李煜 Lǐ Yù was the third and last king of the kingdom known as 南唐 nán táng [ 937-975 AD] located in today’s 江苏 Jiāngsū and 浙江 Zhèjiāng provinces. He was extremely talented in the arts. His poems are among the very best poems composed in Chinese literary history. Many of his poems have become lyrics of popular songs today. However, he was not a competent king. He was not interested in political power; he was made to be the king, not that he wanted to, but because all his older brothers died when his father, the king passed away. If we examine his poetry closely, we’ll find that he was a true artist. He was not only very sensitive but also had the artistic talent to express his feelings in amazingly beautiful poetry. The poem we translated here is one such poem in the title of 破阵子 pò zhèn zi or Breaking the enemy’s formation. This poem is unique because of the extraordinary experiences of the poet. Not many poets were once kings who lost their kingdoms. As a king, whether he liked the position or not, he enjoyed the power and the luxuries that came with the position. It was reported that he did make a lot of effort to improve the lives of his people and was deeply missed by them after he was taken as prisoner of war. This might be the reason the second Song Emperor 赵光义 Zhào Guāng Yì murdered him in 978 AD. In the following poem, he expresses his regret, shame, and sorrow at losing his kingdom, but mostly, self-pity. It was much later he became more self-aware and reflective.
My kingdom was founded forty years ago,
It had three thousand miles of land, mountains, and rivers.
The Phoenix Pavilion and Dragon Tower in my palace reached to the Milky Way,
And the jade trees with fine jade twigs grew in a mist of trailing vines.
When was I exposed to weapons of war?
One day I became a prisoner of war,
my slender waist and beautiful hair wore out.
Disheveled, I bade farewell to my Ancestor Hall,
The court musicians were still playing a song of departure,
while I shed tears in front of the palace maids.
- 国guó in classical Chinese does not refer to modern nation state. It refers to an area that can be defended by building a wall around it as show in the first graph from the Zhou Dynasty bronze vessel. As you can see, on the left was a square surrounded by walls, and a halberd on the right. According to Mencius, the Confucian philosopher from the 4th century BCE, the area of a small 国 is about 50 square miles, and a great 国 is about a hundred square miles. A Chinese mile is about 500 meters. So the area of a 国 in ancient China was pretty small. Of course, the concept of 国 later become a generic term for states or kingdom governed by a local lord. Here it is used with the character 家jiā meaning home country or homeland.
- 识 shí literarily means to recognize or learn about something. Here it means to be exposed to something. 干戈gān gē is a generic term for weapons of war. David and I also insert the subject of I because it is quite clear it is the poet 李煜 was talking about his personal experience.
- 臣 chén literarily means servant or slave as in the case of 臣服 chén fú or to surrender. It is also used as a self-deprecating term of self-reference to show respect to one’s lord or master which later become a generic term for officials or ministers as in the term of 大臣 dà chén or grand official. 虏 lǔ refers to prisoner of war. 臣虏chénlǔ here just means prisoner of war.
- 沈shěn refers to 沈约shěn yuē, a scholar official from the South-North Dynasty of the fifth century AD. He was known as a handsome man for his slander figure and his literary talent. Here, his name is used as a generic term for handsome men; 潘pān refers to 潘安pān ān, another scholar official of the 晋jìn Dynasty of the third century BC, who was known as one of the most handsome men in Chinese history. However, his hair turned grey when he was in his early 30s. Both 沈约shěn yuē and 潘安 pān ān were known for their beauty and literary talents. Here, 李煜 use these two beautiful talented men as self-reference implying how beautiful he once was.