POETRY - The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Han dynasty (B.C. 200-A.D. 200)

AT the beginning of the second century B.C., poetry was still composed on the model of the Li Sao, and we are in possession of a number of works assigned to Chia I (B.C. 199-168), Tung-fang So (b. B.C. 160), Liu Hsiang, and others, all of which follow on the lines of Ch'ü Yüan's great poem. But gradually, with the more definite establishment of what we may call classical influence, poets went back to find their exemplars in the Book of Poetry, which came as it were from the very hand of Confucius himself. Poems were written in metres of four, five, and seven words to a line. Ssŭ-ma Hsiang-ju (d. B.C. 117), a gay Lothario who eloped with a young widow, made such a name with his verses that he was summoned to Court, and appointed by the Emperor to high office. His poems, however, have not survived.

MEI SHÊNG (D. B.C. 140), who formed his style on Ssŭ-ma, has the honour of being the first to bring home to his fellow-countrymen the extreme beauty of the five-word metre. From him modern poetry may be said to date. Many specimens of his workmanship are extant:—

(1.) "Green grows the grass upon the bank,

The willow-shoots are long and lank;

A lady in a glistening gown

Opens the casement and looks down

The roses on her cheek blush bright,

Her rounded arm is dazzling while;

A singing-girl in early life,

And now a careless roue's wife… .

Ah, if he does not mind his own,

He'll find some day the bird has flown!"

(2.) "The red hibiscus and the reed,

The fragrant flowers of marsh and mead,

All these I gather as I stray,

As though for one now far away.

I strive to pierce with straining eyes

The distance that between us lies.

Alas that hearts which beat as one

Should thus be parted and undone!"

LIU HÊNG (d. B.C. 157) was the son by a concubine of the founder of the Han dynasty, and succeeded in B.C. 180 as fourth Emperor of the line. For over twenty years he ruled wisely and well. He is one of the twenty-four classical examples of filial piety, having waited on his sick mother for three years without changing his clothes. He was a scholar, and was canonised after death by a title which may fairly be rendered "Beauclerc." The following is a poem which he wrote on the death of his illustrious father, who, if we can accept as genuine the remains attributed to him, was himself also a poet:—

"I look up, the curtains are there as of yore;

I look down, and there is the mat on the floor;

These things I behold, but the man is no more.

"To the infinite azure his spirit has flown,

And I am left friendless, uncared-for, alone,

Of solace bereft, save to weep and to moan.

"The deer on the hillside caressingly bleat,

And offer the grass for their young ones to eat,

While birds of the air to their nestlings bring meat

"But I a poor orphan must ever remain,

My heart, still so young, overburdened with pain

For him I shall never set eyes on again.

"'Tis a well-worn old saying, which all men allow,

That grief stamps the deepest of lines on the brow:

Alas for my hair, it is silvery now!

"Alas for my father, cut off in his pride!

Alas that no more I may stand by his side!

Oh, where were the gods when that great hero died?"

The literary fame of the Beauclerc was rivalled, if not surpassed, by his grandson, LIU CH'Ê (B.C. 156-87), who succeeded in B.C. 140 as sixth Emperor of the Han dynasty. He was an enthusiastic patron of literature. He devoted great attention to music as a factor in national life. He established important religious sacrifices to heaven and earth. He caused the calendar to be reformed by his grand astrologer, the historian Ssŭ-MA CH'IEN, from which date accurate chronology may be almost said to begin. His generals carried the Imperial arms into Central Asia, and for many years the Huns were held in check. Notwithstanding his enlightened policy, the Emperor was personally much taken up with the magic and mysteries which were being gradually grafted on to the Tao of Lao Tzŭ, and he encouraged the numerous quacks who pretended to have discovered the elixir of life. The following are specimens of his skill in poetry:—

"The autumn blast drives the white scud in the sky,

Leaves fade, and wild geese sweeping south meet the eye;

The scent of late flowers fills the soft air above,

My heart full of thoughts of the lady I love.

In the river the barges for revel-carouse

Are lined by white waves which break over their bows;

Their oarsmen keep time to the piping and drumming… .

Yet joy is as naught

Alloyed by the thought

That youth slips away and that old age is coming:"

The next lines were written upon the death of a harem favourite, to whom he was fondly attached: —

"The sound of rustling silk is stilled,

With dust the marble courtyard filled;

No footfalls echo on the floor,

Fallen leaves in heaps block up the door… .

For she, my pride, my lovely one, is lost,

And I am left, in hopeless anguish tossed."

A good many anonymous poems have come down to us from the first century B.C., and some of these contain here and there quaint and pleasing conceits, as, for instance—

"Man reaches scarce a hundred, yet his tears

Would fill a lifetime of a thousand years"

The following is a poem of this period, the author of which is unknown:—

"Forth from the eastern gate my steeds I drive,

And lo! a cemetery meets my view;

Aspens around in wild luxuriance thrive,

The road is fringed with fir and pine and yew.

Beneath my feet lie the forgotten dead,

Wrapped in a twilight of eternal gloom;

Down by the Yellow Springs their earthy bed,

And everlasting silence is their doom.

How fast the. lights and shadows come and go!

Like morning dew our fleeting life has passed;

Man, a poor traveller on earth below,

Is gone, while brass and stone can still outlast.

Time is inexorable, and in vain

Against his might the holiest mortal strives;

Can we then hope this precious boon to gain,

By strange elixirs to prolong our lives? …

Oh, rather quaff good liquor while we may,

And dress in silk and satin every day!"

Women now begin to appear in Chinese literature. The Lady PAN was for a long time chief favourite of the Emperor who ruled China B.C. 32-6. So devoted was his Majesty that he even wished her to appear alongside of him in the Imperial chariot. Upon which she replied, "Your handmaid has heard that wise rulers of old were always accompanied by virtuous ministers, but never that they drove out with women by their side." She was ultimately supplanted by a younger and more beautiful rival, whereupon she forwarded to the Emperor one of those fans, round or octagonal frames of bamboo with silk stretched over them,1 which in this country are called "lire-screens," inscribed with the following lines:—

"O fair white silk, fresh from the weaver's loom,

Clear as the frost, bright as the winter snow—

See! friendship fashions out of thee a fan,

Round as the round moon shines in heaven above,

At home, abroad, a close companion thou,

Stirring at every move the grateful gale.

And yet I fear, ah me! that autumn chills,

Cooling the dying summer's torrid rage,

Will see thee laid neglected on the shelf,

All thought of bygone days, like them bygone."

The phrase "autumn fan" has long since passed into the language, and is used figuratively of a deserted wife.


1 The folding fan, invented by the Japanese, was not known in China until the eleventh century A.D., when it was introduced through Korea.