Wang Kuo-wei's Song Lyrics in the Light of His Own Theories
Over the past few years I have come to a new understanding of Wang Kuo-wei's (1827–1927) profound and often cryptic pronouncements about what makes the song lyric (tz'u ) such a distinctive form of poetry in China. In this essay I propose to apply his critical insights to the songs he himself wrote. I will begin by stating briefly the results of two papers I have previously published on the subject and will then proceed with a detailed analysis of four song lyrics.
The Three Levels of Ching-Chieh
In his Jen-chien tz'u-hua Wang Kuo-wei uses the crucial term ching-chieh in three distinct ways: as a term referring to the "setting" or "content" of a poem, as a critical term applicable to poetry generally, and as a critical term applying uniquely to tz'u . In its first and most obvious use, the phrase refers to the setting presented in the poem, as when Wang writes, "There is the scene [ching-chieh ] as perceived by the poet, and then there is the scene perceived by the ordinary man"; as an example
I wish to acknowledge here the help of Professor James R. Hightower in preparing the English-language version of this essay. I should also like to express my gratitude to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for giving me a grant to go to Cambridge to conduct my work on it.
of a scene borrowed from an earlier poet for incorporation into one's own poem, he then cites a couplet by Chia Tao (793–865),
The autumn wind blows across the Wei River,
falling leaves fill Ch'ang-an,
and comments that by adapting this passage in their songs, Chou Pang-yen (1056–1121) and Pai P'u (1226–?) had "borrowed the setting [ching-chieh ] from an older poet and made it their own." Chou Pang-yen's song reads:
Over the Wei River, the west wind,
in Ch'ang-an, flying leaves—
in vain I remember.
And Pai P'u wrote:
I hear the falling leaves in the west wind over the Wei River.
And again in an aria:
Desolate for my native land—
the west wind on the Wei River,
the setting sun over Ch'ang-an.
The autumnal scene, the same in all these verses, is what the later poets borrowed: the Wei River, Ch'ang-an, and the west wind.
On the next level Wang expands the meaning of ching-chieh as "scene" to include the feeling the scene conveys, its emotional coloration—and thereby injects a value judgment into its use, making of it a critical
term: it is no longer a neutral but a particular kind of scene that is deserving of the label ching-chieh . He writes: "Ching-chieh refers not only to external scenes; the emotions—joy, anger, grief, pleasure—are also a ching-chieh of the human heart. So it can be said of someone who can portray true scenes and true feelings that he achieves ching-chieh ." The condition demanded here, that the scenes be true scenes and the feelings true feelings, makes the achievement of ching-chieh the prerogative of the poet; simply borrowing another poet's scene is not enough: "If you don't have ching-chieh yourself, the old poets will be of no use to you." Nor, furthermore, can the mere scenes of the external world—birdsong, running water, the blossoming of flowers, the movement of the clouds—of themselves be termed ching-chieh before they have been encompassed by the poet's sensitivity or capacity for feeling.
Wang Kuo-wei applied ching-chieh in this sense of a particular, desirable quality of scene in judging shih poetry as well as tz'u . He writes, "There are settings [ching-chieh ] on differing scales, but the scale of a setting does not determine its value," and provides some examples:
With fine rain the little fish appear,
swallows dip in the gentle breeze.
This is in no way inferior to
The setting sun lights up the great banner,
horses neigh in the soughing wind.
The costly curtain hangs limp from the little silver hook.
And it is just as good as
Mist hides the storied tower,
In the moonlight we fail to find the ferry.
Since Wang uses lines of shih poetry by Tu Fu and verses from Ch'in Kuan's songs, it follows that ching-chieh as setting can apply equally to shih and tz'u , as well as functioning as a criterion for a value judgment.
Furthermore, among possible scenes he also distinguishes "invented scene" (tsao-ching ) from "described scene" (hsieh-ching ); scenes involving the poet (yu wo ) and scenes from which the poet remains detached (wu wo ); "ideal scenes" (li-hsiang ) and "real scenes" (hsieh-shih ). "Described scenes" and "invented scenes" refer to the provenance of the poet's material. Scenes "involving the poet" or "from which he remains detached" refer to the relation of the poet's persona to the episode in the poem. "Ideal scene" and "real scene" are simply refinements of invented scene and described scene. Although what a described scene portrays belongs to an actual situation, once written in a poem it is no longer subject to the limitations of reality; and although an invented scene is not an actual situation, still its structure and the materials of which it is put together must accord with reality. Thus, Wang could write in the context of his use of those terms, "The scenes created by a great poet are all in accord with the natural, and the scenes he describes also approach the ideal."
A third level of ching-chieh that is even more vital to a deeper understanding of his art is discussed in the following statements from Wang's Jen-chien tz'u-hua :
The essence of tz'u is in a subtle and refined beauty [yao-miao i-hsiu ] that makes it possible to say what cannot be said in shih and yet keeps tz'u from being able to say everything shih can say. The realm of shih is wide; the language of tz'u is far-reaching.
Whether tz'u is refined or vulgar depends on the spirit, not what appears on the surface. The songs of Ou-yang Hsiu and Ch'in Kuan may contain erotic language, but they remain decent.
The contrast between "refined" (ya ) and "vulgar" (Cheng ) refers to Confucius' characterization of a section of the Shih-ching (Book of songs)—"The songs of Cheng . . . are licentious"—and means that qualification of a love song as "refined" depends on whether it can be read as something more than what it seems to be. This third level moves from emphasis on a standard of genuine feeling and scene to the profoundly subtle and refined beauty achieved through suggestion and association beyond the surface of the things and feelings directly portrayed. This evocative beauty is a special characteristic of the song lyric.
In its three aspects, then, Wang Kuo-wei's ching-chieh applies to the feelings aroused by the song lyric, but it cannot be said that these are deliberately or even consciously invoked by the poet; rather, they are a product of the rich suggestive power created in the poem. Most of the erotic songs of the Five Dynasties lack this power, and these Wang Kuo-wei simply disregards. It is precisely this quality of latent suggestive power, I believe, that he is referring to when he writes, "The best songs have ching-chieh . A song with ching-chieh automatically belongs to the highest category and will have memorable lines as a matter of course."
The Three Categories of the Song Lyric
Tz'u possessing the refined and subtle beauty of ching-chieh can be found in any of the three general categories of the song lyric. The first category is composed of real song words, written by poets as words for tunes, with no intention of expressing their own feelings. Sometimes, however, these short songs (hsiao-ling ) written for amusement will inadvertently reveal the essential nature of the poet's mind as shaped by his personality and experience, resulting in that refined, subtle beauty Wang Kuo-wei found in such songs.
The second category contains those song lyrics no longer written to be sung, being rather poems in song form. These, poets were consciously using as vehicles for self-expression, but they too could achieve a refined, subtle beauty through the depth and complexity of their poetic inspiration (ch'ing-chih ) and the suggestiveness or ramifications of their procedure (fang-shih ); even though written as self-expression, the subtle beauty is still present.
The third category consists of those tz'u that have taken on the manner of rhapsody (fu ), where the poet is deliberately working toward an
elaborate structure, an architectonic design. And in these enigmatic and expository compositions there can also be a subtle, refined beauty.
These three categories are distinguished by the attitude of the poet toward his composition. From the point of view of the critic we need to know what to look for to determine whether the poet has achieved this beauty. Chang Hui-yen (1761–1802) can be taken as representative of one method, which looks for code words (yü-ma ) and associated events to construct moralizing interpretations about the author's intentions and the theme of the poem. Wang Kuo-wei is representative of the other kind of critic, for he relies chiefly on the nature of the feeling conveyed by the poem, and from what that suggests he provides a sort of virtuoso elaboration. His method is most successful when applied to songs of the first category, and Chang Hui-yen's method works best on the third category.
In considering the content of Wang Kuo-wei's songs we must draw upon what we know of his emotional nature and, like Chang Hui-yen, look for code words and items of personal history. This requires a glance at the chronology of Wang's poems, to relate them to the events of his life and to the development of his character and ideas. Only 115 of his songs are extant, twenty-three of them published in 1917, and the remainder in posthumous collections of his works. However, most of them were written between 1905 and 1909, the period during which he was preoccupied with tz'u composition; very few were written after that time.
Wang Kuo-wei was by nature both intellectual and passionate, a combination that enabled him to excel in scholarship, but which also made him vulnerable in the practical world to a conflict between intellect and feeling from which he could not extricate himself. He thus occupied himself with tz'u , hoping to find in poetry comfort for the pain this conflict caused him. This conflict in temperament and this motive for writing song lyrics is the first thing we should look for in considering the content of Wang's songs.
