How Goes the Night?

Beijing (English) - - EDITOR’S NOTE - Trans­lated by Wu Li Edited by David Ball

The ex­pres­sion yeweiyang (“it is not yet mid­night”) con­jures up a myr­iad of im­ages in the minds of read­ers. How­ever, it is not com­mon knowl­edge nowadays that this phrase from the poem “Tingliao” in the “Lesser Court Hymns” sec­tion of The Book of Songs

( Shi­jing) was first used by the an­cients to an­nounce that dawn had not yet ar­rived.

How goes the night?

It is not yet mid­night.

The torch is blaz­ing in the court­yard. My princely men are ar­riv­ing; There is the tin­kling of their bells.

How goes the night?

The night is not yet through.

The torch is grow­ing pale in the court­yard. My princely men are ar­riv­ing;

There is the sound of their bells, Reg­u­lar and near.

How goes the night?

It is get­ting to­wards morn­ing.

The torch is smok­ing in the court­yard. My princely men are ar­riv­ing;

I see their ban­ners.

Be­ing the old­est ques­tion-and-an­swer poem in China, “Tingliao” tells of a story that hap­pened more than 2,500 years ago be­tween two peo­ple—one ask­ing and the other an­swer­ing. Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, King Xuan of Zhou (827–782 BC, personal name Ji Jing) was famed for hav­ing brought pros­per­ity to the Western Zhou Dy­nasty (11th cen­tury–771 BC). Be­fore him, there had been the fatu­ous and in­com­pe­tent King Li of Zhou (877–841 BC) and after him was King You of Zhou (781–771 BC) who brought about the downfall of the dy­nasty. King Xuan was ex­tremely dili­gent when it came to po­lit­i­cal af­fairs. Un­der his 40-year rule, the coun­try pros­pered as he of­fered his peo­ple a peace­ful life at home, whilst he fought pow­er­ful en­e­mies abroad.

It is com­monly be­lieved that the per­son ask­ing the ques­tions in the poem is King Xuan. Be­fore meet­ing with sev­eral of his lords, the king is sleep­less and so keeps ask­ing “How goes the night?” for fear that he will be late. The ques­tion is brief and ap­pears to show no special feel­ings. But, the fact that he be­gins ask­ing when it is still night, gives the ques­tion ad­di­tional weight and vividly shows the king's anx­i­ety and fear of be­ing late for the meet­ing.

The other main char­ac­ter in the poem—the one who an­swers the king's ques­tion—is the “cock­erel keeper” (an of­fi­cial in an­cient China re­spon­si­ble for an­nounc­ing the time). He of­fers his re­ply after care­ful judg­ment of what he can see and hear around him. Look­ing around, he sees that the “torch is blaz­ing in the court­yard.” Since only the bright torch could be seen, he replies that “it is not yet mid­night.” When “the torch is grow­ing pale in the court­yard,” he replies that “the night is not yet through.” Fi­nally, “the torch is smok­ing in the court­yard” and even the ban­ners can be dimly made out in the dis­tance— hence his re­ply: “It is get­ting to­wards morn­ing.”

As for what the cock­erel keeper can hear: the “tin­kling” of the bells in­di­cates that the car­riages are still far away in the dis­tance. Later, the “reg­u­lar and near” sound of the bells shows that the ap­proach­ing princely men have slowed their car­riages to avoid wak­ing the king from his slum­ber. The de­scrip­tion of what was seen and heard over two and a half mil­len­nia ago is so pre­cise and vivid that it makes read­ers feel as if they were ac­tu­ally there.

The princely men in the poem also deeply im­press the read­ers even though they are not di­rectly de­scribed. As the king lay in bed anx­iously ask­ing the cock­erel keeper about the time over and over again, these men were grad­u­ally mak­ing their way to the palace. Per­haps many of them had stayed up all night long, busily draft­ing or re­vis­ing their re­ports for their monarch. Thus, this group of loyal of­fi­cials is vividly por­trayed, prompt­ing a strong feel­ing of re­spect amongst read­ers.

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