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Homeward Thoughts

The theme of nostalgia developed in the Han and later became an important sub-genre of Chinese poetry. Like many other literary themes it has its origin in the Book of Poetry. In certain Chou war poems, anonymous soldiers expressed a simple longing to return home from the battlefield: ‘Oh to go home!’1 Nostalgia also formed a leitmotif of some pieces in the Songs of Ch’u. It took its inspiration from the first long poem, which talks of political exile. When the unhappy courtier of ‘Encountering Sorrow’ is about to flee from the turmoil of the world he hesitates and says, ‘I suddenly caught a glimpse below of my old home.’2 This yearning for the cherished dream of former happiness in the familiar surroundings of home is the major theme of this next group of Han songs.

The reasons for absence from the home are not always given in the songs. Some form of official work is vaguely mentioned or referred to in a small detail. A ‘capstring’ indicates that the character is a male official. A ‘feast’ suggests that the character is some sort of a male func­tionary. The ‘land of the Huns’ reveals that the setting is border warfare or border guard duty and that the character is a military officer. Some songs lack these clues; their setting and characters are more in­determinate than is typical of popular Han songs. The clues sometimes imply that the characters belong to the upper classes of society. More­over, diction and tone remove them from the impoverished, desperate families and from the ranks of the ordinary soldier encountered in anti-war and domestic songs. Brutal dialogue and desperate behaviour are absent. The songs are coloured by refinement of diction and a gen­teel sensibility. Absent too are the qualities of toughness, stoicism, and courage which characterized the soldiers of the anti-war songs. The theme of nostalgia, when it is the dominant theme, in itself sug­gests a tender sentiment, and this group of songs is more than a little awash with the fruits of sorrow. Apart from the elliptical references to the identity of the characters and the refined diction which separate them from ordinary folk, the fact of travel itself suggests that this group 140of songs has to do with the upper echelons of society. Except for conscription or corvée labour the ordinary man would not normally leave the land to travel long distances for long periods. It was not part of his way of life. Travel in the ancient world was essentially part of the business of the metropolitan, educated class of men undertaken for the purpose of administering the empire and ensuring social and political control. It was also, of course, the occupation of the merchant class, but they do not feature in these songs, partly because of a deep-seated cultural prejudice against merchants from the late Chou era on.3 In general, songs and ballads which have as their main theme a longing to go home have less to do with humble folk than the class of high-ranking official who ruled and administered the provincial regions of the empire. This kind of song reflects a man’s world. The man travels and longs for home, the woman stays at home, longing for her absent man.

Much of the language and imagery of later nostalgic verse was crystalized in these anonymous Han songs. The travel topos developed a cluster of motifs and images. The far road, yüan tao, is travelled by a man called a wanderer, yu-tzu, who often seems to be on a futile mission. The typical pose of the wanderer is gazing far back (yüan wang) towards his old village (ku-hsiang), or birthplace (so sheng). He voices his longing to return home (kuei). The images are of the long road, wheels turning back along the track home, tumbleweed whirled about torn from its roots, the season of autumn, coldness, blustery winds, plaintive sounds in nature, natural barriers which forbid return, and the wasted appearance of the wanderer. Such songs usually end with an expression of helplessness tinged with rage, despair, and tearful grief.

The theme of nostalgia inhibits any sense of the excitement of travel, or desire for adventure, or even curiosity about distant regions and foreign parts. Leaving home means unending misery and a blighted existence. Despite the narrowly defined social parameters of its composition, the nostalgic song held a lasting attraction for the Chinese.

An Old Eight Changes Song

North winds in early autumn come

Blowing round my Chang-hua Terrace.

Floating clouds, many tinged with twilight,

Seem to come from Yen-tzu hills.

Withered mulberry groans in deep woods,

Crickets echo on bare steps.

Whirling tumbleweed marches on.

Bitterly a wanderer pines.

His old village nowhere in sight,

Eternal gazing starts from this time on.141

The two placenames, Chang-hua Terrace and Yen-tzu hills, link this song with the region of Ch’u. The terrace was built by a king of Ch’u in the Spring and Autumn era of the Chou. Yen-tzu is mentioned in ‘Encounter­ing Sorrow’ of the Songs of Ch’u. It was the mythical place where the sun set.4 Despite these specific names of the historical and mythological past, the song is marked by indeterminacy of character, time, and situation. The link with Ch’u is developed through other echoes from Songs of Ch’u. The solitary figure wandering in a bleak landscape derives from the pathetic mode of Ch’u elegiac verse.5

An Old Song

Autumn winds sough and sigh, sad enough to kill.

I go out so sad,

I come in so sad.

