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The Elixir of Life

From the third century BC the Chinese began to speculate about the mystery of immortality and embarked on a variety of experiments and ritualistic practices in search of this goal. The cult of immortality took three main forms, some of which were interchangeable among its adepts and practitioners. There was the simple desire to ‘nurture one’s life’, to prolong one’s allotted span of years.1 There was the desire for eternal youth, to stay the ravages of time. Thirdly, there was an aspiration to join the pantheon of the gods, to ride the skies in the company of the host of spirits. At first the pursuit of immortality was élitist, the concern of emperors and princes.2 The first person in China consciously to try to attain this goal, who can be dated with any certainty, is the founder of the first empire and dynasty, Ch’in Shih Huang-ti.3 At his court in Hsien-yang he had heard wizards and sorcerers talk of the Isles of the Blessed in the east where the immortals were believed to live.4 If any man reached these holy isles he would become an immortal. Pragmatic as he was, the emperor sent a group of boys and girls to go in search of them. They returned in failure, blaming adverse winds. A wizard named Han Chung whom the emperor sent to seek the drug of immortality prudently never returned.5

It was in the reign of the Han Emperor Wu that the cult of immortality found new inspiration. Under the direction of Li Shao-chün, an adept in the magical arts, the emperor became fascinated by alchemy which promised to transmute cinnabar into gold. If he drank and ate from dishes made of this gold he believed he would prolong the years of his life. Li Shao-chün also assured him that after absorbing the essence from this alchemical gold he would meet the immortals of P’eng-lai, one of the Isles of the Blessed, and he would never die. The magician convinced the emperor that this was just what the Yellow Emperor had done aeons ago.6 The emperor sent a party of magicians to the eastern seas, but they, too, were unsuccessful in their search. He also began carrying out rites which the legendary Yellow Emperor was supposed to have performed, in the belief that he would be assumed into paradise. In 113 BC, a 65shaman found a cauldron, said to be one of the nine used by the Yellow Emperor to cook sacrificial offerings for the gods.7 During a period of tyranny and decadence in high antiquity, however, the nine vessels had disappeared without trace in a river. The single vessel found by the shaman signified to the emperor that he was truly destined for immortality. In the year 110 BC, after sacrificing at the grave of the Yellow Emperor, the Han emperor inquired curiously of his entourage, ‘I have been told that the Yellow Emperor did not die. Why is it that we now find his grave here?’ Someone explained that after the Yellow Emperor’s assumption, his hat and robes were buried in the ‘grave’.8 In the year 109 BC, the fungus of immortality was discovered growing in one of the rooms of his summer palace. The emperor proclaimed a general amnesty and a hymn was composed to commemorate the happy omen.9

In the Latter Han, immortality cults, which previously had not been linked to any specific philosophical school, political ideology, or religious system, gradually became assimilated with Taoist philosophy and identified with later Taoist religious practice.10 The methods used to procure longevity, immortality, or divinity were breathing exercises, certain sexual practices, meditation, trance, diet, the taking of herbs and drugs, alchemy, and the consumption of certain (poisonous in some cases) minerals.11 There developed a new lore of legendary figures and human beings who had become immortal—the Yellow Emperor, Wang Ch’iao, Ch’ih Sung (Red Pine), and others.12

The iconography of these immortals and the paraphernalia of immortality cults of this era are colourful. Sometimes a fairy or immortal is identified as a long-eared man riding a white (the colour of death) deer. Sometimes the divinity was perceived as a pheasant which left huge foot­prints.13 Aerial flight and the freedom of the skies are also part of this lore. The usual landscape is a solitary mountain touching the clouds, such as Mount T’ai or Mount Hua. The mountains of the immortals were said to be jewelled, of gold and white jade, the pureness of the minerals denoting the perfect purity of the immortals. Jade in particular was a cult jewel in Taoism. Reclusion and solitude were the hallmarks of the adept. It was an aspect of this lore which so influenced later Chinese literature that it gave rise to a sub-genre of reclusive poetry.14 The food and drink associated with the cult of immortality were cinnabar (this tone of red, too, had a special symbolic value), hallucinogenic fungi, certain immortality herbs, and pure dew or frost. The avoidance of cereal in the diet was emphasized.15

Angus C. Graham notes that when the experts on immortality practices identified with Taoism in the first century AD, and when the Taoist religion was founded in the second century AD by Chang Tso-ling, a new phenomenon emerged: ‘… the Taoist religion … extended the 66promise of immortality from the élite patrons of magicians and alchemists to the common man.’16 The songs in this chapter are difficult to place in the evolution of the cult of immortality from élitist to generalized practice. Two of them at least, ‘Long Song’ and ‘The King of Huai-nan’, have associations with the Han court. Several are written in a liturgical style suggesting that they might have been part of a particular cultist rite. As such they constitute some of the earliest pieces in the repertoire of the occult, of Taoist religion, and reclusion.

Up the Mound

Up the mound so fine fine,

Down to the ford windy and chill.

I ask a traveller, ‘Where are you from?’

He says, ‘From the river depths.

Of cassia tree is my lord’s boat,

Of green silk strands are my lord’s moorings,

Of magnolia are my lord’s oars

Yellow gold set in them.

Sparrows of the vast seas,

Vermilion wild swans winging,

White geese follow.

Hills, woods may now open, now unfold,

But I have never known the sun or moon bright.

Mine are the waters of nectar springs,

Vivid marshes lush, so lush.

Magic fungus is my chariot,

Dragons are my steeds.

I gaze as I wander

Beyond the four seas.’

Early in Kan-lu’s second year

Fungus appeared in Bronze Pool.

Immortals came down to drink.

May you have long life, one thousand myriad years!

The structure of this song is based on the balladic formula of question and answer. An unspecified person has come down from a burial mound and meets a traveller, a stranger. He asks him where he is from and the stranger tells him a fabulous story of his divine master’s boat, for his lord is a river god. The formula binds together three themes within this descriptive narrative: the theme of death implicit in the scene of the burial mound and in the felicitation closure; a paeon to a river god; and a eulogy to a reigning emperor of the Han also in the felicitation closure. In his preface to this song, Kuo Mao-ch’ien, quoting Shen Yüeh’s ‘Treatise’, explains that this is one of eight hymns sung at the offertory in 67ancestral sacrifices performed in the imperial temple in AD 86 when Emperor Chang was on the throne. Kuo also cites the History of the Latter Han to the effect that ‘Up the Mound’ was performed at the rites for the first month of the lunar year after the rites at the altars of the various temples had been concluded.17 Kuo comments further that in the Former Han there was a Supreme Mound in the capital Ch’angan. Despite this specificity, it is not clear whether the title of this song should be rendered ‘Supreme Mound’ (Shang ling) or ‘Up the Mound’, because the opening couplet, which repeats the words of the title, is based on a strict parallelism: up/down, mound/ford, fine, fine/windy, chill. The title may therefore allude to the site in Ch’angan and/or it may just be any burial mound. The word ling means a burial site in the form of an artificially raised mound where rulers and tided people were buried. As such, the image introduces the theme of death into the song, which the singer seeks to erase at the song’s end with a prayer for the ruler’s longevity.

The second theme is a paeon to a river god, in which a human encounters the god’s acolyte. In some respects this part of the song resembles the song to the river god Ho-po in the ‘Nine Songs’ of the Songs of Ch’u:

I ride a water chariot with a canopy of lotus;

Two dragons draw it, between two water-serpents.

I climb the K’un-lun mountain and look over the four quarters.18

The device of replacing the god for his acolyte in the Han song allows the singer to present a long description of the god’s magnificent boat and serves to cut the deity down to size. This descriptive passage contains two balladic features: striking colour imagery and commonplace expression. The passage is similar to the description of the lord’s mansion and his son’s harness in ‘They Met’, which also shares with this song the formula of question and answer to introduce the florid description. The words ‘magic fungus’ toward the end of the song (line 16) act as a transition between the two previous themes and the last. The word ‘fungus’ is repeated in the final quatrain to emphasize this transition. In this closure, time is identified with the reign of Emperor Hsüan of the Former Han, the name of whose sixth reign-period was Kan-lu, Sweet Dew; the date in the song is 52 BC. The two omens referred to in the quatrain, the appearance of a miraculous fungus and of immortals descending to earth to drink are echoes of historical omens of the Chou and a recent miracle in the Han. In the Spring and Autumn era of the Chou, a golden fungus with nine stalks grew in the Bronze Pool at the royal palace. This happened again in 61 BC in the reign of Emperor Hsüan when a nine-stemmed fungus grew in the Bronze Pool of Han-te Hall of the royal 68palace. Then in 60 BC, a flock of birds of paradise (luan) gathered over the capital city as sweet dew fell, yellow dragons descended, withered things flourished and a divine light was seen everywhere.19 In the Han song the sacerdotal link between these miracles recorded in history and the prayer for the emperor’s long life is established by the protagonist of the river sprite.

In making this connection, the anonymous psalmist implies that the emperor is a wise and good ruler; he flatters His Majesty with intimations of immortality, and he delicately suggests that the emperor will join the pantheon of the gods. The song is therefore neither a graveyard meditation, as its opening might have indicated, nor is it merely a paeon to a river god in the manner of the ‘Nine Songs’ piece. It is a praise-song, a eulogy to a reigning monarch imbued with a courtly, if mildly sacrilegious obsequiousness.20

A Long Song Ballad, no. 2

The fairy riding a white deer

Has short hair and ears so long.

As he leads me up Great Mount Hua

He grasps the mushroom, seizes red-fringe fungus.

When we reach the Master’s gates

He offers up the drug in a jade casket.

The Master eats the drug,

His body in a day grows strong and fit,

His white hair turns black again,

His lifespan lengthens, his years are increased.

