Early Medieval China

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:35 am

Just for fun I have been reading Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook.1 It is a very good book, written by a collection of the superheros of the field. The advertising blurb from Columbia calls it “innovative” and it indeed is. Normally a sourcebook is a collection of primary sources aimed, mostly, at undergraduates. This book is rather more ambitious. There are probably a few places where undergraduates take courses specialized enough to merit assigning a book like this, but not many. Mostly it is aimed at scholars, being intended to summarize some of the most important recent work and suggest what might be done in the future. Thus we get Yang Lu explains and translates some of the wooden slips dealing with local administration found at Changsha in 1996, and we also get various tomb texts that have never been translated into English. The introductions to the volume and to the individual sections are the best short introductions to these topics2 available in English. The introductions and notes matter a lot. In a more traditional sourcebook editors often look for readings that an undergraduate would be able to get something out of without too much of an introduction or too many footnotes. Sometimes this is not too hard. Confucius talking about being a good person and Xunzi talking about good government are things that most students should be able to pick up on without too much hand-holding.  This period is different, however, and while the editors are at pains to point out that there was more going on in the culture of the period than “insect carving”, i.e. the incredibly recondite, allusive writing that the era is notorious for (although they do include Pei Ziye’s ‘Discourse on Insect Carving.’) they have put a lot of work into introducing the otherwise obscure readings and glossing everything that needs to be glossed.

There are, for instance, a whole set of texts that deal with topics that most people who teach the field talk about a lot. There is a nice reading from Ge Hong on the cultural differences between North and South, which is, of course one of the traditional themes of the period. The reading also gives something of the importance of Philology (and Phonology) in the scholarship of the time, as well as the importance of language, a theme that runs throughout the book.

Ge Hong
People of the Nine Provinces speak in different dialects. This has been the norm since the beginning of mankind. [ ... ] The land and waters of the South are mild and gentle; [thus] the sound [of Southern speech] is bright and crisp. The shortcoming is its shallowness. Its expressions are mostly vulgar. The mountains and rivers in the North are solemn and deep; [thus] the sound (of Northern speech] is baritone and rotund, taking after the simplicity and ruggedness [of the landscape]. The expressions contain many ancient terms. However, Southern [speech] is finer when spoken by nobles and gentlemen; Northern [speech] is better when spoken by villagers and peasants. One could distinguish in a few words a Southern gentleman from a commoner, even if they exchanged clothes. One would have difficulty differentiating between a Northern courtier and a countryman even after listening [to them] all day from behind a wall. Moreover, Southern speech has been influenced by [the dialects of] Wu and Yue; Northern speech has [the languages of] barbarians and captives mixed into it. Both have deep flaws that cannot be discussed in detail here.[ ... ] Since I arrived at Ye, I find only Cui Ziyue and his nephew Cui Zhan Li Zuren and his younger brother, Li Wei to be knowledgeable in speech and slightly more accurate [in pronunciation]. Resolving Doubts About Sounds and Rhymes composed by Li Jijie [lived during Northern Qi], contains many mistakes. The Classification of Rhymes, devised by Yang Xiuzhi is perfunctory. The [pronunciation of the] children of my house, since their childhood, has been watched and corrected. I take any mispronunciation of a character as my own fault. When determining what an object should be called, I dare not utter its name without first consulting books and records-this you know well.
[Yanshi jiaxun jijie, 529-45]

On the other hand they also have all sorts of things that don’t fit the traditional picture of the period as well. Shu Xi’s “Rhapsody on Pasta” is a good example.

…At the beginning of the three spring months
When yin and yang begin to converge,
And the chilly air has dispersed,
When it is warm but not sweltering,
At this time for feasts and banquets
It is best to serve mantou. 32

When Wu Hui governs the land,33
And the pure yang spreads and diffuses,
We dress in ramie and drink water,
Cool ourselves in the shade.
If in this season we make pasta,
There is nothing better than bozhuang. 34

When the autumn wind blows fierce, 35
And the great Fire Star moves west,36
When sleek down appears on birds and beasts,
And barren branches appear on trees,
Dainties and delicacies must be eaten warm.
Thus, leavened bread may be served.37

In dark winter’s savage cold,
At early-morning gatherings,
Snot freezes in the nose,
Frost forms around the mouth,
For filling empty stomachs and relieving chills,
Boiled noodles are best.

Thus, each kind is used in a particular season,
Depending on what is apt and suitable for the time.
If one errs in the proper sequence,
The result will not be good.

