Du Fu: Ballad of the Fair Lady (From Chinese)

The translation is footnoted moderately, but a stupidly detailed commentary on the poem follows the original text. 

Ballad Of The Fair Lady

By Du Fu
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Chinese

A lady fair beyond compare 
   In a desolate vale dwells hidden away
She was of noble birth she says 
   Reduced to living on grass today

The rebels when they took Chang'an 
   Slaughtered her brothers one and all
High offices availed them naught 
   She got no corpse for a funeral

All things are candles turned in wind 
   This age hates all who wane or fade
That shallow husband soon replaced her 
   With a new mistress fair as jade1

The silk-tree's leaves know to curl for evening 
   A mateless mandarin duck can't sleep2
But he saw only his new bride smiling 
   How could he hear his old wife weep?

Water —they say— runs pure in the mountains 
   But fouled with mud from the mountains rolls3
Her servant returns from selling her pearls 
   To pile live vines on their thatch roof's holes 

The cypress she plucks can't numb her hunger 
   The flowers she picks won't grace her hair4
On the lean bamboo she slumps in sundown 
   Her blue sleeves thin in the cold harsh air 


1 The husband has jilted her. Why? The answer is provided in the previous quatrain. Presumably while her brothers were alive and in positions of  power, the husband was afraid to take a new woman and jettison the old one. It is only now that they are dead that he feels at liberty to take liberties. 
2The mandarin duck is supposedly monogamous for life, and is a symbol of connubial fidelity in the Chinese tradition
3  i.e. once a woman has been married, she is dirtied by reputation if she leaves her husband regardless of the reason.
In mentioning that the flowers will not be stuck in her hair, Du Fu implies that the woman is selling flowers, earning a pittance at floriculture. It is the height of indignity for such a gentlewoman to actually have to earn her living. A further implication may be that this woman is retaining her status as a Fine Lady by living secluded and poor and not doing what would be monetarily easier for a woman still beautiful though aging: prostitution or possibly remarriage. 

The Original:
Note: I am no longer transcriptions of Modern Mandarin character-readings for medieval Chinese poetry, on account of there being absolutely no point whatsoever. Henceforth I will only give the Han Characters and a romanization using David Branner's transcription system for medieval Chinese. The transcription of the entire poem below includes Branner's rhyme-table information in subscript mainly for completeness' sake. In my commentary and when citing individual words, however, I forego the subscript, the better to treat medieval Chinese like an actual language.

佳人     Duó1 Puó3c
杜甫     Kei2a Nyen3b

絕代有佳人  Dzwat3b dèi1a ghóu3b kei2a nyen3b
幽居在空谷  ou3c kuo3b dzèi1a khung1b kuk1b
自云良家子  Dzì3c ghwen3a langkatsí3d
零落依草木  leinglak1 i3a tsháumuk1b
關中昔喪亂  kwan2a trung3b seik3b sanglwàn1
兄弟遭殺戮  hweing3a dèi4 tsau1 srat2b luk3b
官高何足論  kwankau1 ghe1 tsuk3c lwèn1
不得收骨肉  póutek1 syou3b kwet1 nyuk3b
世情惡衰歇  syèi3b dzeing3b uo1 srwi3c hat3a
萬事隨轉燭  màn3a srì3d zwi3b trwàn3b tsyuk3c
夫婿輕薄兒  puo3c sèi4 kheing3b bak1 nyi3b
新人美如玉  sen3b nyen3b3cx nyuo3b nguk3c
合昏尚知時  ghap1a hwen1 dzyáng3 tri3b dzyi3d
鴛鴦不獨宿  wen1 ang1 póu3b duk1b suk3b
但見新人笑  dàn1 kàn4 sen3b nyen3b sàu3
那聞舊人哭  nè1 mèn3a gòu3b nyen3b khuk1b
在山泉水清  dzèi1a sran2b dzwan3b sywí3c tsheing3b
出山泉水濁  tshywet3b sran2b dzwan3b sywí3c drok2
侍婢賣珠迴  dzyì3d bí3by mèi2a tsyuo3c ghwei1a
牽蘿補茅屋  khan4 le1 puó1 mau2 uk1b
摘花不插髮  treik2b hwa2 póu3b tshrap2a pat3a 
采柏動盈掬  tshéi1a peik2a dúng1b yeing3b kuk3b
天寒翠袖薄  than4 ghan1 tshwì3c dzròu3b bak1
日暮倚修竹  nyet3b muò1 í3bx sou3b truk3b