It is a characteristic of early folk-songs that sometimes passages in them do not cohere. The set of pieces known as ‘A Long Song Ballad’ is an extreme example of the phenomenon. It is not clear whether the set is comprised of a) one long piece, b) two pieces, or c) three pieces. Following the Sung poetry critic Yen Yü, I have opted for the third possibility on the grounds that the three pieces read perfectly well as three independent songs, whereas they do not seem to cohere as a set, because each has a very different style and content. I have therefore placed the three pieces as separate songs in different chapters under the main themes which I believe they treat: immortality (no. 2), carpe diem (no. 1), and nostalgia (no. 3). Because the three have been linked as a set traditionally, one is obliged to speculate what the connection between the parts of the set might be. Perhaps the coordinating links are these: the last line of song no. 1 expresses the idea of growing old; song no. 2 is a short narrative in which longevity cults are mentioned; song no. 3 refers to pining, which 69conventionally makes a person grow older. I propose that the connection between the three songs or passages is the idea of growing old and that this idea is given three thematic treatments.21

This proposal is reinforced by the interpretation of the song title’s meaning given by the third-century AD author Ts’ui Pao. He presents his interpretation after his discussion of funeral songs of the Han. He says, ‘“Long Song” and “Short Song” tell of the length or brevity of human life’, and he links his explanation to the hearse-pullers’ songs (wan-ko), ‘Dew on the Shallot’ and ‘Artemisia Village’. He confuses ‘long’ and ‘short’ with the human lifespan.22 In fact, the title of the ‘Long Song’ set is named for its pentasyllabic metre, not because of the meaning of the title or the length of the song itself. All three parts are pentasyllabic, except for the penultimate line of song no. 2 which is tetrasyllabic. (It is possible that one syllable is missing rather than that the line is intentionally irregular.) The designation long (ch’ang) contrasts with the short (tuan) tetrasyllabic metre of the Book of Poetry of the Chou era and some Han hymns.23 No examples survive of anonymous Han ‘A Short Song Ballad’ titles, although some by known poets of the late Han are extant.24 These pieces reveal that the late Han to post-Han poets interpreted ‘short song’ both as a meditation on the brevity of life and as being in the short tetrasyllabic metre.25 Consequently, although Ts’ui Pao’s post-Han explanation of the meaning of the two song titles, ‘Long Song’ and ‘Short Song’, is erroneous and the late to post-Han poets’ use of ‘Short Song’ reflects this error, it is important to bear in mind that they firmly believed in this connection. In conclusion, in the late Han, the idea of long life, which is linked to the fear of growing old, must have been present in the mind of the maker of the ‘Long Song’ set under discussion.

This section of the set, or independent song, vividly expresses the immortality cult in Han China and contains some features which became associated with later religious Taoism. The fairy riding a white deer is an immortal who is leading an initiate to the gates of the cult Master. White is emblematic of death and of the west where one of the ancient paradises was believed to be. The fairy’s long ears were a sign of wisdom.26 The emblematic white denotes the west, a setting reinforced by Mount Hua, known as the Western Peak, and one of the Five Holy Peaks (modern Shensi). The mushroom and fungus were hallucinogenic and were believed to impart life-giving properties. The vivid colour imagery of the white deer and red fungus enhances the miracle described in the closure, where white hair turns black.2770

The Ballad Tung Flees!

I long to make a pilgrimage up Mount Ts’ung-kao.

The mountaintop is treacherous, so hard.

I stare far at the Five Peak summits,

Of yellow gold are the turrets,

Jewels of many colours.

Now all I see is the fungus plant,

Leaves fallen in heaps.

One hundred birds flock,

Coming like smoke.

Mountain beasts magnificent:

Unicorn, antelope, chimera,

Jungle birds loudly screeching.

Now all I see are mountain beasts playfully tussling.

I come nearer to Jade Hall,

No more does my heart ache to rove back home.

A command comes from the gates:

‘Man beyond the gates, what do you seek?’

What I say is:

‘I wish to follow the holy Way, to seek only long life.’

The command comes: ‘Mortal, obey my word!

Gather the sacred herb from the tip of Illusion Tree.’

A white hare kneels and pounds the herb, a toad makes a pill.

I offer up to the throne a jade dish:

‘Eat this drug, it will make you divine.

Eat this drug divine,

You will all be happy.

May Your Majesty live to a ripe old age.

The Four Corners will bow their heads in awe before you.

A host of heavenly spirits will guard you on left and right.

May Your Majesty be protected as long as Heaven endures!’

This song narrates the initiation of an unknown person connected with the Han court into an immortality cult. As in the preceding song, the initiate ascends a mountain (the site of Ts’ung-kao is not known). The Five Peaks viewed from its summit are the Five Holy Peaks: T’ai in Shantung, Heng in Hunan, Hua in Shensi, Heng (a different character) in Hopei, and Sung in Honan, representing the points east, south, west, north, and central, respectively, in the ancestral heartland of China. The pilgrim admires the jewelled abode of the immortals and sees the magic fungus, which is ripe for gathering. The second stanza pictures a mountain scene 71imbued with the divine and the marvellous, a scene of magnificence and of harmony where beasts play instead of preying on each other.28 The pilgrim approaches the gates of the adept and he says the ritual words of the initiation. He is granted his wish to enter the company of those seeking long life, and the symbols of regeneration, the white hare and the toad, prepare the immortality drug for him.29 At this point the narrative shifts from the account of the pilgrim to an eulogy of the reigning monarch. The emperor is promised longevity, even eternal life, happiness, victory over neighbouring states, and the protection of guardian spirits until the end of time. The dénouement of the song closely resembles that of ‘Up the Mound’.

