»  Bái Jūyì's two poems about Wáng Zhāojūn


Two poems about Wáng Zhāojūn

by Bái Jūyì  (a.d. 772-846)


•  Background

Bái Jūyì was a major poet of the Táng dynasty. John C.H. Wu, in his book The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry, places him in the Autumn of that dynasty. In fact Dr. Wu, using the older style of transcription, declares that "no one represents Autumn better than Po Chü-i himself," and gives Bái an entire chapter.

Bái Jūyì started writing poetry when in his teens. These two poems were written in a.d. 788 when he was sixteen years old (although seventeen by traditional Chinese reckoning, according to which a person is one year old at birth). Their subject is the lady Wáng Zhāojūn (王昭君).

Lady Wáng lived some centuries before Bái, in the Hàn dynasty around the middle first century b.c. She was already famous in Bái's time, and is still so today. Her story has been the subject of innumerable stories, poems, plays, operas, and movies. There's a good short account here.

According to the legend of Lady Wáng, the eleventh Hàn Emperor had a harem too large for him to know the ladies individually. He therefore had a court artist make portraits of them all so he'd know which were the most beautiful.

The ladies of the harem all bribed the artist to paint them as lovely as possible — all except one lady, who was so confident in her beauty she would not bribe him, only told him to paint her truthfully. The artist, disgruntled at not getting his bribe, painted her looking plain. That lady was of course Wáng Zhāojūn.

Now Chinese civilization during the Hàn dynasty was harassed at its north and west by the Xiōngnú (also written "Hsiung-nu"), a bickering confederacy of illiterate pastoralist nomads, possibly — scholars are divided on the matter — direct ancestors of the Huns who gave so much trouble to fifth-century Europe.

Hàn emperors sometimes fought the Xiōngnú but more often practiced appeasement — "soothing the barbarians" — with gifts of gold, silk, horses, grain, and women. They also tried to keep the Xiōngnú confederacy unstable by favoring one faction over another.

In 33 b.c. one chieftain of the Xiōngnú barbarians submitted to the authority of the Chinese Emperor and asked the Emperor to seal the deal by granting him a wife from the imperial harem. Scanning his portraits of the harem ladies, the Emperor of course selected the plainest-looking one, Lady Wáng. Then, seeing her in person for the first time at the presentation ceremony, both he and the chieftain were struck by her great beauty; but the Emperor was afraid to go back on what he'd promised the chieftain.

(There are slight variants on the story in which the Xiōngnú chieftain asked for five wives. The Emperor scans the portraits and picks the five plainest, Lady Wang among them … and matters then proceed more or less as before.)

So Lady Wáng, civilized and beautiful, went off to live among the barbarians in their tents on the steppe. That's the background to all the poems, stories, operas, etc.

In most of the fictionalized accounts Lady Wang is glad to get out of the boredom of harem life — chattering bimbos, bossy eunuchs. She was also frustrated and resentful that the Emperor had never noticed her to tap her as a bedtime companion. Some accounts say she volunteered to be the chieftain's bride.

Legend has it that when living among the Xiōngnú Lady Wang gave birth to several children, so presumably she was at least getting some sexual satisfaction at last.

(The court artist was executed for his deception.)


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poems





Pinyin transcription:

    Wáng Zhāojūn Èr Shŏu

Măn miàn hú shā măn bìn fēng,
Méi xiāo cán dài liăn xiāo hóng.
Chóu kŭ xīn qín qiáo cuì jĭn,
Rú jīn què sì huàtú zhōng.

Hàn shĭ què huí píng jì yŭ,
Huáng jīn hé rì shú é méi.
Jūnwáng ruò wèn qiè yán sè,
Mò dào bù rú gōng lĭ shí.

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

    Wáng Zhāojūn Two Poems

Full face barbarian sand full hair-of-temples wind,
Brows spent broken black-cosmetic-pigment face spent red.
Anxiety bitter laborious diligence worn-out haggard furthest-extent,
As now declined like painting picture in.

Han envoy still return depend send words,
Yellow gold what day redeem moth eyebrows.
Prince ruler if ask concubine face color,
Not say not like palace in time.

My translation goes:

    Two Poems about Wáng Zhāojūn

Face scoured by desert sand, hair full of the wind;
Eyebrows lost their painted black, rouged cheeks their red.
Worry and bitter toil have left me sallow and wan,
Till now at last I am like that picture he made.

Let the Emperor's envoy return with this:
"When shall my ransom be paid?"
Should my Lord want to know if I am still fair,
Don't say, "Not as in her palace days."