A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China

Author: Launcelot Cranmer-Byng

The Never-Ending Wrong

I have already alluded to the story of the Emperor Ming Huang and the lady
Yang Kwei-fei, or T`ai Chen, as she is called, in my introduction.
In order that the events which led up to her tragic death may be understood,
I have given in front of the poem a short extract from the old Chinese annals translated into French by the Jesuit Father Joseph de Mailla in 1778.
The Emperor is fleeing with a small, ill-disciplined force before the rebellious general An Lu-shan into the province of Ssuch`uan.
So the bald narrative resumes:

As the Emperor was followed by a numerous suite, and because
time was lacking, the arrangements for so long a journey
were found to be insufficient. On their arrival at Ma-wei
both officers and men murmured loudly against Yang Kuo-chung*,
accusing him of having brought all the present evils upon them.
The ambassador of the King of Tibet, followed by twenty retainers,
seeing the Prime Minister pass, stopped him, and asked for provisions.
Then the soldiers cried out that Yang was conspiring with the strangers,
and throwing themselves upon him, they cut off his head,
which they exposed on a stake to the public gaze. The Emperor,
becoming aware of this violence, did not, however, dare to exact punishment.
He sent an officer to the chief of those who had slain the Prime Minister,
to find out the reason for their deed; he replied that they had done so
because Yang was on the point of rebellion. The leader of the revolt
even demanded the instant execution of the lady T`ai Chen,
as she was the sister of the supposed rebel, Yang. The Emperor,
who loved her, desired to prove her innocence by showing that it was
impossible for her, living always as she did within the Palace precincts,
to be confederate to her brother’s plot. His envoy, however,
urged him that it was politic, after the events he had witnessed,
to sacrifice her, innocent as she was, if he wished to escape
from the dangers of (another) revolution. The Emperor,
yielding to political necessity, gave her into the hands of the envoy
with the order that she should be strangled.

* Minister of State, brother to T`ai Chen.


Tired of pale languors and the painted smile,
His Majesty the Son of Heaven, long time
A slave of beauty, ardently desired
The glance that brings an Empire’s overthrow.


From the Yang family a maiden came,
Glowing to womanhood a rose aflame,
Reared in the inner sanctuary apart,
Lost to the world, resistless to the heart;
For beauty such as hers was hard to hide,
And so, when summoned to the monarch’s side,
Her flashing eye and merry laugh had power
To charm into pure gold the leaden hour;
And through the paint and powder of the court
All gathered to the sunshine that she brought.
In spring, by the Imperial command,
The pool of Hua`ch`ing beheld her stand,
Laving her body in the crystal wave
Whose dimpled fount a warmth perennial gave.
Then when, her girls attending, forth she came,
A reed in motion and a rose in flame,
An empire passed into a maid’s control,
And with her eyes she won a monarch’s soul.


Hair of cloud o’er face of flower,
Nodding plumes where she alights,
In the white hibiscus bower
She lingers through the soft spring nights —
Nights too short, though wearing late
Till the mimosa days are born.
Never more affairs of State
Wake them in the early morn.
Wine-stained moments on the wing,
Moonlit hours go luting by,
She who leads the flight of Spring
Leads the midnight revelry.
Flawless beauties, thousands three,
Deck the Imperial harem,*
Yet the monarch’s eyes may see
Only one, and one supreme.
Goddess in a golden hall,
Fairest maids around her gleam,
Wine-fumes of the festival
Daily waft her into dream.
Smiles she, and her sires are lords,
Noble rank her brothers win:
Ah, the ominous awards
Showered upon her kith and kin!
For throughout the land there runs
Thought of peril, thought of fire;
Men rejoice not in their sons —
Daughters are their sole desire.
In the gorgeous palaces,
Piercing the grey skies above,
Music on the languid breeze
Draws the dreaming world to love.
Song and dance and hands that sway
The passion of a thousand lyres
Ever through the live-long day,
And the monarch never tires.
Sudden comes the answer curt,
Loud the fish-skin war-drums roar;
Cease the plaintive "rainbow skirt":
Death is drumming at the door.

* Pronounced `hareem’.


Clouds upon clouds of dust enveloping
The lofty gates of the proud capital.
On, on, to the south-west, a living wall,
Ten thousand battle-chariots on the wing.

Feathers and jewels flashing through the cloud
Onwards, and then an halt. The legions wait
A hundred li beyond the western gate;
The great walls loom behind them wrapt in cloud.

No further stirs the sullen soldiery,
Naught but the last dread office can avail,
Till she of the dark moth-eyebrows, lily pale,
Shines through tall avenues of spears to die.

Upon the ground lie ornaments of gold,
One with the dust, and none to gather them,
Hair-pins of jade and many a costly gem,
Kingfishers’ wings and golden birds scarce cold.

The king has sought the darkness of his hands,
Veiling the eyes that looked for help in vain,
And as he turns to gaze upon the slain,
His tears, her blood, are mingled on the sands.


Across great plains of yellow sand,
Where the whistling winds are blown,
Over the cloud-topped mountain peaks,
They wend their way alone.

Few are the pilgrims that attain
Mount Omi’s heights afar;
And the bright gleam of their standard grows
Faint as the last pale star.

Dark the Ssuch`uan waters loom,
Dark the Ssuch`uan hills,
And day and night the monarch’s life
An endless sorrow fills.

