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Carpe Diem

Like the imperative of Horace’s ‘Carpe diem’, or ‘Seize the day!’, Chinese verse on this theme is full of injunctions, often repeated to convey a sense of urgency.1 And as with the Latin word carpe the anonymous Chinese song-makers and balladeers rejected moderation: ‘Exhaust our hearts with the deepest pleasure!’ The Chinese idiom also resembles the Horatian phrase in its use of the word ‘day’, stressing the immediate present: ‘If today I don’t make merry,/ How long must I wait?’

Implicit in this urgency is the idea that time is swiftly passing: ‘Hasten to make merry!/ Hasten to make merry—/ While there’s time’. The theme of tempus fugit suggests that it is not momentary time which is slipping away, but life itself. The singers repeatedly remind us: ‘Man’s life does not last a century’, and ‘Life is like a spark glimpsed when stone is struck’.

The fear of time passing stems from the singers’ awareness of the sadness of the human condition. They exclaim: ‘How can I go on in sad despair,/ Must I keep waiting for next year?’ Although their melancholy is said to be overwhelming, they do not elaborate on the gloom which palls their life. They suggest that there is a way to ‘dispel dull care’, through pleasure, through exhausting the senses so as to obliterate the grief engendered by man’s mortality. The pleasures they advocate are earthly and aesthetic: intoxicating liquor, rich food, music, song, and dance.

The context of these songs on the carpe diem theme is the feast.2 The inspiration for this probably derives from some passages in the Book of Poetry. One such passage connects the theme of the feast with the threat of death:

death and burial may come any day,

only a short time can we see each other;

may we enjoy the wine this evening;

the lord feasts!3

Yet, as another passage in this classic makes clear, the Chou carpe diem 79poets do not advocate the extremes of the Han singers; caution is advised in this passage:

The cricket is in the hall,

the year draws to a close;

if we do not now enjoy ourselves,

the days and months will be passing by;

but may we not be too joyous,

may we only think of our positions;

in our love of pleasure, may we not go to excess;

the good gentleman is circumspect.4

Another aspect of the theme which the Han songs share with the Chou poems is the felicitation formula. In the Chou anthology there are several poems, not on the carpe diem theme, in which the head of a house­hold gives a feast in honour of the clan ancestors and is toasted by his guests with felicitations like, ‘may the lord have a myriad years’, or ‘(Heaven) rewards him with increased felicity;/ a longevity of a myriad (years) without limit!’5 The felicitation formula expresses itself in the Han songs in this way: ‘If you serenely nourish your bodily vigour,/ Till one hundred years you’ll last, to a great old age!’ Longevity in the Han was believed to be not a reward from Heaven, but the result of cultist regimens. There is another major difference between the setting of the feast in Chou and Han pieces which share either the carpe diem theme or the felicitation formula: with the Chou, the setting is the ancestral feast; with the Han, the feast is unspecified and the singer’s preoccupation is not with the clan, but with himself as an individual.

As the Han felicitation formula cited above indicates, there are traces of the cult of immortality in the songs on this theme. In comparison with the songs in the preceding chapter, however, the singer rejects the promise of immortality as a faded dream of a past era. In ‘How Wonderful!’ the singer passes through the hills of immortality, but does not stop there; and he rejects the elixir offered by a famous immortal. In ‘West Gate’ the singer admits, ‘Since I am not immortal Wang Tzu-ch’iao,/ To count on such a lifespan is hard to expect.’ He repeats his admission to emphasize the hard truth. Abandoning the false hope of immortality, the singer of the carpe diem songs turns to the solace of earthly, sensual pleasures: ‘Playing my lute, wine, song!’

The rejection of immortality does not stop at mere awareness of a bankrupt idea. The carpe diem singer rejects the idea that there is a life after death in the religious sense. He abandons the comfort of religion and the consolation of philosophy. Even the Taoist doctrine of resignation in the face of life’s troubles finds no adherents here. The singer seeks to annul the past and the future. He refuses to pursue 80ambition, desiring neither wealth nor fame. The future is dreaded: ‘The days to come will be so hard’. He urges his listeners not to shore up for the future, but to spend in the here and now: ‘To hoard wealth, to begrudge spending/ Will just make posterity laugh out loud!’ This attitude runs counter to traditional socio-ethical values, for it severs the link between himself and his ancestral past, and the bond between himself and his descendants. In one version of a song, the singer seems to be deserting his young family. ‘I look back at my yellow-beak babes below’.

Rejecting so much of their tradition, the carpe diem singers still have some truths to cling to: the end of human life is extinction through obliterating death; the world exists by chance and not by religious or metaphysical design; life is by its nature a melancholy business; and the way to secure a happy life is through the pleasures of the senses. The pursuit of pleasure is objective, its function is to delete the pain of existence. But because its purpose is so paradoxical, pleasure is tinged with joylessness. Knowing this, the pleasure-seeker is doomed to a feverish pursuit of earthly delight, the efficacy of which can never finally convince. There is a certain courage in the carpe diem singers’ bleak view of life. At the same time its very bleakness arouses an acute sense of anxiety.