Ok, so just like in the ancient texts, you need to adopt your foods to the season. Obviously if one does not the results for your health and the balance of the universe will not be good. Is there anything that, like chicken soup with rice, is good all times of the year? Yes, there is.

That which Through winter, into summer,
Can be served all year round,

And in all four seasons freely used,
In no respect unsuitable,
Can only be the boiled dumpling. 38

And then, twice-sifted flour, 39
Flying like dust, white as snow,
Sticky as glue, stringy as tendons,
Becomes moist and glistening, soft and lustrous.

For meat There are mutton shoulders and pork ribs,
Half fat, half skin. It is chopped fine as fly heads,
And strung together like pearls, strewn like pebbles.
Ginger stalks and onion bulbs,
Into azure threads are sliced and split.
Pungent cinnamon is ground into powder,
Fagara and thoroughwort are sprinkled on.
Blending in salt, steeping black beans,
They stir and mix all into a gluey mash.

And then, when the fire is blazing and the hot water is bubbling,
Savage fumes rise as steam.
Pushing up his sleeves, dusting off his coat,
The cook grasps and presses, pats and pounds.
Flour is webbed to his finger tips,
And his hands whirl and twirl, crossing back and forth.
In a flurrying frenzy, in a motley mixture,
The dumplings scatter like stars, pelt like hail.
Meat does not burst into the steamer,
And there is no loose flour on the dumplings.
Lovely and pleasing, mouthwatering,
The wrapper is thin, but it does not burst.
Rich flavors are blended within,
A plump aspect appears without.
They are as tender as spring floss,
As white as autumn silk.
Steam, swirling and swelling, wafts upward,
The aroma swiftly spreads far and wide.

So now you have a recipe to try. Thoroughwort is, I think, Bone-set, and I would not use it in food, but the rest should be easy enough to find.
There are also readings on topics that have always been aspects of the Great Tradition, but have gotten less attention in the past. Thus we have a whole section on Auto-cremation. If you have been wondering how immolation fits into the Buddhist tradition there are readings here for you.


Huiyi was from Guangling. When he was young, he left home and followed his master to Shouchun During the Xiaojian period of the Song [454-456] he arrived in the capital [Jiankang] and resided at Zhulin si. He diligently practiced austerities, and he vowed to burn his body. When his fellow monks heard of this, some castigated him while others praised him. In the fourth year of Daming [460], he began by abstaining from cereals and ate only sesame and wheat. In the sixth year, he stopped eating wheat and consumed only oil of thyme.17 Sometimes he also cut out the oil and ate only pills made of incense. Although the four gross elements [of his body] became feeble, his spirit was clear and his judgment was sound.

Emperor Xiaowu [r. 454-464] had a profound regard for Huiyi and respectfully inquired [as to his intentions]. He dispatched his Chief Minister Yigong, Prince of Jiangxia. [413-465], to the monastery to reason with him. But [Hui] yi would not go back on his vow. On the eighth day of the
fourth month of the seventh year of the Darning reign period [May 11, 463], he prepared to burn himself.

He set up a cauldron full of oil on the southern slope of Zhong shan That morning, he mounted an oxcart drawn by humans and was going from the monastery to the mountain. But then he realized that the emperor was not only the foundation of the people but also the patron of the three jewels
He wanted to enter the palace under his own strength, but when he reached the Yunlong gate he could no longer proceed on foot. He sent a messenger to say, “The man of the Way, Huiyi, who is about to abandon his body, is at the gate and presents his farewells. He profoundly hopes that the
Buddha dharma may be entrusted [to his majesty].” When the emperor heard his message, he was upset and immediately came out to meet him at the Yunlong gate. When [Hui]yi saw the emperor, he earnestly entrusted the Buddha dharma to his care, then he took his leave. The emperor followed him. Princes, concubines, empresses, religious, laity, and officials flooded into the valley. The robes that they offered and the treasures that they donated were incalculable.

Huiyi now entered the cauldron, lay down on a little bed within it, and wrapped himself in cloth. On his head he added a long cap, which he saturated with oil. As he was about to apply the flame to it, the emperor ordered his chief minister to approach the cauldron and to try to dissuade him. (Yigong pleaded], “There are many ways to practice the path; why must you end your life? I wish you would think again and try a different track.” But Huiyi’s resolve was unshakable and he showed no remorse. He replied, “This feeble body and this wretched life, how do they deserve to be retained? If the mind of Heaven and the compassion of the sage [i.e., the emperor] are infinite, then my wish is merely that twenty people [be allowed to] leave home.” An edict ordering these ordinations was immediately issued. [Hui]yi took up the torch in his own hand and ignited the cap. With the cap ablaze, he cast away the torch, put his palms together, and chanted the “Chapter on the Medicine King.” As the flames reached his eyebrows, the sound of his recitation could still be clearly discerned. Reaching his eyes, it became indistinct. The cries of pity from the rich and poor echoed in the dark valley. They all clicked their fingers [in approval]; they intoned the name of the Buddha and cried, full of sorrow.

