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.