The second is his naturally pessimistic temperament. He said of himself: "Physically weak, by nature melancholy—I am continually confronted with the problem of human existence." Not surprisingly, therefore, when first encountering Western thought, he was strongly attracted to the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Inspired by Schopenhauer's theory of genius and melancholy, he wrote in his essay "Schopenhauer and Nietzche" ("Shu-pen-hua yü Ni-ts'ai"):
Genius is begrudged by Heaven and a disaster to the individual. Ignorant people eat when they are hungry and drink when thirsty. They grow old and raise their sons to carry on their wishes, and that is all. . . . The man of genius has the same disabilities as others, but is alone in being able to perceive wherein those disabilities lie. He and ignorant people are alike alive, but he is alone in questioning the reason for life.
And in his "Essay on the Dream of Red Mansions " ("Hung-lou meng p'ing-lun"), where he discusses expectations and disappointments in human life, he observed:
What is the nature of life? It is simply desire. It is the nature of desire to be insatiable. It arises in a lack, and the state of lack is pain. Fulfill a desire, and that desire is done, but only that one desire has been satisfied, with tens and hundreds of others left unsatisfied. One desire has been fulfilled and all the others are there to follow, so no final satisfaction is possible.
It was in this melancholic, pessimistic state of mind that Wang Kuo-wei wrote his "Essay on Human Nature" ("Lun hsing"), "An Interpretation of Reason" ("Shih li"), and "Essay on Destiny" ("Yüan ming"), seeking for an answer to the riddle of human life and human nature. And what answers did he come up with? He concluded that there is a constant struggle between good and evil in human nature, that reason is of
no use in propelling human nature toward good, nor does it provide a criterion for conduct. In the essay on destiny he concluded that wealth and longevity are determined by fate; likewise, that fate decides whether a man is good or evil, worthy or unworthy. Looking at the human world in such terms, Wang Kuo-wei found no hope for salvation from evil and pain. It is this pessimism and melancholy that we will find embodied in Wang's songs.
A third distinctive trait of character is his tenacity in the pursuit of an ideal. Throughout his life he had only contempt for profit and despised the pursuit of worldly success, again influenced by Schopenhauer's account of the man of genius. On the contrast between the common man and the man of genius Wang wrote, "The true value of the highest form of intelligence lies not in the practical but in the theoretical, in the subjective, not in the objective: it concentrates all its strength on seeking out the truth and making it manifest. He will sacrifice his whole life's happiness and die for his objective goal, unable to deviate in the least degree, however much he might wish to." Such tenacity in the pursuit of the ideal would naturally also manifest itself in his songs.
We should also take into account the events of his personal life during the short period when he was writing his songs. First, his father died in the seventh month of 1906, when Wang had gone to Peking to work in the Department of Education (hsüeh-pu ) with Lo Chen-yü. He immediately returned to his hometown for the funeral. The next summer his wife fell gravely ill, and he again returned home, arriving only ten days before her death. One can imagine his shock and grief at losing both his father and wife in such a short time. And only half a year later, in January 1908, his foster mother died after a month's illness; again he hastened back home for the funeral. This series of deaths in the family naturally cast a shadow over his poetry and contributed yet another element to their emotional background that we cannot ignore.
Simple Descriptive Scenes in Song Lyrics
I will begin with examples of straightforward description of nature, where direct observation underlies the scene presented. Wang Kuo-wei wrote few poems of pure description, and these are the weakest of his lyrics. For example, one to the tune "Paint the Lips Red" ("Tien chiang ch'un"):
Waves chase the flowing clouds,
the boatman's song recedes across the waves.
The notes blend with the oars
and enter the reed-grown bank.
The setting sun strikes the flowing water.
A few dots of idle sea gulls
into the innumerable reeds and rushes
whisper in the breeze.
To the tune "Sands of the Washing Stream" ("Huan hsi sha"):
The boat follows the clear stream, turn after turn.
Drooping willows open up for a sight of green hills—
cascading green locks covering the misty hairknot.
To the same tune:
The road twists, the peaks turn as you leave Painted Pond.
A whole mountain of maple leaves reflects the dying sun.
As you look, it's not at all like an autumn scene.
All these verses effectively portray the beauty of a natural scene and qualify as examples of Wang's "described scenery." There are other examples of scenes that are actual but have nothing to do with natural
scenery, being concerned rather with real-life situations. This lyric to the tune "Bodhisattva Barbarian" ("P'u-sa-man"), for instance, portrays a dinner at which the waitress prepares and serves grilled mutton:
On a jade platter tender onion shoots cut up,
a serving of thin-sliced shoulder of mutton—
I would not want to refuse it as too strong
since you prepared it with your own hands.
The glowing grill reddens your white face.
Drunk, I loosen my fur coat.
I'm still a bit wild on the way home,
treading night frost on the capital boulevard.
Another such lyric is written to the tune "Sands of the Washing Stream":
The thin silk like water does not hold in the fragrance,
the golden waves just now engulf the little winding corridors:
thick clumps of chrysanthemums already deep yellow.
Away with the painted lamp, welcome the unadorned moon
to bring out the flower radiance in her face.
Where in our world is there any harsh frost?
These songs all contain lively, vivid description, but none of them carries any deeper meaning. They belong to the category of described (i.e., not invented) scenes treated realistically and with genuine feeling without, however, revealing anything of their author's character or
philosophy. If all he had written were like the songs just quoted above, he certainly would not have the place alongside his predecessors to which he laid claim, and we must go beyond these to discover songs in which he actually did surpass the ancients.
Poem No. 1—
Symbolic Dimensions of the Natural Scene
It is in their intellectual content and the way that content is presented, the interaction between content and form, that the essential character of Wang Kuo-wei's songs appears. In all of his best songs, whether descriptive or narrative or purely lyrical, there is always hidden a subtle idea, characteristic of the third level of his ching-chieh theory. This can be demonstrated in the following example, to the tune "Sands of the Washing Stream":
In the moonlight I saw the perched crows as leaves.
When I opened the window, they fell fluttering from the branches.
The frosty sky was high, the wind still, as alone I leaned on the rail.
Trying for a line, a gut feeling is still there.
I close the book and weep fruitless tears.
For whom, alas, does my belt grow loose?
In the first four words of the first line Wang is describing a perfectly ordinary scene that could be there in front of him, but as soon as he adds "I perceived them as leaves," it takes on the tone of a symbolical or imagined scene. This comes from the implication that the tree outside his window has already lost its leaves, and the crows have taken refuge there in the cold, moonlit winter night—a scene of chill and solitude. But the poet has at first perversely wanted to take these roosting crows, appropriate to a winter scene, as leaves on a green tree, belonging to a different season. This one line shows the poet making an effort to seek some consolation in the midst of disappointment and despair. But then reality reasserts itself. Whatever the poet's feelings and how-
ever great his hope and fantasies, stubborn reality in the end shatters them all. So when the poet opens the window that cuts him off, seeking to come a bit closer to the fantasized scene, it is to discover that those branches are not only bare, but those roosting crows he was casting in the role of leaves have already taken flight, every last one of them.
The phrase "fell fluttering down" comes from Ma Yüan's Hou-Han shu biography, from a passage describing the southern expedition to Indochina's encounter with a climate so hot, an atmosphere so miasmic, that even flying birds could not survive, and as the general and his men watched, "kites fell fluttering into the water." Wang Kuo-wei makes excellent use of the allusion. Like all such allusions, it brings a touch of classic elegance to his song. More to the point, the phrase was used of a kind of bird, and so it is appropriate as applied to crows. Of course, in terms of the actual scene, the crows should have flown away on being startled when the window was opened, instead of dropping fluttering to the ground like the kites in Ma Yüan's biography. But having begun by perceiving the crows as leaves growing on the tree, the poet, when they suddenly vanish, can only imagine the leaves falling to the ground a second time. And this second shedding of leaves provides a repetition of what he has already experienced this year, summer's beauties destroyed by the onset of winter. So the fantasy of crows as leaves is in the end only the occasion for another leaf fall, and the lovely scene conjured up in the poet's imagination is shattered, gone without a trace. This three-word allusion, tieh-tieh to , has taken on a metaphoric function transcending realism.
