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Burial Songs

Graveyard verse dominates the Han in a manner not experienced in the earlier tradition. One of its major themes, the melancholy awareness of mortality, also informs carpe diem verse. The difference between Han songs on this theme and earlier poems featuring death is that in the Han death was made the subject of the song, whereas in the Chou death was alluded to obliquely. In the Chou anthology, death seems to be almost a taboo topic. Even in war poems the poets turn away from those who fell in battle, focussing instead on the homesick survivors: ‘When in the East we spoke of returning home,/ our hearts yearned for the West’.1 Another important group of Chou poems dealing with the theme of death is devoted to ancestor worship. Yet in these the anonymous Chou poets emphasize the living descendants who pray for blessings from the seemingly living dead, their ancestors. The dead ones of the clan are treated with great respect; if they are feasted and entertained with due decorum they will bless their descendants. This positive relationship between the living and the dead is expressed in this passage from a Chou poem:

The wild ducks are on the sands;

the representative of the (dead) princes comes and feasts and finds it good;

your wine is plentiful,

your viands are fine;

the representative feasts and drinks;

felicity and blessings come and favour you.2

Apart from these two groups of poems on war and ancestor worship, death is absent from the Chou anthology.3

Death is also treated obliquely in the anthology of the late Chou, the Songs of Ch’u. Much critical discussion has been generated by the enigmatic ending of that anthology’s pivotal poem, ‘Encountering Sorrow’ (Li sao).4 A Ch’u courtier who has fallen from political grace and lives in exile declares at the end of the long narrative: ‘I will go and join P’eng Hsien in the place where he abides’. P’eng Hsien was thought to be 95a shaman ancestor who lived in the Shang Dynasty prior to the Chou and committed suicide by drowning.5 Some commentators have construed the words ‘join P’eng Hsien’ to mean that the courtier has followed him in suicide. On the other hand, the words may also mean that the courtier has decided to join the shaman as an initiate into the way of immortality, abandoning the world. Whatever the true meaning of the poem’s ending, and if one takes it to refer to the suicide of the protagonist, the declaration cannot be said to form the poem’s main subject. In the ‘Nine Songs’ of Songs of Ch’u appears a hymn to the fallen which sings the praises of patriots who died in battle, ‘Heroes among the shades their valiant souls will be’.6 Closer to the Han attitude to death are two shamanistic poems in the same anthology, in which a shaman summons the soul of a dying king back to the land of the living. His summons takes the form of a catalogue of the horrors the soul will meet in the land of the dead, followed by an enticing litany of the charms of life. The land of the dead is described as a wasteland full of monsters and ghouls:

O soul, come back! In the south you cannot stay.

There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth;

They sacrifice flesh of men, and pound their bones to paste.

There are coiling snakes there, and the great fox that can run a hundred leagues,

And the great Nine-headed Serpent who darts swiftly this way and that,

And swallows men as a sweet relish.

O soul, come back! In the south you may not linger.7

The closure of the poem seeks to persuade that earthly pleasures outweigh dark mortality.

While poets of the early Chou avoided the topic of death in its negative aspects, and poets of the late Chou presented death as a grim world to be evaded, Han poets and singers paused to reflect on its reality. Chia I of the early Han, for example, composed a poem reflecting on his own impending death in ‘Prose Poem on the Owl’, an elegy charged with the philosophical lyricism of Taoism.8 Some poems in the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’ may be truly termed graveyard poetry of the Han, in which a person leaves the city gate and drives out to contemplate the distant burial mounds. These short poems ponder the enigma of death in lines of poignant grandeur.9 The meditative strain in graveyard verse, then, is a phenomenon of the Han.

The few songs included in this chapter include the earliest surviving examples of anonymous funeral songs. Two are said to have been sung by those who pulled the hearse along the road to the cemetery. As such they may be seen as work-songs of undertakers in Han China.10 They have some artistic merit. The anonymous singer no longer bothers to 96pose the questions of life and death which preoccupied the carpe diem singers. Death is now a fact of life. Its grimness is not mitigated by a promise of paradise. Yet the hearse-puller has a less grim view of life after death than the carpe diem singer, for he at least appears to believe in the hereafter.

The first song stresses the brevity of life and the finality of death—no one will ‘come back’. The concept of immortality through elixirs and the like is clearly bankrupt. Ideas of transience and extinction are under­scored by the ironic comparison of nature with man: nature enjoys an eternal cycle of return, man lives his allotted span and returns no more. The second song perhaps forms a sequel to the first, providing a stark view of the afterlife. The next world is seen as a village of the dead where no differentiation is made between those who had once been wise men or fools. Superimposed on this concept of equality is the idea of authority in the person of a King of Ghosts who rules the dead relentlessly, giving souls no respite from their travail.

