Ro­mance in Wang Shizhen’s Po­etry

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wang Xiao­hua Edited by Roberta Raine

Wang Shizhen (1634–1711), a fa­mous poet of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911), had his po­ems pub­lished, ti­tled “se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang” dur­ing Em­peror Kangxi’s reign (1661–1722).

Wang Shizhen (1634– 1711) was one of the most fa­mous po­ets in the early pe­riod of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1911). Through­out his life, he com­posed over 4,000 po­ems and put for­ward his own po­etic the­ory of “ro­man­tic charm,” which ex­erted a great in­flu­ence on the po­etic cir­cles at that time.

Wang has been hailed as “a great master of po­etry of his time” and a “leader of the lit­er­ary world.” Wang Shizhen had many dis­ci­ples, among whom Lin Ji (1660–1722) and Gu Sili (1669–1722) were his two favourites. Lin and Gu com­piled and en­graved Wang's po­ems and then sub­mit­ted them as a book for pub­li­ca­tion. This se­lec­tion was en­ti­tled Yuyang shan­ren jinghualu (“se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang”) and pub­lished as a fine block-printed edi­tion dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Kangxi (1661–1722) of the Qing Dy­nasty.

Serv­ing with Heart and Soul

In 1679, a man passed the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion at the county level in Zichuan County, Shan­dong Prov­ince, af­ter hav­ing failed many times. Later, he wrote Strange Sto­ries from a Chi­nese Stu­dio, a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries about ghosts and fox spir­its writ­ten in clas­si­cal Chi­nese style. This man was the dis­tin­guished nov­el­ist Pu Songling (1640–1715).

Af­ter he wrote this book, many of Pu's good friends thought that, as a writer, he was not en­gag­ing in proper work. How­ever, one of his good friends from neigh­bour­ing Huan­tai County, hav­ing read the man­u­script of his novel, ad­mired him very much and be­cause of this, wrote a poem for him.

This friend was Wang Shizhen. At that time, Wang was a govern­ment of­fi­cial in Bei­jing. He was highly re­garded by Em­peror Kangxi and had the priv­i­lege of act­ing as lit­er­a­ture at­ten­dant to the em­peror.

When he was young, Wang was very clever and started school at the age of five. Soon, he be­gan to study The Book of Songs. His grand­fa­ther, Wang Xiangjin, was a pure and up­right of­fi­cial. As he hated to see the po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion at the end of Em­peror Chongzhen's reign (1628–1644), he quit his job and re­turned to his home­town. Stay­ing at home, he brought up his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren and wrote Qun­fang Pu (“a reg­is­ter of all flow­ers”), a mas­ter­work on grow­ing plants that still ex­ists to­day.

In 1658, at the young age of 24, Wang Shizhen passed the high­est im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tions. In the au­tumn of 1658, he went to Dam­ing Lake in Ji­nan, Shan­dong Prov­ince, where he in­vited some well­known peo­ple to a gath­er­ing to re­cite and com­pose po­ems.

He im­pro­vised four po­ems en­ti­tled Qi­uliu (“au­tumn wil­lows”). Amaz­ingly, though the four po­ems de­pict wil­lows, the word “wil­low” is not used once. With a high level of artis­tic con­cep­tion and pro­found mean­ing, the po­ems amazed the lit­er­ary world.

In the first poem, he wrote:

“When au­tumn comes, what place is the most melan­choly?

It is Baix­i­a­men, in the rays of the set­ting sun as a west wind blows. On an­other day, the shad­ows of spring swal­lows seemed to ap­pear.

Now, at night the with­ered branches are like scars in the mist.

How melan­choly I am, walk­ing in the field, Lis­ten­ing to the sad rhythms of a piebald horse,

Dream­ing of a far- off vil­lage in the black of night.

Not lis­ten­ing to the flute in the wind that plays three times,

At Jade Pass, I grieve over that which is hard to ex­press.”

Two years later, Wang was trans­ferred to Yangzhou to take up an of­fi­cial post. As he was leav­ing, his mother urged him again and again to have the in­ter­ests of the na­tion and its peo­ple at heart and to “ful­fil your du­ties con­sci­en­tiously.” While in Yangzhou, Wang worked to elim­i­nate cor­rup­tion in the govern­ment and served the peo­ple heart and soul, caus­ing the peo­ple of Yangzhou to greatly praise him.