There is even more to it than that. In its original context, the birds dropped out of the sky because the environment was so hostile, and there remains a suggestion that the same might apply to the poet's world. These first two lines leave the poet, his illusion shattered, desolate and cold, without shelter or the consolation of beauty.
These lines are followed by "The frosty sky was high, the wind still, as alone I leaned on the rail." Literally it reads, "The frost is high," shuang kao —the words make one feel that the cold enveloping the whole world reaches up to the sky. "The wind is still," feng ting —some might think it would have been more effective to say that the wind was strong (chin ), but I find "still" superior, both for its impact and for its suggestiveness. "Strong" leaves one with only the feeling that the wind continues to blow hard, its force not yet slackened. But "the wind is still" suggests that even after the destructive force of the wind has passed,
there is no undoing the damage already done. It's the idea expressed in Li Shang-yin's (813?–58) line, "When the lotus flower is withered, autumn sorrow is complete," or the song in the Dream of Red Mansions ,
It's as though the food is no sooner gone than the birds have fled to
The whole bare desolate earth is quite clean,
where all beauty has quickly dwindled into barren waste. The poet, faced with such a scene, leans on the railing, alone, and with what feelings? All his sorrows, his disappointments, his feelings of loneliness and isolation, come together at once, but he writes with deliberate restraint, "alone I leaned on the rail." Truly this is a scene worthy of Wang Kuo-wei's best songs. This first stanza has concentrated on the external scene, but by infusing it with a complex emotional tone he has transformed a scene merely described into a created scene with allegorical implications and an effective amalgamation of imagery and allegory.
The second stanza dispenses with description and allegory, presenting the poet's feelings directly. There are two versions of this stanza; as first published, it read:
I prefer the later version. In it, to express the difficulty of writing a song, he adapted the line "To find one word for your poem, you rub off several whiskers." The play he sees makes him weep because of his own pent-up feelings, and that's the sum of it. The revised version is considerably richer in the layers of feeling it brings out, and the effects come from the appositeness and strength of the words used. In "Trying for a line, a gut feeling is still there," he is also concerned with the effort
of song writing, but it carries a potential for suggestion lacking in the earlier draft. First the verb "trying for" (mi ), literally "looking for," suggests from the start the effort of a search. The next phrase, "a gut feeling" (hsin-kan ), literally "heart and liver," derives its meaning from the particular internal organs considered to be the seat of the emotions. "Heart and liver" won't do in English, nor would "heart and bowels," in spite of the Biblical "bowels of compassion." English and Chinese both agree that the "heart" has to do with the feelings; in Chinese it carries special literary overtones, starting with the classical definition of poetry: "Poetry is where the intentions/feelings take us; emotions are stirred inside and given form in words." So the heart as imaginary construct becomes the source for the emotions that lead to the creation of poetry.
For ordinary purposes Wang Kuo-wei could have written "The feelings [hsin ch'ing or hsin huai ] come as I look for a line." Instead, however, he chose an expression that also carries down-to-earth associations with real organs. On first reading, it is a bit disconcerting, and yet its impact is profound. Both in wording and effect, it resembles the line in Ts'ai Yen's (b. ca. 178) "Song of Sorrow" where she expresses her despair—"Sorrow corrodes liver and lungs" —and of Tu Fu's expression of his feelings—"I sigh, my bowels inside burn." It seems to me that Wang Kuo-wei's use of hsin-kan conveys yet a further association deriving from the figurative use of the term in common speech—when someone who acts out of wholly selfish interests and has no social conscience is described as "completely lacking in heart and liver" (ch'üan wu hsin-kan ). Wang Kuo-wei turns this around: "heart and liver still present after all," implying that he is still capable of becoming emotionally involved in this cold and unfeeling human world.
The words "in the end is still there," chung fu tsai , remind one of the obsessive attachment that knows no end or respite in Li Shang-yin's
Ch'ang-o grinds simples and is never done,
Jade Lady plays tosspot and never rests.
Wang Kuo-wei saw clearly the misery and evil of the human world, and a deep-seated compassion for the suffering in the world prevented him from being indifferent. When he left his home in Hai-ning as a young man to study in Shanghai and then went abroad to study in Japan, it was with the determination to be of use to the world and make it a better place. Even when he experienced repeated disappointments and was composing song lyrics to distract himself, he was also writing a number of prose essays on education and reform: "Reflections on Education" ("Chiao-yü ou-kan"), "On Popular Education" ("Lun p'ing-fan chih chiao-yü chu-i"), "Goals of Education" ("Lun chiao-yü chih tsung-chih"), "Basis for Success in Education" ("Chiao-yü p'u-chi chih kenpen pan-fa"), "Studies in People's Tastes" ("Jen-chien shih-hao chih yen-chiu"), "Do Away with Opium" ("Ch'u tu p'ien") —all of which reveal his deep commitment to human affairs. When he wrote "Trying for a line, a gut feeling is still there," it was precisely this commitment that he was referring to, and the diction conveys the intensity of this deeply ingrained feeling.
The next line is also superior to the variant, where the tears shed are clearly precipitated by the play he has seen, though he says the tears were "fruitless" (wu tuan ). By giving a reason for his feeling, he has imposed a limit that also restricts the impact of the line on its reader. The line in the version I have chosen, "I weep fruitless tears," includes the word k'u , "alas," which reinforces the "pointless, fruitless," implying that he has looked for a reason for the tears and regrets his failure to find it. It makes his grief not so much pointless as something outside his conscious control: "No one did it but it happened, no one brought it but it's there." It is a grief that is a part of his very being, and the grief he writes about becomes limitless, not restricted to a particular circumstance.
The line begins with "I close the book." On the surface this can be taken as the cause for shedding tears, but in fact closing a book is in itself a simple act with no emotional overtones. If you connect that act with what follows, however, and read it in the context of Wang Kuowei's own concerns, the significance to him of such an act brings up all sorts of associations. Reading was his greatest passion; as he wrote, "Books have been my lifelong companions, and they have been for me what I most loved and was most reluctant to lay aside." The main
reasons for his addiction to reading, it seems to me, were two: he hoped to find in books the answer to the problem of human life, and he sought a formula for saving the world. It was for the former reason that he read philosophy, and for the latter, history. But Wang Kuo-wei's study of philosophy provided him with no final answer to the problem of human existence, and his study of history offered no support to his idealistic hope of saving the world. Given such expectations and such disappointment, it is easy to imagine that this was the reason for shedding futile tears on closing a book.
Wang Kuo-wei also read with the hope of finding consolation and an escape from himself. He wrote, "Recently my taste has shifted from philosophy to literature, where I hope to find immediate consolation," and remarked in a poem, "Trying to Fly" ("P'in fei"),
If I don't write a poem about sorrow,
how can I even for a moment escape sorrow?
Again, the outcome of his search for consolation and escape from himself led only to greater melancholy and isolation. In another song he wrote,
I close my book—all my life long a hundred cares,
fed up with worries, I've turned stupid and dull.
I just heard the cuckoo lamenting spring's passing.
I came to feel there was nothing to get me through the days,
and I might as well go on collating old texts.
No place for idle sorrow, let alone happiness.
Whether he sought consolation in literary studies and creative writing, or tried to escape into scholarly research, in the end he "closed his
book" and was left with his lifelong cares, the same old sorrows. This song becomes a commentary on the same act and justifies reading into it a gesture of despair: we can understand that the fruitless tears he sheds are for those lifelong cares, but who is there to know about the pain he feels, his anguish over human suffering? So he concludes with "For whom, alas, does my belt grow loose?" This line reminds us of the lines from Liu Yung's (fl. 1034) song to the tune "Phoenix in the Phoenix Tree" ("Feng ch'i wu"),
I never regretted my belt grown loose—
He's worth wasting away for,
which Wang used to illustrate a remark in Jen-chien tz'u-hua , "Whoever accomplishes a great undertaking or a great study must pass through three stages," commenting, "This is precisely the second stage." This can serve as a commentary on the significance for Wang of the "belt grown loose." It suggests the pleasure taken in the pursuit of a remote ideal and the resolve not to regret what that pursuit has cost. But where the protagonist in Liu Yung's song was suffering "for him," Wang must ask "for whom?"
In this song Wang Kuo-wei has begun by describing a real scene that he has made the vehicle for deep feeling and philosophical thought. There are many such songs in his collection that begin with a present scene and then develop it into a multilayered symbol with manifold implications; for example,
Bitter the waters of the Ch'ien-t'ang Bore,
every day flowing west,
every day racing east to the sea.
