For readers who have read The Green Phoenix, they will have noticed that I had incorporated in it two famous Chinese lyric poems (“ci” 詞, i.e. lyrics that are set to tunes): “Reminiscing Red Cliffs” 念奴嬌之赤壁懷古 by Song dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037 – 1101) and “The Immortals by the River” 臨江仙 by Ming poet Yang Shen 楊慎 (1488 – 1559). I would just like to say a few words as to why I had chosen them.
In the opening chapters, the first poem appears in a scene where the young Bumbutai performs a recital of it to entertain her two Jurchen (Manchu) royal guests in her Mongolian home estate. This poem is about the poet's nostalgic memory of the ancient hero Zhou Yu from the Three Kingdoms era, and it was chosen to reflect Bumbutai’s love of Chinese culture and history, and, in a premonitory way, her sense of humility in face of history as the big picture and her belief that chance or fate works on the individual and collective levels to make history happen.
Near the end of Part Two, the second poem is presented during a second meeting between the young Shunzhi Emperor and the beautiful but already married Lady Bombogor, who is to become his favorite Consort Donggo. By brushing the poem on a painting that Shunzhi just finished working on, she shows her intelligent understanding of his thwarted dream to live a commoner’s simple and peaceful life. The poem laments the futility and emptiness of worldly pursuits and the transience of life itself, with an implied Buddhist mantra of letting go (放下). It mirrors Shunzhi’s escapist mentality and presages his later decision to become a monk.
My Translation: Reminiscing Red Cliffs – Su Shi:
The Great Yangtze scurries forever east, many an ancient hero buried in its sweep.
West of the old forts, they say, was fought Zhou Yu’s Battle of Red Cliffs.
Rampant cliffs that pierced clouds, angry waves that ripped shores, churning up snowy foam;
Such a picturesque country, so full of gallant men in times of old.
Thinking of Zhou Yu in that distant past, he must’ve looked valiant with Xiaoqiao his new bride.
Feather fan in hand, hair tied in silk, his enemies crushed to dust as he joked.
Such was my dreamy tour; mock me as maudlin, but I’m just a young white-haired bloke.
Life is but a dream; let me offer wine to the river moon.
My Translation: The Immortals by the River – Yang Shen
On and on to the east rolls the Great Yangtze,
Burying in its current hordes of gallant men.
Right or wrong, shame or glory, all comes to naught.
Only the green hills linger, after many a glowing sunset.
White-haired men by the river, mind the seasons not;
All they care is in the bottle, and meeting with old friends.
Stories new and old, come alive in their witty repartee.