BEAUTIFUL LADY YU (虞美人)

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虞美人 Beautiful Lady Yu

李煜 (Author: Li Yu, 10th century)

春花秋月何时了, spring flow autumn moon when time end
往事知多少? past affairs know many a few
小楼昨夜又东风, small tower yesterday night again east wind
故国不堪回首月明中!past kingdom no bear return head moon bright in

雕阑玉砌应犹在, carved railing jade stairs should still exist
只是朱颜改。 only is red face change
问君能有几多愁? ask you can have several many sorrow
恰似一江春水向东流。just similar one river spring water towards east flow

Translation:

Spring flowers, autumn moon — when will they end?
All those undertakings of the past — who knows how many there were?
Last night the east wind came to my small building again.
In the bright moonlight, I couldn’t bear to look back toward my homeland.

The inlaid ramparts and jade stairs should still be there.
It’s only the beautiful faces that have changed.
I ask you, how much sorrow is possible?
Just as much as a river full of spring water flowing east.

Translation Notes:

The author was the last ruler of the Southern Tang state. After his empire was invaded by the Northern Song armies, he was captured and spent the last couple of years of his life essentially as a prisoner in the North. This poem is said to be the last poem that he wrote, lamenting his miserable life as a prisoner and demonstrating how much he missed his empire/hometown. The historical record indicates that after he wrote this poem and asked some singing girls to chant it, the emperor of the Northern Song Dynasty grew furious and ordered that Li Yu be poisoned to death.

The wind in traditional Chinese thought is seen as a powerful force for change, often heralding the coming of spring. Even the word ‘wind’ has within it the symbol for insect, as it was believed that the wind brought the insects that appear in great number during the spring. In The Song of Weiyang Palace, translated on this site, the blowing wind causes the peach blossoms to open. In other poems, however, such as Lu You’s Pheonix Hairpin, the wind is bitter and brings tragic change. In Beautiful Lady Yu, the east wind comes to the poet’s small building to remind the poet of his lost and beautiful homeland, triggering unbearable pain.

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