- Shan’ge, the “Mountain Songs”: Love Songs in Ming China
Shan’ge, the “Mountain Songs”: Love Songs in Ming China is two great books in one volume. The first half is Ōki Yasushi’s English translation of seven chapters of Feng Menglong’s 馮夢龍 (1574–1646) folksong anthology Shan’ge 山歌 (Mountain songs), with Ōki and Paolo Santangelo’s annotations. In shockingly daring language in Suzhou 蘇州 dialect, the songs vocalize human beings’ most primitive desire for carnal love. Contrary to the stereotype of sensual young men, the songs illustrate that women and the elderly are as crazy, if not more so, as their younger male counterparts in their pursuit of sexual pleasure and in their distress when the desires are not satisfied. Both the cognitive and the physical aspects of their love experience are expressed in vivid vocabularies, often of double meaning and in metaphorical forms. As the metaphors are not elitist but homely and make references to a wide spectrum of objects intimately related to the daily lives of peasants, workers, and merchants, such as foods, plants, clothing, tools, accessories, stationeries, games, money, and weather, the songs are of not only literary but also historical values. Ōki and Santangelo’s rigorous translation and analysis convey the refreshing sentiments and symbolism in scholarly yet reader-friendly English. The second half of the volume is Santangelo’s glossary of the Chinese terms in the songs that manifest, represent, or describe the “emotions, states of mind, sensorial feelings, the inner world, taboo words and swear words” of Ming people (p. 301). This is part of a larger research project aimed at constructing a database for the reconstruction of the mental structure in Ming and Qing China, using fragments collected from primary sources such as folk literature, stories, dramas, treatises, poems, diaries, and judicial reports. As such, the volume is a tremendous contribution to the studies of Chinese literature, linguistics, history, gender, and sexology, as well as global anthropological history.
To Feng Menglong fans, this volume is a welcomed addition to Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang’s complete English translation of this recently noticed giant of Ming popular literature’s Sanyan 三言 (Three words) collection of vernacular short stories. While the language of Sanyan is based on colloquial Mandarin Chinese, that of Shan’ge is based on colloquial Suzhou dialect. The nonstandard linguistic form of the Shan’ge adds to the difficulty of the translation, and its publication significantly expands the repertoire of English sources on Chinese vernacular literature to include works in regional dialects (方言 fangyan). Another translation difficulty arises from profanity. To retain the authenticity (真 zhen) of the singers’ spontaneous emotions (情 qing), Feng Menglong did not tone down the vulgar and graphic expressions of their sexual cravings or orgasm. However, Shan’ge is not mere pornography. Feng instilled an intelligentsia’s aesthetics into the compilation [End Page 469] through his nuanced textual manipulation and his commentary that satirized what he regarded as hypocritical or calculated feelings. It was excusable to be unfaithful to one’s spouse, who was arranged by parents, but it was inexcusable to be unfaithful to the lover of one’s own choice, or to be willingly engaged in a politically or economically motivated relation. It takes a true Feng Menglong fan such as Ōki, who has researched the Shan’ge for over two decades, to strike a balance in the translation.
According to Ōki, mountain songs originated in the farm villages, then spread to the cities, became popular in the pleasure quarters, and were finally imitated by literati. Feng collected 386 songs in the Shan’ge and divided them into ten chapters:
1. Secret feelings/four lines: sixty-eight songs on women in illicit sexual liaisons
2. Secret feelings/four lines: sixty-five songs on the physicality of sex
3. Secret feelings/four lines: thirty-six songs on the woes of separation or abandonment
4. Secret feelings/four lines: forty-one songs on incestuous love...