David Hawkes in his commentary on this poem in "A Little Primer of Tu Fu" writes:

Some Chinese commentators used to understand this poem as an allegory (the lady standing for an out-of-office statesman and the philandering husband for his Emperor) but I find this quite impossible to believe. There is no reason at all why we shouldn't think of it as a faithful record of a real encounter.
In my view this is not exactly wrong, but it must be questioned. First of all, Chinese critics themselves (and there were those who could not accept an allegorical meaning) often scoured the sources on Du Fu's life and relations to find some real woman to whom Du Fu is referring - to satisfy what often feels to me like a fetish for biography in traditional Chinese criticism, though it does have its value. Second, even if the surface presentation is the level at which one finds the poem appealing (and there is no sin in that) there are very good reasons not to take the poem as simply documentary. Both readings - the stylized and the realistic - probably are relevant here, and in their own ways equally problematic on their own.

Whether one reads this poem as allegory, as an imagined tragedy brought about by real circumstances of Du Fu's troubled times, or none, or both, is up to you, dear reader, really. What the reader might wish to consider however, is that the person presented in this poem, even if inspired by someone  (and we have no way of knowing if this is so) whom Du Fu really encountered, is in several ways a stereotype and a stock theme. The image and even voice of a woman abandoned as allegory (or even cover) for complaints about political mistreatment is a commonplace of medieval Chinese poetry, and was well over a thousand years old by the time Du Fu was writing.

Let me give an example of the kind of social forces that give rise to such: women of the Inner Palace in the Forbidden City. Throughout the whole of Chinese Imperial history, this part of the Forbidden City was Extra-Forbidden, and sealed off to the outside world. No male apart from the emperor and his non-adult sons was allowed access to it. Even the emperor's adult sons were only allowed to visit the Inner Palace under extremely exceptional circumstances. Its (female) inhabitants ere typically not even allowed to leave to visit relatives. The community of women populating the Inner Palace was headed by the emperor's (primary) wife - the empress. Beneath her, a whole bureaucracy staffed by women oversaw the affairs of the Inner Palace. Every palace woman's aim, at least in theory (but quite often in reality too) was to win the emperor's favor (usually via the penis) yet many died without having seen him once. Women who fell out of favor with the emperor (e.g. if they bore him a daughter instead of a son) would often be assigned to some part of the Inner Palace never personally visited by the emperor. Not that women were expected to "get over" it. On the contrary, not only were women who had enjoyed the emperor's ostensible favor expected to feel eternal gratitude and passion toward literally the only man in their life, but even women who had never been penetrated or otherwise favored by him were expected to be filled with deathless devotion. Many Inner Palace women expressed their pain at this state of affairs in poetry. By the 5th century, Emperor Xiaowu jokingly complained of the prevalence of this type of writing among his women. Of course, the tradition of the "poor discarded woman" goes back much further to the Book of Odes (c. 800 BC.) Neglected women, if they like most women were untrained in the practice of literature, would on occasion employ male poets to express their sorrows. When Empress Chen, childhood sweetheart of emperor Wu of the Han, was discarded and sent away, she is said to have employed Sima Xiangru to write a lament for her. Sima Xiangru's poem was an instant success and reportedly won the emperor's heart back. In later centuries, the fate of the lady neglected by the emperor, the wife abandoned by her husband, became a favored topic for male poets, who often saw in these jilted women's fate an analogy for their lack of political recognition by the emperor. Embodying one's personal grievances allegorically in a woman's voice allowed men a way to voice total and limitless devotion, since a woman should be capable of nothing less toward the man she belongs to.

