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Political Broadsides

Vox populi is a primary concept in classical Chinese political theory and practice. Numerous early texts emphasize the idea that a ruler will achieve good government if he is attuned to what his people are thinking and saying. Criticism of his policies might not reach him at court, because it might be blocked by corrupt officials, or because the people might be afraid to voice open dissent. The good ruler, ancient political theory persuades, seeks out the grumbles and grouses of the mean streets and alleys, and he ensures that satirical songs and poems of social protest are collected and brought to court for careful consideration. The classical Chinese equivalent of the idiom vox populi is a more concrete metaphor. The political theorists refer to public opinion as the mouth of the people (min chih kou). For example, when a tyrant in the Chou era boasted that he had silenced his critics, he was told by his minister:

‘You have erected barriers against them, but it is more difficult to stop up the mouth of the people than to stop up a river. When a dammed river breaks through the barrier, the number of victims killed is great. It is the same with the people. That is why when you control a river you allow an escape route. When you govern the people, you allow them freedom of speech.’1

Later in his forceful and eloquent persuasion, the tyrant’s minister declared:

‘The people have a mouth, just as the earth has mountains and rivers and in these are to be found the source of wealth…. It is because it utters words that the mouth gives rise to good and evil. To activate the good and be forearmed against evil is the way to amass wealth, clothing, and food.’2

A later classic dating from the first century BC, which contains some texts from the Chou era, gives an account of the ruler, or Son of Heaven, 101conducting a state visit to the eastern region of his realm. After sacrificing to holy Mount T’ai, he enquired about the local views and opinions expressed in verse ditties in order to ascertain the efficacy of governmental policies at the district level:

‘The Son of Heaven went every five years to visit his feudal states…. He ordered the senior Masters of Music to present the poems in order that he might consider popular mores. He ordered the Market Supervisors to observe what the likes and dislikes of the people were, what extremist leanings they had, or penchant for vice.’3

This account in the Record of Ritual is not based on fact. It represents a political persuasion. The ruler’s policy of attending to public opinion was a potent political myth in the Han.

In the same period as the Record of Ritual, a Han court writer of the Confucian school, Liu Hsiang, developed a theory of ‘poetic omens’. As James J. Y. Liu explains it:

‘According to this theory, when the ruler is tyrannical and the subjects are too frightened to air their grievances, then popular songs and ballads will appear to portend evil, and these are called “poetic omens”. The belief in omens was of course not confined to China; but it seems a peculiarly Chinese belief that omens (as distinct from satires) can take the form of anonymous folk songs (as distinct from divine oracles), and Chinese historical works are full of examples of “poetic omens” that augured ill and reflected the abnormality of the times.’4

A generation after Liu Hsiang, the historian Pan Ku expanded the theory and incorporated it into his concept of history, showing how the practical application of ‘poetic omens’ worked in the explanation of dynastic events.5 As the historian explained it in his ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’, the phenomenon of prophetic songs dates from the Chou era and works on the principle that an arcane pronouncement will ‘come true’ and reveal its mystery long after its first utterance.6

Prophecy had a long tradition in China before the theory of ‘poetic omens’ took hold in the Han. The oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty are incised with the question of a ruler to a diviner, and the diviner’s answer. One of the classics, the Book of Change, contains much divination material dating from the early Chou.7 The early Chinese fascination with prophecy is illustrated in the late Chou historical classic, the Tso Commentary. In its narrative, dreams, hallucinations, and apparitions all portend future events in the lives of the characters. Many of its prophecies are based on the chronicler’s observations of human 102behaviour. The manner of a person’s death was determined by that person’s behaviour and was foretold in a prophecy.8

By the Han, the influence of strange portents on political life reached its highest point. Comets, eclipses, earthquakes, landslides, and other phenomena were duly noted and heeded as warnings of impending doom. The birth of freaks, sudden accidents, a plague of locusts, and poor harvests were interpreted as criticisms of imperial policy by Heaven and Earth. Similarly, miracles like a swarm of dancing rats, snow in summer, a rain of white hair and so forth were given a specific interpretation.9

Although portents, omens, prodigies and prophecies were rife in the Han, no oracular tradition as such existed. Instead there was the prophetic song sung by ordinary children in the ‘streets and lanes’, usually in the capital city. The link with the Western oracular tradition lies in the innocence of the children singing the songs, perhaps at an age when they were too young to rationally discern events of the day.10

The prophetic songs translated in this chapter constitute public criticism of political realities and social mores. Although most were innocent songs, in their politicized interpretations they came to be seen as satire directed against the ruling class by the ruled. The imperial consort Chao Fei-yen and the usurper of the Han, Wang Mang, both attracted particular venom. Other popular targets were greedy officials, avaricious members of the royal family, and conscription officers in the countryside. The ditties, or prophetic songs, are essentially metropolitan in outlook and reflect the values of the Confucian hierarchy. They are often colourful in their use of language and some are scurrilous. Although they lack the polish and finesse of the written court remonstrance, they convey the same moral outrage.

