Sunday, October 2, 2016

Study Guide: Bai Juyi’s “A Song of Unending Sorrow” (Chang hen ge 長恨歌, 806 CE)


Study Guide: Bai Juyi’s “A Song of Unending Sorrow” (Chang hen ge 長恨歌, 806 CE)

*For the original text, an English translation, and a Japanese translation, click here.

Principle Characters (*Note: Not all appear in poem)

1. Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 (719–756): Real name, Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環; renowned beauty of Chinese history; of low birth; marries Emperor Xuanzong’s son; later becomes Daoist nun, taking name Taizhen 太真; becomes “favored concubine” (guifei) of Emperor Xuanzong; adopts general An Lushan as her son; blamed by imperial guard for An Lushan Rebellion and executed.

2. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang 唐玄宗 (685–762; reign: 712–756): Wise, enlightened emperor of Tang; in his later years, he becomes more interested in art, music, love—and specifically, Yang Guifei—than in governing the realm; also known as Emperor Ming of Tang 唐明皇.

3. An Lushan 安禄山 (703–757): Chinese general of Persian and Turkish descent; adopted by Consort Yang; leads rebellion, proclaims himself emperor; rebellion eventually suppressed, and he is executed by his own son.

4. Yang Guozhong 楊國忠 (dates unknown): Consort Yang’s cousin; rival of Courtesan Yang’s brother.

5. Gao Lishi 高力士 (684–762): Powerful eunuch official (宦官 huànguān) in Emperor’s court; carries out execution of Courtesan Yang according to some accounts.

6. Li Mao: Yang Guifei’s husband; Prince of Shou and son of Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Wu

Key Names and Terms

1. Bai Juyi 白居易 (772–846): Renowned mid-Tang poet; devout Buddhist; exiled to Chang’an in 815 for criticism of government; promoted yuefu 樂府 poetic style.

2. Tang Dynasty 唐朝 (618–907): Golden age in history of Chinese culture, particularly poetry; often divided into four periods: early Tang, high Tang, mid Tang, and late Tang.

3. Chang’an 長安: Capital of Tang Dynasty and main residence of Emperor; later called Xi’an 西安.

4. Chengdu 成都: Major city in southwest China (Sichuan province), to which Emperor flees following the rebellion.

5. An Lushan Rebellion 安禄山の乱: Rebellion led by Turkic general An Lushan in 755, causing Emperor Xuanzong and his court to flee towards Chengdu.

6. Daoism 道教: Religious and philosophical tradition of ancient China; emphasizes living in harmony with the “dao” and according to “nature” 自然; arose in opposition to Confucianism 儒教Laozi’s Tao Te Ching 道德經 and Zhuang Zhous Zhuangzi 莊子 are usually cited as its foundational texts.

7. Mount Penglai 蓬萊(/仙島/): One of several legendary mountain islands of Chinese mythology, where the Eight Immortals 八仙 are said to dwell; others include Fāngzhàng 方丈 and Yíngzhōu 瀛洲.

8. Dance of Rainbow Skirt Feathered Dress 霓裳羽衣舞: A song and dance originally from Central Asia, brought to Chang’an via Silk Road, and said to be arranged by Emperor Xuanzong and choreographed by Yang Guifei sometime between 718 and 720.

9. Eunuchs 宦官 (huànguān): Castrated court officials; full castration was required of all male imperial servants, officials, and advisors.

10. The Pear Garden 梨園 (Líyuán): Royal acting and musical academy, founded during Tang dynasty by Emperor Xuanzong; its actors were known as “children of the Pear Garden” (梨園弟子).

11. Luoyang 洛陽: The “eastern capital” during the Tang Dynasty; second largest city in world at the time, after Chang’an; Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 (624–705) moved the capital here during her reign.

12. Mawei Slope 馬嵬坡: Slope west of Chang’an where Consort Yang was executed.

13. “Seventh day of the seventh month” 七月七日: Refers to the romantic legend of the cowherd and the weaver girl, represented by the stars Altair and Vega; separated by the Milky Way, the two lovers meet only once a year—on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month—when they cross the heavens on a bridge of magpies; both the Qixi festival 七夕節 in China and Tanabata festival 七夕 in Japan are derived from this legend.

Study Questions

1. How does Bai Juyi depict Yang Guifei? What metaphors/similes does he use when describing her? Is she a sympathetic character? Or a conspiring, traitorous enemy of the state? Cite specific passages to support your answer. You may also want to compare this depiction with other Yang Guifei depictions.

2. Discuss the execution scene. Why/how is she executed? Why doesn’t the emperor intervene to prevent her death?

3. Discuss the Emperor’s behavior and mental state in the aftermath of her death. How does the poet convey this?

4. How is the passage of time conveyed in the poem? Explain, citing specific passages.

5. Describe the Daoist priest and his special assignment. What supernatural powers does he possess?

6. Where does the priest search? Where does he eventually find her? What is the significance of Penglai Mountain/Island 蓬莱仙島 in the Sino-Japanese tradition?

7. Describe Yang Guifei’s condition and living quarters when the Daoist priest finds her.

8. What two keepsakes (katami) does Courtesan Guifei give to the priest to take back with him? What message does she send for the Emperor? Explain the significance of these. What secret pledge did they make years ago?

9. What do you think Bai Juyi’s point was in writing this poem? Does the poem contain a didactic purpose? Explain.

10. The legend of Yang Guifei appears repeatedly throughout the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions, from antiquity to present. Make a list of all the works (e.g., novels, plays, anime, manga, TV shows, etc.) that draw from this legend (below are some). Explain the relation of each to the original legend.

Further Reading: Some Later Works Inspired by Yang Guifei Legend

1.Yōkihi monogatari 楊貴妃物語. English translation in “The Consort and the Warrior. Yokihi Monogatari” Masako Nakagawa Graham Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 45, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), pp. 1-26 (
2.Genji monogatari 源氏物語, especially Chapter 1
3.Wakan rōei shū 和漢朗詠集
4.Konjaku monogatari shū 今昔物語集
5.Heike monogatari 平家物語
6. Kara monogatari 唐物語
7. Toshiyori Zuinō 俊頼髄脳
8. Taiheiki 太平記
9. Isei shū 伊勢集
10. Konpaku Zenchiku 金春禅竹 Yōkihi 楊貴妃 (Noh drama)
11. Sakaguchi Ango 坂口安吾 “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom” (tr. Rubin) 桜の森の満開の下
12. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Chijin no ai 痴人の愛人 (Naomi, trns. Chambers)
13. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.
14. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō “The Tattooer”
15. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Portrait of Shunkin
16. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Captain Shigemoto’s Mother
17. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Diary of a Mad Old Man
18. Mishima Yukio 志賀寺上人の恋
19. Inoue Yasushi 井上靖 Yōkihi-den 楊貴妃伝
20. Chen Hong (early 9th c.) “An Account to Go with the ‘Song of Lasting Pain.’ “ (長恨歌伝); translation in the Yang Guifei section in Owen’s anthology
21. “Interlude: Xuanzong and Yang the Prized Consort” in An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Stephen Owen, ed. and trans. New York: Norton, 1996. Pages 441-457.

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