The letter accompanying this print was written at Shanghai by the Reverend Hallock on 8 August 1929, and this picture was made for Qixi, the Double Seventh Festival (held on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month – 11 August in 1929).
Like Valentine’s day in the West, the festival celebrates romance. The story goes that a cowherd fell in love with a weaver girl, whose family wouldn’t accept the match. So they eloped, but were caught and in punishment turned into two stars on opposite sides of the sky. But on this one night each year, sympathetic magpies form a bridge of stars between them – the Milky Way – so that they can spend time together.
The cowherd and weaver girl look down from the top left corner of the picture on another famous pair of lovers, the Tang emperor Xuanzong (685–762) and Yang Yufang, better known as the “Noble Concubine” Yang Guifei (719–756). Theirs was a tragic story: Xuanzong, whose early reign is considered as the high point of the Tang dynasty, became so infatuated by Yang Guifei he lost interest in state affairs. As his rule gradually unravelled, real power accumulated in the hands of one of his generals, An Lushan, who was of Central Asian descent.
In 755 An Lushan launched a rebellion and Xuanzong was forced to flee from his capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an), southwest through the galleried mountain roads into Sichuan province. But along the way his troops mutinied and demanded the death of Yang Guifei, who they blamed for undermining the emperor’s power. She was strangled on a hillside called Mawei Po. A grief-stricken Xuanzong abdicated and it was his son who eventually defeated An Lushan and restored Tang rule, though the dynasty never regained its former brilliance.
In the print, Xuanzong – wearing an imperial yellow robe and named as Tang Minghuang (唐明皇) – sits on a terrace watching Yang Guifei (楊贵妃), attended by a maid, offer incense to the Cowherd and Weaver Girl. Behind the emperor is another palace maid and two eunuchs, one of whom is the famously loyal Gao Lishi (高力士).
The text floating in incense smoke above Yang Guifei reads “At midnight on the seventh of the seventh month, in the deserted Changsheng Hall, we whispered our promise”, lines from the famous Song of Everlasting Regret by the ninth-century poet Bai Juyi. The promise was of eternal love between Xuanzong and Yang Guifei: to be forever paired like birds in flight, or two trees growing intertwined. In the top right corner, the autumnal wutong tree – another symbol of togetherness – is also referenced in the poem.
Apparently Bai Juyi grew to dislike Everlasting Regret because its popularity overshadowed what he considered his more important social commentaries – which might be why his great admirer Arthur Waley never translated it.