»  Li Shangyin's "Chang E"


Chang E

by Li Shangyin  (a.d. 813-858)


•  Background

In The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry Dr. Wu places Li Shangyin with Du Mu among the "winter" poets of that dynasty.

To [Li Bai] the universe is not big enough for his spirit to soar in; to Li Shang-yin a little corner is good enough for his body to live in, provided only that it is safe and secure from the cruel blasts of the north wind that are making a holocaust of the world … No-one is so perfectly winterlike, in sentiment as well as in style, as Li Shang-yin.

•  Notes

This is a very well-known poem. It has been taught to Chinese schoolchildren for centuries. Any educated Chinese person can recite at least the first couplet from memory.

Its title is the name of the Moon Goddess in Chinese folklore. I've heard several variants of the legend, but in all of them Chang E's husband has acquired the Elixir of Life. Chang E either steals it and drinks it, or drinks it to prevent its falling into the hands of a thief. She is thereupon banished to — or flees to, or gets stuck on — the Moon with only a rabbit for company.

Chang E has a walk-on part — actually a dance-on part — in a famous poem by Mao Tse-tung.

There are innumerable secondary Chang E stories. A poignant example, concerning the tragic Emperor Xuanzong:

The Emperor dreamed he visited the Moon and met Chang E there. She taught him a ballet named Rainbow Skirt and Feather Gown. When the Emperor awoke he summoned his musicians, taught them the ballet (which he remembered in all its details), and had them perform it. His favorite concubine, the doomed Yang Guifei, danced in it.

There are references to this secondary legend in Bai Juyi's long poem A Song of Unending Sorrow, the fourth and thirteenth stanzas as set out here.

Cloud mother  —  A word for mica, from the appearance. The idea is something like "essence of clouds."

Screen wind  —  A movable door-screen.


•  Play the reading


•  Text of the poem




Dr. Wu translates the poem thus:

    The Lady in the Moon

I sit behind the screens of marble
In front of a glimmering candlelight.
I have watched the Milky Way
Gradually going down,
And the morning stars sinking.
Ah, you Lady in the Moon!
How you must have repented
Your theft of the Elixir of Life,
For which you are condemned to live eternally,
With your heart bleeding from night to night
In the loneliness of the sea and the sky!

Witter Bynner's translation of this poem, in his book The Jade Mountain, is as follows:

    To the Moon Goddess

Now that a candle-shadow stands on the screen of carven marble
And the River of Heaven slants and the morning stars are low,
Are you sorry for having stolen the potion that has set you
Over purple seas and blue skies, to brood through the long nights?

An utterly literal, word-for-word, translation goes like this:

    Chang E

Cloud mother screen wind candle shadow deep
Long river gradual fall dawn star sink
Chang E should regret steal spirit medicine
Jade-color sea blue sky night night heart