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Kuo Mao-ch’ien’s one hundred chapter anthology of songs and ballads opens with twelve chapters of hymns.1 A connection between hymns and ballads might well seem tenuous. Yet in the early years of the Han empire a firm link between the two was forged for reasons of administra­tive procedure, imperial patronage of the arts, and liturgical reform. In the second century BC, a governmental office was revived to supervize musical arrangements for both religious worship and court entertainment. Its title was the Bureau of Music, Yüeh-ju. The director of music was personally appointed by the reigning emperor for his expertise in contemporary, especially foreign forms of music. His official title, Master of Music, Hsieh-lü tu-wei, was uniquely devised for him by Emperor Wu and his role was to provide the music for religious and secular ceremonies.2 The Bureau was in the heart of the capital city of Ch’angan in a palatial compound.3 In the reign of Emperor Wu (141–87 BC), imperial patronage of the arts was at its zenith; the emperor personally intervened at the policy and administrative levels, imposing his artistic taste on literary, musical, and liturgical developments.

Like previous rulers of the Han, especially the founder Emperor Kao-tsu, Emperor Wu had no inhibitions about class or status, nor was he prejudiced about the social origins or previous occupations of the many gifted people at his court.4 His was a regal meritocracy of talent. One of his favourite concubines was the younger sister of his Master of Music named Lady Li, who was an entertainer of great beauty. His consort, Empress Wei, was also originally a lower-class singer who had gained employment in the household of the emperor’s sister.5 The emperor’s Master of Music, Li Yen-nien, was a talented nobody. Before entering court he had been convicted of a crime and had been castrated and employed in the Imperial Kennels. The emperor had taken a fancy to Li’s sister when he visited his own sister’s household where she was employed. He brought her back to the palace and at the same time brought her brother, Li Yen-nien, to court.6

The poet Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju had a chequered career in his youth; he 30had eloped with a widowed heiress but lived in poverty when her father disinherited her. At the Han court he became the foremost rhapsodist, eulogizing the splendour of palaces and parks, while ambiguously intro­ducing a critique of imperial extravagance.7 Among other gifted courtiers and officials who added lustre to the prestige of the emperor was Li Yen-nien’s brother, General Li Kuang-li, who after serious setbacks successfully penetrated into Central Asia and captured prized horses from Ta-yüan, or Ferghana. There was also Chang Ch’ien, an intrepid voyager who brought back to the Han court precious exotica from Central Asia and tales of foreign wonders.8 The court historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, who personally witnessed many events of Emperor Wu’s reign, chronicled the founding of the Han Dynasty and recorded contemporary affairs, while projecting his historical narrative back into remote antiquity in order to demonstrate that the Han had evolved from a race of gods and super-heroes.9 In his reign, too, lived the philosopher Tung Chung-shu, the founder of Han Confucianism, a complex syncretic system which ordained a quasi-priestly role for the imperial ruler, mediating between Heaven, Earth, and Man.10 Also at Emperor Wu’s court was the court jester, Tung-fang Shuo, who kept the emperor amused with his parodies of the sages and solemn erudites.11 This group of artistes, actors, beauties, musicians, poets, clowns, academics, philosophers, historians, and officials which Emperor Wu gathered around him were from varying social backgrounds, but were all chosen for their brilliant talent. In his informal selection procedures, the emperor evinced a plebian, meritocratic trait reminiscent of the humble social aspect of the founder of the dynasty.

The career of Li Yen-nien is a reflection of Emperor Wu’s taste for popular forms of music. Some thirty years after he had succeeded to the throne, the emperor became impressed by the eunuch Li’s knowledge of contemporary music. Li had become acquainted with Central Asian styles of popular music and was expert in putting songs, old and new, to the new tunes. Once, when discussing music with Li the emperor pointedly addressed his senior ministers with this rhetorical question: ‘At the places of worship among the common people, musical instruments and dances are still in use, yet at present no such music is employed at the suburban sacrifice. How can this be right?’12 When the matter had been duly discussed, the emperor persuaded his ministers to introduce contemporary music in the forthcoming service of thanksgiving for the Han victory over Nan-Yüeh. Hymns were sung by a boys’ choir, and non­-ceremonial instruments like the harp were played. It is also recorded that Emperor Wu commanded his court poets, among them Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju, to compose the ‘Songs for Suburban Sacrifice, in 19 Parts’.13 In about 114 BC, the emperor reinstituted the Bureau of Music, increasing its permanent personnel from one to three assistant administrators.14 Li 31was responsible for arranging music for divine worship which reflected contemporary taste, besides setting music for ancestral memorial services and court entertainment.

Emperor Wu also inaugurated, at about this time, liturgical reforms. In the course of his reign he established numerous cults and ceremonies. His fascination with all aspects of religion was informed with a desire, fanned by his courtiers, philosophers, and the ministers of diverse religious cults, to create an aura of pomp and circumstance compatible with his new imperial stature. He was also extremely credulous and gullible, entertaining superstitious whims and deeply-felt religious conviction side by side. His interest in religion was eclectic. His open-minded tolerance of contradictory cults and beliefs led him to patronize sober court ritualists, mysterious shamanesses, sorcerers, illusionists, alchemists, and mediums. The usual claims of the latter groups were either the ability to transmute cinnabar into gold to gain immortality, or the knowledge of where to find the drug of immortality, or the secret of bringing the dead back to the world of the living.15 The emperor is reputed to have seen the fleeting image of his deceased favourite concubine, Lady Li, through the illusionist’s art and to have composed a poem about the experience.16 Yet while he could be generous to adepts and cult ministers, his punishment, if they failed to provide proof of their extravagant claims, was severe—summary execution and loss of privilege and title for the entire clan.17

