POETRY - The Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Ming dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644)

THOUGH the poetry of the Ming dynasty shows little falling off, in point of mere volume, there are far fewer great poets to be found than under the famous Houses of T'ang and Sung. The name, however, which stands first in point of chronological sequence, is one which is widely known. HSIEH CHIN(1369-1415) was born when the dynasty was but a year old, and took his final degree before he had passed the age of twenty. His precocity had already gained for him the reputation of being an Inspired Boy, and, later on, the Emperor took such a fancy to him, that while Hsieh Chin was engaged in writing, his Majesty would often deign to hold the ink-slab. He was President of the Commission which produced the huge encyclopædia already described, but he is now chiefly known as the author of what appears to be a didactic poem of about 150 lines, which may be picked up at any bookstall. It is necessary to say "about 150 lines," since no two editions give identically the same number of lines, or even the same text to each line. It is also very doubtful if Hsieh Chin actually wrote such a poem. In many editions, lines are boldly stolen from the early Han poetry and pitchforked in without rhyme or reason, thus making the transitions even more awkward than they otherwise would be. All editors seem to be agreed upon the four opening lines, which state that the Son of Heaven holds heroes in high esteem, that his Majesty urges all to study diligently, and that everything in this world is second-class, with the sole exception of book-learning. It is in fact the old story that

"Learning is better than house or land;

For when house and land are gone and spent,

Then learning is most excellent"

Farther on we come to four lines often quoted as enumerating the four greatest happinesses in life, to wit,

"A gentle rain after long drought,

Meeting an old friend in a foreign clime,

The joys of the wedding-day,

One's name on the list of successful candidates."

The above lines occur à propos of nothing in particular, and are closely followed in some editions by more precepts on the subject of earnest application. Then after reading that the Classics are the best fields to cultivate, we come upon four lines with a dash of real poetry in them:—

"Man in his youth-time's rosy glow,

The pink peach flowering in the glade … .

Why, yearly, when spring breezes blow,

Does each one flush a deeper shade? "

More injunctions to burn the midnight oil are again strangely followed by a suggestion that three cups of wine induce serenity of mind, and that if a man is but dead drunk, all his cares disappear, which is only another way of saying that

"The best of life is but intoxication"

Altogether, this poem is clearly a patchwork, of which some parts may have come from Hsieh Chin's pen. Here is a short poem of his in defence of official venality, about which there is no doubt:—

"In vain hands bent on sacrifice

or clasped in prayer we see;

The ways of God are not exactly

what those ways should be.

The swindler and the ruffian

lead pleasant lives enough,

While judgments overtake the good

and many a sharp rebuff.

The swaggering bully stalks along

as blithely as you please,

While those who never miss their prayers

are martyrs to disease.

And if great God Almighty fails

to keep the balance true,

What can we hope that paltry

mortal magistrates will do? "

The writer came to a tragic end. By supporting the claim of the eldest prince to be named heir apparent, he made a lasting enemy of another son, who succeeded in getting him banished on one charge, and then imprisoned on a further charge. After four years' confinement he was made drunk, probably without much difficulty, and was buried under a heap of snow.

The Emperor who reigned between 1522 and 1566 as the eleventh of his line was not a very estimable personage, especially in the latter years of his life, when he spent vast sums over palaces and temples, and wasted most of his time in seeking after the elixir of life. In 1539 he despatched General Mao to put down a rising in Annam, and gave him an autograph poem as a send-off. The verses are considered spirited by Chinese critics, and are frequently given in collections, which certainly would not be the case if Imperial authorship was their only claim:—

"Southward, in all the panoply

of cruel war arrayed,

See, our heroic general points

and waves his glittering blade!

Across the hills and streams

the lizard-drums terrific roll,

While glint of myriad banners

flashes high from pole to pole… .

Go, scion of the Unicorn,

and prove thy heavenly birth,

And crush to all eternity

these insects of the earth;

And when thou com'st, a conqueror,

from those wild barbarian lands,

WE will unhitch thy war-cloak

with our own Imperial hands!"

The courtesans of ancient and mediæval China formed a class which now seems no longer to exist. Like the hetairœ of Greece, they were often highly educated, and exercised considerable influence. Biographies of the most famous of these ladies are in existence, extending back to the seventh century A.D. The following is an extract from that of Hsieh Su-su, who flourished in the fourteenth century, and "with whom but few of the beauties of old could compare":—

"Su-su's beauty was of a most refined style, with a captivating sweetness of voice and grace of movement. She was a skilful artist, sweeping the paper with a few rapid touches, which produced such speaking effects that few, even of the first rank, could hope to excel her work. She was a fine horsewoman, and could shoot from horseback with a cross-bow. She would fire one pellet, and then a second, which would catch up the first and smash it to atoms in mid-air. Or she would throw a pellet on to the ground, and then grasping the crossbow in her left hand, with her right hand passed behind her back, she would let fly and hit it, not missing once in a hundred times. She was also very particular about her friends, receiving no one unless by his talents he had made some mark in the world."

The poetical effusions, and even plays, of many of these ladies have been carefully preserved, and are usually published as a supplement to any dynastic collection. Here is a specimen by CHAO TS'AI-CHI (fifteenth century), of whom no biography is extant:—

"The tide in the river beginning to rise,

Near the sad hour of parting, brings tears to our eyes;

Alas I that these furlongs of willow-strings gay

Cannot hold fast the boat that will soon be away!"

Another specimen, by a lady named CHAO LI-HUA (sixteenth century), contains an attempt at a pun, which is rather lamely brought out in the translation:—

"Your notes on paper, rare to see,

Two flying joy-birds bear;1

Be like the birds and fly to me,

Not like the paper, rare!"

These examples sufficiently illustrate this small department of literature, which, if deficient in work of real merit, at any rate contains nothing of an indelicate character.

A wild harum-scarum young man was FANG SHU-SHAO, who, like many other Chinese poets, often took more wine than was good for him. He was famed for his poetry, and also for his calligraphy, specimens of his art being highly prized by collectors. In 1642, we are told, "he was ill with his teeth;" and at length got into his coffin, which all Chinese like to keep handy, and wrote a farewell to the world, resting his paper on the edge of the coffin as he wrote. On completion of the piece he laid himself down and died. Here are the lines:—

"An eternal home awaits me;

shall I hesitate to go?

Or struggle for a few more hours

of fleeting life below?

A home wherein the clash of arms

I can never hear again!

And shall I strive to linger

in this thorny world of pain?

The breeze will soon blow cool o'er me,

and the bright moon shine o'erhead,

When blended with the gems of earth

I lie in my last bed.

My pen and ink shall go with me

inside my funeral hearse,

So that if I've leisure 'over there'

I may soothe my soul with verse."


1 Chinese note-paper is ornamented with all kinds of pictures, which sometimes cover the whole sheet.