I rise at night and lean out the upper story.
Over a corner the Jade String hangs low.
West Garden flowers fall deep enough to sweep.
Before my eyes the spring scene too quickly gone.
In all these songs, beyond the scene described in the opening lines there are subtle and far-reaching suggestions that the attentive reader can observe for himself.
Poem No. 2—
Symbolism of the Human Figure
After this example of a poem describing a natural scene that at the same time carries a wealth of subtle nuance, I would like to consider one that presents a situation involving a human figure that also invites an interpretative reading.
To the tune "Butterfly Loves Flowers" ("Tieh lien hua")
Lovely, modest girl of Yen, fifteen years old,
trailing her usual long skirt—
no mincing gait for her.
When she casts a glance, smiling, in the crowd,
the sirens of the world are like dirt.
A single tree in early bloom—
no other term fits,
except the words "as Heaven made it."
The girl there from Wu who boasts of her dancing skill—
too bad the supple waist misleads.
I long considered this song to be an example of a lyric constructed around an invented episode, since it has that nuanced quality with a flavor of symbolism that provokes rich associations, and especially be-
cause the symbolic figure is consonant with both Wang Kuo-wei's own character and also with the critical ideas he advocated for song writing. I therefore believed that in writing this song Wang Kuo-wei was probably symbolizing himself. In an annotated edition of his songs by Hsiao Ai, however, I recently came across mention of an episode that might underlie the making of this poem. Hsiao Ai writes that he learned from Professor Liu Hui-sun that Wang Kuo-wei composed this song about "a Manchu girl wine-seller"; further, that several of the lines were written by his father, Liu Chi-ying, who asked Wang to complete the poem. Liu Hui-sun learned this information from a conversation he overheard between his father and his uncle Lo Chün-mei. Since the sons of Liu Chi-ying and Wang Kuo-wei were married to daughters of Lo Chen-yü, it is quite possible that Liu could have asked Wang to finish a poem he had begun. So this song could also be considered as an example of one written around an actual experience. Wang Kuo-wei himself remarked on the difficulty of distinguishing between a real and an imagined scene: "There is the invented scene and the described scene; it is what distinguishes the idealist and realist schools. But the two are rather difficult to distinguish, for the scene imagined by a great poet is consistent with the natural, and the described scene with the ideal." The song to the tune "Sands of the Washing Stream" dealt with earlier illustrates Wang Kuo-wei's point: there the "perched crows," "pushing open a window," "leaning on the railing," and especially "trying for a line" and "closing the book," are all part of a scene or episode that is taking place and naturally describe something that happened. But when we consider the implications and the subtle suggestions generated, Wang's claim that the scenes described by a great poet also belong to the ideal is confirmed.
Another example, from a song to the same tune,
Striving to ascend the highest peak for a close look at the white moon,
I chanced to open a celestial eye and look down to the red dust:
my own self alas there among those I see,
presents a scene unmistakably drawn from the imagination, but the opening lines of the song could easily belong to the world of experience:
The mountain temple indistinct in the setting sun,
before birds in flight arrive, half the mountain is dark.
These images lack only the immediacy of someone pushing open a window or leaning on a railing, and are worth citing as illustrations of Wang's claim that invented scenes accord with nature.
The song we are presently concerned with can of course be classed with others that simply describe a scene or recount an episode, if we accept Hsiao Ai's account of its origin, but it carries a rich suggestiveness that raises it to the level of an idealized, imagined scene. This can be demonstrated by a line-by-line examination of its imagery and method of presentation. In the first line one can see the dual possibility of a real event or an idealized, imagined one: "Lovely, modest girl of Yen, fifteen years old." In light of Mr. Hsiao's story, this could easily be a Manchu girl wine-seller in Peking (Yen), lovely, modest, and just of that age. While each item lends itself to such a circumstantial reading, there remains oddly enough a flavor of something more, something not simply observed.
First, the narrative voice is impersonal, removing this lovely, modest girl of Yen from the everyday world of human relations and making her an independent aesthetic object. Next, the vocabulary of the song makes use of code words that call up associations with a rich cultural heritage. The expression yao-t'iao (here translated "lovely and modest"), for example, originally appeared in the first poem of the Book of Songs , from which it already carries an aura of antique elegance and the familiarity of long use. At the same time this term has acquired from its heritage several layers of meaning: "good," "lovely," "secluded"; it can apply to beauty of character or of face. The multiple meanings of this first word of Wang Kuo-wei's song incline one already to a symbolical reading of the whole poem. If one were to substitute the unambiguous word mei-li (beautiful), the immediate sense would be the same, the meter would be unchanged, but the effect would be so commonplace and obvious that all trace of symbolism would vanish. So it is clear that the word yao-t'iao was used to generate a symbolic character for this song.
The "girl of Yen" also has long been used in Chinese poetry to stand for a pretty girl, and so is an indefinite term, not applying to a girl from a specific place. The twelfth of the "Nineteen Old Poems" includes the
line "In Yen and Chao are many lovely ladies"; a poem by Fu Hsüan (217–78) notes that "The women of Yen are lovely, / the girls of Chao are pretty"; and in a poem by Liu Hsiao-ch'o (481–539), "In Yen and Chao are many beauties." Obviously "girls from Yen" and "women from Chao" are only general designations that can be applied to beautiful women anywhere. Such expressions go beyond pointing to a specific referent and take on the possibility of a symbolic use.
"Fifteen years old" sounds definite enough to be the factually reported age of the "girl of Yen." But this too is a code word with a long history in Chinese culture. Fifteen is the age at which a girl reaches maturity and can be given in marriage—the time her hair is symbolically pinned up (chi fan ), corresponding to the boy's capping ceremony (chia kuan ). Poets have traditionally used the age fifteen for girls as a symbolical counterpart to the capping age, when a boy becomes a man old enough to take office; thus, Li Shang-yin's "Untitled Poem" begins, "At eight years she stole a look in the mirror," and follows her preparation for her expected role in life from that moment, when she starts to paint her eyebrows, through learning to dress attractively, until at fourteen she is kept out of sight at home, waiting for a proposal, and then, still not engaged at fifteen, she stands by the garden swing, weeping in the spring wind. Here the disappointed girl is a symbol for the young man who, conscious of his endowments, finds himself unappreciated and passed over among the candidates for public office. So "age fifteen" is a code word with a weight of historical background that lends it symbolical value.
The next couplet also has a dual reading and the potential for multiple meanings:
Trailing her usual long skirt—
no mincing gait for her.
Hsiao Ai explains this as an objective description: these lines tell us that she was wearing a Manchu dress and that she walked naturally, something that could be said of Manchu girls, for they did not have bound feet. This of course fits the reported origin of the poem. But the value of this song lies not in the veracity of the episode it uses but in how effectively it makes use of it, and here again the excellence of these two lines
comes from associations in the mind of the reader. This is achieved, I think, through the obvious contrast between the dissimilar attitudes conveyed by the two phrases "trailing a long skirt" and "a mincing gait." One associates with the former an aristocrat moving easily and with dignity in a long gown, while the latter suggests a delicate, pretty figure. The former belongs to a dignified, self-confident person, the latter to someone anxious to please. This contrast provides the possibility of symbolism, particularly when the first phrase is qualified with the word "usual" or "customary" and the second is negated, "not for her," implying "not like those others," so that in addition to the contrast in attitudes there is also the contrast between what one does and what one does not do, bringing with it an implication of moral character and steadfastness.
In the following lines, "When she casts a glance, smiling, in the crowd, / the sirens of the world are like dirt," the word "smiling" (yen-jan ) occurs in the Sung Yü rhapsody "Lechery of Master Teng-t'u," where it is applied to the charms of the neighbor girl whose single smile was enough to bewilder the whole city. The phrase yen-se ju ch'en-t'u recalls Po Chü-i's (772–846) "Song of Everlasting Sorrow" ("Ch'ang hen ko"), where the palace ladies lose their looks (wu yen-se ) when Yang Kuei-fei turns her head and with a single smile reveals her manifold charms, and Ch'en Hung's "Story of the Song of Everlasting Sorrow" ("Ch'ang-hen chuan"), which adds that "their beauty was like dirt" ( fen-se ju t'u ). Such associations take us beyond the simple description of the beauty of the Manchu wine-seller of the anecdote.