The new forms of worship initiated by Emperor Wu were the cult of Hou-t’u, or Empress Earth, in 114 BC, devotion to T’ai-i, Great Unity, in the winter solstice of 113 BC, the honouring of a Spirit Mistress in the imperial park, the commemoration of the Yellow Emperor, the adoration of the Lord on High in the Bright Hall, the veneration of the furnace deity (in connection with alchemy), and the observance of various local sacrificial ceremonies. He also introduced the custom of the ruler performing the suburban sacrifices every three years, and the Feng and Shan sacrifices every five years. He was the first Han emperor to attend worship at these major services on a regular basis.18

The visual aspect of religion attracted the emperor as much as its conceptual and doctrinal variety. He concerned himself with the type and colour of vestments, and the design and materials of new altars. At one service, the main celebrant wore purple vestments, while his concelebrants wore black, green, red, white, and yellow. At another the vestments were all yellow, the emblematic colour of earth and of the Yellow Emperor. Yellow became the imperial symbol in 104 BC. The court historian Ssu-ma Ch’ien recorded how the emperor gave orders to K’uan Shu and other officials in charge of sacrifices to fit out an altar to Great Unity, T’ai-i. This was at the new summer palace at Sweet Springs: 32

‘[The altar] had three levels. Surrounding the base of it were the altars of the Five Emperors, each disposed in the direction appropriate to the particular deity…. Thus the eight roads by which demons might approach were blocked … the same offerings were used as at the altars of Yung, with the addition of such things as thick wine, jujubes, and dried meat. A yak was also slaughtered and offered with the appropriate dishes and other sacrificial implements. The Five Emperors were given only offerings of rich wine in the appropriate sacrificial vessels. Wine was poured on the ground at the four corners of the altar for the purpose, it was said, of giving sustenance to the lesser spirits…. When the offerings were completed, the beasts that had been sacrificed were all burned. The ox was white, and inside it was placed a deer, and inside the deer a pig; water was then sprinkled over them while they burned…. The priest who presented the offerings to the Great Unity wore robes of purple with brocade; those for the Five Emperors wore the color appropriate to the particular deity. The robes of those who performed the sacrifice to the sun were red, and those for the moon white.’19

These major liturgical reforms and the establishment of various state cults occurred in the years 114–113 BC. The performance of the new rites marks the fusion of august solemnities with elements drawn from popular entertainment, and the combination of highbrow and lowbrow culture.

At Emperor Wu’s insistence, hymns for religious worship were put into the contemporary idiom of music and dance. The words of praise were to be understood by the celebrants and the congregation alike. In the Chou era, hymns had been known as sung, an archaic term in the Han which became a generic term for hymns and praise poems. In the late Chou, some hymns were composed in the state of Ch’u, and their texts, which may have been shaped by a literary hand, are known as the ‘Nine Songs’, Chiu ko.20 Under Emperor Wu, hymns were also called ko, or songs, a generic term which embraced the sacred and the secular. Some of the new hymns departed from the impersonal, timeless mould of divine experience in the Han to include contemporary, familiar phenomena, such as marvels and miracles which had been reported in the lifetime of the worshippers. In this sense, Emperor Wu instilled new life into religious worship; he made it more relevant to contemporary needs and more responsive to his own artistic and aesthetic taste.

Fortunately, one set of hymns from this period has survived, and together with an earlier set from the reign of Emperor Kao-tsu, constitutes the earliest extant Han hymn texts. Unhappily, the music has not been transmitted. A comparison of the two sets reveals the radical change in liturgical texts between the founding of the Han and the reign 33of Emperor Wu, a matter of about a century. The earlier set of 17 hymns, ‘Songs to Set the World at Ease, for Private Performance’, was said to have been set to music by a consort of Emperor Kao-tsu, Lady T’ang-shan, who was skilled in Ch’u music, a style the emperor enjoyed. The hymns state piously the ethical values of Confucianism, underscoring filial piety and the virtues of the social hierarchy, and extolling the benefits of good government. The hymns were performed both at the worship of imperial ancestors and for entertainment at court banquets.21 The later set of hymns is more pertinent to the development of Han ballads. Its title is ‘Songs for Suburban Sacrifice, in 19 Parts’.22 Some of its songs and hymns praise the deities associated with the seasonal cycle. Some celebrate contemporary miracles, all duly dated in the Han histories, such as the birth of divine horses from rivers (113 and 101 BC), the capture of a unicorn (122 BC), the capture of six red geese (94 BC), the rediscovery of a lost holy vessel (113 BC), and the appearance of a nine-stemmed plant containing the drug of immortality (109 BC).23

Of the 19 hymns, eight have been translated here. The first is a song of welcome to a deity descending to earth. The next five honour the Five Elements, or the Five Emperors (Wu Ti) associated with the cosmic elements. The next is a patriotic hymn, couched in terms of the seasonal cycle. Then follows a hymn on a miracle said to have been witnessed in Emperor Wu’s reign, the emergence of divine horses in China (two songs). The last two pieces are no longer concerned with prayers for blessings from the gods. They honour local heroes, one a benevolent but stern judge, the others, gifted hydraulic engineers who brought the benefits of irrigation to the land. These are esteemed and venerated as saints who brought material advantages to ordinary people.

We Have Chosen a Timely Day

We have chosen a timely day,

We wait with hope,

Burning fat and artemisia

To welcome the Four Directions.

Ninefold doors open

For the Gods journey forth,

They send down sweet grace,

Bounteous good fortune.

The chariot of the Gods

Is hitched to dark clouds,

Yoked to flying dragons,

Feather pennants amassed. 34

The coming down of the Gods

Is like wind-driven horses;

On the left turquoise dragon,

On the right white tiger.

The coming of the Gods

Is divine! what a drenching!

First bringing rain

Which spreads in sheets.

The arrival of the Gods

Is lucky shade within shade.

All seems confused,

Making hearts tremble.

The Gods are now enthroned,

The Five Tones harmonize.

Happy till the dawn

We offer the Gods pleasure.

Cusps of ritual beasts swelling,

Vessels of millet sweet,

Goblets of cassia wine,

We host the Eight Quarters.

The Gods serenely linger,

We chant ‘Green’ and ‘Yellow’.

