Article by A.Scott Buch
“There were other ladies in his court, three thousand of rare beauty,
But his favors to three thousand were concentered in one body.”
[From an English translation of 长恨歌 by Bai Juyi]
One evening in the stiff cold air a humble crowd gathers inside a theater space below the mountains around Hua Qing Chi. I am sitting there among them, thinking about how one must feel to be a single concubine out of thousands.
Forget it. Does he hold me? Stay the night? Psh. He’s too busy running a damn empire to even sleep with me once in a blue moon… I mean … and another thing…
I shudder imagining the wrath of a thousand concubines.
The performance we will watch is called “A Song of Everlasting Sorrow” based on the poem written by Bai Juyi. This is the story of the Tang Emperor who loved one of his wives more than the others with such passion that it led to tragedy and disaster.
That was Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. She was the voluptuous one, they say. I was also told once that, for among other reasons, Emperor Xuanzong bestowed upon her the renowned bathhouses at Hua Qing Chi, apparently, because she was “a little smelly.”
Consider it ancient gossip.
* * *
“She was having an affair with that rebel … it was very terrible for China at this time,” says the well-dressed Chinese guy with Canadian sounding English at the sports bar. An attractive waitress all-dolled up for her shift is listening intently.
“Was she?” the reviewer says, truly curious. This was some new dirt!
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Why do you think she killed her-self?”
Now that he had begun writing his review of the performance, one that would certainly be filled with words like transcendent, sensuous, and mystical, he saw that the story offered at least two interpretations.
“But she didn’t kill herself,” the reviewer argued. “She was strangled by a eunuch. The Emperor had no choice but to give in to the demands of his imperial guards…”
“No, no …”
The reviewer knew his own knowledge of Chinese history and literature was limited to a sharp degree. But it was clear to him that after the death of Yang Guifei the poets and historians of later generations had cast her figure as sometimes the origin of disaster, and other times as the victim of tragedy.
“I also heard that she might not have been killed at all, that she might have actually escaped to Japan.”
“Yes, it is also said.”
And they laughed.
* * *
The mighty Tang Empire was brought to its knees after the rebellion of An Lushan, which is in turn blamed on Yang Guifei. And it is easy to see how people relate this to the idea of a starry-eyed Emperor too busy taking baths with his favorite concubine to notice the insurrection in his backyard.
But back to the performance of “A Song of Everlasting Sorrow” that I watch which differs from the poem by Bai Juyi in a key way. First, to describe the play in short, there is a progression of sensuous dancing at the beginning, before the excitement of devious rebels and melancholy murder of Yang Guifei. And then we have the appearance of a lonesome moon in the sky that symbolizes the separation of the lovers, after which follows images of transcendence, such as the mystical figures of Dragon and Phoenix, contrasted with gloomy demons and red flowery flames of the underworld.
In the end, the two lovers are reunited beyond the confines of life and death.
But this is not before a lot of fighting and destruction, of course.
But as one concubine out of thousands I am thinking come on Xuanzong you just now start showing rather than telling me things like I am your number one but all of that it doesn’t even matter he’s still got like thousands of girls out there I mean I mean – that’s not me – they might be content with their luxurious things and fancy clothes and gossiping with eunuchs all day but that’s just not me…
It’s either me … or the Empire.
I don’t like to interpret the story in a way that shows Yang Guifei to be the cause of the whole messy ordeal. But I wonder, would she herself? Is it a romantic tragedy because the man becomes blinded by love, or because the woman blinds him? Were they blinded selfishly by love, or by love enlightened selflessly?
* * *
The statue outside of Hua Qing Chi always struck him as an image of the most tragic quality. The two lovers engaged in elegant dance, they are spinning, hands almost touching, and almost they will come together, in what seems like a blissful pose; although frozen in that moment, and so it being uncertain in which direction they are going to go, they are never being united for all of eternity.
But unlike the statue, the performance is not only spatial, but temporal. While the statue stands in proof, the people of the performance move in defiance. This modern interpretation of “A Song of Everlasting Sorrow” gives the poetic melancholy of Bai Juyi a metaphysical happy ending, he determined.
The reviewer was leaving the theater space in an inspired state and believing that love could transcend politics, but he felt then that he would never be able to relate to an audience what he felt on that night. Those around him called it “magnificent,” they talked in an excited voice about it, called the production “exquisite,” and even, like people tend to do, they wanted to say at last that it was one of the most “amazing” things they had ever seen.
Call it silly or outdated or unfashionable or boring, or not easily understood, or anything what have you, but the reviewer felt as if the exquisite magnificence of the amazing production needed concluded in verse, and so he concluded.
* * *
Among politics and war,
rebellion and governance;
Despite the everlasting substance
composing time and space;
Beyond the departure of
the soul into another realm,
And then further still,
from a cycle of incarnations
to the sleep of an Immortal;
True love unties
the essences of two
souls into one
(“two branches of the same tree” – 白居易)