Song of Liangzhou
Translated by Dave Haysom. Originally published in Pathlight, Autumn 2014
Once a celebrated scholar within the contemporary field of cultural research, in recent times Dr. Lin’an has gradually been forgotten. Four years passed without my receiving any news of him whatsoever. Just as the rumours had claimed, it was chiefly an unfortunate marriage that had caused him to bid a final farewell to the world of academia. A recent issue of Celebrity magazine had published an article in the form of an elegy: according to the news he had recently received, the author claimed that in July of 1993 Dr. Lin’an passed away, in Aksu, Xinjiang, from cholera. It was only in the autumn of this year, when Dr. Lin’an unexpectedly appeared at my door with a weighty travelling bag, that the aforementioned conjectures could be definitively proven to be groundless nonsense.
He was passing through Shanghai on his way back to Changsha from Zhangye. Given the many years spent apart, along with those irresponsible rumours, it should come as no surprise that our reunion was an unhappily awkward one. The world had changed, and – even as most of us were busy trying to line our pockets – there were those who had been glad to depart it. From start to finish, our conversation proceeded in an oppressive atmosphere of restraint, melancholy, and heavy-heartedness. Dr. Lin’an was no longer so talkative: his passion and his sense of humour had, it seemed, dried up. We spent a long time looking out of the window, watching the gorgeously arrayed women passing between the trees on their way to the canteen. The intolerable feeling of inhibition wearied us both.
As I recall, despite his abundant academic achievements and the broad scope of his interests, Dr. Lin’an was never what you would call a rigorous scholar. His method of study was based mostly on a foundation of conjecture and imagination, and even contained an element of jest. A few cynical words of his would reveal his disdain towards academia’s ubiquitous tendency towards the emphasis of facts and logic in the face of difficulties: “the naïve desire to defend the truth is the surest road to banality.”
Four years previously – before he had disappeared altogether – he had submitted an essay to Academic Monthly in which he flatly declared that “The Hard Road to Shu” was not a genuine poem of Li Bai’s. “It is a swordsmanship manual that was given to Li Bai by some nobleman hermit in Shu, and nothing more. Even the onomatopoeic exclamation of the opening line is the mnemonic of a bladework routine…” A letter I received from an editor at Academic Monthly revealed her distinct sense of unease. “That friend of yours is possessed – he’s clearly suffered some kind of nervous breakdown.” Looking back now, it seems as though that essay was perhaps merely Dr. Lin’an’s way of indicating via parody that he had lost all hope for the academic world.
Nevertheless, Dr. Lin’an had not completely given up on scholarship. When we met on this occasion he brought a paper he had written on the subject of Wang Zhihuan’s “Song of Liangzhou.” His original intention in writing it, he told me, had been nothing more than diverting his boredom and loneliness; he had not imagined that it would also have the unexpected effect of curing his insomnia. The style of this essay could be clearly traced back to his older work, but the title was insufferably long-winded. Were you to remove some of the redundant clauses it could be called “Wang Zhihuan: the Existentialist of the Mid-Tang Era.”
“Pushkin once said oblivion is the natural lot of man. It is only recently that I have truly come to understand the meaning of this aphorism.” It was thus that Dr. Lin’an began his discourse, before immediately proceeding onto an anecdote concerning Wang Zhihuan.
About nine li west of the city of Wuwei, in Gansu, in a place called Jade Tree, there was once a two-storey wooden building. Today, the only remnants that have not disappeared in the desert are the pair of stone lions that stood before the front gate, and a metal post that was used to tether horses. This building was situated on the only road between Dunhuang and the horse plains of Shandan, and was originally an inn where travelling merchants could stop to refresh themselves or put up for the night. Due to tensions in the border regions during the early years of the Kaiyuan era, a large number of soldiers from the interior had assembled in Wuwei. This inn was, for a time, hired out for the exclusive use of the troops. The last people to occupy the inn, however, were a band of wild and unruly frontier poets. With them they brought their courtesans, their musicians, and their proclivity for drunken brawling. With each night of revelry it was as though the end of the world was nigh.