All round meditate on this,

Gaze at the green jade hall.

A crowd of beauties gathers,

Refined, perfect loveliness:

Faces like flowering rush,

Rivals in dazzling glamour,

Wearing flowery patterns,

Interwoven misty silks,

With trains of white voile,

Girdles of pearl and jade.

They bear Blissful-night and Flag-orchid,

Iris and orchid perfumed.

Calm and peaceful

We offer up the blessed chalice.

This type of hymn is similar to the liturgy of welcoming a god in the ‘Nine Songs’ of Ch’u dating from about the fourth century BC. The two closest parallels are ‘Lord of the East, The Great One’ and ‘Thou Amid the Clouds’.24 In this Han hymn, the worshippers at a seasonal vigil attend the consecrated moment when the gods will come down to the altar and 35bless the people. To attract the gods they burn fat from sacrificial beasts, which blends with aromatic artemisia and the perfumes of the female dancers. The gods belong to the four points of the cosmos, the Four Directions. Their descent to earth is visualized as a majestic procession of mythical beasts and carriages. It is not clear whether the sky is envisaged as having nine doors, or whether the altar had nine symbolic doors to admit the gods to the presence of humans. Nine was a mystic number.25 The turquoise dragon was believed to preside over the eastern skies, the white tiger over the western sky as guardian spirits. The gods bring down the blessing of rain which will fructify the earth. The phrase ‘shade within shade’ is the binome yin-yin, which suggests mysterious darkness and the female cosmic principle, complementing the male yang principle in a dual system of cyclical renewal.26 The gods have now descended to earth and are enthroned on the altar. The sacred music of the Five Tones begins.27 The worshippers offer the gods the fruits of their harvest, grain and wine. The gods are said to preside over the Eight Points of the universe.28 The choir chants the hymns ‘Green’ and ‘Yellow’; these probably refer to the green colour symbolic of spring and the yellow of the earth.29 As the chanting ends the worshippers gaze in adoration toward the inner sanctum on the altar, ‘the green jade hall’, where the gods are enthroned. Then a corps of girl dancers in gorgeous robes and jewels trace delicate patterns in religious dance, wafting perfume on the air. At the hymn’s close the worshippers are happy to have received the divine blessing and they offer the libation cup.

If this seasonal rite of the earth’s regeneration were enacted at the open-air altar outside the city, it must have been a dramatic and spell­binding ceremony. There is a strong appeal to the senses and to the aesthetic imagination. At the same time the ceremony invokes religious awe and suggests the possibilities of a lavish entertainment.30

Lord God Draws Nigh

Lord God draws nigh to the altar of the Centre,

The Four Sides are celebrants.

Careful, careful, our thoughts are unchanged,

Ready to receive what is due.

Pure, harmonious are the Six Points;

They regulate the numbers in fives.

Within the seas there is peace and repose;

Let culture flourish, let warfare disappear.

Empress Earth is the rich Old Woman,

Brilliantly bright are the Three Luminaries.

Sublime, sublime, we are free and easy.

Festive robes honour the Yellow. 36

This and the next four pieces form a set of seasonal hymns which liturgically articulate the Han cosmological theory of the Five Elements and Yin and Yang. These two concepts had evolved independently in the late Chou era and their origins are not yet known. In the fourth and third centuries BC, a naturalist philosopher named Tsou Yen propounded a cosmological theory which embraced the primitive principles of the Five Elements and Yin and Yang. The Five Elements (Wu hsing) are five stages, phases, or seasons, each dominated by a cosmological power or emperor. After completing their five phases, the sequence recom­mences in a perpetual cycle of birth, decay, death, and rebirth. The phases are set in motion by the dualistic, symbiotic forces of the universe, Yin and Yang. Yin represents the female principle, all that is dark, cold, passive, water, earth, the moon, nourishment, withdrawal, and the seasonal cycle before spring. Yang represents all that is light, hot, active, wood, the sun, and the seasons of spring and summer. Both forces wax and wane, and their movements influence the Five Elements, causing a change in the seasons, the weather, and the growth and decay of the material universe. Each of the Five Elements acquired a system of correspondences, grouped into fives, such as the five colours, the five tones, the five tastes, five bodily organs, and so forth. To fit the four seasons into this system, an extra season, the Medial, was devised between the Yang seasons and the Yin seasons. Various systems arose, but the following is the most typical:

Season Date Colour Deity Song Dance Element Direction
Spring Feb. 5 blue Kou-mang Greening Cloud wood east
        Yang Plumes    
Summer May 6 red Chu-jung Scarlet Cloud fire south
        Brilliance Plumes    
Medial Jul. 22 yellow Empress Lord God Cloud soil centre
      Earth Draws Nigh Plumes and    
          Giving Life    
Autumn Aug. 8 white Ju-shou West Giving metal west
        White-light Life    
Winter Nov. 8 black Hsüanming Darkness Giving water north
        Obscure Life    

The five hymns have as their titles the same songs as those in the table, and they each contain their own set of correspondences.31

‘Lord God Draws Nigh’ is something of a misfit, because in Kuo’s anthology it is placed first, whereas in the Han it was seen as a hymn for the medial season. On the other hand, Pan Ku placed the hymn first in his ‘Treatise on Rites and Music’. Its attributes are somewhat artificial but combine well with the other sets of Fives—colours, elements, etc. The ‘Four Sides’ referred to in ‘Lord God Draws Nigh’, either means the 37worshippers and celebrants on each side of the square altar, or the deities presiding over the four sides of the square earth.32 The Six Points are north, south, east, west, above, and below.

Several concepts in the five hymns derive from early Taoism. In ‘Lord God Draws Nigh’, earth is called the ‘rich Old Woman’, an echo of the matriarchal system hinted at in The Classic of the Way and Its Power. ‘It [the Tao] is capable of being the mother of the world,’ and ‘The gateway of the mysterious female/ Is called the root of heaven and earth.’33 Earth has as its colour correspondence yellow—a symbolic link with the Yellow Emperor, a Taoist deity. In ‘Darkness Obscure’ the ethico-political ideal enshrined in ‘The people return to basic old ways’ echoes the same Taoist classic: ‘Let your wheels move only along old ruts.’34 The same hymn urges: ‘Hug the plain, cherish the simple’, which again repeats the conservative values of early philosophical Taoism: ‘Exhibit the unadorned and embrace the uncarved block.’35 While most of the hymns express a vague desire for harmony, some introduce a special concept of moral order which was the hallmark of early Confucianism. That is the idea formulated especially by Mencius, that a ruler’s virtue is magnetic and contagious.36 In ‘West White-light’ this idea is contained in the line: ‘Even the Four Mo, all will obey.’ Synthesized in these five hymns, then, are concepts of different ideological lineages: naturalist philosophy, Taoism, ancestor worship, the Confucian moral order, and the agricul­tural cycle.37

Greening Yang

Greening Yang starts to stir,

Causing root and bulb to obey,

Its rich moisture loving all alike.

Padpaw creatures their own ways come forth,

The sound of thunder brings out flowers’ glory,

Lair-dwellers lean to hear.

The barren again give birth,

And so fulfil their destiny.

All the people rejoice, rejoice.

Blessings are on the young and pregnant.

All living things are quickened, quickened.

Such is the good gift of Spring.

Scarlet Brilliance

Scarlet brilliance fullgrown

Makes all creation push forth,

Makes all living things strengthen and be glad. 38

Nothing is stunted;

It makes all blossoms full bring on their fruit,

So swollen, so large!

It ripens our fields vast.

The hundred ghosts draw near to taste,

Far and wide we set up sacrifice,

Devout, we do not forget.

If, Oh God, you approve and accept it,

We will do it for generations without end.

West White-light

West white-light mists spilling,

Autumn air sternly kills.

Though proud heads of grain hang down,

Continuing from of old, they will not fail.

Wicked evil will not sprout,

Dire sin is laid low and destroyed.

No matter how far off the place

Even the Four Mo, all will obey.

Already we dread such a power,

We only desire pure virtue.

We will submit without arrogance,

We will make good our hearts, devout, devout.

Darkness Obscure

Darkness obscure oppresses with Yin,

Dormant insects hide under cover,

Plants and trees shed their leaves.

Here is Winter, sending down frost.

Quelling rebellion, it expels evil,

Reforms alien customs;

The people return to basic old ways,

Hug the plain, cherish the simple.

We regulate faith and justice,

We worship in our vigil the Fifth Holy Hill.

In this season of harvest and gleaning

We store our fine garnered grain.

Lo! Holy Creator

Lo! Holy Creator is adored.

Old Goddess is richly endowed.

Warp and woof of Heaven and Earth 39

Create the four seasons.

Their essense established sun and moon,

Constellations are regulated and ordered.

They cause Yin, Yang, and the Five Elements

To revolve and begin anew,

Make clouds, wind, thunder, lightning

Fall as sweet dew and rain.

They let the Hundred Names breed and bear,

All tracing the right line;

Continuing his line he is dutiful,

He conforms to the virtue of the Divine.

Phoenix carriage with dragon, unicorn,

There is nothing not duly designed.

Blessed offertory baskets are ranged in rows

That the festive gifts may be accepted.

Then calamity will be wiped out,

Our exploits will race to the Eight Wilds.

Bell, drum, pipe, reed-organ,

The ‘Cloud’ dance soaring, soaring.

The Chao-yao Star banner of the Gods!

The Nine Yi tribes will come in surrender.

This hymn opens with acclamations to two deities, Holy Creator, or T’ai-yüan, and Old Goddess, or Wen-then, the Earth Goddess, who is elsewhere called the ‘rich Old Woman’.38 Yüan means cause or origin. T’ai-yüan may be another name for T’ai-i, the deity honoured by Emperor Wu and featured in the first of ‘The Horse of Heaven’ hymns.

It seems to me that T’ai-yüan is a higher deity than Heaven or Earth. This is certainly borne out by an examination of the political philosophy of Tung Chung-shu, the founder of Han Confucianism who lived in the reign of Emperor Wu. Tung Chung-shu (c. 179-c. 104 BC) articulated a cosmological theory which explained the workings of the universe and gave a rationale to the socio-political order of human society. His theory incorporated Confucian ethics, the concept of natural order, the idea of the political function of portents, and the tenet that the ruler has a sovereign role linked to the divine. In his syncretic system he formulated the idea of a cosmic hierarchy presided over by Yüan, the Cause. This vertical structure comprised lower echelons of Heaven, Earth, and Man. The ruler, he proposed, acts as the intermediary of Heaven for Man on Earth. Through his sage and virtuous governance, Earth would yield its blessings and benefit his people. If the ruler erred, this would result in manifestations of misrule on Earth, the aberrations taking the form of omens and portents. The function of the ruler was to maintain harmony between the three levels of the cosmic structure. Tung Chung-shu’s concept gave authority to the idea of a centralized state and benign 40autocracy.39 In this hymn, therefore, T’ai-yüan may be perceived as the Prime Cause of the Universe, setting in motion the cosmic forces of Yin, Yang, and the Five Elements. The hymn also introduces the figure of the emperor in the grand design of the cosmos, whose virtue makes the people fulfil the role ordained by the natural order.40

The Horse of Heaven

From Great Unity heaven-sent,

The horse of heaven comes down,

Soaked with crimson sweat,

Froth flowing russet.

His courage is superb,

His spirit marvellous.

He prances through floating clouds,

Darkly racing upwards.

His body free and easy

Leaps across a myriad leagues.

Now who is his equal?

Dragons are his friends.


The horse of heaven is come

From the west pole.

He crossed Flowing Sands

When the Nine Yi tribes surrendered.

The horse of heaven is come

Out of Fountain River;

His is the tiger’s double spine,

Swift he changes like a sprite.

The horse of heaven is come,

He passed through barren wastes;

Travelling one thousand leagues

He follows the road to the east.

