Skip to content

Poem for Zhang Haohao by Du Mu

    Poem for Zhang Haohao is a piece of calligraphy (and a poem) written by the great late Tang dynasty poet Du Mu in 834 AD.

    It is one of the great fusions of the two Chinese sister arts of calligraphy and poetry.

    And it has been enjoyed by generations of Chinese readers for nearly 1,200 years. 

    Understanding how the words and brushstrokes complement one another adds a new dimension to this masterpiece.

    Background to Poem for Zhang Haohao

    In 829 AD, Du Mu (803 – 853 AD) was newly graduated from the imperial exams a year before. 

    He had just begun his official career, working as an official in Xiangzhang (today’s Nanchang, Jiangxi Province). It’s here, in an establishment likely based in a ‘pleasure quarter’ of the city, that he met the then 13-years-old singing girl Zhang Haohao.

    Zhang Haohao had caught the attention of the official Shen Chuanshi (769 – 835 AD), Du Mu’s superior. When Shen was transferred to a post in Xuancheng in Anhui Province, Zhang Haohao went with him. 

    A couple of years later she became a concubine of Shen Chuanshi’s younger brother and lost contact with Du Mu.

    And a couple of years after that, Zhang and Du met for the final time in a Luoyang – one of the Tang dynasties two capital cities. Zhang Haohao had been abandoned by her previous husband was now selling alcohol in a drinking establishment.

    ‘Pleasure quarters’ in Tang dynasty China

    In Tang dynasty China, ‘pleasure quarters’ were districts filled with bars and brothels. They were popular with officials, merchants, others.

    They were particularly popular with students studying for the imperial exams.

    Many women working here were government-registered prostitutes. Some sang, composed verse, and hosted banquets and drinking parties. Others were simply barmaids that did not engage in a sexual trade.

    Many were from poor backgrounds. Others may have been from more fortunate backgrounds but were sold into the sex trade by deceptive men who had first purchased them as brides.

    To escape this life, women had to pay back their purchase fees and other debts to their ‘mother’ (a brothels’ madam).

    Or marry someone else who would pay it for them. Some women caught the eye of their clientele and ended up being taken as wives or concubines. This was an escape from difficult situation for some.

    For others, such as Zhang Haohao, it could prove to be bad luck.

    Singing girls

    Singing girl (歌妓 [gē jì]) is a label that covers a range of roles performed by women in bars and brothels, including singing, dancing, playing music, and/or prostitution.

    It is seen as a predecessor to Japan’s geishas or China’s Ming dynasty literary courtesans.

    In modern Mandarin Chinese, the character 妓 [] is generally used to refer to prostitutes. However, its implication is not the same in the context of Tang dynasty singing girls – here it is a category that includes both prostitutes and non-prostitutes. 

    In other words, the name doesn’t necessarily imply that its holders were prostitutes. 

    Concubines in China

    Concubines were like secondary wives. They generally had social (and legal) statuses lower than first wives but higher than servants.

    The practice of having them was legal, accepted and even encouraged throughout much of Chinese history. During the Tang dynasty, it was usually only wealthy households that had them. Later on, during the Song and afterwards, the practice spread to other social classes.

    Wealthy wives were generally from wealthier families themselves. By contrast, concubines were generally from less wealthy family. 

    A wealthy family’s daughter becoming a concubine was generally seen as a negative thing. In some cases, a concubines’ relatives would raise money so that she could be married and therefore raised to the status of wife.

    Side note: Raise the Red Lantern was a successful 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou. It is based on a Chinese novella of the same name that was originally published as Wives and Concubines (1990).

    (Simplified) Chinese text of ‘Poem for Zhang Haohao’ by Du Mu

    张好好诗 并序


    English translation of ‘Poem for Zhang Haohao’ 

    Introductory note by Du Mu

    In 829, I was serving in office of the late Shen Chuanshi in Jiangxi.
    At the time, Zhang Haohao was 13 years old. She had just entered work in the pleasure quarters as a singer.
    A year passed and the official Shen Chuanshi was appointed to a post in Xuancheng. He arranged to have Zhang Haohao taken with him to the pleasure quarters there.
    Another two years passed and Zhang Haohao had been taken as a concubine by Shen Chuanshi’s younger brother, Shen Shushi.
    Then another two years passed, I was in the eastern quarter of Luoyang when I saw Zhang Haohao again.
    It saddened me, so I wrote this poem dedicated to her.

    You are a beauty of Nanchang. That year you were only 13 years old.
    You were like a young tender green bamboo shoot, the small blossoming bud of a red lotus.
    The tall pavilion stretched halfway up into the sky. The Zhanghong River reached the heavens.
    It was here that you were invited to sing before a magnificent banquet.
    I looked around at the four gathered guests, surprised to see you hesitatingly enter the room.
    The hostess stood up and beckoned you over. You reluctantly obeyed, hiding half your face with your long sleeves.
    Your hair was styled just right in two buns. Your handsome body clad in a short, close-fitting green jacket.
    Your eyes gazed down at your sleeves. Your singing was like a young phoenix’s call.
    The stringed instrument burst forth. A sonorous sigh of approval that could have split reeds swept through the room.
    But these other sounds were nothing compared to your voice, which spiralled up into the clouds.
    I sighed thrice, muttering that this kind of voice was rare under heaven.
    You were given silks decorated with heavenly horses, and a comb made with the ivory of a water rhino.

    In Longzhou sightseeing, looking at the East Lake’s moonlit autumn waves. 
    From then on, we would meet often, to the point that even three days would seem a long time to be apart. 
    Jade’s quality changes with the moon, and spring brings more comfortable conditions.
    Your scarlett lips gradually got smarter, and your youthful gait became more relaxed.
    A streaming banner suddenly descended in the east; music and dance came along with a convoy of ships.
    Autumn frost smothered withered trees. Spring sands warmed vines beside streams.
    Outside affairs are just like piles of dust. What matters is the glass of wine in front and life’s happiness.

    Guests gathered in Jixian Hall, overwhelming the Minister of War.
    Betrothed and decorated with jade ornaments, you were carried off in a purple carriage. 
    This closed the door on the sound of waters. The bright moon hung overhead; lonely cicadas’ calls buzzed in the shadows.
    A few years have passed since then, scattering our shared times into the past.

    When we meet again in Luoyang, your graceful gait was serving drinks in a hotel.
    You told me, the white-bearded young man, about your hardships. 
    You asked where our friends from those days are today. And you wondered whether these difficult times would persist.

    After I cried bitter tears at the gates, grey autumn clouds appeared above.
    The setting sun and a cool breeze passed through the willows.
    Tears dried on my chest. This short song (poem) is for you.

    (Traditional) Chinese text of Poem for Zhang Haohao alongside calligraphy piece

    Analysis of calligraphy of Poem for Zhang Haohao

    The calligraphy on the surviving copy of Poem for Zhang Haohao is written in running script, which is a cursive version of the standard script

    Du Mu’s brushwork here displays an elegant, free and precariously balanced quality. It contains a unique mixture of thick and thin strokes, as well as well-formed and less well-formed characters.

    One of the trends at the time in late Tang dynasty calligraphy was for characters to be made up of thinner, longer strokes than in earlier periods.

    The poem is a melancholic recollection of a changing past. And the calligraphic piece is full of long, lingering brushstrokes that further suggest a lingering over memories.

    Physical dimension of Poem for Zhang Haohao

    Poem for Zhang Haohao is written in ink on hemp paper. It is 28.2 high by 162cm across. It is made up of 322 characters arranged in forty-six columns. 

    Today, the only surviving copy of the poem is housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *