Ying-ying Zhuan by Yuan Zhen.
The Biography of Ying-ying — Enthrallment to Beauty, Destruction by
tr. Ⓒ Patrick Moran 2011
In the Zhen-yuan period of the Tang dynasty, there was a young man surnamed
Zhang. He was by nature warmly ebullient, and was gifted with an
attractive deportment and mien, while internally his endowments made him
resolute and standoffish. He would not enter into any activity that was
against the dictates of proper decorum. Should he happen to accompany his
friends to their banquets, he might partake of their festivities in a
peripheral way, [but even though] the other people would all tumultuously
contend with each other, as though fearing to be left behind, the student
Zhang was complaisant of demeanor and nothing more, so that to the end it
was impossible to involve him in any disorderly conduct or impropriety. Due
to the fact that in that year he was already twenty-two years old and had as
yet never been intimately acquainted with feminine charms, those who knew of
this circumstance ragged him about it unmercifully, whereupon he sought to
exculpate himself by saying: "Lechers do not truly love feminine charms, for
they engage in licentious behavior. I am one who truly loves feminine
charms, yet those ladies who have come to my attention have as yet not truly
merited my esteem. What might that mean? In general, the most exceptional of
things have never failed to leave an impression on me, and by this I know
that the ladies I have met have not been enough to intoxicate me." Those who
had ragged him took cognizance of these remarks.
Before long, the student Zhang traveled to Pu. Somewhat more than ten li to
the east of Pu there was a habitation for Buddhist monks called the Temple
of Universal Salvation, and the student Zhang took abode therein. By sheer
coincidence, a certain widow, whose married name was Cui, was returning to
Chang-an and in the course of her journey to Pu also took up abode in those
This Widow Cui was by birth a daughter of the Zheng clan. The student Zhang
also had a maternal relationship to the Zheng clan. Upon tracing back their
family connections they discovered that Widow Cui was an aunt of his from a
different branch of the family tree.
That year General Hun-zhen died in Pu, and, as the eunuch Ding Wen-ya was
not good at military management, the garrison troops soon fell into disorder
and took much plunder among the people of Pu.
The family of Widow Cui possessed great wealth and many bondservants, and
their quarters were in a panic. They did not know upon whom to depend.
Prior to this time, Zhang had established extremely good relationships with
the clique of the general [in charge of the garrison] at Pu, so he begged
the services of that general's subordinates to protect them, and in that way
they escaped from harm. After more than ten days the incorruptible official
Du Que, carrying the mandate of the Emperor, acted upon his authority as
Commandant to order those troops to adhere to the regulations, and the
troops thereupon ceased their depredations.
The Widow Zheng greatly appreciated the merit gained by Zhang in this
instance. She prepared a feast for Zhang, and entertained him in the central
hall. At that time she said: "This widow, who has not yet come to the end of
her life, bringing immature children in her company, unfortunately became
involved with troops that had lost their proper esprit de corps, and so was
indeed unable to protect herself. My defenseless son and fledgling daughter
owe their lives to you, sir. How could this be comparable to an ordinary
favor? Now I, your servant, present myself before you with the ceremony
appropriate to receiving a person of great benevolence. It is my hope that
by this means I may repay your kindness." Then she commanded her son,
Huan-lang, who was perhaps somewhat more than nine years old, and whose
countenance was both amiable and handsome [to pay his respects]. Next she
called upon her daughter to come forth and pay her respects to Zhang,
saying, "Your cousin has given you back your life!" After much time had
passed, her daughter [still did not come out and] excused herself on the
grounds of illness. The Widow Zheng was angered and said: "Cousin Zhang has
protected your life. Had he not done so, you would have been abducted. Can
you possibly continue to remain so distant in your distaste?"
After another long time had passed she finally arrived. She wore her
ordinary clothing and smudged makeup (lit., cui rang, ruined appearance);
she wore no adornments. The two tall buns into which her hair had been
arranged hung down to her eyebrows, and there was a remaining trace of rouge
on her cheeks, but nothing more. [Nevertheless,] her complexion was
extraordinarily beautiful; she was so radiant that her appearance could not
fail to move people.
An amazed Zhang made an obeisance to her. She sat down at Widow Zheng's
side, and because she was there under duress, she gazed fixedly to the side
with an expression of resentment and alienation, as though she could not
stand his presence. Zhang asked how old she was. Widow Zheng said: "It is
now the seventh moon of the Geng-zhen reign period, so she must be sixteen
Zhang tried to lead her into discussion, but she would not respond. He did
not stop doing so until the end of the feast.
From that time on Zhang was enthralled by her. He was very much willing to
express his true feelings, but there was no means by which he might convey
them to her. The bondservant of Cui Ying-ying was called Hong-niang. The
student [Zhang] on several occasions greeted her on the sly, and [finally]
took advantage of such an occasion to tell her what was in his heart. As one
might expect, the bondservant was greatly alarmed by such behavior and fled
the scene in total embarrassment. The student Zhang regretted his brashness.
The following day the bondservant came on the scene again and then the
student Zhang felt shame and begged pardon for his offensive behavior. He
did not again mention what he was seeking. Therefore, the bondservant said
to Zhang: "What the gentleman has said is something that I would not dare to
repeat; it is also something that I would not dare to disclose to outsiders.
Nevertheless, you are well aware of Miss Cui's connection to your family.
Why do you not seek her hand in marriage on the grounds of your merit for
saving the family?"
Zhang said: "From my infancy, my nature has never been such as to
participate in illicit relationships. When I have in the past had occasion
to dwell in the midst of silks and satins, I have not let my eyes wander.
But now I am not as I was in days of yore, when there was always, in the
end, something that attenuated [my passions]. During the entire banquet
yesterday, I could hardly contain myself. During the past several days I
have been unaware of my feet while walking and forget to eat enough. I am
afraid I will not survive for another day and night.
If I marry her by means of the [traditional] matchmaker, the giving of
betrothal gifts and the inquiries to select an auspicious day, I fear I will
be found in the racks of the dried fish merchants. What would you advise me
The bondservant said: "Because of her correct firmness, her carefulness and
self-protectiveness, even someone she deeply respected would not be
permitted to assault her with words that go against the norms of propriety.
So the plots of an inferior person would indeed be hard put to find a chink
in her armor. Nevertheless, she excels at composition and is always
pondering over chapters and verses, spending long hours over writings that
she envies. Milord might try to disorder (sway) her with poetic expressions
of feelings. Otherwise, there is no way to proceed.
Zhang was greatly pleased and immediately composed two vernal lyrics to
present to her. That evening Hong-niang reappeared holding a varicolored
tablet to present to Zhang and said: "This is by order of Cui." She had
entitled her poem "Bright Moon the Night of the Fifteenth," and the lyric
"Await the moon below the western chamber,
Welcoming the wind, the door is half ajar.
Brushing the wall, the shadow of flowers moves.
I think it is my beloved at the door."
Zhang thought he caught her drift. That evening was the fourteenth day of
the second month of the year. To the east of the Cui's apartment there was
one flowering almond tree, and by clambering up it one could surmount [the
wall]. On the night of the fifteenth, Zhang climbed in using the tree and
entered the western chamber, whereupon he discovered that the door was half
Hong-niang was asleep on a bed, so Zhang's entry startled her. Fearfully,
Hong-niang said: "Sir, what are you doing here?" Zhang stretched things
a bit by saying: "The missive from Miss Cui has summoned me. Tell her for
me." Before long, Hong-niang returned and continued the conversation: "She
is on her way. She is on her way."
Zhang was at once delighted and terrified, telling himself that he was
soon to receive his salvation. When Cui arrived, she was dressed in
impeccable form and, displaying a severe demeanor, bitterly enumerated the
counts of her indictment against Zhang, saying: "My elder cousin's merit in
saving my family was great. Therefore, my loving mother entrusted to you her
defenseless son and her immature daughter. How is it that you depend on an
insubordinate bondservant to deliver a depraved and dissolute lyric? In the
beginning you committed an act of righteousness by protecting others from
[the perils of] civil disorder, but in the end you seek [the one you earlier
saved] by means of plunder and depredation. To do so is to exchange a
[personal] disorder for a [civil] disorder. Where will that lead to? I truly
desired to pay no heed to your remarks, but then to do so would be to
protect the iniquities of others, which would be unrighteous. If I were to
make matters clear to my mother, then I would in so doing ignore your
previous beneficence, which would be inauspicious. Were I to entrust [my
communication] to my lowly maidservant, then I would fear that you would not
be made aware of my genuine and honest reaction. I was inclined to put my
trust in a brief written communication, but feared that to do might put
milord in a difficult situation. For that reason I used my wretched poetry
in order to assure that you would surely come here. When an action is not in
accord with the proprieties, can one fail to feel deep regret? I am most
hopeful that you will constrain your actions by the proprieties, and will
not permit things to get out of hand." When she had finished speaking, she
spun around in place and then departed.