The word ‘Flees!’ in the title is a misnomer. It came to be applied to the piece in the post-Han era only by association with another song title, which was originally an innocent song adapted by political com­mentators to serve as a prophecy (see p. 111). The song Tung t’ao ko contained in its title a pun on the word t’ao, which can mean peach or flee. Peach symbolized immortality in the Han. The Queen Mother of the West was fabled to have peaches which conferred everlasting life and which only formed after several millennia. Peach is connected with the other meaning of flee in the pun on t’ao. The link is clarified by reference to the Han text, Exoteric Commentary on the Han School Text of the Book of Poetry (Han shih wai chuan), attributed to Han Ying (fl. 150 BC). In a passage from its Chapter 10, it is related that an old man with a peach wand responds to the questions of Duke Huan of Ch’i in the Chou era by explaining that peach is a pun for wang, to be destroyed, lost. In his note to this passage the translator, James R. Hightower, comments, ‘As the word is a homophone of “to expel” [t’ao], peach wood was used to expell [sic] noxious influences.’30

Because of the elaborate pun, the original song was interpreted as a portent predicting that the Latter Han dictator, Tung Cho, would in the end be defeated and be forced to flee the capital city. The song proved particularly attractive because of a second pun on the name Tung Cho, which is written with the same character as Tung in the song’s title. The double pun’s efficacy is evident in the fact that each line of the song is followed by the refrain Tung t’ao, meaning in terms of the political interpretation ‘Tung [Cho] flees!’ In the third century AD, Ssu-ma Piao wrote a work entitled ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’ in which he catalogued historical events which had been ‘foretold’ by the early prophetic songs sung by innocent children. The song Tung tao, he wrote, refers to the dictator, Tung Cho. Since then the song lost whatever original meaning it had and became what its political interpreter said it was. The character t’ao = peach of the original was changed to t’ao = flee in the song title.

Another titled existed, Tung t’ao hsing, which I translate as the ‘Tung 72t’ao Ballad’. Its earliest recording is by Shen Yüeh in the fifth century AD in his ‘Treatise on Music’. He lists there the title ‘Tung Peach hsing = ballad’, ‘I Long to Make a Pilgrimage’. And this is the way Wu Ching (AD 670–749) lists it.31 But by Kuo Mao-ch’ien’s time the inevitable confusion surrounding the correct character for t’ao led him to list both the song (ko) and ballad (hsing) titles with the character t’ao = flee, and the practice endured. The correct solution is to reject the compounded error and restore both titles to their pristine meaning of ‘Tung Peach’. The word ‘Tung’, in my view, is a surname (by an accident of history the same as the late Han dictator’s); significantly, it occurs in connection with literary pieces on the theme of immortality.32 ‘The Ballad’ version of the title, ‘I Long to Make a Pilgrimage’, is clearly based on the theme of immortality.33 I propose that ‘The Song’ version, ‘Born into a Happy World’, shares the same theme. If that song (presented on pp. 111–12) lost its politicized refrain, it would read as a narrative about a man who had every joy life had to offer and yet decided to abandon the world and become an immortal.

The Song of Tung Peach

He was born into a happy world,

He roved through the city’s four quarters.

He enjoyed blessings from Heaven,

Girdled with gold dark red was he.

He showed his gratitude

As he prepared carriage and riders.

Soon to set off

To the main house he bade farewell.

As he left West Gate

He gazed on palace and hall,

Stared at the capital city.

The sun was dying at night,

His heart was broken with sorrow.

The changes in translation reflect the elasticity with which Chinese verse originals may be treated; the changes emphasize the narrative of the ‘revised version’. It is of course possible that the refrain existed in the original, reading ‘Tung Peach’ as a chorus rather than ‘Tung flees!’. I present the reconstituted piece only as a hypothesis.73

The King of Huai-nan Ballad

The King of Huai-nan

Is himself said to be honoured:

Hundred foot high mansions reach the sky,

In his rear courtyard a carved well, its crib made of silver,

A gold bucket’s pure white rope draws up cold frost,

Draws up cold frost

For young boys to drink,

Young boys of tender grace, so worthy,

Lift their voice in sad song, music pierces the skies.

I want to ford the river, river without a bridge.

I long to become two brown swans, return to my old hometown,

Return to my old hometown,

Enter my village;

To wander through my old hometown

Wounds my body endlessly.

Colourful dance, marvellous sounds, they all soothe me.

I wander through mulberry and catalpa trees, drift beyond the skies.

The King of Huai-nan referred to in this ballad was Liu An of the Former Han who died in 122 BC. He was the grandson of the founder of the Han Dynasty. The title, King of Huai-nan, had been created early in the Han in 199 BC, during the fourth year of Emperor Kao-tsu’s reign.34 Liu An was an adept in magic and alchemy. His thoughts and ideas are believed to have been committed to the Huai-nan Tzu, an eclectic philosophical work. According to legend the Han Emperor Wu asked Liu An for his secret recipes for immortality but was refused. In a rage he was about to force the king, his relative, to commit suicide, but he heard about it and vanished.35 The first half of the ballad, in fact, describes some cult practices of the immortality adept.

