Chinese Poem, Third to Fifth Century A.D
Translated by Arthur Waley
A peacock flew, far off to the south-east;
Flew for a mile, then always dallied in its flight.
"At thirteen I knew how to weave silk,
At fourteen I learnt to make clothes.
At fifteen I could play the small lute,
At sixteen I knew the Songs and Book.
At seventeen I was made your wife;
From care and sorrow my heart was never free,
For you already were a clerk in the great town
Diligent in your duties and caring for nothing else.
I was left alone in an empty bridal-room;
It was not often that we two could meet.
At cock-crow I went to the loom to weave;
Night after night I toiled and got no rest.
In three days I would finish five bits,
And yet the Great One1 chid me for being slow.
Husband, it is not because I weave too slowly
That I find it hard to be a wife in your house.
It is not in my power to do the tasks I am set;
There is no use in staying for the sake of staying.
Go then quickly, speak to the lady my mistress
And while there is time let me go back to my home."
The clerk her husband listened to her words;
Up to the Hall he went and "Mother," he said,
"The signs of my birth marked me for a humble course;
Yet luck was with me when I took this girl to wife.
Our hair was plaited, we shared pillow and mat,
Swore friendship until the Yellow Springs of Death.
We have served you together two years or three,
Since the beginning only so little a while.
In nothing has the girl offended or done amiss;
What has happened to bring trouble between you?"
Then spoke the clerk's mother:
"Come, my son, such love is foolish doting;
This wife neglects all rules of behaviour,
And in all ways follows her own whim.
Myself I have long been discontented with her;
You must not think only of what pleases you.
Our neighbour to eastward has a steadfast daughter;
She calls herself Lo-fu of the house of Ch'in.
The loveliest limbs that ever yet you saw!
Let mother get her for you to be your wife,
And as soon as may be send the other away;
Send her quickly, and do not let her bide."
Long her son knelt down before her and pleaded:
"Bowing before you, mother, I make my plea.
If now you send her away
I will live single all the days of my life."
And when his mother heard him
She banged the bed, flying into a great rage,
And "Little son," she said, "are you not afraid?
Dare you answer me in such a wife's praise?
By this you have forfeited all my love and kindness;
Do not dream that I will let you work your will."
He did not speak, he made no cry.
Twice he bowed, and went back to his room;
He lifted up his voice to speak with his young bride,
But his breath caught and the words would not come.
"It is not Ithat would send you away,
It is my mother that has scolded and harried me.
Do you live at your father's, just for a little while,
For I must be going to take my orders in the town--
Not for long; I shall soon be coming home,
And when I am at home, I will fetch you back again.
Let this put down the doubts that rise in your heart;
Turn it over in your thoughts and do not disobey me."
The young wife spoke to the government clerk:
"Give me no more of this foolish tangled talk.
Long ago, when the year was at its spring,
I left my father and came to your grand home.
I obeyed my mistress in every task I plied;
Day and night I hurried on with my tasks
In solitude, caught in endless toil.
Never in word or deed was I at fault;
In tender service I waited on Madam's needs,
Yet even so she sought to send me away.
It is no use to talk of coming back.
These things are mine: a broidered waist-jacket,
Lovely and rare, shining with a light of its own;
A canopy of red gauze
With scented bags hanging at the four corners,
And shuttered boxes, sixty, seventy,
With grey marbles strung on green threads--
So many boxes, and none is like the last;
And in the boxes, so many kinds of things!
If I am vile, my things must also be scorned.
They will not be worth keeping for the after-one;2
Yet I leave them here; they may come in handy as presents.
From now onward we shall not meet again.
Once in a while let me have your news,
And let us never, never forget one another."
A cock crowed; outside it was growing light.
The young wife rose and tidied herself.
She puts about her a broidered, lined gown,
Takes what she needs, four or five things,
And now on her feet she slips her silk shoes;
In her hair are shining combs of tortoise-shell.
Her waist is supple as the flow of rustling silk;
At her ear she dangles a bright crescent moon.
White her fingers as the slender onion stem;
She seems in her mouth to hold cinnabar and pearls.
Slender, slender she treads with small steps,
More fine, more lovely than any lady in the world.
She goes to the Hall, low she bows her head;
But the stubborn mother's anger did not cease.
"When I was a girl," the young wife said,
"I was brought up far from any town,
A wild thing, never schooled or taught,
And needs must shame a great man's house.
From you have I taken much money and silk,
Yet was not fit to do the tasks that you set.
To-day I am going back to my father's home;
I am sorry to leave you burdened by household cares."
From her little sister3 it was worse work to part;
Her tears fell like a string of small pearls:
"When new-wed I first came to your home,
You had just learnt to lean on the bed and walk.
To-day, when I am driven away,
Little sister, you have grown as tall as me.
Work for Madam, cherish her with all your heart,
Strive to serve and help her as best you may.
Those seventh-days and last days but one4
Do not forget what nice romps we had!"
