Gems of Chinese Literature/Pŏ Chü-yi-The Lute-Girl’s Lament

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Gems of Chinese Literature (1922)
translated by Herbert Allen Giles
The Lute-Girl’s Lament by Pŏ Chü-yi


a.d. 772-846

[One of China’s greatest poets, and a stateman with a varied career. Rising to high rank he was suddenly banished to a distance, with reduced rank, which disgusted him with official life. He then joined with eight congenial companions, and gave himself up to poetry and wine. Later on, he was recalled, and subsequently became President of the Board of War.]

Pŏ Chü-yi1524111Gems of Chinese Literature — The Lute-Girl’s Lament1922Herbert Allen Giles

BY night, at the riverside, adieus were spoken: beneath the maple’s flower-like leaves, blooming amid autumnal decay.

Host had dismounted to speed the parting guest, already on board his boat. Then a stirrup-cup went round, but no flute, no guitar, was heard. And so, ere the heart was warmed with wine, came words of cold farewell, beneath the bright moon glittering over the bosom of the broad stream…when suddenly, across the water, a lute broke forth into sound. Host forget to go, guest lingered on, wondering whence the music, and asking who the performer might be. At this, all was hushed, but no answer given. A boat approached, and the musician was invited to join the party. Cups were refilled, lamps trimmed again, and preparations for festivity renewed. At length, after much pressing, she came forth, hiding her face behind her lute; and twice or thrice sweeping the strings, betrayed emotion ere her song was sung. Then every note she struck swelled with pathos deep and strong, as though telling the tale of a wrecked and hopeless life, while with bent head and rapid finger she poured forth her soul in melody. Now softly, now slowly, her plectrum sped to and fro; now this air, now that; loudly, with the crash of falling rain; softly, as the murmur of whispered words; now loud and soft together, like the patter of pearls and pearlets dropping upon a marble dish. Or liquid, like the warbling of the mango-bird in the bush; trickling, like the streamlet on its downward course. And then like the torrent, stilled by the grip of frost, so for a moment was the music lulled, in a passion too deep for sound.[1] Then, as bursts the water from the broken vase, as clash the arms upon the mailed horseman, so fell the plectrum once more upon the strings with a slash like the rent of silk.

Silence on all sides: not a sound stirred the air. The autumn moon shone silver athwart the tide, as with a sigh the musician thrust her plectrum beneath the strings and quietly prepared to take leave. “My childhood,” said she, “was spent at the capital, in my home near the hills. At thirteen, I learnt the guitar, and my name was enrolled among the primas of the day. The maëstro himself acknowledged my skill: the most beauteous of women envied my lovely face. The youths of the neighbourhood vied with each other to do me honour: a single song brought me I know not how many costly bales. Golden ornaments and silver pins were smashed, blood-red skirts of silk were stained with wine, in oft-times echoing applause. And so I laughed on from year to year, while the spring breeze and autumn moon swept over my careless head.

“Then my brother went away to the wars: my mother died. Nights passed and mornings came; and with them my beauty began to fade. My doors were no longer thronged: but few cavaliers remained. So I took a husband, and became a trader’s wife. He was all for gain, and little recked of separation from me. Last month he went off to buy tea, and I remained behind, to wander in my lonely boat on moon-lit nights over the cold wave, thinking of the happy days gone by, my reddened eyes telling of tearful dreams.”

The sweet melody of the lute had already moved my soul to pity, and now these words pierced me to the heart again. “O lady,” I cried, “we are companions in misfortune, and need no ceremony to be friends. Last year I quitted the Imperial city, banished to this fever-stricken spot, where in its desolation, from year’s end to year’s end, no flute nor guitar is heard. I live by the marshy river-bank, surrounded by yellow reeds and stunted bamboos. Day and night no sounds reach my ears save the blood-stained note of the goatsucker,[2] the gibbon's mournful wail. Hill songs I have, and village pipes with their harsh discordant twang. But now that I listen to thy lute’s discourse, methinks ’tis the music of the Gods. Prithee sit down awhile and sing to us yet again, while I commit thy story to writing.”

Grateful to me (for she had been standing long), the lute-girl sat down and quickly broke forth into another song, sad and soft, unlike the song of just now. Then all her hearers melted into tears unrestrained; and none flowed more freely than mine, until my bosom was wet with weeping.

  1. “The sure perception of the exact moment when the rest should be silence.”
  2. Or nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus).