On Seeing a Pupil of Kung-sun Dance the Chien-ch`i
On the nineteenth day of the tenth month of the second year of Ta-li (15 November 767), in the residence of
Yuan Ch`ih, Lieutenant-Governor of K`uei-chou, I saw Li Shih-er-niang of Lin-ying dance the chien-ch`i.
Impressed by the brilliance and thrust of her style, I asked her whom she had studied under. “I am a pupil of
Kung-sun”, was the reply.
I remember in the fifth year of K`ai-yuan (717) when I was still a little lad seeing Kung-sun dance the chien-ch`i
and the hun-t`o at Yen-ch`eng. For purity of technique and self-confident attack she was unrivalled in her day.
From the “royal command performers” and the “insiders” of the Spring Garden and Pear Garden schools in the
palace down to the “official call” dancers outside, there was no one during the early years of His Sagely Pacific
and Divinely Martial Majesty who understood this dance as she did. Where now is that lovely figure in its
gorgeous costume? Now even I am an old, white-haired man; and this pupil of hers is well past her prime.
Having found out about the pupil’s antecedents, I now realized that what I had been watching was a faithful
reproduction of the great dancer’s interpretation. The train of reflections set off by this discovery so moved me
that I felt inspired to compose a ballad on the chien-ch`i.
Some years ago, Chang Hsu, the great master of the “grass writing” style of calligraphy, having several times
seeen Kung-sun dance the West River chien-ch`i at Yeh-hsein, afterwards discovered, to his immense
gratification, that his calligraphy had greatly improved. This gives one some idea of the sort of person Kung-sun
In time past there was a lovely woman called Kung-sun, whose chien-ch`i astonished the whole world. Audiences numerous as
the hills watched awestruck as she danced, and, to their reeling senses, the world seemed to go on rising and falling, long after
she had finished dancing. Her flashing swoop was like the nine suns falling, transfixed by the Mighty Archer’s arrows; her
soaring flight like the lords of the sky driving their dragon teams aloft; her advance like the thunder gathering up its dreadful
rage; her stoppings like seas and rivers locked in the cold glint of ice.
The crimson lips, the pearl-encrusted sleeves are now at rest. But in her latter years there had been a pupil to whom she
transmitted the fragrance of her art. And now in the city of the White Emperor the handsome woman from Lin-ying performs
this dance with superb spirit. Her answers to my questions have revealed that there was good reason to admire, my ensuing
reflections fill me with painful emotion.
Of the eight thousand women who served our late Emperor, Kung-sun was from the first the leading performer of the
chien-ch`i. Fifty years have now gone by like a flick of the hand – fifty years in which rebellions and disorders darkened the
royal house. The pupils of the Pear Garden have vanished like the mist. And now here is this dancer, with the cold winter sun
shining on her fading features.
South of the Hill of Golden Grain the boughs of the trees already interlace. On the rocky walls of Ch`u-t`ang the dead grasses
blow forlornly. At the glittering feast the shrill flutes have once more concluded. When pleasure is at its height, sorrow follows.
The moon rises in the east; and I depart, an old man who does not know where he is going, but whose feet, calloused from
much walking in the wild mountains, make him wearier and wearier of the pace.