Everywhere we look there are willows to be found, their pliant branches, entirely denuded of leaves, beckoning menacingly. Even the palanquin being carried through the forest is bedecked with willow branches, while one of the porters carries yet more willow boughs on his shoulder pole. These omnipresent trees and tree limbs tell us all we need to know: it must be the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, the day of the Qīngmíng jié, the Qingming Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Day, when in an outpouring of filial piety the Chinese traditionally repair their family burial mounds, clear the ancient tombs of weeds and dust, lay out sacrificial vessels, and hang willow branches from lintels and gates. Willows takes pride of place on this day, in part because their branches, when wielded by the Bodhisattva Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy and Perceiver of the World’s Sounds — who dwells, it is said, not just in moon-lit pools and rocky outcropping but also in Salixgroves — can sweep away the three calamities and seven disasters wrought variously by fire, water, wind, and the abandonment of “correct teaching.” And when it comes exorcising mogwai (devils) and guilao (ghosts), nothing is handier than a trusty willow bough.
The myriad willows we see here us do not, however, merely commemorate the beloved Goddess of Mercy; they are also meant to remind us of the grisly end of the unfortunate Han-era aristocrat and poet Jie Zhi-Tui, who retired to the forests of Jin to live out his days as a hermit, only to be burnt to death when Duke Wen, hoping to flush out the recluse and bring him back into government service, recklessly started a blaze in the woods. Jie’s charred corpse was later discovered beneath a willow tree, alongside a note written in blood: “I cut off my own flesh to dedicate it to you, and only wish that my king will always be clear and bright.” He was promptly declared a Taoist immortal, and the Qingming Festival (along with the Cold Food Festival that immediately precedes it) was thereafter marked by a ritual avoidance of fire, and a particular fixation on willows in all their beauty and eeriness. It is not for nothing that the very word for willow, liu, also means “slaughter,” hence the dark little joke in the ancient Book of Song’s minor ode on the “Leafy Willow-Tree,” as translated by Arthur Waley:
Very leafy is that willow-tree,
But I would not care to rest under it.
God [i.e. the emperor] on high is very bright;
Don’t get too close to him!
Were I to reprove him,
Afterward I should be slaughtered by him.
It was a lesson poor Jie Zhi-Tui learned the hardest way imaginable.
We may safely assume, therefore, that the procession we see slowly making its way through the woods is returning from a visit to the family tomb. Having tidied up the tumulus, poured the appropriate libations, and venerated the ancestors in a fitting and time-honored fashion, the members of the party are now free to return to their home in the city, first passing through a series of riverside villages, and then through the massive gates of what we can now recognize as the glittering city of Bianjing. By now, festivities in the city and its outskirts are in full swing, with vendors hawking snacks, mud figurines, and miniature paper buildings, all hallmarks of Tomb-Sweeping Day, while the outdoor markets are filled to brimming with holiday shoppers perusing the copious mounds of foodstuffs, fabrics, artifacts, and artwork on display. One merchant ship, it would seem, is coming perilously close to the wooden Rainbow Bridge that spans the River Bian, but other than that minor hiccough the lively mise en scène before us seems quite untroubled, with pastoral serenity perfectly balanced by urban vigor, and with timeless religious devotion paired with the sensory pleasures of the quotidian. The onlooker could be forgiven for wishing to dwell here in perpetuity.
This pageant is not, lamentably, one in which we could partake today. It must be enjoyed vicariously, via what is arguably the most renowned painting in the history of Chinese art, Qingming Shanghe Tu, or Along the River During the Qingming Festival, a 12th-century masterpiece by Chang Tse-tuan currently housed in Peking’s Palace Museum. On a silk hand-scroll a mere 10 inches high but almost 6 yards long, Chang Tse-tuan managed to depict an entire civilization in captivating panoramic and kaleidoscopic detail, and it easy to see why the work is now regarded as “China’s Mona Lisa,” at least in terms of cultural import and influence. Along the River was frequently reproduced by painters of later dynasties, with the Yuan-era Chao Meng-fu attempting a faithful copy, while the Ming-era artist Ch’iu Ying began the tradition of elaborating upon the original in an attempt to improve upon it — a hopeless task, it must be admitted.