The last song clearly belongs to a literary style with its historical references, its focus on political ethics, and its elaboration of the nature of personal honour. Here again the song presents a bleak view of life after death. For three heroes who have died for the sake of honour there is no reward in paradise. The immortality they have gained is through this song.

Funerary literature flourished in the centuries from the late Han onwards. By the sixth century AD the imperial anthology, Anthology of Literature, which was arranged on generic principles, identified no fewer than nine funerary genres out of 37 literary genres: the lei (dirge), tiao (condolence), chi (requiem), pei (threnody), ai (lament), pei (epitaph), chieh (columnar inscription), chih (necrology), and chuang (obituary).11 Hearse-pullers’ songs (wan-ko) do not themselves appear under any of these funerary genres, but are subsumed under the category of yüeh-fu songs and ballads, and then only in literary imitations. The humble form of the anonymous Han hearse-pullers’ song was imitated in theme, if not in content, by the greatest poets of the late Han and post-Han era, men like Lu Chi, Ts’ao Ts’ao, Ts’ao P’ei, Ts’ao Chih, and T’ao Ch’ien.12

Dew on the Shallot

On the shallot the dew—

How easily it dries!

The dew dried at bright dawn once more will drop.

Man dies—once he’s gone when will he come back?

There are a number of different traditional explanations about the 97circumstances of the composition of this funeral song. The earliest mention of the title occurs in a literary piece attributed to the third century BC Ch’u courtier, Sung Yü: ‘There was a man who sang “Nether Village” and several thousand people joined in. But when he sang “Dew on the Shallot” only several hundred people joined in.’13 Of course, there is no evidence that this title in the quotation refers to the same text as the song translated here. On the other hand, since the other title in the quotation, ‘Nether Village’, closely resembles the next song title, ‘Artemisia Village’, and since ‘Dew on the Shallot’ and ‘Artemisia Village’ have traditionally been associated together, the quotation’s two titles might well refer to these two songs. This speculation is not fortified by the fact that a number of literary works have been dubiously attributed to Sung Yü which may well belong to a later date.

Two authors of the third century AD provide elaborate anecdotal background to the composition of the song, ‘Dew on the Shallot’. Ch’iao Chou dates it from about 200 BC when T’ien Heng continued to reign as King of Ch’i in defiance of Emperor Kao-tsu, who had just established the Han Dynasty. The emperor invited T’ien Heng to court, but the latter committed suicide in his hometown before reaching the capital. His retainers did not dare to mourn him openly, so they composed this funeral song to express their grief.14 Ts’ui Pao expands this story, adding that T’ien Heng’s suicide was due to shame and that his retainers committed joint suicide at the grave of their lord. Ts’ui Pao also explains that Li Yen-nien, Master of Music to Emperor Wu of the Han, created a social distinction between ‘Dew on the Shallot’ and ‘Artemisia Village’, claiming that the first was to be sung when escorting the hearse of a king, duke, or aristocrat, the second when escorting the hearse of officials and commoners.15

Another commentator of the third century, Tu Yü, suggested an earlier origin of the genre of funeral song. The Tso Commentary narrates how Kung-sun Hsia, commander-in-chief of Ch’i state, when about to engage in battle in 484 BC against Lu and Wu states, ordered his soldiers to sing ‘Sacrifice for the Dead’ (Yü-pin). In his commentary on this classical text, Tu Yü notes that this title was ‘a song for escorting a hearse to the graveyard; this meant that [the troops] were certain to die.’16

The metaphorical associations of the image of dew are transience and vulnerability. The image derives from poem no. 172 of the Book of Poetry, of which the opening lines are almost echoed by the Han song: ‘Soaking is the dew,/ without the sun it will not dry.’17 The significance of the shallot image has not often been questioned in discussions of this Han song. (The word hsieh has also been translated as garlic or onion.) The character for hsieh consists of a plant signifier and a compound which includes the signifier for death or dying. The whiteness of the shallot may serve as a symbol of death. An interesting cultural aspect of 98the image is that in the late Han, shallots or garlic were hung on red cords on gates and doors as part of the Midsummer Festivals, in order to repel destructive insects.18 The primary reason for the choice of vegetable as a repellant must have been its strong smell.19

Artemisia Village

Artemisia Village—whose is this land?

It’s for teeming souls and spirits, none wise, none fool.

The King of Ghosts, how he hurries them along!

Man is fated never to linger long.

