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Love Songs

Love in its infinite variety is pictured in these songs. A lady greets her distant lord, lovers vow eternal fidelity, a widow grieves for her drowned lord, a seemingly innocent girl falls under suspicion, and several girls complain of desertion. Although the brief love vow and the longer narrative forms occur, most of these songs are cast in the form of a love plaint voiced by a woman. So, already in the Han, the trend for depicting a woman’s doomed love was set in motion, culminating in the fashionable love poetry of the Southern Dynasties three centuries later.

Two of the songs deal with married love. Only three songs depict happy love. The most frequent theme is desertion. The typical character of the songs is a jilted girl. There is a considerable difference between the portrayal of love in the Chou Book of Poetry and in Han songs. Anonymous poets of the Chou usually limited their imaginative portrait of a wife to her happy hour as a bride going to her wedding, leaving the reader or audience to assume that the cherished dream of wedded bliss lasted into old age or death. A bride in the Chou anthology was euphemistically referred to as ‘one to grow old with her lord’.1 The Han singers generally reject the romantic dream of the wedding day, preferring to depict the darker side of marriage and love. In this respect they developed the plaintive strain in the Chou anthology, ignoring the happy marriage songs.

The social framework of these songs seems to reflect the upper-class way of life rather than the truly popular, or folk, style. The evidence lies in small details of luxury, such as a bed, silk curtains, a woman’s sash, the high hall of the home, the terrace and gates of a mansion, and jewels, gold vessels, and wine. The opulent details scattered among the songs are quite different from the folk-use of hyperbole in passages describing luxury with all the zest of the admiring poor. The language of these songs moreover reflects at times a literary awareness in their use of classical allusions. A fishing rod and fishtail, for example, suggest folk idiom; in fact, the context in which those images are used shows that they are echoes from the Book of Poetry. 146

In this chapter we are fortunate to have two anonymous titles with different versions. In each case the longer version contrasts with the more laconic narrative of the shorter. The songs in general display an interesting variety of form and metre. Some are brief four-line pieces, some are several dozen lines long. ‘Almighty on High!’, ‘I Lean from the High Terrace’, and ‘The One I Love’ have irregular metres. The two versions of ‘Along the Embankment’ are almost completely regular pentasyllabic songs. ‘The Harp Lay’ is in the archaic tetrasyllabic metre of the Book of Poetry which was used in Han hymns. The other love songs in this selection are pentasyllabic.

Kuo Mao-ch’ien classified three of these songs as Han military songs. They are ‘Almighty’, ‘I Lean’, and ‘The One I Love’. As one might expect, the more plangent of the songs, such as ‘Along the Embankment’ and ‘The White Head Lament’, Kuo classified as modal pieces, in the Clearmode and Ch’u-mode, respectively.

Almighty on High!

Almighty on High!

I long to know my lord,

Let our love never fade or die

Till mountains have no peaks,

Or rivers run dry,

Till thunder roars in winter,

Or snow pours down in summer,

Till the skies merge with the ground—

Then may I die with my lord!

This song is a mock-serious oath to the supreme deity, Shang-ti. There are two small clues which together suggest that the speaker is female. The word chün in the second and last lines may be translated as ‘you’ of either gender and as ‘lord’.2 In the last line the word kan is a form of polite address from a subordinate to a superior. The speaker might, of course, be a youth addressing his male lover who is his social superior. I have taken the song to be by a girl to her male lover. The oath is a litany of descriptions of the end of the world, to the end of time. The last involves a myth: in the beginning chaos reigned, then came the act of creation when the sky separated from the earth and the universe came into being. When the sky and the earth merge again, the world will come to an end. The litany gives the song a certain arch humour.3147

I Lean from the High Terrace

I lean from the high terrace balcony.

Below there are clear waters, clear and cool.

In the river there is sweet grass, my eyes hold orchis.

A brown goose flies high, how far off it soars!

An arched bow has shot the goose.

Oh let my lord live long, ten thousand years!

The tenor of the song is lyrical and courtly. The images suggest that the lady of a noble lord gazes from her high balcony in the direction her lord took when parting from her. She notes the signs of spring, a metaphor for renewed love: clear water, sweet grass, orchis, and a goose in flight. The tone of bucolic lyricism is interrupted by the image of the goose killed randomly by a hunter’s bow. The lady prays that her lord, who perhaps is on a military expedition, will not suffer the same fate.4 She prays that he will enjoy a long life—this felicitation closure is a commonplace expression. This early song on the theme of lovers’ separation combines lyrical grace with courtly restraint. The analogy between the natural world and the human world is similar to that used in ‘A Crow Bore Eight or Nine Chicks’, but here it is successfully integrated into the song’s structure. The three couplets may also form a ritual address by a retain­er to his lord, ending with an offering of a dead goose.5

The One I Love

The one I love

Is south of the great lakes.

What shall I send you?

A tortoiseshell hatpin with twin pearls.

With jade I’ll braid and plait it.

I hear that you have another love—

I will break it, smash and burn it,

Smash and burn it,

Face into the wind, scatter its ashes.

From this day on

Nevermore will I love you.

My love for you is severed.

Cocks crow, dogs bark.

My brother and his wife must find out.

Alas! Oh my!

Autumn winds sough, sough. Dawn Wind hastens.

The east at a blink whitening will find out!

