POETRY - The Sung Dynasty (A.D. 900-1200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Sung Dynasty (A.D. 900-1200)

THE poetry of the Sungs has not attracted so much attention as that of the T'angs. This is chiefly due to the fact that although all the literary men of the Sung dynasty may roughly be said to have contributed their quota of verse, still there were few, if any, who could be ranked as professional poets, that is, as writers of verse and of nothing else, like Li Po, Tu Fu, and many others under the T'ang dynasty. Poetry now began to be, what it has remained in a marked degree until the present day, a department of polite education, irrespective of the particle of the divine gale. More regard was paid to form, and the license which had been accorded to earlier masters was sacrificed to conventionality. The Odes collected by Confucius are, as we have seen, rude ballads of love, and war, and tilth, borne by their very simplicity direct to the human heart. The poetry of the T'ang dynasty shows a masterly combination, in which art, unseen, is employed to enhance, not to fetter and degrade, thoughts drawn from a veritable communion with nature. With the fall of the T'ang dynasty the poetic art suffered a lapse from which it has never recovered; and now, in modern times, although every student "can turn a verse" because he has been "duly taught," the poems produced disclose a naked artificiality which leaves the reader disappointed and cold.

The poet CH'ÊN T'UAN (d. A.D. 989) began life under favourable auspices. He was suckled by a mysterious lady in a green robe, who found him playing as a tiny child on the bank of a river. He became, in consequence of this supernatural nourishment, exceedingly clever and possessed of a prodigious memory, with a happy knack for verse. Yet he failed to get a degree, and gave himself up "to the joys of hill and stream." While on the mountains some spiritual beings are said to have taught him the art of hibernating like an animal, so that he would go off to sleep for a hundred days at a time. He wrote a treatise on the elixir of life, and was generally inclined to Taoist notions. At death his body remained warm for seven days, and for a whole month a "glory" played around his tomb. He was summoned several times to Court, but to judge by the following poem, officialdom seems to have had few charms for him:—

"For ten long years I plodded through

the vale of lust and strife,

Then through my dreams there flashed a ray

of the old sweet peaceful life… .

No scarlet-tasselled hat of state

can vie with soft repose;

Grand mansions do not taste the joys

that the poor man's cabin knows.

I hate the threatening clash of arms

when fierce retainers throng,

I loathe the drunkard's revels and

the sound of fife and song;

But I love to seek a quiet nook, and

some old volume bring

Where I can see the wild flowers bloom

and hear the birds in spring."

Another poet, YANG I (974-1030), was unable to speak as a child, until one day, being taken to the top of a pagoda, he suddenly burst out with the following lines:—

"Upon this tall pagoda's peak

My hand can nigh the stars enclose;

I dare not raise my voice to speak,

For fear of startling God's repose."

Mention has already been made of SHAO YUNG (1011-1077) in connection with Chu Hsi and classical scholarship. He was a great traveller, and an enthusiast in the cause of learning. He denied himself a stove in winter and a fan in summer. For thirty years he did not use a pillow, nor had he even a mat to sleep on. The following specimen of his verse seems, however, to belie his character as an ascetic:—

"Fair flowers from above in my goblet are shining,

And add by reflection an infinite zest;

Through two generations I've lived unrepining,

While four mighty rulers have sunk to their rest.

"My body in health has done nothing to spite me,

And sweet are the moments which pass o'er my head;

But now, with this wine and these flowers to delight me,

How shall I keep sober and get home to bed?"

Shao Yung was a great authority on natural phenomena, the explanation of which he deduced from principles found in the Book of Changes. On one occasion he was strolling about with some friends when he heard the goatsucker's cry. He immediately became depressed, and said, "When good government is about to prevail, the magnetic current flows from north to south; when bad government is about to prevail, it flows from south to north, and birds feel its influence first of all things. Now hitherto this bird has not been seen at Lo-yang; from which I infer that the magnetic current is flowing from south to north, and that some southerner is coming into power, with manifold consequences to the State." The subsequent appearance of Wang An-shih was regarded as a verification of his skill.

The great reformer here mentioned found time, amid the cares of his economic revolution, to indulge in poetical composition. Here is his account of a nuit blanche, an excellent example of the difficult "stop-short:"—

"The incense-stick is burnt to ash,

the water-clock is stilled,

The midnight breeze blows sharply by,

and all around is chilled.

"Yet I am kept from slumber

by the beauty of the spring …

Sweet shapes of flowers across the blind

the quivering moonbeams fling!"

Here, too, is a short poem by the classical scholar, Huang T'ing-chien, written on the annual visit for worship at the tombs of ancestors, in full view of the hillside cemetery:—

"The peach and plum trees smile with flowers

this famous day of spring,

And country graveyards round about

with lamentations ring.

Thunder has startled insect life

and roused the gnats and bees,

A gentle rain has urged the crops

and soothed the flowers and trees… .

Perhaps on this side lie the bones

of a wretch whom no one knows;

On that, the sacred ashes

of a patriot repose.

But who across the centuries

can hope to mark each spot

Where fool and hero, joined in death,

beneath the brambles rot? "

The grave student Ch'êng Hao wrote verses like the rest. Sometimes he even condescended to jest:—

"I wander north, I wander south,

I rest me where I please… .

See how the river-banks are nipped

beneath the autumn breeze!

Yet what care I if autumn blasts

the river-banks lay bare?

The loss of hue to river-banks

is the river-banks' affair."

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries HUNG CHÜEH-FAN made a name for himself as a poet and calligraphist, but he finally yielded to the fascination of Buddhism and took orders as a priest. This is no trifling ordeal. From three to nine pastilles are placed upon the shaven scalp of the candidate, and are allowed to burn down into the flesh, leaving an indelible scar. Here is a poem by him, written probably before monasticism had damped his natural ardour:—

"Two green silk ropes, with painted stand,

from heights aerial swing,

And there outside the house a maid

disports herself in spring.

Along the ground her blood-red skirts

all swiftly swishing fly,

As though to bear her off to be

an angel in the sky.

Strewed thick with fluttering almond-blooms

the painted stand is seen;

The embroidered ropes flit to and fro

amid the willow green.

Then when she stops and out she springs

to stand with downcast eyes,

You think she is some angel

just now banished from the skies."

Better known as a statesman than as a poet is YEH SHIH (1150-1223). The following "stop-short," however, referring to the entrance-gate to a beautiful park, is ranked among the best of its kind:—

"'Tis closed!—lest trampling footsteps mar

the glory of the green.

Time after time we knock and knock;

no janitor is seen.

Yet bolts and bars can't quite shut in

the spring-time's beauteous pall:

A pink-flowered almond-spray peeps out

athwart the envious wall!"

Of KAO CHÜ-NIEN nothing seems to be known. His poem on the annual spring worship at the tombs of ancestors is to be found in all collections:—

"The northern and the southern hills

are one large burying-ground,

And all is life and bustle there

when the sacred day comes round.

Burnt paper cash, like butterflies,

fly fluttering far and wide,

While mourners' robes with tears of blood

a crimson hue are dyed.

The sun sets, and the red fox crouches

down beside the tomb;

Night comes, and youths and maidens laugh

where lamps light up the gloom.

Let him whose fortune brings him wine,

get tipsy while he may,

For no man, when the long night comes,

can take one drop away!"