During the Qing dynasty another version was commissioned, this time making use of Western perspective. The result, now a major attraction in Taipei’s National Palace Museum, lacks the brio of Chang Tse-tuan’s Song-era version, with its quick brushstrokes and distinctive atmosphere, sometimes haunting, sometimes carnivalesque. Victor Segalen, the French archaeologist, poet, and ardent Sinophile, rightly insisted that Chinese painting should not rely on “any organized ‘effect’; not one of those fugitive mirages with which western ‘perspective’ makes play and defines without hesitation: whether parallel lines join or not at infinity … (wretched infinity where two lines are reduced to one point): if the personages drawn here have one dimension in space, or two or three … (bah! that’s something for a competent tailor!).” The 18th-century remake is definitely too “organized,” but it is also too flat, too busy, and even a bit too cartoonish, to challenge its source material.
Yet the “Qing Court Version,” while inferior from an artistic standpoint to its progenitor, is remarkable in its own way, for its rightmost edge is graced by a sublime poem composed by the Ch’ien-lung Emperor himself, and written out in a semi-cursive script by the emperor’s close companion Liang Shih-chêng:
A wall of gold has been mounted on Shu brocade.
Craftsmen from Wu collect spare change
To pay tribute to the abundance of a myriad of families.
The watchtowers of the city rise to great heights.
The bustling scene is truly impressive.
It is a chance to explore vestiges of bygone days.
At that time, people marveled at the size of Yu,
And now, we lament the fates of Hui and Qin.
Even as we relish the sight of the “bustling scene” so impressively displayed in Chang Tse-tuan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival, we cannot — and indeed even an omnipotent emperor could not — escape that gnawing sense that the depiction unfurled before our eyes is that of a bygone era never to be recovered, and never to be matched.
When the 15-year-old Meng Yuanlao arrived at the gates of the Northern Song capital of Bianjing in the year 1103, he soon found himself caught up in all the raucous alarums and excursions that characterized daily life in that vibrant city, those which Chang Tse-tuan depicted in such marvelous detail. In the thronging bazaars Meng could obtain anything from falcons and fresh herbs to bolts of silk and polished jade, while the vendors at the night markets proffered sumptuous quantities of sweets (jujube cakes, candied seeds, lychee paste) and savouries (chopped lamb’s head, rabbit belly, eel buns). Towering over it all was the renowned Iron Pagoda, as well as the Gate of Morning Radiance, the Temple of Precious Scriptures, and the extraordinary astronomical clock tower designed by the polymath Su Song, with its intricate chain drive, known as the “celestial ladder,” and its 133 clock jacks sounding the hours. Meng, who had been born into an influential clan that included Meng Changling, a well-respected member of the Board of Public Works, was free to take in such marvels at his leisure, while visiting the many teahouses, wineshops, theaters, and perhaps (though we really ought not speculate) some of the less savory establishments situated in the so-called “pleasure precincts.”
For the next 24 years Meng Yuanlao would reside in this metropolis, until the invading Jurchen Jin barbarians put an end to Bianjing’s glories in a veritable orgy of rapine and massacre. The hum of urban life was, after a brief siege, replaced with the crash of huopao incendiary bombs, the clanging of swords, the screams of the slaughtered, and the silence of the mass grave. Emperor Ch’in-tsung, the “Qin” whose fate was lamented in the Ch’ien-lung Emperor’s poem, was captured and carried away to the Jurchen heartland in utterly humiliating fashion, along with much of his court, and also the disassembled components of Su Song’s clock, never to be repaired and never to chime again. Those fortunate enough to escape, including Meng, made for the city of Lin’an (now Hangzhou), where the Southern Song Dynasty would rise, phoenix-like, once again. But Meng Yuanlao never stopped pining for his lost homeland, and so he took up his “four treasures of study” — brush, paper, ink stick, and ink stone — and set about producing one of the most extraordinary literary works of China’s postclassical era, the Dongjing Meng Hua Lu, or Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital, a prose counterpart to Chang Tse-tuan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival.
While Meng humbly begged forgiveness for his “coarse and vulgar” prose, his goal was never strictly speaking to produce a literary masterpiece. It was simply to re-create in vivid detail the daily life of Bianjing on the eve of the barbarian invasion, taking readers on a tour through the streets, alleys, and gardens, and then all throughout the calendar year, punctuated as it was with innumerable festivals and celebrations, including above all the Qingming Festival. For Meng, Bianjing had been a place where “peace stretched on day after day,” where “people were many and all things were in abundance,” and where “season and festival followed one upon the other, each with its own sights to enjoy. Lamplit nights there were and moonlit eves, periods of snow and times of blossoming, beseeching skills and climbing heights, training reservoirs and gardens to roam in.” It deserved a proper memorial, and Meng Yuanlao had given it one, but as is the case with viewing Along the River, reading the Dreams of Splendor mostly leaves one with a profound longing for those bygone days of abundance.
