Liu Yong: Poet of Situations

Michael Farman

There is a rich mythology about the life of Liu Yong, based largely on the content of his poetry, but the known facts are rather few. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but he was born in Fujian province to a family of scholar-officials. He passed the Imperial Examination in 1035, probably in his late forties, having spent his earlier life as a habitué of the entertainment quarters of the capital, already famous as a writer of highly popular song lyrics (詞, ci,or tz’u). After his appointment as a minor official of the administration he occupied a succession of posts in distant parts of the empire and he died away from the capital without an heir to bury him. He had produced over 200 song lyrics.

In the hands of earlier scholar-poets, the song lyric was first and foremost about “boudoir sentiments”, but these were usually expressed in a highly ornate manner, using a stock of euphemistic images cast in the brief metric pattern of some long-forgotten melody, effectively distancing the eroticism from direct reality. Liu Yong’s lyrics differ in that they are about realistic situations. He needed longer forms to create narratives, so rather than use the ancient song patterns, he found in the longer popular songs of his own time the forms he needed. His intimate relationships with the entertainment girls kept him up to date with the latest music; he may well have composed many melodies himself.

Most song lyrics created by male poets were primarily for entertainment and as a display of creative skill to be admired; genuineness of sentiment was not a priority. The kind of subjectivity found in western romantic poetry is, if you will excuse the pun, foreign to them. But in Liu’s case it is surely legitimate to assume that his lyrics gained authenticity from his experiences in the entertainment quarters. This realism, coupled with directness of expression and his much-criticized use of colloquialisms, clearly distinguishes Liu’s poetry from that of earlier masters of  the genre such as Wen Tingyun, Wei Zhuang or Li Yu. It may be going too far to claim that his lyrics are directly subjective, but they clearly express truths of experience.

I would like, with a few examples, to single out a particular preoccupation of Liu Yong. A number of his lyrics appear to be fuelled by the conflict between the desire for a genuine loving relationship and the simulacrum offered by the entertainment girls. His poems can show this situation working in either direction: Liu’s male persona may suffer pangs of jealousy or painful withdrawal symptoms from an intense but temporary relationship, or equally, the entertainment girl, with all her role-playing skills, may still fall unprofessionally and disastrously for a man who seduces her only to desert her.

Partridge Omen


瑞 鷓 鴣

寶 髻 瑤 簪
嚴 妝 巧
天 然 綠 媚 紅 深
綺 羅 叢 里
獨 呈 謳 吟
一 曲 陽 春 定 價
何 啻 值 千 金
傾 聽 外
王 孫 帝 子
鶴 蓋 成 陰

凝 態 掩 霞 襟
動 象 板聲 聲
怨 思 難 任
嘹 亮 外
迴 壓 弦 管 低 沉
時 憑 迴 眸 斂 黛
空 役 五 陵 心
須 信 道
緣 情 寄 意
別 有 知 音

Jewelled hair-coil
green jasper pin
she’s skilfully presented
in natural green
radiant red
amply lined with ruffled silk

she sings just one song:
a song worth more than gold
beloved of emperors and nobles

focused on the melody
she hides her blushes
swaying to the sound of castanets
but can’t quite manage
to conceal her distress
her singing rises loud and clear
answering the moan of strings and pipes

at times her dark eyes
seem to return the gaze
of one or other in the audience
enslaving hearts
but each must understand
the longings that her song reveals
are there for someone else.

Liu Yong presents an active situation with a narrative. His subject is the contrast between the seductiveness of the singing girl’s performance and her private thoughts. The all-male audience may be aroused into pangs of desire, but her role-playing is the truth of the poem. Has her “true” lover  deserted her?     

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”  (Yeats)

Liquorice Root


甘 草 子

秋 暮
亂 灑 衰 荷
顆 顆 真 珠 雨
雨  過月 華 生
冷 徹 鴛 鴦 浦

池 上 憑 闌 愁 無 侶
奈 此 個 單 棲 情 緒
卻 傍 金 籠 共 鸚 鵡
念 粉 郎 言 語

Autumn sunset
lotus flowers flecked with
raindrop pearls
moonlight reveals
the rain has passed
a pair of mandarin ducks
shiver by the pool

leaning on the parapet
downcast without her lover
she wonders how to bear
such loneliness
together with her parrot
in its golden cage
she recites again
his parting words.

Her lover’s words are true and precious for her, but their mechanical repetition by the parrot hints that they may  be empty and insincere. Here again is the contrast between genuine feelings and their impersonation.

Enchanted by Immortals


迷 仙 引

纔 過 笄 年
初 綰 雲 鬟
便 學 歌 舞
席 上 尊 前
王 孫 隨 分 相 許
算 等 閑 酬 一 笑
便 千 金 慵 覷
常 祇 恐
容 易 舜 華 偷 換
光 陰 虛 度

已 受 君 恩 顧
好 與 花 為 主
萬 里 丹 霄
何 妨 攜 手 同 歸 去
永 棄 卻
煙 花 伴 侶
免 教 人 見 妾
朝 雲 暮 雨

Fresh out of childhood
my hair done in cloud-coils
I soon learned song and dance
bowed before feasting nobles
who shared my favours
casually bought my smiles
flashing their gold
now I’m afraid
my bloom will fade
from squandered days and nights

once sir, in your kind care
this flower would flourish
hand in hand we could wander
ten thousand li under sunset skies
I’d renounce forever
mist and blossom company
never again would you see me play
with morning clouds and evening rain

Due to the lack of inflection in the original, the second stanza may be read several ways. Is she now a concubine safely in the arms of a protective gentleman, or still a prisoner of the entertainment quarter, pleading with one of her  visitors to take her away and start a new life?  I decided on the second option, but it occurs to me that a more cynical reading is possible: this may simply be the boudoir-talk of an entertainment girl acting out the role she adopts with many of her clients. “Clouds and rain” were, of course, widely-used euphemisms for the act of love.   