The fire did not die down until the next morning. At that moment, the emperor heard the sound of pipes in the air and smelled a strange perfume that was remarkably fragrant. He did not return to the palace until the end of that day. In the night he dreamed that he saw Huiyi, who came striking a bell. Again [the monk] entrusted to him the Buddha dharma. The next day, the emperor held an ordination ceremony. He ordered the Master of Ceremonies to give a eulogy for the funeral service. At the place of the autocremation was built Yaowang si in an allusion to [Huiyi's recitation of] the “Original Acts.”

As I said above, I can’t imagine teaching a class where I would be able to assign this to students, but it is a great beach read.

  1. Swartz, Wendy, Robert Ford Campany, Yang Lu, and Jessey J. C. Choo. Early Medieval China: A Sourcebook. Columbia University Press, 2013. []
  2. “Relations with the Unseen World, Everyday Life, Imaging Self and Other, Cultural Capital, Governing Mechanisms and Social Reality, The North and the South” []


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 []


Thin layer sensing with multipolar plasmonic resonances (and showgirls)

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:12 am

Via Language Log, something on how to make a fool of yourself in Chinese. Apparently the Max Plank Institute asked for a nice Chinese poem for their cover and got awful calligraphy and an ad for strippers.

Not much to add, really, although I do find their struggles to read the KK加美 bit a little odd. Apparently a lot of Chinese had trouble figuring out the place in line 2 where “KK加美” is shoved into the space that should have just one character. I’m not very experienced at reading ads for showgirls, but at least as late as the early republic it was common for Chinese texts to have commentary in a smaller font interspersed with the main text. (I bet there is a word for that) so I would read those four graphs in the order KK加美. Apparently this tradition is dead enough that Language Log’s modern Chinese readers are not familiar with it. Or maybe they are better at having fun with words than I am.


Mountains, Vikings, and Chinese Poetry

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 3:42 pm

Lots of people seem to like Chinese poetry. The latest NYRB has a review of a reprint of A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang by Eliot Weinberger.1 The book was first published in 1965. A review now may seem odd, but it seems like its always a good time for people (everyone from Ezra Pound to Kilgore Trout) to talk about Chinese poetry. Part of the reason for this is that a lot of Chinese poetry, and especially Tang stuff, sounds very much like modern poetry once you translate it. I assume some translator of Chinese poetry has expressed this as well, but I take an example from Jane Smiley’s introduction to The Sagas of Icelanders.2 The Sagas have been tremendously popular (in literary terms) in the twentieth century just like Tang poetry because they are both modern (more a novel in the case of the Sagas) and medieval at the same time. As Smiley puts it.

And yet, these stories are so clearly medieval
And yet, they are not
This is their fascinating paradox

Chinese poetry turns out to be much the same. Weinberger says that when Graham’s translation first came out “most of the poets I knew avidly read it.” One of the poems he brings up is Han Yu’s The South Mountains (南山) It is a very long poem, and he only cites a few lines out of a much longer section of similes describing mountains.

Scattered like loose tiles
Or running together like converging spokes,
Off keel like rocking boats
Or in full stride like horses at the gallop;
Back to back as though offended,
Face to face as though lending a hand

Weinberg says that this “combination of trance-inducing repetitive rhyme and hypersimilitude would not be attempted again for another 1,000 years, until the Chilean poet Vincente Huidobro’s modernist extravaganza Altazor”

As this is a blog an I have unlimited electrons, I can give you the whole section on mountains.3


  1. Graham, A.C. Poems of the Late T’ang. NYRB Classics, 2008. []
  2. The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. 1st ed. Viking Penguin, 2000. []
  3. This is from the Charles Hartman translation in Liu, Wu-Chi and Irving Yucheng Lo eds. Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. Indiana University Press, 1990., so it is a tad different []


Voice of the people

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 12:08 pm

One nice thing about Chinese history is that there is a long history of recording popular songs. From the Han at least it was assumed that popular songs reflected the popular mind, and so collecting them was an early form of public opinion polling.