She left the gate, mounted her coach and went;
Of tears she dropt many hundred rows.
The clerk with his horse was riding on before;
The young wife rode in her carriage behind.
A pattering of hoofs, a thundering of wheels--
And they met each other at the mouth of the great road.
He left his horse and sat beside her in the coach,
He bowed his head and into her ear he spoke:
"I swear an oath that I will not give you up
If for a little while you go back to your home.
I for a little must go back to the town;
It will not be long before I am here again.
I swear by heaven that I will not abandon you."
"Dear husband," the young wife cried,
"Of your fond love I have not any doubt,
And since you have said you still accept me as your wife
It will not be long, I hope, before you are back.
You now must be like the great rock;
And I will be like the reed that grows by the stream.
The reed by the stream that bends but does not break;
The great rock, too mighty to move from its place.
I have a brother, my own father's son,
Whose nature and deeds are wild as a summer storm.
I fear he will not let me have my way,
And the thought of this fills my heart with dread."
They raise their hands, bidding long farewell,
Her heart and his equally loath to part.
She enters the gate, she mounts her father's Hall,
Languidly moves with no greeting in her face.
"Child," cries her mother, and loud she claps her hands,
"We little thought to see you home so soon.
For at thirteen I taught you to weave silk,
At fourteen you could cut clothes.
At fifteen you played on the small lute,
At sixteen you knew the customs and rites.
At seventeen I sent you to be a bride
And fully thought that nothing had gone amiss.
What is your fault, what wrong have you done
That uninvited you now come back to your home?"
Then Lan-chih, ashamed before her mother,
"Oh nothing, nothing, mother, have I done amiss;"
And a deep pity tore the mother's heart.
She had been at home ten days or more
When the local magistrate sends a go-between,
Saying: "My master has a third sone,
For grace and beauty none like him in the world;
He is eighteen or nineteen years old,
A lovely boy, gifted and of ready speech."
Then said the mother to her daughter,
"Daughter, this offer cannot be refused."
But the daughter weeping answered,
"When I left my husband's house,
He looked kindly on me and an oath he swore
That come what might he would not abandon me.
And to-day, false and wicked should I be,
Were I untrue to this our great love.
It would surely be better to break off the parley;
There is no hurry; we can answer them later on."
Then said her mother to that go-between:
"In our humble house there is indeed a daughter,
Was once married, but came back to us again.
If she was not fit to be a clerk's wife
How can she suit a magistrate's noble son?
Pray go further and seek a better match;
At the present moment we cannot give our consent."
Not many days had the messenger been gone
When a deputy-prefect5 came on like quest:
"They tell me that here is a lady called Lan-chih
Whose father's fathers long served the State.
My master would have you know that his fifth son
Is handsome, clever, and has not yet a wife.
His own deputy he sends as go-between
And his deputy-assistant to carry you his words."
The assistant told them: "In the Lord Prefect's house
Has grown up this fine young gentleman
Who now wishes to be bound with the Great Bond,
And therefore sends us with a message to your noble gate."
The girl's mother sent word to the messengers:
"This daughter of mine is already bound by a vow;
I cannot venture to speak of such a match."
When news of this reached the brother's ear
His heart within him was much angered and vexed.
He raised his voice and thus to his sister he said:
"The plan you follow is not well considered.
Your former husband was only a Prefect's clerk;
Now you have the chance to marry a young lord!
Wide as earth from sky is the space between;
Here is a splendour that shall brighten all your days.
But if you will not be married to this fine lord,
What refuge have you, where else shall you turn?"
Then Lan-chih raised her hand and answered:
"Brother, there is good sense in what you say.
I left my home to serve another man,
But in mid-road6 returned to my brother's house,
And in his hands must all my fortunes rest;
I must not ask to follow my own desire.
Though to the clerk I am bound, yet now, I think,
To eternity we shall not meet again.
Let us now accept the offer of this match
And say that the wedding may take place at once."
The messengers left their couch, their faces beaming,
With a bland "yes, yes" and "so, so."
They went to their quarters and to the Prefect they spoke:
"We, your servants, have fulfilled your high command;
The words we have uttered were not without effect."
When the Lord Prefect was told of all that had passed,
His heart was filled with great mirth and joy;
He read the Calendar, he opened the sacred book.
He found it written that in this very month
The Six Points were in fortuate harmony,
The Good Omen fell in the thirtieth day;
And now already the twenty-seventh was come.
"Go, my servants, and make this wedding for me."
With urgent message they speed the marriage gear;
Hither and thither they whirl like clouds in the sky.
A green sparrow7 and white-swan boat;
At its four corners a dragon-child flag
Delicately curls in the wind; a golden coach
With jade-set wheels. And dappled coursers prance
With tasselled mains and saddles fretted with gold.
The wedding gift, three million cash
Pierced in the middle and strung with green thread.
