is empty today.
The ancient emperors had hundreds of concubines who were not allowed beyond the confines of the palace. Sealed off from the world, the women were captives for life.
in bound feet,
I dream of my
When I walk,
I sway as a
And the locusts
and horny, their
of this old,
I am copying this poem as I wrote it more than ten years ago after hearing a story about how a concubine, in ancient times, was put to death with her lover after their affair was discovered. Under punishment and threat of death, these lovers took great measures to hide their affections for each other. Her lover was a performer with an opera troupe that frequented the imperial court, so the two had the opportunity to meet from time to time.
After hearing this story, I was very curious. I asked, “How many concubines did the emperor have?” The Chinese emperors had many concubines, numbering from the hundreds to thousands. But what was the life of a concubine in the imperial court?
Traditionally, a concubine to the emperor was brought to the attention of the court because of her beauty or status. She was not considered officially married to the emperor but was recruited to the court to bear the emperor sons and to entertain, usually at a young age. Once a concubine was taken inside the palace walls, she had to leave behind her family, her friends, her familiar ways of life and was not permitted to see her relatives or friends or leave the palace without official consent. The parents would agree to give up their daughter in exchange for a secure life for their child. However, giving up a daughter to be a concubine to the imperial palace was usually a heart-breaking affair, as it was considered a parting for life. The concubines’ activities were generally overseen and monitored by the powerful eunuchs. Of course, sex with any one other than the emperor was strictly forbidden.
Before the emperor would visit, a concubine was required to bathe and be examined by a court doctor. With hundreds or thousands of concubines to choose from, a concubine was considered lucky to have a visit by the emperor. Many of them, I was told, throughout their lives in the palace, barely had any contact with the emperor at all. They had their own rooms, and their daily activities were filled with making themselves up, sewing, practicing various arts and sharing their time with the other concubines in the palace.
There were varying ranks of concubines, and many of them engaged in ruthless struggles for power. Indeed, there were some concubines who managed to become very powerful. The most famous were Ci Xi and Wu Ze Tian who were very shrewd and eventually became two of China’s Empresses and rulers. Still, for many concubines, they had to wile away their days, presenting themselves as best as they could and many leading very lonely lives.
Li Bai (b.701 – d.762) is one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. He was a contemporary of Du Fu (b.712–d.770) during the Tang Dynasty and the Golden Age of Chinese Poetry. He wandered from place to place for most of his life, drinking and writing. Leading the life of a wanderer, a recluse and as a free spirit, Li Bai, in many ways, embodies Taoist philosophies. His poetry, seemingly simple and effortless, is vivid, spontaneous, full of imagination and exhibits a childlike playfulness. (Du Fu, more of a realist, is regarded as China’s greatest historical poet. In my mind the two can be compared in some ways to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman in their different styles.)
Below is of one of Li Bai’s most famous poems (please excuse my translation). This poem illustrates Li Bai’s ability to seize the moment and transcend the world with nature.
With a pot of wine amidst the flowers,
I drink without human company.
I raise my cup to the bright moon.
The moon, I and my shadow make three.
The moon does not share in drink.
My shadow only trails and follows.
Fleeting companions, the moon and my shadow.
Still, let us rejoice before the end of Spring.
The moon sways with my singing.
My shadow lurches as I dance.
While sober, we cheerfully celebrate.
After getting drunk, we part ways.
Our union beyond this earthly realm,
May we meet again, I and these two,
beneath the Milky Way stars.
Although he was a technical master of many classical forms of Chinese verse, Li Bai took great liberties and broke tradition often with these forms, a further illustration of his free spirit. As he wandered from place to place, he would meet and drink with other poets. It was common during that time for poets to gather and celebrate their company and poetry with drink. The poems, as they were composed, were often sung (sometimes while tapping the side of a table or boat or tapping chopsticks along with the rhymes, which older generations of Chinese still practice.) Many young children in China can recite his poems.
Li Bai’s legend grew during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. Du Fu, who met Li Bai, wrote Li Bai on several occasions, and it was clear that Du Fu regarded him with great admiration and respect. (Li Bai appears to have written Du Fu once.) And in a fitting end, legend has it that Li Bai died from drowning because, happily drunk, he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in the water while sitting in a boat. To this day, during the Mid-Autumn Festival when families have dinner, eat moon cakes, drink wine, and watch the moon, people think of and celebrate this poem by Li Bai and his life.
Today, I came across this poem by Su Shi (苏轼, also known as Su Dong Po, b. January 8, 1037 – d. August 24, 1101), one of the Four Great Song Calligraphers, which moved me greatly, so I thought I would share it with you. I don’t have much to say after reading a poem like this.
Ten years living and dead have drawn apart
I do nothing to remember
But I cannot forget
Your lonely grave a thousand miles away…
Nowhere can I talk of my sorrow –
Even if we met, how would you know me
My face full of dust
My hair like snow?
In the dark of night, a dream: suddenly, I am home
You by the window
Doing your hair
I look at you and cannot speak
Your face is streaked by endless tears
Year after year must they break my heart
These moonlit nights?
That low pine grave?
(Copied from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Su_Shi)