Sunday, May 13, 2018

The paulownia of Lung-men

Ming Dynasty painting of a scholar playing a qin in a landscape
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having just written a post about Chinese rhyme-prose (fu) I can't quite bear to leave the topic, which is full of interest for those looking for ways of writing about landscape.  In his introduction to Chinese Rhyme-Prose, Burton Watson refers to a subgenre on the subject of musical instruments. 'In such pieces, it is customary to begin with an evocation of the wild and beautiful mountain forest where the wood or bamboo from which the instrument is fashioned grows.  These passages are among the earliest descriptions of nature to be found in Chinese poetry.'  He goes on to provide a translation of a fu of this kind by Mei Sheng, who died in 140 BCE.  Here is part of the opening (prose) section, describing the Longmen (Lung-men) mountain setting of the paulownia from which a qin would be made (for more on this instrument, the Chinese zither, see my earlier posts).
'The paulownia of Lung-men soars a hundred feet before it puts out branches, its center spiraling up amid a tangle of dark foliage, its roots sprawling outward this way and that.  Above it stand the thousand-yard peaks; below, it peers into a hundred-fathom hollow, while swift torrents and lashing waves eddy and tug about it.  Its roots are half dead, half alive; in winter it is buffeted by sharp winds, settling frost, the driven snow; in summer the sharp crack of thunder and lightning assaults it.  At dawn yellowbirds and pies are found singing there; at dusk the mateless hen, the lost bird roost there for the night.  The lonely snow goose at daybreak calls from the top of it; partridges, sadly crying, flutter beneath its boughs.'
This fu on music is one of 'Seven Incitements' (Qi fa) making up Mei Sheng's full poem.  Each of these stimuli is supposed to cure a prince who is suffering from sensual overindulgence.  This explanation is from an online article about Mei Sheng:
'The first six enticements are versified descriptions of various pleasures that the guest invites the prince to enjoy. They include in order: (1) music, (2) a banquet, (3) a chariot race, (4) an excursion to a scenic place, (5) a hunt, (6) a view of the spectacular tidal bore of the Qu River of Guangling. At the conclusion of each of these tantalizing descriptions, the guest asks the prince if he wishes to rise from his bed and participate. After the first four enticements, he replies that he is too ill to rise. The fifth enticement, a stirring description of a hunt, almost succeeds in reviving him. After hearing of the tidal bore that even has curative powers, the prince remains as sick as before. Thus, it takes the final enticement, the promise to introduce the prince to the “essential words and marvelous doctrines” of great sages and philosophers, to rouse him from his sickbed.' 
So neither the idea of music or a spectacular landscape phenomenon did the trick for him (you can read a translation of the tidal bore description on Wikipedia's fu page).

I would love to read more of these nature descriptions that Burton Watson refers to, but I am not sure whether many fu of this kind have been translated.  Some are listed on John Thompson's Silkqin site, but there are no English texts.  I also wonder whether there are any examples in Western poetry of writers thinking about the material origins of their lute or flute or zither?  (Or, for that matter, poems about books and paintings, sculpture and ceramics that begin with their physical sources in earth, rock and wood?)  It is quite easy to think of examples that compare the effects of an instrument to natural forces (Lorca's guitar, for example, wept 'as water weeps / as the wind weeps / over snowfields.')  But the only poem that comes to mind on a landscape that gave rise to an instrument is by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  'A Musical Instrument' describes the riverbank visited by 'the great god Pan' to find the reed to make his pipe.  She writes of how he tramples over nature in order to get at this reed and, though afterwards the lilies revive and the dragon-fly returns, there is a 'reed which grows nevermore again / As a reed with the reeds in the river.'

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