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《Ten Talks on Poetry Appreciation: 5_蘇軾》__ Kong Shiu Loon (53)

Ten Talks

(5) Su Shi – Temporal Experience and Eternal Vista

Following the open vision of Tang, the Chinese culture advanced to a new zenith in the Song Dynasty (960-1179). Science and technology made epochal creations to benefit all mankind. Typography propelled communication over time and space. The magnetic compass enabled human beings to reach new horizons. The gunpowder substituted manual labor to conquer land. New agricultural techniques helped to provide stable food for all. A paper currency created new possibilities for commerce and industry. Herbal medicine helped to enhance health and longevity.

It all began with the new Emperor Zhao Kuang Yin (趙匡胤, 960-976) who forced his former king to abdicate and set up a new dynasty. He united China and designed a government which encouraged the bureaucracy to enjoy life as they ruled, together with a gentry class who was bold to experiment in arts and letters. However, such a golden age was not peaceful and calm for long. Northern tribes were envious and powerful. Over time, they forced the hereditary rulers to flee southward, and terminated the dynasty in 1279. The last emperor Zhao Bing (趙昺, 1278-79) drowned himself in the ocean near Hong Kong.

In perspective, the 319-year dynasty was a golden age for scholars and poets, whose monumental works enriched the spiritual and esthetic dimensions of human civilization. At the center is Su Shi (蘇軾, 1037-1101) who is an all round scholar and a reformative poet. He infused into Ci contents beyond the intuitive singing of common folks to embrace more serious human emotions. After him, Song Ci narrated such matters as patriotism, devotion to family and heredity, love of humanity and Nature, appreciation of arts and letters, as well as spiritual ascendance. He was a notable person in politics which had resulted in his being exiled thrice to distant lands and jailed for a death sentence at one time. But he possessed the Hakka adaptation skills and the Confucius-Daoist-Buddhist wisdom to lead a life of ease, contribution, satisfaction, happiness and nobility.

Many books have been written about the Su family, the father and two sons had all passed the Royal Examination. They also became members of the Eight Prominent Scholars of Tang and Song (唐宋八大家). Su Shi, the older son, has the highest honour. He was a prolific writer, leaving us with more than 4000 essays, poems, Ci, and Fu. Over 60 of these are included in school textbooks.

I will present three of them in this simple talk. Some critics say that Su Shi’s achievement in poetry was higher than in Ci. He himself had said that he wrote Ci as a minor hobby. So we begin with his famous poem A Duet with My Younger Brother on the Good Old Days, written when he was 26 years old. He was on his way to take up a high post, leaving his younger brother behind. The first four lines expressed how the young poet pondered the mystery of life as he pined for his dear brother:

“Who could foresee how life goes settling hither and wither

Like a migrant goose running on snow-wet ground to take flight

If by chance on the cold muddy ground a trace is left behind

Would the flight-bound bird take note of its whereabouts so it may later titter”

I remember learning this poem in my final year in high school, at a time when my girl friend was about to go abroad to study. Like most teenagers, we liked to refer to this poem when we felt the sadness of leaving one another. For millions of poetry lovers across time, the metaphor of “traces in cold muddy ground” (雪泥鴻) is a symbol of courage as one ventures into an unknown changing world.

Some critics say that this poem did not conform to traditional rules, because the last four lines took up a different theme. But, Su Shi did not care about conventional rules. Just as Beethoven was brave enough to include poetic singing in his Ninth Symphony, Su Shi included prose narration, philosophical deliberation, and memory recalls in this poem. He started a new tradition for future poets.

The Prelude to Water Melody is familiar to most high school leavers. Many people love to sing it habitually through life.

“Whence will the moon shine this way again     明月幾時

I ask in earnest a cup in hand       把酒問青

Where in the palaces high in the sky       不知天上宫

What year could it be this night   今夕是何

I’d love to return there riding the wind   我欲乘風歸去

But I fear where onyx towers and jade palaces are in     又恐瓊樓玉

The altitude and chill are too much for my liking          高處不勝寒

I should have no lingering spite or hate   不應有

O moon why do you always shine when people separate            何事長向别時

Let’s keep our love true everlasting        但願人長

And share the moon bright and trusting” 千里共嬋

This Ci was written in 1076 when the poet was 40 years old. He was in exile due to an unfair political trial, away from home for eight years. On the evening of the Mid-autumn Festival, Su Shi drank heavily when he pined for his brother. He picked up his brush and wrote this Ci swiftly, without pause. It got around the whole country quickly to become the most popular poem of its time.

The poem reached the Emperor one evening. He loved every line. As he repeatedly sang the lines “I’d love to return riding the wind, but I fear ….“ and “I should have no lingering spite or hate”, tears wetted his regal eyes. A voice deep in his heart queried: “How could such a loving poet be disloyal to his king?” He summoned his Prime Minister to cancel the banishment. Such is the power of a poem.

My classmates and I used to compete counting how many different ways Li Bai and Su Shi referred the moon in their poems. In this Ci, the first and last lines both relate man with moon in the cosmos, transcending time and distance. But the last line refers to the universal love among all human beings, an ideal in humanity.

Let us now turn to read The Former Red Cliff Rhapsody (《前赤壁賦) to savor Su Shi’s thoughts. It was written on the occasion of his visit with friends to the ancient navel battle site at Red Cliff. Being touched by the grand movement of the thundering rapids under a towering cliff enveloped by moonshine, they drank and discoursed on the meaning of heroism and human actions.

I learned this masterpiece in the confines of the classroom. Our teacher Mr. Ma was a man of small built. But, when he recited the powerful words, he brought us to the roaring scene, its images vivid yet baffling. I loved it. To this day, more than sixty years later, I still marvel on how long before Leibnitz, Newton, and Einstein, a Chinese poet could so ably show us the perspective and possible meanings of change and stability, temporal existence and permanence, acceptance and rejection, as they impact on who we are, and what we can become.

The Rhapsody is long. Here is the part, in paragraph 6-7, which has kept me thinking all these years. I invite my readers to appreciate it, with my English translation:

“You, my friends, must know well about the water and moon in our presence.

Water flows incessantly yet never pass away; the moon waxes and wanes but never changes in size or importance. If you consider change, then heaven and earth cannot remain the same for even an instant. But if you consider the unchanging aspects of things, then objective matters and our subjective self will persist without limit. So what is there to doubt? Further, every object has a possessor. If a thing does not

belong to me; I should not take even a tiny speck of it. However, there are exceptions, like breezes along the river, and moonshines peeping through mountains. They are

music when we hear them, and beauties when we see them.. They can be possessed with no limitation, and used without ever causing extinction. Such resources of the creator exist for us to freely partake.”


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