In Chinese literary history there has long been a tradition of using a beautiful woman as the symbol for a man of virtue or for oneself so considered, beginning with Ch'ü Yüan's "Li-sao." The words "cast a glance" (t'ung i ku ) in this song earlier appeared in a poem, "Fang-ko hsing," by the poet Ch'en Shih-tao (1052–1102):
The spring breeze on Everlasting Lane where the beauty, confined,
has long brought undeserved fame to the green houses.
She might raise the curtain to cast a glance outside
but fears that he would not get a good look.
That Ch'en Shih-tao was using the neglected palace lady allegorically was noted by his contemporary and mentor Huang T'ing-chien (1045–1105), who is quoted as having remarked disparagingly of this poem, "Lingering over his own reflection, he is too much of a show-off." If we are reminded of Ch'en Shih-tao's poem as we read Wang Kuo-wei's, the potential for an allegorical meaning naturally increases, particularly so when the phrase "casts a glance" comes after "in the crowd," first setting the lovely girl in contrast to all others, and then in the next line placing her far above all the other beauties in the world and translating her into the highest imaginable realm.
Given the strong possibility of such a reading, there remains the question of how the symbol of a beautiful woman is to be taken. She could stand for the poet himself. I have already suggested a reason for such an interpretation: the poem begins by taking the figure of the woman impersonally, as an aesthetic object, like the girl in the Li Shang-yin poem, and here too she could be a symbol for the poet himself. Likewise, in Ch'en Shih-tao's allegory, a palace lady failed to get the favor of her lord; now that she lives shut up in Everlasting Lane, her beauty hidden out of sight, ordinary women's looks gain an undeserved praise. And even though this beauty does not regret her loss of position and, rolling up the curtain, shows her face, it is to be feared that no one will recognize or appreciate her outstanding beauty. In this poem the beautiful woman certainly stands for the poet himself.
Finally, in some of Wang Kuo-wei's own songs lovely ladies do symbolize the poet, so such a reading here is in line with his tastes and practice. Thus, there are many reasons for believing that Wang Kuo-wei was presenting his own situation through the figure of the woman.
Interestingly enough, however, the suggestion implicit in these lines could also apply to something other than the poet. In the first place, the lovely girl presented as an aesthetic object could easily stand for any ideal of beauty in the poet's mind. And if we take Wang Kuo-wei's phrase "casts a glance" without reference to Ch'en Shih-tao's poem, the phrase could just as well apply to an observer, one who was a part of the crowd but who perceives the extraordinary beauty of the girl: just
when she looked, smiling, she caught his eye, and from this momentary exchange of glances, all other women of the world were as dust to him. Such an occurrence could symbolize some precious and exalted ideal in the mind.
Furthermore, Wang Kuo-wei often expressed such ideas in his other songs, where a sudden moment of philosophical insight comes unawares. For example, "the solitary chime from up above" and "climbing the high peak for a glimpse of the white moon" and "the nearby fairy mountains with the towers and pavilions visible from afar" —these all belong to a kind of exalted, imagined realm of which one catches only a glimpse. So it is clear that taking something other than the poet as the thing symbolized yields a reading compatible with the spiritual goal Wang Kuo-wei was preoccupied with.
So much for the possibilities of interpretation offered by the first stanza. The second offers fewer ambiguities.
A single tree in early bloom—
no other term fits,
except the words "as Heaven made it."
These lines are a paean to natural beauty. Read in terms of the anecdote, they would apply to the unadorned beauty of the Manchu wineseller, but even such straightforward verses have in fact the potential for symbolism. One comes to this stanza with expectations developed in the first stanza with its aura of symbolism and finds in the burgeoning tree bursting with flowers an obvious symbol for beauty, one that need not be restricted to a woman's good looks, and indeed there is here no direct mention of a person. What is praised is natural, unadorned beauty, something Wang Kuo-wei repeatedly found occasion to commend as a characteristic of the songs he admired. Even Hsiao Ai, to whom we owe the anecdotal reference, remarks, "Through this song we can catch a glimpse of Ching-an's [Wang Kuo-wei's] aesthetic views. When he writes about song lyrics, he strongly praises the natural and genuine, and in discussing the good qualities of Yüan opera he also writes, 'To sum it up in a word, natural is all,' and, 'Lack of makeup and careless dress still cannot hide an outstanding beauty.' 'Heaven-given' says it all." And T'ien Chih-tou in his commentary on Wang Kuo-wei's songs also says of this song, "This healthy, beautiful girl of the north made a deep impression on the poet. 'Heaven-given' is the aesthetic standard for Wang. 'The lotus emerging from clear water, Heaven-given, dis-
penses with ornament'—this is the natural excellence given highest praise in his song lyric criticism. . . . This song could be read as a piece of tz'u criticism."
While noticing the possibility of an allegorical reading of these lines, both Hsiao and T'ien believe that it is primarily the description of the girl of the anecdote, and that Wang Kuo-wei merely associated his concept of beauty in the song lyric with the girl's beauty. I think it is not only the quality of "Heaven-given" that is common to the beauty of the girl and what he advocated as an ideal for the lyric; rather, every line of the song is a part of the symbolism. These three lines praise Heaven-given beauty, but we must take them in the context of the following lines: "The girl there from Wu who boasts of her dancing skill—/ too bad the supple waist misleads," and notice the implied invidious contrast between the "girl from Wu" and the girl of Yen who embodies that beauty. Taken together, it becomes apparent that "Heaven-given" and "dancing skill" represent yet another contrast in character, besides the one already noticed in the first stanza, between "trailing a long skirt" and "mincing gait." There Wang Kuo-wei was already comparing two kinds of beauty, and using them symbolically. In this case the contrast becomes stronger when we recall the sort of associations one has with dancing skill as it comes up in traditional Chinese poetry, where it suggests obsequious behavior—as in Hsin Ch'i-chi's (1140–1207) song to the tune "The Boy Tickles the Fish" ("Mo yü erh"):
don't you see,
Yü-huan and Fei-yen are both turned to dust?
Wang Kuo-wei's "too bad the supple waist misleads" makes his negative view of dancing skill even more obvious.
The Heaven-given beauty that Wang praises is not only consonant with his ideal of beauty in song lyrics, it also symbolizes his ideal of human character and conduct. If we look back at the whole poem, we will see that the entire text of this song not only lends itself to a symbolical interpretation, the meaning and structure of the symbol, too, are completely consistent with this dual interpretation.
I am not of course denying the possibility of a straightforward reading of the text in terms of the reported anecdote, but it is worth emphasizing that even those song lyrics of Wang's that are presented as descriptive of real events frequently contain the suggestion of a deeper, subtler reading, resulting in what is essentially a created scene. As Wang Kuo-wei himself said in the statement cited earlier, "The scenes [a great poet] describes also approach the ideal," and "whether tz'u is refined or vulgar comes from the spirit, not what appears on the surface." This song can be taken as an illustration of these poetic principles.
Poem No. 3—
Invented Scenes Allusion and Allegory
To the tune "Partridge in the Sky " ("Che-ku t'ien ")
Over the covered gallery wind flaps a fifty-foot banner,
the storied structure thrusts up level with the clouds.
All that remains, alas: full moons lined up like coins
that do not illumine the red flowers hanging from the ceiling.
Repeatedly I grope, again I scramble,
a thousand gates, a myriad doors—is it real or not?
Everything in the world is open to doubt,
only this doubt is not to be doubted.
Whatever the status of the preceding lyrics as presenting a real or imagined scene, there can be no doubt about this one: the scene is bizarre enough not to be taken for something actually observed. But what about Wang Kuo-wei's insistence that even the imagined scene be compatible with nature? There should be some reasonable basis for the poet's invention. Readers generally have found this particular song obscure or unintelligible, even in its general purport. It becomes clearer if we look
for the sources of Wang Kuo-wei's imagined scene and consider the song in the light of his basic intellectual attitudes.
Take the first two lines: "Over the covered gallery wind flaps a fifty-foot banner,/ the storied structure thrusts up level with the clouds." There is a power in the imagined scene to move and involve the reader, not only in its grandeur but also in its lifting, soaring quality. From line 5 ("Repeatedly I grope, again I scramble") we can infer that this scene which the reader finds so moving is also the object of the poet's search, and from Wang Kuo-wei's own practice, a scene that is the goal of a search is always something in the imagination, not in the real world. For example, the search for the Fairy Mountain in the sea (in the song to the tune "The Butterfly Loves Flowers") and the effort to ascend the mountain peak to view the white moon ("Sands of the Washing Stream") are typical of the symbolical use of an imagined scene as the goal of a search for the ideal.