The horse of heaven is come

At Chih-hsü time.

About to rear away

Who would he wait for?

The horse of heaven is come!

Open Distant Gates!

‘I stand proud,

For I pass on to K’unlun.’ 41

The horse of heaven is come!

Shaman of the dragon,

He roams within heaven’s gates,

Looks upon Jade Terrace.

In the reign of Emperor Wu, envoys such as Chang Ch’ien were sent on foreign missions west of China and brought back reports of magnificent horses in Ta-yüan, modern Ferghana.41 Chang Ch’ien’s journey there may have occurred in 115 BC. The emperor consulted the oracular Book of Change for a prognostication and read, ‘The supernatural horses are due to come from the northwest.’ In fact, he received some fine horses from the region of Wu-sun in the northwest, adjacent to Ferghana, and was so pleased with them that he named them the oracular ‘horses of heaven’. Later, however, he acquired the Ferghana horses which sweated blood, and he realized they were finer than the Wu-sun horses, so he renamed the latter ‘the horses from the extreme west’, and gave the name ‘the horses of heaven’ to the Ferghana horses.42

These horses had not been brought to China without violence and political intrigue. In the years 104–101 BC, General Li Kuang-li was ordered to take the famous horses of Ferghana by force. He went at the head of an army of 100,000 soldiers, it is said, and subjected the region to attacks during that time. In the end the people of Ferghana beheaded their own king and replaced him with a ruler receptive to the Chinese emperor’s demands. Li’s offensive was finally successful and in exchange for gold, 3,000 horses were brought back to China from Ferghana, with an agreement later of an annual supply of two horses.43 It was the acquisition of these horses which occasioned the composition of two sacrificial hymns on ‘the horse of heaven’.44

Several theories have been advanced for Emperor Wu’s quest for these horses. Arthur Waley suggested that they were linked with the emperor’s search for immortality, an idea supported by Edwin G. Pulleyblank. Anthony F. P. Hulsewé rejects this theory as unproven, and puts forward two other suggestions: either the horses were sought for the Chinese imperial stables, or they were prized as a means of improving the Chinese breed of horses.45

Whatever the real motive for obtaining the Ferghana horses, one thing is clear: the two hymns refer only to the divine attributes of the animal. They complement each other, the first stating that the super­natural horse was a gift from Great Unity in Heaven and describing its physical appearance and abilities in hyperbolic language.46 No mention is made of its legendary appearance from a river, rather it is a sky-horse. The second hymn, although it mentions the horse’s divine birth from a river, puts less emphasis on the supernatural. At the same time it charts the progress of the horse across the desert from the west to China and up 42to the palace gates. The description of the horse is brief. Its ability is likened to the tiger’s, the emblematic guardian of the western paradise.47 This hymn has a more musical structure than the first. Its refrain ‘The horse of heaven is come’ at the beginning of each stanza is an example of incremental repetition, serving to develop the narrative of the divine horse’s epic journey from the west.48 Its progress to China is marked by the miraculous submission of the hostile Yi tribes, and its arrival at the palace gates coincides with the appearance of the Chih-hsü star, symbolic of the east.49 It is not clear whose voice declaims at the gates. The words may be assigned to the divine horse. It is more likely that they designate the joy of the emperor, perhaps Emperor Wu himself, for he was well known for his fascination with immortality. Both hymns end with the divine horse and the dragon roaming through paradise. It is interesting to note that the dragon and the horse are linked in the Book of Change, where they are identified with the first two hexagrams.50 The two hymns count as the tenth in the set of 19 hymns.51

The Song of Cheng-Pai Ditch

Where do we till this land?

By Pondnorth and Valleymouth.

Cheng Kuo’s ditch it was first,

Lord Pai’s ditch came later.

We lift our spades like clouds,

We cut drains and make it pour:

Water flows beside our kitchen,

Fish leap into our pot!

In a single measure from Ching River

There are several loads of silt.

Let’s water! Let’s manure!

Make our millet grow.

Lord Pai clothes and feeds the capital,

Ten thousand million mouths!

The title of this hymn praises two men, Cheng Kuo and Lord Pai, whose ditch later bore both their names. Cheng Kuo was an engineer of the Warring States era who, in 246 BC, was sent by Hann state to cut a ditch over a hundred miles long from Shensi, making the Ching River take a double course and debouch into Lo River (of the Latter Han capital city, Loyang). A huge area was made fertile by silt-laden water. The ditch bore the name Cheng Kuo Ditch.52 His work was continued and developed in the Han by Lord Pai, an engineer in the reign of Emperor Wu. In 95 BC, he successfully constructed a series of drains and ditches to control the flow of water and to reclaim land for local farmers. 43The people were so grateful they composed this hymn to him. As with the other hymns, an emphasis is placed on rural prosperity, vividly expressed in the earthy idiom, ‘Let’s manure!’ which is in keeping with the rustic notion of prosperity. The hymn respects the fact that the livelihood of urban centres depended on farms in the country.53

The Ballad of the Prefect of Goosegate

In the reign of filial Emperor Ho

The Governor of Loyang was Lord Wang.

He was born a commoner in I-chou, Kuang-han.

As a young circuit official

He had learned by heart the Five Classics and Analects.

He had a clear understanding of legal governance.

For generations his family wore cap and gown.

From Wen circuit he was promoted to Loyang Governor.

In administration he was most worthy,

Aiding and protecting the common folk,

Nurturing as his own ten thousand souls.

Out of court he practised strict government,

In court he held to kindness and mercy.

His civic and military virtues were perfect.

He expertly managed the people’s economic welfare.

He published the names of wrongdoers,

On village gates had bulletins put up.

To mortally wound a man

Resulted in five neighbours equally punished.

He forbade lance and spear eight feet long.

He arrested insolent youths,

Dealt out firm sentences for crimes,

Going to the horsemarket to pronounce sentence.

He did not impose reckless taxes,

But was mindful of controlling costs.

