Song of a Pipa Player
One night by riverside I bade a friend goodbye;
In maple leaves and rushes autumn seemed to sigh.
My friend and I dismounted and came into the boat;
We wished to drink but there was no music afloat.
Without flute songs we drank our cups with heavy heart;
The moonbeams blended with water when we were to part.
Suddenly o’er the stream we heard a pipa sound;
I forgot to go home and the guest stood spell-bound.
We followed where the music led to find the player,
But heard the pipa stop and no music in the air.
We moved our boat towards the one whence came the strain,
Brought back the lamp, asked for more wine and drank again.
Repeatedly we called for the fair player till
She came, her face half hidden behind a pipa still.
She turned the pegs and tested twice or thrice each string;
Before a tune was played we heard her feelings sing.
Each string she plucked, each note she struck with pathos strong,
All seemed to say she’d missed her dreams all her life long.
Head bent, she played with unpremeditated art
On and on to pour out her overflowing heart.
She lightly plucked, slowly stroked and twanged loud
The song of “Green Waist” after that of “Rainbow Cloud” .
The thick strings loudly thrummed like the pattering rain;
The fine strings softly tinkled in a murmuring strain.
When mingling loud and soft notes were together played,
You heard large and small pearls cascade on plate of jade.
Now you heard orioles warble in flowery land,
Then a sobbing stream run along a beach of sand.
But the stream seemed so cold as to tighten the string;
From tightened strings no more sound could be heard to sing.
Still we heard hidden grief and vague regret concealed;
Then music expressed far less than silence revealed.
Suddenly we heard water burst a silver jar,
And the clash of spears, and sabers come from afar.
She made a central sweep when the music was ending;
The four strings made one sound, as of silk one was rending.
Silence reigned left and right of the boat, east and west;
We saw but autumn moon white in the river’s breast.
She slid the plectrum pensively between the strings,
Smoothed out her dress and rose with a composed mien.
“I spent,” she said, “in the capital my early springs,
Where at the foot of Mount of Toads my home had been.
At thirteen I learned on the pipa how to play,
And my name was among the primas of the day.
I won my master’s admiration for my skill;
My beauty was envied by songstresses fair still.
The gallant young men vied to shower gifts on me;
One tune played, countless silk rolls were given with glee.
Beating time, I let silver comb and pin drop down,
And spilt-out wine oft stained my blood-red silken gown.
From year to year I laughed my joyous life away
On moonlit autumn night as windy vernal day.
My younger brother left for war, and died my maid;
Days passed, nights came, and my beauty began to fade.
Fewer and fewer were cabs and steeds at my door;
I married a smug merchant when my prime was o’er.
The merchant cared for money much more than for me;
One month ago he went away to purchase tea,
Leaving his lonely wife alone in empty boat;
Shrouded in moonlight, on the cold river I float.
Deep in the night I dreamed of happy bygone years,
And woke to find my rouged face crisscrossed with tears.”
Listening to her sad music, I sighed with pain;
Hearing her story, I sighed again and again.
Both of us in misfortune go from shore to shore.
Meeting now, need we have known each other before?
“I was banished from the capital last year
To live degraded and ill in this city here.
The city’s too remote to know melodious song,
So I have never heard music all the year long.
l dwell by riverbank on a low and damp ground
In a house with wild reeds and stunted bamboos around.
What is here to be heard from daybreak till nightfall
But gibbon’s cry and cuckoo’s homeward-going call?
By blooming riverside and under autumn moon
l’ve often taken wine up and drunk it alone.
Though I have mountain songs and village pipes to hear,
Yet they are crude and strident and grate on the ear.
Listening to you playing on pipa tonight,
With your music divine e’en my hearing seems bright.
Will you sit down and play for us a tune once more?
I’ll write for you an ode to the pipa I adore.”
Touched by what I said, the player stood for long,
Then sat down, tore at strings and played another song.
So sad, so drear, so different, it moved us deep;
Those who heard it hid the face and began to weep.
Of all the company at table who wept most?
It was none other than the exiled blue-robed host.
This is one of the most popular songs of the Tang Dynasty in which the poet describes a musician and her music.
“Song of a Pipa Player” is a long narrative poem written by Bai Juyi, a poet of the Tang Dynasty. Through the description of the pipa girl’s excellent playing skills and her unfortunate experience, the poem exposes the unreasonable phenomena of bureaucratic corruption, depleted livelihood and buried talents in the feudal society, and expresses the poet’s deep sympathy for the pipa girl as well as his indignation at his innocent deportation. The poem’s narrative and lyricism are closely integrated, creating a complete and distinctive characterization; the language is well-proportioned, beautiful and harmonious, especially in the depiction of the pipa’s performance, with apt metaphors, turning the imaginary into the real, presenting a distinctive musical image.