The Lament of the Lady of Qin

By Wei Zhuang (c. 836‑9I0)

Translaied by Lionel Giles

 

Qin was the feudal state that coincided with the modern province of Shaanxi. This long poem (which, though famous in its time, has survived only in handwritten copies found this century in the Dunhuang caves) describes in harrowing detail the brutal sack of Chang'an by the brigand forces of Huang Chao ‑ whose rebellion (879-885) was one of the most disastrous episodes undergone by the Chinese in the course of their long history, and heralded the end of the Tang dynasty. Wei Zhuang was an official in his forties when he witnessed the rape of Chang'an. He later moved to Sichuan, where he became Chief Minister of the state of Shu. He was a leading writer of lyric verse.

 

Introductory. The Poet Meets with the Lady

 

In the gui‑mao year of Zhong‑he, in the third month of spiing,

Outside the city walls of Luoyang, the blossom was like snow.

East and west, north and south, wayfarers were at rest;

The green willows were still, their fragrant scent was departed.

Suddenly, by the wayside I saw a flowerlike lady

Reclining in solitude beneath the shade of the green willows.

Her phoenix head‑dress was awry, and a lock of hair lay athwart her temples.

Her face showed traces of care, and there was a pucker between her eyebrows.

I made bold to question her, saying: "0 Lady, whence do you come?"

Looking distressed, she was about to speak, when a sob choked her utterance.

Then, turning her head and gathering up her sleeves, she apologized to the traveler:

"Tossed and engulfed in the waves of revolution, how can I find words to speak?

Three years back I fell into the hands of the rebels and was detained in the land of Qin,

And the things that happened in Qin seem engraved in my memory.

If you, Sir, can loosen your golden saddle to hear my story,

I for my part will stay my jade footsteps in your company ...

 

The Lady's Story: The Coming of the Rebels

 

The year before last, on the fifth day of the sacrificial moon in geng‑zi

I had just shut the golden birdcage after giving a lesson to my parrot,

And was looking sidelong in my phoenix mirror as I lazily combed my hair,

Idly leaning the while on the carved balustrade in silent thought,

When suddenly I beheld a cloud of red dust rising outside the gates,

And men appeared in the streets beating metal drums.

The citizens rush out of doors half‑dazed with terror,

And the courtiers come flocking in, still suspecting a false rumor.

Meanwhile, Government troops are entering the city from the west,

And propose to meet the emergency by marching to the Tong Pass.

The general cry is that the Boye troops are holding the enemy in check,

And all agree that the rebel army, though on the way, has not yet arrived.

Yet a little while, and my husband gallops up on horseback;

Dismounting, he enters the gate; stupefied he stands, like a drunken man.

Even now he had met the Emperor's Purple Canopy departing into exile,

And had seen the white banners of the rebels advancing from all parts of the country ...

 

The Sack of Changan

 

Supporting the infirm and leading children by the hand, fugitives are calling to one another in the turmoil;

Some clamber on to roofs, others scale walls, and all is in disorder.

Neighbors in the south run into hiding with neighbors in the north,

And those in the east make for shelter with those in the west.

Our northern neighbor's womenfolk, trooping all together,

Dash wildly about in the open like stampeding cattle.

Boom, boom! ‑ Heaven and earth shake with the rumbling of chariot wheels,

And the thunder of ten thousand horses' hoofs re‑echoes from the ground.

Fires burst out, sending golden sparks high up into the firmament,

And the twelve official thoroughfares are soon seething with smoke and flame.

The sun's orb sinks in the west, giving place to the cold pale light of the moon.

God utters never a word, but His heart is surely bursting within him.

A dark halo of misty cloud seems to encircle the moon with many rings,

And the Eunuch Stars, gliding in their courses, assume the color of blood;

 

The Purple Exhalation secretly follows the Emperor's Throne as it shifts from place to place,

And baleful rays are stealthily shooting at the Tai Stars for their destruction.

Every home now runs with bubbling fountains of blood,

Every place rings with a victim's shrieks--shrieks that cause the very earth to quake.

