Part IV Yue Fu Poems

Yue Fu Poems(乐 府 诗 )

The Creation of 《Yue Fu Poems》
Western Han Dynasty inherited the court music of Qin Dynasty. It was a tradition in Qin and Han Dynasties to hold sacrificial ceremonies for the Heavenly Emperor and Deities in the suburb of the capital. There were 19 pieces of music used at such occasions, yet the verses were difficult to understand. Experts of all 《Five Classics》 had to be gathered for discussion and study in order to comprehend these verses. To do away with such a fuss and ensure an easy job for the ceremonies, Emperor Wu of Han decided to set up “乐府, Yue Fu, the Official Conservatory”, a different organization from the Court Music Agency. The task of “Yue Fu” was to provide service only to suburb sacrificial ceremonies by collecting folk songs in order to compose new music, creating new verses to replace old ones and training of musicians and performers. Emperor Wu appointed a eunuch, Li Yannian as the Director General of “Yue Fu”. The reason for this appointment was based on Li’s long experience in performing art. His younger sister, the most favored concubine of Emperor Wu, must have been an important factor. The most famous poetic prose writer Sima Xiangru was entrusted with the task of heading the department of writing new verses. Both created and collected verses by “Yue Fu” have been referred to as 《Yue Fu Poems》.

Most poems in the existing 《Yue Fu Poems》 are those of the Eastern Han period (25-220 AD),  smaller parts are from the Western Han period (206BC-24AD), the Southern Dynasties (420-589)and Northern Dynasties (386-581). The earliest one among them was written in 111BC
《Yue Fu Poems》 of Han Dynasty is composed of :

1,《Songs of Suburb Temples》, 《The Drum and Pipe Music》 and the 《Dance Music》were for the use by the imperial court; I would like to quote the following poem as an example  for the part:

日 出 入                       Ri Chu Ru
日出入安穷?                 Ri chu ru an qiang?
时世不与人同!              Shi shi bu yu ren tong!
故春非我春,                 Gu chun fei wo chun,
夏非我夏,                    Xia fei wo xia,
秋非我秋,                    Qiu fei wo qiu,
冬非我冬。                    Dong fei wo dong.
泊如四海之池,              Bo ru si hai zhi chi,
遍观是耶谓何?              Bian guan shi ye wei he?
吾知所乐,                    Wu zhi suo le,
独乐六龙。                    Du le liu long.
六龙之调,                    Liu long zhi diao,
使我心若。                    Shi wo xin ruo.
訾,                             Zi,
黄其何不俫下!             Huang qi he bu lai xia!

A Chinese calligraphy of the poem

The Sun Rises and Sets
Would there be an end to sunrise and sunset?
The times of nature and the lie-span of people are different.
That is why spring is not my spring,
Summer is not my summer,
Autumn is not my autumn,
Winter is not my winter.
The floating life of people is being drained out slowly,
In the pond of four seas.
Isn’t it the same everywhere if we looked all over.
I know what would be my pleasure,
To ride on the six dragons  is my sole desire.
I would be greatly gratified,
If I could really drive the dragons in the upper atmosphere.
How come the yellow horses  haven’t come down,
They are not in sight anywhere!

This song was devoted to the Deity of Sun at suburb sacrificial ceremonies. Sima Xiangru, who rewrote the verse, knew he could not surpass Qu Yuan who wrote about the Deity of Sun in the 《Nine Songs》, he therefore wrote from the triangle of people’s worship of the Deity. In particular, Emperor Wu of Han himself believed that men can become celestial beings. “My only pleasure is to drive the six dragon in the sky” might be the Emperor’s own words. Some people say this poem is a perfect lyric with unique imagination and fantastic ideas. I think the poem provides much food for thought when it compared the short life-span of people to the infinite universe.

