Lately I’ve become fascinated with classical Chinese protest poetry.
There’s a great book out called 中国文人的非正常死亡 (“The Unnatural Deaths of Chinese Literati”) which follows the cases of Chinese writers, poets, and historians who pissed off the wrong eunuch and subsequently found themselves exiled, castrated, tortured, or minus a head.
It starts with the story of Sima Qian (~145 BCE – ~90 BCE), the Han-dynasty historian who picked the wrong governmental faction to back, and, faced with a choice between beheading and castration (considered a more horrible punishment), chose castration so that he could finish his work on the 史记 Records of the Grand Historian. It ends with Wang Guowei (1877 – 1927), a poet, scholar, and professor at Qinghua University, who was hounded by the corrupt Guomindang regime until he committed suicide by diving into the Kunming Lake, on the grounds of the former Imperial Summer Palace outside Beijing.
Also included is Su Dongpo (1037 – 1101), generally considered the greatest poet of the Song dynasty, who was as bad a judge of political ascendancy as Sima Qian. So he got his ass exiled to successively more remote posts, and died, the story goes, at 天涯海角, “the fringe of the sky, the edge of the sea.”
Su continued writing poetry in his exile. Apparently figuring that he didn’t have much else to lose, he wrote quite a few snide, rebellious poems, like “Xi’er Xizuo,” “Wishes for My Son,” which goes something like this:
In raising children, all would hope for wit;
But I, whose life was ruined by cleverness,
Wish only for my boy to be a lout.
He’ll rise to Minister with no distress.
Chinese people are often very curious about the outside world. As a foreigner in China, you’ll get asked all kinds of questions about your homeland; these range from incredibly dull inquiries into, say, the price of cars to interesting discussions of the basic values and characteristics of a country. Quite often, you’ll walk away from such a conversation feeling good about having served as, essentially, an ambassador of your home. Sometimes you just walk away feeling tired.
It is especially tiring to be an American these days.
The big question – and not just in China – is “my God, what is your government doing?” And “how could these guys get elected?” And (sometimes) “why don’t you just overthrow them?” And these questions were tiring for me because I really had no answers.
As my father pointed out, one of the central tenets of leftist political philosophy is that people will be smart enough to act in their own interests, and it’s more than a little bit crushing to see – as evinced by the polls that show Bush and Kerry at neck and neck – that it isn’t actually the case.
Last night, I went to watch the first Kerry-Bush debate in South Philly. It was being shown on a projection screen in a public park, and there was quite a large, cheerful crowd there to watch. People brought chairs and chips and sodas, and whenever Kerry finished a remark, they cheered. When Bush opened his mouth, they booed, hissed, and pointed out, among other things, that he’s a “chuckleheaded moron” and “the idiot son of an asshole.”
It was heartening, I guess.
I can’t get behind Kerry. I mean, yes, I’ll vote for him, but nothing would give me more pleasure than going into the voting booth and voting for a better write-in candidate, like “Ralph Nader” or “my ass.”
The Democratic party is holding the left hostage and saying, in effect, “we didn’t get the message in 2000 when you voted for Nader, and we’re just going to keep ignoring you. Who else are you going to vote for?” And I’ll play along this time, but it won’t happen again.
Bai Juyi (772 – 846) is one of the most famous Tang dynasty poets. Unlike Su Dongpo and Sima Qian, he died a natural death with all of his parts intact – remarkable, given that he wrote stuff like 轻肥 “Fine Furs and Fat Horses.” The title is a reference to Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius, which is itself a remarkable passage. I like to think of it as Confucius on tax reform; it goes:
Zi Hua was sent on a mission to Qi, and Master Ran asked for grain for Zi Hua’s mother. The Master said: “Give her a pot-full.” Ran asked for more. The Master said: “Give her a measure.” Master Ran gave her five bushels.
The Master said: “Chi went to Qi, riding sleek horses and wearing fine furs. I have heard it said that a good man helps the needy; he does not make the rich richer.”
When Yuan Si was made a governor, someone offered him 900 [measures] of grain, but he refused. The Master said: “Is there no-one among your people who would not be glad of it?”
Bai Juyi’s poem, which draws its title from this passage, is even more current. It goes like this:
Full of pride, they fill the road,
their saddled horses shining on the dust.
I ask a passerby who they might be;
he says they’re trusted advisers.
The ones with vermillion cords are high officials;
The ones with purple ribbons, probably generals.
Proudly they go to the regimental feast,
Passing by on horseback like clouds.
Goblets brim over with nine kinds of wine;
The finest foods from sea and land spread over the table.
For fruit, they peel Dongting tangerines;
For mincemeat, they slice up Tianchi fish.
Stuffed with food, they feel sated and merry;
Blissed with wine, their spirits soar higher than ever.
This year there was drought-famine south of the River,
And in Quzhou starving men ate one another.