How Wonderful! A Ballad

The days to come will be so hard,

My mouth parched, lips dry.

Today let’s delight in our love,

Let’s all be merry and gay.

I pass through famous hills,

Fungus whirls, whirls.

The immortal Wang Ch’iao

Offers a pill of the drug.

I pity my sleeves so short—

Though tucked in, my hands feel cold.

I’m ashamed not to have Ling Ch’e

Who repaid Chao Hsüan.

The moon sinks, Orion slants,

Northern Dipper tilts.

Close friends are at my gates;

Though hungry, there’s not enough for a meal. 81

Happy days grow still fewer,

Wretched days grow cruelly more.

With what to forget despair?

Playing my lute, wine, song!

For the eight lords of Huai-nan

The Main Way holds no difficulties:

Driving a carriage of six dragons

They rove and play in cloudy limits.

The song opens with a proverb expressing fear of the future.6 This fear leads the singer to adopt a hedonist solution to life’s problems. The major carpe diem theme is stated in the second couplet and is picked up again in stanza five. After the first quatrain stanza, however, the song shifts abruptly to another, contradictory theme, the cult of immortality. The singer describes his visit to the famous hills where the immortals are. He sees the drug of immortality and its motion seems to mesmerize him. He meets Wang Ch’iao, the immortal, who offers him the prepared drug.7 The song shifts abruptly again with the next stanza to a plaint of poverty and misery. The singer alludes to one Ling Ch’e, an historic figure of the seventh century BC who was rescued from starvation by Chao Hsüan. Later, in 607 BC, when Chao Hsüan’s lord, Duke Ling of Chin, tried to kill Chao in an ambush at a state banquet, Ling Ch’e was one of the ambush soldiers and he helped Chao Hsüan to escape. The singer’s plaint therefore includes shame as well as misery, for he cannot repay a debt of honour.

Stanza four shifts once again to night. The second couplet of this quatrain is problematic.8 It is not clear why the meal cannot be taken. I have translated the line to mean that there is not enough food, because the singer-host is impoverished. The line could also mean that there is not enough time for a meal. Or, as Diény translates it, ‘Their [good friends’] hunger does not warrant a feast.’ In a note he supplements this interpretation: ‘Though they are hungry—it is late—their appetite is not up to a feast.’ He suggests an alternative reading: ‘Though they are starving, they are excluded from the feast.’9 My translation is intended to refer back to the singer’s plaint of poverty in stanza three and to anticipate it in stanza five. Whatever the meaning of this line, it is important for one thing: it introduces the idea of the feast that is central to the carpe diem theme, and this theme reasserts itself in the fifth stanza, having lain dormant since the first: ‘With what to forget despair?/ Playing my lute, wine, song!’

The end of the song reverts to the immortality theme of the second stanza. The singer refers to the early Han adept, the King of Huai-nan, Liu An, who, according to legend, disappeared with eight lords among 82his retainers and became immortal.10 The ‘Main Way’ is Taoist philosophy which at this point in its evolution is becoming tinged with cultism. It is possible that this song has a somewhat different ending, in which the singer voices the wish to become a bird to join the immortals in the sky, or to have freedom as birds have in flight: ‘Like those winged birds / That sometimes fly across the sky.’11

In his discussion of this song Diény notes that its anarchic design is counterbalanced by a perfect regularity of rhyme, stanzaic length, and metre. The metre is tetrasyllabic. Each stanza contains meaning that is sufficient to itself. The ‘anarchy’ Diény speaks of lies in the lack of apparent connecting tissue between the stanzas. He suggests that a melodic line using musical schemes and formulas would no doubt, in performance, have imposed logic and coherence on the song as a whole.12

Yü Kuan-ying, on the other hand, classifies this as a feasting song, and attempts to order the random statements by treating the stanzas as conventions of the form. Stanza one in his view is a host’s exhortation to his guests to be happy; stanza two is the host’s hymn to long life; stanza three is the guests’ statement of their penury and shame at being unable to repay their host’s generous hospitality; stanza four is the host’s observation that the festive night is ending and his invitation to the guests to stay with him; it is also his statement that he is so happy that he forgets to eat or sleep; stanza five is the guests’ response as they compare their host with the King of Huai-nan and wish him long life. Yü reads the piece as a feasting song with conventions of compliments and responses between host and guests. Certainly this genre of poem was current in the late Han era.13

What is clear is that the two themes of immortality and carpe diem coincide in this song, as they do in other songs in this chapter, and both themes are given an extra dimension of meaning by the setting of the feast. The two themes are present without one dominating. They are intellectually incompatible, for if one truly believes in the possibility of immortality one does not then simultaneously, without risk of contra­diction, admit the impossibility of the afterlife. I would suggest that the singer is attracted to both ideas, and cannot resolve the incompatibility. He cannot forsake one without the other. I would conclude that as such this song stands midway between the two intellectual trends of the belief in immortality and hedonism. The singer’s adherence to both ideas results in the song’s ambiguities and artistic tension.1483

A Long Song Ballad, no. 1

Green, green mallow in the garden,

Morning dew awaits the sun to dry.