The song begins with a simple, prosaic statement that a lover lives in the south apart from the speaker. The second couplet uses the question and 148answer formula to describe an elaborate love-token. The gift explains the relationship between the lovers. It is a hatpin worn by an official to secure his cap of office. We may surmise that he is a high-ranking young official on a tour of duty. He has been in the girl’s district for a while and has had a liaison with her. Then he had to move away and continue his circuit in the south. The girl believes his love is true and is preparing to send him an expensive gift. These first five lines relate that part of the story prior to the present time of the song. The rest of the piece is a narrative of the girl’s present dilemma and her anxiety about her future. She has just heard that her lover has acquired a new mistress down south. She instinctively destroys the gift which symbolized her love, hoping to stifle her passion for her false lover. Then she pauses to consider what will happen when her family find out about her romance. ‘Cocks crow, dogs bark’ echoes poem no. 23 of the Book of Poetry: ‘Slowly! Gently!/Do not move my kerchief;/do not make the dog bark!’ in which a girl ‘like jade’ flirts nervously with a strange man in the forest.6 The metaphor denotes gossip which will travel fast in the community. The girl in the Han songs says she is afraid of her brother’s reaction, for he will resent the fact that she has ruined her chances of a fine marriage which would have made the family prosper.7 The song’s closure refers to the swiftly approaching season of autumn: Dawn Wind is the peregrine falcon, a metaphor for the swift passage of time. My conjecture is that the season of autumn, poetically linked to spring in Chinese, hints that spring was the time when the girl’s romance blossomed. Six months later in autumn she is pregnant and her condition is becoming all too apparent. Hence the repetition, ‘must find out’, ‘will find out’. The gossip in the community will soon be supported by the proof.

If this conjecture is correct, the song becomes more than a simple plaint about a fickle lover.8 The singer depicts the giddy romance of an impulsive, naive young girl of a well-to-do family (her jewelled gift), who believed that the attentions of a young official were serious. The song shows how such an impulse, at first private and personal, has later social implications which may affect the person and the family for a lifetime. This the song achieves without moral censure. The girl herself is left to voice her own dismay and guilt.9

The Harp Lay

‘Lord, don’t ford the river!’

My lord did ford the river,

Sank in the river and died.

What’s to be done for my lord now? 149

Ts’ui Pao provides the earliest context for this song.10 One morning, Tzu-kao, a Korean from Chin-tsu village, went to punt his boat when he saw a mad old man with his white hair hanging loose, holding up a wine-jar. Though the current was strong, the old man went to ford the river. His wife followed to try and stop him, but she was too late, and then he drowned. She took up her harp and sang a very sad song [the song-text], and then she threw herself into the river and also died. Tzu-kao returned home and told his wife, Li-yü, and she was so moved that she played her harp and recorded the tragic song. All who heard it were deeply moved. Then Li-yü taught it to a neighbouring woman.11

Along the Embankment

long version

Rushes grow in my pool,

Rushes grow in my pool,

Their leaves so thick and lush.

A perfect sense of decorum

No one can know so well as I.

Common gossip that melts yellow gold

Has forced you to live apart.

I remember when you left me,

I remember when you left me,

Alone I am sad, ever cruel my sorrow.

I imagine I see your face,

Feelings tangle, bruise my heart.

Now sad night after night never more will I sleep.

Don’t through glory and renown,

Don’t through glory and renown,

Reject one you loved before.

Don’t because fish and meat are costly

Reject the leek and shallot.

Don’t because hemp and jute are cheap

Reject straw and rushes.

Your doubly favoured one has now grown cruelly withered,

Your doubly favoured one has now grown cruelly withered.

Your moving boat ever cruelly vanishes.

Please set your mind at rest,

Take care not to be anxious.

I remember taking leave of you,

And when will the time come

When we’ll sit together again and face each other?150

I go out so cruelly sad,

I go out so cruelly sad,

I come in so cruelly sad.

Many the sad border winds,

Trees how they sough, sough.

Today let’s be happy in our love.

May your years last one thousand autumns!

While the song is clearly a love plaint, its narrative background is unsure. The speaker is a girl who at first says that she has behaved correctly, but even so other people’s malicious gossip has caused a rift between her lover and herself. She feels despair after their separation. She then accuses her lover of contemplating desertion for ambition’s sake, and perhaps for another, more attractive girl. She then admits that she has lost her looks and that is the reason her lover left her. She wonders when they will meet again. Finally, she says that the reason for the separation is that her lover is on border duty. She still loves him and hopes he will survive the war. Four reasons are proffered for the man’s departure: scandal, loss of feminine allure through aging, ambition, and border warfare. The reasons do not seem entirely compatible, but it is possible that all four maintain in the narrative. It is a further possibility that the girl is considering various reasons why the man might have left her.