Licensed by imperial mandate, he judged legal cases,

But did not permit litigiousness.

He spent only thirty cash

To purchase land valued by the yardstick.

Worthy man! So worthy was he,

Wang of our district.

An official in cap and gown

He dealt with affairs for the emperor. 44

In the Bureau of Merit or Master of Records

This man was to be found in every case.

When at his department or presiding at his office

He did not presume to show favouritism.

With personal integrity and unstinting toil

He laboured and slaved from dawn till dusk.

In government he had a name for ability,

He was known far and wide.

He did not fulfil his allotted span,

He went prematurely to his deep twilight.

For His Lordship we make sacrifice at his shrine

West of Anyang Pavilion.

We seek to ensure that future generations

Will always and ever commemorate him.

This balladic hymn honours Lord Wang who became Governor of Loyang in AD 103. He held office in the reign of Emperor Ho (r. AD 89–105). After he died in AD 105 the people set up a shrine to him as their saint or local hero. True to the pragmatism of the Chinese, he is revered not for his mysticism, charity, or religious fervour, but for his qualities as a leader, an official lawmaker. He was worshipped by the people because, despite his severity, he was a champion of their common cause.

The title of the hymn does not relate to its contents. It is possible that the original words of the title were lost and that in the Latter Han an anonymous song-maker borrowed the old title, which may have told a similar tale, and composed this eulogy.54 The diction and point of view indicate that the maker was literate. Yet the hymn seems to constitute an example of the type of composition which, although produced by a literate author (and certainly based on the account of Lord Wang in his official biography) later came into the possession of the people as an oral composition memorized and repeated through the years.55 Its style is curiously impersonal and cold, reflecting the formality of the official biographical style. It is not a true narrative. It is devoid of drama, direct speech, realism, imagery, and those other features which colour most popular narratives of the Han yüeh-fu repertoire.

The hymn introduces another strain of early Chinese philosophy. The theory and practice of Legalism formed the foundation of the Ch’in state and informed the system of government in the Han. The hymn’s adulation of a stern but just judge drew its inspiration from philosophical Legalism and found its literary fulfillment in the Judge Pao plays which were popular in the Yüan Dynasty.56


1 His ch. 1, 8, and 12 contain Han hymns; ch. 1–12 contain hymns from the Chin to the T’ang Dynasties. These twelve chapters form a significant proportion of Kuo’s opus.

2 Hsieh-lü tu-wei: tu-wei is a military title, similar to commandant; hsieh-lü is a technical term for euphony. Loewe, Crisis, p. 195, n. 9, translates this title as Master of Harmony. It might also be rendered as Master of Euphony.

3 See Map, Bureau of Music in Ch’angan.

4 The humble origins of Emperor Kao-tsu are recorded in his official biography and examples of his plebian traits appear in the account of his contest for the empire with Hsiang Yü in the latter’s biography, Watson, Records, Vol. 1, pp. 37–119 (Shih chi, ch. 8 and 7).

5 Loewe, Crisis, pp. 51–5, lists the six principal consorts of Emperor Wu; Diény, Aux origines, p. 50, emphasizes the humble social origins of many consorts and courtiers in the reign of Emperor Wu. For biographies of Lady Li and Empress Wei, see Watson, Courtier, pp. 247–51 (Pan Ku, History, ch. 97), and Watson, Records, Vol. 1, pp. 389–92. In both cases it was Emperor Wu’s sister, the Princess of P’ing-yang, who introduced the girls to him while in her employ as entertainers skilled in singing and dancing.

6 The accounts of Ssu-ma Ch’ien and Pan Ku differ concerning which of the Li family, the brother or the sister, introduced the other to the emperor. Ssu-ma Ch’ien states that after the emperor’s sister, the Princess of P’ing-yang, had introduced the Li sister to the emperor he ‘had her installed in the women’s quarters of the palace, at the same time summoning Li Yen-nien to an audience and appointing him to a higher post [than kennel lad].’ Watson, Records, Vol. 2, p. 466, ‘The Emperors’ Male Favorites’, Shih chi, ch. 125, p. 3,195. Pan Ku states, however, that Emperor Wu befriended Li Yen-nien because of his fine singing, and that it was the Princess who suggested to the emperor that Li’s young sister might be the ‘one so lovely you’ll never find again,’ words from Li Yen-nien’s love song performed in the presence of the emperor; Watson, Courtier, pp. 247–48.

7 For his biography and a discussion of his works see Yves Hervouet, Un poète de cour sous les Han: Sseu-ma Siang-jou (1964). For a translation of his biography by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, see Watson, Records, Vol. 2, pp. 297–342.

8 For General Li’s campaigns see Loewe and Hulsewé, China in Central Asia, The Early Stage (1979), pp. 132–36. For Chang Ch’ien see Jeannette Mirsky, ed., The Great Chinese Travelers (1964), Chapter 2.

9 Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Historical Records, 130 ch.‚ Watson, Records, 2 vols., a translation of nearly all the Han chapters; Edouard Chavannes, Les mémoires historiques de Se-ma Ts’ien, 6 vols. (1895–1905), a translation of ch. 1–52. For Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s auto­biographical account see J. R. Hightower, trans., ‘Letter to Jen An (Shao-ch’ing)’, in Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature (1965), pp. 95–102.

10 For a partial translation of his work and a discussion of his philosophy, see Fung Yu-lan, trans. from the Chinese by Derk Bodde, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 2, pp. 16–71, and de Bary, Chan, and Watson, eds., Sources, Vol. 1, pp. 160–69; also see above, pp. 39–40.

11 The biography of Tung-fang Shuo appears in Watson, Courtier, pp. 79–106. (Pan Ku, id., ch. 65).

12 This conversation (of 111 BC) is recorded by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, ‘History of the Feng and Shan Sacrifices’, Watson, Records, Vol. 2, p. 55 (Shih chi, ch. 28, p. 1,396). Feng means a mound, to raise a mound, to sacrifice on a mound, and to enfeoff; Shan means to level ground, to sacrifice on level ground.