Sunny spring spreads kind moisture,

All nature grows shining bright.

I always fear when autumn’s season comes:

Burned yellow blooms and leaves will fade.

‘One hundred rivers moving east to sea,’

When will they ever westward turn again?

If while we’re young and strong we don’t strive hard,

When we’re grown old, no use whining then!

This song forms part of the set already discussed in Chapter Three, of which parts two and three appear in that chapter and Chapter Nine. I have included the first part of the song title here not so much because it elaborates the carpe diem theme, but because it contains concepts intrinsic to the theme and in its closure it echoes ‘A Yen Song, The Whenever Ballad’ later in this chapter.

The structure of the song rests on the analogy drawn between the seasonal cycle and the life of man. A series of natural images stresses the concept of the beauty of young growing plants which inevitably wither and decay. The first quatrain is almost a hymn to spring. The green mallow in a spring garden is soaked with nourishing dew. Yet within this lyrical passage two images anticipate a sombre view of nature and life. The image of the mallow denotes vulnerability and susceptibility to change, for it depends on the sun for its existence, yet that same sun will kill. The image of dew is also ambiguous and denotes vulnerability for it nourishes plants yet will evaporate in the sun. Numerous songs and poems of this period use the trope of evaporating dew. One of the most famous is a burial song opening with the image: ‘On the shallot the dew—/ How easily it dries!’15 The third couplet develops the sensory image of dryness leading to decay. Autumn’s frosts and searing winds scorch and discolour plants which had seemed everlasting in spring.

The next couplet continues the dewy image with a proverb about the flow of rivers.16 The ideas implicit in it are that the flow follows a destined course and serves as a metaphor for passing time. It acts as a transition between the sustained nature imagery of the first passage and the comment on human life of the final passage. The song’s analogy between nature and man is posited on a linear progression through the seasons, spring and autumn serving for the course of the calendrical year and, by extension, the four ages of man: youth, manhood, old age, and death. The closure contains an exhortation to the young generation, based on the meditation on the meaning of existence lyrically presented 84through the earlier analogy. The singer urges the young to achieve something worthwhile while they are young. He contemptuously dismisses the bleatings of those who have failed to be wise. The theme of tempus fugit predominates throughout the song; it colours the analogy and underscores the final exhortation. While the pursuit of pleasure is not advocated, the temporal aspect and the tone of anxiety which inform other hedonistic songs are clearly articulated.17

Song of Melancholy

Hardly had I known brief happiness,

When I fell into the world’s ambush;

I have met with these hundred troubles,

Alone in bitter venom,

In sad grief hard to bear.

I stare far at polar Ch’en star;

Skies brighten, the moon travels on.

Melancholy comes crowding my heart.

Who of those facing me would know?

Sad, sad my many pensive cares,

Grieved, grieved I am restless.

Fortune, misfortune are not defined.

I just remember the men of old

Who gave up their rank to farm for themselves.

If I follow my own desire,

That way I would calm myself.

Since finding refuge in these rustic hills

I have guarded this one glory.

Twilight autumn’s fierce winds rise.

Westward I plod to the huge sea,

But my heart will not rest.

I hold my robe, rise, stare into night:

Northern Dipper aslant,

Starry Han shining on me,

Then it goes, goes, leaving myself to me.

I support my two kin,

I could tell of my burdens.

Failure, success are acts of Heaven.

Wise men do not despair,

So most bring few troubles on themselves.

Calm in poverty, happy in the right Way,

They imitate yon Chuang Chou. 85

Those who leave behind a name are honoured,

With Tzu-hsi they roam together;

Two sages of the past,

Their names bequeathed one thousand autumns.

Drink wine! Sing! Dance!

Not be merry—why wait longer?

How wonderful! Radiant I gaze on sun and moon,

Sun and moon galloping forward.

Luckless we stumble in this world.

To have, to have not,

To covet wealth, begrudge spending—

How foolish this all is!

Life is like a spark glimpsed from flint-stone,

Our dwelling in the world, in the end, how long can it last?

We must be happy, just be merry, amuse ourselves!

Exhaust our hearts with the deepest pleasure!

If you nourish serenely your bodily vigour,

Till one hundred years you’ll last, to a great old age!

This is not an easy song to follow, because so many themes and sentiments are expressed in a haphazard and repetitive manner. If we take each component as it occurs, we may come closer to understanding the song’s random structure. The first line states the carpe diem theme, which is resumed in the final passage. The rest of stanza one and stanza two express the speaker’s deep anxiety and unhappiness in language reminiscent of the pessimistic elegies of Songs of Ch’u. The indeterminate nature of his agony of mind is a convention of the Ch’u elegy. Implicit in the genre are these motifs: the persona is a man in political exile; he has been slandered at court; he is obsessed with the evanescence of his youth; and he is convinced of the purity of his ideals in an evil world. It is possible that the same motifs are to be understood in this Han song. The next couplet takes up the theme of time passing with the image of the moon’s swift journey through the sky. The moon might also serve as a symbol of pure idealism. The celestial imagery of the polar Ch’en star suggests the remoteness of an impersonal world, silent and impassive, contrasting with the seething emotions of the speaker. The first stanza closes with a repetition of his melancholy mood and solitary suffering.