The song, which exists in two similar versions, has attracted a number of putative authors and has been taken as the biographical account of an empress of the post-Han era. The authors to whom the song has been attributed are Ts’ao Ts’ao, Ts’ao P’ei, and Empress Chen of the late Han and early Wei. Ts’ao Ts’ao founded the Wei Dynasty but died before ascending the throne. He is known by his posthumous title, Emperor Wu of the Wei. A number of songs and ballads are attributed to him, many of them imitations of Han originals. His son, Ts’ao P’ei, became the first ruling emperor of the Wei with the title, Emperor Wen. It is the story of Ts’ao P’ei’s first marriage, based on historial fact, which has become woven into the fabric of the interpretation of this anonymous Han song. When he was made heir apparent he took the Lady Chen as his consort. Later, when she had been promoted to the rank of empress, she was slandered at court by Empress Kuo, so Ts’ao P’ei made Empress Chen commit suicide. When she was near to death, so the legend goes, she composed a poem which was the text of this song. For centuries the tradition has persisted that she composed the piece. Equally strong is the alternative tradition that Ts’ao P’ei composed it himself.12

Let us consider the alleged biographical details in the song to determine whether it narrates a biographical episode in the lives of Ts’ao P’ei, the Wei Emperor Wen, and his consort, Empress Chen, or whether the song exhibits the typical stylistic features common to other 151anonymous Han songs and ballads and in its original form is innocent of the historical drama which later commentators attached to it.

The first stanza might well relate the circumstances of the historical royal couple, especially the combination of ‘gossip’ and ‘yellow gold’, and the enforced separation. It is possible to read the first stanza either abstractly as the plaint of an ill-fated palace lady who links her misfortune of disgrace and demotion to that of other palace ladies, notably Empress Ch’en of the Han, or specifically as the plaint of Empress Chen of the Wei who links her disgrace with that of her royal predecessor.13 The latter interpretation, however, is based solely on inference; there is no hard biographical fact in the first stanza which proves the historical connection. Moreover, the link between the two empresses is tenuous; Empress Ch’en was demoted legally by Emperor Wu because she failed to produce a male heir, while Empress Chen was the victim of defamation.

The remaining stanzas, moreover, fail to corroborate the claim, already tenuous, that the first stanza may be biographical. Stanza two contains several conventional expressions. The first image of luxuriant leaves in the opening lines of the song and the trope of sleeplessness in the closing lines of this stanza derive from the Book of Poetry, but were poetic clichés by the Han.14 The third stanza removes the song even further from the royal biography. It expresses in a repetitive manner a man’s rejection of a humble wife because he is ambitious for a successful career and a better wife. Here the song is close in meaning and expression to such anonymous Han songs as ‘East Gate’ and the carpe diem song, ‘The Whenever Ballad’. Moreover, the latter ballads introduce the concept of morality into their narrative just as this song does in its first stanza. Like the wife in ‘East Gate’, the girl in the ‘Embankment’ song rejects the lure of success at the expense of moral integrity. The domestic images of this third stanza recall the realism of the narratives of humble, impoverished families in the anonymous Han repertoire more than the portrayal of the life of a palace lady.

The fourth stanza again departs from the story of Empress Chen. There was no question of Empress Chen losing favour because she was old and losing her beauty, as this song laments. Moreover, Empress Chen’s husband, the Emperor Wen, did not leave the capital by boat. This stanza follows the style of the Han popular song in its restrained, even lyrical narrative of departure and in its quiet, affectionate tone, reminiscent of the finale of ‘East Gate’, long version: ‘Mind how you go’.

The last stanza provides final evidence that the song belongs to the tradition of the anonymous Han repertoire of popular song. The female persona narrates that her lover has left her for the border, where conventionally he will do corvée work or guard an outpost. Her plaintive narrative ends abruptly, however, with a felicitation formula in which 152she wishes their love will endure and that he will live long. This ending, taken together with the endings of stanza two, in which the girl complains of sleeplessness, and of stanza four‚ in which she hopes for a reunion, do not depict the situation of Empress Chen in the historical episode. These endings do not convey the emotions of an empress about to commit suicide, a suicide which the emperor has graciously allowed her to carry out.

The song is full of the sort of narrative inconsistencies and stanzaic looseness which typify other narratives in this anonymous selection from the Han. It is no doubt due to the mention of scandal and to imperial ‘gold’ that the song has lent itself to the allegorizing interpretation of which Chinese literary commentators have traditionally been so fond. The most prudent conclusion to be drawn is that the content of the song does not match the biographical facts of the royal Wei family, that it belongs to the anonymous Han repertoire, and that the attributions to the Ts’ao family or to Empress Chen are spurious.

Let us now summarize the elements in the song which characterize it as a typical Han popular song. The major trope is the repetition of lines and semantic patterns, besides the repetition of key words like ‘remember’, and of the vocabulary of departure and parting. There are echoes from the Book of Poetry, not conscious literary quotations but traditional borrowings of images and expressions which are skilfully integrated into the song. There are echoes, too, from other anonymous Han songs, with similar phrasing and parallel situations. The closure, especially, contains two commonplace expressions. It resembles the closure of ‘Up the Mound’, ‘Song of Melancholy’, and ‘A Yen Song, The Whenever Ballad’(in Chapter Two), and ‘The White Head Lament’, long version. The first three lines of the last stanza of ‘Along the Embankment’ resemble lines 2–3 of ‘An Old Song’ in the previous chapter, while the next two lines, ‘Many the sad border winds,/Trees how they sough, sough’, are similar to lines 7–8 of ‘An Old Song’.15

Along the Embankment

short version

Rushes grow in my pool

Their leaves so thick and lush.

A perfect sense of morality

None knows so well as your wife.

Common gossip that melts yellow gold

Has forced you to live apart.

I remember when you left me,

Alone I am sad, ever cruel my sorrow. 153

I imagine I see your face,

Feelings tangle, bruise my heart.

I remember you, ever cruel my sorrow,

Night after night I cannot sleep.