One year be­fore Wang as­sumed of­fice in Yangzhou, two gen­er­als of the Ming Dy­nasty named Zheng Cheng­gong (1624–1662) and Zhang Huangyan (1620– 1664) led the rem­nants of the Ming army to fight against the Qing Dy­nasty along China's south-eastern coastal ar­eas. Both govern­ment of­fi­cials and the com­mon peo­ple ac­tively re­sponded to the anti-qing cam­paign. As a re­sult, Zheng Cheng­gong cap­tured four pre­fec­tures, three zhou (an an­cient ad­min­is­tra­tive divi­sion) and 24 coun­ties. How­ever, his troops were soon de­feated and had to re­treat to the sea.

Em­peror Shun­zhi (reign: 1644–1661) was so en­raged that he dis­patched two of­fi­cials to as­sume per­sonal com­mand in Nan­jing and in­ves­ti­gate the of­fi­cials and peo­ple who had sur­ren­dered to Zheng. Many peo­ple were im­pli­cated, and some took the chance to lodge false ac­cu­sa­tions against or frame oth­ers to­wards whom they felt an­i­mos­ity. Learn­ing about this, Wang par­tic­i­pated in the trial of those who had sur­ren­dered. Those found guilty with ir­refutable ev­i­dence were pun­ished with sever­ity, but oth­ers were re­leased be­cause no ev­i­dence had been found to be used against them.

Thanks to Wang, many peo­ple were spared from ex­e­cu­tion. On the other hand, those who framed oth­ers to get re­venge were pun­ished se­verely. Wang was per­cep­tive to the slight­est de­tail, a qual­ity that the two of­fi­cials ad­mired very much. While as­sum­ing of­fice in Yangzhou, Wang was clear, up­right and self-

dis­ci­plined, eat­ing only veg­eta­bles twice a day. Al­though he was a high govern­ment of­fi­cial, he was poverty-stricken.

Once, Xu Tianyu, one of his poet friends, asked to bor­row money from him for trav­el­ling ex­penses to take part in the im­pe­rial civil ser­vice exam. How­ever, Wang was too poor to lend him money. See­ing this, his wife took off the bracelet on her wrist and gave it to Xu as trav­el­ling ex­penses.

In 1661, Wang went sight­see­ing at Taihu Lake. Fas­ci­nated by the grace­ful Yuyang Hill there, he be­gan call­ing him­self “the recluse of Yuyang Hill.” In 1678, he was pro­moted by the young Em­peror Kangxi, so he went to Bei­jing once again and was as lit­er­a­ture at­ten­dant to the em­peror in his South­ern Study.

A Role Model Versed in Po­etry

One year ear­lier, in 1677, the em­peror had changed the name of his study to the South­ern Study and se­lected Han­lin schol­ars to be his lit­er­a­ture at­ten­dants. These schol­ars were re­spon­si­ble for read­ing to­gether with the em­peror and ex­pound­ing on the books. They would draft im­pe­rial edicts on be­half of the em­peror and even par­tic­i­pate in han­dling govern­ment af­fairs.

Af­ter be­ing se­lected to work in the South­ern Study, Wang found great favour with the em­peror, who ap­pre­ci­ated his po­ems and es­says very much. Once, the em­peror is­sued an edict or­der­ing Wang to sub­mit his po­etry manuscripts. Wang se­lected 300 po­ems and named the col­lec­tion Yu­lan ji (“col­lected works for im­pe­rial read­ing”) and sub­mit­ted it to the em­peror. Af­ter read­ing it, the em­peror praised him as “a learned of­fi­cial versed in po­etry.”

From then on, Wang had a suc­cess­ful of­fi­cial ca­reer and was pro­moted con­tin­u­ously. He later took charge of the Min­istry of Rites, worked in the Im­pe­rial Col­lege, and worked as an im­pe­rial cen­sor. In the lat­ter role, he tried cases in­volv­ing those who were wrong­fully ac­cused, and he strictly up­held the law. He was pro­moted to be a min­is­ter in the Min­istry of Penalty in 1704.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, though in a high po­si­tion with great power, Wang never for­got to read and write po­etry. He pro­posed his po­etic the­ory called “ro­man­tic charm,” which was highly praised. He was hailed by men of let­ters as “a leader in the lit­er­ary world.”

How­ever, be­fore long, Wang was dis­missed from of­fice by Em­peror Kangxi due to a case in­volv­ing a man named Wang Wu. When he left Bei­jing, many peo­ple crowded the streets and cried to see him leave. Sev­eral boxes of books were his only lug­gage.

Back at his home in Shan­dong, he shut him­self in, ded­i­cated his time to writ­ing books, and had no con­tacts with em­per­ors or no­ble­men. One year, Shan­dong was stricken with drought and Wang had a mis­er­able time, with hardly any food or drink, but he re­fused the ma­te­rial as­sis­tance of­fered by lo­cal govern­ment of­fi­cials.