The second stanza opens with another statement of his melancholy. The third line states the law of chance. The speaker recalls idealists of the past, recluses like Hsü Yu, Ch’ang Chü and Chieh Ni who rejected political life and devoted themselves to farming. Political idealism and reclusion merge in the last couplet. The speaker says that he has become a recluse and is nurturing his ideals, metaphorically termed ‘this one glory’, a floral metaphor in the manner of the Ch’u elegy.1886

The third stanza opens with a panorama of blazing skies, stormy winds, and a vast sea, providing a majestic background for the moral heroism of the persona. The gloomy image, ‘Twilight autumn’, central to the elegiac tone of the Ch’u pieces, develops the theme of time passing. In his despair he contemplates the sky again, searching for guidance and comfort. A brief moment of accord with the tranquil motion of the heavens soon passes. The persona introduces for the first time a small detail about his personal life, in contrast with the earlier generalities. He announces abruptly that he is maintaining his family (it is not clear whether this means his parents or his wife and children).19

In the next stanza the persona repeats the idea that fate is blind. He acknowledges that wisdom brings a measure of peace. He recalls exemplars of the past, men of noble ideals who were content to live in poverty, rather than sacrifice their principles. One famous example was Yen Hui, a favourite disciple of Confucius.20 He is not named, however; instead, surprisingly, the song refers to Chuang Chou, or Chuang Tzu, one of the founders of Taoism, the philosophical system antagonistic to Confucianism. The other example is Tzu-hsi whose identity is not known.21 In this merging of Confucian principles with Taoist exemplars one discerns the incipient elements of the system of thought known as Neo-Taoism which developed in the post-Han era.22

The final section of the song reverts to the carpe diem theme voiced in line 1. The persona again ponders the mystery of the heavenly bodies and meditates on the passage of time. He expresses his pessimistic view of life dominated by random chance. He says that the only response is to seek pleasure and spend money on earthly enjoyment. The temporal aspect implicit in his contemplation of the heavens is pronounced more dramatically with a simile of a spark of light. The pleasure principle is also stated more urgently, with the advice to dismiss moderation and to obliterate pain. The song closes with a felicitation formula in which the singer wishes himself and his audience longevity.

The contradictions in this song’s themes and moods may be judged as an indication of compositional flaws. Yet I would suggest a more sympathetic reading which interprets the ambiguities as a mirror of the singer’s anxiety and as a reflection of the fusion of disconnected belief systems taking place in the Han. The Taoist ideal of reclusion, the Confucian concept of moral example and rectitude, the Yangist idea of ‘Nurture of Life’, the nihilism of the concept that life is governed by random chance, the pessimism of the view that life is but a brief moment signifying nothing, the carpe diem concept, and the longevity cult all constitute philosophical ideas floating around in Han society. If there is a logic to the song, it would appear that the singer turns these alternative ideas over in his mind, and while not entirely rejecting them decides to devote himself to one, the pursuit of pleasure. In this song the grief 87which impels the singer to ‘the deepest pleasure’ is amplified more than in any other in this selection. In ‘West Gate’ this effusion of grief has become eclipsed to ‘it’: ‘I pace and think of it.’

There is another version of this song. I have not reproduced it here in translation because it does not differ fundamentally from the other, compared with some title versions I have included. Both versions are fifty lines long and arranged into four stanzas of nine lines each, with a finale (?tsü) of fourteen lines. The metres of both are predominantly tetrasyllabic, but where the syllabic line changes, the two versions diverge. In the version I have translated, the last hexasyllabic six lines are replaced in the other version by tetrasyllabic lines. The diction of the two versions varies; there are 21 variants. There are also extra phrases in each, the translated version being more expanded than the other. The substance of the two remains very similar.23

A Yen Song, The Whenever Ballad

Whenever will I be quite happy

Without any worries?

All I must do is drink strong wine,

Roast the fat ox.

The eldest brother has two-thousand-bushel rank,

The middle brother is robed in sable furs.

The youngest brother, though without a post,

Saddles his horse and gallops, gallops,

Having fun in company with prince, lord, high official.

All I must do is stay in halls of prince and lord,

Be quite happy with dice and toss-pot,

Seated at the gameboard.

For young men living in this world

Each must try hard;

Hurried on toward his twilight,

No one lingers long.

Youngsters clash with each other,

Coldness and bitterness always ensue.

Is violent rage worth the fight?

Midway I am parted from you.

I will curb myself, offer service to my lord,

I must not be remiss in rites and decorum.

I am shamed before blue-wave Heaven above, 88

I look back at my yellow-beak babes below.

What to do with my troubled, troubled heart?

Who can know of my lonely grief?