Outside the Curtain, Listening


隔 簾 聽

咫 尺 鳳 衾 鴛 帳
欲 去 無 因 到
蝦 鬚 窣 地 重 門 悄
認 繡 履 頻 移
洞 房 杳 杳
強 笑 語
逞 如 簧
再 三 輕 巧

梳 妝 早
琵 琶 閑 抱
愛 品 相 思 調
聲 聲 似 把 芳 心 告
隔 簾 聽

Her phoenix quilt
mandarin duck canopy
so close
I want to go in
but tasselled curtains brush the floor
the heavy door is still

I know that shuffle of embroidered shoes
muffled steps across the bedroom
her flaunted smile and chatter
that voice so graceful
fluent as a reed pipe

already dressed and made up
caressing the pipa
she sings of lover’s yearning
as if  her heart confesses

outside the curtain listening
how much heartbreak have I earned?
she alone would understand
this wretchedness.

A song lyric about eavesdropping and jealousy is unusual, but not unprecedented, assuming that the title was taken from an existing song and not made up by Liu. It  is easy to believe that he was deeply familiar with this kind of situation, even if the poem’s immediate subjectivity is open to question. The “genuine” passion of the listener is contrasted with the simulated passion of the entertainment girl, with her flaunted smile and chatter. An  elusion characteristic of the genre, which adds to the impact of the poem, is the omission of any reference to the third party in the human triangle, although he is very much an unseen presence.

Moon of an Autumn Night


秋 夜 月

當 初 聚 散
便 喚 作
無 由 再 逢 伊 面
近 日 來
不 期 而 會 重 歡 宴
向 尊 前
閒 暇 裏
斂 著 眉 兒 長 歎
惹 起 舊 愁 無 限

盈 盈 淚 眼
漫 向 我 耳 邊
作 萬 般 幽 怨
奈 你 自 家 心 下
有 事 難 見
待 信 真 箇
恁 別 無 縈 絆
不 免 收 心
共 伊 長 遠

Once together
then parting
I told myself
no reason now to see her face again
then by chance
we met again at a feast
over wine and whispered words
brows furrowed
sighing deeply
she wakened all those past regrets

with brimming tears
she murmured in my ear
a thousand accusations:
how could you hold so many things
hidden in your heart?
I want to believe you can be true
with no entanglements
no choice now
I must decide
to spend more time with her

There are ambiguities here that raise questions about how it should be translated. It appears that the male narrator had abandoned her, but perhaps her crocodile tears are not genuine. Is he really serious and committing himself to resuming a long-term relationship? I have assumed not, so I made his resolution at the end a rather half-hearted one.

Magnolia Flower (Short Form)


木 蘭 花 今

有 箇 人 人 真 攀 羡
問 著 洋 洋 回 卻 面
你 若 無 意 向 他 人
為 甚 夢 中 頻 相 見

不 如 聞 早 還 卻 願
免 使 牽 人 虛 魂 亂
風 流 腸 肚 不 堅 牢
祇 恐 被 伊 牽 引 斷

Everyone admires you
but whenever I come close
you turn your haughty face away
if you care so little for me
why do we meet so often in my dreams?

please listen to me now
to save my feeble spirit from disaster
this poet’s heart is not too strong –
tug so hard and it’s sure to break

Is this a plea from the heart, or just a nice line in chatting-up?


The Shih Ching , usually translated as either The Book of Songs or the Classic of Poetry, is the first great collection of Chinese poetry. Tradition says that it was edited into its present form by the Sage of Sages, Confucius himself. In fact the book was assembled before, during, and after the life of Confucius. Its more than three hundred poems include fragments of works as old as the Shang Dynasty (traditional; dates 1766-1154 BCE) as well as “contemporary” poems from the Chou feudal states written or spoken by both aristocratic court figures and just plain “folks”. A great deal has been said about the origin of many, if not the majority of the poems as oral “folk” art, but it is clear from the artistry of the written language in which they have been handed down that, like the scribes who improved upon the originally oral poetry attributed to “Homer” in the West to create the Iliad and the Odyssey, the people who converted Chou folk songs and court verses into poetry in written Chinese characters clearly thought of themselves as (and were) artists. So the characters used to render simple and direct lyrical utterances of the illiterate peasant folk often honor them with carefully chosen written vocabulary: the heart and soul of folk art remains clearly present, but literary subtleties are introduced. The scribes who created the Shih Ching were poets, not tape recorders. They chose the best of what existed, and they honored it with their own art.

In its present form, the Shih Ching consists of three major sections, the Kuo Feng, or Odes of the States, comprising 160 of the 300 are generally but not always folk songs. The Ya (Elegant Verses) subdivided with no obvious criteria into greater and lesser, include poems 161-265, and the Sung or Temple Odes high ritual songs and bits of dynastic myth, include poems 266-305. The present selection is comes, all but a single longer poem on drinking and its positive and negative consequences from the “Lesser Elegants”, all come from the Kuo Feng Sections.

Knowledge of the Shih Ching poems was a necessity of diplomatic practice around the time of Confucius, when it was a common practice to deliver or at least support the delivery of diplomatic messages among the feudal domains (the “States or Guo of the Guo Feng) by oral presentation of relevant lines from the Classic. From the Han on many of the poems where imbued with very specific allegorical interpretations, but it is clear that later poets, who memorized the book word for word, used it as allusive material in their own poems at least as often for its plain “folk” messages as for its orthodoxly approved allegorical ones.