Against this background, and in the Chinese interpretive tradition that grew up around this poem since its writing in 759, the woman came to be read as symbolizing Du Fu's own sense of dislocation following the An Lushan rebellion of 755-756, which brought an end to a relatively glorious period of the Tang dynasty. 

On a related note, the image and even ideal of the long-suffering woman, the wife willing to endure all manner of indignity at the hands of a husband without confronting him (as a matter of duty), the lady showing her virtue by accepting terrible things happening to her without complaint (above and beyond men writing in a woman's voice) also became part of the cliché-package of feminine images in the Chinese tradition - one that resurfaces time and again. 

Yet I do not want to suggest that Du Fu is simply recycling this "valuing" of women. Far from it, in fact. Du Fu's innovation on a stock theme in this poem creates an unresolved tension between realism and stylization. This is a woman that could have existed, and many like her probably did in the aftermath of An Lushan. My sense is that Du Fu was neither allegorizing nor simply describing a real person, but rather attempting to describe a plausible person. 
While the subject matter and story of this poem are not unusual in the Chinese tradition, the circumstantiality and details of the poem are. Abandoned ladies typically invite an allegorical reading, and many have been offered. But what comes to mind is the attempt of a poet to depict his surroundings, especially the sufferings of people unknown to him, in the same direct way he depicted his family and neighbors.

Now, then. Let us begin with the title. The word 佳人 kei'nyen is somewhat hard to translate. Options include "beautiful gentlewoman, noble woman, fine lady" and the like. I'll go with "fine fair lady" to encompass the lion's share of associations. Though the word 佳 kei can be used to signify physical beauty, it also implies nobility of breeding and bearing. (One thinks of the original sense of the word "gentle" which still survives in the Italian cognate gentile and, somewhat, in the first two syllables of the Modern English word "gentleman.") In any case, at the time Du Fu was writing, the three qualities inhering in the term 佳人 kei'nyen were beauty, breeding and dignity. (In earlier periods  佳人 kei'nyen could have meant something like "splendid gentleman" but I digress.)

Quatrain 1 of Du Fu's poem:

    絕代有佳人  Dzwatdèi ghóu kei'nyen

    幽居在空谷  ou kuo dzèi khungkuk
    自云良家子  Dzì ghwen lang kai'tsí
    零落依草木  leinglak i tsháumuk

    There's a fine fair lady, exceeding her generation

    Living obscure in an empty/desolate valley.
    She says of herself (that she is) the daughter of a good family
    Withered and decayed she now relies/lives on grass and trees

絕代 dzwatdèi "exceeding (her) generation" means "without compare (in her fairness.)" There's none alive like her.

ou which I have glossed above as "obscure" connotes lying unseen, in the dark or abandoned.

khung glossed as "empty/desolate" has a sense, here at least, of "unpeopled, a place where one sees no other humans." 

The term 零落 leinglak glossed as "withered and decayed" is often metaphorically used to describe one whose fortunes have turned and who has fallen on hard times. This, obviously, is intended here. But the botanical imagery suggests that the literal sense is not irrelevant. 草木 tsáumuk "grass and trees" is a binome to describe the greenery of the wild.

A literate Chinese of Du Fu's time who read these opening lines would know Du Fu was alluding to a song, famous in China even today, by Li Yannian, a musician of the 1st century BC. The relevant passage by Li Yannian goes thusly (the transliteration is meant to reflect the pronunciation the words had in the middle of the Han dynasty)

北方有佳人,    pəkpuɑŋ wú kɛńin

絕世而獨立。    dzotśas ńə doklip
一顧傾人城,    it kɑ́ kweŋ ńindzeŋ
再顧傾人國。    tsə́ kɑ́ kweŋ ńinkuək
寧不知傾城與傾國。 neŋ pu ţe kweŋdzeŋ jɑ́ kweŋkuək
佳人難再得。    kɛńin nɑns tsə́tək

                There in the north is a lady fair,

                Alone she stands beyond compare.
                She glances once - a city falls
                She glances again - a kingdom falls. 
                I know not if a lady so fair,
                For whom both city and kingdom fall
                Will ever be found again at all

The context for Li Yannian is his sister, Emperor Xiaowu's court performer, a woman whose beauty is known everywhere, granting her -as Li would have it- a femme fatale's ruinous power to topple empires (men seem to have this notion that whatever kind of power women have, it must of course be feared; weird I know.) Yet Du Fu's woman, referred to by the same archaic term 佳人 kei'nyen is very much unknown and living obscurely in the wilderness.