For as long as poets and courtesans have existed, these two types of people have tended to be favourably inclined towards one another. Nevertheless, holed up in such a desolate place in the desert, so far from civilisation, disputes of one sort or another were not unheard of. In order to minimise bloodshed, a poet named Brother Ye had – under the influence of alcohol – invented a system for the allotment of women. The specifics of the procedure are extremely simple to explain: the poets would normally ride out there from the city at dusk, and proceed to drink and compose poems, chat, and present their work to one another. When the moon had risen in the desert, the courtesans would emerge one by one from behind a screen and start to sing the poets’ freshly minted verses. Only when a courtesan sang the poems of a particular poet would he then have the right to spend a pleasant night in her company.
“This kind of ceremony has some similarities with the ‘blind-dating’ that has become popular in Britain,” Dr. Lin’an explained. “It lent the tradition of whoring a more esoteric quality, with its hint of some sort of profound culture.”
Ever since Wang Zhihuan had been relegated to Wuwei, he had become a regular customer of this inn. Much to his regret, he had never had the good fortune of having his poems sung by one of the courtesans. According to the analysis of latter generations of scholars, Wang Zhihuan had been completely ostracised. Aside from the fact that his “average looks and hesitant manner” did not attract women, the most significant reason was the fact that his poems were not suitable for singing. This much is indisputable. To have a vulgar courtesan, flaunting her wares, loudly sing lines like “the Yellow River’s distant spring” – it really is a bit much. However, before long an incident occurred which was beyond anyone’s expectations. This incident clearly does not fall within the scope of official history. In the Qing dynasty, Chen Deqian touched on the story in his Selection of Tang Poetry, but his description was inaccurate in the extreme.
On this particular evening, the gathering of the poets was proceeding just as usual. But it had been said that several new courtesans had arrived in the inn. The poets’ interests were piqued.
The first to emerge from behind the screen was a corpulent local girl. Most likely because of her substandard looks, the poets became uneasy, glancing about evasively for fear that the words of their poems would emerge from her mouth. This girl scanned the crowd with her little eyes like mung beans, alighting at last on the figure of Gao Shi. She sang “Song of Yan.” Once everyone had taken a deep breath of relief, they sent sympathetic glances in his direction. Gao Shi himself, however, had a different view of the matter. “This girl is adorable,” he said in a low voice to his neighbour Wang Zhihuan, “I love those buttocks.”
The next courtesan onstage, although not unattractive, was – all things considered – distinctly past her prime. Apparently she was fixated on the imposing height and handsomeness of Wang Changling, and had once even, in some wild flight of fantasy, attempted to force him to marry her with a pair of scissors. Every time she appeared she sang the poems of Wang Changling, and so none of the other poets had any real expectations of her. Sure enough, on this occasion she again sang the outdated ‘Beyond the Border’. Wang Changling, although seemingly slightly disappointed, nevertheless maintained his graceful demeanour, modestly joking, “time for another redraft.”
In this way the time passed quickly. Wang Zhihuan already seemed to have a touch of drowsiness. As the gathering was nearing its conclusion, a girl unexpectedly stepped out from behind the screen. Her appearance immediately made Wang Zhihuan’s sleepiness disappear.
The descriptions of this girl’s beauty have varied throughout the ages. Some call her “she of the clear jade arms and radiant halo, bright enough to illuminate one’s reflection”; others, “she of the stately bearing and the soul-ensnaring crystal gaze.” Regardless of the exact words used, these commentaries are unanimous on one point: she not only had the ripened grace of a mature woman, but also the purity of a young, fresh-faced girl. The poem she sang just so happened to be Wang Zhihuan’s “Song of Liangzhou.”
By the looks of it, this dignified, beautiful woman had never undergone the basics of musical training. She lacked any control over her jerky and awkward voice, and the senile old jinghu accompanist could only improvise, making a futile effort to keep up with her. Her eyes filled with tears, as though the act of singing in itself brought her nothing but unspeakable humiliation.
“If someone decides that they will drink a cup of wine laced with poison, there is no better way than to drain it all in one gulp,” Dr. Lin’an said to me. “With just such a muddle of feelings – hesitating, regretting a decision made in haste, but caught up in the pursuit of an impetuous desire – she finished the song and stared into the crowd, at a loss.”
After a brief period of silence, everyone saw Wang Zhihuan cough twice, stand up from his chair, and move towards this courtesan. His face was just as cold and detached as usual, as he tried his best to avoid losing his balance. Without even glancing at her – as though she didn’t even exist – he stepped hurriedly around the jugs of wine at her side and went straight outside.