2, Ballads and part of scholars’ poems were included into 《Verses for Accompanying Pipe and String Instrument》. Singers used to mark time to music played by pipe and string instrument by striking drums themselves, and this was how it was named. This is the best part of 《Yue Fu Poems》. The poems dealt with social matters in a very descriptive way. When we talk about the characteristics of 《Yue Fu Poems》, we refer mainly to this part. Most poems in this part are ballads collected from various places. Aside from a few works of Western Han period, they are works of Eastern Han. Many are of high quality and cover a wide range of contents. You can find in this part stories like a dying wife’s farewell words to her husband as in 《The Sick Wife》; a maltreatment of an orphan by his brother and sister-in-law as in 《The Orphan》. These sad stories are very touching. 《东门行, Dong Men Xing, Out of the East Gate》 tells us a story about a poor man who risked dangers

出东门,不顾归。                Chu dong men, bu gu gui.
来入门, 怅欲悲。                Lai ru men, chang yu bei.
盎中无斗米储,                   Ang zhong wu dou mi chu,
还视架上无悬衣。                 Hai shi jia shang wu xuan yi.
拔剑东门去,                     Ba jian dong men qu,
舍中儿母牵衣啼:                 She zhong er mu qian yi ti:
他家但愿富贵,                 “Ta jia dan yuan fu gui,
贱妾与君共铺糜。”            Jian qie yu jun gong pu mi.”

A cursive script of the poem

He returned from the outside of east gate because of worry.
Entering home he felt sad and sorry.
There was no rice (food) in the clay basin,
Neither was their cloths hanging on the shelf.
Pulling out the sword he again wanted to go to the east gate,
His son and wife dragged his robe and wept:
“Others wish to be rich,
Your humble wife would rather have with you porridge.”

When there was no means of living, the husband went out of the east city gate to do something unlawful. Out of worry about his son and wife, he returned. Seeing there was no food and cloths at home, he was determined to go again in spite of his wife’s dissuasion.

《A Long Song》 of this part is a poem I like very much:

长歌行                     Chang Ge Xing
青青园中葵,            Qing qing yuan zhong kui,
朝露待日晞。            Zhao lu dai ri xi.
阳春布德泽,            Yang chun bu de ze,
万物生光辉。            Wan wu sheng guang hui.
常恐秋节至,            Chang kong qiu jie zhi,
焜黄华叶衰。            Kun huang hua ye sui.
百川到东海,            Bai chuan dao dong hai,
何时复西归!            He shi fu xi gui!
少壮不努力,            Shan zhuang bu nu li,
老大徒伤悲。            Lao da tu shang bei.

A Chinese style painting depicting the theme of the poem

  A Long Song

Sunflowers in the garden are green,
The morning dew will be dried up by sun.
Under the kindness and bounties of the spring sun,
All things on earth shine.
People don’t like the coming of autumn,
Full leaves would become yellow and sapless in pain.
Rivers flow to the east to sea,
When could they be back to the west by return!
If one does not work hard when he is young,
He would regret with sorrow in his old age in vain.

Why is this 10-line long poem called a long song? Because the music was long. The length of music decided the tittle. We shall, in the next chapter, cite 《A Short Song》, which is longer than this one. Presumably, the music that accompanied it was shorter. This poem deals with a serious and healthy theme. It is an awakening shouting at those young people who do not treasure time. Yet, it does not read like a stale preaching. The first two lines present to us a clean and refreshing morning smell. But such a beautiful scene can not be maintained for long. When the sun comes out, the dew on leaves would be dried up. Even though people don’t like autumn, because of falling leaves, yet, they know when spring comes the leaves may go back to life again. But human life is different. It is a one-time affair, just like waters in the river, when it flows into sea, it can never return. Finally, these natural phenomena lead naturally to the conclusion in the last two lines. The uniqueness of this poem lies in its method of composing: it writes about “a spell” by describing eternity; it writes about “a while” by describing things lasting long.

3, those poems that had never been accompanied with music were included into 《Verses for Ballads and Miscellaneous Songs》; In the part, I would like to cite the following poem:

箜 篌 谣                       Kong Hou Yao

结交在相知,                   Jie jiao zai xiang zhi,
骨肉何必亲。                   Gu rou he bi qin.
甘言无忠实,                   Gan yan wu zhong shi,
世薄多苏秦。                   Shi bo duo su qin.
从风暂靡草,                   Cong feng zan mi cao,
富贵上升天。                   Fu gui shang sheng tian,
不见山巅树,                   Bu jian shan dian shu,
摧扤下为薪。                   Cui wu xia wei xin.
岂甘井中泥?                   Qi gan jing zhong ni?
上出作埃尘。                   Shang chu zuo ai chen.