The poem is also in Chinese ballad style, which both accords with the somewhat skewed syntax of line 1 and gives us some expectation of stylization rather than realism in the ensuing lines.

Quatrain 2:

    關中昔喪亂  kwantrung seik sang lwàn

    兄弟遭殺戮  hweingdèi tsau sratluk
    官高何足論  kwan kau ghe tsuk lwèn
    不得收骨肉  pou tek syou kwetnyuk
    Back when guanzhong had fallen to the rebels
    Her brothers were slaughtered
    Their high rank and status proved unavailing
    She was not able to have back their/her flesh and bone (for burial)
關中 kwantrung (modern Chinese guanzhong, 
literally "the area within the passes") here likely refers to the mountain passes in the immediate vicinity of Chang'an, the Tang capital, implying that the capital had fallen to the rebels, as indeed it did. The rebellion here referred to is of course the An Lushan rebellion.

殺戮 sratluk glossed as "slaughter" is a term often used to connote massacre, yet is not strictly limited to large numbers. The English word "carnage" gives something of the appropriate semantic flavor. I see two possible ways to read this: (1) the brothers died in the carnage that swept the city, and were therefore murdered along with anyone else the rebels wanted to hack to pieces - rich and poor alike. (2) The brothers were executed in a particularly brutal and gory way by the An Lushan rebels i.e. by gibbeting, and the woman was denied the right to have what was left of them for burial (or there wasn't enough left of them.) 

骨肉 kwetnyuk "flesh and bone" in Chinese has the same kinship-connotations as "flesh and blood" in English in contexts such as "she is my daughter, my own flesh and blood." Of course, given the fact that the brothers were now corpses, the literal bare meaning of "flesh and bone" is also pertinent.

Suddenly we're not in ballad-land anymore. This is real life. These are recent political events that are being talked about. There's nothing timeless or archetypal about it. This can't even pretend to sound like a folk song anymore. At this point, one is given the sudden sense that some real person is at issue.

Quatrain 3: 

    世情惡衰歇  syèidzeing uo srwihat

    萬事隨轉燭  màn srì zwi trwàn tsyuk
    夫婿輕薄兒  puosèi kheing baknyi
    新人美如玉  sennyen mí nyuo nguk

    The world's way is to hate what has had its day and declined,

    Its many affairs are like a windblown candle
    That fickle coxcomb of a husband
    Has a new mistress, beautiful as jade.

世情 syèidzeing "the world's way" is perhaps best understood as "the world's feelings, the sensibilities of the man in the street, the way of the world"

衰歇 srwihat "to wane/decay and then come to an end"

萬事 mànsrì literally means "thousand/myriad affairs" and often means "myriad things." Here it has the sense of "the affairs (of the aforementioned humdrum world)."

新人 sennyen (literally "new person") is a term which is used in medieval Chinese commonly to refer to a new wife/concubine.

nguk "jade" in China had, something like the status-value which gold had in the medieval west. Moreover, in this case, I suspect Du Fu is subverting a cliché. A saying has it that 美人如玉 "a beautiful woman is like jade." Du Fu subverts this with 新人美如玉 sennyen mí nyuo nguk "a new woman beautiful like jade." 

There is an implicature here, one tying this quatrain to the previous one, which seems to have eluded many commentators. The husband's behavior is the result of her brother's deaths. He no longer need fear her powerful brothers.