Six years later, Em­peror Kangxi, re­call­ing with deep emo­tion his se­nior min­is­ters, is­sued an edict to have Wang re­in­stated in of­fice. Un­for­tu­nately, Wang was rav­aged by disease and could not leave for Bei­jing. He had to ask his son to go to Bei­jing and bring a let­ter to the em­peror to ex­press his grat­i­tude.

In 1711, Wang passed away in his home­town at age 78, and many peo­ple felt sad­dened by his death. Kong Shangren (1648–1718), one of his dis­ci­ples who wrote the leg­endary play The Peach Blos­som Fan, left Bei­jing for Huan­tai County to honour his re­spected teacher. Pu Songling wrote four po­ems to lament Wang's death, writ­ing: “There will never be such a good role model as him in schol­ars' cir­cles; af­ter him, there will be no one com­pa­ra­ble to him in lit­er­ary grace.”

The fact that Pu called Wang a role model in schol­ars' cir­cles shows Wang's stand­ing in the lit­er­ary world. Since child­hood Wang had loved read­ing po­etry such as The Book of Songs, which later moved him to tears.

While as­sum­ing of­fice in Yangzhou, Wang of­ten cre­ated po­ems with other po­ets. Of­ten, he would han­dle all the of­fi­cial busi­ness in the day­time and get to­gether with fel­low po­ets at night. When he was in Bei­jing, he of­ten got to­gether with fa­mous po­ets, in­clud­ing Gong Dingzi ( 1615– 1673). Wang sorted through more than 1,000 of his own po­ems, or­gan­ised them into one col­lec­tion and called it Yuyang ji (“col­lected works of Yuyang”), which made him fa­mous through­out the cap­i­tal.

He wrote more than 4,000 po­ems in his life­time. His favourite po­etry an­thol­ogy of his work was the ten-vol­ume “se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang,” which be­came a mas­ter­piece of fine block-printed edi­tions in the early Qing Dy­nasty.

The Ro­man­tic Charm of Wang’s Po­etry

In the North­ern Song Dy­nasty (960– 1127), Huang Tingjian (1045–1105), a dis­tin­guished poet whose pseu­do­nym was Shangu, had com­piled his favourite po­ems into one book ti­tled Shangu jinghualu (“se­lected works of Shangu”), which was widely cir­cu­lated.

Cen­turies later, in 1700, in­spired by Huang's com­pi­la­tion, Wang se­lected and edited his own favourite po­ems

into the “se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang,” im­i­tat­ing the ti­tle of the poet Shangu. The an­thol­ogy was tran­scribed and sent to the prin­ter by his dis­ci­ple Lin Ji, who was pro­fi­cient in both po­etic com­po­si­tion and cal­lig­ra­phy.

Through­out his life, Lin was fond of col­lect­ing books and built a li­brary that he called Puxue Study, where he col­lected many rare books. Lin had ob­tained a solid ground­ing in cal­lig­ra­phy and was pro­fi­cient in writ­ing kaishu, a Chi­nese cal­li­graph­ic­style script. Lin was thus re­spon­si­ble for tran­scrib­ing Wang's “se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang,” which had a great rep­u­ta­tion in the his­tory of book en­grav­ing in the Qing Dy­nasty.

Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Kangxi, a type of script used for en­grav­ing books, some­times called “soft char­ac­ters,” be­came pop­u­lar. This script was soft, beau­ti­ful and grace­ful. It ap­prox­i­mated the guange style (a com­monly-used script formed in the im­pe­rial ex­am­i­na­tion room) and looked very neat. This style was very pop­u­lar dur­ing the pe­riod of the three Qing em­per­ors, namely, Kangxi, Yongzheng (reign: 1723–1736) and Qian­long (reign: 1736–1795).

As Lin was Wang's dis­ci­ple, he was metic­u­lous in tran­scrib­ing Wang's words onto the en­grav­ing plate. Each char­ac­ter that Lin tran­scribed looked very vig­or­ous. Af­ter tran­scrib­ing, the work was sent to Gu Sili, an­other dis­ci­ple of Wang's, to cut the blocks at Xi­uye Thatched Cottage. Gu Sili was born in Suzhou and Xi­uye Thatched Cottage was both his li­brary and the place where he made block-printed books. Dur­ing the reign of Em­peror Kangxi, Xi­uye Thatched Cottage was well-known na­tion­wide and had many vis­i­tors.

Even writer Zhu Yizun (1629–1709), who was on a par with Wang, paid a per­sonal visit to Xi­uye Thatched Cottage. Zhu once said of Xi­uye Thatched Cottage: “Gu put up scaf­folds to store his books, put up poles to hang his paint­ings, and put out wine to en­ter­tain his guests.” Zhu greatly ap­pre­ci­ated the en­graved books at Xi­uye Thatched Cottage.

