water drops trace lost fragments of their bodies over misted glass
Friday’s performance of the Dream of Red Mansions was so beautiful: opulent sets, gorgeous costumes, excellent singing, and some of the best stage lighting I’ve seen in any theatre. I’d seen bits and pieces performed before, but this was my first time seeing the whole thing at once (my first full-length Chinese opera!). I loved every minute of it. Xu Jin’s libretto has some beautifully lyrical moments, and Daiyu’s poignant, eloquent aria as she burns her poems is my favourite of them all. So, in order to commemorate the occasion, I’ve decided to translate Daiyu’s flower-burying poem from Chapter 27 of the novel.
Flowers wither, flowers fall — flowers fill the sky;
colours fade, scents grow faint; who pities them?
Drifting gossamer softly floats over spring pavilions;
falling fluff gently settles on embroidered screens.
In her chamber, a girl sorrows for the end of spring,
her heart full of sadness that can find no release.
Hoe in hand, she steps from her ornamented chamber,
treading on flowers achingly as she comes and goes.
Willow fluff and elm seeds, fresh and fragrant,
aren’t bothered if peach and plum blossoms drift away;
but though the peach and plum will bloom again next year,
who knows if the girl will still occupy that chamber?
By the third month, fragrant nests are ready,
but how heartless are the swallows in the beams!
Yet though they think to peck the new blossoms next year,
once she’s gone their nests may tumble too.
A year contains three hundred sixty days,
but knifelike wind and swordlike frost press hard;
how long can freshness and bright beauty last?
Blown away in a morning, they’re hard to find again.
Though easily seen while blooming, flowers fall with little trace;
dying in her heart, someone comes to bury them.
Alone, hoe in hand, her secret tears brim over,
like tracks of blood falling on bare branches.
Evening comes, and the cuckoo puts an end to song;
bringing her hoe back, the heavy doors are closed.
A green lamp glows upon the wall as she falls asleep;
a cold rain pelts the window; her blanket isn’t warm.
What could this be, that redoubles my sorrow?
Part of me loves the spring; part of me resents it.
Love for spring comes suddenly, resentment swiftly goes;
both arrive without a word, and leaving, go unnoticed.
A sad song sounded from outside my room last night;
did it rise from a flower’s soul, or from a bird’s?
The souls of birds and flowers find it difficult to linger,
for birds have no words, while flowers are too shy.
I wish I could grow a pair of wings,
fly like the flowers to the edge of the sky;
but at the sky’s edge, where could I find
a fragrant burial mound?
A silk pouch now gathers your delicate bones;
a cup of clean earth shields you from the wind.
You were clean in the beginning, and clean you shall return;
it’s better than lying in mud in a ditch.
Today, as you die, I’m here to bury you,
but who can divine when my body will be lost?
Today, burying flowers, people laugh at my folly,
but, in future years, who will bury me?
Spring ends; flowers eventually fall;
even so will beauty age and die.
The day spring is over, when the bloom of life fades,
fallen flowers, the dead girl — no one will know!