Don’t through glory and renown

Reject one you loved before.

Don’t because fish and meat are cheap

Reject the leek and shallot.

Don’t because hemp and jute are cheap

Reject straw and rushes.

I go out so cruelly sad,

I come in so cruelly sad.

Many the sad border winds,

Trees how they sough, sough.

May army life though lonely make you happy,

May your years last one thousand autumns.

A comparison between the previous long version and this short version of the song title is interesting for the light it sheds on the process of composition. Simple repetitions are omitted, thus lines 2, 9, 15, 22, and 30 of the long version are dropped. Stanza four of the long version is completely excised, reducing thereby the confusing mix of reasons for the man’s departure. Just one vestige of that stanza is retained: the female persona’s affectionate anxiety, ‘Please set your mind at rest,/Take care not to be anxious’, is skilfully woven into the final part of the short version: ‘May army life though lonely make you happy’, a line which replaces the long version’s commonplace expression, ‘Today let’s be happy in our love’. The contrasting epithet ‘costly’ in the fourth line of stanza three of the long version is smoothed over to bring it into line with the similar pattern ending that passage, so that ‘cheap’ is repeated. The indeterminacy of persona in the long version is amended in the short version, line 4, with the introduction of the self-deprecatory word ch’ieh, concubine, or myself (used by a female), which I have translated as ‘wife’, though that relationship might not be present or implied. As with other short versions of a song title, the stanzaic divisions are removed to form one continuous narrative. The monologue form of the narrative marks a departure from such narratives as ‘The Orphan Boy’, ‘The Ailing Wife’, and ‘East Gate’, but is similar to carpe diem pieces such as ‘West Gate’ and ‘Song of Melancholy’. In general, however, despite the changes in the short version, the intent of both pieces remains the same. The changes reveal an editorial mind at work, marking a trend toward the prosaic and away from the long version’s lyrical song idiom.16154

The White Head Lament

long version

White as mountaintop snow,

White as the moon between clouds.

I hear you have two loves,

That’s why you have broken from me.

When we lived together in the city

Did we ever have a keg of wine at a party?

Today a keg of wine at a party,

Tomorrow dawn the top of the canal.

I trudge along the royal canal,

Canal water east then westward flows.

By the east city wall and there’s a fuel-gatherer.

By the west city wall and there’s a fuel-gatherer.

The two fuel-gatherers urge each other on;

Without kin, for whom would they feel pride?

Bleak, bleak, always bleak, bleak.

A bride at her wedding will not weep.

She longs to get a man of one heart,

Till white-headed time he would not leave her.

Bamboo rod so supple, supple!

Fishtail so thick and glossy!

When a man wants to know you,

What need has he of dagger-coins?

Such a crackle, like horses snapping wicker!

On the river great lords make merry.

Today let’s be happy together.

May your years last to ten thousand!

The title proclaims that this song is a love plaint. On reading through the piece, however, it turns out to comprise seemingly disparate elements which do not cohere. The final section, for example, far from being a lament is a joyful burst of high spirits. Problems of structure are evident in other long Han songs, but have been found to be amenable to some sort of solution despite their initial incoherence. The song’s five stanzas consist of a girl’s lament that her lover has proved to be fickle (lines 1–10), an interlude (lines 11–14), an idealized view of marriage from a girl’s point of view (lines 15–18), and a final passage which comments on two types of love already depicted, failure and success, and which proposes a resolution of the problem of love. 155

The title of the song is taken from the last line of stanza four: ‘Till white-headed time he would not leave her’. The trope itself derives from the Book of Poetry, in which a bride is called ‘one to grow old with her lord’, and where the refrain ‘together with you I was to grow old’ occurs in three poems on a broken marriage.17 The song’s opening couplet develops the colour imagery of the title’s trope, which is a traditional metaphor for a happy wedded life. Although it might be construed as a joke to compare, the white thatch of two old people with the snow-capped mountain, the intent is quite serious. The whiteness of the metaphors also denotes purity and honesty. These qualities are negated in the second couplet.

Stanza two continues with the plaint of the persona, conventionally identified as a jilted girl. She walks like a waif along the canal‚ a setting which recalls the other Han song, ‘Along the Embankment’, in terms of persona, mood, and situation. Water is often ominous in such narratives, and some heroines commit suicide by drowning.18 The girl dully watches the water’s current flowing ‘east then westward’, a tidal motion sym­bolizing her indecision and time aimlessly passing, as she wonders where to go after she has been deserted. The water image leads into the next stanza’s interlude through the repetition of ‘east’ and ‘west’. This quatrain is enigmatic. Perhaps it is explained by the proverb in poem no. 254 of the Book of Poetry: ‘Consult with the grass- and fuel-gatherers’.19 The Han song may use this echo from the Chou classic to suggest that humble though they are, these workmen are serene and happy because they have their families. As such, they contrast with the solitary girl who may now have no home.

This quatrain in its turn points forward to the next vignette of a new character in the narrative, this time a bride who is contemplating her forthcoming marriage. She is as yet untouched by the failure of love. She hopes for a ‘man of one heart’, unaware that the fate of the first girl in the narrative is likely to be repeated in her own life. The ‘one heart’ will soon prove to be ‘two loves’. This vignette poses an ideal view of marriage through the character of the innocent bride. Yet this ideal is prefaced with a mocking refrain: ‘Bleak, bleak, always bleak, bleak’, which recalls the first girl’s brush with harsh reality. The contrast between the ideal and the real, subtly managed in the song, enhanced by proverbial wisdom and plaintive epithets, creates an irony which proves to be the song’s structural motif.

