The Great Palace of Ch’in — a Rhapsody

Translatio Imperii Sinici

Conflagrations light up both ends of China’s imperial history. In 1860, the Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園, the de facto seat of the Qing dynastic court, was ransacked and put to the torch. In lamenting the devastation of what by all accounts was the most extensive imperial palace pleasure-garden in Chinese history, writers recalled the burning of the Epang Palace 阿房宮 of the Qin dynasty in 207 BCE.


In ‘China’s Red Empire — To Be or Not To Be?’ Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University in Beijing questioned whether the People’s Republic of China was set on becoming a new empire. He pointed out that the country has only recently recovered from an era of vaunting, but failed, imperial-scale ambition. He reminded readers that:

During those decades not only were the butchers themselves sacrificed on the altar of ideology, mourned in turn after others had been mourned for, but more importantly the countless multitudes of China were caught up in the maelstrom. It feels like only yesterday that bloody violence swept the land. Having barely survived that calamity you can just imagine how people must be reacting to the renewed drumbeat of war.


The words ‘mourned in turn after others had been mourned for’ 哀復後哀 āi fù hòu āi recall the sombre concluding lines of ‘The Great Palace of Ch’in’ 《阿房宮賦》, a famous poetic account of the destruction of the Epang Palace by the Tang poet Du Mu (杜牧, 803-852) written in the year 825 CE:

The Rulers of Ch’in had not a moment
To lament their fate,
Those who came after
Lamented it.
When those who come after
Lament but do not learn,
Then they too will merely provide
Fresh cause for lamentation
From those who come after them.





Upon realising that there is no readily available English version of Du Mu’s rhapsody, John Minford kindly drafted a translation for China Heritage. This text is the latest chapter in China Heritage Annual 2019, the theme of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
25 February 2019


Despite the detailed description of the Qin emperor’s Epang Palace in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, there is no evidence that it was ever completed, or indeed destroyed in 207 BCE. For details of the archeological evidence at the site of the Qin capital, see here.

The Great Palace of Ch’in — a Rhapsody

Du Mu

translated by John Minford


The Six Kingdoms came to an end,
The Four Seas became One.
The Hills of Shu were stripped bare,
To build the Great Palace of Ch’in.
Stretching over three hundred leagues,
Its bulk obscuring sun and sky,
Northwards from Mount Li
West to the citadel of Hsien-yang,
The Twin Rivers pouring their waters
Through the Palace Walls.
Every five paces a storeyed mansion,
Every ten paces a pavilion.
Covered walkways
Wind their way,
Pointed eaves
Curve like teeth, like beaks,
High into the sky.
Halls hug the power of Earth,
Linked together,
Rivalling one another in splendour,
Dense as a beehive,
Convoluted as a whirlpool,
Countless roofs
Rear their heads,
Bridges crouch on the waters like dragons,
But without clouds
How can there be dragons?
Pathways soar aloft like rainbows,
But with clear skies
How can there be rainbows?
In such confusion
No direction can be discerned.
From the terraces
Sung melodies are heard, stirring
The warm harmony of Spring;
In the halls,
Fluttering dancers’ sleeves bring
A cool breath of breeze and rain.
In a single day,
Within one Palace,
The Four Seasons unfold.

Consorts and concubines,
Princes and princelings,
Forsake their former fiefdoms,
Their palaces of old,
To journey to Ch’in
And wait upon new couches,
To sing and make music at court.
Seated before their mirrors,
The ladies at their morning toilette,
Arrayed like bright stars,
Comb their tumbling tresses,
Massed like dark clouds,
Their rouge mingling with the River Wei,
Their incense coiling into heaven.
Thunder sounds,
‘Tis the Emperor’s carriage
Rumbling who knows whither
While the harem
Clad in its finery,
Gazes forlornly,
Yearning for a Dragon Embrace,
Destined to wait
Thirty-six years.

Pennies taken from the poor
Are scattered like grains of sand;
Pillars of the Palace
More in number
Than peasants on the soil,
Beams of the Palace Roof
More in number
Than weavers at their looms.
Gleaming nails in the Palace Walls
More in number
Than grains of rice in granaries of the needy,
Tiles on the Palace Roof
More in number
Than threads in garments of the destitute.
Lintels in Palace Doorways
More in number
Than walls of the town,
Music in the Palace
Noisier than chatter in the market.

The folk of All Under Heaven
Cannot voice their rage.
The Heart-and-Mind of the One Man
Grows ever more arrogant and proud.
Until one day the troops
Bellow their rebellion,
And a new Pretender comes
To the Valley of Han,
Until the flaming torches of Hsiang Yü, Lord of Chu
Flatten the Palace to scorched earth,
To ashes.

The Six Kingdoms
Themselves caused their own downfall,
Not the Might of Ch’in;
Ch’in itself wiped out its own line,
Not All Under Heaven.


If the Six Kingdoms had but loved their own folk,
They would never have fallen to the Might of Ch’in.
If Ch’in in its turn had but loved its own subjects,
Taken from the Six Kingdoms,
Ch’in could have prolonged its rule,
And no one could have destroyed it!
The Rulers of Ch’in had not a moment
To lament their fate,
Those who came after
Lamented it.
When those who come after
Lament but do not learn,
Then they too will merely provide
Fresh cause for lamentation
From those who come after them.