But the Fairy Mountain is a reference to the familiar legend of the Three Fairy Mountains in the Po Sea. Since the "mountain temple" and the "highest peak" in the "Sands of the Washing Stream" song are not part of an allusion, some readers are led to assume that what is involved there is a real scene; but when the second stanza concludes with the purely philosophical "I chanced to open a celestial eye to look down to the red dust:/ my own self alas there among those I see," it seems obvious that this scene is also an imagined one. Anyhow, these imagined scenes are good illustrations of Wang's claim that the scenes imagined by a great poet will always accord with the natural, their elements always be found in nature, and their structure always reflect the natural.
In this poem, however, the covered gallery and fifty-foot banner present definite problems. They are not an obvious allusion like the Fairy Mountains, nor are they a part of a natural scene like the mountain temple. In using an unfamiliar scene to represent the sought-for goal, this song, it seems to me, is more deliberately symbolical than the above two examples. The scene presented in the first line derives from the description of the O-pang Palace in the "Annals of the First Emperor" in Ssu-ma Ch'ien's Historical Records : "The palace in front is O-p'ang, extending east to west five hundred paces and north to south five hundred
paces. A myriad of men could be seated above, and below is place for a fifty-foot banner." It must have been one of the largest palaces ever built in China, and when Wang Kuo-wei was looking for the most magnificent and imposing structure as the symbol for the object he pursued in his imagination, he chose to base it on the Shih-chi description of the O-p'ang Palace.
We can see, of course, that the palace's primary function as a symbol in his song derives from its grandeur, but that is not its only purpose: there is also the detail of the covered gallery (ko-tao ) in the opening line. The Shih-chi description of the O-p'ang Palace continues: "Running around it was a covered way [ko-tao ] leading down from the palace to connect with [Chung-nan] Mountain, marking the highest point of the mountain with a gate tower. A corridor was made from O-p'ang crossing the Wei [River] and connecting with Hsien-yang." The symbolism of this structure is clearly stated: "[The palace] represents the [constellation] Zenith [t'ien-chi ], where the Covered Gallery cuts across the Milky Way to reach the constellation Ying-shih." It is obvious that this structure was planned with an astronomical counterpart. As far as the O-p'ang Palace is concerned, the covered gallery simply connects the palace with the capital Hsien-yang across the Wei River. But it also has a symbolical function connected with astronomy: the whole structure was built to symbolize the seat of the Lord of Heaven, so that the palace itself is the constellation Zenith, the highest point in the heavens. Covered Gallery is also the name of a constellation. In the "Essay on Astronomy" we read, "The last six stars of the Purple Palace [tzu-kung ] that cross the Milky Way and reach the Ying-shih [constellation] are called the Covered Gallery." Chang Shou-chieh's commentary on this passage states that "the seven stars of the constellation Ying-shih are the palace of the Son of Heaven [t'ien-tzu ]." From this it is clear that the covered gallery of O-p'ang Palace was constructed to symbolize the Purple Palace of the Zenith. Its crossing the Wei River to connect with the palaces in Hsien-yang coincides with the trajectory of the six last stars of the Purple Palace as they cross the Milky Way and connect with the palace of the Son of Heaven, that is, the abode of the Lord of Heaven.
The choice of the setting of a fifty-foot banner waving over a covered gallery as a symbol for the goal of his pursuit enriches the poem with another set of associations. Had Wang Kuo-wei merely used a lofty, remote setting like the mountain temple or the high cliff, his symbol would have conveyed nothing more than that—something beyond easy reach. But by using terms that have a specific reference, he has greatly increased the resonance of his symbol. Since the Covered Gallery in the Shih-chi was meant symbolically as a passage to the seat of the Lord of Heaven, there is the implication that it was the goal he was groping and scrambling toward. In terms of Wang Kuo-wei's lifelong and passionate preoccupation with the problem, it could well symbolize his striving for an understanding of human life.
This kind of symbolic interpretation also accords with Wang Kuo-wei's own critical practice, and in his songs this passionate pursuit of a final answer to the problem is repeatedly expressed through the metaphor of a spiritual intercourse with Heaven. For example,
On the topmost peak are no clouds,
last night it rained—
I come to listen to Heaven's voice
How can I bear last night's dream in the west house,
when I walked with sleeves full of plucked stars?
There are many such lines showing Wang Kuo-wei's frequent use of an imagined lofty and remote setting that not only symbolizes a high ideal but also suggests a desire to ascend to heaven to seek the answers to the fundamental problem of human existence. But this image as used in these other songs is both conventional and natural, while in the present song it appears unusual and anything but natural; it also carries an extra layer of implication from its original context in the Historical Records . And so from this first line we can conclude that this song, compared with the others, is one in which the poet deliberately was creating a setting with an allegorical dimension.
Since it begins with an allegorical setting, it must continue in the same mode. The images used in this imagined setting are derived from books that Wang Kuo-wei had read, some of them familiar and some not likely to be known to every reader. First, the line "The storied structure thrusts up level with the clouds" probably derives from a couplet in the fifth of the "Nineteen Old Poems":
In the northwest is a lofty tower
rising up level with the floating clouds,
lines surely familiar to every reader. Wang Kuo-wei has introduced a couple of changes: "storied" (ts'eng ) in place of "lofty" (kao ) ("structure," "tower" is the same Chinese word lou ), and "thrusts up" (t'u wu ) for "rises" (shang ). Changes like this in lines taken from classical texts are dealt with in a remark in Wang Kuo-wei's critical writing, where such borrowing is approved on principle, so long as it contributes to setting. The changes he has introduced here adapt the line to the setting he was creating, which is not that of the original poem. The original adjective "lofty" conveys no suggestion of anything beyond "height," while "storied" adds a more complicated feeling: along with the idea of "high" is the suggestion of a structure elaborated, substantially constructed, and imposing. Add the words "thrusts up," and it achieves an almost dizzying force. In the context of a covered gallery that stretches from a mountain top across a river and into the city, it adds scale and motion to the image, especially when enlivened by the enormous banner flapping in the wind above it. This resurrects in the imagination the grandeur and magnificence of the First Ch'in Emperor's O-p'ang Palace and brings it before our eyes, much as Tu Fu could imagine "Han Wuti's banners before my eyes" as he remembered the K'un-ming Lake, constructed a thousand years earlier.
The next couplet imposes a discordant atmosphere on this magnificent image:
All that remains, alas: full moons lined up like coins
that do not illumine the red flowers hanging from the ceiling.
The source for these lines also lies in Wang Kuo-wei's reading, transformed through his imagination. Pan Ku's (32–92) "Rhapsody on the
Western Capital" provides the full moons lined up like coins. He was describing the Chao-yang Palace: "Lord Sui's full moons everywhere in between, / jade discs clasped in gold, like rows of coins." Lord Sui's "full moon" alludes to the night-shining pearl (ming-yüeh chu ) given Lord Sui by the grateful snake he treated, according to Li Shan's commentary. The "jade disks clasped in gold" provide a more immediately intelligible basis for the image "making a row of coins" (shih wei lieh-ch'ien ) than do the pearls, which are all Wang Kuo-wei's line mentions, and perhaps they should be appropriated as part of the allusion. Since the song began with the covered gallery that symbolically leads to the abode of the Lord of Heaven, the night-shining pearls and associated jade discs are part of the resplendent ornamentation of his palace.
The mysterious pink flowers hanging from the ceiling come from Chang Heng's (78–139) "Rhapsody on the Western Capital," where he describes the Lung-shou Hall in front of the Wei-yang Palace with "lotus stems upside down on the painted ceiling." Tso Ssu (ca. 253–ca. 307) describes a similar palace ceiling in his "Rhapsody on the Capital of Wei," but Wang Kuo-wei no doubt had in mind the Chang Heng passage, since it involves a palace in the Western Capital, closer to the site of O-p'ang Palace. In sum, the song has described the magnificence and beauty of a palace, enriched by borrowings from the two rhapsodies to suggest an idealized conception of the seat of the Lord of Heaven.
So much for a surface reading. Notable are the qualifying introductory phrases: "All that remains, alas" (k'ung yü ) and "that do not illumine" (pu chao ). Their function is an important one. The first refers to the ruin of the imagined palace and expresses regret that it is no longer intact, and the next line continues with a lament of disappointment at the loss of the hoped-for spectacle.
