Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ice on the Yellow River

Ma Yuan (1160–1225), The Yellow River Breaches its Course

It would be impossible to summarise the career of Liu Tieh-yün (1857-1909) briefly.  In addition to writing and scholarship (he was a pioneer in the study of Shang dynasty oracle bones), Liu got involved in traditional Chinese medicine, printing, politics and numerous failed commercial ventures, ranging from a a handicraft weaving shop in Shanghai to a steel refinery in Chuchow.  This admirable breadth of interests was evident from an early age.  According to Harold Shadick, in his introduction to Liu's novel, The Travels of Lao Ts'an, 'he studied the Sung philosophers with his father and spent much time with a group of friends who formed a sort of club with the intention of preparing themselves to help the country in her hour of need.  They discussed questions of military science, economics, and mathematics, and practiced boxing.  Liu T'ieh-yün himself specialised in the study of flood control and also showed great interest in music, poetry, astronomy, and medicine.'  His research into river conservancy stood him in good stead when the Yellow River flooded in 1887.  Liu was given charge of work to repair a breach in the dike, and on the strength of this spent three years as an adviser to the Governor of Shantung.  However, when his fictional alter ego, Lao Ts'an, is offered a similar position he politely declines, having no intention of settling into official life.  'That night he wrote a letter thanking Governor Chuang [and] before daylight he cleared his account at the inn, hired a wheelbarrow, and left the city.'

Later in the novel, Lao Ts'an arrives at another inn, at Ch'ihohsien on the banks of the Yellow River.  There he is told that the town is full of people unable to cross the partially frozen river, with its drifting blocks of ice as big as a house.  Li Ts'an wanders down to the river dike to look at this spectacle.  There follows one of the descriptive passages for which this novel is renowned in China: a precise depiction of the way the ice is gradually packed together and wedged solid.  'The ice from above kept coming down block after block, until at this point it was caught by the ice in front, couldn't move, and came to a standstill.  More ice came and pressed it with a rustling sound, ch'ih-ch'ih, until the ice behind, pressed harder by the flowing water, simply jumped on top of the ice in front.  Pressed down in this way the ice in front gradually went under...'  As night is falling, Li Ts'an returns to the inn; 'each willow tree on the dike cast a shadow of moving threads on the ground, for the moon was already shining brightly.'  But after supper he goes out again and watches the boatmen still hard at work, breaking the ice.  Eventually, he raises his head from the river and looks up at the hills.  'The snow-white line reflected the light of the moon; it was extraordinarily beautiful. The mountain ranges rose tier on tier, but they could not be clearly distinguished.  A few white clouds lay in the folds of the hills so that you could hardly tell cloud from hill unless you looked intently. ... The hills stretched away to the east farther and farther until gradually the sky was white, the hills were white, and the clouds were white, and nothing could be distinguished from anything else.'

(This post uses Wade-Giles spellings.  Liu Tieh-yün is Liu Tieyun, the courtesy name for Liu E.  The novel is also spelled The Travels of Lao Can.  The YouTube clip above shows a news item about ice on the Yellow River this year - it is still a regular occurrence.)

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