25 October 2017

A lover, not a fighter

Zhuo Wenjun 卓文君 listens to Sima Xiangru 司马相如 playing the zither

One name that came up a couple of times in the Yantielun 《鹽鐵論》 as I was reading it, once in approval and once in decided disapproval, was a rather familiar one. This official, on the good side, remonstrated with the Emperor Han Wu Di 漢武帝 against hunting in pleasure-parks. On the bad side, he opened up the Sichuan frontier with the construction of a road against the wishes of the local elders, and (according to the Literati) provoked conflicts between the Han Chinese and the ‘southwestern barbarians’ the Qiong 邛 and the Ze 筰. This official was also the single definitive poet in the fu 賦 form, and has been romanticised in modern times as a man who, unlike the vast, vast majority of his contemporaries, married for love rather than for material considerations, as recounted in the tale The Phœnix Seeks a Mate 《鳳求凰》. This official’s name was Sima Xiangru 司馬相如.

Sima Xiangru, apparently no relation to the Grand Historian, was born in Sichuan to a notable family, and nursed high ambitions for himself – after reading about the exploits of Lin Xiangru 藺相如, a minister for Zhao during the Warring States period, he took Lin’s personal name as his own. He travelled to the capital and made his living (grudgingly, it seems) as a low-ranking guard for some time under Emperor Jing 漢景帝, before Prince Xiao of Liang 梁孝王, a noted lover of poetry, took notice of the young man’s literary talents and invited him to his regional court, where Sima devoted his time to composition and developing the fu as his favoured literary form.

Sima Xiangru returned home only to find that his father had died, his mother was ill, his family’s wealth had evaporated, and only one loyal retainer remained with the family. Dispirited, Xiangru entered the service of the Magistrate Wang Ji 王吉 of Linqiong 臨邛 in what is now central Sichuan (the city of Qionglai 四川邛崍市), who planned to set Xiangru up with the recently-widowed daughter of a wealthy local iron trader named Zhuo Wangsun 卓王孫. According to the story, Xiangru was invited by Wang to Zhuo’s home, and, after having a few drinks, was prevailed upon to begin playing the zither for the assembled company. Zhuo’s daughter Wenjun 卓文君 was listening from outside the room, and was so enraptured by Sima Xiangru’s music that she peeked out and saw him, falling in love with him at first sight. Her father, however, had planned her remarriage to another local worthy. Enlisting the help of her older brother and Magistrate Wang, she fled her father’s house and eloped with Sima Xiangru. (It can’t be stressed enough how big a ‘no-no’ this was in the context of contemporary morals. Xu Fei stresses that her elopement with Sima Xiangru was ‘a rejection of the morality of the time’ and ‘an unpardonably wanton act’, and that ‘their actions embodied a search for love in the truest sense’.)

Her father having thereupon disowned her, the couple were incredibly poor to begin with. Eventually the couple resorted to opening a wine shop, the Rujun Tavern, in Linqiong, which ultimately had the effect of shaming Zhuo Wangsun into recognising their marriage. Meanwhile, in the Han capital – so the story goes – the new emperor Wu Di managed to pick up a copy of Sima Xiangru’s ‘Fu on Sir Vacuous’ 《子虛賦》, and exclaimed on reading it: ‘Why am I not privileged to be this man’s contemporary?’

The keeper of the Emperor’s dogs, Yang Deyi 楊得意, who was a childhood friend and rival of Sima Xiangru, heard this outburst and told the Emperor who had written the poem. Han Wu Di immediately summoned Sima to his court and asked him to compose a new poem, which turned out to be the famous ‘Fu on Shanglin’ 《上林賦》. Sima Xiangru was not a fan of Han Wu Di’s pleasure-seeking excursions and hunts, which he believed had a bad impact on the common people; he remonstrated with the Emperor about the subject. The Emperor, though displeased with Sima to begin with, eventually took his admonitions to heart and reduced his hunting trips accordingly.

Sima Xiangru had attained to his childhood ambitions, but his wife missed him dearly. Once again she took it on herself to set out alone and seek him out in the capital. Once there, she got a cold reception from him, and saw him noticing other women. Afraid of losing him, she at once penned the ‘White-Haired Lament’ 《白頭吟》. Xu Fei’s version of The Phœnix Seeks a Mate shows Sima Xiangru repenting of his neglect for his wife upon hearing the ‘Lament’, and indeed coming to a stronger appreciation of both his wife’s devotion and her literary virtues. This is in accord with both the Book of Han written by Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, and also the Records of the Grand Historian, which describe Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun as living happily as a couple well into their old age.

Eventually, Sima Xiangru sort-of retired with his wife to a secluded estate at Maoling near the capital, though he continued to write poetry and attend court from time to time. Though an accomplished poet and not one without a sense of public conscience, he had little stomach for court intrigues, which wore down on him. He also suffered from a chronic ailment which was probably diabetes. Despite his repeated remonstrations against hunting, he was certainly not an activist poet, which caused some consternation among his later artistic admirers. He was popular within the Old Text school – both Yang Xiong 楊雄 and Ban Gu 班固 were admirers of his style – but they both upbraided him for not taking an active interest in the contemporary disputes over politics or philology. Sima Xiangru was, to the end, a lover rather than a fighter.

At any rate, an interesting figure from a troubled and intellectually tumultuous time – and remarkable for his rather unorthodox love life. Little wonder later generations of Chinese literati, particularly those in the late Qing and after, would make Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun out to be a romantic hero and heroine.

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