I have already mentioned Wang Kuo-wei's dedication to the search for an ideal and elsewhere have cited a number of his own writings to show that he always disregarded material advantage in his pursuit of an ideal goal, concluding that his willingness to sacrifice himself in striving for an ideal was part of his genius and beyond his control to change. There was no way ever to bring this search to fruition, and in many
of his songs there is a lament for a search that ends in failure and disappointment. However, some force kept him from ever giving up this pursuit of the ideal; the light of idealism was always preserved in the poet's heart. So, in our song the rows of night-shining pearls still seem to emit a glimmer of light, even though it is not enough to illuminate the pink blossoms hanging down from the painted ceiling. It is a situation comparable to that in Juan Chi's (210–63) "Song of Sorrow," no. 19: "There's a lovely lady to the west," where the poet sees a beautiful woman who is "floating indistinct" but appears to let her eyes fall on him. In the end he is unable to make contact with her, and the result is
Attractive she was, but we never came together;
seeing her has made me sad.
Thus, in the first stanza of Wang Kuo-wei's song, the search for an ideal realm in an imagined setting—and its failure—are expressed in terms of symbols based on allusions to ancient texts. It combines clarity with elegance, radiance with obscurity, in a vision of soaring majesty—a truly notable example of an imagined setting. The second stanza begins with a direct statement of the frustration of his efforts: "Repeatedly I grope, again I scramble." The words "repeatedly" (p'in ) and "again" (ch'ieh ) emphasize the difficulty of abandoning the search and its futility. The "thousand gates" and "myriad doors" take us back to the image of the palace (the phrase comes from the Historical Records , "Annals of Wuti," where it describes the Chien-chang Palace) and symbolize the confusion and wrong turns connected with the search. The words "is it real . . . ," describing something indistinctly glimpsed and then lost sight of, are adapted from an old text, Han Wu-ti's song about the apparition of the Lady Li:
Is it real, is it not?
Indistinctly seen from afar.
Wavering, how slowly she comes!
They bring to the groping search for a lost palace the association of a beautiful woman. Though such a suggestion was not necessarily in Wang Kuo-wei's conscious mind, given the associations attached to the source of the words, the potential effect is there. Furthermore, the analogy between expecting a meeting with a beautiful woman and the pursuit of an ideal links them together, and so such a reading is unquestionably a factor in creating resonances that enrich our appreciation of this poem. The concluding couplet, "Everything in the world is open to doubt, / only this doubt is not to be doubted," marks the ultimate futility of the search. He has given a slight twist to Descartes's famous dictum that everything is subject to doubt except the fact of doubting. For Wang Kuo-wei it is precisely this doubt—the uncertainty of his search, of its very goal—that is not in doubt, transforming a logical, philosophical concept into a cry of despair. Since the object of his search is unobtainable, there can be no solution to his uncertainties; this is a conviction that repeatedly appears in his writing, and this song is representative of those that create an imagined setting to reveal his fundamental "pattern of consciousness," to borrow a term from the "Criticism of Consciousness" school.
The setting projected in the song is so fanciful, so bizarre, that readers have often completely failed to understand its meaning, and so I have taken it as one of my examples, hoping to show that beneath the fanciful imagery and obscure allusions is an intelligible and moving poem.
Poem No. 4—
Writing about Writing
To the tune "Sands of the Washing Stream "
The new song—is it a real love affair?
The tender words are too vague.
For whom are you writing with such pain in the lamplight?
I lean on the desk for a glimpse of your new poem
and then turn away from the lamp to reflect on the good times we've had—
it matches none of the things I recall.
Before discussing this song, I should explain why I have chosen it as one of my four examples, when so many of his better-known song lyrics present an imagined episode. There are too many, certainly, to deal with adequately here. My choice was in part determined by the very unfamiliarity of this song—no need to explain one that everyone already appreciates. This one has the further attraction of not obviously belonging to my category of invented episodes, for on the surface it appears to be the realistic presentation of an intimate scene, while actually it conveys a subtle and involved allegorical meaning that is worth elucidating. Finally, all the other songs I might have used deal with themes that recur repeatedly in Wang Kuo-wei's works: the man who maintains his integrity in a hostile world, the disappointing contrast between dream and reality, the devotion that asks no recompense, the realization that one cannot detach oneself from the common lot of humanity —all those ethical and philosophical ideas dear to his heart.
The song I have chosen has the unusual theme of poetic composition, something not only unusual in the short song (hsiao-ling ) form, but extremely difficult to achieve through an ostensibly realistic love song. That Wang Kuo-wei did it successfully is my real reason for using this as an example of a song that describes an invented episode.
To begin with the surface level of meaning: the scene is of a couple in a room. The voice is a woman's; the man has been writing a song,
which she has been reading over his shoulder. The first line—"The new song—is it a real affair?"—is the woman's reaction on reading it: "The love affair you are writing about, is it something that really happened?" The setting makes this the obvious first meaning of the word pen-shih , "affair," which can of course be completely non-committal as to what sort of "affair" is meant. The word "really" (ting ) reflects her compulsion to know the truth: did it really exist or not (ting yu wu )? The next line, "The tender words are too vague," gives the reasons for her uncertainty—the tender words and their effect. It's the "tender words" (ch'i yü ) that lead the woman to believe that the affair is a love affair; but they are too ambiguous, so vague and obscure that it is hard to decide to whom they apply. These first two lines provide the causes of the woman's puzzled suspicion.
There is another reason for her doubt: "For whom are you writing with such pain in the lamplight?" The distress (ch'ang tuan ) showing in the face of the man writing the song must be connected with the person about whom he is writing those tender words. The lamplight defines a setting (inside a room, at night) appropriate to pensive reflection. Accompanied by signs of strong emotion, it gives further support to the supposition that he is writing about a love affair. But since the tender words are vague, it is hard to know who the object of his feeling might be.
The first stanza is devoted to the doubts roused in the woman's mind as she reads a song the man has been writing. The second stanza continues as she ponders over what she has just read. Having looked surreptitiously (k'uei ) over his shoulder to see what he was writing, she turns away to consider whether it might possibly be about her:
I lean on the desk for a glimpse of your new poem
and then turn away from the lamp to reflect on the good times we've had—
Vague though the song's tender words may have been, none of it matches anything that she can remember of their relation. So in the end her doubts remain unresolved: is the song about a real love affair or not?
So much for a reading of this song as a simple love poem. The vocabulary common to such songs ("affair," "tender words," "heartbroken in the lamplight," "leaning on the desk," "turning away from the lamp,"
"the good times") and the convincingly implied narrative put in the woman's voice make it sound like an episode in a love affair. I am convinced, however, that it is an invented allegory. In the first place, although the tone is lively and realistic, it lacks any real expression of feeling, whether love, jealousy, grief, or joy, as compared with Wang's 101 other love poems, such as the one celebrating a reunion with his wife, or the lament on seeing her on her deathbed after a separation —events in his life that can be verified. Too, the feelings in those songs are conveyed through a subjective, personal voice that is unmistakable and contrasts strongly with the voice of the female persona adopted in this one, objectivized as the narrator. Thus, the affair implied in the song becomes a symbol providing the possibility of an allegorical reading.
Furthermore, it can hardly be a coincidence that every line of the poem suggests an experience connected with artistic creation; the allegory must be deliberate. I will give my interpretation of the poem read in such terms. To begin with the first line again: "The new song—is it a real affair?" The word pen-shih in traditional Chinese poetry and song has two possible meanings. In the wide sense, as applied to a poem's content, it can be any episode, real or imagined. Pen-shih in the narrow sense means "a love affair," and so it appears in the first reading of our song. Now any mention of love in a poem is calculated to rouse the reader's interest—he wants to know more about it. But in the eyes of traditional Confucian moralists a love affair is a most improper business, and this attitude produces two results: where the reader of such poetry has his interest strongly roused, the writer's response to the reader's curiosity is to refuse to explain. The matter is further complicated by the long-standing Chinese tradition of love poetry as allegory, so that any love poem provides the reader with a potentially double understanding, first for the emotion directly expressed and then a possible allegorical dimension. A poem about a love affair easily raises the doubt in the interested reader's mind as to whether the poem might be allegorical or just a love poem and, if the latter, whether the event is a real episode in the poet's life. This uncertainty has always been a problem for readers of Chinese poetry, and Wang Kuo-wei's song begins by asking the question, "The new song—is it about a real affair?" thus devoting the strategic place in the poem to a problem prominent in understanding Chinese poetry. To compress so much in a short line and to do it so vividly is a remarkable achievement.