This song has the same title as the swan fable in Chapter Two, but its theme and structure are very different. In common with other carpe diem songs, its emotional mainspring is grief tinged with an awareness of time passing. The song appears to provide more background to the persona and more reasons for his intense grief than is usual in such pieces. After stating the carpe diem theme, one which is typically imbued with anxiety, the singer proceeds to describe three brothers in a family. We are not told whether they are his brothers, or the young masters of the house­hold where he is employed, or an idealized family the singer dreams of belonging to. We learn that the family enjoys wealth, status, and happiness.24 In the fourth stanza, the repetition of ‘prince’ and ‘lord’ appears to link the life of the youngest brother with the singer’s own life. It is not specified whether the two young men are the same person. Or perhaps the youngest brother is the master, the singer the servant who must keep him company in his revels. Thus far, however, the motif of personal failure begins to emerge. The singer does not have a high official post, he does not wear furs, he does not ride with high society.

The fifth stanza develops this motif and introduces the theme of tempus fugit. The singer stresses that one must achieve something while one is young, and he makes his appeal to the young generation as if his own chance has eluded him. This passage is similar to the closure of ‘A Long Song Ballad, no. 1’. The final passage continues the account of young men in society first mentioned in stanzas two, three, and five. The youths of this passage seem to represent a more generalized concept than before. The first mention indicated young brothers in a family; the second mention referred to young men starting out in life in a generalized statement about a career and achievement; the third seems to continue the generalized statement, but leads into a personal, highly emotional passage about the singer’s own life. We may take the link between these references as follows: the three brothers may be intended to serve as a model for a happy family free from strife and financial problems, a paradigm against which the singer’s own circumstances may be measured. In this tsü-finale the singer implies that he has had a violent argument (?with his older brother), which has led to a permanent estrangement. There is a separation; the singer has to leave home. He decides to serve a lord with honour. Yet in making this decision he has to leave his young family of infants behind, causing him deep shame. He has no alternative because he is penniless. His misery is compounded by the awareness that no one can share his troubles.

This interpretation of the narrative line of the song is supported by 89references to commonplace phrases and similar passages in other Han songs.25 The same carpe diem refrains recur in other songs in this chapter. The passage describing three brothers of a wealthy and successful family occurs in three other Han songs, ‘They Met’, ‘In Ch’angan There is a Narrow Lane’, and ‘Cocks Crow’, with the difference that the number of brothers is vague in all but the second song. The passage stating that the young must strive for success appears in ‘A Long Song Ballad, no. 1’, and the tempus fugit theme appears in all carpe diem songs. In the tsü-finale the phrase ‘offer service to’ occurs in ‘Song of Melancholy’. The couplet, ‘I am shamed … babes below,’ occurs in both versions of ‘East Gate’, with some alterations in phraseology. The theme of quarrelling brothers in the final passsage of ‘Cocks Crow’ might be the same as this song’s theme of quarrelling youths.

There is another perspective from which this song may be viewed. It is so similar to two versions of another Han song, ‘West Gate’, that it might even constitute a third version, with a different title. Accordingly, I have placed the three together. ‘West Gate’ develops the theme of carpe diem more fully. It lacks the passage about brothers in a wealthy family. The long version of ‘West Gate’ elaborates the tempus fugit theme more than the other two songs. The theme of poverty which is significant in ‘A Yen Song’ is reduced to a brief reference in the last line of the short version of ‘West Gate’. The long version of ‘West Gate’ cynically refers to immortality, a reference lacking in the other two pieces. This recurrence of commonplace expression and similarities in theme and structure show how the Han song was constructed and perhaps will provide clues about the approximate dating of each of the three pieces.26

West Gate Ballad

long version

Leaving by West Gate

I pace and think of it:

If today I don’t make merry,

How long must I wait?

So make merry!

Make merry we must while there’s time!

Can I let cares overwhelm me?

Must I keep waiting for next year?

Drink strong wine!

Roast the fat ox!

Call for my heart’s delight,

May be to dispel dull care.90

Man’s life does not last a century,

He ever nurses worries of one thousand years.

Morning is short and night is long,

Why not hold a candle and have fun?

Since I am not immortal Wang Tzu-ch’iao,

To count on such a lifespan is hard to expect.

Since I am not immortal Wang Tzu-ch’iao,

To count on such a lifespan is hard to expect.

Man’s lifetime is not of metal or rock,

His destined years—what can he expect?

To hoard wealth, to begrudge spending

Will just make posterity laugh out loud!

