Qiu Ying (attributed), Shanglin Park (detail), 16th century
One of the most famous descriptions of landscape in Chinese literature must be the Shanglin fu, 上林賦,, composed by Sima Xiangru. It was written for the young Emperor Wu, who had summoned Sima to court in 137 BCE, and it describes the royal hunting park southwest of the capital Chang'an. There is a magnificent Ming Dynasty scroll attributed to Qiu Ying (c. 1494-1552) which illustrates the poem - I have extracted a few details to illustrate this blog post. The first one above shows the poem's three narrators in discussion. Burton Watson translates their names as Sir Fantasy, Master No-Such and Lord Not-Real. In the first part of the fu, Sir Fantasy and Master No-Such describe hunts in Chu and Qi; in the second part, Lord Not-Real blows them away with his description of the far-more-extensive parkland of Shanglin and the hunting and entertainment that goes on there. The park is shown to be not just representative of China, but a microcosm of the whole universe.
The fu rhyme-prose form became known for its ornate language and lists (in an earlier post I referred to a 5th century critic of Sima's poetry, who complained that his 'characters were strung together like fish'). This could make it difficult to translate, but Burton Watson does it brilliantly, as Lucas Klein explains in his preface to the recent reprint of Watson's Chinese Rhyme Prose (1971, 2015). Watson, a contemporary of the Beat poets, 'reaches beyond Snyder and Ginsberg, past Rexroth and Pound, back to Walt Whitman.' Klein quotes this example from near the beginning, where Sir Fantasy is describing the hunting park he had seen in Chu (Watson explains that some of the plant names he uses are necessarily guesswork):
Here too are precious stones: carnelians and garnets,
Amethysts, turquoises, and matrices of ore,
Chalcedony, beryl, and basalt whetstones,
Onyx and figured agate.
To the east stretch fields of gentians and fragrant orchids,
Iris, turmeric, and crow-fans,
Spikenard and sweet flag,
Selinea and angelica,
Sugar cane and ginger.
As my theme here is landscape, here is a brief summary of the first part of the Shanglin Park section of the poem:
- Eight rivers are described, 'twisting and turning their way / through the reaches of the park' until eventually they reach giant lakes, 'shimmering and shining in the sun.'
- Then the poem moves in, to list the dragons and turtles that inhabit these lakes and rivers, the precious stones on their beds and the waterfowl that 'flock and settle upon the waters, drifting lightly over the surface.'
- Next the mountains and valleys are recalled, with the hills and islands at their base and the level land beyond.
- There follows a long list of the flowers and herbs that line the river banks and spread over the plains, wafting a hundred perfumes upon the air.
- After conveying a sense of the park's vast scale, the poem lists some of its exotic animals: zebras, aurochs, elephants, rhinoceroses.
- It then mentions the emperor's palaces, retreats and mountain halls, with their fabulous grottoes and gardens. There are fruit trees and flowers, dense copses and forests that blanket the mountain slopes.
- Finally, before getting on to the hunt itself and the activities of the courtiers, the poem describes apes, gibbons and lemurs, sporting among the trees and chasing over bridgeless streams.
There is obviously some exaggeration going on in this poem, so what was Shanglin Park really like? In Mark Edward Lewis's book The Early Chinese Empires, he writes that Emperor Wu installed in it 'rare plants, animals, and rocks that he had received as tribute from distant peoples, as booty from expeditions to Central Asia, or as confiscations from private collectors. The emperor's exotica included a black rhinoceros, a white elephant, talking birds, and tropical forests.' The park contained a palace complex and an artificial lake with a statue of a whale which has recently been found during an archaeological excavation. Emperor Wu's ambitious landscape gardening would be emulated by later Chinese rulers - see for example my post here on the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong's rock garden. And Emperor Wu lived only a century or so after the First Emperor, whose mausoleum with its rivers of mercury and terracotta army was a kind of dead equivalent to the abundant parkland described by Sima Xiangru.