The late-autumn air in the desert was bitingly cold, the west wind blowing grains of sand everywhere, clashing in midair with a sound like the drone of bees. Still within the light of the inn, it was beside a collapsed row of railings that Wang Zhihuan found the Shandan horse. He started to cry. From within the inn he could hear the splitting noise of wine jugs being smashed, and the panic-stricken shriek of the courtesan.
“We know now that this courtesan was none other than Wang Zhihuan’s wife,” said Dr. Lin’an with feigned calm. “Describing it in this manner makes it sound somewhat incredible, but this – when all is said and done – is the truth. You know, those regular, ceremonial meetings the poets held at the Jade Tree Inn are really not so different from the billboard rankings of popular music so fashionable in Hong Kong and Taiwan these days. In that era, in such a tiny place, it was virtually the only outlet for the aspiring culture-vultures of Wuwei.
Wang Zhihuan’s wife would not normally have been allowed out of the house, and her husband’s frequent nights away from home led her to wild speculation. When she happened to hear all about the Jade Tree Inn from a Muslim peddler of goji berries – heard all about the ostracism her husband had suffered, she could not help but burn with anxiety. Later on, she slowly came up with an idea…”
“The women’s passion for poetry must have verged on the fanatical,” I suggested to Dr. Lin’an.
“Merely an interest, and nothing more – and besides, this interest was solely due to the fact that her husband was a poet. So it was with the women of those times – had her husband been a dentist, she would have found herself inexplicably smitten with the tooth-pulling pliers. In truth, she lacked the slightest understanding of poetry. When they were in Taiyuan she had once called Wang Zhihuan’s ‘Ascending the Stork Tower’ into question. According to her logic, ‘if a thousand li view is one’s desire, merely climbing one storey higher’ was far from sufficient – you would need to force yourself up at least four or five floors before you would be able to see any further. No matter how Wang Zhihuan tried to explain to her, she would not be persuaded. Finally, he had to take his wife to stand before the dilapidated Stork Tower. ‘See, this tower only has three floors in total,’ Wang Zhihuan patiently explained. ‘When I wrote this poem I was on the second floor.’ When she saw what he meant, his embarrassed wife smiled to reveal a row of spotless white teeth: she understood. And so this unfortunate incident occurred solely due to love. What we call ‘love,’ if you ask me, is nothing but a form of mental illness.”
“Or perhaps a form of self-indulgence,” I chimed in.
“Indeed.” Dr. Lin’an stood up, apparently preparing to go to the bathroom. “What happened to Wang Zhihuan is far beyond tragedy. It had passed into what is nowadays popularly referred to as the realm of the absurd. And yet, in this day and age, affairs of a similar sort are to be found everywhere.”
Dr. Lin’an did not emerge from the bathroom for a long time. I knew our conversation was far from over. Against the background of the fridge compressor’s monotone drone, the sorrowful face of Dr. Lin’an’s wife drifted before my eyes. I didn’t see her again after their divorce.
Works (poetic; lost)
As is known to everyone, at the age of thirteen or fourteen Wang Zhihuan had already embarked on his career as a poet. Forty years later, when he died of emphysema while appointed to Wenan county, he left behind a legacy of a mere six poems. Although they were all included in the Tang Poems anthology, textual research proved the four poems of “Banquet Songs” to be subsequent forgeries. “Once a new scion has been grafted, the stock can no longer be trusted.” So, strictly speaking, there were only two poems of Wang Zhihuan’s left for posterity – the widely loved “Song of Liangzhou” and “Ascending the Stork Tower.”
When he was held up in the vicinity of Zhangye and Wuwei, Dr. Lin’an informed me, he had once seen a wood-engraving edition of Li Shiyou’s Ten Tang Scholars in a private library. The dates of the author’s birth and death were both unreliable, and the work itself was crude and shallow. It would not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, but in its diffident fashion it did hint at the secret of how the corpus of Wang Zhihuan’s work was lost.
According to Li Shiyou’s explanation, when Wang Zhihuan had been lying sick in bed for several months, and had come to believe there were not many days of life left to him, he consigned his life’s work to the fire on a night of torrential rain. However, he inscribed separate copies of “Song of Liangzhou” and “Ascending the Stork Tower” onto two fans and entrusted them to the servant who had tended to him for so many years, to serve as a memento.
