Ceaseless inspirations and rhymes reaching a new height
Just like the Han River
Flows to southeast day and night

Original text in simplified Chinese




source: Kang-i Sun Chang & Stephen Owen, “The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature Volume 2: From 1375”,  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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