Wang Kuo-wei, however, is not just posing a general literary problem. It is a problem associated with a particular genre, and the words "new song" (hsin tz'u ) in the first line are followed in the second by "The tender words are too vague," which in addition to its surface meaning is also descriptive of a special characteristic of the literary art of the song lyric. For most songs are love songs: their currency is "tender words." This recalls, again, Wang's statement in the Jen-chien tz'u-hua cited earlier that "the essence of tz'u is in a subtle and refined beauty" [yao-miao i-hsiu ]; it should avoid the obvious, preferring the vague and suggestive to the definite and specific. And, moreover, whereas the range of the song lyric is limited—largely to the subject of love—by the very imprecision of its language, tz'u is more suggestive than shih and carries the reader beyond the surface meaning of the words, leading to doubt about its true meaning or the poet's intention in writing. This simultaneous characteristic and limitation are described dramatically in the line "The tender words are too vague."
So far we have been considering only the features peculiar to the song lyric that distinguish it from shih poetry. If we look at it from the point of view of the poet who is writing the one or the other, we can see a difference in the way each is composed. When writing a shih poem, the poet is self-consciously expressing his own feelings, so that the poem always has a theme clearly discernible by the reader. The songwriter, however, is primarily providing words for a tune, filling in a pattern, and though the song lyrics by later poets were not really intended for singers to perform, the poet was chiefly concerned with providing a text for parting sorrow or the passing of spring rather than directly giving vent to his own feelings, with the result that, like the reader, he too is uncertain about the precise meaning of the romantic words he puts down in the song pattern. But though the poet may not be deliberately expressing his own feelings, still, in the course of writing, the secret thoughts and feelings in the depths of his unconscious can be inadvertently revealed in his poem. And when his deepest feelings are touched, the process of composition can be accompanied by great anguish. But in terms of the poet's own consciousness, it is by no means certain that he can make himself logically aware of what forces have been at work. This is a difficulty admirably and appropriately conveyed by the line "For whom are you writing with such pain in the lamplight?" which can apply to the pain caused by the poet's reflection on the feelings stirred within him by the song lyric he is writing.
The second stanza clearly identifies the writer of the song as a man (chün ) and the reader as a woman (ch'ieh ), two separate individuals. But it is easy to identify both with the poet himself, as two aspects of his being. As I have previously suggested, Wang Kuo-wei used the terms "observing the object outside" (kuan wu ) and "observing one's own feeling" (kuan wo ) to refer, in the former, to the description of an object or event and, in the latter, to the poet's own feelings as the object of description. But of course it is the poet who observes and who describes, and he not only observes his own feelings and ideas, he can also adopt a stance of viewing himself writing. Hence the two protagonists both coincide with the poet himself, the man who writes the poem and the woman who reads it and turns away from the lamp to reflect on the good times.
All poets in the process of composition have a component within themselves that observes and criticizes, and the result of this critical observation is frequently the realization that what one has written is an inadequate expression of what one has been feeling. As Lu Chi (261–303) expressed it in his "Rhapsody on Literature": "Whenever I write, I am more and more aware of what is involved: I always worry lest my ideas are not equal to my subject, and that my writing fails to convey my ideas." This has precisely the meaning of "it matches none of the things I recall."
Given the limitations of the hsiao-ling lyric form, vague and obscure in comparison with all other verse forms, the difficulty faced by the poet in bringing his subtle feelings into congruence with his words is even greater than what Lu Chi was describing. Lu Chi's rhapsody is universally praised for using a verse form to write literary criticism, but Wang Kuo-wei has used the short song for the same purpose, and his allegory on tz'u criticism is a unique achievement in the annals of Chinese song writing.
In considering Wang Kuo-wei's place as a song lyricist in a Chinese tradition of such poetry that goes back a good thousand years, it is worth noting that there is a discrepancy between his practice of song writing and his critical theory. He strove to approximate the ideal of the first category of true song words, and superficially his short songs and especially certain of his love poems come close as far as content is con-
cerned, but their real character tends rather toward the third type. This calls for elaboration.
The basic reason for this discrepancy between practice and theory comes from his not being able to make his composition a purely spontaneous act. This in turn has its causes. First of all, Wang Kuo-wei was writing at the end of the nineteenth century, a period wholly unlike the Five Dynasties and Northern Sung. Then tz'u were simply songs for entertainment, while by Wang's time they were a literary form, used like shih poetry for self-expression, so he could hardly avoid being self-conscious in writing them. Furthermore, in those earlier times poets writing words for musical settings were not constrained by any body of theory or criticism relating to their art—they could be spontaneous in a way denied later writers, especially a scholar like Wang Kuo-wei, who had been actively concerned with criticism and studies of the genre at the time he was writing songs. Accordingly, when he was himself occupied with creative writing, he could not help deliberately striving for the sort of special beauty and evocative power that he admired, but this deliberate effort was basically antagonistic to the goal he sought. The result was that the songs he wrote were at variance with the models he advocated.
Moreover, Wang was a scholar and a philosopher who, as noted earlier, had gradually moved from philosophy to literature, looking for some immediate consolation. And of his philosophical studies he said, "The problem of human existence is always before my eyes." So everywhere in his songs we find reflected his philosophical concerns and ideas, with the result that his own tz'u deviated even more from those of his preferred first category, true song words. The quality he detected and valued in earlier songwriters was something achieved spontaneously, and to deliberately set about achieving it was bound to result in songs more like those of the third, expository type that Wang disapproved of. However, whereas Sung dynasty poets who wrote songs of this third category were exercising their self-conscious art on long songs (man-tz'u ), Wang wrote short songs in the unmannered, intimate style of the earlier Five Dynasties and Northern Sung. A poet writing a long song concentrated his effort on the technique of composition on a verbal level, whereas in the hsiao-ling Wang could focus on devising a situation or episode sufficiently concentrated or ambiguous to convey the complexity of his thought, producing a natural difference in style. The subject matter also differed, since writers of expository songs typically
applied their skills to political topics or love affairs in the real world, whereas Wang devoted his effort to giving symbolic expression to his inmost philosophical ideas through specific episodes or scenes. While he has a self-conscious artistry in common with those earlier writers of tz'u of the third category and shares an ideal of the form with the poets of the first, his own song lyrics are different from both.
What about the second category, the song lyrics written for the same reason as shih poetry, intentionally to express the poet's feelings? The commonest failing of such songs is that they lose the subtle depth that is the special beauty of tz'u . To succeed as song lyrics, they must come from a poet whose feelings have a deeply ambiguous cast, one who can successfully reconcile those complex feelings with the formal prosodic demands of the song form and, while giving his feelings clear expression, can still preserve the qualities peculiar to song. Two poets who satisfied these conditions were Su Shih (1036–1101) and Hsin Ch'i-chi. When we compare the few songs Wang Kuo-wei wrote where it is clear that he was deliberately expressing feelings that normally would have been written in shih form, we discover some resemblance to those poets, but also considerable difference. Su Shih and Hsin Ch'i-chi employed shifting perspectives to present a wide range of concerns both personal and public, and they could usually achieve subtle depth even in writing songs deliberately expressing their feelings. When Wang tried it, he could not avoid an impression of monotony and obviousness. On the other hand, his philosophical ideas were something lacking in the songs of Su and Hsin. On the technical side, their use of allusion, their diction and overall organization seem to have been achieved with a natural ease that eluded Wang, who relied on deliberately constructed allegory, making one feel that he was working too hard.
After this comparison of Wang Kuo-wei's songs with those of his predecessors over a period of a thousand years, it should not be hard to establish his place in the company of China's preeminent writers of tz'u . He is an important poet who draws upon the past and blends tradition with innovative and original elements of his own. Wang's song lyrics combine many of the features of traditional tz'u without ever fitting wholly into any of the traditional categories. His distinctive incorporation of philosophical ideas and reflection of his own critical ideas in the very song lyrics he wrote represent a significant development in the realm of tz'u content and practice. Wang was aware of his accomplishment, and in his preface he ventured to claim: "Though I have not yet written as many as a hundred songs, there are only one or two poets since Southern Sung times who can match me—of this I am always
confident. In comparison to the great tz'u writers of the Five Dynasties and Northern Sung, I must confess that in some ways I am not their equal, but in some respects these same poets are not as good as I am." By means of a multifaceted approach incorporating both traditional critical methods and modern analytical techniques, I have endeavored to indicate the breadth of his many achievements.