As for what led Wang Zhihuan to burn his own manuscripts, Li Shiyou believed this was a risk he took because of his desire for posthumous immortality. He went on to produce an analogy: imagine a pair of priceless vases, the only ones of their kind in the whole world. Were you to smash one of them, the value of the other would – far from depreciating – increase exponentially.
“It is not hard to prove how ludicrous and shallow this account is.” Dr. Lin’an was finding it hard to control his anger when he reached this point. “We know that during his lifetime Wang Zhihuan was exceedingly cautious when it came to the distribution of his own work. Even if it were a gift to a close friend or a lady he was still usually extremely reluctant. It was this eccentricity that eventually caused him to fall out with Gao Shi and Wang Changling. If Wang Zhihuan had been as covetous of fame as Li Shiyou asserted, his reputation today would be no less than Li Bai or Du Fu’s.”
In Dr. Lin’an’s thesis he devoted considerable space to describing this stormy night so many years ago, his style imbued throughout with force and sorrow. Yet I cannot say to what extent his description was accurate. Noticing that face of his, like a decaying tree, the strands of white hair above his forehead, I knew that – truth be told – I had no right to question him in this respect.
“Even men of sound intellect and strong nerves can hardly resist thoughts of self-destruction,” Dr. Lin’an said eventually, in a relatively soft tone. “These kinds of thoughts are related to their memories of the sufferings and injuries they have sustained in their lives. For the most part, these memories can never be dispelled. They can lure one’s soul into the contemplation of illusory time and all that is ultimately unknowable – such that regardless of one’s desire to escape, it usually brings despair. Just as Cao Xueqin would later sum up: everything that exists in this world is ultimately nothing more real than flowers in a mirror, or the moon in a lake.”
Dr. Lin’an’s words transported me into the past. A few years previously his wife had given me a letter in which she had already identified all the omens that presaged the collapse of their marriage. This letter was written in Russian; in it, with a heart burdened by worry, she mentioned that Dr. Lin’an’s recent state filled her with anxiety and dread: “when he lets his attention slip, his words are already beginning to reveal what a temptation hell has become for him.”
“This mention of Wang Zhihuan makes me think of somebody else.” Dr. Lin’an drummed against his head with his fingers, as if he were doing his utmost to summon up the name. “A Jew…”
“Is it Rilke you mean?”
“No, no… it is Kafka,” Dr. Lin’an corrected me, the veins in his neck bulging with excitation. “Wang Zhihuan’s burning of his poems often prompts me to think of Kafka’s melancholy face. They both died of a pulmonary illness; both suffered repeated misfortune in marriage; they both had the same desire: that following their own extinction the world would bear no traces of their existence. And neither of them succeeded. The honourable intentions of layfolk often end up leaving these proud souls unable to rest in peace. In this respect the actions of Max Brod are unforgivable.”
“Are you suggesting that Wang Zhihuan’s desire for oblivion had some connection with his hatred towards the world?”
“That hatred is a relatively minor reason,” Dr. Lin’an replied. “What is more, we know little about Wang Zhihuan’s unfortunate life. The key point is that he had already seen through the fundamentally decrepit essence of existence, and yet had humbly endured it nevertheless. This point, I had thought, he expressed with complete clarity in ‘Song of Liangzhou.’”
“In your thesis you also mention the geographical factor…”
“The desert,” Dr. Lin’an explained, “Having spent so many years of his life in that place, the thing Wang Zhihuan had seen the most of was the desert. Across all eras, the desert has been considered a metaphor for the lethal. Truly, several days after leaving Gansu, I still dreamt the desert was pursuing close behind the train I was in. Wherever I went, it followed. If our world has a predetermined course, as people say it does, then without doubt it takes the desert as its model.”
“One needn’t fret over the destinies of others, and yet you cannot entrust your own destiny to others – this is the fundamental idea I expressed in my thesis.” Having briefly summed everything up thus, Dr. Lin’an’s conversation with me was over.
The sky was already getting bright, though the sun had not yet risen.
Dr. Lin’an went over to my bookcase, most likely intending to pick a volume at random to browse though. He remained standing there for a long time.
On top of the bookend there was a handmade toy: a long-tailed monkey carved from a coconut husk.
It was a souvenir Dr. Lin’an and his wife had given me. Still newlyweds back then, they had just returned from Hainan. I remember that distant afternoon when the two of them were standing hand-in-hand beneath my window, and her silver hair clasp was glittering in the sunlight.