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A poem of Qianlong's choosing

Updated: 2023-06-03 12:16 ( China Daily )
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More than ink-play

Where the Southern Song emperors had failed to live up to their artistic image as the prescient rulers and able protectors, Qianlong believed he had succeeded. Dismissing the Shi Jing pictures produced during the Song era as "mere self-entertaining ink-play", he viewed the creations of his time — many of which were indeed copies of those Song efforts — as mirroring the power and prestige of his empire and himself. In that sense, they have less to do with self-scrutiny and more with self-congratulation, something Confucius had intended to discourage among those who breathed rarefied air, reminding them of the endless toil of lesser mortals.

"Once the harvesting is done, alas! We're sent to work in the lord's house then," goes one line of the poem.

In 1279, in a final act of defiance, 8-year-old Zhao Bing, the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty, jumped off a cliff into raging sea on the back of his chancellor. China entered the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), ruled by the Mongols.

However, being ruthless with their conquests doesn't mean that the Mongol rulers relied purely on force to exert their authority. In fact, the contrary was often true. According to Wu, Buyantu Khan, the fourth emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, once asked Zhao Mengfu, renowned painter-calligrapher and direct descent of the Song royal family, to make a painting depicting July for the crown prince who later succeeded him.

"Without a cultural and political mandate, even a mighty Mongol ruler would have felt inadequate," says Wu. "This is not to mention the fact that some of highly-detailed versions of the July paintings also functioned as picture books for aristocratic youth who were otherwise out of touch with the described way of existence."

"Why not study Shi Jing?" Confucius once prompted. "If it allows personal expression and communion with kindred souls, perception of the world around you and parody of it whenever one's tempted to do so …"

Abound with explicit and implicit metaphors and comparisons, the latter deemed a safer way to offer political commentary without imperiling oneself, Shi Jing lies at the origin of a fond practice of the Chinese literati class, whereby messages harsh and bitter were couched in seemingly harmless lines. (The bemoaning of a mistreated wife could well be the lamentations of a moral person banished by a senseless king and his corrupt court.)

This unique aspect of Shi Jing partly explains why it is one of the most-annotated books in Chinese history: people argued over whether there was an allegorical meaning behind a particular sentence and what it was, sometimes even at the book's own expense.

One example concerns the last line of the second stanza of July, the verbatim translation of which would be "Sadness the (mulberry-leaf picking) girls' heart stored, afraid they are to go home with the lord". In more recent history, it has been interpreted as the deploring of a peasant girl in the face of unwanted attention from a member of the aristocracy.

But is that so? "To me this is highly unlikely, given the whole context of the poem and the lightheartedness that permeates the preceding part," says Wang Yimin, senior researcher from Beijing's Palace Museum. "The 'sadness' here is better understood as a stroking sense of melancholy, harbored by a forlorn lady, whose thoughts became restless on a warm spring day."

"But of course Shi Jing is always open to interpretation. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to see it as what it is: a collection of folk poem-songs, with its signature ways of narration and a down-to-earth humor that may or may not always live up to sophisticated reading. Yet it's deeply rooted in people's experience — the source of its ageless beauty and allure," Wang says.

One man who wouldn't have agreed more is Xu, who in 2014 was bestowed with the highest honor of the International Federation of Translators. Engaging himself with that same line, the man went for grace.

"They (the young ladies) are in gloomy mood," he wrote. "For they will say adieu to maidenhood."


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