The Song of Everlasting Sorrow is a narrative poem of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) inspired by the love affair between Xuanzong (r. 712-756 CE), the seventh emperor of the dynasty, and his consort Lady Yang. It was written by the Chinese poet Bai Juyi (l. 772-846 CE) and is his most popular work.
It was an instant success when Bai published it in 806 CE and has been regularly memorized by Chinese students in the centuries since then. The poem is a romanticized version of the real-life affair of Xuanzong and Lady Yang but is set further back in time during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). Bai Juyi is known for his highly romantic poetry which uses vivid but also very simple imagery because he wanted everyone to be able to enjoy his work without having to struggle to find its meaning.
Bai Juyi wrote over 2,800 poems on many different subjects and these remain widely read in China and are also popular in Japan. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (also known as Song of Everlasting Regret) became his most popular, though, because of its themes of deep romantic love, loss, and the image of love lasting beyond death.
The Story in History
Xuanzong is considered one of the best monarchs in China's history for his early policies. He followed the example of his two predecessors, Taizong (r. 626-649 CE) and the empress Wu Zetian (r. 690-704 CE) in reforming the laws, streamlining the bureaucracy, and providing for the people. Under Xuanzong's early reign, China achieved unprecedented wealth and prosperity to become the most affluent country in the world at that time.
Around 734 CE, though, Xuanzong grew tired of his responsibilities and began to rely more on his wife to make his decisions. She suggested he appoint a family friend named Li-Linfu as chancellor. When his wife died, Xuanzong became more withdrawn from public affairs and trusted the running of the government more and more to Li-Linfu. He had over 3,000 beautiful young women brought to the palace to entertain him and kept them there against their will.
Even with all these women under his control, Xuanzong was still unhappy until, in 741 CE, he fell in love with the young wife of his son, a woman named Yang Guifei. Xuanzong had Yang move into the palace with the rest of the women but only spent time with her. She left her husband and became the emperor's consort. He neglected his duties as emperor for this love affair and agreed to anything Lady Yang asked. She began with small requests, which he granted, and these grew into larger demands until she got him to promote members of her family to important positions even though these people could not do the jobs.
All of the important reforms and progress Xuanzong had made started to unravel as the members of Yang's family abused their positions and neglected their duties. At the same time, the policy of using foreign nationals in the army (which had grown out of Xuanzong's military reforms) led to the promotion of some of these men to very high positions of command. Li-Linfu exploited this situation to place men loyal to him in command of the army at the same time he was accepting bribes from Yang's family to appoint them to comfortable bureaucratic posts. The former prosperity of the country began to decline as the people in authority spent more time enjoying themselves than taking care of their responsibilities.
A half-Sogdian/half-Turk general named An Lushan, who was a friend of Lady Yang's, saw the Yang family's abuses as a sign that Xuanzong was no longer fit to rule. An Lushan commanded the best troops in the Chinese army and felt he had a duty to take action and lead these men to restore a proper government; so he mounted a rebellion against the ruling house in 755 CE. He overthrew Xuanzong and declared himself emperor. He was challenged by the Tang forces and his rebellion crushed but he had started something which could not be stopped. The country would be torn apart between the years 755-763 CE and close to 36 million people would die.
Xuanzong fled the capital in 755 CE with Lady Yang and her family. The men of the military escort who accompanied them blamed Yang for the troubles and murdered her family en route. The commanders of the army then demanded that Lady Yang be killed also. Xuanzong refused, but the men would not back down and he had no choice but to comply. He admitted he had allowed himself to be seduced away from his duties and consented that Lady Yang should be strangled.
Xuanzong no longer wanted to rule and was heartsick over the death of Lady Yang. He abdicated in favor of his son Suzong (r. 756-762 CE) and retired from public life. Suzong led the Tang armies into battle but could not defeat An Lushan no matter how he tried. Suzong and Xuanzong died of disease within two weeks of each other in 762 CE, and he was succeeded by Daizong (r. 762-779 CE) who finally restored order.
The Story in the Poem
In the poem, an emperor of the Han Dynasty falls in love with a beautiful young girl who has no experience of the world. The poem states that she was "Raised in the inner chamber, unseen by anybody". She is so beautiful that "if she turned her head and smiled she cast a deep spell/Beauties of Six Palaces vanished into nothing". The emperor selects her as a concubine and becomes so entranced by her that he forgets his responsibilities. The poem states, "The emperor neglected the world from that moment".
