There are no strangers
on the world’s horizon


continue... Song of the Pipa

A silver jar shattered and water gushed out,
And armoured horsemen clashed in their fighting gear.
Once more she swept all four strings like the tearing of silk.
East and west, the boats were hushed by her music,
While the autumn moon rose white above the water.

Finally she inserted the peg under the strings,
Adjusted her clothes, composed herself and told her story:

“I was a girl from the Capital,
living at the foot of the Hsia-mo Hill.
At thirteen, I had already mastered the pipa
and critics praised me as the best player ever.
I was familiar with the tunes of popular songs and dances
And my talent and beauty made many girls envious.
The young men of the city competed for my favours.
One song could bring me rolls of silk,
Jewelled hairpins and silver combs.
My clothes too were often crimsoned with wine.
Year after year, the feasting and laughter went on,
As autumn changed to spring in carefree abandon.

“Then my brother left for the Army and my aunt died.
Evening and morning passed and my beauty waned.
At last, no longer young, I was married to a merchant.
But he cares more for his business than his wife.
Last month, he left for Fouliang town to buy tea
Leaving me to look after an empty boat.
With only the moon and cold river for companions.
In the deep of the night, I dreamt of my girlhood
But the happy memories hastened my tears”

When I heard her playing the pipa, I sighed
When I heard her story, I became sadder still.

“There are no strangers on the world’s horizon,
Here we meet and share the same fate,
What does past acquaintance matter?

“A year ago, I left the Capital
To become a sick exile in this town.
The place is so forsaken there is no good music.
For an entire year I heard nothing of string or pipe.
My house near the river is low and damp,
Surrounded by reeds and rushes.
Morning and night, all I hear
Are the blood-cuddling cuckoo calls and the cries of apes.

“In spring mornings among the flowers
And under a moon in autumn nights,
I would bring wine, only to drink alone by the river.
There are mountain songs and village piping
But they cut my ears with their grating sound.
Tonight, hearing you play the pipa
Is like listening to fairy music from afar.
Don't go just yet, but play us another tune
And I will compose the words of a song for you.”

Moved by my words she stood for a moment,
Then sitting down she began strumming anew.
But the forlorn notes were different from before
And everyone listening could not hold back their tears.
Who among them was most affected?
The author, a junior official, with his blue sleeves wet.


– Francis Chin,  published June 9, 1979 in Business Times newspaper,
revised May 24, 2008 for the Web


The exact translation of the phrase 同是天涯淪落人,相逢何必曾相識 :

We are, on the world’s horizon, fellow-sufferers,
Meeting here, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t know each other before.

“We are all lonely under the stars, all strangers and sojourners here on earth.”
A. Powell Davies (1902-57), author, Unitarian minister & civil rights activist

The two paintings are from a set of 10 scrolls by Yao Youxin to illustrate the poem. The set, and another set of 10 scrolls on Bai Chiyi’s Song of Eternal Song, were sold in Singapore for S$100,000 to raise money for a Chinese high school building fund.

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Bai Chi-yi's Pipa Player, one of 10 scroll paintings by Yao Yuxin