There is a sharp break in tone with the last passage. The admiring first couplet, seemingly about fishing, derives from the Book of Poetry, perhaps, again, not a conscious quotation, but a traditional cliché. Many nuptial songs in the Chou classic contain fish imagery, especially those featuring the wedding of royalty and the nobility: 156

Wherewith does she angle?

Of silk is her fishing-line,

This child of the Lord of Ch’i,

Granddaughter of King P’ing.20

The meaning of the fishing imagery is sexual, the symbolism of fish denoting fertility, as the reference to the generations in the last couplet reveals. There is another passage in the classic which brings us closer to the meaning of the Han song:

In the south there are lucky fish,

In their multitudes they leap.

Our lord has wine;

His lucky guests shall feast and rejoice.21

The theme here is of the lord’s feast, conveying the idea of plenty and success. The guests share in the lord’s good fortune. The context of the Chou poem may provide the necessary link between the first part of the finale and the line, ‘On the river great lords make merry’, which leads into the felicitation closure.

Taking the diverse ideas of the finale in turn, the meaning might be construed in this way: the singer exclaims that a girl and a man are ready for love, that this love is born of mutual attraction and does not need to be purchased; this happy love is but part of a scene of great merriment as some noblemen enjoy a pleasure excursion on the river, in company with the girls of their choice. On this happy day the singer wishes everyone well, hoping that the lords will enjoy a long life. The echoes from the Chou classic underscore the interconnection between the themes of sexual pleasure and carpe diem.

The final passage, seen in relation to the preceding stanzas, appears to posit a resolution to the two contradictory forms of love depicted, the real and the ideal, failure and success. The singer puts forward his own, masculine point of view, against that of the two girls in the song’s first part. He says that for him and for other men, love is a matter of sexual drive, sexual attraction, it is to be taken on the wing, it is a thing of the day.

The baffling juxtaposition of contradictory passages may therefore be clarified: first one female point of view on love is presented, then an opposing feminine point of view, and finally a third point of view is posited, the masculine, which rejects the first two in a vigorous, virile, self-confident show of bravado. The song combines two love plaints with a statement of the carpe diem theme. Its composition takes the form of a stylized argument.22157

The White Head Lament

short version

White as mountaintop snow,

White as the moon between clouds.

I hear you have two loves,

That’s why you have broken from me.

Today a keg of wine at a party,

Tomorrow dawn the top of the canal.

I trudge along the royal canal,

Canal water east then westward flows.

Bleak, bleak, ever bleak, bleak.

A bride at her wedding must not weep;

She longs to get a man of one heart,

Till white-headed time he would not leave her.

Bamboo rod so supple, supple!

Fishtail so glossy, glossy!

When a man prizes the spirit of love,

What need has he of dagger-coins?

According to the Miscellany of the Western Capital, which is attributed to an author of the first century AD and to an author of the early fourth century AD, ‘The White Head Lament’ was composed by the wife of the Han court rhapsodist, Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju (179–c.117 BC). Her name was Cho Wen-chün. The poet had wooed her as a wealthy young widow against her father’s wishes. They eloped and after suffering dire poverty and disgrace were taken back by her father and lived happily together. The anecdote in Miscellany relates how after they had been married for some time the poet wanted to take another wife. Cho Wen-chün is said to have composed ‘The White Head Lament’ as a plaint. Her husband abandoned the idea of bringing another wife home.23 This spurious attribution and romantic context resembles the case of ‘Along the Embankment’; though the personalities involved have a less exalted role in the annals of history, they share with the Ts’ao family a considerable literary aura.24

Again, the omissions in the short version are revealing. Excised from the longer narrative are the biographical story of the lovers’ once happy life in the city, the archaic quatrain about the fuel-gatherers, the onomatopoeic line describing the horses’ movement, the lords making merry on the river, and the felicitation closure. These parts represent just those elements in the song which were most difficult to reconcile with the piece as a whole. It may be presumed that whoever edited the long version to produce the short must have also thought these parts too baffling to be retained. It is interesting that the carpe diem theme with which the long version ended has been amended in the short version, 158producing a more mercenary, cynical closure. The new word ‘prizes’ accentuates this new monetary value of love.25

A Yen Song, A Ballad

Flit, flit, swallows by the hall

Show winter hides, summer appears.

My brothers two or three

Rove and roam in another part.

Old clothes who must mend?

New clothes who must sew?

I’m lucky to have a just mistress,

She takes them to stitch for me.

Her husband through the gates comes,

Looks askance slyly from the northwest room.

I say to Master, ‘Please don’t look askance at me!

Water runs clear, pebbles show,

Pebbles show in heaps and heaps.

Going far is not as good as going home.’

This song is made up of a series of images and enigmatic statements which are difficult to interpret. I believe the puzzles are deliberate. Perhaps their purpose is to disguise a taboo topic.

The first image is slightly out of focus. Usually swallows are said to be the harbinger of spring, not summer. Here the season of spring has been elided deliberately as the singer skips from winter to summer. This elision is an important clue to the puzzle. Swallows have already announced the spring, they have built their nests and are raising their young. The home-builder image of swallows is present in the Book of Poetry; poem no. 28, for example, uses the image of swallows flying eagerly to denote a young bride going to her husband’s home.26 The swallow also features in the mythology of ancient China as the messenger of a deity which makes a beautiful young princess in a tower pregnant.27 Present in literary and mythological echoes, therefore, is the idea of a young girl, love, marriage, and pregnancy.