This carpe diem song focusses on different aspects of time. The source of hedonism, personal grief and a vague effusion of sorrow, is eclipsed to the words ‘think of it’ and ‘dull care’ in stanzas one and three. The elision contrasts markedly with ‘Song of Melancholy’ which is dominated by the grief motif, as its title suggests. The temporal motif in ‘West Gate’ begins with the conventional carpe diem refrain linking pleasure with the immediate present, ‘today’. As with other songs on this theme, the structure is based on a paradox: how to transmute grief into joy. Here the paradox is obliquely presented through the sombre connotations of the West Gate. Graveyard poetry of the Han often opens with the symbol of a gate, creating a boundary between the living world left behind at the city gate and the land of the dead beyond the city gate. Poem no. 13 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’ opens with this symbol: ‘I drove my carriage from the upper East Gate,/ Stared far away at tombs north of the wall’ The symbol may derive from poem no. 141 of the Book of Poetry: ‘By the gate of the graveyard there are plum trees;/ there are yao birds collecting on them.’ Bernhard Karlgren glosses yao birds as ‘birds of evil omen’.27 The trope also appears in ‘East Gate Ballad’ with a similar connotation of profound despair. The paradox of the opening couplet in ‘West Gate’ develops through the song and is accompanied by a sense of urgency born of anxiety. The temporal motif expresses this disquiet: ‘How long must I wait?’ ‘… while there’s time!’ ‘Must I keep waiting for next year?’ The anxiety becomes meditative in the final stanzas. Human mortality is bleakly stated, ‘Man’s life does not last a century’, and it is linked to the hyperbolic measure of human concerns, ‘worries of one thousand years’. The singer refuses to accept that a century is in fact a long time to live. In his pessimism he eclipses the century to one day, repeating how short a time it is. Because daylight is so brief he urges his audience to extend time by lighting the darkness artificially. The extra time may then be enjoyed. 91

The singer attaches no other value to existence than the pursuit of pleasure. He rejects religion, philosophy, and social ethics. This rejection is emphasized in stanza five with the expression of doubt concerning the concept of immortality. Human mortality is underscored with the repetition of the idea expressed in stanza four; this time the idea is expressed through the metaphor ‘Metal or rock’, a symbol of permanence, and it is understood that humans will not last as long as insentient nature. The metaphor has an ironic ring, for it is often used in expressions of fame and achievement, such as a name that will endure like metal or rock. The singer dismisses the concept of achievement. Reminding himself and his audience of the brevity of life he urges them to spend not save, to enjoy the present, not shore up for the future. The song ends with a harsh warning, reflecting the singer’s bleak view of life. He says anyone who has stinted himself will be ridiculed after his death by the relatives who will be the beneficiaries.

The structure of the song is remarkably free from the multiplicity of themes present in other songs in this chapter. Its logic is enhanced by the concentration on one major motif within the dominant carpe diem theme. This structural control is further emphasized by extensive use of repetition of key phrases: ‘make merry’, ‘wait’, ‘time’, ‘dull care’, followed by ‘worries’, ‘life’, ‘lifespan’, ‘year’, and ‘lifetime’. These repetitions link the motifs of transience, anxiety, and sorrow. The commonplace expressions also link the song with others in the repertoire, enriching its significance. The first line echoes that of ‘East Gate’, intimating perhaps that poverty is one of the singer’s ‘worries of one thousand years’. The carpe diem expressions recur in other songs in this chapter. So do the gloomy meditations on the brevity of life. The final couplet closely resembles the couplet in the middle of the final passage of ‘Song of Melancholy’. Against the enhancing familiarity of expression is set the courageous rejection of a dearly-held belief in immortality through drugs, and a belief in the afterlife: ‘Since I am not immortal Wang Tzu-ch’iao’. This song deals with the carpe diem theme in a sophisticated manner. While it is firmly based on thematic conventions and it is full of commonplace expression, its innovative creativity is evinced by the firm control of theme and structure and by the hard courage of its anxiously expressed conviction.28

West Gate Ballad

short version

Leaving by West Gate

I pace and think of it:

If today I don’t make merry,

How long must I wait? 92

Hasten to make merry!

Hasten to make merry—

While there’s time!

Can sad despair overwhelm me?

Must I keep waiting for next year?

Brew fine wine!

Roast the fat ox!

Call for my heart’s delight,

May be to dispel dull care.

Man’s life does not last a century,

He ever nurses worries of one thousand years.

Morning is short alas! night is long,

Why not hold a candle and have fun?

Let’s go and have fun, away! away! as clouds pass on.

But a worn cart, a lean nag, that’s my lot!

This version is very close to the preceding one, yet its points of divergence, slight as they appear, reveal a quite different artistic intention. The first quatrain is the same. The second adds to the urgency that is present in the preceding version. The third quatrain repeats the other version’s lines (I count from short version ‘Brew fine wine!’, acknowledging that the preceding passage has nine lines, one repeated). But one detail, ‘Brew fine wine!’ contrasts with the other version: it suggests epicureanism, against the hearty desire for oblivion implicit in ‘Drink strong wine!’. The former relishes refinement, the latter seeks swift euphoria. The fourth quatrain again seems to be a verbatim repetition, except that the exclamation ‘alas!’ is inserted. This small detail is again significant: it accords with the epicureanism of ‘Brew fine wine!’ and reveals that the persona is a man of refined sentiment who perceives the tragedy of human mortality. The absence of the repeated refrain about Wang Tzu-ch’iao (in stanza five of the long version) suggests that by the time this song was being performed the audience no longer believed in the concept of immortality. All that is left of the concept in this short version is the brief allusion to immortals in the sky expressed in the words ‘as clouds pass on’. This allusion may be no more than a nod in the direction of convention: hitherto carpe diem songs contained some reference to immortality.