The artists of the Southern Song found themselves positively steeping in melancholy, afflicted as they were by that sense of saudade or desiderium that lingered after the heyday of the Northern Song had passed. Exile had long been a central theme in Chinese poetry anyways, with the Northern Song writers Huang T’ing-chien and Su Shifollowing in the footsteps of their illustrious T’ang predecessors Li Po and Tu Fu in their quest to perfect the art of Xiaoxiang, or exile poetry. It would be the Southern Song poet, musicologist, and calligrapher Jiang Kui, the “Hermit of the White Stone,” who came as close as any to mastering that genre, owing to his unique style, described by contemporaries as that of “clouds that leave or stay without a trace.” One of Jiang Kui’s finest works was “Chang Ting Yuan Man,” or the “Lament on Parting,” which I have inadequately attempted to render thusly:
As the wind breathes, slow and fragrant
Wafting blossoms from the willow strands
In the green depths of the garden
With twilight falling and the waters churning
The distant sails are tossed about
Many people have I known
But none are like those willow trees
That shade the gate through which I left
If trees had human hearts
They would not grow so green with life
At sunset the lofty city fades from sight
And mountains now surround me
Endless, scattered, tumbling down
Like Wei Lang, I left you
And in my place, a ring of jade
When we parted, you begged me to return
Fearing for the fate of our crimson flowers
Now, without your shears
How will I ever cut away
These thousand silken strands of sorrow?
The Qing scholar Wang Sen was right to praise Jiang Kui’s “lapidary verses and refined words that return to purity and elegance,” and there is certainly no arguing with Zhu Yizun’s assessment that “people say that one must praise the song lyric of the Northern Song; however, only in the Southern Song did the song lyric reach the ultimate craft, and only at the end of the Song did it reach its ultimate transformation. Jiang Yaozhang [Jiang Kui] is the most outstanding [song lyric writer].”
It is altogether surprising, then, to find that Jiang was unappreciated in his own time, and that his laudable attempts to bring the “12 tones of antiquity” back into favor were derided by the officials of the Taichang Si, the Song dynasty’s “Office of Great Constancy” that looked after rites and musical traditions. Later poets could only bemoan the official repudiation of Jiang Kui’s cultural preservation program; as the historian Douglas Howland summarized it, as “a consequence of his failed ideals — China has lost its ancient music.” Defeat, exile, nostalgia, cultural decline — you can see why the poets of the Southern Song dynasty grew increasingly heavy-hearted. “How can the one word sadness,” Li Ch’ing Chao pondered, “embrace it all?” The great Song general Hsin Ch’i-Chi, one of the rare leaders to put up a decent fight against the invading nomads, was rewarded with little more than the “taste of woe, sorrow, and bitterness,” and like Jie Zhi-Tui took to living in seclusion. His most moving poem, to my mind at least, “Che-ku T’ien,” or “Partridge Sky,” concludes this way, in C. H. Kwock and Vincent McHugh’s incomparable translation:
Musing over bygone things
sigh at my present state
Never spring wind
this white beard black again
and instead of my
Destroying the Tatars
what do I read?
My eastern neighbor’s handbook:
Which in turn reminds me of Edward Lear’s uncharacteristically sensical and pointed query:
When “Grand old men” persist in folly
In slaughtering men and chopping trees,
What art can soothe the melancholy
Of those whom futile “statesmen” teaze?