In the first month of spring each year, just before the many inhabitants were to scatter [for farmers went out to live in their fields during the growing season], the envoys would come shaking their wooden clackers all along the roads, in this way intending to gather up the local odes, which were then presented to the Grand Master [at court]. It was he who arranged their musical scores, at which point they were performed for the Son of Heaven. Hence, the saying, “The king knows All-under-Heaven, without ever peering out from his windows and doors.” Han Shu via Nylan Five Confucian Classics

Of course the songs we have written down are problematic in that it is not clear if they are really the songs commoners sung, or what they would mean if they were. Still, a lot of them were recorded. Even the Communists did it.

This is one from Shaanxi in 1938 or so, when the Nationalists were building #7 military school(more…)


Six Dynasties blogging

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:04 am

One of the things I have been doing for fun this summer is reading Family Instructions for the Yen clan 顏氏家訓by Yen Chih-t’ui 顏之推 (T’eng Ssu-Yu trans Leiden 1968) Yen Chih-t’ui (531-591 C.E.) was a literatus and court official under the Liang dynasty the Northern Ch’i, the Northern Chou and the Sui. He wrote extensively on religion, etymology, phonology etc.

He was also apparently a blogger, or at least that is what I gather from reading the section in the Family Instructions entitled “On Essays”

As for writing essays to mold your own nature and spirit or to give others unembarrassed advice, if you penetrate to the interesting part, it is also a pleasure. If you have leisure after your other activities you may practice essay writing.

Being able to write good essays does not necessarily bode well for your career. He points out that “many men of letters have suffered from a light (mind) and a sharp (tongue).” He then lists a litany of famous essayists who came to bad ends, including Ch’u Yuan who ended up drowning himself when the king disregarded his words, Li Ling, a general who was captured by barbarians, Feng Ching-t’ung who was not promoted and then was dismissed because of his unstable personality and Wu Chih who calumniated and alienated his fellow countrymen. Perhaps most interesting was Tso Ssu who, in order to produce good poetry had his house and garden furnished at every turn with tables and materials for writing so that he could write down his ideas whenever they occurred to him. (obviously he needed wi-fi in the house) When Tso Ssu finished his fu poem describing the capitals of the Three Kingdoms so many people wanted to copy it that there was a shortage of paper in Loyang. (sort of an early version of a server overload.)

While there are some essay-writers who have come out well, both in a career sense and in a moral sense most of them come out badly.

. . . a body of essays exhibits the writers interests, develops his nature, and makes him proud and negligent of control as well as determined and aggressive.

The main problem is that they seem to get wrapped up in their own wonderfulness

A proper expression of one fact or a clever construction of one sentence make their spirits fly to the nine skies, and their pride towers over (the other writers) of a thousand years. They read aloud again and again for their own enjoyment, forgetting other persons nearby. Moreover, as a grain of sand of a pebble may hurt a person more than a sword or spear, their satirical remarks about other persons may spread faster than a storm.

Some of them in fact get so tied up in themselves they loose all touch with reality. Specifically, they can’t tell if they are writing nonsense or not.

In this world I have seen many people without the slightest literary talent who consider themselves elegant, flowery stylists, while spreading their awkward and stupid writings. . .Recently in Ping-chou an aristocratic scholar liked to compose ridiculous poems, challenging Hsing, Wei, and other eminent writers. All of them mocked and falsely praised him; but he was so excited that he prepared feasts to entertain those with literary reputations. His wife, an intelligent woman, admonished him against (this folly) even with tears. The gentleman said with a sigh, “Even my wife cannot appreciate my talents; how can I expect much from strangers?”

Yen also includes various small tips about writing. One should avoid the use of the phrase 敬同 -respectfully echoed (indeed). One should also beware of misusing literary allusions. This is more tricky than you might think, since “”the miscellaneous tales of the many schools of philosophy are occasionally different, and their works have usually been lost or unavailable.” He then lists a series of little errors he has found in the writings of others. Needless to say he thinks these errors of his opponents are worth being preserved for the next thousand and a half years, and so he includes them, supposedly as a form of instruction, but I think just as a bit of pettiness.

It really is a fun book.


Hightower Obituary

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:18 am

If you’re an H-Asia reader, you already saw this, but if you’re not, it’s an interesting look at the 20th century history of Asian literary studies in the US. James Robert Hightower has passed away, after an incredible career in Chinese literary studies and government service.

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