09 June 2017

Beauty Wang and Poet Wang

Wang Zhaojun 王昭君

Wang Anshi, the great Song dynasty reformer who had a deep influence on Henry Wallace and the New Deal reforms here in the US, was far more renowned for being a prosaïst than a poet, and indeed was ranked among the Eight Masters of his age, alongside many of the early neo-Confucians (including the pioneer of neo-Confucianism, Han Yu, on whom I will write a later blog post). But early in his career, he wrote two poems in praise and sympathy of Wang Zhaojun, the Western Han-era beauty who brought peace between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu Federation through her heqin with Huhanye Chanyu. These two poems, intended to be read together, were titled the Mingfei Qu 明妃曲; here they are in the original:


The English translations, by Notre Dame’s China classics expert Dr. Yang Xiaoshan (with a very minor cosmetic alteration in brackets by myself), are as follows:
As Brilliant Lady just came out of the Han palace,
Her tears moistened [the] spring breeze, her temple locks drooping.
Pacing up and down, gazing at her own shadow, so pallid.
She still caused her lord-king to lose control.
Turning back, he blamed no one but the painter:
When have I ever seen anything like this in my life?
mien and manner could not be captured in paint,
At once causing Mao Yanshou to be wrongly killed.
Once she departed, she knew in her heart she would not return;
Sadly, she wore out her dresses from the Han palace.
She wished to send a messenger to ask about things south of the border,
But year after year there were only wild geese flying by.
Word came from home ten thousand miles away:
Take care in the city of felt tents—don’t think on us.
Haven’t you seen how Ajiao was confined in the nearby Changmen Palace?
In life’s disappointment, there is no south or north.


When Brilliant Lady was just about to be married to the barbarian fellow,
There were a hundred felt-canopied coaches, all with barbarian maids.
Wishing to talk about feelings, but with absolutely no one to turn to,
She conveyed through the
pipa what only she knew in her heart.
As she plucked the golden plectrum with her hand of spring breeze,
She watched the flying geese while playing,
  and called for more barbarian wine.
As maids from the Han palace shed tears furtively,
Passers-by on the desert couldn’t help turning around:
Han’s favour is shallow and the barbarian’s deep;
The joy of life is to be with your heart-to-heart intimate.
Sadly, Green Mound has disappeared beneath the weeds;
Still, the sound of the sorrowful strings lingers on to this day.
Yang remarks that some of the lines in these poems were considered ‘morally problematic’, though he also makes clear that the ‘moral’ critique of these poems seems to have arisen later in Wang Anshi’s career, as the more ‘mainstream’ neo-Confucians of the day began criticising his New Policies on ideological grounds – these poems were considered proof of Wang’s ‘treachery’. But it’s interesting that the passages that Yang discusses as being ‘scandalising’ – namely: ‘In life’s disappointment, there is no south or north’ in the first poem, and ‘Han’s favour is shallow and the barbarian’s deep; The joy of life is to be with your heart-to-heart intimate’ in the second – are considered so because they contradict the contemporary principle of Hua-Yi zhi bian 華夷之辨, the ‘separation of Chinese and barbarian’. To the sensible mainstream poets of the day, the heqin of a Chinese beauty to a barbarian prince was an unmitigated tragœdy. Wang Anshi takes a slightly different view. He does emphasise Wang Zhaojun’s sorrow as she makes her way out past the frontier, but he also drops hints that her life among the ‘barbarians’ wasn’t wholly a bad one, and that they appreciated her in ways that the Han nobility did not.

Yang attributes this largely to Wang’s personal penchants for originality, contrariety and competitiveness, and his liking for the contemporary ‘volte’ (fan’an 翻案) fashion in Song poetry: what Yang calls his ‘poetics of disagreement’. And Yang is certainly correct: Wang was as markedly an ‘eccentric’ in his literary life, and this was genuinely held against him later. But I have to wonder if there isn’t something else going on. It is easy to overstate the differences among literary men of the same age, of course. Like most of the neo-Confucians of his generation, Wang Anshi dearly loved the Mencius 孟子 and preferred the thought of Mengzi to that of any other classicist following Confucius. But when it came to writing and defending his New Policies (which he had begun working on as early as 1058 with his Ten Thousand Word Memorial 萬言書 but which didn’t begin to be implemented until 1067), Wang Anshi borrowed from a broader array of sources, and turned to a synthesis of Old Text (Zhou li 周禮) and New Text (Gongyang zhuan 公羊傳) sources, in contradistinction to his contemporaries’ growing preference for the Zhongyong 中庸 and the Daxue 大學. (The reason for this general turn of preference away from the Han-era classical scholars and toward Mencius, traceable to that superlatively sublime prosaïst and moralist of the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu, is something I will approach in a later blog post.) This also might be explained by Wang’s contrarian personality, if not for the fact that Wang genuinely believed that his approach was more in line with the thought of the ancients.

So I have to wonder if his approach to the legend of Wang Zhaojun doesn’t also partake, even if indirectly, of a certain New Text School sensibility which blurs the distinctions between Chinese and ‘barbarian’ when it came to his treatment of Wang Zhaojun’s emotional state among the Xiongnu tribes. The influence of Han-era classicism on Wang Anshi’s early worldview is something I definitely want to look into further.

EDIT: I plan on keeping this blog post for a later series, but my recent studies seem to indicate my view of Wang Anshi’s philological interests, stated here, to be extremely naïve. He was emphatically not a New Text scholar in any way, shape or form. Wang considered the entirety of the Spring and Autumn Annals, in fact, to be a ‘broken, musty old court scribbling’ (duanlan chaobao 斷爛朝報), and strongly preferred the Rites of Zhou which, in concert with his emphasis on the Mencius, would seem to indicate a favourable attitude toward Old Text philology. If this entire framework is even useful for understanding Song policy and poetics, which in fact it may not be: the philological controversies died down very quickly after the fall of the Han dynasty and would not surface again until the late Ming.

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