The structure of the piece seems to consist of two parts. The first sets the scene in the rear courtyard of the king’s mansion compound. The ‘rear’ usually denotes the residence of the ladies of the household and the harem of a wealthy person. The setting therefore introduces into the immortality cult of the king, the sexual aspect with which some cults were associated.36 The scene is specifically set in that part of the courtyard where the well is sited. Again, in erotic poetry this scene had erotic implications.37 In the Han ballad, drawing pure frost is a special rite, and the action also serves to set the time of the ballad in autumn or winter. The frost is given to the king’s young boys to drink as the drink of immortals, the purest essence of the skies. The youthfulness of the king’s choir relates to an important aspect of the Chinese pursuit of immortality: the ideal is never to grow old, but to possess eternal youth. The innocence of the boys is emphasized besides their extreme youth; 74they are in a state of almost divine grace. Their song rises to the sky; it is a sad song, perhaps full of regret for being mortal and for not attaining the perfect state.

The lines which begin with ‘I want to ford the river’ to the end of the piece might be the text of the choir’s song. Or they may express the thoughts of the king in his pursuit of immortality. ‘Ford the river’ is a cliché for reclusion deriving from the encounter between Confucius’ disciple and two recluses described in the Analects. Confucius asked his disciple to ask the two recluses where the ford was in that part of the district and they replied that he should know where it was, since he was a sage. ‘To ask about the ford’ became a stock phrase meaning reclusion.38 On the other hand, the ‘river’ might also refer to the River of Heaven, or the Milky Way, which according to legend has no bridge. This inter­pretation of the phrase links up with the last words of the previous line, ‘pierces the skies’. Therefore, both reclusion and the celestial abode of immortals might be implicit in ‘I want to ford the river’.

If we take the next lines as part of the choir’s song, they represent the theme of nostalgia hinted at in the line about the river. The passage is remarkably similar to the central passage of ‘Mount Wu is High’ in Chapter Nine below. Yet there is one line which points toward a more literary allusion. In the passage, the line ‘Wounds my body endlessly’ suggests an echo of ‘Encountering Sorrow’ in Songs of Ch’u. In that elegiac poem a courtier seeks to flee a corrupt world and follow the way of immortals. He is permitted to ascend to Heaven, but at the last moment turns to look back at his old home:

But when I had ascended the splendour of the heavens,

I suddenly caught a glimpse below of my old home.

The groom’s heart was heavy and the horses for longing

Arched their heads and refused to go on.39

This literary allusion links the theme of immortality cults and the theme of nostalgia in the ballad. It is significantly similar to the closure of my reconstituted version of ‘The Song of Tung Peach’. The final couplet of the ‘King of Huai-nan’ song describes a vision of paradise, which is often alluded to through divine dance and celestial music. It also contains a prayer for immortality which is answered in the aerial flight through the sacred trees of mulberry and catalpa.40

The ballad is structured on two main tropes, a cluster of images relating to the sky and the device of repetition. The images include the sky itself, mentioned three times, the colours silver and white, frost, the well, music in the skies, the allusion to the River of Heaven, swans flying, and the trees of paradise. The repetition involves key phrases: sky, cold frost, young boys, river, return to the old home town, and wandering. 75The content of the ballad identifies its position in Kuo Mao-ch’ien’s anthology among song-texts for dances.41

Walking out of Hsia Gate, A Ballad

A by-way leads past an empty hut;

The good man always lives alone.

At death he attains the way of holy immortals,

On high he leans up against the heavens.

After he visits our Royal Father and Mother,

He goes to live in the folds of Mount T’ai.

Going four or five leagues away from heaven

He meets on his way Red Pine for companion.

‘Hold the reins, drive for me!

Take me up to Heaven to roam!’

Up in Heaven what is there?

Rows and rows of planted white elm,

Cassia trees lining the way are growing,

Green dragons face to face bow down.

In this piece, the way to immortality is posited on a life of holy seclusion. A hidden path and empty hut are emblematic of the recluse. The word ‘empty’ indicates that the recluse has died. The material aspects of immortality cults are absent; the emphasis is on holiness. The ‘way’ of holy immortals is the Tao, which gave its name to the philosophy Taoism. His life on earth having been devoted to goodness and purity, the holy man ascends to the heavens when he is perfect, and becomes an immortal beyond the human sphere. The words ‘he leans against the heavens’ denote a ritual gesture of those who have become immortal, showing through their familiarity with the celestial sphere that they are included as equals among the spirits of the sky.

The first deities the recluse meets are the sovereigns of heaven, Wang Fu Mu, which I have translated as ‘Royal Father and Mother’. The phrase may refer jointly to the Royal Lord of the East and Queen Mother of the West, or to some vaguely conceived idea of a celestial matriarch and patriarch.42 Mount T’ai was one of the Five Holy Peaks. It will become the holy man’s new home among the immortals. On his way there he meets a famous immortal, Red Pine, red suggesting the colour cinnabar used in alchemy and the pine denoting constancy and long life. He asks the immortal to show him around the heavens. The description of the paradise in the last quatrain is introduced by a question and answer formula. The names of the trees, white elm and cassia, are also the names of stars. Cassia usually has the connotation of red because of its brilliant foliage. The green dragon is also the name of a star; it is, besides, 76the emblematic guardian of the eastern sky. The closure of the piece is therefore full of brilliant colour symbolism.

