Ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the Poem ‘A Wife Wait­ing’

Beijing (English) - - POEM - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by Justin Davis

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.”

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