The second couplet, however, reveals that there is something amiss with these connotations. Brothers in popular Han songs often portend trouble in the family, and that trouble centres on a sibling, most often a younger sister who is involved in a romantic entanglement. In this song the brothers are away from home. Recalling the narrative of ‘The One I Love’, the lacunae of this song may be filled in: while the attention of the irresponsible brothers has been diverted, the younger sister has imprudently indulged in a rash liaison with a man who has since left her.

The third couplet introduces a domestic image. Customarily a girl 159learned how to sew and tailor clothes at an early age. Without mentioning the persona of the song, the first three couplets archly suggest her presence. The indirect mode of presentation perfectly suits the song’s content, wittily anticipating the gesture ‘Looks askance slyly’ in the final passage. The typical question and answer formula is carefully manipulated here; the answers are delayed, but they are not complete answers—they raise even more questions. This central passage suggests that the girl is living in someone else’s home, where she is expected to do some work. She fails to do it, either because she cannot, or, more likely, is too lacking in energy to fulfil her daily tasks. The mistress of the house, luckily, sympathizes with the girl and relieves her of her task. The master, however, suspects some trouble and tries to find out what is going on. The girl fends him off, saying, through allusions, that she is as pure as pebbles lying on the bed of a clear stream. This metaphor derives from poem no. 116 of the Book of Poetry, which tells of a girl’s guilty enjoyment of a secret assignation with her lover.28 Perhaps realizing that the master will not catch the allusion, the girl tells him the truth opaquely, so that in the end he is none the wiser. He may even believe that she is referring to her brothers in the last line, hoping they will come home and collect her.

If the narrative of ‘The One I Love’ and the contexts of the Chou poem and myth are referred to as a guide to the elucidation of this Han song, the resultant story begins to have some measure of plausibility. The young brothers of a nubile girl have left home to amuse themselves, somewhat irresponsibly, in the city. Their young sister has been entrusted with a respectable family, perhaps distant relations through the mistress of the house, in the village. The girl is a refined young miss who is not used to performing menial tasks like mending and sewing. Meanwhile, she has dallied with a man and become pregnant. He leaves her for another district. The master of the house suspects that the girl is in trouble, but he has not been told the truth. The sympathetic response of the mistress suggests that she is aware of the girl’s condition. The girl attempts to stop the master from being too inquisitive. If this reconstruction of the story of the song is correct, we are presented with the portrait of a wilful, clever young girl, related to the characterization of the girl of ‘The One I Love’, and to the girl of the Chou anthology.29

Heartache, A Ballad

Shine, shine, white bright moon,

Let gleaming rays lighten my bed.

One in despair cannot sleep,

Restless, restless nights so long. 160

Soft breezes blow the bedroom door,

Silk curtains unmoved flare and drift.

I take my robe trailing its long sash,

Slip into shoes, leave the high hall.

East, west, which way shall I go?

I hesitate and falter.

A spring bird soaring flies south,

Flutters, flutters, circling alone.

Sad its voice calling to its mate,

Mournful cries that wound my guts.

Moved by nature I long for my lover,

Sudden spilling tears drench my coat.

I stand still, spitting out loud sighs.

To soothe my rage I complain to the domed blue.

The setting, imagery, diction, and emotional tone set this song apart from the typical Han popular song. The setting is in a mansion, ‘the high hall’, where someone is in a silk furnished bedroom at night. Compared with the Han repertoire this setting is boldly innovative. The persona is wearing a robe with a long sash and shoes or slippers. The elegance contrasts markedly with the empty clothes-line of ‘East Gate’, the unclothed infants of ‘The Ailing Wife’, and the bare, scratched feet of ‘The Orphan Boy’. The song is dominated by two natural images, the moon and a bird which has lost its mate. The sentimental phrasing is repetitive: ‘in despair’, ‘sad its voice’, ‘mournful cries’, ‘wound’, ‘moved’, ‘sudden spilling tears’, ‘loud sighs’, ‘rage’‚ and ‘complain’. Line 15 relates that the persona is suffering pangs of love (intimated by the bedroom setting) while parted from his or her lover. Although the cause of the emotion is different, the emotional language derives from the Ch’u elegiac mode. The excess of grief is in contrast to the stoicism of the typical Han song. It anticipates the vogue in the late and post-Han for lacrymose sentiment.

The image of the moon became a refined trope in late Han lyricism. In this song only a few of its later connotations are present: it is a spring moon (line 11 specifies the season), it is very bright, a device which allows the singer to describe the room’s interior. The image of the white moon also suggests purity of heart. The trope is decorative, linked as it is with the gentle motion of the bedroom door and the swaying of the silk curtains.

