Romance in Wang Shizhen’s Poetry
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