'Jiu bian', 'Nine Changes', is a set of poems attributed to Song Yu, a third century BCE poet about whom little is known. Charles Hartman has described them as 'the locus classicus for later Chinese poetry of autumnal melancholy.' David Hawkes translated them in his version of Chu ci (The Songs of the South) the collection in which they have come down to us (the second great source of Chinese poetry, along with The Book of Odes). He contrasts 'Jiu bian' with the great poem that opens the anthology, 'Li sao' ('Encountering Sorrow'), by Qu Yuan.'The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.'
''Li sao' is full of allegorical flowers, birds and trees, but its author [...] has little time for contemplating the world of nature. It would be hard to imagine him composing the magnificent threnody to dying nature with which 'Jiu bian' begins. In 'Jiu bian' we encounter, perhaps for the first time, a fully developed sense of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the pathos of natural objects, which was to be the theme of so much Chinese poetry through the ages.'The author of 'Jiu bian' is all too aware of the passing years, expressing sentiments that strike a chord with me in my bleaker moments...
'Song Yu Mourns Autumn' is a qin tune from the Xilutang Qintong (1525 CE), recorded by John Thompson and available on his wonderful silkqin website.'I have left behind my blossom-burgeoning prime:
Sere and withered, I am full of melancholy.
First autumn heralds with warning of white dew;
Then winter redoubles rigour with bitter frost.'
Yokoyama Taikan, Qu Yuan, 1898
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Qu Yuan, China's first great poet, was banished from the court of King Huai of Chu (who reigned from 328 to 299 BCE) and drowned himself in the River Miluo. He is now associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death. 'Li sao' may not contain landscape description but it is full of symbolic flowers. Some of these clearly represent people at the Chu court: 'I thought that orchid could be trusted ... Pepper is full of flattery'. Here (to swap translators) is Burton Watson's version of a few lines of 'Li sao', comparing Qu's official career to the planting of a garden.
Qu Yuan and Song Yu both often feature in later writing. 'The Poetic Exposition on Gao-tang', for example, was probably written about Song Yu by a Han Dynasty writer. In Stephen Owen's translation it begins thus:'In the past I planted nine acres of orchids,
sowed a hundred fields with heliotrope,
set out peonies and cart-halt flowers,
mixed them with asarums and fragrant angelica,
hoping their stems and leaves would flourish and grow firm,
looking for the time when I could reap them.
Though they wither and die, how would that pain me?'
'Once upon a time King Xiang of Chu visited the high terrace of Yun-meng with Song Yu, when he gazed of toward the lodge of Gao-tang. Above it was a mass of cloudy vapors, first rising up towering, then suddenly changing its aspect, so that in a moment there were endless transformations...'Song Yu explains to the king that these are 'the clouds of dawn' which 'billow out like the perpendicular pine' and then 'glow like a comely maiden.' They recall the goddess who visited a former king of Chu in a dream and made love to him. On leaving she said she would be 'found on Wu Mountain's sunlit slope, on the steeps of the high hill. In the early morning I am the clouds of dawn; in the evening I am the passing rain.' This is the origin of the poetic term for sexual intercourse which you find in Chinese literature, 'clouds and rain.'
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