The Fir-Flower Tablets – Social and Historical Context for Some Classic Chinese Poems

It’s true. Some of my posts are a tad overlong. I simply become giddily delighted when I find a fantastic resource and want to share all of it. Such is the case with Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems Translated from the Chinese by Chinese scholar Florence Ayscough and American poet Amy Lowell. I wish I could go back in time and have tea with the translators, who were lifelong friends. Lowell lived in Boston and Ayscough in Shanghai when they committed to the project. Although Ayscough visited the United States several times while writing the book, the translation largely happened through correspondence during the chaotic years of World War I.

Out of care for your time and attention spans, I’m breaking the material into three posts: historical and social context, crucial elements in the poetry, and the depiction of women in the poems. I’m somewhat hesitant to commit to deadlines because that’s begging the universe to set something on metaphorical fire in my world. So, I’ll post when I can. Of course, you can always read Fir-Flower Tablets on Project Gutenberg.

Ayscough wrote a fascinating introduction to the book to help the Western reader understand the context of the poems, primarily written during the T’ang Dynasty (618-906). She was born in Shanghai to a Canadian father and an American mother. She remained in China until age eleven, when she left for America to finish her education. There, she met Lowell. She later returned to China and married an Englishman employed by a British importing house in Shanghai. I’ve excerpted from her introduction for the first two posts.

Activities of the Twelve Months: The Fourth Month
Fourth Month from Activities of the Twelve Months Court
Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911)

The Emperor was regarded as the Son of the Celestial Ruler, as Father of his people, and was supposed to direct his Empire as a father should direct his children, never by the strong arm of force, but by loving precept and example. In theory, he held office only so long as peace and prosperity lasted, this beneficent state of things being considered a proof that the ruler’s actions were in accordance with the decree of Heaven. Rebellion and disorder were an equal proof that the Son of Heaven had failed in his great mission; and, if wide-spread discontent continued, it was his duty to abdicate. The “divine right of kings” has never existed in China; its place has been taken by the people’s right to rebellion.

The semi-divine person of the Emperor was also regarded as the “Sun” of the Empire, whose light should shine on high and low alike. His intelligence was compared to the penetrating rays of the sun, while that of the Empress found its counterpart in the soft, suffusing brilliance of the moon. In reading Chinese poetry, it is important to keep these similes in mind, as the poets constantly employ them; evil counsellors, for instance, are often referred to as “clouds which obscure the sun.”

The Son of Heaven was assisted in the government of the country by a large body of officials, drawn from all classes of the people. If the Emperor were the “Son of Heaven,” he administered his Empire with the help of very human persons, the various officials, and these officials owed their positions, great and small, partly to the Emperor’s attitude, it is true, but in far greater degree to their prowess in the literary examinations.

An official of the first rank might owe his preferment to the Emperor’s beneficence; but to reach an altitude where this beneficence could operate, he had to climb through all the lower grades, and this could only be done by successfully passing all the examinations, one after the other. The curious thing is that these examinations were purely literary. They consisted not only in knowing thoroughly the classics of the past, but in being able to recite long passages from them by heart, and with this was included the ability to write one’s self, not merely in prose, but in poetry. Everyone in office had to be, perforce, a poet. No one could hope to be the mayor of a town or the governor of a province unless he had attained a high proficiency in the art of poetry. This is brought strikingly home to us by the fact that one of the chief pastimes of educated men was to meet together for the purpose of playing various games all of which turned on the writing of verse.

The examinations which brought about this strange state of things were four. The first, which conferred the degree of Hsiu Ts’ai, “Flowering Talent,” could be competed for only by those who had already passed two minor examinations, one in their district, and one in the department in which this district was situated. The Hsiu Ts’ai examinations were held twice every three years in the provincial capitals. There were various grades of the “Flowering Talent” degree, which is often translated as Bachelor of Arts, some of which could be bestowed through favour or acquired by purchase. The holders of it were entitled to wear a dress of blue silk, and in Chinese novels the hero is often spoken of as wearing this colour, by which readers are to understand that he is a clever young man already on the way to preferment.

The second degree, that of Ch’ü Jên, “Promoted Man,” was obtained by passing the examinations which took place every third year in all the provincial capitals simultaneously. This degree enabled its recipients to hold office, but positions were not always to hand, and frequently “Promoted Men” had to wait long before being appointed to a post; also, the offices open to them were of the lesser grades, those who aspired to a higher rank had a farther road to travel. The dress which went with this degree was also of silk, but of a darker shade than that worn by “bachelors.”

The third examination for the Chin Shih, or “Entered Scholar,” degree was also held triennially, but at the national capital, and only those among the Ch’ü Jên who had not already taken office were eligible. The men so fortunate as to pass were allowed to place a tablet over the doors of their houses, and their particular dress was of violet silk.

Zhou Fang (730–800)

The fourth, which really conferred an office rather than a degree, was bestowed on men who competed in a special examination held once in three years in the Emperor’s Palace. Those who were successful in this last examination became automatically Han Lin, or members of the Imperial Academy, which, in the picturesque phraseology of China, was called the “Forest of Pencils.” A member of the Academy held his position, a salaried one, for life, and the highest officials of the Empire were chosen from these Academicians.