Zhang's dumbfounded state persisted for a long time, but at last he went
back over [the wall], and from that time forward he lost all hope. A few
evenings later, however, Zhang was alone in his quarters, asleep under the
eaves, when suddenly something awoke him, and he sprang up in alarm. Hong
Niang had come in carrying a large comforter and a pillow. She shook Zhang
and said: "She is on her way. She is on her way. What are you doing
sleeping?" She put the pillows side by side and laid the comforter on top of
the one that was already there, and then left. Zhang rubbed his eyes and sat
for a long time as though besieged, fearing that he was still dreaming;
nevertheless he occupied his time of waiting by trying to prepare what he
should say. Before much more time had elapsed, Hong Niang came in,
supporting Ying-ying with both hands. When Ying-ying entered, she acted
bashful and complaisant, and she seemed not to have enough strength to move
her own four limbs. The sternness of the earlier time was no longer in
evidence. That evening was the eighteenth day after the new moon. The
slanting rays of the moon were like a crystalline firefly, and kept the bed
half in darkness. Zhang was in a dither and suspected he was sleeping with a
fairy immortal, one who did not come from the world of common human beings.
After what seemed like a mere instant, the temple bell tolled; it was soon
to be dawn. Hong Niang hurried her to leave. Ying-ying bashfully sobbed and
clung ingratiatingly, and Hong Niang again supported her with both hands as
she left. During the whole time Ying-ying had not said a single thing. Zhang
awoke again at false dawn. In doubt of himself he said: "Surely it must have
been a dream?!" But when it became fully light, her makeup was on his
shoulder, her fragrance was on his clothing, and her tears glistened as
though they were dew beaded on the moss.
For more than ten days after that Zhang tried but could get no further word
from her. He wrote a poem in thirty rhymed verses, "Meeting with an
Immortal," but before he had finished it, Hong Niang happened by. So he gave
it to her that she might convey it to Ying-ying. Thereafter she again
accepted him, and he left secretly at dawn only to come back stealthily at
night, and the time they spent together in what she had earlier called the
Western Chamber was approximately one month.
Zhang frequently made inquiry concerning the emotional reaction of the Lady
of the Zheng clan (i.e., Ying-ying's mother), so she said [that her mother's
reaction was]: "I can do nothing about it [now]. Bring the matter to a
conclusion in whatever way pleases you." Before long, when Zhang was about
to go to Chang-an, he first made known to her his true feelings. Ying-ying
was yielding and did not verbally reprove him, but her appearance conveyed a
moving sense of blame. Two nights before he was to leave it became
impossible for them to meet again. So Zhang went off to the west. After
several months had passed he again travelled to Pu. He met with Ying-ying as
before over the course of several months. She was good at calligraphy and
composition, but although he sought permission over and over again to see
her work, he never was permitted to do so. It was always the case that he
sought to incite her passions by his writings, but that she seemed not to
pay much attention to them. In general it may be said that in her various
activities Ying-ying's artistry had to be of the highest caliber, but to
judge by her appearance she was oblivious to this fact. In speech she was
adept at analysis, yet she was sparse in her responses to others. She was
very generous in the intent of her treatment of Zhang, but she never
followed up on any of this in her words. At times unfathomable in her
melancholy beauty, it was nevertheless as though she herself were totally
oblivious to her own emotions. She also seldom revealed signs of happiness.
or of distress.
At another time, she was playing the qin (zither) in solitude. The music was
saddening and conveyed hurt feelings. Zhang secretly listened to it, and
when he [later] begged her [to play more] she thereupon permanently ceased
playing. Because of this interaction, Zhang was even more deeply enthralled
Before long, because the literary examination had come of term, Zhang was
once again required to go to the west.
On the evening before he was required to leave, he did not again seek to
express his inner feelings, but mournfully sighed as he sat beside
Ying-ying. Ying-ying had already gained an inkling that he would soon be
saying farewell, and, with respectful demeanor and gentle tone, she slowly
said to Zhang: "In the beginning to bring something to disorder and in the
end to discard it is appropriate. This stupid one dares not to hate. Things
are as they must be. Milord has begun it, and milord has ended it, and that
is his compassionate deed. How can the eternal oath come to an end? And so
what need is there to deeply grieve over this journey? However, since milord
is in fact unable to let go of these feelings, and is unable to find a way
to be at peace in his own heart — milord has frequently said that I am good
at the qin, but in the past I have been too reticent to play. Now, since
milord is about to go, I will grant milord's heartfelt desire."