The second major image is a reflection of the narrative of ‘Two White Swans’, or some similar story of a bird which loses its mate. Here the pathos of the loss is accentuated. It represents not so much an analogy of human love as a visual scene before the persona, serving as a device to demonstrate the refined sensibility of the persona and the singer. The response to this scene is extraordinary: a flood of tears, spitting sighs, 161rage, and complaints. If the persona is female, the contrast between her characterization and that of the wife in ‘East Gate’ indicates that this song has moved away from portraying woman as a custodian of domestic virtues to woman as a luxury object of leisure.30


1 Karlgren, The Book of Odes, poem no. 47, stanza 1, line 1; for similar phrases see poem nos. 31, 45, and 58.

2 Ch’en Hang, Notes on Poetic Figures, p. 14, takes chün to mean ‘lord’, and interprets this vow as an allegory of a loyal minister professing his loyalty to the ruler who has wronged him.

3 The metre is irregular: 2–6–5–3–4–4–3–3–5. The text is amenable to other metrical divisions. The text is in Shen, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p, 643, and in Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’, p. 231.

4 Ch’en, id., p. 10, suggests that this song specifically describes the royal tour of the Han Emperor Wu when he went on a pleasure cruise on the Yangtse.

5 The metre is irregular with a central passage of heptasyllabic lines: 5–7–7–7–4–6. The text is in Shen, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p. 643, and in Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’‚ p. 231. See J. P. Diény’s 1990 review article, p. 135.

6 Karlgren, op. cit., p. 13. The usual referrent of the phrase is The Classic of the Way and Its Power, ch. 80: ‘the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing’, denoting an arcadian utopia; see Lau, Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, p. 142, line 193c; but this Han song does not make this allusion.

7 Compare the system of fraternal authority in ‘The Orphan Boy’, and in ‘A Peacock Southeast Flew’, Birrell, New Songs, p. 58. For an earlier reference to this social system see poem no. 76 of the Book of Poetry, Karlgren, id., p. 51, stanza 2, which voices a girl’s fear that her brothers will find out about her illicit lover, Chung Tzu.

8 Ch’en, id., p. 15, says that this is a poem of a resentful and anguished minister who has met with misfortune and has gone into exile. He says that the piece is a text full of hidden meanings.

9 The metre is irregular with a passage of six pentasyllabic lines: 3–5–5–5–5–5–5–3–5–4–4–5–4–5–3–7–7. The text is in Shen, ch. 22, ‘Han Songs for the Nao-bell’ category, p. 642, and Kuo, ch. 16, ‘Words for Drumming and Blowing Pieces, Part 1, Han Songs for the Nao-bell’, p. 230. For other translations see Watson‚ 201The Columbia Book, pp. 80–1, and Frankel, ‘The Relation between Narrator and Characters in Yuèjǔ Ballads’, p. 111.

10 Record of Things Ancient and Modern, SPTK 2.2b. See Joseph R. Allen, In the Voice of Others (1992), pp. 185–87.

11 The metre is tetrasyllabic. The text appears in Kuo, ch. 26, preface to Li Ho’s (AD ?790–816) title ‘The Harp Lay’, p. 377. This is the only extant example of Han lay-yin.

12 The attribution of the song in New Songs from a Jade Terrace, ch. 2, is misleading; it is listed after two pieces by Ts’ao P’ei with the caption, ‘Another Yüeh-fu, Along the Embankment’, the designation ‘Another’, usually signifying that the piece is by the previously listed author; Wen-hsüeh ed., p. 24, Birrell, id., pp. 64–5. Shen Yüeh, ch. 21, pp. 612–13, and Kuo, ch. 35, p. 522, attribute it to Ts’ao Ts’ao. Li Shan notes that some commentators attribute the song to Empress Chen, some to Ts’ao Ts’ao, and others to Ts’ao P’ei. While attributing the long version to Ts’ao, Kuo attributes the short version to an anonymous author of the Han, designating it as pen-tz’u, the original words. K. P. K. Whitaker, ‘Tsaur Jyr’s Luohshern Fuh’ (1954), pp. 44–8, presents another context to the song, citing Wen hsüan, Basic Sinological Series, Vol. 2, ch. 19, pp. 401–02, commentary on ‘Prose Poem, on the Goddess of Lo River’ (Lo-shen fu). Ts’ao Chih, Ts’ao P’ei’s younger brother, had wanted the hand of Lady Chen in marriage, but Ts’ao Ts’ao gave her in marriage to Ts’ao P’ei. Following a slanderous accusation of Empress Kuo, Lady Chen, promoted to the rank of Empress Chen, committed suicide. Ts’ao Chih depicted Lady Chen in his erotic prose poem which he originally entitled ‘Longing for Empress Chen’. Later, Ts’ao Jui, the son of Ts’ao P’ei and Empress Chen, saw this title and changed it to ‘Prose Poem on the Goddess of Lo River’. Whitaker notes that Hu K’e-chia dismisses this tradition as a spurious interpolation by an unknown author.

13 For a résumé of the career of Empress Ch’en, the Han Emperor Wu’s first empress, see Loewe, Crisis and Conflict in Han China, p. 51, and Table 2, facing p. 64.

14 The binome ‘thick and lush’ li-li, is used to describe ripe millet in poem no. 65, Karlgren, id., p.45; it denotes ripeness and at the same time a drooping appearance, from which a psychological heaviness, a drooping despair is implied in that poem. Poem no. 30, Karlgren, id., p. 18, is a girl’s love plaint which ends with the lines: ‘I keep awake and do not sleep;/while longing, I keep yearning (for you.)’ (Karlgren’s explanatory parentheses.)

