The palace lady takes no delight in idle hours
But devotes her mind to the latest verse.
For poetry can
Be a substitute for the flowers of oblivion,
And can banish the disease of ennui.
Having spent almost a week entirely failing to finish the post I'm currently working on, I'm going to detour in a brief consideration of New Songs from a Jade Terrace, a poetry collection compiled in the mid-sixth century by a Liang court poet named Hsu Ling (the verse above comes from his introduction), translated by Anne Birrell with the surtitle Chinese Love Poetry (1995). I make no pretence to knowing a thing about poetry; I confess that my main interest in this book lay in the (fascinating) introduction, which puts Chinese poetry-writing into its social/historical context. So while I found a number of the poems beautiful, I really couldn't say anything intelligent about them, and don't intend to try...
As I've discussed before with regards to a later period of Chinese history, the ability to write poetry in pre-modern Chinese society was not the preserve of an inspired few, of passionate and faintly crazed outsiders, but a skill required of anyone who operated at a certain level in society - and, more particularly at this time, of anyone with political ambition. Poets were civil servants, obliged to take on courtly/governmental roles if they wanted to air their writing (and qualifying for said roles partly through their literary talents). Poetry composition happened in very official contexts: courtiers attended banquets and other civic events, during which they would be called upon - often in competition - to produce off-the-cuff (but heavily stylised) verses to match the occasion, or a selected theme. A good poem was one which used traditional imagery in a clever way, preferably alluding to and engaging with some famous poem from the past.
New Songs from a Jade Terrace collects over 650 poems, all dating from the second to the sixth centuries. All deal with the broad topic of love. Much of the material here is very bound by the conventions of the era's love poetry, which seem to have been extensive: the usual subject is that of a woman awaiting the return of a distant lover, with all the requisite melancholy. (The relationships bemoaned are nearly always male/female, although there are a few examples written by men to men; most, furthermore, were more poetic exercises than heart-felt missives aimed at living objects of desire). The emotional perspective in them almost always lies with the woman, who tends to be passive and pining:
'Threading needles on Seventh Night'
His jet-black horse in autumn did not come home,
His black silk will be threadbare.
To meet the cold, she prepares the night's sewing,
Lit by the moon she works fine threads.
Lustrous eyes with sorrow glisten,
The line of pining eyebrows puckers.
Clear dew falls on silken clothes,
Autumn winds blow jade lute-stops.
Flickering shade subtly deepens,
Dwindling light will be harder to work by.
The poets - nearly always male - sometimes took this further, even adopting the voice of their female characters:
A hint of shadow screens the sunshine,
Pure winds ruffle my gown.
Darting fish hide in emerald waters.
Soaring birds cleave to skies in flight.
A dwindling speck, the travelling man
Campaigns far away and can't come home.
When first he left harsh frost gripped,
By now white dew has dried.
The wanderer sighs at the Millet thick song,
While she at home sings How few!
Depressed I face my honoured guest,
Downcast I ache with inner grief.
Men rarely feature directly in the texts; they are the objects of prettily-pathetic longing, and (of course) the wielders of the unseen, gazing eye. (In some poems, the authors co-opt the inanimate objects of the woman's bedchamber, describing what 'they' see, for that extra voyeuristic touch...). The women are elaborately idealised, heavily-decorated material beings, with little volition or personality beyond their melancholy. This one comes from the third century:
There is a girl enfolded in sweet scent,
Fair, fair she walks through eastern rooms.
Moth eyebrows part in kingfisher wings,
Bright eyes illumine her clear brow.
Cinnabar lips screen white teeth,
Delicate her face like sceptre jade.
Ravishing smiles reveal her dimples,
The host of her charms can't be litanized.
Such a beauty rarely appears in this world
Moral standards of the day dictated that anything but the most veiled eroticism was right out. The solution, of course, was to dwell on details that evoked the physical, which may explain the overwhelming focus on the purely material aspects of beauty:
She tucks up her sleeves, reveals white hands,
Pale wrists clasped by golden bands.
On her head gold sparrow pins,
Her waist is strung with kingfisher jade.
Bright pearls lace her jade body,
Coral interweaves with green pearl.
Very interesting, then; and, at times, quite beautiful:
'Poem on the Balloon guitar'
This cradled moon seems to glimmer,
Caressed, the breeze sounds even clearer.
To its strings I tell my feelings,
To its flowers I confide spring passion.
Depressed, it has a rare timbre,
Melancholy, it resounds with lovely music.
Scented sleeves happily brush it sometimes,
Otherwise, Dragon Gate trees grew for nothing!