Poem by Song Ruohua
Mocking the Land's Freedom
Twelve-story tower against a kingfisher-blue sky.
Emperor and empress beside the parasol trees.
And calling out, walking in pairs, the prison guards
Who keep the Songs of Wu from entering the palace.
Song Ruohua is one of the five daughters of the Tang Confucian scholar, Song Tingfen. She and her sister Ruozhao were in the imperial court as tutors to the throne in classics and history in the Emperor Dezong's reign (779-805). Song Ruohua has two clear layers to this poem. The public layer is the one above. The critical, ironic layer is this:
Symbol of empire biased against the open sky.
Imperial power opposed to a symbol of goodness.
This power demonstrably guards our prison world
And keeps the joyful singing from entering our lives.
Her choice of verbs in the first two lines are what gives the irony away. They are strong verbs of opposition which only in a toned-down sense give the more public meaning. Also the emperor and his wife are described in a bigram (feng4luan2) using "male phoenix" and "another fabulous bird", which is an inversion of the normal bigram (luan2feng4) for "phoenix and mate" or "husband and wife." So in the public poem we "assume" male accompanied by female and an artistic inversion. In the private, only the male power remains.
And then there are the songs of Wu. Wu was an ancient state during the Spring and Autumn period. Sunzi, author of the Art of War, advised its king. Another Wu was a state during the Three Kingdoms period. Another Wu was a state during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period. They all had their own songs, I'm sure. So Song had plausible deniability if charged with criticism of the empire due to inappropriate Wu lyrics. "Oh, not that Wu," she would quietly say and then demurely quote the safer one's songs. People who were less careful, like the woman poet Li Ye, were sentenced to death for poetic criticism of the empire.