The title of this song derives from an old legend that when a person died his two souls, hun and p’o, went back to live in Artemisia Village. This place was also known as Burial Village.20 The generally accepted belief in the Han held that the hun-soul eventually went to the Supreme God, while the p’o-soul remained with the corpse for some time and then dissolved into the earth, descending to Yellow Springs beneath the ground.21

The Lament of Liang-fu

I walked from Ch’i city gates

And gazed far off to Tang-yin village.

In the village there were three burial mounds,

Piled up, one just like the others.

I ask, ‘Whose family graves are they?’

‘T’ien Chiang, Ku Yeh-tzu.

Their strength could topple South Mountain,

And could sever the Ropes of Earth.

One morning they were defamed.

Two peaches slew three knights.’

‘Who could have hatched such a plot?’

‘Prime Minister of Ch’i, Master Yen!’

Liang-fu of the song title is a sacred mountain near Mount T’ai (in modern Shantung). People were buried at Mount Liang-fu and it was said that there their souls were laid to rest. If a man was buried there, legend went, his song was buried with him. The song opens with the familiar symbolic movement of leaving the city gates to meditate on distant tombs. The setting is historical: the events in the narrative occurred in the sixth century BC.

The first quatrain is a prosaic narrative, which establishes the scene 99and the theme. Line five introduces the prosaic formula of question and answer. A stranger sees the three identical tombs and asks a local person about them. Neither person is identified, but it is possible to infer from the local man’s explanation that he knows his history and admires heroism, and, from the stranger’s questions, that he is sympathetic to the noble cause for which the three men died. T’ien Chiang, alias T’ien K’ai-chiang, Ku Yeh-tzu, and Kung-sun Chieh were famous knights who served Duke Ching of Ch’i in the sixth century BC. Their physical prowess is described in hyperbolic language in the fourth couplet: South Mountain was also known as Ox Mountain and was situated in Ch’i state; the Ropes of Earth were the legendary connections between Heaven and Earth.22 The duke’s prime minister was named Yen Ying, or Master Yen, who was determined to rid the state of the three heroes. He devised a cunning plot: he sent the three knights two peaches, telling them that the two who had the greatest claim to meritorious service to the duke might eat them.

The first to take one was Kung-sun Chieh who claimed that he had grappled with a tiger for the duke’s sake. Then T’ien K’ai-chiang took a peach, saying that he had killed an enemy of the duke. Finally, Ku Yeh-tzu recalled that once he had forded the Yellow River with the duke when a river monster dragged the duke’s horse away. Ku plunged into the river and resurfaced more than three miles away, holding the horse and the monster, which people on the river bank said was the river god. Perhaps, Ku suggested, he might deserve to eat a peach for this exploit? The other two apologized to him and then committed suicide from shame. Ku deeply regretted their death and he committed suicide too, not wishing to be sole survivor of the grisly plot. Hence the saying, ‘Two peaches slew three knights’.23

This song is a narrative based on the double use of the question and answer formula. It employs hyperbole in description. It also brings into play that familiar device of the folk tale, repetition of significant numbers. Although the local man who narrates the story of the heroes fails to fill in the details of their brave deeds, they are certainly to be understood by anyone hearing just their names. So there are three tombs, three heroes, and three tales of bravery or trials of the hero implicit in the narrative. In the penultimate couplet the device of numbering is developed with ‘One morning’ and ‘Two peaches’ which makes a sequence of one-two-three in the same couplet. The effect is concisely dramatic.24


1 Karlgren, The Book of Odes, poem no. 156, stanza 1, lines 5–8, p. 101.

2 Id., poem no. 248, stanza 4, lines 7–12, p. 204.

3 There is, however, one curious poem about a girl being seduced in which she is likened to a dead deer wrapped and hidden in white grass; poem no. 23, id.

4 James Robert Hightower, ‘Ch’ü Yüan Studies’ (1954), critically surveys the views of traditional Chinese commentators on the Ch’u Tz’u, dismissing much of their allegorizing.

5 Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, p. 34, line 187, and p. 24. n. 1.

6 Id., ‘The Spirits of the Fallen’, p. 44, line 18.

7 Id., p. 104, lines 14–18 of ‘The Summons of the Soul’; Hawkes discusses it with ‘The Great Summons’, pp. 101–03.

8 Watson, Early Chinese Literature, pp. 255–58.

9 Diény, Les dix-neuf poèmes anciens, nos. 13 and 14, pp. 33 and 35; Waley, A Hundred 193and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918), pp. 45–46, renumbered by him as nos. 12 and 13, respectively.

10 Originally these songs were called sang-ko, funeral songs; later they were called wan-ko, hearse-pullers’ songs.

11 James R. Hightower, ‘The Wen Hsüan and Genre Theory’ (1957), pp. 152–63. The translations of the genres are his. He notes a discrepancy between the names of the 38 genres listed in that anthology’s preface and the actual 37 in the body of the anthology.