The last line differs markedly from the long version. There the singer spoke of wealth, and urged his audience to squander it in a frenzy of pleasure. Here the singer ruefully admits to poverty; he is unable to pay for the fun he has been advocating. This closure completely reverses the expectations aroused by the song’s earlier lines: ‘Brew fine wine!/Roast the fat ox!’ and in so doing presents an ironic anticlimax.29

It is interesting to compare the treatment of the subject matter of these two versions of ‘West Gate’ with that of a poem in the formal style, 93the ku-shih no. 15 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’. In its ten pentasyllabic lines the old poem compresses the substance of the two songs. As Diény points out in his analysis of the old poem and song versions, the formal elegance of the old poem is achieved at the expense of the song’s vivacity, rhythmic variation, rhetoric, exclamations, repetition, and dramatic imperatives.30

‘Nineteen Old Poems’

ku-shih no. 15

Life’s years do not last a century,

Man ever nurses worries of one thousand years.

Morning is short alas! night is long,

Why not hold a candle and have fun?

Make merry we must while there’s time!

Can I wait for next year?

The fool who begrudges spending

Will just make posterity laugh out loud!

The immortal Wang Tzu-ch’iao,

It’s hard to expect to equal him.


1 Horace, Odes, 1.11, is the locus classicus of the phrase; Odes 3.29 explores the theme. Roger A. Hornsby, ‘Carpe diem’ (1965), pp. 103–04.

2 Petronius, The Satyricon, Chapter 5, ‘Dinner with Trimalchio’‚ also uses the feast as the context for the carpe diem theme, although Petronius’ ultimate aim is to satirize vulgar pleasure-seekers. Suzuki, Research, pp.405–14, discusses Han yüeh-fu from the perspective of ‘Impermanence and Pleasure’ (Mujō to kyōraku), but mars his discussion by the use of the pejorative label, ‘decadence’.

3 Karlgren, The Book of Odes, poem no. 217, stanza 3, last quatrain, p. 171.

4 Id., poem no. 114, stanza 1, p. 74.

5 Id., poem no. 216, the refrain of the four stanzas, p. 169, and poem no. 211, stanza 4, last couplet, p. 166 (Karlgren’s explanatory parentheses).

6 Yü Kuan-ying, Anthology, p. 22, notes that line 2 is based on a proverb which continues: ‘I look up to Heaven and sigh’.

7 The biography of Wang-tzu Ch’iao, or Wang Tzu-ch’iao, or Wang Ch’iao, appears in Biographies of Immortals (Lieh hsien chuan), Ku chin i-shih 7, ch. 1.12b-13a. He is said there to have been the son of King Ling of Chou (571–545 BC), and to have disappeared on Mount Kou-shih.(Wang-tzu means heir apparent.) Max Kaltenmark, trans., Le Lie-sien tchouan, Biographies légendaires des Immortels taoïstes de l’antiquité (1953), pp. 109–10. He also appears in Songs of Ch’u. Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, p. 227, notes that Wang Ch’iao was a ‘Chou prince who flew off on a great bird and became an Immortal.’ Elsewhere, id., p. 50, n. 5, he notes that Wang Tzu Ch’iao, 191according to one version of the legend, ‘… changed into a rainbow-serpent, then into a shoe and finally into a great bird which flew away.’

8 The line reads: chi pu chi ts’an. Hunger not reach meal.

9 Diény, Aux origines. p. 124.

10 See Chapter Three, ‘The King of Huai-nan Ballad’.

11 Hans H. Frankel, ‘The Problem of Authenticity in Ts’ao Chih’ (1982), p. 194, n. 39, notes that Li Shan cites this couplet as part of this song, which Li attributes to Ts’ao Chih. As with his other citations, Li does not indicate where the couplet fits in the song. Frankel suggests that it constitutes the closure, on the basis of such closures in numerous other folk-songs, and with this I concur.

12 Diény, id., p. 125. His translation of the song followed by annotations and a discussion is on pp. 12324.

13 Yü, op. cit., p. 23. For examples of the sub-genre of feasting poems in the late Han see Fu Hsüan (AD 217278), ‘Past Autumn’s Nine’, and Ts’ao Chih (AD 192232), ‘My Sad Fate’, Birrell, New Songs, pp. 23739.

14 The metre is tetrasyllabic, and each stanza is a quatrain. The text is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Ch’ing-Shang Song Poems in Three Modes: Zither-mode’ category, p. 616, and in Kuo, ch. 36, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 11, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 1’‚ pp. 53536.

15 See Chapter Five below.

16 A slightly altered quotation from Major Commentary on the Book of Documents (Shang shu ta chuan), attributed to Fu Sheng (2nd cent. BC), SPTK 2.8b, ‘Hsia Commentary, The Exploits of Yü’; Yü was the legendary founder of the Hsia Dynasty.

17 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Anthology of Literature (Wen hsüan), SPTK 27.21b22a. It is also in Compendium of Literature, ch. 42.752, and in Kuo, ch. 30, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 5, Level-mode Pieces, Part 1’, p. 442.

18 Hsü Yu was a legendary figure. For Ch’ang Chü and Chieh Ni, see Chapter Three, n. 38.

19 The phrasing of this line is similar to line 21 of ‘A Yen Song, The Whenever Ballad’ in this chapter, which leads to a similar reference to the singer’s family of infants.

20 Of Yen Hui, Confucius said: ‘A handful of rice to eat, a gourdful of water to drink, living in a mean street—others would have found it unendurably depressing, but to Hui’s cheerfulness it made no difference at all. Incomparable indeed was Hui!’ Waley, Analects, VI.9, pp. 117–18.

21 Tzu-hsi may be an arcane reference to Yüeh Hsia-kung, a follower of Lao Tzu. The first couplet of this stanza is a faint echo of Chuang Tzu, Inner Chapter 3, ‘The Great and Venerable Teacher’‚ SPPY (nei p’ien 3), 6.4b.

22 Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Chapter 19, ‘Neo-Taoism’, pp. 31435.

23 The translated version is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’, pp. 620–21. Both versions are in Kuo, ch. 43, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 18, Major Pieces’, pp. 63637, There is some confusion about the category ‘Major Pieces’. Kuo’s category reads ‘Major Pieces, 15 Pieces’, yet only ‘Song of Melancholy’ is listed, in two versions. It seems he simply copied Shen Yüeh, who listed it among the 15 in ‘Treatise on Music’, ch. 21, pp. 62021. Of the 15 pieces categorized as ‘Major’ by Shen, Kuo rearranged 14 among other categories, ‘Zither-mode Pieces’ for the most part. The metre of the translated version is irregular. Stanza one is tetrasyllabic except for pentasyllabic line 1; stanza two is the same; stanza three is tetrasyllabic except for pentasyllabic lines 1, 4, and 7; stanza four is tetrasyllabic except for pentasyllabic lines 1 and 4; the final passage is in a 6-4 metre, its first eight lines are tetrasyllabic (except for hexasyllabic line 3), the last six lines are hexasyllabic; 4 stanzas, and coda.

24 The ‘two-thousand-bushel rank’ (2,000 shih) of line 5 of the song was the third highest in the Han government. Originally, the different amounts of grain in rank titles 192signified an annual salary in kind, but by the Han they came to designate official status. In the Han era official salaries were paid partly in cash, partly in grain. A grain payment was often better protected against inflation. Hans H. Bielenstein, ‘The Bureaucracy of Han Times’ (1980), pp. 4,125, and 126. (1 shift = 64lbs 8.8oz av.)

25 This is the approach taken by Diény, op. cit., pp. 149–50, in his translation and discussion of the song, although his conclusions are somewhat different from mine.

26 The metre is irregular, except for the tetrasyllabic fifth stanza. Stanza one: 3–3–5–3; stanza two: 6–5; stanza three: 6–4–7; stanza four: 7–6–4; stanza five: 4–4–4–4; last passage: 5–5–5–8–5–5–6–6–7–5. The last passage is a tsü. The text is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’ category, p. 620, and in Kuo, ch. 39, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 14, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 4’‚ p. 577. Kuo attributes the song to Ts’ao P’ei. Shen Yüeh lists it as an anonymous Han piece.

27 Karlgren, op cit., p. 89, stanza 2. The full translation of poem no. 13 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’ is in Diény, Les dix-neuf poèmes anciens, p. 33, and Watson, Chinese Lyricism, p. 29.

28 The metre is irregular in the first part and fairly regular in the last. Stanza one: 3–3–5–4; stanza two: 3–5–6–5; stanza three: 3–3–5–5; stanza four: pentasyllabic; stanza five: heptasyllabic; stanza six: pentasyllabic. The text is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’ category, p. 617, and in Kuo, ch. 37, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, part 12, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 2’, p. 549. Departing from his usual practice, Kuo lists this version as the later, but places it first. He puts the other version second, listing it as the original. As Diény observes, it is unlikely that the short version, the so-called ‘original words’, served as the model for the long version. Diény Aux origines, p. 138. He translates the long version there on pp. 137–38; he translates and discusses the short version in Les dix-neuf poèmes anciens, pp. 137–40.

29 The metre is similar to the preceding version. No stanzas are indicated in the text. Stanzas three and four of the preceding version are the same as the quatrains of lines 10–13 and 14–17 of the short version. The text is in Kuo, ch. 37, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 12, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 2’‚ p. 549. Shen Yüeh cites the last couplet of this short version and refers to a version which may well be this text, ch. 21, pp. 617–18.

30 Diény, Les dix-neuf poèmes anciens, pp. 137–40. He compares the ku-shih specifically with the short version of ‘West Gate’. I have presented my own translation of the ku-shih in order to preserve the correspondences between the poem and the two song versions.

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