Then she had the qin dusted and began to play the "Rainbow Skirts and
Feather Jackets", but before a few chords were sounded the sorrowful sound
had turned to recrimination and disorder, and it was impossible to tell
anymore what song she might be playing. Those who were in attendance at this
performance were all sobbing convulsively, Ying-ying suddenly broke off,
cast aside the qin, burst into a cascade of tears, and fled back to the
Zheng compound, never to come back again.
On the morning of the next day Zhang left, and in the next year he did not
win in the literary wars and so remained in the capital. For that reason he
sent a message to Ying-ying in order to expand on the meaning of things he
had earlier said.
Miss Cui's response is reproduced in rough form below:
I have respectfully taken delivery of your letter of inquiry. Your loving
concern is excessively deep. This girl's emotional reaction is one of
mingled sorrow and happiness. Along with your letter you bestowed upon me
accessories to beautify my head and smooth my lips, a flowered tiara and
five inches of lipstick. Although I have received signal kindness, for whom
would I seek to enhance my appearance? Those several gifts deepen my
thoughts, but only to accumulate sorrow and sighs. You have yielded to the
bonds of convenience and sought employment by means of your continued
presence in the capital, and so with regard to your progress toward self
improvement I must steadfastly attend to issues pertaining to your security.
It is only that I harbor discontent that this most unworthy person should
forever be cast into abandonment. But such is fate, and, that fate being
known, what more can be said? Since the time that you left, autumn has come
upon us. I continually get the sudden feeling that something has been lost.
Amid the clamor and hubbub of daily life, I sometimes force myself to chat
and to laugh or smile, but when alone in my leisure there is no time when my
tears do not fall like rain. As for the period of sleep and dreams, they too
involve mostly feelings of being stifled.
During periods of sleep I most often experience the feeling of suffocation,
and thoughts about separation and melancholy, [or else] we seem once more
tightly bound together, and, for the moment, it is as it ordinarily was
before, yet before the secret meeting has come to an end it is with alarm
that our spirits have been torn apart. Although the other half of my
coverlet seems warm, the one of whom I dreamt is far, far away.
No sooner had we bidden each other farewell than the old year was quickly
superseded. Chang-an is a place in which to indulge oneself in joy, pummeled
by moods and pulled along by feelings. What good fortune might there
possibly be that you would not forget our hidden commitments. My most lowly
and shallow aspirations can have no way to be honored by their fulfillment.
I have been unable to respond adequately due to my despicable aspirations,
And, in regard to our eternal pledge, even though it remains firmly
unchanged, in consequence of my lowly earlier expression of mutual
dependence, and of our occasional mutual periods of enjoyment and repose, my
bondservant was inveigled into delivering the illicit expression of your
true feelings. The hearts of maidens cannot, unaided, remain steadfast.
Milord made the provocation of drawing in the lute, but this lowly person
failed to [reject the seductive attempt] by hurling a shuttle. By the time
that we shared bed and coverlet, the moral commitment was heavy and its
significance was deep. My ignorant and vile feelings will forever amount to
a lifelong commitment. How might I have anticipated that once having seen
milord, and once having been unable to maintain control of my feelings, I
would then suffer the shame of making a mockery of myself, and that I would
never again be found worthy to openly serve milord? Until the end of my life
I will feel eternal sorrow, but, holding back my sighs, what can I say?
Should it come to pass that the benevolent one would take heed of his heart
and condescend to follow the hidden [commitment], then although it were on
the day of my death, it would nevertheless be the year of my [re-]birth. If,
on the other hand, the accomplished strategist must overlook his feelings,
sacrificing the lesser in order to pursue the greater, and so must view a
earlier coupling as disgraceful behavior, and regard the vital pact as an
instance of permissible deception, then at the point that my bones are
transformed and my body becomes dispersed, my cinnabar commitment will not
yet be extinguished. Even though the wind dislodges a drop of dew, it still
may take refuge on the pure dust. My entreaties regarding the preservation
or loss of our earlier commitment are finished herewith. I gaze down at this
sheet of paper, weep and sob. My feelings may not be adequately expressed.