A Rhyme on Kong Hou

Friends do know each other,
Relatives may not be dearer.
Sweet words do not carry honesty,
When the ways of the world are cold more people like Su Qin  would appear.
Grass may be blown bent by wind,
Some are blown up to the sky and seemed richer.
The tree on mountain top,
Once fell it is just wood for fire.
Not content with being mud at the bottom of a well,
Yet when it is up and out of the well, it becomes dust for ever

“Konghou” is a kind of string instrument. Apparently when this song was sung, it was accompanied by Konghou. This poem states a philosophy: be content with the present, not to be outstanding, not to be outranked. I believe this philosophy has been accepted by many Chinese people for more than one thousand years.

4, 《铙歌, Nao Ge, Cymbal Songs》, the last part is mainly army music of Western Han, and most of them depict army formation or meritorious deeds. There are 18 songs in this part, some are ballads, for instance, the 12th song 《有所思, You Suo Si, Something I Thought》:

有所思,乃在大海南。  You suo si, nai zai da hai nan.
何用问遗君,          He yong wen yi jun,
双珠玳瑁簪,          Shuang zhu dai mao zan,
用玉绍缭之。          Yong yu shao rao zhi.
闻君有他心,          Wen jun you ta xin,
拉杂摧烧之。          La za cui shao zhi.
秋风肃肃晨风颸 ,     Qiu feng su su chen feng si,
相思与君绝!          Xiang si yu jun jue!
鸡鸣狗吠,兄嫂当知之。Ji ming gou fei, xiong sao dang zhi zhi
妃呼豨 。             Fei hu xi.
东方须臾高知之。飔狶  Dong fang xu yu gao zhi zhi.

Something I thought of is in the south of sea.
What I would give to you
Was a hairpin made from hawksbill turtle with two pearls.
When I learned you were no longer faithful to me,
I broke and burnt it, and threw the ashes into with wind.
From now on, I would never think of you!
I would break off with you!
Cocks crowed and dogs barked when you swore,
My brother and his wife had witnessed.
Fei hu xi.
The autumn wind was soughing and birds flew fast.
The day break that would come soon in the east
Would know my heart.

From the last line of the poem, we know the girl had been thinking all night and she was so passionately devoted to love, yet when she learned her lover betrayed her, she said with courage, “from now on, I would never think of you!” What the poem presented to us is a bitter heart of a girl who lost her love. A striking feature of cymbal songs is the mixture of sounds with words. For instance, “Fei hu xi” has no meanings; these three characters are symbols of sounds. Things like this have made it difficult for later generations to distinct symbol from those which are not. That’s why some of the cymbal songs aren’t easy to comprehend. Some people say “Fei hu xi” were notes made by musicians to indicate to singers to appear mournful when they come to such symbols.

In the part of 《Cymbal Songs》, the 15th poem is most famous:
铙 歌  上邪                     Nao Ge    Shang Ye
上邪!                          Shang ye!

我欲与君相知,                  wo yu yu jun xiang zhi,
长命无绝衰。                     Chang ming wu jue shuai.
山无陵,                           Shan wu ling,
江水为竭,                        Jiang shui wei jie,
冬雷震震,                        Dong lei zhen zhen,
夏雨雪,                          Xia yu xue,
天地合,                          Tian di he,
乃敢与君绝!                    Nai gan yu jun jue!

Ah, Heaven! ( from 《Cymbal Songs》)
Ah, in front of heaven!
To you my love is given.
Throughout life my love will not decline.

Only when mountains have no ridges,
Rivers are dried up,
It thunders in winter,
Snows in summer,
And the earth and sky are shut for ever,
Would I dare break off with you, my lover!

An art work depicting the theme of the poem

This is how a young northern girl describes her love. She made her pledge in a reverse way. She says under five conditions she would give up her love. When we read these conditions, we know such things would not happen. The way of making a pledge shows her firmness in love and richness in her feelings and thinking. No wonder, more than 1,000 years later, this poem is still on the lips of many people. Not long ago I read an article written by one of the sons of Mao Zedong recalling his mother Yang Kaihui. In the article he said that his mother’s love to Mao was stronger than that expressed by the poem 《Ah, Heaven》.

