top of page

楊叛兒 “Yang Pan’er”






“Yang Pan’er”, a western song by an anonymous poet

A short outing from the White Gate[2]

[When] poplars and willows can hide a crow.

You serve as the agarwood,[3]

I serve as the mountain[-shaped] burner.

* From Zeng Zao 曾慥 (fl. 12th century) ed., Leishuo 類說, Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), vol. 873, 51.9b.










“Yang Pan’er” by Li Bai

You sing the “Yang Pan’er”,

I make a toast with the Xinfeng liquor.[4]

What attracts people the most?

The crow crying in the willow at the White Gate.

As the crow cries, hidden in poplar blossoms,

You get drunk and stay at my place.

In the mountain[-shaped] burner is the glimmer of agarwood,

Two wisps of smoke twining into one, soaring to the purple mist.

* From Li Bai 李白 (701-762), Li Taibai quanji jiaozhu 李太白全集校注 (Nanjing: Fenghuang chuban chuanmei youxian gongsi, 2015), annotated by Yu Xianhao 郁賢皓, 374.

[1] Coloured characters rhyme; same below. [2] The White Gate is the alternative name of the Xuanyang Gate 宣陽門, one of the city gates of the capital city Jiankang (modern Nanking) during the Liu Song dynasty (420-479). [3] An alternative version has 歡/懽 instead of 郎; more on this later. [4] Xinfeng 新豐 (near Lintong 臨潼, Shaanxi) was known for its production of great liquor.


Having read about and fiddled with different types of incense and associated utensils, the acquisition of a boshanlu 博山爐 (mountain-shaped burner) was inevitable. Last week, I finally came to the point of marvelling at the small mountain-shaped burner that I got for myself. What I pondered over at the same time was a simile involving the mountain-shaped burner that I came across in the ancient xiqu 西曲 (western song) [5] “Yang Pan’er” and Li Bai’s poem by the same title.

The old song starts with two lines depicting a spring outing to the outskirts of the capital. The last two lines are presumably intended to suggest the love of the two protagonists, but it is not so clear how exactly the simile works. I first thought the last two lines are about the burner immersed in the smoke of the burning agarwood, but my small mountain-shaped burner showed me how fast the smoke could escape from the burner even with my window closed. So, to give the love song a happy ending, let’s say the last two lines may refer to the fact that the scent and warmth of the agarwood would stay with the burner, or the burner is the receiver of the agarwood’s burning passion. One may even be enticed to speculate on the sexual implication of the song, which makes it, in Zhou Ting’s 周珽 (fl. 17th century) words, “erotic yet abstruse” (艷而邃).[6]

Another possibility is that the mountain-shaped burner collocates with agarwood much more often than any other type of incense in literature. In that case, the last two lines simply indicate that the two lovers would always be together.

A textual variation suggests yet another possibility for interpretation. When we have huan 歡/懽 instead of lang 郎 at the beginning of the third line, the last two lines read, “Happiness serves as the agarwood, / I serve as the mountain[-shaped] burner” or “Happily becoming the agarwood, / I serve as the mountain[-shaped] burner”, which is grammatically possible but doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

Li Bai’s poem, on the other hand, is almost cinematic. He adds more details and some spices into the old story and uses a metaphor instead of a simile in the last line, with the two wisps of smoke indicating the two lovers. By having the male protagonist stay overnight and the two wisps of smoke “twining into one”, Li Bai also casts light on the erotic connotations of the original simile. This interpretation of the old song has sparked an interesting dispute among commentators.

The eminent scholar Yang Shen 楊慎 (1488-1559) left a long commentary on Li Bai’s poem, full of admiration, considering it a classic elucidation of the old song comparable to Mengzi’s elaboration on the Shangshu 尚書 (Documents) and Zheng Xuan鄭玄 (127-200) on the Shijing 詩經 (Book of Songs). On the simile specifically, Yang Shen noted:

  • 沈水、博山之句,非太白以“雙煙一氣”解之,樂府之妙亦隱矣。[7]

  • [As for] the lines about agarwood and the mountain-shaped burner, if Li Bai had not expanded on them with “two wisps of smoke twining into one”, the brilliance of the music-bureau song would have remained concealed.

Whereas Yang Shen seems to take Li Bai’s last line as the authoritative interpretation of the old song, another famous critique Yan Yu 嚴羽 (1191-1241), author of the celebrated Canglang shihua 滄浪詩話 (Canglang’s Talks on Poetry), thinks differently:

  • 有此蛇足,愈見古曲之妙;且道笈箓語入此,更惡俗。[8]

  • With this unnecessary elaboration, the brilliance of the old song seems even clearer. Moreover, the use of Daoist texts and incantation expressions is despicably vulgar.

The last line of Li Bai’s poem, with images like yan 烟 (smoke) and zixia 紫霞 (purple mist), does have a Daoist flavour, just like many other works by Li Bai. In this context, such a flavour actually works in perfect harmony with the erotic connotations, for Daoists were the earliest to systematically elaborate on sexual practices. But Li Bai’s wording and imagery are by no means outright obscene.[9] To say his words are “despicably vulgar” takes quite some courage as well as utter distaste for popular Daoism. It’s also interesting that Yan Yu considers Li Bai’s elaboration totally unnecessary. Perhaps Yan Yu simply enjoys the huge space for imagination and interpretation left by the minimalist similes. Nevertheless, I wish he had said a bit more about what he considers the brilliance of the old song.

I personally don’t see an “expanded version” of the old story in Li Bai’s work. He has reinvented the poetic scene radically, depicting a domestic scene instead. He even distances his story from the old one by having the male protagonist singing the old song in the first line, so it is not impossible that his mountain-shaped burner functions slightly differently in the scene.

In any case, I must say that Li Bai is right about the smoke gushing out from the burner and entangling into one trail. As mentioned above, I thought the 20 openings on the cap of my burner would create a nice view of a mountain immersed in mist, but the smoke (of the agarwood incense seal, at least) is just incapable of lingering around. It gushes out from the two openings on the very top of mountain and shoots to the sky... Well, I guess my next challenge is to find a way to make use of the other 18 openings.

[5] Xiqu 西曲 refers to the songs in the Chu 楚 region (around modern Hunan and Hubei) during the Southern Dynasties (420-589) as opposed to Wuge 吳歌 (Songs of the Wu region, around modern Jiangsu). Both types of songs are believed to represent certain aspects of folk songs at the time, although literati embellishment can be observed here and there. [6] Quoted in Li Bai, Li Taibai quanji jiaozhu, 376. [7] See Li Bai, Li Taibai quanji 李太白全集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977), annotated by Wang Qi 王琦 (1696-1774), 226. [8] Quoted in Li Bai, Li Taibai quanji jiaozhu, 375. [9] A few critiques praise him for writing on an erotic subject in an elegant way, see, for example, commentaries by Lu Shiyong 陸時雍 (fl. 17th century) and Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673-1769) in Li Bai, Li Taibai quanji jiaozhu, 376.

1-2: Detail of Du Jin's 杜堇 (ca. 1465-1509) "Wangu tu" 玩古圖, with a mountain-shaped incense burner on the table in the shape of the model recorded in Lü Dalin's 呂大臨 (1044-1091) Bogu tu 博古圖; picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

3: From Lü Dalin 呂大臨, Bogu tu 博古圖, Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987) vol. 840, 10.14a.


Copyright Declaration*:

The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g., or original work created for this website.

Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.



*Read more about copyright and permission here.

1 comment

1 Comment

A very interesting post, thanks.

bottom of page