For heaven's sake take care of yourself! For heaven's sake take care of
"This jade bracelet is something that I played with as a little girl. I
entrust it to supply something for milord to use in adorning his lower body.
Jade is chosen for its hardness and glistening luster that is unchanging,
and a bracelet is chosen for its unbreakable bond between beginning and end.
Together with the bracelet there is one haphazard skein of floss and one tea
roller made of veined bamboo. There several things are by no means precious.
Their intent is to express the wish that milord might be like the
incorruptibility of jade, and that my humble aspirations will remain as
unending as a bracelet. The bamboo shows the pattern of streaks of tears,
and the twisted and confused threads emulate my melancholy disarray of
emotions. I have used these objects to convey my true feelings. May
everything be forever good with you. Your heart is near to me, but your body
is far distant. Who knows when we may meet again? Our unfulfilled feelings
peal forth and unite us over a thousand miles. For heaven's sake take good
care of yourself. The winds of springtime are fierce. To force yourself to
eat amply would be beneficial. Be careful of what you say and protect
yourself. Do not greatly concern yourself with my humble person."
Zhang showed her letter to all those whom he knew, and for that reason many
people of that time came to know of it. Yang Ju-yuan, among the best of
them, liked certain phrases in her letter, and, basing himself thereon, he
wrote a fu entitled, "Poem for Maiden Cui."
猶染麝，枕膩尚殘紅。冪冪臨塘草，飄飄思渚蓬。素琴鳴怨鶴，清漢望歸鴻。海闊誠難渡，天高不易沖。行雲無處所，蕭史在樓中。] The poetry above
has not been translated.
Those among Zhang's friends who heard it universally took great exception to
[the pessimistic poem]. However, Zhang's intent was unequivocal. Yuan Zhen
was especially close to Zhang, and therefor he called the [poem's] words
into question. Zhang replied: "In general, the extraordinary creatures that
Heaven calls into existence will either torment themselves or torment other
people. If the daughter of the Cui family were to come into contact with
some noble of wealth, and were to secure his adoration, that would not call
forth the clouds, nor would it call forth the rain. Instead it would call
forth dragons both scaly and hornless. I do not know [the limit to] what she
can bewitch. In ancient times, Xin of the Yin dynasty and You of the Zhou
dynasty were both in control of countries with populations in the millions,
and their powers were exceedingly great. Yet each was destroyed by a single
woman. Their multitudes were dispersed. and they themselves were butchered.
They have been the objects of ridicule all the way up to the present. My own
virtue is insufficient to overcome her demonic depredations. For that reason
I have put a seal on my emotions." Each person who was in
attendance at the time emitted a deep sigh.
After more than a year had passed, Ying-ying had found a protector in
another man, and Zhang had also taken a wife. His travels once took him near
her new abode, so when her husband made mention of her he indicated that he
was her cousin and sought, on that basis, to visit her. Her husband spoke to
her of this request, but in the end Ying-ying would not appear. Zhang's
sincere regret became manifest in his countenance, and Ying-ying took
cognizance of it. She composed a fu in one section, which reads as follows:
Having become emaciated and sallow,
I have turned vacillating and totally unmotivated to arise.
It is not that I am too embarrassed before others,
Rather it is because of you that I am withered and worn,
and it is before you that I am ashamed.
So he saw her nevermore.
Several days later, when Zhang was about to be on his way again, he too
wrote a poem, in order to bid her final farewell:
Why speak now of cast-away arrangements?
At that time in the past,
We were spontaneously intimate.
Pray redirect those old passions,
To succor the one with whom you now abide.
From that time forth they were parted and had no further knowledge of each
other. Many people of that time conceded that Zhang was a person good at
recovering from false steps. Among gatherings of friends I frequently
encountered this opinion: "Let those who are wise not engage in such
activities, and let those who slip and so engage in them not lose their
heads." In the ninth month of the Zhen-yuan reign period, the superintendent
Li Gong-chui stayed overnight at my "Pacification Quarter," and our talks
meandered onto this topic. Gong-chui expressed marked disagreement with the
above sentiments and as a result he went on to compose the "Ying-ying Aria"
to tell her story. (Miss Cui's milk-name was Ying-ying, and that fact
provided Gong-chui with his title.)
The image of a gu qin is from
Wikipedia Commons. See
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jiu_Xiao_Huan_Pei.jpg for GNU