Apart from the balladic formula of question and answer, this piece contains other balladic features. Strong colours in the description is one recurring trait. The use of direct speech is another. The narrative line is also typical. There is, too, use of commonplace expression. This occurs in the last quatrain. Except for a slight change in the last line, this closure is the same as the quatrain which opens ‘The Lunghsi Ballad’, in Chapter Eleven. Its appearance in ‘Hsia Gate’ is intrinsic to the narrative move­ment of the ballad on immortality which culminates in a vivid description of the stars in the heavens. In ‘Lunghsi’ the quatrain has clearly been borrowed to project an ironic viewpoint.

The lack of cohesion between the title and the contents reveals another common feature of some Han songs and ballads. Hsia Gate, the western gate of Loyang city, does not feature in the piece. It is possible that the title originally belonged to another, earlier song, and either its content resembled this narrative, or parts of it were borrowed to make a new composition. The fluctuation of titles in the repertoire is evident from this example, since in some collections ‘Walking out of Hsia Gate, A Ballad’ is known as ‘The Lunghsi Ballad’, a confusion which appears in Wu Ching’s critical work.43 The case of ‘The Ballad of the Prefect of Goosegate’ is similar in this respect. In the confusion between ‘Hsia Gate’ and ‘Lunghsi’ we at least know that the identifying link between the two pieces is the quatrain they both share.44

An Old Yen Song

Today let’s be happy in our love,

As together we step through cloudy space.

Lord of the Skies brings out fine wine,

Earl of the River brings forth carp,

Green Dragon spreads out mats before us,

White Tiger holds the wine jug,

Southern Dipper works the drum and zither,

Northern Dipper blows the reed-organ.

Heng O drops down her bright earring,

Weaver Girl offers her jade girdle gems.

Through blue-rose mists drift eastern songs,

On clear winds float western lays.

Sheeting dew forms curtains,

Shooting stars escort our rolling carriage.

This song is made up of a variety of themes and components. The first couplet voices a carpe diem theme which is sustained by the rest of the 77narrative. Within this couplet, line 2 and throughout, appears the theme of mystical travel of immortals. In the central passage the pantheon of the gods of the old stellar mythology is presented. Also, the theme of epicureanism, an aspect of the carpe diem theme, is put forward. The motif of sexual pleasure is introduced in the second half with the moon goddess Heng O (or Ch’ang O) and Weaver Girl (stars in Vega and Lyra), culminating in the closure which describes two lovers riding in a carriage to their celestial bedroom enclosed with mist and dew. The theme of universal harmony is developed throughout the piece, with the gods preparing a (?marriage) feast, celestial music, and the natural elements responding sympathetically to the lovers or bridal pair. It is not clear who the couple are—the anonymous singer and the moon or star goddess, or the singer and his earthly mistress.

The themes are mostly presented through concrete images of the divine. The Lord of the Skies belongs to Chou mythology, and is particularly associated with the religion of ancient Ch’u. He might be the same deity as ‘The Lord within the Clouds’ whose praises are sung in the ‘Nine Songs’. Earl of the River, Ho-po, is also hymned in that song-cycle.45 Green Dragon and White Tiger are stars symbolizing east and west respectively. The Dipper is also a star, denoting plenty. Heng O was the wife of the legendary ruler Yi the Archer. She stole the drug of immortality which he obtained from Queen Mother of the West, ate it, and was assumed into the moon. The gesture of dropping one earring is erotic. Weaver Girl’s usual role in stellar mythology is the tragic lover parted from her beloved, Herdboy, and meeting him only once a year on the Seventh Night of the Seventh Month. Here she seems to have forgotten him and is paying attention to the singer (or so he flatters himself). Her legend has also been modified to merge with another concerning two water-nymphs who gave their girdle gems to a man named Cheng Chiao-fu as a love-token. Again, the male object of affection, Cheng Chiao-fu, has been omitted from the narrative. What binds these diverse themes and images together is the strict parallelism of the main body of the song.

There is a striking contrast between the point of view of this song and that of the Han hymns. This song is about the gods, not for them. In making the gods of the old mythology play a subservient role toward the human lovers of the song, belief in the gods is weakened. The tone is impertinent and playful. Its irreverence marks the transition of the theme of immortality from ritual to romance.46


1 Graham, Chuang-tzū, pp. 221–23, discusses the representative philosopher of the Yangist or ‘Nurture of Life School’. Yang Chu (c. 350 BC). Suzuki Shūji has an interesting discussion on this theme in some early yüeh-fu, ‘Impermanence and Wandering Immortals’, Research on Han and Wei Poetry (1967), pp. 415–19.

2 Graham, id., p. 176.

3 Ibid. The Ch’in founder’s dates are 259–209 BC, r. 221–209 BC.

4 Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death, p.29. The Ch’in capital was in northwest China, near the later Han capital Ch’angan, modern Sian.