 Before we end 《Yue Fu Poems》 of Han, we must have a look at the most  famous and  great long narrative poem 《孔雀东南飞, Kong Que Dong Nan Fei, Peacocks Fly Southeast》. It was based on a true story, created probably during the Eastern Han period. It first appeared in Xu Ling’s 《New Songs on the Jade Platform》under the title of 《An Old Poem for the Wife of Jiao Zhongqing》. It was included into《Yue Fu Poems》 in the Song Dynasty by Guo Maoqian into the part of 《Miscellanies》.

 This 1,785 characters long poem depicts the tragedy of a feudal family and reveals the ruthlessness of feudal society. Jiao Zhongqing, the hero of the story was from a wealthy family, his grand father was a big official. His wife Liu Lanzhi’s family was a common one. They were married for three years and loved each other sincerely and deeply. Yet, the mother of Jiao didn’t think Liu was a good match to her son. She maltreated Liu and finally broke up the marriage and drove Liu back to her home. At the time of parting, Jiao and Liu swore to be forever faithful:

君当作磐石,           Jun dang zuo pan shi,
妾当作蒲苇。           Qie dang zuo pu wei.
蒲苇韧如丝,           Pu wei ren ru si,
磐石无转移。           Pan shi wu zhuan yi.

You should be a huge rock,
I, your humble wife, shall be cattail leaf.
Cattail leaves are tenacious,
The huge rock never moves.

They were hoping to be together again. But, when Liu returned home, her family could not put up with her. Her Brother forced her to marry to the son of the governor. On the day the governor’s family came to get the bride, Liu drowned herself. When Jiao learned about the sad news, he hung himself. They showed their will of not yielding to feudal forces and the spirit of dying for happiness and love at the cost of their lives. This tragedy was very hurting; nobody was willing to accept such a tragedy. The ending was written with beautiful imagination, it said that Jiao and Liu became a pair of mandarin ducks which

仰头相向鸣,           Yang tou xiang xiang ming,
夜夜达五更,           Ye ye da wu geng,
行人驻足听,           Xing ren zhu zu ting,
寡妇夜彷徨。           Gua fu ye pang huang
多谢后世人,           Duo xie hou shi ren,.
戒之慎勿忘!           Jie zhi shen wu wang!

They raised their heads and chirped to each other,
Every night until day is closer,
Passersby stopped and listened to them,
Widows walked back and forth at night and wonder.
Later generations would be appreciated,
If they take the story as a lesson and never forget it!

In blessing Jiao and Liu, people of the time also expressed their own desire of seeking happiness. By giving full sympathy to Jiao and Liu, the poem revealed with a powerful artistic means the crimes of the feudal ethical code. This poem has been considered one of the forceful works in opposing feudal traditions. During the May 4th movement in 1919 when the anti-feudal new literature was being promoted, four different kinds of drama adopted from the poem were staged. The whole poem is well structured, its language is simple and natural, the dialogues are appropriate to the characters. Narrative as it is, it also contains strong lyric content and appeal. The accomplishment of this poem marks the artistic height of Han 《Yue Fu Poems》.

No ballads were collected during the periods of Wei (220-265) and the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316). Scholars mainly wrote the poems of these periods. We shall come back to these poems in the next chapter. 《Yue Fu Poems》 of the Southern Dynasties (420-589) has different features than that of Han, quite a number of them have been handed down to us, there are more than 480 of them. They were more or less created at the turn of dynasties, around 420, at the decline of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420) and the rise of the Song (420-4379). Most of them are four-line poems with five characters in each line. They are almost all love poems and exceedingly sentimental, a contrast to the simple, unsophisticated narrative feature of Han 《Yue Fu Poems》. The Southern Dynasty’s poems are composed of two parts: 《吴声歌曲, Wu Sheng Ge Qu, Songs in Wu Pronunciation》 and 《西曲歌, Xi Qu Ge, West Songs》. The home base for the former was the area around Nanjing, and the latter around Xiangyang of Hubei. Since the two centers were all big and important cities, the content of the poems are different from that of Han 《Yue Fu Poems》 which was based on countryside life. Even though these two parts are all love poems uttered by ladies, they are different in tones and styles. Wu songs are mild and soft while west songs are hurried and tense. Among Wu songs, the 《Song of Zi Ye》 is most important. Zi Ye is a lady’s name of Jin Dynasty. This poem described lovers’ sad feelings of parting and their joy of meeting. What is unique about 《Yue Fu Poems》of Southern Dynasty is the usage of puns. For instance, 莲 means lotus, yet a homophonic word is 怜 which means love or pity. Let’s read the following lines:

我念欢的的,            Wo nian huan di di,
子行由豫情。            Zi xing you yu qing.
雾露隐芙蓉,            Wu lu yin fu rong,
见莲不分明。            Jian lian bu fen ming.

I am so happy to see you,
Yet your act reluctantly.
Fog and dew are hiding the lotus,
I can’t see it (lotus) clearly.

What it really meant was:
Fog and dew are hiding the looks of my man,
I can’t see his love clearly.

A good use of pun can give you a feeling of faintness and implication. It is certainly authentic when this method is applied on a lady’s restrained, graceful and yet passionate expression of love.

Feelings in these love poems are expressed in a more graceful and exquisite way. Take the following one:

夜长不得眠,           Ye chang bu de mian,
明月何灼灼!           Ming yue he zhuo zhuo!
想闻欢唤声,           Xiang wen huan huan sheng,
虚应空中诺。           Xu ying kong zhong nuo.

I can’t fall into sleep in the long night,
How come the moon is so bright!
I heard my lover’s call,
Yet my reply could only hang in the air.

How much the young lady was missing her love was exquisitely portrayed: she was sleepless, she heard as if her man was calling her, she unconsciously replied, but where was he? Her reply could not reach him; it could only hang in the air and end in her room.

《West Songs》 are identical to Wu songs in form and content. But most of them dealt with the mood of leaving and parting. Please read :

莫 愁 乐                       Mo Chou Yue

闻欢下杨州,                   Wen huan xia yang zhou,
相送楚山头。                   Xiang song chu shan tou.
探手抱腰看,                   Tan shou bao yao kan,
江水断不流。                   Jiang shui duan bu liu.

Mo Chou Yue
My love was going to Yangzhou,
I saw him off at the top of Chushan Mount.
Arme stretched to embrace him,I looked,
And the river stopped its flow.

《Mo Chou Yue》 was a kind of music composed for girls to sing. In this poem, the girl was so reluctant to part with her love. When she embraced him, the river seemed stopped its flow in her eyes. Of course, she had hoped the river could stop its flow, and her lover could not board on the boat, he would have to stay.

The following poem expresses the lament over the fate of woman. It compares woman to “girl dream” lichen; man to a pine tree. Both of them are green in spring time, but in winter time the lichen would wither. What the poem tries to indicate is that woman would be forsaken when they grow old and lose her beauty.

襄 阳 乐                       Xiang Yang Yue

烂漫女夢草,                   Lan man nv meng cao,
结曲绕长松。                   Jie Qu rao chang song.
三春虽同色,                   San chun sui tong se,
岁寒非处侬。                   Sui han fei chu nong.

Xiang Yang Yue
The bright "girl dream" lichen,
Curves up along the tall pine.
Though the color of them may be the same in spring,
In cold days there is no place of mine.

Seven-word a line poems occurred in 《West Songs》. For an example, “巴东三峡猿鸣悲, 夜鸣三声泪沾衣.” These seven character lines read,“At the three gorges in Badong the apes cried in grief, three such cries at night make your tears run down to your cloths.”

《Yue Fu Poems》of the Northern Dynasties (386-550) are not as many as that of the Southern Dynasties. Yet, they covered more social aspects and are frank and straightforward in style. There are poems translated from other nationalities, take 《敕勒歌, Chi Le Ge, The Song of Chile》 which is very famous:

敕勒川,阴山下。        Chi le chuan, yin shan xia.
天似穹庐,                 Tian si qiong lu,
笼盖四野。                 Long gai si fang.
天苍苍, 野茫茫,      Tian cang cang, ye mang mang,
风吹草低见牛羊。        Feng chui cao di xian niu yang.