Here the estimable Hsin Ch’i-Chi has given us as good an answer as any to this eternal question, in a poem that represents the melancholy apotheosis of Song civilization, and which amply demonstrates the essential truth of Shelley’s maxim that “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”
A little more than a hundred miles southwest of Kaifeng (as Bianjing is now known) lies the city of Pingdingshan, where from time immemorial the Sanguan folk religion temple has provided a space for ancestor worship, sacrifice, thanksgiving, and various rites of passage that would still be recognizable to Chang Tse-tuan or Meng Yuanlao. But on May 7, 2020, as by the online human rights magazine Bitter Winter, worshipers arrived there only to find a notice barring entry to the eastern courtyard on purportedly pandemic-related grounds. Two weeks earlier, it is worth noting, the local authorities had caught the temple manager in the act of making a jìngxiāng (incense offering) at the temple’s altar. Communist party officials ordered the gate to be closed at all times, while further threatening that “the temple would be destroyed if he was found burning incense there again,” making it abundantly clear that the subsequent lockdown was merely a pretext for the suppression of traditional religious activity. Curiously enough, the western courtyard remains wide open, leading as it does to a separate whitewashed hall, sparsely furnished but otherwise quite unaffected by social distancing measures, where celebrants are still free to light incense and kowtow to three kitschy little statues of Chairman Mao, Zhou Enlai, and the warlord Zhu De, each grandiosely sporting a celadon-colored robe beneath a blue cape, but nevertheless coming across a bit like the Supermarionation puppets from Team America: World Police.
“Under Mao Zedong’s rule,” one folk religion adherent told Bitter Winter, “all deities had to be swept away, and all people were told to love the Party. All temples without portraits of Mao were doomed to be demolished. We are now regressing to the times of the Cultural Revolution.” And the deities are certainly being swept away, with every day bringing new enormities. In recent months we have seen Buddhist statues of Guanyin, Amitabha, and other religious figures demolished in places like Dali and Mile in Yunnan, and Meishan in Sichuan, while folk religion temples and ancestral halls have either been torn down or converted into propaganda centers. All this, of course, is in addition to the well-known cultural genocidal “sinicization” campaigns being carried out against the Tibetan and Uyghur populations, and the less well-known crackdowns on ethnic minorities in Southern Mongolia, the Utsuls of Hainan Island, and so on.
It is here that we are rudely awakened from the foregoing dreams of Song splendor to the aesthetic and spiritual hell of modern China, wondering all the while, as Shakespeare put it in his 65th sonnet, “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” When we fix our attention on the Sanguan Temple, with its grossly divergent eastern and western courtyards, we see the tragic juxtaposition between the world of Chang Tse-tuan and Meng Yuanlao and the world of Mao and Xi Jinping, between the world of Along the River During the Qingming Festival and the Dreams of Splendor of the Eastern Capital and the world of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and forced sinicization. A grotesque bacchanalia of cultural destruction is proceeding apace, and at this rate it will soon be next to impossible to adequately “explore vestiges of bygone days.”
When I think of the Song and their dreams of splendor, one anecdote in particular comes to mind, as related by Victor Segalen, which concerns a master-painter from that era who had the habit of climbing up the terraces of vineyards, equipped with a flagon of wine, and of passing the day mildly drunk, staring and meditating. Do you know what he observed? Clearly a spectacle, since he was a Master, and a Painter. The commentators say, “That he looked for the bond of light joining ultimately once and forever joy and life, life and joy … ” This inebriated vision, this piercing gaze, this clairvoyance can replace for some people — to whom you belong? — all the reason of the world and of god.
How many civilizations — aside from the Song, and perhaps the Minoans and Etruscans — have managed through their artwork to join life and joy in such a successful and perdurable fashion? And yet how many societies today are willing to obliterate the glorious bequests of the past for the sake of the short-sighted agendas of the present, inspired by twisted ideologies the 19th-century Austrian playwright Eduard von Bauernfeld eloquently called “rein negatives: die Furcht vor dem Geiste, die Negation des Geistes, der absolute Stillstand, die Versumpfung, die Verdummung [purely negative: the fear of spiritual things, the negation of spirit, absolute stasis, waterlogged, stultified].”
For all that, we can still obtain a certain amount of comfort from the T’ang-era poet Wang Fan-Chih’s musings on human frailty and artistic posterity:
None in the world
But we slave to make
beating out iron
to bar out death
The paintings, travelogues, songs, and poems of Chang Tse-tuan, Meng Yuanlao, Jiang Kui, and Hsin Ch’i-Chihave, against all odds, indeed lasted nearly a thousand years. The accomplishments of today’s CCP apparatchiks and slave-masters will not last anywhere near as long, and one suspects that the party officials themselves know that, hence their manic drive to destroy any evidence of the artistic and spiritual worlds against which they cannot compete. And all the while, if you listen carefully, you can still make out the sounds of the ghosts clapping hands and laughing, even amidst the shuttered temples, demolished ancestral halls, and dismantled statues that increasingly pockmark the Chinese landscape.