Dancers and singing‑girls must all undergo secret outrage;

Infants and tender maidens are torn living from their parents' arms.

 

 

The Fate of the Four Girls

 

Our eastern neighbor had a daughter, whose eyebrows were but newly painted:

A beauty above all price, to overthrow a city or a state;

Between tall spears she is escorted into a warrior's chariot,

Turning to gaze back at her fragrant boudoir, while her handkerchief is soaked with tears.

So now she is pulling out golden thread and learning to sew banners,

Or she is raised upon a carved saddle and made to sit a galloping steed.

Now and again, from her horse, she catches sight of her goodman,

But dares not turn her eyes upon him, and has to shed tears in vain.

Our western neighbor had a daughter--verily, a fairy maiden!

Sidelong glances flashed from her large limpid eyes,

And when her toilet was done, she reflected the spring in her mirror;

Young in years, she knew naught of the world outside her door.

A ruffian comes leaping up the steps of her abode;

Pulling her robe from one bare shoulder, he attempts to do her violence,

But, though dragged by her clothes, she refuses to pass out of the vermilion portal,

And thus with her rouge and fragrant unguents she meets her death under the knife.

Our southern neighbor had a daughter ‑ I cannot recall her name;

'Twas but the other day that, a worthy go‑between had brought her betrothal presents.

She had heard no footfalls on her steps of glazed tiles,

And saw but the shadows of men on her blind of kingfisher blue.

Suddenly the clash of sword‑blades is heard in the courtyard below,

And in a moment's space heads and trunks are lying severed on the ground.

Raising their eyes to heaven, then covering their faces, and uttering one wail of horror,

She and her sister threw themselves together into a well.

At our northern neighbor's, the youthful matron was being urged to depart;

So she was shaking out her cloudlike tresses, and wiping the paint from her eyebrows,

When she heard the noise of men battering down the lofty gates,

And instinctively she climbed the stairs into the upper story.

But soon on every side there appeared the blaze of fire,

And when she would have descended again, the staircase itself was destroyed.

Then came loud screams from amidst the smoke, still imploring for rescue,

But ere long her corpse, hanging over the cross‑beams, was reduced to ashes.

 

The Lady in the Rebels' Camp

 

By good hap, I was able to preserve myself intact from murderous weapons;

But daring not stand irresolute nor look back at the home I was

          leaving,

I combed the hair over my brows to follow the army on their march,

And, forcing a cheerful expression, issued forth from the door of my dwelling.

No means, after this, of returning to my old village;

No place, henceforth, where I could seek my kith and kin;

For since I fell into the rebels' hands three years have run their course,

 

And always I have been prey to anxious care, my heart quaking with fear.

At night I lie encircled by a thousandfold ring of swords and spears,

In the morning I have to make a meal off minced human livers.

Albeit I am taken to a nuptial couch, how can it give me joy?

Though I have jewels and riches in plenty, they are not my heart's desire.

Their hair is unkempt, their faces begrimed, their eyebrows shaggy and red:

Often when I turn my eyes upon them, I cannot endure the sight.

Their clothes are put upon all awry, the language they speak is strange;

Overweening pride in their prowess is writ large in their faces.

Their officers of the Cypress Terrace are a lot of cunning foxes,

Their members of the Orchid Office are so many slinking rats.'

In their close‑cropped hair they would fain stick ornamental hairpins.

Without removing their Court robes they roll themselves in embroidered coverlets.

Clutching their ivory tablets upside down, they masquerade as Ministers of State;

With the golden fish at their girdles wrong way up, they play the part of Court officials.

In the morning I hear them entering the Audience Chamber to present their memorials,

But in the evening one sees them brawling as they make their way to the wine tavern.

 

A Forlorn Hope

 

One morning, in the fifth watch, everybody gets up in alarm,

With much shouting and excited clamour, as though discussing some secret news.

During the night, it seems, a mounted scout had ridden into the Imperial City

To say that the previous day the Government troops had occupied Chishui.

