A Poet's Emperor
In the long list of imperial patrons the name of the Emperor Ming Huang of the T`ang dynasty holds the foremost place. History alone would not have immortalized his memory.* But romance is nearer to this Emperor's life than history. He was not a great ruler, but an artist stifled in ceremony and lost in statecraft. Yet what Emperor could escape immortality who had Tu Fu and Li Po for contemporaries, Ch`ang-an for his capital, and T`ai Chen of a thousand songs to wife? Poet and sportsman, mystic and man of this world, a great polo player, and the passionate lover of one beautiful woman whose ill-starred fate inspired Po Chu-i, the tenderest of all their singers,** Ming Huang is more to literature than to history. Of his life and times the poets are faithful recorders. Tu Fu in `The Old Man of Shao-Ling' leaves us this memory of his peaceful days passed in the capital, before the ambition of the Turkic general An Lu-shan had driven his master into exile in far Ssuch`uan. The poet himself is speaking in the character of a lonely old man, wandering slowly down the winding banks of the river Kio.
* A.D. 685-762.
"`Alas!' he murmured, `they are closed, the thousand palace doors, mirrored in clear cool waters. The young willows and the rushes renewing with the year -- for whom will they now grow green?'
"Once in the garden of the South waved the standard of the Emperor.
"All that nature yields was there, vying with the rarest hues.
"There lived she whom the love of the first of men had made first among women.
"She who rode in the imperial chariot, in the excursions on sunny days.
"Before the chariot flashed the bright escort of maidens armed with bow and arrow.
"Mounted upon white steeds which pawed the ground, champing their golden bits.
"Gaily they raised their heads, launching their arrows into the clouds,
"And, laughing, uttered joyous cries when a bird fell victim to their skill."
In the city of Ch`ang-an, with its triple rows of glittering walls with their tall towers uprising at intervals, its seven royal palaces all girdled with gardens, its wonderful Yen tower nine stories high, encased in marble, the drum towers and bell towers, the canals and lakes with their floating theatres, dwelt Ming Huang and T`ai Chen. Within the royal park on the borders of the lake stood a little pavilion round whose balcony crept jasmine and magnolia branches scenting the air. Just underneath flamed a tangle of peonies in bloom, leaning down to the calm blue waters. Here in the evening the favourite reclined, watching the peonies vie with the sunset beyond. Here the Emperor sent his minister for Li Po, and here the great lyrist set her mortal beauty to glow from the scented, flower-haunted balustrade immortally through the twilights yet to come.
What matter if the snow Blot out the garden? She shall still recline Upon the scented balustrade and glow With spring that thrills her warm blood into wine.
Once, and once alone, the artist in Ming Huang was merged in the Emperor. In that supreme crisis of the empire and a human soul, when the mutinous soldiers were thronging about the royal tent and clamouring for the blood of the favourite, it was the Emperor who sent her forth -- lily pale,
Between tall avenues of spears, to die.
Policy, the bane of artists demanded it, and so, for the sake of a thousand issues and a common front to the common foe, he placed the love of his life upon the altar of his patriotism, and went, a broken-hearted man, into the long exile. From that moment the Emperor died. History ceases to take interest in the crownless wanderer. His return to the place of tragedy, and on to the capital where the deserted palace awaits him with its memories, his endless seeking for the soul of his beloved, her discovery by the priest of Tao in that island of P`eng Lai where --
gaily coloured towers Rise up like rainbow clouds, and many gentle And beautiful Immortals pass their days in peace,
her message to her lover with its splendid triumphant note of faith foretelling their reunion at the last -- in fine, the story of their love with the grave between them -- is due to the genius of Po Chu-i. And to all poets coming after, these two lovers have been types of romantic and mystic love between man and woman. Through them the symbols of the mandarin duck and drake, the one-winged birds, the tree whose boughs are interwoven, are revealed. They are the earthly counterparts of the heavenly lovers, the Cow-herd and the Spinning-maid in the constellations of Lyra and Aquila. To them Chinese poetry owes some of its finest inspirations, and at least two of its greatest singers, Tu Fu and Li Po.Next