A Yuan Qu Aria and a Song Poem

Ma Zhiyuan was born in war-torn Southern Song dynasty and was a Yuan dynasty court official by profession. He was also a well-known Yuan drama (雜劇) and aria (散曲) writer and was honored with being named one of the four great masters of Yuan aria writers (元曲四大家之一).

天淨沙·秋思• 馬致遠 (“Sky and Clear Sand: Autumnal Thoughts”) by Ma Zhiyuan






My English Rendition:

Dying vines, old trees, aging crows;

Beneath the bridge flows a creek, bordering homes.

On the ancient path a gaunt horse braves the west wind.

In the light of the setting sun,

The homesick man pines away on Earth's rim.

Most Chinese poetry lovers would find the name Lu You (陸游) very familiar. Until recently, I only knew him to be one of the greatest poetry and lyrics writers of the Southern Song dynasty. I’ve lately stumbled upon a poignant love story of that dynasty, in which he, and ironically, his ex-wife, were the two doomed lovers. This love story spells the background for the poem that Lu wrote forty-three years after his chancing upon his beloved ex-wife at Shen Garden (poem introduced below).

The Shen Garden chance meeting, which had taken place a few years after their forced separation, had prompted him to write her a riveting poem called “釵頭鳳:紅酥手” to express his undying love for her and his powerlessness in face of rigid customs. Upon receipt of that poem, she had replied her ex-husband with an equally heart-rending poem. Shortly after that chance meeting and exchange of poems, she had died from heartbreak.

The tragic love story started out as a happy union in marriage between a great young poet (Lu You) and a beautiful and intelligent lady of great literary talent called Tang Yuan (唐婉). The twenty-year old Lu was deeply in love with Tang and the two shared a bonded life. But marital bliss was short-lived. Lu’s mother was far from appreciative of her new daughter-in-law and began finding faults with her. The wicked woman found a way to forcing her son and his wife to live in separate living quarters. But Lu still tried to make contact with his wife stealthily. Not long thereafter though, Lu’s mother found out about their secretive rendezvous and demanded that her son divorce Tang to marry another. Pressured by traditions and his filial duty, Lu succumbed to his mother’s wishes. Tang also remarried a little later. The year when Lu was thirty-one, he encountered Tang and her husband by chance at Shen Garden.

再游沈園, 二首 之一, • 陸游 (Revisiting Shen Garden, One of Two, by Ma Zhiyuan)





My English Rendition:

Having picked some yellow mums to pillow my head,

Behind the screen and curtains, there wafted a luring scent.

Recalling a dream forty-three years back,

In the faint light, no one to share my self-torment.

The fact that Lu still couldn’t let go of Tang in his thoughts at the senile age of seventy-five says something about his love for Tang. Perhaps “one life, one love” would be a truly apt description here.