Now, Chishui is but a hundred li from the city,

And if they set out at dawn they ought to be here by nightfall.

The ruffianly crew sit in gloomy silence on their horses,

But the female attendants in my chamber give secret vent to their joy

All say that our grievous wrongs will now be avenged,

And we confidently expect that the villainous horde will this day meet their doom.

Horsemen galloping hither and thither fill the air with exciting rumours:

'Tis said that our army is on the march to enter the capital in full strength!

Big Peng and little Peng look at each other in distress,

While What's‑his‑name and What‑d'ye‑call‑him cling to their saddles and weep.

Thus things drift on for several days, and still there is no news,

So we must suppose that these advancing troops already have jade tablets in their mouths,

And that they came waving flags and brandishing swords only in order to submit;

Further it is reported that all the Government armies have been routed and put to flight.

 

Desolation of the City After the Storm

 

After this, great misery and distress prevail on every side;

A bushel of gold is the price of a single peck of grain;

In Shang Rang's kitchen the bark of trees is used as food,"

Or Huang Chao's table human flesh is carved."

Communication is cut off from the southeast, and there is no road for supplies.

Gradually the ditches and streams are choked up, while the population dwindles.

Stiffening corpses lie in heaps outside the Liujun Gate,

And the Qijia Camp is strewn with those who have starved to death.

Chang'an lies in mournful stillness: what does it now contain?

Ruined markets and desolate streets, in which ears of wheat are sprouting.

Fuel‑gatlierers have hacked down every flowering plant in the Apricot Gardens,

Builders of barricades have destroyed the willows along the Imperial Canal.

All the gaily-colored chariots with their ornamented wheels are scattered and gone,

Of the stately mansions with their vermilion gates less than half remain.

The Hanyuan Hall of Audience is the haunt of foxes and hares,

The approach to the Flower‑calyx Belvedere is a mass of brambles and thorns.

All the pomp and magnificence of the olden days are buried and passed away;

Only a dreary waste meets the eye: the old fanüliar ob ects are no more.

The Inner Treasury is burnt down, its tapestries and embroideries a heap of ashes;

All along the Street of Heaven one treads on the bones of State officials.

 

The Journey Through the Ruined Countryside

e

Day was breaking when we arrived at the highway east of the city,

And outside the walls wind‑borne smoke tinged the landscape with the dismal hue of the frontier regions.

Along the road we sometimes saw roving bands of soldiers;

At the foot of the Slope was heavy silence--- no speeding nor weicoming of guests.

Looking eastwards from Baling, we see no trace of human life or habitation;

From Mount Li, bosomed in trees, the wealth of blue and gold has utterly departed.

All the great roads are now become thickets of brambles,

And benighted travelers sleep in ruined shells, under the light of the moon.

Next morning, at dawn, we arrive at Sanfenglu,

Where of countless inhabitants not a single household remains;

The deserted fields and gardens show nothing but weeds;

The trees and bamboos are destroyed, and everything is ownerless...

 

Episode of the Golden God

 

I turn to interrogate a Golden God in his wayside shrine,

But the Golden God is silent: he is more melancholy than ourselves.

Of the aged cypresses before the temple only mangled stumps remain;

Ihe bronze incense‑burtiers in the sanctuary secrete nothing but dust.

"Ever since the frenzied Robber brought the Middle Kingdom under his yoke,

Heaven and earth have been shrouded in gloom and darkened with storms;

The holy water before the altar has failed in its magic power,

The warriors of the underworid, painted on the wall, have been unable to repel the invaders.

In days of ease (says the God) I was merely content to enjoy the food offerings bounteously provided,

But in time of stress I can bring no aid, nor manifest my supernatural power.

Now I am ashamed of being such a helpless God:

Let me flee far into the mountains and there hide me as best I can.

Within these precincts I hear no sound of flutes and pipes,

In the place of offering I look in vain for a sacrificial victim.

Therefore let some hideous demon be installed in my place near the village,

Who shall torture and slay the unhappy people from morning to night."

‑--When I heard these words, my melancholy grew deeper still.

