Monday, June 4, 2018

A Bound Foot Lantern Poem

This dense and complex poem about bound feet touches on themes of beauty, loneliness, pain, forbidden love, suicide and injustice, all in 15 enigmatic lines.

I still haven’t figured out what the “lantern poems” are. Were they riddles written on lanterns at the New Year festival? Were they poems that ostensibly used decorated lanterns as the inspiration for describing something?

In this post I’m going to take the poem apart because I think that’s the best way to understand what is going on.

giogiyan bethengge dengjan [小腳兒燈],    Bound Foot Lantern
Staatsbibliothek 14.29 (View Online)

The Shoe

harha fulgiyan,    The shoe leather is red,
eldengge saikan,    bright and beautiful,
cece nilgiyan,    the silk is shiny,
yasahangga hihan,    with small holes and rare.

The poem opens with a description of a beautiful shoe, no doubt one of the tiny shoes that adorned bound feet. Just as the first thing you saw with a bound foot was the beautiful shoe, so the first lines the poet gives us are beautiful.

Loneliness and Isolation
5can o [嬋娥] suhe fon,    Cháng’é, when she takes them off,
duruhai lakiyan,

    having grown old and weak, she hangs them up.

biya-i argan,    The crescent of the moon,
gu tanai ujan,

    is a jade pearl boundary.

Turning from the beautiful shoe, the poem then invokes the goddess Cháng’é, who lives alone in the vast cold palaces of the moon. It is not strictly clear whether the goddess or the shoe grows old and weak, but in this season of waning the shape of the moon resembles a bound foot. Compare the lines in the Jīn Píng Méi describing Xīmén Qìng’s first intimate encounter with Pān Jīnlián (in Chinese original and Manchu translation):

lo-i wase be ten tukiyefi, juwe gohon-i ice biya be meiren-i dele sabubuha
Having lifted the gauze stockings up, the two-hooked new moon could be seen over his shoulders.

The poet then goes on to describe the shrinking moon as a beautiful but confining boundary for the goddess. The same idea that the goddess is trapped within the confines of the moon was expressed in Moon, to the tune Wind in the Pines. Like the shoe around the foot, the confines are beautiful, but sorrow lies within it. Like the limited sphere of the moon, the bound foot constrains a woman.

tuwa-i haksan,    The cruelty of fire,

šu ilhai okson,

    is the lotus step.

The phrase tuwa-i haksan is a double entendre. The word haksan can mean a golden or reddish brown color, or else it can mean “cruel, brutal.” On the one hand, this could be describing the bound foot in a red shoe, or perhaps the dried blood on the wrapping of the foot, or else the cruel pain of walking with bound feet.

The reason I have chosen the word “cruelty” for my translation is that the poet could have used a less ambiguous word like jaksan to describe the red color, but instead opted for the ambiguous word haksan, a choice that I think was motivated to capture the meaning of cruelty.

Forbidden Love
lo fei mukei on,    The path of concubine Luò across the water,
suman-i toron,    is a trail of mist.
sabu ne da an,

    The shoes are now as they have always been.

These lines turn from the burning of fire to the cool of feet passing over water. The name “concubine Luò” [洛妃] refers to Lady Zhēn, but the description of her crossing the water is an allusion to the Rhapsody on the Goddess of the Luò River [洛神賦] by Cáo Zhí [曹植], which contains the following lines describing the vision of the goddess on the surface of the river:

She walks in decorated shoes for distant journeying, trailing light garments of misty silk.

By using the name “concubine Luò” [洛妃] for the goddess of the river, the author of this Manchu poem is invoking a well-known story that Lady Zhēn had a secret affair with Cáo Zhí, who was said to have written the Rhapsody about Lady Zhēn after she was forced to commit suicide.

Surely the poet must have known that Lady Zhēn lived long before the practice of binding feet, and the description in the Rhapsody of shoes made for distant journeying [遠遊之文履] could not possibly be understood to mean a shoe that contains a bound foot. The first two lines seem to evoke a temporary sense of freedom and relief, but this is crushed by the third line: “The shoes are now as they have always been.”

Unjust Death
abai yang ioi hūwan [楊玉環],    Where is Yáng Yùhuán?
15weri suinggai maiman    It was someone else's wicked business. 

The poem ends by invoking the memory of Yáng Yùhuán, another imperial concubine and one of the four great beauties of Chinese tradition, who was strangled as a result of her cousin’s involvement in the An Lushan rebellion. Clearly the poet believes this death to have been unjust, because the crime was someone else’s, not hers.

What do all of these images and allusions mean when they are put together in a poem? It may be that only the intended audience would fully understand the hints, but to me this could be the arc of a tragic story in a particular woman’s life: Her feet are bound, she experiences loneliness, isolation, confinement and pain, then a secret and forbidden love and a momentary feeling of freedom, but ending in an unjust death.

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