The Lament of the Lady of Qin


Wei Zhuang

Jinling or Jiangnan, the Nanking of our account, is often written about in terms of lost grandeur, devastation or faded glory. But in the following, Jinling appears at the end of the ‘Lament of the Lady of Qin’ as a refuge of peace, tranquility and good government.

In 879CE, a rebellion led by Huang Chao 黃巢 resulted in the brutal invasion of the Tang-dynasty capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an). The city was sacked and the uprising, which lasted until 885CE, resulted in a massive loss of life, as well as the end of the glories of the Tang.

In ‘The Lament of the Lady of Qin’ 秦婦吟 Wei Zhuang 韋莊 (c.836-910) offers a blood-curdling, albeit poetic, account of those years. Translated by Lionel Giles, the Lament is introduced by the editors of Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, John Minford and Joseph S.M. Lau, in the following way:

Qin was the feudal state that coincided with the modern province of Shaanxi. This long poem (which, though famous in its time, has survived only in handwritten copies found this [i.e., the twentieth] century in the Dunhuang caves) describes in harrowing detail the brutal sack of Chang’an by the brigand forces of Huang Chao — whose rebellion (879-885) was one of the most disastrous episodes undergone by the Chinese in the course of their long history, and heralded the end of the Tang dynasty. Wei Zhuang was an official in his forties when he witnessed the rape of Chang’an.

The following stanzas are taken from Wei’s much longer ballad.

The Lady’s Story: The Coming of the Rebels

The year before last, on the fifth day of the sacrificial moon in geng-zi [8 January 881],
I had just shut the golden birdcage after giving a lesson to my parrot,
And was looking sidelong in my phoenix mirror as I lazily combed my hair,
Idly leaning the while on the carved balustrade in silent thought,
When suddenly I beheld a cloud of red dust rising outside the gates,
And men appeared in the street beating metal drums.
The citizens rush out of doors half-dazed with terror,
And the courtiers come flocking in, still suspecting a false rumor.
Meanwhile, Government troops are entering the city from the west,
And propose to meet the emergency by marching to the Tong Pass.
The general cry is that the Boye troops are holding the enemy in check,
And all agree that the rebel army, though on the way, has not yet arrived.
Yet a little while, and my husband gallops up on horseback;
Dismounting, he enters the gate; stupefied he stands, like a drunken man.
Even now he had met the Emperor’s Purple Canopy departing into exile,
And had seen the white banners of the rebels advancing from all parts of the country …


The Sack of Chang’an

Supporting the infirm and leading children by the hand,
fugitives are calling to one another in the turmoil;
Some clamber on to roofs, others scale, and all is in disorder.
Neighbors in the south run into hiding with neighbors in the north,
And those in the east make for shelter with those in the west.
Our northern neighbor’s womenfolk, trooping all together,
Dash wildly about in the open like stampeding cattle.
Boom, boom! — Heaven and earth shake with the rumbling of chariot wheels,
And the thunder of ten thousand horses’ hoofs re-echoes from the ground.
Fires burst out, sending golden sparks high into the firmament,
And the twelve official thoroughfares are soon seething with smoke and flame.
The sun’s orb sinks in the west, giving place to the cold pale light of the moon.
God utters never a word, but His heart is surely bursting within him.
A dark halo of misty cloud seems to encircle the moon with many rings,
And the Eunuch Stars, gliding in their courses, assume the color of blood;
The Purple Exhalation secretly follows their Emperor’s Throne as it shifts from place to place,
And baleful rays are stealthily shooting at the Tai Stars for their destruction.
Every home now runs with bubbling fountains of blood,
Every place rings with a victim’s shrieks — shrieks that cause the very earth to quake.
Dancers and singing-girls must all undergo secret outrage;
Infants and tender maidens are torn living from their parents’ arms.


… …

The Old Man Reduced to Beggary

Next morning, as we passed eastwards to Xin’an,
We fell in with an old man begging for rice-gruel by the wayside,
His hair sprinkled with white, his face of a livid hue,
Who was crouching for concealment amidst the undergrowth of weeds.
I asked him, saying: ‘To what village do you belong?
And why are your lying under the cold sky, exposed to frost and dew?’
The old man stood up for a moment and was about to tell his story,
But sank back with his head in his hands and wailed aloud to heaven.
— ‘My native homestead was on the register of Dongji County [part of Luoyang],
And every year I had land covered with crops and mulberry trees, seven thousand acres;
The fertile lands which I sowed each year were over two thousand acres in extent;
The household tax I paid annually came to thirty million cash,
My daughters were practised in weaving cloaks of serge and sarcenet,
My daughters-in-law were able to cook meals of red millet.
A thousand granaries were mine! Ten thousand wagons too!
And after Huang Chao’s passage, a moiety was still left.
But ever since the armed hosts have been encamped in Luoxia,
Day and night, patrolling bands have entered the village ramparts;
The glittering blade, like unto a Green Serpent, is plucked from its scabbard;
The wind above our heads blows out the flags and reveals the White Tiger.
Entering the gates, they dismount and swoop down like a whirlwind,
Ransack the buildings, empty the money-bags: everything is swept bare.
And when all my patrimony is gone, even my flesh and blood are torn from me.
So that now, in my declining years, I am left along in my wretchedness.
Alone in my wretchedness, ah me! yet what call have I to lament? —
In the hills there are thousands on thousands like myself,
Who spend their days searching for wild berries to still their hunger,
And sleep by night under the frosty sky, crouching up a the rank weeds.’


Reports from Other Provinces

On hearing this old fellow’s heart-rending tale of woe,
Tears coursed down my cheeks all day like rain.
Stirring abroad, I heard but the hooting of the owl, that bird of revolution.
We intended to hasten still further east, to find some place of abode,
But now we hear that all traffic by boat or cart is stopped on the road to Bian [modern Kaifeng].
They also say that there has been mutual slaughter at Pengmen,
Where the aspect of the countryside would cause even a warrior to swoon,
And where the rivers and streams are half composed of the blood of murdered men …


A Visitor from Jiangnan

Now I happen to hear that a visitor has arrived from Jinling,
Who reports that in Jiangnan things are quite otherwise than here;
For ever since the Great Brigand invaded the Central Plain,
No warhorses have been bred on the frontiers of that land.
The Governor there regards the extirpation of thieves and robbers as a work of heavenly merit,
While he treats his people as tenderly as though they were newborn babes.
His walls and moats offer secure protection, as if made of metal and filled with boiling water,
And with the levies and taxes that pour in like rain he provides troops and ramparts.
While the whole Empire, alas! is in a state of ferment,
This one district remains smoothly tranquil and undisturbed;
It is only the denizens of the capital that must flee to escape calamity,
So that in our yearning for peace we must envy even the ghosts of Jiangnan.



— I pray, Sir, that when you have pled the oar once more and journeyed back to the East,
You will present His Excellency this lengthy balls that I have sung.



John Minford and Joseph M. Lau, Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Volume I: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty, New York: Columbia University Press, pp.933-936, 942-944. The Chinese text is taken from the accompanying volume to the Anthology, 含英咀華 A Chinese Companion to Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, ed. Chen Hongzhuang 陳虹莊, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001, pp.350-352.