13 For a review of the problem of Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju’s involvement in this event, see Introduction, pp. 6–8 above. 182

14 For a review of the problem of the date of this institution see Introduction, pp. 5–7 above. Prior to this appointment there had been other directors of music, notably Master Chih, a Ch’in official, Shu-sun T’ung (notorious for having ‘served close to ten different masters’), who had revised Ch’in sacrificial ceremonies for the Han Emperor Hui, and Hsia-hou K’uan, who in 194 BC was commissioned to set the hymns of Emperor Kao-tsu’s consort to string and wind accompaniment. Watson, Records, Vol. 1, pp. 291–98; Wilhelm, op cit., pp. 124, 130, nn. 13–15. (Shih chi, ch. 99, pp. 2,720–26; Han shu, ch. 22, p. 1,043.)

15 Loewe, Crisis, p. 18.

16 This incident is described in the biography of Lady Li, Watson, Courtier, p.249 (Pan Ku, ch. 97, p. 3,952).

17 The fate of Luan Ta illustrates this; Watson, ‘History of the Feng and Shan Sacrifices’, p. 54.

18 These reforms are enumerated by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Watson, id., pp. 37–69; they are discussed by Loewe, Crisis, pp. 168–70.

19 Watson, id., pp. 52–3.

20 For Chou sung see Bernhard Karlgren, trans., The Book of Odes (1974), nos. 266–305, 40 sung in all; Waley, The Book of Songs (using his ‘Finding List’, p. 355), and Waley, T’ien Hsia (Oct. 1936), pp. 245–48 for a discussion of nos. 291–305. For translations of the ‘Nine Songs’, see David Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, The Songs of the South (1959), pp. 36–44, and Waley, The Nine Songs: A Study of Shamanism in Ancient China (1956).

21 The earliest recording of the text of this set occurs in Pan Ku, ch. 22, ‘Treatise on Rites and Music’, pp. 1,046–51; it was originally entitled ‘Music for Private Performance’, a title dating from the Chou. The content of the set is discussed by Frankel, ‘Yüeh-fu Poetry’, pp. 72–4. Suzuki Shūji has shown that it is odd that these hymns are referred to as being in the Ch’u style. Of the 17 hymns, 13 are in the tetrasyllabic metre of the Book of Poetry, while only 3 of the 17 are in the trisyllabic metre associated with the Songs of Ch’u. The language, however, is reminiscent of the latter. Suzuki, Research on Han and Wei Poetry (1967), pp. 5–7.

22 The earliest recording of the text of this set occurs in Pan Ku, id., pp. 1,051–70. It has been translated in full by Chavannes, op cit., Vol. 3, Appendix 1, pp. 612–29.

23 For a brief survey of these hymns see Loewe, Crisis, pp. 198–99. For the problem of the dating of the horse hymn, see n. 44 below.

24 Hawkes, op. cit., Chiu ko, pp. 36–7.

25 Similar to the Judaic number twelve; in Chinese legend the ruler Yü the Great possessed Nine Tripods, his realm was called the Nine Regions; cf. the ‘Nine Songs’.

26 This cosmic dualism is explained at more length in the next hymn.

27 In the ancient Chinese pentatonic scale the Five Tones were kung, shang, chüeh, chih, and .

28 Eight Points, i.e. the four cardinal points and the half-cardinal points.

29 Green and yellow might also signify spring and autumn, and by extension, the four seasons. This hymn has been translated, apart from Chavannes, op. cit., by James Legge, The Chinese Classics, Vol. 4, Pt. 1, She king, p. 119 (Shih ching), and his translation is reproduced in Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death (1982), pp. 128–30.

30 The text appears in Pan Ku, op. cit., p. 1,052, and in Kuo, Anthology, ch. 1, ‘Words for Suburban and Temple [Sacrifices], Han Songs for Suburban Sacrifices’, p. 3. The metre is trisyllabic, or hexasyllabic, taking two trisyllabic units together.

31 Derk Bodde, Festivals in Classical China, New Year and Other Annual Observances during The Han Dynasty 206 BC–AD 220 (1975), pp. 38 and 197, presents two tables of the correspondences, which I have partially combined. I have amended his translation of the song titles to fit my translation of them. It is undoubtedly due to Tsou Yen’s association with the articulation of the Theory of the Five Elements and Yin and 183Yang that the seasonal songs for spring, summer, autumn, and winter (translated above) are attributed to him, with the caption ‘Master Tsou’s Music’‚ by Pan Ku and others. Tsou Yen was also renowned for using pitchpipes to warm the northern climate so that cereal seed would germinate. Joseph Needham and Wang Ling, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. 4, Pt. 1, p. 29.

32 In ancient China the earth was conceived of as a square, bounded on four sides by four seas; the sky was thought of as a round canopy covering the earth above. ‘Lord God Draws Nigh’, Pan Ku, id., p. 1,054; Kuo, ibid.; tetrasyllabic.

33 D. C. Lau, trans., Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, XXV, p. 82, VI, p. 62; the text dates c. 300 BC.

34 Id., IV, p. 60.

35 Id., XIX, p. 75.

36 Lau, trans., Mencius, Book IV, Pt.A.9, pp. 121–22; ‘The people turn to the benevolent as water flows downwards or as animals head for the wilds.’ Citing Meng Tzu, SSC 7B. 1a, a Confucian philosopher (c. fourth century BC).

37 The texts appear in Pan Ku, id., pp. 1,054–56, and Kuo, id., pp. 3–4; tetrasyllabic.

38 In his translation of this hymn, Chavannes, op. cit., p. 617, VII, and n. 1, renders T’ai-yüan as ‘la majestueuse primitivite’, glossing it as ‘Le Ciel’; and in his study Le T’ai chan (1910), Appendix, pp. 521–25, he notes that the female earth deity is often linked with the male heavenly deity. Also see p. 35 above: ‘Empress Earth is the rich Old Woman’.

