Song of the Pipa, one of 10 scroll paintings by Yao Yuxin

Suddenly we heard a pipa across the water

The Song of the Pipa 琵琶行, by Bai Chiyi 白居易, is one of the most well-loved of Tang Dynasty rhyming poems. Generations of schoolchildren have memorised its melodious lines and generations of scholars with noble sentiments have sighed over its quiet pathos.

About 30 years ago when I was working in Singapore’s then newly-launched Business Times daily, I wrote a weekly column on Chinese culture and literary stuff to pad the Monday edition that used to be rather thin in news reports because little commercial activity went on over the weekend. One of my earliest pieces was an attempt to translate the Song of the Pipa which my mother used to recite to me. Even today, I could still hear in my head her voice running through the lines of this sweet poem.

Over the years I have worked and re-worked the English phrases but still find it impossible to convey all the naunced thoughts of the expressive lines in Chinese.

Bai writes an introduction to describe his circumstances and how he and his friend met the pipa player.


In the 10th Year of Emperor Yuan Ho, I was banished and demoted to Jiu-jiang district as an assistant official. In the summer of the following year, as I was seeing a friend off, we heard from a nearby boat a pipa (a four-string lute) being played in the style of the Capital.

On inquiry, I learnt that the player used to be a singer from the Capital who was now married to a merchant. I invited her to my boat to play for us. She also related to us her story and unhappiness.

Since my departure from the Capital I had not felt sad; but from that night on, I began to feel the weight of my exile. So, I wrote this poem in 612 words:

By the head water of the Hsin-yang River
Where maple leaves and reeds sigh in the autumn wind,
I said goodbye to a friend departing in the night.
When I dismounted, my guest was already in the boat.
Silently, we lifted our cups for a final toast
But the wine could not soothe our sadness
That rose with the rising tide and flooded the moon.

Suddenly we heard a pipa across the water.
I, the host, forgot my return, the guest his journey on.
In the darkness we asked for the player.

The music broke off, whoever wishing to reply seemed uncertain.
So we re-lit the lamp, reset our table with food and wine,
And moved our boat nearer, hoping to see the player.
But only after much urging did she appear
Clutching her pipa that half-covered her face.
She turned the pegs and tested the strings
And as she strummed we already sensed her feelings,

For every chord and every note was heavy with thought
Telling a sorrowful tale of life.
With lowered brows and sure hands, she poured into the music
The limitless depths of her heart.


She plucked the strings, brushed them and swept on...
With a song of the Rainbow Skirt and the Six Little Ones.
The major chords droned on like pouring rain,
The minor chords whispered secrets,
In a delightful medley
Like the tlinkling of pearls on a jade plate,
Like the notes of a hidden nightingale among flowers,
Like the singing of a brook as its water rushed the bank.

A cold touch suddenly froze the music,
And in the silence we heard her innermost sorrow

For the stillness told more than any music could...

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Song of the Pipa, painting by Yao Yuxin