Song of the Spring Palace – Wang Changling

Princess Pingyang of Tang Dynasty

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior of the Tang Dynasty

Song of the Spring Palace
Last night,
The first peach blossoms were revealed by a warm wind
And the moon shone high above old Weiyang palace
Where Princess Pingyang danced and sang
Then asked for a silk gown for a cold spring

春 宮 曲

昨 夜 風 開 露 井 桃
未 央 前 殿 月 輪 高
平 陽 歌 舞 新 承 寵
簾 外 春 寒 賜 錦 袍

Chūngōng qū

zuóyè fēng kāi lù jǐng táo
wèiyāng qián diàn yuè lún gāo
píngyáng gēwǔ xīn chéng chǒng
lián wài chūnhán cì jǐn páo

Princess Pingyang, Lady Warrior

Princess Pingying (598-623), daughter of Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, raised an army of women, to help overthrow the Sui Dynasty and capture its capital Chang’an. She died in childbirth at the age of 23, celebrated as warrior, dutiful daughter, and devoted wife.

Line two, 未央, Weiyang Palace, literally, endless or never ending, the palace at Chang’an, called the “Endless Place” because of its size.

Wang Changling

During the catastrophic An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), Wang Changling (698–756),  was  minister of Jiangning County, which included the important city of Nanjing on the Yangtze River. His death in 756 is not explained.

The Title 春 宮 曲

The title is straight forward, 春 spring, 宮 palace, 曲 song.

Poetical Paradox

Arthur Koestler, in his book The Act of Creation, observed that new ideas are the juxtaposition of paradoxical concepts.

Peach blossoms and warm winds signify the spring season, the renewal of life. In China, the peach is a symbol of immortality. Yet, the beautiful and young Princess Pingyang will soon die. In line three of the poem, the princess sings and dances, 歌 舞, then receives as a favor, 承 寵, chéng chǒng, a silk gown, which we know know, could not fend off the cold touch of death.

The rhyming association of the princess Pingyang and the palace Weiyang is more than coincidental. The transitory beauty of the immortal peach tree and its beautiful blossoms, the forever Weiyang Palace, and our heroine Princess Pingying, all symbolize the fragility of beauty and life itself.

In real time, rebel forces were destroying the Tang capital at Chang’an along with its many palaces including Weiyang.

Wang Changling did not know it, but spring would return to the Tang dynasty. The rebel forces would eventually be defeated, the rule of the Tang Dynasty would continue, but not forever.

Wang Changling by Kanō Tsunenobu (1636-1713)

 

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Happiness 幸福

A song of pure happiness, I

I want to believe that
Her clothes are a cloud, her dress a flower that
I could hold in the palm of my hand, and
That the wind of Spring will brush away the dazzling dew
So, that I might see the peak of Jade Mountain
From the platform of a heavenly paradise

Happiness

I begin by asking myself if happiness exists.

There are few poems on the subject written by the Tang poets. I did come across a series of poems by the poet Li Bai, with the alluring description, A Song of Pure Happiness I, II, and III.

Happiness, most philosophers would say, is an illusive thing. And, the two Chinese characters in the poem’s title 清 平, are usually translated as “pure happiness,” but that is not entirely accurate.

平 is not even close to the Chinese character for happiness. That character is 雙喜. If one is referring to double happiness, then 喜喜, which is often inscribed on jars and vases.

Rather, 平 means peace or calm, but if the world is at peace, then I suppose I would be happy. I also suspect from a philosophical standpoint, and the philosophy here would be Buddhist or Taoist, happiness is not the goal in life. It is ephemeral like the cloud-like gown Li Bai imagines.

There is a little eroticism involved here. I picture Li Bai out for a prowl on the town, a couple of drinks under his woolen tunic, looking up at the balcony, seeing a beautiful girl in silk and becoming enamored.

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain which Li Bai references is a place name, or rather a mythological place name that predates the Tang dynasty.  It is located in the west and it is home to the Queen Mother of the West, who dispensed eternal bliss and a good measure of happiness.

It is also likely that Li Bai’s mention of 會 向, is another place-name, Yáotái, but this will take a little more time to look into than I now have. I will say that tai references a high place from which all of the surroundings may be viewed.

Bliss

The character for bliss in Chinese is 福, the other half of the two characters that make up happiness, 幸福, literally, lucky to be blissful. One does observe the similarity in the two characters, 平 and 幸, peace and lucky, but that may be just coincidence.

One observes that the world is lucky if it is at peace.

Go figure.

Li Bai’s rhyme scheme is aaba. This and other internal rhymes are sadly lost in translation.

The original Chinese poem

平 調 之 一

雲 想 衣 裳 花 想 容
春 風 拂 檻 露 華 濃
若 非 群 玉 山 頭 見
會 向 瑤 臺 月下 逢

French translation

Voit-il des nuages, et pense à sa robe ; voit-il des fleurs.
Le vent du printemps souffle sur la balustrade embaumée ;
la rosée s’y forme abondamment.
Quand ce n’est pas au sommet du Yu-chan (montagne de jade) qu’il l’aperçoit,
C’est dans la tour Yao-taï qu’il la retrouve, sous les rayons de la lune.

The translation is not mine. It is from 唐 詩 Tang Shi 300 Tang poems. There is a remark in the footnotes that is interesting. Le mont Yu-chan et la tour Yao-taï étaient des lieux célèbres habités par les immortels.

moonlight