39 Fung, op cit., pp. 7–71; de Bary, Chan, and Watson,, op. cit., pp. 162–65.

40 The text appears in Pan Ku, id., p, 1,057, and Kuo, id., p. 4. The metre is tetrasyllabic.

41 Loewe and Hulsewé, op. cit., pp, 42 and 133.

42 Id., pp. 132–33, 225–26, citing Pan Ku, ch. 96 and 61.

43 Id., pp. 135 and 43.

44 The composition of the hymns is mentioned in Pan Ku’s official biography of Emperor Wu, Dubs, The History of the Former Han Dynasty, Vol. 2, p. 75 and 102–03, citing Pan Ku, ch. 6. Loewe and Hulsewé, op. cit., review the confusion surrounding the dates of the appearance of the horses, p. 133: the early dates of 121 BC or 120 BC are rejected in favour of 113 BC and 101 BC.

45 Loewe and Hulsewé, id., p. 134, n. 332. Waley, ‘The Heavenly Horses of Ferghana, A New View’, History Today, 5.2 (Feb. 1955), pp. 95–103. Also see ‘The Blood-sweating Horses of Ferghana’, in Dubs, op. cit., Appendix 5, pp. 132–35, in which he explains that the ‘crimson sweat’ is a phenomenon caused by parasites embedded in the horse’s skin.

46 T’ai-i was the deity especially honoured by Emperor Wu; in his mind the deity ranked higher than the traditional supreme deity, Shang-ti. It is not clear whether T’ai-i, Great Unity, is the same as T’ai-yüan of the hymn ‘Lo! Holy Creator’. The words T’ai, i‚ and jade belong to the nomenclature of Taoism.

47 Loewe, Ways to Paradise, The Chinese Quest for Immortality (1979), pp. 47–50, refers to these guardian beasts as leopards in his interesting discussion of the artisitic depiction of the Queen Mother of the West on a mortuary banner of the Former Han era.

48 Flowing Sands was the name of desert land west of China, which was also the region of Fountain River. Pan Ku states that the horses appeared from Wo-wei River (south of Tun-huang) and from Yü-wu (possibly in Shansi province), at the end of the first part of the hymn in this ‘Treatise’ and in his biography of Emperor Wu. Clearly, he was indulging in poetic license.

49 Chavannes, Mémoires, Vol. 3, Appendix I, p. 620, n. 2, notes that the Chih-hsü Star corresponds to ch’en in the series The Twelve Earthly Branches, and that its symbolic beast is the dragon, its direction east, and its colour green. The dragon in Chinese has equine attributes.

50 Wilhelm, ‘The Bureau of Music in Western Han’, pp. 132–33, n. 48, refers in another 184connection to Ch’ien and K’un‚ the first two hexagrams of the classic, which are translated by Richard Wilhelm as ‘Hidden dragon’, and ‘Flying dragon’, with ‘the perseverance of a mare’, in his version of the commentaries of the hexagrams, The I Ching, or Book of Changes (1951, translated from Wilhelm’s German by Cary F. Baynes), pp. 7–11.

51 The texts appear in Pan Ku, ch. 22, ‘Treatise on Rites and Music’, pp. 1,060–61, and Kuo, id., pp. 5–6. The metre of both hymns is trisyllabic. In the ‘History of Music’ of Ssu-ma Ch’ien (Shih chi, ch. 24) different versions of the two hymns are given. They differ in metre and in wording, the latter quite significantly. The Ch’u trisyllabic metre in Pan Ku’s versions is accentuated in Ssu-ma Ch’ien’s versions by the presence of the sound carrier hsi between two sets of three characters. Shih chi, ch. 24, p. 1,178.

52 Cheng Kuo’s feat is described in Ssu-ma Ch’ien, Historical Records, ch. 29, ‘History of the Rivers and Drains’, Watson, Records, Vol. 2, pp. 71–2, reproduced with a commentary in Hsü Cho-yün, Han Agriculture, pp. 257–58. In the historical account it is clear that Cheng Kuo’s original motive had more to do with military strategy than a humanitarian agrarian policy.

53 The account of Lord Pai’s extension of the ditch appears in Pan Ku, History, ‘Treatise on Canals and Ditches’, ch. 29, p. 1,685, where he also presents the text of the hymn, minus the fourth couplet. The text with the couplet appears in Kuo, id.‚ ch. 83. ‘Words for Miscellaneous Ditties, Part 1, Song-texts, Part 1’‚ p. 1,172. The metre is tetrasyllabic. See David R. Knechtges’ review article, 1990, p. 313.

54 Goosegate is a natural pass in Shansi, so named because when geese migrated from the north to south China they seemed to fly through the ‘gate’ of the pass. It was a military outpost. Lord Wang of Loyang had nothing to do with this part of China; he was from I-chou, modern Szechwan. Lord Wang’s name was Wang Huan. In his youth he memorized the Confucian Classics, that is, Poetry, History, Ritual, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals, and knew the Analects, the recorded sayings of Confucius and his disciples. His biography appears in Fan Yeh (AD 398–446), History of the Latter Han, ch. 76.

55 In the reign of Emperor Huan of the Han (AD 147–167) many cults were proscribed due to the emperor’s preference for Taoism; nevertheless the cult of Lord Wang was one of the few non-Taoist cults allowed to continue.

56 The hymn has been translated, annotated, and discussed by Dieny, op. cit., pp. 150–54. The text appears in Kuo, ch. 39, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 4’, p. 574. The earliest recording of the text appears in Shen Yüeh, ‘Treatise on Music’, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’ category, p. 622, under the title ‘The Ballad of Loyang’. Another title for the hymn is ‘The Governor of Loyang’. The metre is irregular. The first stanza has lines of 5, 3, and 8 syllables; the second stanza has one 6-syllable line, the rest are tetrasyllabic; the third is tetrasyllabic throughout; the fourth is a mix of 3, 6, 5, and 4 syllable lines; the fifth is tetrasyllabic except line 5; stanzas six to eight are tetrasyllabic.

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