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The Poetry of Li Ching and Li Yü
of the Southern T'ang Dynasty in China
(916-978 A.D.)

Li Ching and Li Yü were rulers of the Southern T'ang Empire in China. Li Ching (916-961 A.D.) was the father of Li Yü (937-978 A.D.). Both wrote poetry. Li Yü perhaps wrote too much poetry. He devoted so much of his time to poetry that he let his empire be conquered and himself captured. It was by the Sung Emperor T'ai Tsu in 975. He was kept captive in K'ai-feng where he continued to write poetry. But again poetry was his undoing. The brother of T'ai Tsu, T'ai Tsung, when he came to the throne ordered Li Yü's execution because he feared Li Yü's poems were conveying secret information for inciting rebellions.

Two nice poems of Li Yü written before his capture are:


Li Yü wrote poems of his sorrow at losing his empire and becoming a captive:

  • During the forty years at home in my country,
    Its three thousand miles of mountain-sides and river,
    Where Phoenix Hall and Dragon Tower touch the Milky Way
    And jade trees with coral branches spread their misty cover,
    When did I think of spear and buckler?
    Never!

    Then one day I found myself a captive, a slave;
    A back like Shen's and hair like P'an's my hardships tell.
    The time I suffered most was setting out to leave the Temple;
    The royal band still played a lamentation in farewell;
    Facing the palace women, my tears fell.


The poem that proved to be Li Yü's undoing was:

  • Spring blossom, autumn moon,
    When will they cease
    To come and go?
    Of all the past has meant, how much I know!

    Into the tower last night a wind
    swept out of the east again--
    The old country!
    In the bright moonlight
    To taste that wind again
    Is too much pain.

    It must be shining still,
    The carved railing with jade inlay;
    We alone change and wast away.
    I ask you, how can I endure
    To feel such sadness grow?
    My heart's a river
    Flushed with spring
    That must
    Forever eastward flow.

The brother of the emperor thought this poem was a coded message and had the ex-emperor poet executed.


Source: A Collection of Chinese Lyrics, translated by Duncan Mackintosh and rendered into verse by Alan Ayling, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1965.


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