River Chile is at the foot of Mount Yin.
The sky is so vast,
It covers from all sides the wilds.
When wind blows the grass low cattle and sheep are seen.

This poem was created originally in “Xian Bei”language between 429-472. It was translated into Chinese in the Bei Qi period (550-577). It is said that in 543, Gao Huan of Eastern Wei was fighting Western Wei, he lost 40-50% of his soldiers. Gao fell ill because of anger. What was to be done? Gao called his soldiers together, and asked General Hu Lujin to lead in singing 《Chile Song》. As a result, the song raised the morale of his men and he won the battle.

Poems originally written in Chinese could express the same vastness and vigor, for instance, 《紫骝马歌, Zi Liu Ma Ge, The Song of Ziliu Horse》:

高高山头树,            Gao gao shan tou shu,
风吹叶落去。            Feng chui ye luo qu.
一去数千里,            Yi qu shu qian li,
何当还故处?            He dang huan gu chu?

On top of the mountain are the higth trees,
Wind blows their leaves away,
Several thousand li away,
How could they ever return to their home country?

In the Northern Dynasties a greater number of men served in the army. This poem depicts the feelings of soldiers who left their home county by describing the fallen leaves. The love songs are very straightforward unlike the restrained tone of that in the Southern Dynasties. Following is one of 《Songs of Willow Branches》:

腹中愁不乐,           Fu zhong chou bu le,
愿作郎马鞭。           Yuan zuo lang ma bian.
出入擐郎臂,           Chu ru huan lang bi,
蹀座郎膝边。           Die zuo lang xi bian.

I don't feel happy,
I'd rather be your horsewhip.
When you come and go I'm tied to your arm,
When you sit I'm dose to your knee.

From this refreshing and simple way of expression, we could see that the life of the northern people is different from the south.

What is most famous of the Northern Dynasties’ 《Yue Fu Poems》 is the long narrative 《Mulan Poem》, which could be matched with 《Peacocks Fly Southeast》. The two of them have been regarded as a pair of jade of 《Yue Fu Poems》. The poem sang praise of Mulan, the heroin who disguised her as man and joins the army in her father’s place. After 10 years of battle life, she was rewarded by the government and returned home. These are the lines at the end of the poem:

雄兔脚扑朔,           Xiong tu jiao pu shuo,
雌兔眼迷离。           Ci tu yan mi li.
双兔傍地走,           Shuang tu bang di zou,
安能辩我是雄雌。     An neng bian wo shi xiong ci.

The male rabbit jumps,
The female rabbit's eyes are blurred.
When they walk together,
Who can tell their gender?

These lines expressed the joy and confidence of a lady in her own ability. This poem voiced the demands of women in the feudal society for equality and emancipation. It illustrated that women possessed the same ability as men even in matters like warfare. There are enough traces in the poem showing that it was a ballad and polished later by scholars. The poem is a bit romantic. Its style is energetic and unsophisticated. In the poem, mental activities are portrayed in detail and depth by way of dialogues; actions are vividly presented by way of elaboration and parallelism; succinct spoken language used by the heroin builds up the descriptive power of the poem. 《Mulan Poem》 has had a far-reaching influence on later generations. There have been many Mulan temples in various places; the one at Huanggang County of Hubei Province is most famous. Tang poets like Du Mu, Du Fu, Yuan Zhen and Bai Juyi were all influenced by 《Mulan Poem》.

The basic spirit of the poems of 《Yue Fu Poems》 is a direct inheritance from 《The Book of Songs》. The cream of these poems was verbal creations of the people of the time. The content in the poems covers a wide range of the life of the people. The composers of these poems were “touched by grief or happiness; inspired by their feelings on what actually happened.” There is more narrative content in the poems. The writing of dialogues also appeared in 《Yue Fu Poems》. The artistic style of the poems is refreshing and simple. The main forms of Chinese poetry, i.e. five-character and seven-character form evolved from the poems of 《Yue Fu Poems》.Outstanding poets of Wei used the titles in the 《Yue Fu Poems》 of Han. There was a “New Yue Fu Campaign” in the Tang Dynasty headed by Bai Juyi. All later poets who criticized political darkness and reflected the sufferings of people had absorbed nutrition from 《Yue Fu Poems》 and pushed forward the development of Chinese literature.