Poems of the Spirit and Flesh

Yang GuifeiIn previous issues of the newsletter we translated Tang poems of the lofty sort, from Li Bai’s spirit poems to Han Shan’s contemplations on Cold Mountain.  In this issue we turn our attention to classical poetry about more worldly themes with translations of two poems by the late Tang poet Du Mu.  These are both unmistakably poems of the flesh; they underscore part of what we find so remarkable about Tang poetry – a voluminous body of work (created over the course of the Tang dynasty’s 300 years), spanning literary modes from the lyrical and spiritual to the explicitly sensual.  Indeed, the Tang Spirit extends across the full range of human experience.

Going back to the very earliest Chinese literature, there were a number poems and songs that dealt with romantic themes.  The Shijing (which is the oldest collection of verse dating back to the Han dynasty prior to 200 BC) features striking love poems, including the ballad of Zhong Zi, with its lovely refrain (as translated by William Nienhasuer Jr.)  –

Don’t climb over my wall
Don’t break the mulberries trees
Not that I care for them much
It’s my brothers I dread
Zhong you’re embraceable
But my brothers talk
Is dreadful indeed

Not just romantic ballads but also poems of tribute to one of the four great beauties of ancient China (including Yang Guifei depicted above), as well as songs of carousal and indulgence are an important part of the classical canon down through the Tang dynasty.   Li Bai and other poets of the early and mid Tang period frequently drank deep in their cups and reveled with courtesans who attended on the Emperor and other high officials of the court.  There are a good number of poems that record their merry making, with artful descriptions of the charming courtesans becoming a staple of Tang poetics.

Du Mu took this tradition even further, writing in a more personal vein, as he described his amorous pursuits with a remarkable frankness -- so much so, in fact, that his standing in the classical canon has suffered somewhat as a result of his having been labeled a libertine.  Here is a quatrain that he wrote that illustrates his proclivities, more what you might expect from a French poet of the 19th century than from a mandarin of the 9th century.  I recall reading somewhere that Blue House street which he mentions in the last line was the late Tang equivalent of the House of the Rising Sun.

Dispatched from the Heart

Down and out
By rivers and lakes
A bottle of wine in hand
A slender girl
With a narrow waist
Light in the palm of my hand
Yet ten years is
A long time to nap
Lost in dreams of Yangzhou
Laying claim to a place
On Blue House street
Indeed is a meager reward





This next poem provides an even more striking instance of his Du Mu’s directness.  This is a ballad that tells the story of Du Mu’s love affair with a young girl, a singer in a musical troop, named Zhang Hao Hao.  It’s a singular account, very rich in detail, as the affair runs its course in the early years of the 9th century in the southern reaches of the Tang empire.

I am very grateful to Steve Zhang for bringing this fascinating poem to my attention and for his patient guidance in helping me decipher some of its more arcane passages.

Ballad of Zhang Hao Hao

Noble and carefree
When I first saw her
A pretty local maiden of 
Thirteen years plus a few months
She was like a young Phoenix
About to sprout its tail
Or a fresh bud emergent
From the comely Lotus

In a pavilion high
On the banks of the Zhang
That reached half-way to heaven
Just where the river blends  
Into the green horizon
She had come to sing before
Assembled magistrates
Who were stretched out 
On their fine straw mats

As the host attended
To his recumbent guests
We were astounded to hear 
The first quavering notes
That issued forth from this
Child of Wu
So sweetly she sang
An ethereal verse
I must sing her praises
Modest yet shining still
In her low draped gown

Her hair coiled in buns
Double stacked
Her youthful beauty
Transparent in a gauzy
Short coat with sleeves
That hung low
Her voice was full
Of longing
As pure as the cry
Of a baby Phoenix

A string accompaniment
Played intermittently
Keeping the beat while
The melody also issued forth
From the woodwinds
With quivering reeds
But her voice soared above
All this background music
You could hear it clearly
As birdlike it ascended
Into the clouds above

The host sighed deeply
Over and over again
At a loss for words
As her song sounded different
From all else under Heaven
And the girl was showered
With presents such as
A brocade embroidered
With a winged horse
And a priceless Rhino pin

Thereafter at Long Sha park
We watched autumn take hold
And the bright moon rising
Over East Lake
We saw each other
Very frequently
If three days
Went by without
It seemed quite a long time

And as a jade crescent
Is followed by
The full moon
So my delight in her soon
Reached full bloom
Full of springtime
And leisure
Her lips were purple red
Graceful light and easy
She conveyed herself forward
As if treading the clouds
Modest and gentle still

But then her musical troop
Suddenly decamped by boat
Following her master’s
Appointment up north
Where frost covered the trees
By Xie Tiao’s mansion
Until the sun returned
To warm the sands and flowers
Along the banks of Gou Creek 

So it goes that all bodies  
Are consigned to the dust
Which means we might as well
Hoist the bottle high
And drink merrily
Just as this band of minstrels
Apparently did
Carrying on with
Their Fu ballads
In the grandest manner
Of Sima Xiangru
With a jade brooch pinned
To the girdle and
Borne aloft on a litter
Of purple clouds

Yet deep in time’s cave
The distant waters drip
And the shadows scuttle
Along the moon’s high surface 
And so it was a few years later
After the drunken revelers had
All completely dispersed
That I next saw her
Back in Lo Yang
Where she was working
As a cook for a spell
At an Inn in the city
And she looked quite unwell

It was strange
What she said to me --
She said she wondered
What hardships
Had befallen me
To make one
So young in years
Prematurely shaggy
And gray

But really it was
My dear friend
Zhang Hao Hao
Who now seemed
To be firmly held in
Hardship’s grip 
Down and out lower
Than seemed possible

She sat on a stoop
In the doorway
Bitterly weeping
While clouds and cold waters
Of autumn brought on
A sudden deep chill
And the sunlight slanted
Across the western sky
For a moment daylight itself
Seemed suspended
Like a graceful willow
A cool wind raked the block
And Zhang Hao Hao sat on the curb
Her face streaming with tears
Singing the saddest ballad
I had ever heard































This ballad is remarkable in one other way.   There is a calligraphic scroll that hangs today in the Palace Museum in Beijing with a copy of the poem that was written by Du Mu himself.  This may be the oldest existing poetry manuscript in the world written in the poet’s own hand.  The scroll itself has an interesting history as it was apparently one of the few items carried out of the Imperial Palace by the last Emperor, Puyi, in 1912 and only thanks to Zhang Boju (a 20th century master calligrapher) it ended up being returned to the Palace in 1956 where it has hung ever since; the art critics of the Communist Party apparently overcoming their scruples for political correctness enough to recognize the historical and cultural significance of this of this Tang masterpiece.

Zhang Hao Hao scroll

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Thanks and best regards, in the Tang Spirit --

Joe Lamport (formerly known as Lan Hua)
December 2013

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The Tang Spirit web site has been developed as a joint effort by Joe Lamport and Steve Zhang. Our goal is to help preserve and promote the spirit of Tang poetry. Whether you are new to Tang poetry or already an enthusiast, a student of Chinese or a lover of poetry, we hope you'll visit our site and find something of interest there.