Saturday, August 06, 2011

Three short stories from the Tang Dynasty.

I've been looking at literature from the Tang era today. The selection is composed of poetry, essays and short stories. All the forms are unexpectedly readable. The ideas in the poetry are surprising in that they deal with concerns I would have thought would only belong to the modern era.

For instance in this first one on drinking there are observations on aging and vanity.

From Four Poems on Wine
by Li Po (699-762)

Have you not seen
How the Yellow River, which flows from heaven and hurries
towards the sea, never turns back?
Have you not seen
How at the bright mirrors of high halls men mourn their
white hairs,
At dawn black silk, by evening changed to snow?
While there is pleasure in life, enjoy it,
And never let your gold cup face the moon empty!

This second one is a moving war poem, and was written in a time when there were some particularly vicious wars with heavy casualties.

From a Song of War Chariots.
by Tu Fu (712-770)

...We have learned that to have a son is bad luck -
It is very much better to have a daughter
Who can marry and live in the house of a neighbour,
While under the sod we bury our boys.
....Go to the Blue Sea, look along the shore
At all the old white bones forsaken -
New Ghosts are wailing there now with the old,
Loudest in the dark sky of a stormy day.

The short stories are must be some of the earliest short stories (of the realistic non-mythic type) in the world. I had read that the Chinese did not have a word for romantic love. It is strange then, that each of the following three stories involve beautiful young women to which the hero becomes instantly attached. They have unexpected endings.

The Story of Ts'ui Ying-ying by Y√ľan Chen (799-846).

Chang is a man who admires beauty and yet cannot find a beautiful woman. One day on his travels, he manages to protect a widow and her young son and daughter. The daughter, Ying-Ying, turns out to be beautiful. However, she cannot show her true feelings. Chang tries to woo her but she appears uninterested. Her maid tells him to try poetry. Ying-Ying seems to respond to this, but when he goes to meet her, she repels him. He does not give up, and eventually she dreamily goes to his bed. These night-time liaisons continue for some time. He then has to go back to the capital to take civil service exams. He fails. he has to stay behind. He writes. She replies passionately, saying how much she misses him. He decides to drop her because he thinks beautiful women lead men astray and make them subject to ridicule. They both marry other people. He goes to see her many years later but she refuses to see him because she has become too thin and haggard as a result of his abandonment of her.

The rituals and style remind me very much of 10th century Japanese books I've read. This is not surprising because Heian court life was based on the Tang Chinese court life. It is told in a straightforward way, and the poetic messages and far less obtuse and easier to understand.

The Story of Miss Li by Po Hsing-chien.

This story starts and ends in the first person giving the reason why the narrator thought it worthwhile recording. A father was very proud of his son and sent him to the capital to study. Here he came across Miss Li who lived with her mother who was low and unprincipled - in other words a prostitute. They fell in love. He inculcated himself into the house, declared his love and stayed until all the money his father had given him had run out.

The mother and daughter then tricked him into leaving. They did this by moving from their house and locking him out, since their house was only rented. He was so upset he almost died and was taken in by first his former landlord , and then the undertaker. He became a professional mourner of some repute, and in competition with another undertaker won with his sad songs which caused everyone to cry. His father happened to be in town, and he was spotted by his father's servant. He confessed who he was, and his father took all his clothes from him and beat him until he was close to death.

Friends rescued him, but his wounds were too troublesome so after a while they left him in the middle of the road. Here he was fed by passersby. He then recovered enough to become a beggar. In winter he passed by his Miss Li's house who took him in, defied her mother, paif her off and lived with him. She paid for him to buy books and study. When he entered his exams he passed first time, and then again with huge honours. This caught the attention of the emepror who promoted him. He then was assigned to his fathers area who welcomed him back.

Miss Li was not going to come with him, but he persuaded her to do so, she was about to go home again when the father insisted she did not and the boy and Miss Li married. They had four sons - all of whom had high rank. The narrator thinks it strange that a prostitute should behave so well, which is why he recorded it.

Apart from the story, there are interesting points of etiquette: the idea of an undertakers' competition enticing crowds of several hundred; the 'six rites of welcome' involved with betrothal, the fact it seems all right for the couple to live together before marriage, the fake modesty which seems to be part of etiquette, just as it was in Japan.

The Curly-bearded Hero by Tu Kuang-t'ing (850-933)

This tale is quite different from the other two. A councillor is left in charge of the captial and become decadent and lavish. He is attended by rows of maidens. He also becomes idle and does not get up for visitors. Li Ching has a spirirted conversation with hi, and chides him. He is followed out of court by a young girl, aged about 18, who says the chancellor is 'corpse in which little breath remains'. She begs to be taken on by him. She is beautiful. They set up house together but find themselves being pied upon. They go on a journey and a curly bearded stranger befriends them. He has the same name as the girl so she defines her self as his little sister. Curly bearded has a human head, liver and heart in his bag; the latter two items they share with some wine.

They find the new leader and get a Tao to interview him. The Tao confirms the new leader but also tells Curly Beard his conquests lie elsewhere. The new leader is installed by Li Chang and Little Sister and curly beard departs to take over in the south-east. Li Chang becomes rich , and Curl Beard establishes his empire.

This tale shows the foolishness of mounting a one man rebellion. Apparently.


Blogger Teleny said...

Which sounds a lot like the original "Star Wars".

Fri Feb 28, 08:13:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

That's an interesting observation! I expect you're right. I have heard there are only seven plots...

Fri Feb 28, 10:28:00 pm  

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