5 Ibid.188

6 Watson, ‘The Feng and Shan Sacrifices’, Records, Vol. 2, p. 39.

7 Id., pp. 48–9. The hymn celebrating this good omen appears in translation in Chavannes, Mémoires, Vol. 3, Appendix 1, no. 12, pp. 622–24.

8 Watson, op cit., p. 56.

9 For a translation of the amnesty see Loewe, Chinese Ideas, pp. 83–4, citing Han shu, ch. 6. For a translation of the hymn see Chavannes, id., no. 13, p. 624. The hymns on the cauldron (n. 7) and the fungus belong to the set of 19 Han hymns discussed and translated in part in Chapter One above.

10 Graham, op. cit., p. 176.

11 Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984), p. 94, notes: ‘One of the “Nineteen Old Poems” alludes to the frequency with which people poisoned them. selves by imbibing such “immortality potions”, which were usually concocted of highly toxic ingredients such as lead, arsenic, or mercury.’

12 See ‘The Far-off Journey’, Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, pp. 81–7, of which the translator notes, p. 81: ‘[It] could be described as a Taoist’s answer to the Li-sao—the poem is full of references to yoga techniques and to the hagiography of Han Taoism … I think its date of composition is probably not much earlier than the beginning of the first century BC.’

13 Watson, ‘The Feng and Shan Sacrifices’, p. 54.

14 Watson, Chinese Lyricism, Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (1971), Chapter Five, pp. 68–89, ‘The Poetry of Reclusion.’

15 Graham, id., p. 176.

16 Ibid.

17 Kuo, ch. 16, p.226, citing Shen Yüeh, ch. 19, p. 538.

18 Hawkes, op. cit., p. 42, lines 3–5, ‘Ho Po, The God of the Yellow River’, no. 8 of the ‘Nine Songs’.

19 This group of miracles is mentioned by Loewe, Chinese Ideas, p. 89, with his translation of an imperial edict declaring a general amnesty on the occasion, citing Han shu, ch. 8. Ch’en Heng also lists the miracles in his discussion, Notes on Poetic Figures, pp. 3–4.

20 The metre is irregular. The first eight lines are pentasyllabic. The next two lines are of four and three syllables (or perhaps they combine to form one 7-syllable line). The next line is trisyllabic, followed by a 6-syllable couplet, then lines of 4 and 5 syllables (which might combine to form a 9-syllable line). The next quatrain is trisyllabic, ‘Magic fungus …’, and the final quatrain returns to pentasyllabics. The text is in Shen Yüeh, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p. 641, and in Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’, p. 229.

21 Yen Yü (fl. AD 1180–1235), Remarks on Poetry from Ts’ang-lang (Tsang-lang shih hua)‚ Kuang-wen (1972), ch. 5.2a, rebukes Kuo for not seeing that song no. 3 is thematically a quite separate piece. The passage is translated by Günther Debon, Ts’ang-lang’s Gespräche über die Dichtung, pp. 97–8, section 105.

22 Ts’ui Pao, Record of Things Ancient and Modern, SPTK 2.3b. The two wan-ko appear in Chapter Five below.

23 George A. Kennedy, ‘Metrical “Irregularity” in the Shih ching (1939), p. 11, found that 91% of the 305 poems in the Book of Poetry are tetrasyllabic. For tetrasyllabic Han hymns see Chapter One above.

24 For example, Ts’ao Ts’ao (AD 155–220), ‘Two Short Song Ballads, in six stanzas 1, anthologised by Kuo Mao-ch’ien, ch. 30, pp. 446–47, which lament the brevity of human existence.

25 By the late Southern Dynasties era of the sixth century AD, the title ‘A Long Song Ballad’ was given to poems in longer metres than the original pentasyllabic. 189

26 In Ko Hung (AD 243–334), Master Embracing-simplicity (Pao-p’u Tzu‚ nei-p’ien), SPPY 15.6b, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, is said to have been nine feet tall, with eyebrows five inches long, and ears seven inches long.

27 The metre is pentasyllabic, except for the penultimate line which is (?erroneously) tetrasyllabic. The text, minus the second couplet, appears in Ou-yang Hsün et al., Compendium of Literature, ch. 81.1381–82, under the title ‘Old Poem’. The full text is in Kuo, ch. 30, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 5, Level-mode Pieces, Part 1’‚ p. 442.

28 This scene has been represented in early art, especially on censers, such as the Po-shan, Po Mountain censer; see Historical Relics, fig. 98.

29 For the regenerative symbolism of the two creatures see Loewe, Ways to Paradise‚ pp. 52–5, 127–33; for Illusion Tree‚ Jo-mu, id., p. 111.

30 Hightower, Han Shih Wai Chuan, ch. 10.15, p. 337, n. 2. Ts’ui Pao, Record, SPTK 2.4a, interprets t’ao as a pun for expel, describing Tung Cho’s expulsion and extermination with the compound T’ao-wang.