Of coloured stuffs three hundred bits,
And rare fish from the markets of Chiao and Kuang.
The bridegroom's friends, four or five hundred
In great array go up to the Prefect's gate.
Then said the mother:
"Daughter dear, this moment a letter has come,
Saying to-morrow my Lord will fetch you away.
How comes it, girl, that you are not making your dress?
Don't leave it so late that the wedding cannot start!"
She did not answer, she did not make a sound;
With her handkerchief she covered her face and wept,
Her tears flowed like water poured from a jar.
She shifts her stool that is bright with crystal beads
And close to the front window she sets it down.
With her left hand she wields ruler and knife;
In her right hand she holds the silk gauze.
In the morning she finishes her lined, broidered gown;
By evening she has finished her thin gauze robe.
The day was over, and she in the gathering gloom
With sorrowful heart walked sobbing to the gate.
When the clerk her husband learned of what had passed
He asked for leave to return for a little while.
He had still to ride two leagues or three
When his horse neighed, raising a doleful moan.
The young wife knew the horse's neigh;
She slipped on her shoes and set out to meet him.
Woefully they looked on each other from afar,
When each saw it was his dear one that had come.
She raised her hand, she struck the horse's saddle,
Wailing and sobbing as though her heart would break.
"Since you left me--" she said,
"Things happen to one that cannot be forseen--
It is true that I have not done as I wished to do;
But I do not think you fully understand.
Remember that I have an own father and mother
Who with my brother forced me to do this,
Made me give myself over to another man.
How could I hope that you would ever come again?"
Then said her husband the clerk to his young wife:
"Well done!", he cried, "well done to have climbed so high!
The great rock that is so firm and square
Was strong enough to last a thousand years.
The river reed that once was thought so tough
Was a frail thing that broke between dawn and dusk.
From glory to glory will my fine lady stride,
And I will go down to the Yellow Springs alone."
Then answered the young wife and to the clerk she said:
"What do you mean, why do you speak to me so?
It was the same with both; each of us was forced;
You were, and so was I too.
In the land of death you shall not be alone;
Do not fail me in what to-day you have said."
They held hands, they parted and went their ways,
He to his house and she back to hers.
That live men can make a death-parting
Is sorrowful more than words can tell;
To know theyare leaving the world and all it holds,
Doing a thing that can never be undone!
When the young clerk had got back to his home
He went to the Hall and bowing low to his mother he said:
"Mother, to-day the great wind is cold.
A cold wind shakes the branches and trees.
A cruel frost has stiffened the orchids in the court.
Mother, mother, to-day I go to darkness
Leaving you to stay here alone.
For my mind is set on a very sad plan;
Let your grievance against me stop when I am dead.
May your life endure like a rock of the Southern Hills,
Your back be straight and your limbs ever strong!"
When the young clerk's mother heard this
Bitter tears at each word flowed.
"O woe, will you that are of good house,
Whose father's fathers were ministers at Court
Die for a woman? Little sense do you show
Of which things matter! Listen now to my plan.
Our eastern neighbour has a good girl,
Dainty and pretty, the fairest in the town.
Let Mother get her to be your wife;
I'll be quick about it; you shall have her between dawn and dusk."
The young clerk bowed twice, and turned to go;
Deep he sighed in the empty bridal room,
He was thinking of his plan and therefore sighing stood.
He turned his head, he moved towards the door,
Drawn by the grief that surged in his boiling breast.
That day, while horses whinnied and oxen lowed,8
The bride went in to her tabernacle green.
Swiftly the day closed and the dusk grew black;
There was not a sound; the second watch had begun.
"With the day that has ended my life also ends,
My soul shall go and only my body stay."
She lifts her skirt, she takes off her silk shoes,
She rises up and walks into the blue lake.
When the young clerk heard what had happened
And knew in his heart that they were parted for ever,
He hovered a while under the courtyard tree,
Then hanged himself from the south-east bough.
The two families buried them in the same grave,
Buried them together on the side of the Hua Shan.
To east and west they printed cypress and pine,
To left and right they sowed the wu-t'ung.
The trees prospered; they roofed the tomb with shade,
Bough with bough, leaf with leaf entwined;
And on the boughs are two flying birds
Who name themselves Birds of True Love.
They lift their heads and face to face they sing
Every night until the fifth watch is done.
The passing traveller stays his foot to hear,
The widowed wife rises and walks to her room.
This tale is a warning for the men of the afterworld;
May they learn its moral and hold it safe in their hearts.
1: The mother-in-law.
2: Her successor.
5: As messenger from the Prefect, who was much grander than a district magistrate.
6: In the mid-road of marriage.
8: A bad omen.
I have always felt that this poem is really more pathetic (as in pathos) than tragic. The characters exist in a world where disobedience to authority is literally unthinkable; most grown people in this day and age would never allow their mother or older brother to make such decisions for them. Yet both husband and wife feel obligated to follow the commands of their family, even when it means ruining their life.