Appreciation of the Poem ‘A Wife Waiting’
According to historical records, the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century–771 BC) more than 2,500 years ago was a time of great turbulence. “A Wife Waiting” is a folk song collected in the Book of Songs (oldest collection of Chinese poetry) that is based on this period of time.
Along the raised bank green I cut down twigs and wait. My lord can’t be seen;
I feel a hunger great.
Along the raised bank green I cut fresh sprigs and spray. My lord now can be seen, But soon he’ll go away.
“I’ll leave your red-tailed fish: The kingdom is on fire.”
“If you leave as you wish, Who’ll take care of your sire?”
This poem still sounds remarkably sad today.
One day 2,500 years ago, on the raised banks of the Ru River, a miserable-looking woman was cutting branches for firewood with an axe. Cutting wood was usually considered to be a man's job. The woman would normally be spinning and weaving at home, but in this case, her husband had been away doing hard labour. Perhaps early in the morning, she may have been retrieving the wood on an empty stomach. With her hair and clothes fluttering in the rustling autumn wind, she was hit by a wave of sadness and said softly, “My lord can't be seen; I feel a hunger great.” She likely had physical hunger in addition to missing her husband.
A new year finally came and the foliage turned green again. The woman was probably still sad, however. Her expectation may have gradually given way to despair. One day she looked up and happened to see her husband coming towards her though, surprisingly. She probably stopped her work and ran towards him. She would be very glad to see him and also make sure her mind was not playing tricks on her.
Shortly after their reunion, the man had to leave again though. He states: “I'll leave your red-tailed fish; the kingdom is on fire.” Like a fish swimming by swaying its red tail tirelessly, the man had to keep moving and could not stay at home while his kingdom was in trouble. The fish in the poem was likely what is now known as a Wuchang fish or bluntsnout bream, which is an herbivorous freshwater fish. Zhu Xi (1130–1200, a Chinese philosopher and politician who lived during the Song Dynasty) once explained in the Shi Ji Zhuan
( A Study on the Book of Songs) that a “bream has a white tail, which turns red when the fish is exhausted.” Zhu stated that this was a metaphor for virtuous men who had to endure hardships and heavy workloads. This metaphor vividly depicts the situation that the woman's husband was in.
The poor wife was thrown back into despair after experiencing the joy of brief reunion. She tries her best to compel her husband to stay and asks, “If you leave as you wish, who'll take care of your sire?”
The poem concludes with the sad question, but the man's answer is not necessarily important. The question runs through the whole history of ancient China. When tyrannical rule and heavy labour endangered families and put them into “hot fire” and “deep water,” regular people had to think about what was going to happen. It could be a stressful and uncertain time for common people, despite them being the foundation of the kingdom. There are no lines to explain what happens next in the poem. People got the answer from history though. The events culminated in the collapse of the kingdom of the Western Zhou Dynasty.
As time advances, bygone years are left behind. The poem “A Wife Waiting” retains its charm and enables one to feel something that is not necessarily recorded in official history. Though more than 2,500 years have passed, one can still feel the touching sincerity of the woman longing for her husband and her sadness about his departure when reading lines like “My lord now can be seen, but soon he'll go away.”