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Home>>Articles >>Classical Chinese Poetry >> Observing the Sword Dance Performed by a Disciple of Madam Gong-sun

Observing the Sword Dance Performed by a Disciple of Madam Gong-sun1

Du, Fu (712-770 CE)

Observing the Sword Dance Performed by a Disciple of Madam Gong-sun
Sword Dance

Prologue. On October 19th in 767 CE, I visited Chi Yuan's mansion2 and saw “the Sword Dance” performed by Madam 12th Li from Lin-ying City3. I was impressed by her talent and agility, so I asked her who her teacher was. She replied, “Madam Gong-sun”. I recalled Madam Gong-sun's “the Sword Dance” and “Hun-tuo Dance4” I had watched in 717 CE when I was still a child. Her movement and posture were graceful, rich in rhythm and full of passion. She was the most talented dancer in her time. No one else even from the Imperial Theater, the Royal Music Institute, or geisha houses could match her skill. At that time she was as beautiful as jade and her dress was colorful. Now my hair turns gray and her disciple is not in the bloom of youth. Madam Gong-sun must have died a long time ago. After learning about Madam Li's background and seeing her movements and rhythm match those of Madam Gong-sun, I cannot help but reflect on the past in the light of present. Therefore, I am writing this poem, the Sword Dance. Xu Zhang5 of Wu City6 mastered cursive script. He frequently watched the Sword Dance of Xi-he7 performed by Madam Gong-sun at Ye-xian City. From that time, his work of calligraphy was imbued with passion and his skill in advanced calligraphy greatly improved. This example shows how elegant her dance was.

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Years ago there was a beautiful woman called Madam Gong-sun.

When she performed the Sword Dance,

She would cause a sensation throughout China.

The audience seats would be elevated like mountains.

They were amazed by the flashes of reflected sword light accompanied by her agile movements.

Even heaven and earth moved in tuned with her rhythm.

The sword flashed like Yi's arrows that shot down the nine suns8.

She moved quickly and spiritedly like the dragon ridden by gods.

When her dance began, her movement was rapid and fierce like furious thunder shaking heaven and earth.

When her dance ended, her swords slowed down

Invoking thoughts of a mighty river or ocean regaining its shiny reflection.

Now her red lips and ornamental sleeves are gone.

After her death her disciple carries on her legacy.

In Bai-di City9, the beautiful woman from Lin-ying City

Gracefully performed the Sword Dance in high spirits.

After I learned that she studied dance under the tutelage of Madam Gong-sun,

The dance scene brought back my memory.

I lament that time ruthlessly replaces old with new.

Among eight thousand courtesans in the palace during Emperor Xuan-zong's reign

Madam Gong-sun was the best at performing the Sword Dance.

Fifty years10 has passed away like the turn of a page.

The chaos resulting from rebellions seriously depleted the strength of the Tang dynasty.

The students in the Royal Music Institute scattered like dust.

All that remains of the Royal Music is a female dancer's swords reflecting the cold sun11.

Every tree in front of Emperor Xuan-zong's Mausoleum has grown so large

That it requires a person's two arms to embrace it.

Ju-tang-shi-cheng City12 looks bleak and desolate as its grass withers.

As grand banquets and fast flute music ended,

Joy passed its zenith, grief took over, and the moon rose in the east.

I, an old man, am unaware of my destination13.

My soles have become thickly callused

As I drift aimlessly on the bare mountain with a heavy heart.

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1 Madam Gong-sun was a famous dancer in the Kai-yuan Period during Emperor Xuan-zong's reign.
2 Chi Yuan was an assistant to the Mayor of Kui-zhou City (present day Feng-jie-xian City in Sichuan Province).
3 Lin-ying City is located northwest of present day Lin-ying-xian City in Henan Province.
4 A dancer who performed “Hun-tuo Dance” wore a Hun-tuo Hat made from fur of black goats. This was how “Hun-tuo Dance” gained its name.
5 Xu Zhang was a famous calligrapher during Emperor Xuan-zong's reign. He was called the Father of Cursive Script by later generations. His work of calligraphy, Bai Li's poems, and Min Pei's sword dance were called “Three Masterpieces”.
6 Wu City is now called Su-zhou City and is located in Jiangsu Province.
7 Xi(west)-he(river) can refer to the Yellow River, the area west of the Yellow River, or a state which included the northwestern part of present day Shanxi Province, and the southern corner of Sui-yuan Province. The term “The Sword Dance of Xi-he” says either that the swords used in the dance were produced by the above regions, or that the dance came from the above regions.
8 The essay “A Lesson” in Huai-nan-zi says, “During Emperor Yao's reign, there were ten suns in the sky. Trees and grass withered. Therefore, Yi, a brave archer, shot down the nine suns in succession.”
9 Bai-di City was another name for Kui-zhou City.
10 From the time when Fu Du watched the Sword Dance performed by Madam Gong-sun (717 CE) to the time when he saw the Sword Dance performed by Madam Li (767 CE), fifty years have passed.
11 Fu Du saw the Sword Dance performed by Madam Li in cold October.
12 Ju-tang-shi(rock)-cheng City was Kui-zhou City.
13 In this poem, Madam Li's sword dance reminded Fu Du of Madam Gong-sun's sword dance. Fu Du lamented that the Tang dynasty went downhill after Emperor Xuan-zong's death. Madam Gong-sun's dance reminded Fu Du of the prosperity during Emperor Xuan-zong's reign. Fu Du was a talented statesman just as Madam Gong-sun was talented at dancing. He was greatly concerned with state affairs, but the emperor's court sent Fu Du into exile. Fu Du was bewildered and frustrated by the government's indifference about the scattering and loss of talents. All these feelings welled up in Fu Du's heart as he drifted aimlessly on a bare mountain. This explains why he wrote this line.