31 Wu Ching, Explanations of the Old Titles of Yüeh-fu, Chin-tai pi-shu 34, ch. 1.4b.

32 E.g. a poem attributed to Sung Tzu-hou (2nd-3rd centuries AD) with the title Tung Chiao-jao, taken to be the name of someone, which deals with the contrast between the eternal cycle of return in nature and human mortality, Birrell, New Songs, pp. 43–4. In a later anonymous work of between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, The Inner Biography of Emperor Wu (Han Wu nei chuan)‚ a handmaid of the Queen Mother of the West was named Tung Shuang-ch’eng. Kristofer Schipper, L’Empereur Wou des Han dans la légende taoiste (1965), p. 74, n. 4.

33 The metre is irregular. Stanza one: 7–6–5–4–2–4–4. Stanza two: 3–3–4–5–4–9. Stanza three: 6–5–5–5–2–9, Stanza four: 6–7–9–7–7. Stanza five: 4–4–6–6–6–8. None of the stanzaic metres is the same. Diény, Aux origines, pp.119–22, has an annotated translation and discussion of the text. He translates only the Shen Yüeh text and divides the lines to form a different metrical pattern in stanza three. He points out that the final quatrain of the whole song is in the same rhyme and that it constitutes an envoi to the emperor’s longevity. The text is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Ch’ing-Shang Song Poems in Three Modes: Clear-mode’ category, p. 612, and in Kuo, ch. 34, p. 505, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, part 9, Clear-mode Pieces, Part 2’. The text may have another couplet. In his commentary to Ts’ao Chih’s ‘The Harp Lay’, Anthology of Literature (Wen hsüan), SPTK 27.27b, Li Shan cites this couplet from what he calls ‘The Old Tung Flees Ballad’ (and Li uses t’ao = flee, not t’ao = peach): ‘My life gradually draws to a close,/ Sinks and goes home beneath the hills.’ If it does belong to the text, I would suggest it be placed at the very beginning to open the song. This would make the persona someone contemplating his advancing years and seeking initiation into an immortality cult to prevent the aging process. Li Shan, id., SPTK 22.30a, repeats the first line of the same couplet in his commentary to Shen Yüeh’s ‘Resting in the East Garden’, citing from ‘The Old Tung Peach Ballad’, this time using t’ao = peach! It is not clear whether he refers to a completely different song or ballad of the same title, but probably he had in mind ‘I long to make a pilgrimage’.

34 Watson, Records, Vol. 1, p. 202, Shih chi, ch. 91.

35 The Han historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, a contemporary of Emperor Wu and Liu An, provides a different account in his Historical Records, Shih-chi, ch. 118. He portrays Liu An, who was enfeoffed as King of Huai-nan in 164 BC, as a rebel and traitor who plotted against the throne, and committed suicide when he was arrested. Watson, Records, Vol. 2, pp. 366–87.

36 Robert H. van Gulik, Sexual Life in Ancient China (1961, rpr, 1974), pp. 79–88, gives a general review of Taoist ideas on sexual practices linked to the cult of immortality.

37 For example, Yü Tan (late 5th to early 6th centuries AD), ‘One night I dreamed I went home’, Birrell, New Songs, p. 157. 190

38 Waley, The Analects of Confucius, XVIII.6, pp. 219–20.

39 Hawkes, op. cit., ‘Lisao, p.34, lines 184–85.

40 That the mulberry and catalpa were revered is evident from poem no. 197 of the Book of Poetry. By the late Chou mulberry was a part of celestial lore; Fu-sang, Leaning Mulberry, for example, was the tree of sunrise. Catalpa became known as the sacred tree in which birds of paradise perched, and in times of harmony among men, sang and danced over it.

41 The metre is irregular. The first half mixes 3 and 7-syllable lines: 3–3–7–7–7–3–3–7–7. The second half is: 7–8–3–3–4–4–7–7. Ts’ui Pao, Record, SPTK 2.2a, provides the earliest context for this piece. The text is in Shen Yüeh, ch. 22, ‘Songs for the Sweeping Dance’ category, p. 635, and in Kuo, ch, 54, ‘Song-texts for Dance Pieces Part 3, Miscellaneous Dances, Part 2’‚ p. 792.

42 Perhaps the first is the same deity as ‘The Great One, Lord of the Eastern World’ or ‘The Lord of the East’ whose praises are sung in the ‘Nine Songs’, nos. 1 and 7, Hawkes, op. cit., pp. 36 and 41. For Queen Mother of the West see Loewe, Ways to Paradise, pp. 86–126.

43 Explanations, ch.1.6a-b, where Wu lists the title ‘Walking out of Hsia Gate’, but gives the paraphrase of ‘The Lunghsi Ballad’.

44 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Kuo, ch. 37‚ ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 12, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 2’‚ p. 545.

45 Hawkes, id., pp. 37 and 42.

46 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text appears in a fragmentary form in Imperial Survey of the T’ai-p’ing Era [AD 976–984], Li Fang (AD 925–996) et al. comp. (T’ai-p’ing yü-lan), SPTK 539.3b, which has lacunae of three characters at the end of line 2 and the last six lines of the piece in toto. The full text is in Chang Chih-hsiang (AD 1496–1577), Garden of Old Poetic Genres (Ku shih lei yüan), Yü Hsien-ch’ing ed., ch. 45. 14a-b.

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