Pipa Song (Pipa Xing)

Bai Juyi (772-846 AD)[1]

Foreword by the poet

In 815 I was demoted from the Capital to a local Officer of Jiujiang Prefecture. One autumn night of the following year, while seeing off friends on a boat leaving Penpu harbor on the Yangtze River, I suddenly heard a pipa tune being played from the neighboring boat. The music style was clearly from the capital. Being totally surprised, I made an inquiry and learned that the musician was a lady who used to be a famous star in the Capital. She studied the pipa with the great Masters Mu and Cao. Then her glorious years past with the time as her beauty faded. Finally she had to lower herself to marry to a merchant. I then invited her to my boat, had the table re-set, and asked her to perform for my friends and myself. When the concert ended, I asked her why she was so sad. She told me of her splendid youth and how she lost her fame and lived a life of a merchant¡¯s wife. I had not myself felt depressed since my own departure from the capital. But after I heard her story, that night, the reality of my own demotion sank in. And I could not help but write for her this "Pipa Song", a long poem of six hundred and sixteen characters.

One Autumn night on the Yangtze River side,
I bade farewell to my friends on a boat.
Soft wind rustles reeds and maple leaves,
I, the host, dismounted and the guests went aboard.
Cup in hands, but there was no music,
We drank with depressed heart,
Seeing my friends off while the moonlight bathing in the river.
Suddenly the pipa sounds drifting to our ears from a neighboring boat,
My guests forgot to leave and I knew not where we were.
Tracing the sound, we looked for the wonder maker.
The music stopped and there was no sound to hear.
We moved our boat near the musician's to invite
Here to drink at our feast replenished by lamplight.
We urged her over and again until she appeared,
With half her face hiding behind the pipa still.
She turned the pegs and tuned each string few times,
Her music flew out even before playing a note.
Each plug on the string gave a note of melancholy,
Pouring out the resentment of her life.
She knitted up her brows and carried on,
Telling from her heart the life story long.
Now playing softly, now playing swiftly,
She performed first "Liuyiao" and then "Nishang" [2]
The bold strings rattled like splatters of sudden rain,
The fine strings hummed like lovers' whispers.
Chattering and pattering, pattering and chattering,
As pearls, large and small, on a jade plate fall.
The sweet melody recalls oriole singing among flowers,
The sobbing music brings the gushing spring out of glacier,
The spring frozen, the strings ceased vibration.
The water stopped flowing and silence set in.
In my heart, a spell of deep feeling,
At this magical moment, silence tells more than sound.
Suddenly a strain of notes burst out
Like water splattering out of a fallen vase
Or horsemen riding among a forest of spears.
She struck the four strings all at once
As if the silk curtains were ripped with great force.
With her plectrum sweeping over the string,
The music came to an end with a crystal snap.
And tranquil overwhelmed in the boats far and near,
Only the Autumn moon shining in the rever so pale.
Sadly, she put the pick back under the strings
And rose elegantly with her manner respectful,
Saying that she was originated from the capital,
And lived in the famous district of Xiamoling [3].
By thirteen she had mastered the pipa,
And was first among equals at the Imperial Conservatory,
Her art the admiration even of master Shancai,
Her beauty the envy of all pretty girls.
Suitors competed to reward her,
For every song she received endless bolts of silk.
She sang, she beat time, all through the day,
She danced till her head gear fell to the floor.
Wine spilled, skirts stained,
Delicacies rivaled gaieties.
Day after day, and joy upon joy,
Her best years slipped away.
Then her brother joined the army, and her aunt died.
Times changed, and her beauty faded.
Her patrons wandered off, went elsewhere,
And the carriages at her door got fewer and fewer,
Till finally she had to lower herself marry a tea dealer [4].
All he thought of was money, parting never bothers him,
So the month before he'd gone to Fuliang, to buy tea,
And she had been left to tend the boat all alone,
No company but the cold water and the moon.
In the deep of night she would dream of the past,
Awake from Crying, her face wet with tears.
I had sighed when I heard the music,
But now, having heard her story, sadness doubled.
"Both of us are strangers here, both of us stranded,
Does it matter that we've just met, if our hearts understand?
I left the capital a year ago,
And now, a sick exile at JiuJiang, my sorrow grows.
The city is far away, there is no music,
No flute, no pipa, all the year long.
I live, now near Pencheng, damp and low,
Choked with reeds and bamboo.
What do I hear, day and night?
The sad songs of cuckoos, the sad cries of apes.
On a spring day, at the river,
Or on an autumn moonlit night,
Often-I sit up, alone, and sip wine.
There are folk songs, of course, there are village flutes,
But they are so crude and they grate on my ears.
Tonight I heard you play the pipa.
It brightens me like music from Heaven.
Sit down once more, please play an ancore,
And in turn I will write you a "Pipa Song".
Moved by my words, she stood there, silent for a long while,
Then she sat down and quickly tuned her strings again,
Grief-filled and heart-felt she played a different tune.
Tear-soaked, sorrow-laden, all sobbed out at once.
And who was weeping the bitterest tears of all?
The Deputy Chief of Jiujiang Prefecture,
whose blue gown was soaked in tears.


  • [1] Bai Juyi (772-846 AD) is one of the greatest poets in Chinese history. His fame in China is comparable to that of Shakespear in the English speaking world.

  • [2] Nishang and Liuyao - Popular dance tunes, the former introduced into China from Central Asia;

  • [3] Xiamoling - red-light district in Changan (now Xi'an), the Capital of Tang Dynasty.

  • [4] In the traditional China, classes in the society are very big spelled. Scholars and learned people were highly respected, and the officials were selected from learned people through strict examinations based on the knowledge about the Chinese classics, literature and poetry. The "businessmen" or the merchants were regarded among the lowest in society, as these were synonyms for "greedy", "selfish" and therefore "low morality" (which is not necessarily true from today's standard). The reason was that "businessmen only looks for profits in term of money", (although the history taught that the "greediness" for political powers may be even more harmful to the society).

[Note from the translator]

Translating poetry is difficult; translating Chinese poetry into any other languages is particularly difficult, because the root of Chinese language is the characters that are symbolic images (not real pictures, but meaningful pictures), whereas all western languages are phonetic notes. The meaning of all western languages is transmitted by sounds only, but that of Chinese is by both images and sounds. Even the sounds have various tonalities, when weaved in the verse, creating a musical and rhythmic feeling that is totally lost in any translation, not to speak of the images that come with the characters. The original verses of the above poem are very beautiful in all aspects. In this translation, only the story is kept, thus it can hardly be regarded as poem in terms of rhythm and meaning. Readers are warmly welcome to give us advice and suggestions[click contact] for improvement.

©2002 philmultic 

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