井底之蛙

11/26/2012

Rustic poetry

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:22 am

The contrast between the center and the periphery is a common theme in Chinese literature. To be an official sent from the capital to the provinces, or a sent-down youth sent from Beijing to a village in the Northeast is a great inspiration for art. A very fine example of this comes from, Pricne Dan, as discussed by Andrew Chittick. ((Chittick, Andrew. Patronage and Community in Medieval China: The Xiangyang Garrison, 400-600 Ce. State Univ of New York Pr, 2010.)) The Xiangyang garrison was an outpost of central power along the middle Yangzi, and thus the relationship between the local elite and central power (the capital in what is now Nanjing) was very important both for the central power (who needed local support to hold of the northern hordes) and for local elite (who were legitimated by connections to central power.)  First, the poem

At dawn depart from Xiangyang town, by evening  lodge at Big Dike inn.
All the girls of Big Dike bloom voluptuous, startling  young men’s eyes.
Going upstream one’s job is poling, downstream row a pair of oars;
Four-cornered dragon streamers encircle  the pole in the river’s midst.
Jiangling’s three thousand  three hundred  li, midpoint  of the west pass road,
But whether  it is clear or blocked-how can you figure how long it takes?
Men praise Xiangyang music, but the music made is not that of my country.
Guided by stars, braving the wind, I’ll sail back to my Yang province.
Lustrous unrestrained girls like creeping vines tangle around  the long-lived pine.
Though  their loveliness perseveres in spring, when the year is cold they are no use to me.
The  yellow goose joins heaven  to fly, anxiously pacing the middle way.
The cartwheels  turn  in my guts; whom must my love be with now?
Yang province rushes wrought in circles; a hundred cash buys two or three thickets’  worth.
If I cannot  buy then  I will return; empty hands will clutch  and embrace me.
Creeping  vines arise from baseness; they rely on the   surface of the long-lived pine.
Yet can one slight a death  by frost? The noble becomes entangled with another.
I hate to see so much lust and pleasure, stop me, don’t speak to me.
I won’t be a crow that flocks in the forest; suddenly I feel I am called to go.
Chittick points out that this poem seems to echo many elements of provincial culture. Xiangyang elite culture centered around violence, song, and dance, rather than the literary culture that dominated the center, and there are elements of this in here.1 More significantly for me it gives an almost timeless view of the Chinese elite’s view of the provinces. Voluptuous girls trying to entangle you genders the relationship between a properly ordered, patriarchal center and the more loose provinces. People in the provinces are poor, so your money (and status) go further there. The poet/prince is tempted by the idea of staying here and raising a rebellion, but of course he decides to go back to the center, just as so many sent-down youth did.
  1. Chittick explains the provincial grammar and usage in the poem []

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