李煜Lĭ Yù was the third and last King of a kingdom known as 南唐 (Nán Táng or Southern Tang) located in today’s 江苏 Jiāngsū and 浙江 Zhèjiāng provinces. 李煜Lĭ Yù was extremely talented in the arts. His poems are among the very best composed in Chinese literary history. Many of his poems became lyrics of popular songs today. He was also a great calligrapher and painter.
李煜Lĭ Yù was born in 937 AD, thirty years after the fall of the great Tang Dynasty. By this time, the Tang Empire had been carved up into many small kingdoms which were constantly fighting against each other. This was the notorious 五代十国 or Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period. During the 53 years between the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the establishment of the Song Dynasty, five dynasties had risen and fallen on the中原 Zhōngyuán or Central Plains along the Yellow River. Around the plains, many small kingdoms were set up only to be taken down by other kingdoms.
李煜Lĭ Yù’s grandfather set up a small kingdom in the delta of the Yangtze River and claimed to be a descendant of a prince of the great Tang Dynasty hence named his kingdom as Tang. Historians have renamed this kingdom as 南唐Nán Táng or the Southern Tang to distinguish it from the great Tang Dynasty and another kingdom whch also called itself Tang in the north which was renamed as 后唐 Hòu Táng or Later Tang.
By the time 李煜Lĭ Yù assumed the throne in 961 AD, the founding Emperor of the Song Dynasty 赵匡胤 Zhào Kuāngyìn had usurped the Crown from the young emperor of the 后周 or Later Zhou and established the Song Dynasty in northern China for a year. From 962 to 978 AD, 赵匡胤Zhào Kuāngyìn conquered one kingdom after another from the south to the north. In 975 AD, 李煜Lĭ Yù surrendered to the Song Army, and in 978 AD, the last kingdom of 吴越国 Wú Yuèguó surrendered to the Song. Once again, China was a united empire as the Song Dynasty which lasted 317 years.
The 南唐Nán Táng or the kingdom of Southern Tang lasted 38 years, and was able to avoid most of the wars going on in the north, so it was relatively stable and maintained a prosperous economy. Arts such as poetry, painting, and music flourished in the kingdom. Its poetry, music, and visual art had a huge influence on the poets and artists of the Song and later dynasties. Many poets and artists of later dynasties followed the traditions established during the Tang Dynasty and maintained by the Southern Tang kingdom and other kingdoms in the south.
李煜Lĭ Yù had five older brothers, so he never thought he would have any chance to be the king and he was not interested in power anyway. He was a kind but somewhat sentimental person who was simply not fit to be a king. He loved poetry, painting, and music, and was very good at them.
Unfortunately, all his older brothers died, and 李煜Lĭ Yù was made king when his father passed away in 961 AD. During the 15 years of his reign, 李煜Lĭ Yù composed many beautiful poems celebrating his love for his queen and other activities in his palace. He was a great poet but apparently not a competent king. When his kingdom was attacked by the Song’s Army, his military force was defeated, and he surrendered to the Song army in 975 AD. After he surrendered to the Song, he was given the title of 违命侯 or Marquis Wei-ming and lived for another 3 years until he was poisoned by the second Song Emperor 赵光义Zhào Guāngyì in 978 AD.
The poem presented here was composed before he was made king.
One mountain, two mountains.
Separated by the many ranges of sky-high mountains, and misty cold rivers,
my lovesickness taints the maple leaves crimson.
Chrysanthemums bloom, chrysanthemums wither.
Geese from frontiers fly over high, yet my love has not returned,
It’s only the curtains swinging in moonlight.
重 literally means layer, and here it is used as a measure word. This feature is quite unique in Chinese. Almost all nouns in Chinese have measure words which can be quite confusing for English speakers. For instance, you can’t say a bed as 一床, you have to say 一张床. You can’t say a mountain as 一山, you have to say 一座山 unless 山 is used as the measure word as in the case of 一山风雨 or the wind and rain that covers a mountain. 重 here is used as the measure word for layer meaning layers of mountains. But a layer of mountain reads funny in English, so we translate it as range as in the case of mountain range in the third line. But in the first two lines we just omit the measure word.
菊花开, 菊花残or “Chrysanthemums bloom, chrysanthemums wither”, and塞雁高飞 or “Geese from frontiers fly over high,” have significant cultural meaning. Chrysanthemums bloom in autumn, and the geese from the north migrate to the south during the spring. It is clear from the poem that the lady in the poem is counting the days when she watches the chrysanthemums bloom, and then wither, and then the geese fly overhead. We suspect that her love was sent to a war rather than defending the border because the autumn is the season to raise military campaigns during imperial China and the wars usually finished by the early winter.
一帘风月闲or “It’s only the curtains swinging in moonlight.” The curtains are made to swing by the wind and the lady in the poem thinks it is her lover entering the room, but it is only the moonlight shining on the curtain! What is implied by this scene is quite chilling. The ancient Chinese believed that when someone dies, his or her soul could travel long distances to inform his or her loved ones, often by a sign like a wind or a mist suddenly appearing in front of their loved ones. Here, the lady in the poem is missing her lover, and then the curtain swinging indicates he might just have died. How sad!!