During the Tenth Year of Yuan He’s reign I was demoted to chief martial officer of Jiujiang Prefecture. One night that following autumn I escorted a guest to the Penfu river and heard the sound of a pipa wafting over from the docks. The tune was in the imperial style. Asking around, I discovered the musician was a lady entertainer from Chang’an who had studied Pipa under the masters Mu and Cao. With years her beauty passed, so she settled and married a trader. I ordered wine be presented and asked her to play a few tunes.
After her playing finished, her expression fell and she recounted the happiness of her youth. Now thin and sallow, she drifts without purpose through these lowlands.
In the two years since I lost my title I’ve lived a carefree and content life. This night, though, her words touched me and I finally understood what losing my position felt like. I was grateful and wrote her a song. It totals six hundred and sixteen words and is called The Song of the Pipa:
Sending a guest to Xunyang River at night
autumn wind brushes reeds and maple leaves.
We dismount horses and board our boat
no music as we raise our cups to drink.
Drinking with parting on mind is joyless
this vast river’s surface soaked in moonlight.
A pipa sings unexpectedly over the water
and we both forget we were parting.
Seeking its source we quietly ask who plays
the music stops but she does not answer.
We paddle closer and ask to meet her
again lighting lamps and setting out wine.
She appears after a thousand entreaties
shielding her face with pipa held tight.
She twists its neck and tunes its strings
her feelings emanate before playing one note.
Each plucked string weighty each note heavy
telling the story of her unfortunate life.
With brow lowered adept hands play
and share the infinite complexities she knows.
Left hand light her right moves up and down
playing first Ni’shang followed by Lu’yao.
The thick strings fall like torrential rain
the thin strings sound like quiet secrets.
Low and high pitches jumble together
large and small pearls fall on a jade plate.
At times an oriole chirping under flowers
other times spring water whimpering under ice.
The water freezes and the strings ossify
the sound halts unable to pass through.
Bitterness and gloom exposed from within
right now silence is victor over sound.
Like liquid bursting from a broken bottle
or armed warriors jumping from ambush screeching.
The song ends with one powerful strum
the four strings sound like silk ripping.
No one speaks in surrounding boats
with autumn moon shining bright upon river.
She put down her pick and turned serious
then fixed her clothes and sighed.
“I’m from the capital and grew up near Ha’ma Hill,
I had mastered the pipa at 13
with the Ministry of Music calling me preeminent.
A song finished and pipa masters sat amazed
with makeup I made every girl jealous.
Young men competed to give me gifts
and countless were the silks I received.
Jewel-encrusted combs broke marking time
toppled cups of wine stained crimson dress.
In those years I lived happily,
enjoying leisurely autumn moons and spring winds.”
“Then my brother enlisted and aunt died
days and nights passed and I grew old.
My doorstep was void of guests
and being old I married a merchant.
He cares only for money and travels often
just last month he left for Fu’liang’s tea.
I’m left drifting to guard empty boat
accompanied only by the moon’s cold reflection.
When it’s dark I dream of the past
and wake with tears tarnishing makeup.”
I sighed when her pipa sung
and sighed again hearing her words.
We’re both wanders at the ends of earth
we need not meet to know each other.
Since I was demoted to Xun’yang last year
I’ve left the capital but stayed in bed.
It’s remote here and there’s no music
I haven’t heard the flute or pipa this year.
In the low and humid banks of Pen River
reeds and bamboo encircle my home.
What do I hear between dawn and dusk?
Only cuckoo’s shrieks and gibbon’s cries.
In waterlily spring and moonlit autumn nights
I often enjoy wine all alone.
Where are the folk songs and flutes?
Why only racket that pierces the ear?
Hearing my lady’s pipa sing tonight
is lightening my ears with blessed music.
Please sit and play one more
I’ll write a verse for you if you stay.
Hearing my words she stood a minute
then sat and with energy played.
Now it was different and infused with sorrow,
everyone who listened was hiding their tears.
Who in the audience cried the most?
The chief martial officer’s green shirt soaked.