A classic poem about of a couple destined for each other, but cruelly kept apart by time and circumstances, is still popular 1000 years after it was written
AMONG THE FEW Chinese musical pieces well known on international stage is “Butterfly Lovers” (梁祝), composed by He Zhanhao (何占豪) in 1958. But the composer created many other pieces that are famous across China. “Phoenix Hairpin” (釵頭鳳) is based on a poem of the same name by Lu You (陸遊), written during the Song Dynasty (which began in 960 AD) and is a beloved classic in the field of traditional Chinese music.
Pink hands so fine, (紅酥手)
Gold-branded wine, (黃藤酒)
Spring paints green willows palace walls cannot confine. (滿城春色宮牆柳)
East wind unfair, (東風惡)
Happy times rare. (歡情薄)
In my heart sad thoughts throng: (一懷愁緒)
We’re severed for years long. (幾年離索)
Wrong, wrong, wrong! (錯，錯，錯！)
POET WAS A FIGHTER
It’s hard for Chinese people to believe that such a touching and heartfelt poem was written by an ambitious patriot. In minds of most people, Lu You was a decisive and brave fighter both at the court and on the battlefield.
However, in his younger days, as he developed his interest in literature, Lu not only failed in career, but also lost his true love. He wrote Phoenix Hairpin in his twenties when he was forced to separate with Tang Wan (唐婉), his beloved wife, by the one who bore and raised him.
DESTINED FOR EACH OTHER
Lu and Tang seemed intended to be the perfectly matched couple. Not only did they fall in love with each other at first sight, but they were both poets with the same interests in their daily lives.
In his early 20s, Lu was expected by his mother to earn fame and a good career by passing the imperial competitive examination (科舉考試). He surely had sufficient ability and talent to achieve the goal his mother set for him—but he was not willing to leave the bride he had just married to take the examination. His aggressive mother was displeased.
A few years later, Lu’s mother visited a temple and she was informed by a fortune teller that her daughter-in-law was ominous for her family, especially for Lu’s future life and career.
Under this situation, the dissatisfaction turned into a strong sense of hatred. The old lady went home and threatened his son to put away Tang at once, or she would kill Tang and herself as an end.
He had no choice but to do as she said.
Years after the divorce, Tang encountered her former husband while walking in Shen’s Garden (沈園) with her second husband, Zhao Shicheng (趙士程).
The accidental encounter triggered deep sorrow in Lu’s heart and he wrote a poem on the wall of Shen’s Garden for her.
Unknown to Lu, Tang later went back to that same garden again and saw the poem he had written for her.
Although she had hidden it, she felt just the same as he did. So she replied to his message, writing a poem in the same form on the wall, beside Lu’s.
But Lu didn’t return to the garden—and so didn’t realize that she missed him as much as he missed her.
It was only four decades later that Lu, as an old man, visited Shen’s Garden. The poem was still readable on the wall. He learned that Tang had died of sadness one year after the encounter.
INSPIRED BY THE STORY
To some extent, sorrow is the soil of inspiration, especially for literature in ancient China. It is because of the heartbreaking story behind the poem that Lu’s “Phoenix Hairpin” has been passed down from generation to generation.
Centuries after the separation of this couple, people in modern society not only learn the poem and story in textbooks, but have also created a large number of musical works in memory of the poet and that romantic relationship.
In the late 20th century, a new Shaoxing opera (越劇) named “Lu You and Tang Wan” (陸遊與唐) featuring the tale emerged on the stage in Zhejiang Province and was highly praised by both the public and by specialists. Three decades have passed and that opera is still an enduring favorite among opera lovers.
Half a century ago, He Zhanhao (何占豪), a well-known composer, created an eponymous music piece performed by Guzheng and piano, which featured a flowing, unforgettable melody. The piece not only evokes a poetic image of the scene, but also encapsulates the strong Song Dynasty style, which is elegant and soft like a fragrant breeze, simultaneously gentle but deeply felt.
Click here to hear the Guzheng performance.
LONG LASTING LOVE
In today’s modern world of rapid exchanges of communication, the gentle, enduring romance of Lu and Tang—a forty-year gap between the writing and the receiving of a message—seems extraordinary. And maybe that message of the importance of long, lasting love, is why the story has continued in popularity for so long.