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Reviewed by:
  • Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China
  • Stephen Field
Anne Birrell . Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1993. xiv, 226 pp. Paperback $12.95, ISBN 0-8248-1548-3.

The University of Hawai'i Press is to be commended for reissuing Anne Birrell's acclaimed translation and analysis of Han dynasty yuefu verse. Originally published in Great Britain in 1988, this work still remains the best study in English on the anonymous Han songs. The book opens with an essay that outlines what is known about the tradition, including an account of the institution called the Music Bureau, a discussion of the sources of the various song texts and the tradition that collected and categorized them, and very informative treatments of the oral-ity and musical aspects of the songs. Then follow eleven chapters named for thematic categories derived by Birrell herself: hymns, fables, the elixir of life, carpe diem, burial songs, political broadsides, antiwar ballads, domestic drama, homeward thoughts, love songs, and the ideal home and perfect marriage. These chapters include translations and explications of a total of seventy-seven songs.

The reissue of Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China in paperback will enable teachers to assign the text in classes on Chinese poetry in translation, as well as courses on folklore and ethnomusicology. Its value in comparative courses is particularly owing to the author's embrace of the comparative technique. Her use of the terms "ballad" and "fable" is an attempt to place the Chinese oral tradition alongside its Western counterpart. And her willingness to discuss the performative aspects of individual songs sets her study apart from most others and increases its appeal to musicologists.

On the other hand, the book is less useful for the specialist because it lacks the Chinese texts of the poems under discussion. Another capitulation to the general reader is the citation of Chinese sources in English translation. Yet, the extensive analysis of each song's literary sources and prosody (as well as the documentation of previous translations) seems specifically provided for the specialist. However, for the sinologist without easy access to such specialized texts as the Song dynasty Yuefu shi ji by Guo Maoqian, Birrell's most frequently cited source, a finding list for the more commonly available anthology Quan Han Sanguo Jin Nanbeichao shi would have been appreciated.

From this reviewer's perspective, the author's most innovative technique is her study of different versions of particular songs. Seven of the poems translated in Birrell's book are later renderings or literary adaptations of earlier ballads. Not only is it possible to gain insight into compositional techniques and the transformation from oral to literary styles; it is also possible to observe the evolution of political and religious sentiment in the society that fashioned the songs. A case in point is the "West Gate Ballad" (Ximen xing), which is presented in both twenty-four-line [End Page 396] and nineteen-line balladic versions, as well as a formal shi poem (no. 15 of Gushi shijiu shou). Birrell believes an excised reference to the immortal Wang Ziqiao in the shorter song "suggests that by the time this song was being performed the audience no longer believed in the concept of immortality" (p. 92). When the shi poem was finally composed, the content of both songs was compressed into ten pentasyllabic lines, and the reference to Wang Ziqiao returned as a literary image. The comparison carried out here is reminiscent of the "intratext-ual" tracings conducted by Joseph Allen in his landmark study on the evolution of yuefu poetry.1

Its many fine qualities notwithstanding, Popular Songs and Ballads of Han China is still more blemished than one would expect from a revised edition. One would think at the very least that misspellings would be corrected. In her discussion of the stanzaic divisions of the ballad, Birrell describes the yan "prelude" and the qu "finale" divisions of the song that required different kinds of musical accompaniment (p. 24). But her romanization of the latter character is tsü, rather than ch'ü or ts'u, the standard Wade-Giles spellings.2 It must be reiterated that...


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