Heaven sends down calamities in their season which are not in our power to control.

If a God can flee thus from trouble into the mountains,

Why should we look with censure on the noblemen in the East?'

 

On the Raad to Luoyang

 

The year before last, I was also taken over the Yangzhen Pass,

And, raising my head, saw Mount Jing towering into the clouds.

It was like passing out of hell into the company of living men

To be suddenly ware of a world untroubled and at peace.

The Governor of Shanzhou is loyal and upright:

He excites no clash of arms, but contents himself with guarding his city.

The Governor of Pujing is able to repress the spirit of war,

And all is tranquil for a thousand li: no sound of weapons is heard.

By day you may carry your valuables abroad, and no man will interfere with you;

By night you may travel all alone, with gold hairpins sticking in your coiffure.

 

The Old Man Reduced to Beggary

 

Next morning, as we passed eastwards of Xin'an,

We fell in with an old man begging for rice‑gruel by the wayside,

His hair sprinkled with white, his face of a livid hue,

Who was crouching for concealment amidst the undergrowth of weeds.

I asked him, saying: "To what village do you belong?

And why are you lying under the cold sky, exposed to frost and dew?"

The old man stood up for a moment and was about to tell his story,

But sank back with his head in his hands and wailed aloud to heaven.

-‑ "My native hornestead was on the register of Dongji County,'

And every year I had land covered with crops and mulber'r*y trees, seven thousand acres;

The fertile lands which I sowed each year were over two thousand acres in extent;

The household tax I paid annually came to thirty million cash.

My daughters were practised in weaving cloaks of serge and sarcenet,

My daughters‑in‑law were able to cook meals of red nüllet.

A thousand granaries were mine! Ten thousand wagons too!

And after Huang Chao's passage, a moiety was still left.

But ever since the armed hosts have been encamped in Luoxia,

Day and night, patrolling bands have entered the village ramparts;

The glittering blade, like unto the Green Serpent, is plucked from its scabbard;

The wind above our heads blows out the flags and reveals the White Tiger.

Entering the gates, they dismount and swoop down like a whirlwind,

Ransack the buildings, empty the moneymbags: everything is swept bare.

And when all my patrimony is gone, even my flesh and blood are torn from me.

So that now, in my declining years, I am left alone in my

          wretchedness.

Alone in my wretchedness, ah me! yet what call have I to lament? ‑-

In the hills there are thousands on thousands like myself,

Who spend their days searching for wild berries to still their hunger,

And sleep by night under the frosty sky, couching upon the rank weeds."

 

Reports from Other Provinces

 

On hearing this old fellow's heart‑rending tale of woe,

Tears coursed down my cheeks all day like rain.

Stirring abroad, I heard but the hooting of the owl, that bird of revolution.

We intended to hasten still further east, to find some place of abode,

But now we hear that all traffic by boat or cart is stopped on the road to Bian.

They also say that there has been mutual slaughter at Pengmen,

Where the aspect of the countryside would cause even a warrior to swoon,

And where the rivers and streams are half composed of the blood of murdered men ...

 

A Visitor from Jiangnan

 

Now I happen to hear that a visitor has arrived from Jinling,'

Who reports that in Jiangnan things are quite otherwise than here;

For ever since the Great Brigand invaded the Central Plain,

No warhorses have been bred on the frontiers of that land.

The Governor there regards the extirpation of thieves and robbers

          as a work of heavenly merit,

While he treats his people as tenderly as though they were newborn babes.

His walls and moats offer secure protection, as if made of metal and filled with boiling water,

And with the levies and taxes that pour in like rain he provides troops and ramparts.

While the whole Empire, alas! is in a state of ferment,

This one district remains smoothly tranquil and undisturbed;

lt is only the denizens of the capital that must flee to escape calamity,

So that in our yearning for peace we must envy even the ghosts of Jiangnan.

 

Envoi

 

‑-- I pray, Sir, that when you have pIied the oar once more and journeyed back to the East,

You will present His Excellency this lengthy ballad that I have sung."