The Lyrics of Li Yu

The Last Lord of the Tang, Li Yu (李煜, 李後主, 937-978), ascended the throne of the Southern Tang dynasty 南唐, also known as Jiangnan 江南, in Jinling (Nanking) in 961. A ruler of refined spirit and rare artistic achievement, Li lacked the skill to navigate the treacherous political waters of his day. Following a protracted siege, in 975 Jinling fell to the powerful new Song dynasty to the north; Li Yu was captured and removed to the Song capital of Bian 汴 (modern-day Kaifeng 開封) where he died in captivity in 978.

The Last Lord of the Tang enjoys immortality because of his extraordinary ci-lyric poems. As the editors of Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, Volume I: From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty observe:

The critic Wang Guowei (王國維, 1877-1927) wrote: ‘The lyrics of Li Yu can truly be said to have been written in blood’ 後主之詞,真所謂以血書者也. Wang compares Li Yu with earlier lyric poets: ‘Wen Tingyun’s artistry lies in the lines; Wei Zhuang’s is in the bone; Li Yu’s is in the spirit. By Li Yu’s time the lyric’s range of vision had begun to widen. The emotions grew more profound and the lyric moved out of the world of the singsong-girls and actors into that of the literati.’ 溫飛卿之詞,句秀也;韋端己之詞,骨秀也;李重光之詞,神秀也。詞至李後主而眼界始大,感慨遂深,遂變伶工之詞而為士大夫之詞. [p.1126]

This selection of poems reflects the imprisoned ruler’s longing, perhaps for Jinling (although it is far from certain that he is simply writing about the fallen capital of his dynasty) and the life and pleasures of his lost domain (see also Nathan Woolley, Lu You Visits Jinling).

Five Lyrics

Translated by Sam Houston Brock

Nightlong I Wander
(to the tune ‘The Butterfly Loves Flowers’ 蝶戀花)

Nightlong I wander aimlessly about the palace lawn.
The Qing Ming festival is gone
And suddenly I feel with sadness spring’s approaching end.
Now and then a splashing raindrop comes along the wind
And passing clouds obscure the paling moon.Plum and peach trees, lingering, scent the evening air.
But someone is whispering in the swing,
Laughing and whispering in the swing!
The heart is a single skein, but with a thousand straggling threads
that tear.
In all the world is no safe place to spread it out and leave it there.

My Idlest Dreams
(to the tune ‘Viewing the River Plum-blossom’ 望江梅)


My Idlest dreams go farthest,
South to a land of brilliant days in fall,
A thousand miles of hills and rivers, cold-coloured sunsets,
Flowering reeds that hid the boats of solitary men,
And flutes played overhead in moonlit rooms.



My idlest dreams go farthest,
South to a land of fragrant springs
And rivers green beneath our boat-borne flutes and strings,
Back to a town of floating catkins mixed with golden dust
And crowds that fought to see the flowers.


The Flowered Woods
(to the tune ‘Night Crow Calling’ 烏夜啼)

The flowered woods have dropped their springtime rose festoon,
So soon, so soon.
But night-blowing winds and the cold dawn rain were bound to be.
Your tear-stained rouge will keep me
Drinking here beside you.
Then — who knows when again?
Our lives are sad like rivers turning always to the sea.


The Past
(to the tune ‘Wave-washed Sand’ 浪淘沙)

The past is only fit to be regretted.
It stares unbanished in my face
Now autumn winds have claimed the court and moss usurped
the stairs.
The shades hang down in rows, idle, and unraised,
Throughout the day, for no one calls.
My golden sword is laid away.
My valor lies in weeds.
When nights are cold, the weather still, and a haloed moon is out,
I think of all that marble palace
Mirrored empty in the Huai.

One Dream
(to the tune ‘Washing Silk in the Creek’ 浣溪沙)

One dream that scarce outlasts the burning of a candle or a petal’s fall
And then we go.
I should like to visit ruins and weep for men no longer there.
But heaven makes our circumstances contradict our hearts.In the river-house I watch the heedless, flowing waters, waiting for the moon.
And when it comes, slanting vaguely on the darkened flowers and the house.
I climb up to look, not minding if my sleeves be wetter still.

Immeasurable Pain!
(to the tune ‘Gazing to the South’ 望江南)
Translated by Arthur Waley

Immeasurable pain!
My dreaming soul last night was king again.
As in past days
I wandered through the Palace of Delight,
And in my dream
Down grassy garden-ways
Glided my chariot, smoother than a summer stream;
There was moonlight,
The trees were blossoming,
And a faint wind softened the air of night,
For it was spring.


The River Rolling Eastward
(to the ‘The Beautiful Lady Yu’ 虞美人)
Translated by Cyril Birch

When will the last flower fall, the last moon fade?
So many sorrows lie behind.
Again last night the east wind filled my room –
O gaze not on the lost kingdom under this bright moon.Still in her light my palace gleams as jade
(Only from bright cheeks beauty dies).
To know the sum of human suffering
Look at this river rolling eastward in the spring.

Shaken, They Cling Again
(to the tune ‘Light Flowing Music’ 清平樂)
Translated by John Turner

To one who lonely see the springtime close.
Each thing that strikes the eye bids the heart break,
Plum-blossoms tumbling as dishevelled snows
Down over steps to stone, ’tis vain
From off one’s dress to shake:
Shaken, they cling again.See, the wild geese are come,
But voice, but word, is dumb.
So long a road no wistful dream may take.
Farewell’s sorrowing
Is like grass in spring:
How far soe’er you go,
Yet faster it will grow.

Silent and Alone
(to the tune ‘Happiness and Meeting’ 相見歡)
Translated by Amy Lowell and Florence Ayscough

Silent and alone, I ascend the West Cupola.
The moon was like a golden hook.
In the quiet, empty, inner courtyard, the coolness of early
Autumn enveloped the wutong tree.
Scissors cannot cut this thing;
Unraveled, it joins again and clings.
It is the sorrow of separation,
And none tastes to the heart like this.

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.1126-1131. The Chinese texts are 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.455-457.