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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciation: 6_岳飛_陸游_辛棄疾》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

Ten Talks 6

(6) Songs of Heroic Poets

Chinese history is unique. It continued for five millennia sustained by the same language and culture. Dynasties changed, and rulers rose and fell, often decided by heroes or traitors who saw national interest in personal terms. In the shift of dynastic reign, many heroes and patriots became immortal for their poems than their military success or failure. The Song Dynasty has perhaps the most number of patriotic poets, like Yue Fei(岳飛), Lu You(陸游), Xin Qiji(辛棄疾)and Wen Tian Xiang(文天祥).

A good understanding of Chinese culture and history will help us appreciate many of the patriotic poems. Both Yue Fei and Wen Tian Xiang had written poems which had aroused the emotions of common folks and scholars alike. They expressed a pure devotion to the motherland in simple and soul-rending songs. Yue Fei fought the Tartar invaders in the north. Wen Tian Xiang lost the last navel battle to the Mongols, ending the Song dynasty in 1279.

It is important to note, from the very complex shift of power, when Kublai Khan, a Mongol, finally established the Yuan Dynasty, he declared his grandfather Genghis Khan as the official founder. In doing so he evoked his public image as a sage emperor, following the Confucian propriety and ancestor worship. Further, the name The Great Yuan (大元), was derived from I Ching(易經)with the meaning of “origin of the universe” (宇宙元始), a grand beginning for a dynasty

It is important to keep in mind to love one’s motherland, with its people and tradition is only natural, quite different from being loyal to a reign or political entity.

We were taught to admire Yue Fei (1103-1141) in Grade 4, in a lesson showing how his mother tattooed four words on his back: “serve your country loyally” (精忠報國). Later, in high school we loved to sing his famous Ci A River in Red with enjoyable melody. As youngsters, we loved to sing and echo the rousing lines: “Thirty years of battling glories are gone like dust and mud, along with eighty thousand li of passing clouds and moon,” 三十功名塵與土, 八千里路雲和月.
History books inform us that Yue Fei was ordered to cease fighting the Tartars in the frontier, because a traitor had persuaded the Emperor to do so. In retirement, the old general revealed his life regrets in Manifold Hills, which is a better Ci. I especially like the lines:

“For glory I paid with grey hair in tow   白首為功

The bamboos and pines at home have grown old   舊山松竹

Homebound journey is on hold  阻歸
To my lute I wish to confide my mind 欲將心事付瑤

No listener   知音少

Who would listen to broken strings speaking feelings   弦斷有誰

Poet Wen Tiang Xiang (1236-1282) paid his heroism with his life. He was not a warrior. He grew up in a Hakka family which prized learning and production (耕讀) in tradition. He ranked first in the Royal Examination with over 600 candidates, and served his king as Prime Minister. Being very patriotic and loyal, he led a number of campaigns to fight the invading Mongols. He was defeated and imprisoned twice. He refused to surrender even when the enemy general offered to appoint him a top officer in the new dynasty. He chose to be beheaded and wrote this immortal poem, Crossing the Lonely Ocean. It is a simple and fluid poem which is sung by people young and old, in praise of his noble character.

The first two lines tell us who and what he is and his devotion in serving the motherland. The next two lines speak about his disappointment and sadness seeing

China in ruins. He was alone and fearful facing the powerful attacks in the midst of a huge ocean. When he was captured he decided to die rather than beg for mercy. The final lines declared his determination to die for his motherland, and be a loyal and free individual with noble character:

“Since days of old man lived but to die 人生自古誰無死

I choose to be loyal to my country for ever thrive” 留取丹心照汗

With these lines the poet shows the world that a meaning life is not necessarily long, but rather useful, satisfactory and free.

Wen Tian Xiang was executed soon after. Before the axe took his life, the enemy general asked if he would reconsider his decision, or say a last word. He retorted: “I have done all I could for my motherland, I am free of any shame.”

Many members of the Wen clan settled down in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Then, in the 1960’s, some of them went to England to thrive, following the Hakka diaspora spirit. A twenty two generation daughter became a notable poetess. She is Wen Zho Xian (1812-1861). Times have changed. She wrote more about the serenity of a life at ease than patriotic ideals. Let us enjoy her Night Crossing in a Bamboo Coat, and immerse in the charm of a moment with Nature in absolute peace:

“Folds of verdant hills offer birds home for the night  山痕叠翠禽栖

Beside a pristine river a homeward traveler calls for a ride  水色澄清客唤

I recline leisurely on my skiff to enjoy the night scene  倚短篷看夜

A flock of returning geese fly over the river I have been  一行雁過前

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