15 The metre is mostly pentasyllabic. Stanza one: pentasyllabic; stanza two: penta­syllabic except for heptasyllabic last line; stanza three: pentasyllabic; stanza four: first quatrain pentasyllabic, then 5–7–4–5; stanza five: pentasyllabic. The text is arranged in five stanzas of unequal length. The text is in Shen, ch. 21, ‘Ch’ing-Shang Song Poems in Three Modes: Clear-mode’ category, pp. 612–13, and in Kuo, ch. 35, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 10, Clear-mode Pieces, Part 3’, p. 522. Kuo erroneously places this version in a post-Han category.

16 The metre is pentasyllabic, with no stanzaic divisions. The text is in Hsü Ling, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, Wen-hsüeh ed., ch. 2, p. 24, and in Kuo, ch. 35, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 10, Clear-mode Pieces, Part 3’, pp. 522–23. Kuo dates this version as earlier than the long version, an error of judgement.

17 Karlgren, id., poem no. 31, stanza 4, line 4, p. 19; poem no. 47, line 1, p. 31; poem no. 58, stanza 6, line 1, p. 41, for examples of the use of the expression.

18 Compare the woman in ‘The Harp Lay’, above, Lan-chih in ‘A Peacock Southeast Flew’ and the wife of Ch’iu Hu in the narrative by Fu Hsüan, Birrell, New Songs, pp. 61 and 78.

19 Karlgren, id., p. 213, stanza 3, last line.

20 Waley, The Book of Songs, poem no. 24 (his no. 84), last stanza, p. 78.

21 Waley, id., poem no. 171 (his no. 169), stanza 1, p. 178.202

22 The metre is pentasyllabic, except for hexasyllabic line 23; 5 stanzas. Most editors delete ‘five’: ‘Such a crackle, like five horses snapping wicker!’ to make it penta­syllabic to follow the rest of the text, an amendment I have accepted. The text is in Shen Yüeh, ch. 21, ‘Major Pieces’ category, pp. 622–23, and in Kuo, ch. 41, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 16, Ch’u-mode Pieces, Part 1’‚ p. 600. Kuo erroneously dates this text as later than the short version. Diény, Aux origines, pp. 155–61, translates, annotates, and discusses this version of the song. Yü Kuan-ying, Anthology, p. 44, takes the view that the final passage is a salutation from the musicians performing the piece for their host and patron.

23 (Hsi ching tsa chi) attributed to Liu Hsin (d. AD 23) and Ko Hung (c. AD 280–340), SPTK 3.5b. It is not clear to which version of the song title Miscellany refers.

24 In Hsü Ling, New Songs from a Jade Terrace, ch. 1, p. 10 (Wen-hsüeh ed.), this version is listed anonymously under the general title, ‘Six Old Yüeh-fu Poems’, giving as its title the first line.

25 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Hsü Ling, op.cit., ch. 1, p. 10 (Wen-hsüeh ed.), and in Kuo, ch. 41, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 16, Ch’u-mode Pieces, Part 1’‚ p. 600. Kuo erroneously dates this text as the original Han version.

26 Karlgren, id.‚ pp. 16–7.

27 Hawkes, Ch’u Tzu, ‘Encountering Sorrow’, p. 30, line 119, and n. 1. The girl was the daughter of the Lord of Sung who became the ancestress of the Shang, named Chien Ti. When Chien Ti was imprisoned in a tower, the God Ti K’u, the First Ancestor of the Shang, sent her a swallow and she became pregnant by eating its egg.

28 Karlgren, id., p. 75, stanza 1: ‘In the stirred waters/the white stones are (rinsed clean =) shining;/ with white robe and red collar/ I follow you to Wu;/ when I have seen my lord,/ how should I not be happy?’ (Karlgren’s interpretations.)

29 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Hsü Ling, id., ch. 1, p. 10 (Wen-hsüeh ed.), under the general title ‘Six Old Yüeh-fu Poems’, and in Kuo, ch. 39, ‘Words for Concerted Songs, Part 14, Zither-mode Pieces, Part 4’‚ p. 579. At the end of the text in Hsü Ling’s anthology the title Yen ko hsing, ‘A Yen Song, A Ballad’, is appended—the same title as in Kuo. For a different interpretation, see Diény, op. cit.‚ p. 138.

30 The metre is pentasyllabic. The text is in Anthology of Literature (Wen hsüan), SPTK 27.21a–b, listed as an anonymous old text. It is also in New Songs from a jade Terrace, ch. 2, p. 27 (Wen-hsüeh ed.), attributed to Ts’ao Jui, Emperor Ming of the Wei Dynasty (AD 204–239); and in Kuo, ch. 62, ‘Song-texts for Miscellaneous Pieces, Part 2’, p. 897, listed as an anonymous old (Han) text. The text in Hsü Ling’s anthology omits the last couplet, which both Wen hsüan and Kuo retain. The text of the song is so similar to the pentasyllabic poem no. 19 of the ‘Nineteen Old Poems’ that it is worth reproducing that text here for comparison:

Bright moon white, so white

Shines on my silk bedcurtains.

In sad despair I cannot sleep,

I take my robe, get up and pace.

To travel, they say, is pleasant, But not as good as soon going home.

I go outside, stroll in solitude.

My sad longing to whom can I tell?

I lean forward, go back to my room,

Tears fall soaking my robe.

(From Birrell, id., p. 40; see the translation and discussion of this old poem in Diény, Les dix-neuf poèmes anciens, pp. 45, 154–57.) 203

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