Well-water Overflows

Well-water overflows

Extinguishing the hearth,

Pouring into jade halls,

Flowing through golden gates.

The Han historian Pan Ku presents this ditty in his ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’, prefacing it with this explanation of its political symbolism:

‘This is a children’s ditty from the reign of the Han Emperor Yüan. In the reign of Emperor Ch’eng, on the day mou-tzu of the third month of the year 31 BC, the well-springs in the north palace gradually rose and overflowed, streaming in a southerly direction. “Well-water” is the power of Yin; “the hearth” is the power of Yang; “jade halls” and 103“golden gates” refer to the residences of royalty. This symbolizes the flourishing of Yin and the extinction of Yang, and corresponds to the usurpation of the throne. Wang Mang was born in the fourth year of the reign-period ch’u-yüan [46 BC] of Emperor Yüan. In Emperor Ch’eng’s reign he was ennobled; he became assistant-in-government to the Three Ministers and then he usurped power.’11

Pan Ku’s explanation of the portent of the flooding of a Han palace well-spring refers to the ancient theory of the Five Elements and Yin and Yang, which was elaborated into a system of cosmic correspondences in the early Han (see p. 36 above). Each dynasty acquired its own ‘Power’ within this system and an appropriate set of correspondences. Various systems circulated and there was no fixed orthodoxy in the Former Han. Thus, the Han Dynasty was originally believed to be governed by the Power of Water, but this was changed to the Power of Earth when Emperor Wu became obsessed by the idea of emulating the Yellow Emperor. Clearly, the Power had changed yet again by the end of the Former Han, for Wang Mang himself, and Pan Ku too, believed that the Han was governed by the Power of Fire. Wang Mang was convinced that his New (Hsin) Dynasty would be governed by the Power of Earth, but, as his interpretation makes clear, Pan Ku believed that Wang Mang was governed by the Power of Water.12

So the historian viewed the flood of 31 BC as an evil omen of the rise to power of Wang, the usurper of the Han. Water is an element controlled by Yin, of which the attributes are the female, submission, the north, and so forth. According to the theory, water could not, or rather should not extinguish fire. For the flood in the palace to have extinguished the hearth was a manifestation of cosmic disturbance: Heaven was manifest­ing disapproval of Earth and Man. It is particularly ironic that a flood should have been chosen as an omen of Wang’s evil, for the floods of 31 BC caused panic in Ch’angan.13 It is evident that the principles of interpreting portents were elastic. It is equally evident that the principles were based on a necessary time-lapse between omen and event. Pan Ku implies in his explanation that this time-lapse was in operation: Wang was born in 46 BC, the song circulated in Emperor Yüan’s reign (49–33 BC), and the flood occurred in 31 BC; Wang proclaimed himself emperor in AD 9, reigning until AD 23. Thus the innocent song was made to ‘come true’ several decades later.14104

Crooked Paths

A Ditty from the Time of
Han Emperor Ch’eng

Crooked paths ruin fine fields,

Twisted words confuse good folk.

Cassia blooms, but bears no fruit.

A yellow sparrow nests in its crown.

Once the envy of others,

Now pitied by all.

This song is an interesting example of the protean nature of the interpretation of prophetic songs. In his ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’ Pan Ku gives this interpretation of it:

‘This is a ditty from the period of Emperor Ch’eng, which also says [text of the song]. The “cassia” tree is red in colour, which is the symbol of the Han house; “blooms, but bears no fruit” means to be without offspring. Wang Mang assumed the symbolic colour yellow, which is indicated by the “yellow sparrow” which “nests” on the “crown” of the tree.’15

Emperor Ch’eng reigned during 32–7 BC. Wang Mang usurped the Han throne and set himself up as emperor in AD 9. So, according to Pan Ku’s interpretation, the song circulated for at least thirteen years before the prophesied events occurred. According to the Five Elements theory in this interpretation, Wang Mang is said to be governed by the Power of Earth, yellow, in contrast to Pan Ku’s previous interpretation in which the Power was Water. Pan Ku makes ‘Crooked Paths’ serve as another critique of usurpation.

A quite different interpretation was attached to the song in New Songs from a Jade Terrace in the sixth century AD. The text was altered, the song being shorn of its first couplet and placed after a scurrilous song lampooning Emperor Ch’eng’s favourite, Lord Chang, and his favourite consort, Chao Fei-yen. A preface precedes both pieces which interprets them in the light of Chao Fei-yen’s scandalous activities at court. I present it here, retaining only the relevant sections:

‘Fei-yen [Flying Swallow] was insanely jealous; she had not borne a son to the emperor. That is why in the ditty there are the lines … and “blooms, but bears no fruit”…. In the end Fei-yen was demoted from the rank of empress and died. That is why there is the line “Now pitied by all”.’16 105

This preface interprets the ditty as a critique of the empress who was infertile and forced to commit suicide for her crimes, which included royal infanticide.17

Swallow, Swallow

A Children’s Ditty from the
of the Han Emperor Ch’eng

Swallow, swallow,

Sleek, sleek is your tail!

Lord Chang

Is always having audience

At timbered gates with green bronze rings.

Swallow flies in,

Pecks at princes;

The princes die,

Swallow pecks their dung!

As the repetition of the word ‘Swallow’ suggests, this ditty was taken to be a lampoon of Flying Swallow, [Chao] Fei-yen. Pan Ku placed the ditty at the end of his official biography of her and also in the ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’, together with his interpretation:

‘This is a children’s ditty from the period of Emperor Ch’eng, Later, when the emperor left the palace incognito on pleasure outings, he was always accompanied by the Marquis of Fu-p’ing, Chang Fang, and pretended he was one of the marquis’s household. He once called on Princess Yang-a who used to hold musical performances, and there he saw Chao Fei-yen the dancer and favoured her sexually. That is why the ditty says, “Swallow, swallow,/ Sleek, sleek is your tail!” as she was lovely in appearance. “Lord Chang” refers to the Marquis of Fu-p’ing. “Timbered gates with green bronze rings” refers to the bronze metal rings on the palace gates, which indicates that Lord Chang had been elevated to the peerage. Later on when Chao Fei-yen was promoted to the rank of empress, she brought criminal harm to the imperial heirs. She conceded her guilt, which is alluded to in the lines, “Swallow flies in,/ Pecks at princes:/ The princes die,/ Swallow pecks their dung!”’18

The interpretation explains that the prophetic song had circulated in the early period of Emperor Ch’eng’s reign, before he met his future consort, Chao Fei-yen. Pan Ku carefully introduces the time sequence, ‘Later’, which was so important for the functioning of political interpretations of 106omens and prophecies. The interpretation then narrates the story of Chao Fei-yen, emphasizing how the emperor came to meet her at his sister’s mansion, and how this was made possible through the wiles of his favourite, Chang Fang, who disguised the emperor as a servant. Chang Fang was ennobled for these services.

The full biography of Chao Fei-yen, on which Pan Ku’s interpretation is based, gives an account of her behaviour at court when she had become empress but was unable to produce a male heir. She forced the imperial concubine, Ts’ao Kung, to surrender her son, the heir to the throne, and to commit suicide by poisoning. Pan Ku records: ‘No one knows what became of [the prince].’19 It is also thought that she was responsible for disposing of the royal son of Lady Hsü. He was ignominiously buried near the jail tower wall where earlier Ts’ao Kung has been forced to swallow poison. The biography also explains that after Emperor Ch’eng’s death Chao Fei-yen was demoted and then impeached by the inspector of prisons, Chieh Kuang. In the end she was made a commoner and exiled to her hometown, but committed suicide on the same day as the verdict was announced.20

In New Songs from a Jade Terrace, ‘Swallow, Swallow’ is followed by a second song, consisting of the last four lines of ‘Crooked Paths’. Both pieces are preceded by a preface which is worth quoting in full because it provides more details about the empress as well as giving a completely different interpretation of the ‘Crooked Paths’ song minus its first couplet:

‘Emperor Ch’eng’s consort, Chao, named Fei-yen, had enjoyed his sexual favours in the harem and was with the emperor when he came to and fro from the imperial palace. At that time there was a man, the Marquis of Fu-p’ing, Chang Fang, who was a clever talker and was graciously permitted to ride with the emperor to Ch’i Gate. That is why, in the ditty, it says, “Lord Chang/ Is always having audience.” Fei-yen was insanely jealous; she had not borne a son to the emperor. That is why in the ditty there are the lines, “Pecks at princes”, and “blooms, but bears no fruit”. Wang Mang himself said that the man who supplanted the Han Dynasty would have the Power of the Earth Element and would honour the colour yellow. That is why there are the words “yellow sparrow”. In the end, Fei-yen was demoted from the rank of empress and died. That is why there is the line, “Now pitied by all”.’21

The ditty contains several targets of abuse. It lampoons the evil of illicit sexual activity, especially between royalty and members of the entertain­ment world.22 It condemns the elevation to high rank of mere commoners whose sole achievement was to cater to the emperor’s 107particular proclivities. It also lampoons the depraved world of harem politics. Its most scurrilous attack is directed against the crime of regal infanticide.23

East of Flat Mound

East of Flat Mound

Are pine, cypress, catalpa.

I don’t know who seized the Good Duke,

Seized the Good Duke,

Near the high hall,

Ransomed him for a million cash and two racehorses,

Two racehorses.

And it is truly hard

When I look back at the officers, my heart sickens inside me,

My heart sickens inside me,

My blood drains away.

I go home and tell my family to sell the brown bullock.

Two early commentators provide an historical context for this song. Ts’ui Pao of the late third century AD specifies that it was composed by the retainers of Chai I at the end of the Former Han. Wu Ching of the early T’ang explains that Chai I was the younger son of the prime minister. When Wang Mang was poised to usurp the Han throne, Chai I raised troops to cut him down. His attempt failed and he was killed. His retainers composed this song to mourn him.24

There are two arguments against this historical specificity. The first is that the details in the biography of the prime minister, where Chai I is mentioned, do not correspond with the details presented in the song.25 The second is the fact that no clan names of historical personages appear in the song. It is, no doubt, purely coincidental that the i of i-kung, ‘the Good Duke’, is the same character as the I of Chai I. It is upon this kind of punning coincidence that the politicized interpretation is based in this type of song. The song equally well tells the story of any good nobleman who is wrongfully kidnapped and ransomed.26 The villains of the piece are ‘officers’, not the ubiquitous Wang Mang. I prefer to read the original song as ahistorical, but with an overlay of politicized interpretation.

The setting is a graveyard, Flat Mound (P’ing-ling) a few miles north­west of Ch’angan, where the Han Emperor Chao was buried in the early first century BC. ‘Pine, cypress, catalpa’ enhance the idea of a hallowed ground at the royal graveyard, for pine and cypress denote constancy and eternity beyond the grave, while catalpa denotes the sacred tree of 108paradise. Someone at the graveyard narrates the story of the Good Duke, whose grave might also be there. He relates how he was powerless to intervene when the officials kidnapped the duke and put a price on his head, a fortune which must have ruined his family. It is not clear whether the narrator is one of many local people who jointly contributed to the ransom: ‘to sell the brown bullock’ suggests that the local people felt obliged, each in his own way, to meet the exorbitant sum of ‘a million cash’, line 6. The narrative is well sustained by the strong rhythms and the device of incremental repetition. The repetitions, ‘Seized the Good Duke’ and ‘My heart sickens inside me’, not only drive the narrative forward but also highlight the emotional drama. The structure is based on the question and answer formula, ‘I don’t know who …’, followed by the story. Incidentally, line 9 reveals that the narrator does ‘know who seized the Good Duke’.27

Straight as a Bowstring

A Children’s Ditty from the Capital City
the End of the Reign of Emperor Shun

Straight as a bowstring

You’ll die by the wayside!

Crooked as a hook

You’ll be dubbed a duke!

The title indicates that this ditty originated in the streets of the capital city Loyang in the Latter Han during the years AD 142–144. Emperor Shun reigned for almost two decades, from AD 126 to 144. Two separate historical episodes are represented by the two epigrams of this song. The usual formula is used of citing an early song which portended later events. Commander-in-Chief Liang Chi (d. AD 159) was promoted to office through the influence of his sister who entered the harem of Emperor Shun. When the emperor died, Liang Chi was invited to act as Regent for the infant emperor. The infant died and Liang put a boy-emperor on the throne. When the boy, Emperor Chih, proved to be too astute for the commander, he had him poisoned and put Emperor Huan on the throne (r. AD 147–167). Liang continued to abuse his powers. A loyal officer, Li Ku, was imprisoned and assassinated in AD 147. His corpse was later found on the wayside. In the end, Emperor Huan’s palace guard surrounded Liang Chi’s house and he and his wife were forced to commit suicide.

The second political event ‘foretold’ in the second epigram involves Commander Hu Kuang (d. AD 172), who in the reign of Emperor An (r. AD 107–125) swiftly rose to high rank and office from humble social origins.28109

Short Wheat

A Children’s Ditty from the Early Years
the Reign of the Latter Han Emperor Huan

Short wheat green, green, tall wheat shrivelled.

Who must be the reapers? Wife and mother-in-law.

And where is the husband? Out west fighting Huns.

Officials bought the horses,

Gentlemen provided the carriages.

Please make the drum roll for the gentlemen!

The space of time between the song’s alleged origin around AD 147–150 and the events it foretold, between AD 151–153, is very narrow. The author of the historical treatises attached to The History of the Latter Han, Ssu-ma Piao (AD 240–306), included this song in his ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’ and presented this interpretation of it:29

‘In the early years of the reign of Emperor Huan of the Han this was a children’s ditty which circulated throughout the empire. In the yüan-chia reign-period [151–153] the Ch’iang tribes of the Liang-chou area all rose up in revolt, and moving south invaded the Three Metro­politan areas of Shu, Han, and Eastern Ch’ao, extending as far as Ping and Chi, causing great hardship among the people. Specially commissioned generals proceeded with large forces, but each time they met in battle they were defeated. Throughout the country, men were increasingly inducted as conscripts, so that the wheat harvest was ruined, there being only the womenfolk to harvest it. “Officials bought the horses,/ Gentlemen provided the carriages” means that the levy was rigorous, extending down to officials of minor rank. “Please make the drum roll for the gentlemen!” means that these subjects did not dare to speak out publicly, but muttered about it privately.’

The first line of the song describes the promising crop of wheat in spring which was ruined in late summer because of the revolt of the Ch’iang, disparagingly referred to as hu, barbarians. Liang-chou was in north-west China (modern Kansu). The song was popular throughout China, its political and social significance apparent to all classes of people. The kind of situation described in the song and its interpretation frequently occurred in the Han. Even as early as 61 BC, the same tribe rebelled and the ensuing conscription of Chinese resulted in a shortage of food because harvests were neglected.

The song does not merely side with the local countrymen whose farms were adversely affected by this endemic problem, but it includes all the 110minor local officials and lower ranks of the gentry in rural areas. The song ends with a plea for justice for this rural gentry; the drum roll expresses the private grievance of this group who, unusually, had to bear the brunt of a particularly harsh levy.30 No doubt the song’s truer purpose was a more generalized, less specifically historic criticism of the perennial government practice of removing men from the land for various campaigns.31

Crows on City Walls

A Children’s Ditty from the Early Years
the Reign of the Latter Han Emperor Huan

Crows on city walls,

Tails down in retreat.

Father became an officer,

Son became a conscript.

One soldier dies,

One hundred chariots.

Chariots clatter, clatter

As they enter Ho-chien.

At Ho-chien a pretty girl is skilled at counting cash,

With her cash she makes a mansion, with gold she makes a hall.

On the stone-mill, greedy, greedy, she pounds yellow millet.

Under the rafter there is a hanging drum.

I want to strike it, but the minister will be angry.

Ssu-ma Piao also included this song in his ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’. He dated the origin of the ditty at around AD 150 and the events it ‘foretold’ at around AD 167. He attached this interpretation to it:

‘This is a children’s ditty circulating in the capital in the early part of Emperor Huan’s reign. It refers to government greed. “Crows on city walls,/ Tails down in retreat” means to occupy a position of great advantage and eat on one’s own, refusing to share with those beneath one, which refers to those in authority who amass a great fortune. “Father became an officer,/ Son became a conscript” says that when the Man and Yi tribes rebelled, a father had to become an officer in the army, while his son became a conscript and went out to attack them. “One soldier dies,/ One hundred chariots” says that when one man dies in the punitive expedition against the Huns, behind him are another hundred war chariots. “Chariots clatter, clatter/ As they enter Ho-chien” says that when Emperor Huan was about to die, chariots clattered into Ho-chien to welcome Emperor Ling. “At Ho-chien a pretty girl is skilled at counting cash,/ With her cash she makes a 111mansion, with gold she makes a hall” means that when Emperor Ling ascended the throne his mother, the Yung-lo Dowager Empress, loved to amass gold to make a hall. “On the stone-mill, greedy, greedy, she pounds yellow millet” says that although the Yung-lo Dowager Empress piled up gold and cash, she was so greedy she never had enough and she made the people pound yellow millet for her own use. “Under the rafter there is a hanging drum./ I want to strike it, but the minister will be angry” says that the Yung-lo Dowager Empress ordered Emperor Ling to sell offices as a source of cash, and that those who received official emoluments were not the right people. It says that we are loyal and sincere; we are men of honour who look on all this with resentment and want to strike the hanging drum in order to seek an audience. But the chief minister is the one who controls the drum and he for his part is a flatterer and toady. He is angry and stops me from striking the drum in protest.’32

The place-name Ho-chien is the only detail which permits a link between the song and historical events. Ssu-ma Piao’s interpretation focusses on two targets in the late Latter Han: social upheaval caused by war and the greed of the emperor’s mother. The song originated, according to Ssu-ma Piao, in the early years of Emperor Huan’s reign, c. AD 150, and described the events surrounding the emperor’s death and Emperor Ling’s accession, c. AD 167. His interpretation also makes the point that the loyal subject who contributes to the war effort with his property and his life feels embittered by the injustice of a prominent member of the royal family making a fortune in a time of national peril. The song reads just as well, however, if it is taken as a general criticism of graft and corruption in officialdom and in high places. Of officials in the Latter Han, Hans H. Bielenstein notes that apart from the lowest paid officials, ‘The rest of Han officialdom was not forced into corruption by in­sufficient salaries. Where venality occurred, it was motivated more by greed than economic necessity.’33 As with the other songs, this may be read both as an innocent, ahistorical song of the Han and as a politicized broadside.34

The Song Tung Flees!

Born into a happy world

Tung flees!

Roving through the city’s four quarters

Tung flees!

Enjoying blessings from Heaven

Tung flees! 112

Girdled with gold dark red

Tung flees!

Showing his gratitude

Tung flees!

Preparing carriage and riders

Tung flees!

Soon to set off

Tung flees!

To the main house bids farewell

Tung flees!

Leaving West Gate

Tung flees!

Staring at the capital city

Tung flees!

The sun dying at night

Tung flees!

Heart broken with sorrow

Tung flees!

Ssu-ma Piao includes this text in his treatise, explaining that it was a song which originated in the capital city Loyang in the reign-period AD 184–189 of Emperor Ling (r. AD 168–189). Ts’ui Pao, his contemporary, adds that the song was made by children at play at the end of the Latter Han, when Tung Cho fomented revolt but was killed in his flight from the capital.35 Tung Cho was a regional commander in Ho-tung, north of Loyang, who was called to the capital in AD 189 to deal with unrest and intrigue in the palace. In the mêlée, the Commander-in-Chief Ho Chin was murdered and Tung Cho emerged as the successful leader of a palace coup. He had the emperor deposed and a year later assassinated. He sacked the capital and moved the new emperor in AD 190 from Loyang to Ch’angan. His success was short-lived. In AD 192 he was killed when attempting to flee his pursuers and his mutilated corpse was exposed in the market-place. Three years later the emperor was safely restored and reigned with Loyang as his capital until AD 220, during years of increasing civil unrest. The name of Tung Cho is reviled as a traitor who caused the downfall of the Han Dynasty.

The contents of the song do not tally with the historical events in which Tung Cho participated. The last part especially is at odds with the image of the dictator who had devastated Loyang and had caused mayhem in numerous towns and villages. The song and its title have been discussed at some length in Chapter Three, where an hypothetical ‘original’ form of the song was proposed. The origins of the song are not known, nor is it clear whether the lines are in their original order. The refrain has probably been adapted, on the basis of a pun on Tung Cho’s name, to provide a satirical chorus mocking the dictator.36113

The Ballad of Breaking Willow

Though darkly, darkly we do wrong,

The penalty will always follow the deed.

Mei Hsi slew Lung-feng;

Chieh was exiled to Ming-t’iao.

Tsu I’s advice was not taken;

Chou’s head was hung from a white standard.

When he pointed to a deer, taking it for a horse,

That is how Hu Hai lost his life.

Fu Ch’ai was nearing life’s end

When he said, ‘I betrayed Tzu Hsü’.

The Jung king accepted girl musicians as a gift,

That is how he lost his Yu Yü.

When the jade tablet and horse disaster befell K’uei,

Two states together became burial mounds.

Three men resulted in the market tiger.

A kind mother threw down her shuttle and ran.

Pien Ho’s feet were amputated.

Chieh Yü returned to his grass hermitage.

This song is a literary piece, like ‘The Ballad of the Prefect of Goosegate’. It is full of historical allusions and classical references which are so well-known that they have acquired the status of proverbs and household names. There is no narrative. Almost every line represents an allusion to an historical event. Since they cannot be understood without explanations, I will provide a brief commentary to the litany of encapsulated anecdotes, stanza by stanza.

In stanza one, Mei Hsi (or Mo Hsi) was the concubine of the last ruler of the mythological Hsia Dynasty whose name was Chieh, dubbed ‘The Tyrant’ by the chroniclers. She was accused of causing the downfall of the Hsia, first by goading Chieh to extreme folly, and later, when Chieh discarded her, by plotting with Yi Yin, counsellor of the Shang ruler, Ch’eng T’ang. Kuan Lung-feng was a worthy minister of Chieh who protested against the tyrant’s excesses. Eventually, Chieh was exiled to Ming-t’iao (Chirping Branches, in modern Shensi). It is thought that Chieh was defeated by the Shang and died in exile there.

In stanza two, Tsu I was the worthy minister of King Chou, the last ruler of the Shang and also branded as an evil man. Tsu I warned King Chou that the Shang was no longer favoured by the Mandate of Heaven, nor did it represent the will of the people. When the Chou invaded Shang territory King Chou burned himself to death. King Wu of the 114Chou cut off his head and hung it from the top of a standard. Emperor Hu Hai of the Ch’in Dynasty favoured Chao Kao with high office, but the latter abused his powers. He tried the ministers’ loyalty to himself by daring them to contradict him when he said a deer was a horse. Those who told the truth were executed. In the end he assassinated Emperor Hu Hai. Chao Kao, who was a eunuch, was killed by the grandson of the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty to avenge his father in 207 BC.

In stanza three, Tzu Hsü, also known as Wu Yüan, was an old minister of Wu state in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. He helped Wu to resist its aggressive neighbour, Yüeh state. When King Fu Ch’ai acceded to the throne in Wu, the king’s favourite denounced Tzu Hsü and the king ceased to heed his minister’s counsel. The king sent him a handsomely carved sword to indicate that he had permission to commit suicide, which his loyal servant did. His corpse was wrapped in a leather sack and thrown into a river. Later, the king realized his error when he was defeated by Yüeh and was nearing his end. On his deathbed he declared that he would never be able to face his minister for shame. The episode of the Jung king dates from the Spring and Autumn era of the Chou. The Jung people had Ch’in state as their neighbour. Duke Mu of Ch’in tried to stir discontent in Jung by sending the king two sets of (28 or 16) female musicians to distract him from the affairs of state. The Jung minister was a worthy man named Yu Yü. He realized what the plot was, but to no avail, and so he removed himself from Jung. The last episode in this stanza concerns Duke Hsien of Chin state who wished to attack Kuo state, but needed permission to pass through Yü state to do so. Duke Hsien made his request, offering Yü state gifts of fine horses and a valu­able jade tablet. The ruler of Yü was delighted with the gifts and allowed the Chin army to pass through his territory. After Chin had destroyed Kuo, it proceeded to destroy Yü.

In the last stanza, the first line refers to P’ang Ts’ung’s warning to the King of Wei that if three people in succession say there is a tiger in the marketplace, everyone will believe them, whether it is true or false. The next line alludes to Tseng Ts’an, or Tseng Tzu, a disciple of Confucius. His mother was told by three separate people that he had killed someone. The truth was that someone with the same name as Tseng Ts’an had committed the murder. The mother refused to believe the report the first and second times, but the third time she dropped her weaving and fled, fearing the penalty that accrued to a felon’s family. In the next anecdote Pien Ho of Ch’u state found a rare uncut jade and offered it to the throne as the law required. King Li had the stone examined by his experts, but they rejected it as a rock. The king punished Pien Ho by having his left foot cut off. King Wu succeeded to the throne and Pien Ho offered his jade to the throne again, but it was again rejected. The king had Pien Ho’s right foot cut off as punishment. King 115Wen succeeded to the throne, and once more Pien Ho offered his jade. He wept tears of blood, not because of his amputated feet, but because his integrity had been questioned. The king realized that, in fact, the stone was the finest piece of jade. He wished to ennoble Pien Ho, but he refused the honour. The final allusion concerns Lu Chieh Yü of Ch’u state, who was called the Madman of Ch’u. He refused a lucrative government post offered by the king and became a recluse in the countryside.

The opening couplet threatens those who think their crimes will never be discovered with the sort of punishment meted out to miscreants in history. Then follows a litany of famous and infamous cases of political crime. Its message is based on a simple notion of cause and effect. Its lesson is twofold: that politics is a dangerous business which should be avoided or one will come to a grisly end; and that people should not blind themselves to life’s dangerous realities, for tragic results will follow errors of judgement. The didacticism of the song, bolstered with histori­cal allusions, is unusual among the Han repertoire of yüeh-fu. It contrasts markedly with fables in verse which teach through indirection.

The title does not accord with the content. The symbolism of ‘break­ing willow’ is of leave-taking, deriving from a custom in the early Han of giving a willow branch to a traveller whom one is seeing off. One reason for the custom was probably the pun on the word for willow, liu, which is a homophone of liu, detain, written with a different character.37 On the other hand, the meaning of the title may involve a quite different pun on liu-willow and liu-execute, which accords better with the grim theme of the song. A third possibility is that, as in the case of ‘The Ballad of the Prefect of Goosegate’, the title ‘The Ballad of Breaking Willow’ may belong to another song-text, no longer extant, on a theme appropriate to its title.38


1 Diény, Aux origines, p. 5 (my translation from his French), citing Discourses of the States, Discourses of Chou State, SPPY 1.5a. In his Chapter 1, ‘Les collectes de chansons populaires’, pp. 5–10, he provides an excellent survey of the main classical texts on this subject.

2 Id., p. 5, citing Discourses, SPPY 1.5a.

3 Id., citing Record of Ritual, SPPY 4.5a–b.

4 ‘Poetic omens’ are shih yao; James J. Y. Liu, Chinese Theories of Literature (1975), p. 65.

5 Ibid.

6 History of the Han (Han shu), ch. 27.1,393–96.

7 The appendices of this classic, known as ‘wings’‚ dates from the late Chou or early Han.

8 Watson, Early Chinese Literature, pp. 64–6, discusses the use of prophecy in the Tso Commentary.

9 Loewe, Chinese Ideas of Life and Death, pp. 80–90.

10 Poetic omens, shih yao, do not feature as a term in the titles of the songs I have translated. These are called yao-ko (popular songs), or t’ung-yao-ko (children’s popular songs). The word t’ung refers to children between about the age of six to twelve, up till adolescence. The word yao of yao-ko is probably a pun on the word yao = omen. Donald Holzman, ‘Les premiers vers pentasyllabiques datés dans la poésie chinoise’ (1974), p.113, referred to these songs as popular slogans and political satire: ‘These slogans may be considered as vox populi par excellence.’

11 History of the Han, ch. 21.1395. Bodde, Festivals in Classical China, p. 55, notes that in the Han ‘the five spirits of the household’ were the Well and Hearth, besides the Impluvium, Gate and Door. Perhaps an additional connotation of desecration is implied in Pan Ku’s critique.

12 Loewe, Crisis and Conflict, p. 303, explains that two views of the Five Elements Theory and dynastic change maintained in the Former Han. The Modernists held that each Power conquered its predecessor, while Tung Chung-shu and others held that each Power gave rise to the next.

13 Id., Chapter 9, ‘Support for Wang Mang—AD 9’‚ pp. 286–306, gives a sympathetic account of the statesman’s rise to power. Dubs, The History, Vol. 3, pp. 125–474, translates Pan Ku’s ‘Biography of Wang Mang’ (Han shu, ch. 99).

14 The song’s metre is trisyllabic. The text is in Pan Ku, ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’, ch. 27.1395, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Songs and Ditties, Part 6, Words of Ditties, Part 2’, p. 1,234.

15 History of the Han, ch. 27.1396.

16 Birrell, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, p. 233 gives the other text and its preface in translation. Also see Chapter Six, pp. 105–07 above.195

17 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Pan Ku, id.‚ p. 1,396, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Ditties, Part 6, Words of Ditties, Part 2’‚ p. 1,235.

18 Pan Ku, op. cit., p. 1,395. For a translation of Pan Ku’s biography of Chao Fei-yen, see Watson, Courtier and Commoner, pp. 265–77.

19 Id., pp. 267–70 for the fate of Ts’ao Kung and her child; id., pp. 270–71 for the fate of Lady Hsü.

20 Id., p. 276.

21 Birrell, New Songs, p. 233.

22 After Emperor Ch’eng’s death, Emperor Ai came to the throne. One of his first acts was to dismantle the Bureau of Music and make half its staff redundant.

23 The metre is a mix of 5- and 3-syllable lines: 5–3–3–5–3–3–3–3; or, taking the first pentasyllabic line as two lines, as I have in my translation, 2–3–3, etc. The text is in Pan Ku, id.‚ p. 1,395, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Songs and Ditties, Part 6, Words of Ditties, Part 2’‚ p. 1,234.

24 Ts’ui Pao, Record of Things Ancient and Modern, SPTK 2.3a; Wu Ching, Explanations of the Old Titles of Yüeh-fu, Chin-tai pi-shu 34, ch. 1.3a.

25 Chai may also be pronounced Ti. The prime minister’s name was Chai (or Ti) Fang-chin; his biography appears in Pan Ku, History, ch. 84.3411–42.

26 This is the view taken by Yü Kuan-ying, Anthology, p. 13, and by Diény, Aux origines, pp. 117–19, where he translates, annotates, and discusses the song, dismissing some of the more fanciful interpretations of it, based on Ts’ui Pao and Wu Ching.

27 The metre is irregular: 3–3–7–3–4–7–3–3–7–3–3–7. The text is in Shen Yüeh, ‘Treatise on Music’, ch. 21, ‘Concerted’ category, p. 607, and in Kuo, ch. 28, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 3, Concerted Pieces, Part 3’, p. 410.

28 The metre is trisyllabic. The text is in Ssu-ma Piao, ‘Treatise on the Five Elements’, ch. 16.3281, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Ditties, Part 6, Words of Ditties, Part 2’, p. 1,236.

29 Ssu-ma Piao, op.cit., p. 3,281.

30 I am grateful to Dr. Michael Loewe of the University of Cambridge for his helpful comments on Ssu-ma Piao’s interpretation.

31 The metre is a mix of 7- and 3-syllable lines: 7–7–7–3–3–7. The text is in Ssu-ma Piao, op. cit., p. 3,281, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Ditties, Part 6, Words of Ditties, Part 2’, p. 1,237. A variant text of this ditty appears in New Songs, Chapter 9, p. 234, of which line 1 reads: ‘Tall wheat green, green, short wheat shrivelled’, reversing the epithets ‘Tall’ and ‘short’.

32 I am grateful to Dr. Loewe for his helpful comments on Ssu-ma Piao’s interpretation.

33 The Bureaucracy of Han Times, p. 129.

34 The metre is regular in the first part, irregular in the last: the first eight lines are trisyllabic, the last five 7–7–7–5–7. The text is in Ssu-ma Piao, id., pp. 3,281–82, and in Kuo, ch. 88, ‘Words for Miscellaneous Songs and Ditties, Part 6, Words for Ditties, Part 2’, p. 1,238. A variant text of the song appears in New Songs, Chapter 9, p. 234; the main difference occurs in the last three lines: ‘Over the door is ground millet,/ Under the millet there is a hanging drum./ I want to strike it, but the minister will be angry.’ It is worth noting that the image of crows, like other images in politicized songs, permits a variety of interpretations. ‘Crows on city walls’ also forms the opening line of a political song celebrating a period of moral order; Diény, ‘Chansons des Han’ (1962), p. 271.

35 Ssu-ma Piao, id., p. 3,284; Ts’ui Pao, op. cit., SPTK 2.4a.

36 See Chapter Three, pp. 70–2 above. The metre of ‘The Song Tung Flees!’ is regular: the uneven line numbers are trisyllabic, the refrain is of two syllables. The text is in Ssu-ma Piao, id., p. 3,284, and in Kuo, ch. 34, p. 505, in the preface to ‘The 196Ballad Tung Flees!’ The hsing-ballad version in Shen and Kuo are classified under ‘Clear-mode’ of ‘Concerted Songs’, but this does not necessarily mean that the ko-song version is of the same category.

37 Frankel, The Flowering Plum, pp. 95–6, explains the origin of the custom in the Han.

38 The metre is pentasyllabic; 4 stanzas. Shen, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’ category, p. 618, and Kuo, ch. 37, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 12, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 2’, p. 547. Diény, op. cit., pp. 139–42, translates, annotates, and discusses this piece. Williams, ‘A Study of the Oral Nature of the Han Yüeh-fu’‚ pp. 204–07, and Sawaguchi, Gafu, pp. 80–3, translate and annotate the piece.

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