Most heartbreaking are the green waters underneath the bridge, therein I saw her graceful figure once reflected.Shen Garden, Lu You (1125-1210)
Taking a quick break from Peony’s Tavern today to share a different kind of novel, Memories of a Graceful Reflection (猶記驚鴻照影 // You Ji Jing Hong Zhao Ying) by Feng Ning Xue Wu (風凝雪舞), which I came across when I was looking a heavier and less fluffy read. This was first the angsty palace novel I’ve read since Eastern Palace last summer, but I’m glad I took the plunge and because it’s quickly become a favorite.
We begin with a loveless marriage between Murong Qing, the Prime Minister’s long lost daughter, and Nan Cheng Yao, the philandering third prince of the reigning dynasty. Brought together by nothing more than a political alliance, they each enter into the marriage with their own baggage. It’s clear she just wants to live a simple, unfettered life, but Murong Qing cannot escape entanglement with palace politics and well as the lofty ambitions of her husband. Moreover, in a fights for survival and power, façades are never as they seem. As secrets from her past and present begin to unravel, Murong Qing’s resilience is put to the test.
A word of warning that Memories of a Graceful Reflection is sad. It’s not a tragedy in the strictest sense, but it’s still very Shakespearean and very angsty.
Most heartbreaking are the rippling spring waters, still so green beneath the bridge; therein I saw her graceful figure once reflected.
When her sister unexpectedly fled to avoid an arranged marriage, she was left with no choice but to enter the imperial household. From the first night of her grand wedding, which was spend alone, to becoming aware of the matters regarding the unforgettable past in her husband’s heart, she handled it all in stride.
A marriage with a prince was destined to be one void of love. All that concerned her was protecting her family’s stability. She accompanied him, step by step, in his aspiration for the world. She watched as his eyes became colder the more he smiled. Never would she have expected a day wherein everything she held faith in would be destroyed by his own hands.
What initially drew me to Memories of a Graceful Reflection was the title and the opening line of the synopsis, which draws from a poem by Lu You (陸游, 1125 to 1209), a poet from the turbulent years of China’s Southern Song Dynasty. He was a renowned poet and had many talents, but he’s particularly renowned in modern times for a legendary love story.
There’s a bit of an ick factor because his lover is his cousin, but in ancient China, marriage between maternal cousins wasn’t taboo. It was customary to view relatives of different surnames as mere distant relations belonging to another clan. Only those sharing a surname were part of the same nuclear family.
The story between Lu You and his wife, Tang Wan, goes like this:
Lu You grew up with Tang Wan and they fell deeply in love, marrying when he was twenty years old. They shared a happy union that was ultimately short-lived because his mother forced him to divorce her and focus on his studies in order to become a public official. Influenced by Confucianism, Chinese culture has always emphasized filial piety, so of course, Lu You and Tang Wan broke up. They lost contact and went on to marry different spouses. Almost a decade later, Lu You and his second wife had separated, and he came across Tang Wan and her husband at Shen Garden (沈園 // Shen Yuan) by happenstance.
Tang Wan asked her husband to let her send a cup of wine to Lu You. When he received the wine, he saw her eyes brimming with tears and became wistful himself. Like all good Chinese poets of eras past, he got drunk and and wrote a poem, Phoenix Hairpin, to express his love for her as well as his struggle regarding their separation. He sent her the poem and, in return, she wrote him a letter that reflected the same sentiment. It was said that she died some time later of a broken heart.
Lu You so often visited Shen Garden to reminisce Tang Wan that forty years later, he returned to the same place to relive dreams of the past, penning another two poems. Two Verses of Shen Garden is a song of mourning, and it’s here where Lu You offers a final farewell to the romance that represented his youth. The first line of Memories of a Graceful Reflection‘s synopsis quotes lines three and four of while the novel’s title is from line four:
Two Verses of Shen Garden
Saddening is the sound of horns on the city wall at sunset;
In Shen Garden the ponds and terraces are no longer the same.
Most heartbreaking are the rippling spring waters, still so green beneath the bridge;
Therein I saw her graceful figure once reflected.
Forty years have passed since the dream ended and all fragrance faded away;
In Shen Garden the willow trees are too old to bear flowers.
Though I shall soon be part of the soil of Mount Ji,
I cannot hold back my tears upon seeing this old scene.
—Lu You (1125-1210)
Translation by Gina Fraser with minor revisions by me.
Through our memories, we have the luxury of reminiscing the past in its most pure and untouched state. However, physically going back to a place or person evokes a different kind of feeling, forcing us to accept that we can’t control the vicissitudes of life. It’s what Lu You faces in Two Verses of Shen Garden—the reality that his lover is long gone and life can only move onward.1 It’s unclear how much of their love story is factual and how much is urban legend, but the longing seeped deep in his prose is clear.
Review in Brief
The love story in Memories of a Graceful Reflection isn’t quite the same as Lu You and Tang Wan’s story, but the feelings of nostalgia and helplessness it evokes is all the same. In spite of the shared affection that grows between them, Murong Qing and Nan Cheng Yao are only human—they’re too young to understand what it means to love a person, too arrogant to shoulder their burdens as one. Though he tries to shield her from the dangers and intricacies of the imperial power struggle, a classic case of misunderstanding wedges in between and leaves one wondering…what if things were handled differently?
For me, this story hits all the right notes. It shows you warmth, love, and hope, then pulls the rug right out from underneath and has you hopelessly contemplating the vices of human nature. Nan Cheng Yao might have you swooning one moment and cursing him out the next while you sometimes can’t help but wonder why Murong Qing endures the things that she does. But it’s undeniable that there is a kind of beauty in the darkness—and Memories has plenty of this.
And to those who are concerned, let me repeat, this is not a tragedy in the traditional sense. While it’s very angsty with a cruel dose of dramatic irony, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time, if you’re looking for a fluffy story that ties everything into perfect bows, this ain’t it fam. I look forward to anyone who chooses to accompany me through the bumpy ride that is translating and reading this story.
Note: Memories of Graceful Reflection is a web novel that has been revised for print. The published version seems to be out of print and there seems to be a consensus about the web version being superior, so I’ll be translating the latter.
Some Further Reading:
- “Phoenix Hairpin” on A Year of Love Poetry – English translation and of Lu You’s Phoenix Hairpin.
- Shen Garden on China Travel – Some additional info on Shen Garden and Lu You’s story.
- Shen Garden is a Famous Love Garden on China Tour Advisor – Photos of Shen Garden and some of its lovers’ attractions.
- Sadness is a Great Calamity of Life on QQ – Analysis on Shen Garden and Lu You