At the feast what men are they

Who do not harbour grief?

It makes me white-haired.

In the land of the Huns constant whirlwinds,

Trees how they toss, toss!

I left home, each day hastening further,

Robe and belt each day quickly slackening.

Thoughts of love I cannot tell.

In my guts carriage wheels turning, rolling.

The second half of the song tells the story. A man left home to do border duty in the north far from his native place. His longing to return makes him pine and become thin and grow prematurely white-haired. It is autumn. There is a feast, but instead of revelry, everyone is obsessed with nostalgia. The theme of returning home predominates, but there are several sub-themes: war, carpe diem, love. Familiar balladic devices are used: the binome ‘sough, sigh’, which is reinforced by the visual pun in the first line of autumn (ch’iu), and sad (ch’ou), which is written with the character for autumn with a heart-emotion indicator. The binomes continue with ‘toss, toss’, and the repetitive phrase ‘turning, rolling’, the movements described contrasting with the enforced immobility of the soldier. There is also the device of repetition in the construction of lines 2 and 3, and in the pivotal expression of time, ‘each day’, in the penultimate couplet. The question and answer formula appears in lines 4–6. The most significant device in the song is commonplace expression. The last couplet, with its striking imagery and forthright phrase, ‘In my guts’, is exactly the same as the last couplet of ‘The Sad Song Ballad’ at the end of this chapter. It also shares several lines with the first poem of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’.6 The song’s line six is similar to that poem’s line 13: 142‘Thinking of you makes one grow old’. The song’s line nine is similar to the poem’s line nine: ‘Leaving you each day ever further’. The song’s line ten is similar to the poem’s line ten: ‘Robe and belt each day ever slacker’. In other words, the song shares five of its lines with lines in two other pieces, an anonymous Han song and an anonymous Han old poem.7

A Long Song Ballad, no. 3

Tall, tall pavilion on the mountain,

White, white stars among the clouds.

Distant gazing makes his heart pine,

The wanderer longing for his birthplace.

Driving his carriage he leaves the north gates,

Stares far-off at Loyang city.

Soft winds blow long thorn trees,

Young, young boughs and leaves bend down.

Yellow birds give chase in flight,

Trill, trill, at play with sounds of music.

He halts to gaze at West River.

Tears fall and soak his silken capstring.

This song belongs to the set of three which was discussed in Chapter Three (pp. 68–9). My reason for presenting each of the songs in different chapters is that they each have quite different content and do not seem to belong as a set. This is the most literary of the set. The pavilion, Loyang city, West River (which contains an historical allusion), silken capstring, and the quatrain ‘Soft winds … sounds of music’ (which echoes a classical poem), all point to literary diction and themes. The classical allusion of the quatrain may or may not express the idea contained in poem no. 32 of the Book of Poetry, but it uses the images of that poem: the joyous south wind (k’ai feng), the thorn tree, the young branches, the yellow birds and their song. The classical poem tells of a mother who has seven grown-up sons, but none of them ‘consoles the mother’s heart’. The last couplet echoes lines from another poem, no. 28, from the classic anthology and introduces another allusion, this time to West River. In the Chou poem are the lines: ‘I gaze after her, can no longer see her,/I stand still and weep’.8 The allusion to West River concerns a man named Wu Ch’i (d. 381 BC), who was born in Wei state. When he left home he told his mother he would never return to Wei unless he went back in glory as prime minister. Later, although his mother died, he did not go home. In due course he was appointed prefect of West River in another state named Wei. When he had to leave the region, due to slanderous accusations, he wept over West River, grieving that his lord had believed the slander. The reference to Loyang in line 6 143suggests that the time of the song might be in the Latter Han. The historical allusion gives a narrative context to the song: an official had to leave the capital and say goodbye to his family. He took up a post at West River, but when the time came to leave he had grown attached to the place and felt sad. The two allusions together, the classical and the historical, indicate that the official is longing for his old home and the family he left behind.9

Mount Wu is High

Mount Wu is high,

High and vast.

Huai River is deep,

Hard and fast flowing.

I want to go back east.

Oh why don’t I do it?

I just have no pole or oar.

Oh how the river seethes and churns!

I lean over the river, gaze far along.

Tears fall, soaking my robe.

The human heart on a far road longs for return.

What more is there to say?

The two placenames, Mount Wu and Huai River, set the song in the region of Ch’u. The wanderer’s home is somewhere in the east. Nature bars his way home. It is possible that the wanderer is an official. The drenching tears reveal that he is a man of tender sensibilities. The more resolute last line rescues the song from the maudlin. The repetition of the epithet ‘high’ in the first couplet, the question and answer formula, and the final question are devices of the song repertoire.10

The Sad Song Ballad

Sad song may serve as weeping,

A far gaze may serve as going home.

With love I remember my old village,

Brooding love, looming memories.

I want to go back, but there’s no one at home.

I want to ford the river, but there’s no boat on the river.

Thoughts of love I cannot tell.

In my guts carriage wheels turning, rolling. 144

The opening couplet expresses a stoical attitude despite the turmoil aroused by nostalgia. Much of the song echoes with lines and phrases in other songs and poems of the Han, but it is none the less poignant for that.11


1 Karlgren, The Book of Odes, poem no. 167, stanza 1, line 3, p. 111; also see his translation of poem no. 156.

2 Hawkes, Ch’u Tz’u, p. 34, line 184.

3 This prejudice was first propounded by Lord Shang, or Shang Yang (d. 330 BC), of the state of Ch’in, J. J. L. Duyvendak, trans., The Book of Lord Shang (1928, 1963), ‘Agriculture and War’, pp. 185–96. In the Ch’in Dynasty the frequent travels of merchants around and beyond state frontiers were particularly suspect because as a group they could not be supervized easily, they hoarded private wealth, and introduced news and information which might disturb the local population.

4 Said to be in the north-west, in the region of modern Kansu.

5 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Chang Chih-hsiang, Garden of Old Poetic Genres, ch, 45.13a–b, as the only extant song of a hypothetical set entitled ‘Nine Tunes for the Eight Changes’. It is not clear what the phrase ‘Eight Changes’ means in the title; it may refer to the music title. It may have something to do with the Eight Skilled Gentlemen (Pa neng chih shih), who in the Han were specialists in magical ceremonies at the Winter and Summer solstices held at the court, of which one was to harmonize (tiao) Yin and Yang and the Five Elements, besides harmonizing musical notes and compositions. Bodde, Festivals in Classical China, pp. 169–72, 178–85, and 292–93. The number eight was particularly associated with harmony, viz. the Eight Musical Instruments (i.e. the eight kinds of materials used in making musical instruments), the Eight Trigrams, and the Eight (Military) Formations. The first quatrain of the text, attributed to T’ang Hui-hsiu (5th century AD), appears in Imperial Survey of the T’ai-p’ing Era, SPTK 25.5b, entitled ‘An Old Song, Eight Changes’.

6 Translated by Watson, Chinese Lyricism, p.20, and Birrell, New Songs, pp, 38–9, ‘On, On, Ever On and On.’

7 The metre is irregular with some regular passages. The first three lines are: 7–3–3, followed by three tetrasyllabic lines, the last six lines are pentasyllabic. The text is in Chang Chih-hsiang, Garden of Old Poetic Genres, ch. 45.14a. A version of the song entitled ‘An Old Yüeh-fu Song Poem’ appears in Imperial Survey of the T’ai-ping Era‚ SPTK 25.4a, minus lines 4–6 and with minor variants in the central passage.

8 Karlgren, op. cit., poem no. 32, p. 20, poem no. 28, p. 16.

9 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Kuo, ch, 30, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 5, Level-mode Pieces, Part 1’‚ p. 443. The first six lines of the 12-line piece are 200listed in Compendium of Literature, ch. 27, p. 484, under Ts’ao P’ei, said to have been composed by him when he travelled through Ming-chin (this section of the encyclopedia is called ‘Travel’); the piece is designated as a shih-lyric poem. In line 6 the Compendium version has Ho yang for the full version’s Loyang.

10 The metre is irregular, except for the first quatrain which is trisyllabic. Lines 1–4: trisyllabic; lines 5–6 tetrasyllabic; lines 7–8: 5–7; lines 9–10 tetrasyllabic; last couplet: 7–3. Lines 6 and 8 contain the nonsense word liang. The modern punctuation of lines 7–8 of the song in the Chung-hua edition of Shen Yüeh, History of the Southern Sung, ‘Treatise on Music’, ch. 21, p. 641, is erratic; it seems to be based on a preference for a tetrasyllabic central passage instead of a 5–7 metre. Yü Kuan-ying, Anthology, p. 5, amends line 4 from ‘Hard and fast flowing’ to ‘Deep and fast flowing’, repeating the device of repetition in the first couplet. This is a plausible amend­ment, but I do not follow it. The text is in Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’‚ p. 228. The earliest recording of the text is in Shen, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p. 641.

11 The metre is composed of regular passages of different syllabic line lengths: 6–6–4–4–5–5–5–5. The text is in Kuo, ch. 62, ‘Song-texts for Miscellaneous Pieces, Part 2’, p. 898.

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