12 A. R. Davis, T’ao Yüan-ming (AD 365-427). His Works and Their Meaning, 2 vols. (1983), Vol. 1‚ ‘In Imitation of Burial Songs’, pp. 165–73, discusses, translates, and annotates the two anonymous Han burial songs and their imitations by post-Han poets.

13 ‘In Response to the King of Ch’u’s Questions’, Anthology of Literature (Wen hsüan), SPTK 45. 1a–2a.

14 Ch’iao Chou (? AD 220–270), Master Ch’iao’s Legal Precepts (Ch’iao-tzu fa hsün)‚ Yü-han shan-fang chi-i-shu 17, ch. 67.1b–2a. Also see Richard B. Mather, trans., Shih-shuo hsin-yü, A New Account of Tales of the World (1976), p. 388.

15 Ts’ui Pao, Record of Things Ancient and Modern, SPTK 2.3a–b.

16 Tu Yü (AD 222–284), wrote an influential commentary on the Tso Commentary (Tso chuan). Tu’s note on the Yü-pin occurs in the entry for Duke Ai of Lu, 11th year, SSC 5, ch. 58.23b, in the Tso Commentary; Séraphin Couvreur, trans., Tch’ouen Ts’iou, Vol. 3, p. 669. Tu Yü’s note is cited by Wu Ching, Explanations of the Old Titles of Yüeh-fu, Chin-tai pi-shu 34, ch, 1.2a. In Kuo’s preface to the song he cites Ts’ui Pao, Ch’iao Chou, Wu Ching, and Tu Yü, in that sequence.

17 Karlgren, op. cit., p. 118; the poem is a drinking song.

18 Bodde, Festivals in Classical China, p. 302, citing ‘Treatise on Ritual’, by Ssu-ma Piao.

19 Id., p. 303, n.46, paraphrasing and citing J. J. M. de Groot, Fêtes annuellement célébrées à Emoui, pp. 333–37. The metre of the song is irregular: 3–3–7–7. The earliest text of the song appears in Ts’ui Pao, Record, SPTK, 2.3a. The text also appears in Li Shan’s commentary on the first of Lu Chi’s ‘Three Hearse-pullers’ Songs’, Anthology of Literature, SPTK 28.33b. It is also in Kuo, ch. 27, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 2, Concerted Pieces, Part 2’‚ p. 396. These three sources show some interesting variants. In some texts of Ts’ui Pao’s Record, the word tzu (thick, heavy) occurs, which I have amended to ling (drop). Li Shan’s version in ch. 28 adds the word ch’ao to 1. 1: ‘On the shallot the morning dew’; whereas in his version in ch. 24 the word ling occurs in the same place instead of ch’ao: ‘On the shallot falls the dew’. My translation is based on Kuo’s text, which is generally accepted. For other translations and discussions of the song see Hans H. Frankel, The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady, Interpretations of Chinese Poetry (1976), pp. 81–2, and Davis, op. cit., pp. 165–66.

20 Artemisia Village, Hao li, is also the name of a mountain south of Mount T’ai in Shantung. K’ao li Burial Village, is a name which suggests withered dryness, by virtue of a pun on the word k’ao.

21 Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death, pp. 18, 26, and 27. Another example of a different version of the belief in the soul in the Han is evident in the song ‘A Crow Bore Eight or Nine Chicks’ in Chapter Two above. The metre of the burial song is: 5–7–7–7. The earliest text appears in Ts’ui Pao, Record, SPTK 2.3a. The text also appears in Li Shan, ibid., and Kuo, ch. 27, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 2, Concerted Pieces, Part 2’, p. 398. For another translation and discussion of the song, see Davis, ibid.

22 Quotation from Chuang Tzu, ch. 30, ‘Explaining Swords’: ‘This sword cleaves floating clouds up above, severs earth’s cords down below.’ Trans. Graham, Chuang-tzū, 194p. 221; he dates this chapter on magical swords at the end of the third century BC.

23 The anecdote of the three heroes appears in The Annals of Master Yen (Yen-tzu ch’un-ch’iu)‚ SPTK 2.20b22a.

24 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Kuo, ch. 41, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 16, Ch’u-mode Pieces, Part 1’, p. 606. The song has traditionally been attributed to the famous military tactician and hero, Chu-ko Liang (AD 181–234), Prime Minister of Shu Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms era, and known as ‘Chu-ko Liang’s Lament of Liang-fu’. It has also been attributed to Tseng Tzu, a disciple of Confucius and paragon of filial piety. Both attributions are erroneous.

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