In preparing for my comprehensive examination in August, I've lately been reading some very old poetry. Some of it has been fun (eat, drink and be merry...and then drink some more) and some has been cliche (I love you with the passion of a burning mid-day sun--blah, blah, blah). Just today, though, I came across a narrative poem for the ages. All 好漢 apparently know this story well, but it's new to me. I've since decided to translate the poem, 孔雀東南飛并序. It's the story of a young couple torn apart by meddling mother-in-laws in an unjust feudal structure in which young women have no rights and no hopes. The young bride in this tale is tossed around like dirty laundry as she and her young husband attempt to keep their love alive while their families scheme against them for a more auspicious future that brings honor to their families but little to them personally. How will it end up? Think Romeo and Juliet. Here's the first installment:
A peacock heads southeast,
then hesitates to glance back home.
"When I was 13 I learned to make silks.
At the age of 14 I learned to cut patterns for clothes.
When I was 15, I could play the kong hou.
And at 16, I learned to recite the Classic of Poetry.
Then, at 17, I become your wife.
Because of this, I will always suffer.
(But not because of you). Even though you were a busy official,
your devotion to me was unwavering.
(We both know the real reason why:)
The cock would crow in the morning and I would hasten to begin my sewing,
never resting until evening fell.
In just three days, I could produce 5 bolts of cloth.
But your mother complained that I worked too slowly.
That could never be, though. I was never so slow.
Being the daughter-in-law in your home was so hard.
Your mother pressured me so.
Staying around held no promise or respite for me.
Please, I told you, go speak with your mother
and tell here to release me.
Tell her to let me return to my own home."
You gently listened to me,
then went and plead with your mother:
"You know my prospects weren't bright.
But then we found this wonderful woman.
We bound our hair and tied the knot, sharing the same bed and pillow,
swearing that even beyond the grave we would forever remain friends.
We've been together only 2 or 3 years;
Our lives have just begun.
And my wife has been nothing but proper and kind.
Why, then, do you think so little of her?!"
Your mother snapped back:
"How can you be so thoughtless?!
This woman has no idea what propriety means!
She puts on aires and forces herself upon you.
And I have suffered with it for too long--
How dare you cross your mother!
Our neighbors have a much finer daughter.
She is beautiful, and her figure is unparalleled.
I have already asked her hand in marriage for you.
Now, get rid of that woman, Liushi!
Send her home right away!"
You fell to your knees and plead with her again:
"If today I am forced to let Liushi go,
I will never again remarry..."
Your mother listened to you,
then slammed her hand down, shouting:
"How can you defend that disgrace of a woman?!
I haven't an ounce of sympathy for her.
You'll never stay together."
You listened meekly and said nothing...
then, excused yourself and came home.
You slowly explained to me what had occurred.
Your sobbing hardly let a word pass:
"It's not me! I don't want you to go!
My mother is forcing this upon us.
For now, it's best you return to your home.
I must return to my duties at government.
But I promise we'll be together again shortly.
When I return home, I will come for you myself.
Remember that I love you.
Never, ever forget what I've said: I will come for you!"
I humbly replied:
"Please...don't say such things.
"I still remember the late winter of that year,
bidding farewell to my mother and coming to you.
I was diligent and cautious in serving your mother.
My behavior was sober. I was never improper.
Day and night I continued in such a difficult way,
sad and alone, but never complaining.
I was vigilant to make no error
to repay your mother for her good graces.
And then all of a sudden, I've done something that has cast me out of our home.
Oh, what will I say when I return to my father's house?"
4 years ago