Quatrain 4:

    合昏尚知時  ghap'hwen dzyáng tri dzyi

    鴛鴦不獨宿  wen'ang pou duksuk
    但見新人笑  dàn kàn sennyen sàu
    那聞舊人哭  nè mèn gòunyen khuk

    Even the silk tree knows the time (i.e. what time it is) 

    The mandarin duck cannot sleep alone
    But he just sees his new mistress' smile 
    How can he hear his old woman weep?

合昏 ghap'hwen is the Albizia julibrissin or Persian silk tree whose leaves slowly close during the night, and thus "know the time."  

鴛鴦 wen'ang is Aix galericulata, or the Mandarin duck, a symbol of lovers' closeness in Chinese verse.  

sàu glossed as "smile" also means "laugh," which in contrast with the 哭 khuk "weeping"  of the following line is therefore all the more potent via antithesis. 

新人 sennyen (literally "new person") is a term which specifically is used in medieval Chinese commonly to refer to a new wife/concubine, and 舊人 gòunyen (literally "old person") I've seen used a number of times for the erstwhile favored woman who is now playing second fiddle.  

Quatrain 5:

    在山泉水清  dzèi sran dzwansywí tsheing

    出山泉水濁  tshywet sran dzwansywí drok
    侍婢賣珠迴  dzyìbí mèi tsyuo ghwei
    牽蘿補茅屋  khan le puó mau'uk

    Spring water runs clear and pure in the mountains

    But spring water runs sullied and dirtied out of the mountains.     
    Her servant girl getting back from selling her pearls
    Drags (live) creepers to mend their thatch roof.

The import of the first two lines is that once a woman has been married, she is dirtied by reputation if she leaves her husband regardless of the reason, even if it's because he booted her out. Here, Hawkes I believe makes a worthy point in his assessment that "what the women do in their efforts to keep out the weather is to rearrange a living vine or creeper which is already growing over the house...this is the sort of amateurish...thing one can imagine them doing whereas rethatching holes...would be a skilled job wholly outside the capacities of a gentlewoman and a lady's maid." 

Quatrain 6:

    摘花不插髮  treik hwa pou thap pat
    采柏動盈掬  tshéi peik dúng yeing kuk
    天寒翠袖薄  than ghan tshwì dzròu bak
    日暮倚修竹  nyetmuò í sou truk

    She picks flowers not to stick in her hair
    She picks cypress which often fills her clenched hand
    In the cold weather, her blue sleeves are thin
    In the setting sun, she leans against the tall/long bamboos

Many commentators have sought symbolism in the cypress peik signifying bitterness. I believe Hawkes is right that a more plausible explanation is that "cypress leaves were sometimes chewed to allay the pangs of hunger." 

than here glossed as "weather" also means "heavens, air." It is almost as if the woman is foresaken by the cold heavens. Nature in Du Fu's poetry in general is a cruel entity (contradicting or at least qualifying much that has been written about the "harmony" of humans and nature in Tang poetry.)

In mentioning that the flowers will not be stuck in her hair, Du Fu implies that the woman is selling flowers, earning a pittance at floriculture. It is the height of indignity for such a gentlewoman to actually have to earn her living. 

At this point one gets a hint of another facet of Du Fu's term 佳人 kei'nyen. It isn't just "Fair Lady" but also "Noble/Virtuous Woman." The subtext implied is that this woman is living secluded, earning a pathetic pittance from floriculture, and therefore not doing what would be monetarily easier for a woman still beautiful though aging: remarriage or prostitution. Both were of course taboo at the time for high-bred women, though by no means unheard-of (the former is attested by correspondences from the time, as well as the many Confucian moralizers railing in terror about how many remarried widows one could find.) Though the taboo on widow-remarriage was by no means new, the seriousness with which it was taken in Du Fu's day was a fairly recent development. In any case, what we have here is a gut-wrenching illustration of just what cost this a woman's honor could entail. This woman's suffering is not glorified. Her pain is not fetishized as in many other Chinese poems which take abandoned women as allegory fodder. She is left at the mercy of the elements, innocent victim of a world and a society gone horribly, horribly wrong, and ultimately (though it is probably a stretch to imagine Du Fu intended this) a woman paying for the crimes of men.

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