The brightness of the foreign moon
Saddens his lonely heart;
And a sound of a bell in the evening rain
Doth rend his soul apart.


The days go by, and once again,
Among the shadows of his pain,
He lingers at the well-known place
That holds the memory of her face.

But from the clouds of earth that lie
Beneath the foot of tall Ma-wei
No signs of her dim form appear,
Only the place of death is here.

Statesman’s and monarch’s eyes have met,
And royal robes with tears are wet;
Then eastward flies the frantic steed
As on to the Red Wall they speed.


There is the pool, the flowers as of old,
There the hibiscus at the gates of gold,
And there the willows round the palace rise.
In the hibiscus flower he sees her face,
Her eyebrows in the willow he can trace,
And silken pansies thrill him with her eyes.

How in this presence should his tears not come,
In spring amid the bloom of peach and plum,
In autumn rains when the wut`ung leaves must fall?
South of the western palace many trees
Shower their dead leaves upon the terraces,
And not a hand to stir their crimson pall.

Ye minstrels of the Garden of the Pear,* now
No longer young to him, the firefly flits
Through the black hall where, lost to love, he sits,
Folding the veil of sorrows round his brow,

Alone, and one by one the lanterns die,
Sleep with the lily hands has passed him by,
Slowly the watches of the night are gone,
For now, alas! the nights are all too long,
And shine the stars, a silver, mocking throng,
As though the dawn were dead or slumbered on.

Cold settles on the painted duck and drake,
The frost a ghostly tapestry doth make,
Chill the kingfisher’s quilt with none to share.
Parted by life and death; the ebb and flow
Of night and day over his spirit go;
He hunts her face in dreams, and finds despair.

* The Pear Garden was a college of music founded by Ming Huang for the purpose of training the youth of both sexes.

The women’s part of the palace.


A priest of Tao, one of the Hung-tu school,
Was able by his magic to compel
The spirits of the dead. So to relieve
The sorrows of his king, the man of Tao
Receives an urgent summons. Borne aloft
Upon the clouds, on ether charioted,
He flies with speed of lightning. High to heaven,
Low down to earth, he, seeking everywhere,
Floats on the far empyrean, and below
The yellow springs; but nowhere in great space
Can he find aught of her. At length he hears
An old-world tale: an Island of the Blest* —
So runs the legend — in mid-ocean lies
In realms of blue vacuity, too faint
To be described; there gaily coloured towers
Rise up like rainbow clouds, and many gentle
And beautiful Immortals pass their days
In peace. Among them there is one whose name
Sounds upon lips as Eternal. By the bloom
Of her white skin and flower-like face he knows
That this is she. Knocking at the jade door
At the western gate of the golden house, he bids
A fair maid breathe his name to one more fair
Than all. She, hearing of this embassy
Sent by the Son of Heaven, starts from her dreams
Among the tapestry curtains. Gathering
Her robes around her, letting the pillow fall,
She, risen in haste, begins to deck herself
With pearls and gems. Her cloud-like hair, dishevelled,
Betrays the nearness of her sleep. And with the droop
Of her flowery plumes in disarray, she floats
Light through the hall. The sleeves of her divine
Raiment the breezes fill. As once again
To the Rainbow Skirt and Feather Jacket air
She seems to dance, her face is fixed and calm,
Though many tear-drops on an almond bough
Fall, and recall the rains of spring. Subdued
Her wild emotions and restrained her grief,
She tenders thanks unto his Majesty,
Saying how since they parted she has missed
His form and voice; how, though their love had reached
Too soon its earthly limit, yet among
The blest a multitude of mellow noons
Remain ungathered. Turning now, she leans
Toward the land of the living, and in vain
Would find the Imperial city, lost in the dust
And haze. Then raising from their lacquered gloom
Old keepsakes, tokens of undying love,
A golden hair-pin, an enamel brooch,
She bids him bear them to her lord. One-half
The hair-pin still she keeps, one-half the brooch,
Breaking with her dim hands the yellow gold,
Sundering the enamel. "Tell my lord,"
She murmured, "to be firm of heart as this
Gold and enamel; then, in heaven or earth,
Below, we twain may meet once more." At parting
She gave a thousand messages of love,
Among the rest recalled a mutual pledge,
How on the seventh day of the seventh moon,
Within the Hall of Immortality
At midnight, whispering, when none were near,
Low in her ear, he breathed, "I swear that we,
Like to the one-winged birds, will ever fly,
Or grow united as the tree whose boughs
Are interwoven. Heaven and earth shall fall,
Long lasting as they are. But this great wrong
Shall stretch from end to end the universe,
And shine beyond the ruin of the stars."

* The fabled Island of P`eng-lai.


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Chicago: Launcelot Cranmer-Byng, "The Never-Ending Wrong," A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China, ed. Firth, John B. and trans. Storr, F. in A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China (New York: George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WDSX6NQHSC47S8.

MLA: Cranmer-Byng, Launcelot. "The Never-Ending Wrong." A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China, edited by Firth, John B., and translated by Storr, F., in A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China, New York, George E. Wood, ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WDSX6NQHSC47S8.

Harvard: Cranmer-Byng, L, 'The Never-Ending Wrong' in A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China, ed. and trans. . cited in ""Death-bed"" edition, 1892, A Lute of Jade: Selections from the Classical Poets of China, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4WDSX6NQHSC47S8.