Wu Zao 吴藻: “Reading the Dream of the Red Chamber” 讀紅樓夢(乳燕飛)

Wu Zao 吴藻 (1799 – 1862) is one of the best-known ci poets of the Qing dynasty. She is from a merchant family in Rehe (Hangzhou); her husband was also a merchant. She wrote a play (zaju) entitled Qiaoying (Proud Silhouette), with an alternate title of Yinjiu du Sao (Drinking while Reading the Li Sao.) She was admired by Chen Wenshu (1771-1843), who was an important patron of women writers.  In addition to her skill as a writer, she was a skilled player of the qin.


“Ru yan fei:  Reading Dream of the Red Chamber

  Of what use was the wish to patch up the sky

When one’s soul could be consumed in red chamber’s depths?

Kingfisher-wrapped and perfume-enclosed.

Foolish girl and silly boy, I fear, will never wake up–

Daily, bitterly, sowing their seeds of love.

Which one of them, I ask

Is the true seed of love?

Stubborn Stone has sentience but a sylph has woe;

Their three lifetimes reap but spun-thread sorrow, waxen tears.

With one stroke thus concludes

The dream of Supreme Void.


Though murmurs fall futile on greenish moss,

They cling and cling like

The jade pin atop her head,

The small phoenix on wutong blossoms,

“Yellow earth,” “gauze windows”–these the words of doom,

Dissolve with pain a beauty’s heart.

Where could I mourn

An old grave of buried fragrance?

Flowers fall, flowers bloom, but the person is gone;

Weeping in the wind of spring.

I have tears to match the flowers’ pain.

Flowers stand mute, but my tears flow.



Translation by Anthony Yu, in Chang and Saussy, 611-12.




Notes on the poem:

First stanza: The phrase which Yu translates as “spun thread sorrow, waxen tears” is almost certainly from an untitled poem by Li Shangyin (813-58).  Here is the poem:

相見時難別亦難﹐    東風無力百花殘。
春蠶到死絲方盡﹐    蠟炬成灰淚始乾。
曉鏡但愁雲鬢改﹐    夜吟應覺月光寒。
蓬萊此去無多路﹐    青鳥殷勤為探看。

And here is its translation by A.C. Graham, in Poems of the Late Tang, 150.

Forever hard to meet, and as hard to part.
Each flower spoiled in the failing East wind.
Spring’s silkworms wind till death their heart’s threads:
The wick of the candle turns to ash before its tears dry.
Morning mirror’s only care, a change at her cloudy temples:
Saying over a poem in the night,
does she sense the chill in the moonbeam?
Not far, from here to Fairy Hill.
Bluebird, be quick now, spy me out the road.
An educated person of the Qing would surely have recognized the reference and seen that the poem by Li Shangyin also invokes an impossible love.  (The reference to the Li Shangyin poem was pointed out by Wang Ji.)

Second Stanza: Jade pin玉釵 is a reference to Baochai 寶釵; the word here for pin is “chai,” the second syllable of Baochai’s name.  “Yellow Earth” and “gauze windows” (黃土茜紗) refer to an episode in chapter 79 of the novel, where Daiyu comes upon Baoyu writing an elegy for Skybright, the maid who is sometimes regarded as being Daiyu’s “double” in the novel. She died soon after being expelled under suspicion of sexual impropriety.  The lines that Baoyu had written are (in Hawkes’ translation)  “The young man, in his crimson curtained bed/ Must seem most cruelly afflicted./And the maiden beneath the yellow earth must seem most cruelly ill-fated.”  Daiyu criticizes “crimson curtain” and argues that what Hawkes translates as “haze diaphene” would be more effective. The point of the invocation of these two words in the poem is to remind the nineteenth-century reader of Skybright’s death, and the ways in which it foretells Daiyu’s tragic end.

For translations into German of more poems by Wu Zao, see this website.

Li Kan reads the poem in Chinese.


Ann Waltner reads Anthony Yu’s translation of the poem.



For more on Wu Zao, including translations of more poems, see Idema and Grant, 685-702; Chang and Saussy 601-618. Translations of more of her poems into German are at this website. Biographical and bibliographical information on Wu Zao is in the article by Sung in Ho, Biographies, 234-36.


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Dream of the Red Chamber Copyright © by Ann Waltner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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