The “se­lected works of recluse Yuyang,” a block-printed edi­tion made dur­ing Em­peror Kangxi's reign, was exquisitely printed on pale yel­low pa­per made of bam­boo. The whole book was hand­writ­ten in an ex­quis­ite and sub­tle cal­li­graphic script. In the pref­ace there was a pic­ture ti­tled “Recluse Yuyang Wear­ing a Straw Hat.”

The fig­ure looked re­laxed and com­fort­able, like a fish­er­man. Be­low the ta­ble of con­tents the words “Com­piled by Dis­ci­ple Lin Ji” were writ­ten. Af­ter this block-printed edi­tion be­came pop­u­lar, peo­ple vied to or­der it. How­ever, only a few hun­dred copies of this edi­tion were printed, so it was reprinted many times dur­ing Em­peror Yongzheng's reign. The reprinted edi­tion was very ex­quis­ite, sim­i­lar to the orig­i­nal. These reprinted copies were viewed as the orig­i­nal block-printed edi­tion by a few ex­perts.

In the early Qing Dy­nasty, many po­ets were con­sid­ered holdovers from the Ming Dy­nasty be­cause they cher­ished the mem­ory of the Ming Dy­nasty and poured out their grief, indig­na­tion and re­sent­ment in their po­etry.

Af­ter po­ets such as Wang Shizhen, Zhu Yizun and Zha Shenx­ing (1650–1727) ap­peared in the lit­er­ary world, a new group of Qing Dy­nasty po­ets ap­peared, and a new age of pros­per­ity be­gan. At that time, Wang and Zhu were called “South Zhu and North Wang,” but of the two, Wang had greater in­flu­ence as a poet.

He oc­cu­pied a po­si­tion of power and pres­tige dur­ing Em­peror Kangxi's reign and was greatly ad­mired by the em­peror. His rep­u­ta­tion soared to new heights and those who cut blocks for po­etry an­tholo­gies asked him to give his com­ments and write a pref­ace.

Wang's most fa­mous po­etic the­ory was called “ro­man­tic charm,” which meant “re­veal­ing the po­etic charm with­out men­tion­ing the key words.” Dur­ing the South­ern Song Dy­nasty (1127–1279), Zhao Mengjian, a de­scen­dant of Em­peror Taizu (reign: 960–976), com­posed the fol­low­ing poem en­ti­tled Mei (“Plum”): “Un­der the misty moon­light at dusk, Clear moun­tain streams flow un­der bridges.

Sud­denly I feel spring is in the air, Be­cause soft rain ac­com­pa­nies me as I walk.”

This poem is about plum blos­soms but the word “plum” does not ap­pear any­where. For this rea­son, Wang com­mented on this poem, writ­ing that it “de­picted well the ro­man­tic charm of plum blos­soms.”

The best poem of this style writ­ten by Wang is his Qin­huai za­shi (“mis­cel­la­neous poem of Qin­huai”):

“In years past I felt heart­bro­ken on the boat in Mol­ing,

Lost in reverie at the pavil­ions on the Qin­huai River.

For miles the driz­zle fell, like silk in the wind.

The thick spring mist re­minded me of late au­tumn.”

On a rainy day in spring, Wang was on a boat, watch­ing the driz­zle fall for miles, which re­minded him of au­tumn days in the past. En­chanted by the spring scenery be­fore his eyes, he felt heart­bro­ken.

Af­ter read­ing Wang's poem, the great scholar Zhao Yi (1727–1814) wrote, “Wang's po­etry fea­tures ro­man­tic charm.” Zhao Yi spoke highly of Wang's poem, say­ing, “It is a po­etic and sub­tle mas­ter­piece that will last through the ages.”

Wang's po­ems, char­ac­terised by ro­mance, have been widely read to this day. The ex­quis­ite block-printed edi­tion of “se­lected works of the recluse Yuyang,” com­pleted dur­ing Em­peror Kangxi's reign, has lasted for over 300 years and still pro­vides read­ers with an idea of Wang's work.

From the orig­i­nal Tao Te Ching and Tai Ping Ching to the Zheng­tong Dao Zang, the Taoist records are as nu­mer­ous as stars in the sky. They doc­u­ment an­cient peo­ple's faith in re­li­gion and wishes for a bet­ter life, also bear­ing wit­ness to an­cient China's so­cial cus­toms.

A copy of Yuyang­shan­ren­jinghualu, a book on Wang Shizhen’s se­lected works

A copy of Gan­ji­uji, a po­etry an­thol­ogy com­piled by Wang Shizhen

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