The two lovers enjoy every minute they can together until war breaks out and the emperor is expected to lead his troops in battle. He cannot leave her alone and brings her with him to the war. The men see that the emperor is distracted and they are going to be defeated and killed unless he comes to his senses. They demand that the lady be killed, and the emperor has no choice but to allow it. After her death, the emperor regains his focus and leads his army to victory. He returns to his palace where he reflects on all the happy times he had with his lover and misses her.
The emperor has a Taoist priest contact the land of the dead so he can speak to his lover again. The poem describes the priest searching everywhere for her and finally waking her up where she slept on a magic island in the afterlife. She has moved on, though, and no longer has anything to do with earthly desires. The poem says how "when she turned her face to look back earthwards" she saw only "mist and dust clouds".
She thanks the emperor's messenger for coming and asks him to relay a message; then she breaks her golden hairpin in half and gives one to him along with a piece of her lacquer box. The spirit of the lady asks the messenger to give these gifts to his emperor and tell him that she still loves him and "Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments" and how "sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again".
She references the myth of Niu Lang and Zhi Nu, the god and goddess of love, who can only meet with each other on the seventh night of the seventh month each year in the night sky (represented by the star Vega, who is Zhi Nu, and the star Altair, Niu Lang, which are on opposite sides of the Milky Way except for one time every year - on the seventh night of the seventh month). The poem ends with the lines "Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days. But Everlasting Sorrow endures always."
The Poem's Significance
The two most famous poets of the Tang Dynasty were Li Po (l. 701-762 CE) and Du Fu (l. 712-770 CE), who were both praised for their vivid imagery and clever allusions in depicting everyday scenes. Xuanzong was a Taoist who decreed Taoism the national religion but Confucian principles of propriety still governed people's behavior and attitudes, and art was expected to reflect Confucian principles, which these poets did.
Poetry was expected to express reality, even if that reality was heightened or the details were not exactly true. Li Po, for example, wrote a poem about a party where the narrator praises "a drinking bout of at least three hundred cups" and says "All I want is to be forever drunk, never sober", and these lines do not reflect Confucian values. Li Po was praised, though, because the poem accurately reflects the attitudes of someone drinking at a party.
Bai Juyi's poetry was criticized because it was often considered inappropriate and did not reflect reality or Confucian values. His work was considered lower class because it was more accessible in content and imagery than poets like Li Po or Du Fu.
Song of Everlasting Sorrow was especially criticized by Confucian scholars for warping people's impression of what really happened to Lady Yang and how her death came about. Literary critics condemned the poem's sensuality and romanticism and claimed that Bai was lowering the standards of his art by writing for the masses.
The masses loved the poem, though, and it became a best-seller when Bai published it. Fans of Bai's work did not care about the judgments of scholars or critics; they just responded to the beauty of the verse and the story of the tragic love affair. It elevated Lady Yang from her role in history as the woman who brought down the Tang Dynasty to the girl who allowed herself to be sacrificed for the greater good of the country. The conclusion of the poem, when the lady speaks to the messenger from the afterlife, offered consolation to those who had lost people they loved and this made the work very appealing.
The poem also elevated Lady Yang to a mythical level as one of The Four Beauties of China. The Four Beauties are four women whose actions dramatically affected the fate of the nation. They are Xi Shi of the Spring and Autumn Period; Wang Zhaojun of the Han Dynasty; Diaochan, a fictional character from the book Romance of the Three Kingdoms; and Yang Guifei. Some lists include a Fifth Beauty, Consort Yu (also known as Lady Yu) famous as the concubine of Xiang-Yu who sacrificed herself for her lover at the Battle of Gaixia in 202 BCE, while other lists replace Diaochan with Consort Yu.
The theme of the beautiful woman who dies to save her lover or destroys a man of promise (or, often, both) was very popular in ancient China and continues to be in the present day. Bai Juyi's version of Lady Yang's death and Xuanzong's grief has probably inspired many people to write similar stories but the best-known work to draw upon it is Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, a classical work of Japanese literature published in 1008 CE and still widely read today. This is not surprising since Song of Everlasting Sorrow touches on themes which people will always relate to such as love, sacrifice, death, and the hope that one will be reunited one day with those one has lost.