This elaboration of degrees was only arrived at gradually. During the T’ang Dynasty, all the examinations were held at Ch’ang An. These four degrees of learning have often been translated as Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, Doctor of Literature, and Academician. The analogy is so far from close, however, that most modern sinologues prefer to render them indiscriminately, according to context, as student, scholar, and official.

By means of this remarkable system, which threw open the road to advancement to every man in the country capable of availing himself of it, new blood was continually brought to the top, as all who passed the various degrees became officials, expectant or in being, and of higher or lower grade according to the Chinese measure of ability. Military degrees corresponding to the civil were given; but, as these called for merely physical display, they were not highly esteemed.

Since only a few of the candidates for office passed the examinations successfully, a small army of highly educated men was dispersed throughout the country every three years. In the towns and villages they were regarded with the reverence universally paid to learning by the Chinese, and many became teachers to the rising generation in whom they cultivated a great respect for literature in general and poetry in particular.

The holders of degrees, on the other hand, entered at once upon a career as administrators. Prevented by an inexorable law—a law designed to make nepotism impossible—from holding office in their own province, they were constantly shifted from one part of the country to another, and this is a chief reason for the many poems of farewell that were written. The great desire of all officials was to remain at, or near, the Court, where the most brilliant brains of the Empire were assembled. As may be easily imagined, the intrigues and machinations employed to attain this end were many, with the result that deserving men often found themselves banished to posts on the desolate outskirts of the country where, far from congenial intercourse, they suffered a mental exile of the most complete description. Innumerable poems dealing with this sad state are found in all Chinese anthologies.

There were nine ranks of nobility. The higher officials took the rank of their various and succeeding offices, others were ennobled for signal services performed. These titles were not hereditary in the ordinary sense, but backwards, if I can so express it. The dead ancestors of a nobleman were accorded his rank, whatever had been theirs in life, but his sons and their descendants had only such titles as they themselves might earn.

The desire to bask in the rays of the Imperial Sun was shared by ambitious fathers who longed to have their daughters appear before the Emperor, and possibly make the fortune of the family by captivating the Imperial glance. This led to the most beautiful and talented young girls being sent to the Palace, where they often lived and died without ever being summoned before the Son of Heaven. Although numberless tragic poems have been written by these unfortunate ladies, many charming romances did actually take place, made possible by the custom of periodically dispersing the superfluous Palace women and marrying them to suitable husbands.

In striking contrast to the unfortunates who dragged out a purposeless life of idleness, was the lot of the beauty who had the good fortune to capture the Imperial fancy, and who, through her influence over the Dragon Throne, virtually ruled the Middle Kingdom. No extravagancies were too great for these exquisite creatures, and many dynasties have fallen through popular revolt against the excesses of Imperial concubines.

From (Chinese“This painting depicts ten women of the inner court as they sit around a long rectangular table enjoying wine and tea. The four at the top of the picture are playing musical instruments to create the mood for this party. The instruments include a Tartar pipe, pipa, zither, and sheng pipe. One of the attendant girls is also holding a clapper to keep the beat. Though the painting describes a scene of music and drinking, there seems to be sense of resignation on the faces of the women, as if this is just an ordinary day in the life of court women. The fashion for beauty among ladies during the Yuan-ho era (806-819) reflected the strong influence of Yang Kuei-fei (719-756), whose full form set a standard. The ladies here are shown with full figures, rounded faces, delicate eyebrows, white makeup, long-sleeved robes, draping silks, and high skirts. Four women along with the one playing the pipa all have their hair tied in an unusual manner known as a “drop-horse knot”. One of the women also wears a floral crown, signifying higher status. Both court ladies and female attendants are shown with their hair tied arranged with combs and pins, which was immortalized in the poetry of Wen T’ing-yun (ca. 813-866) as adorned “mountains” and “clouds”. This painting is rather short for a hanging scroll and may have originally been mounted as part of a small screen that was later remounted into the format we see today. There is no seal or signature of the artist on the work, but it appears to have come from the hand of an artist influenced by the styles of Chang Hsuan (first half of 8th c.) and Chou Fang (ca. 730-800).

It would be quite erroneous to suppose, however, that the Emperor’s life was entirely given up to pleasure and gaiety, or that it was chiefly passed in the beautiful seclusion of the Imperial gardens. The poems, it is true, generally allude to these moments, but the cares of state were many, and every day, at sunrise, officials assembled in the Audience Hall to make their reports to the Emperor. Moreover, Court ceremonials were extremely solemn occasions, carried out with the utmost dignity.

As life at Court centred about the persons of the Emperor and Empress, so life in the homes of the people centred about the elders of the family. The men of wealthy families were usually of official rank, and led a life in touch with the outer world, a life of social intercourse with other men in which friendship played an all-engrossing part. This characteristic of Chinese life is one of the most striking features of the poetic background. Love poems from men to women are so rare as to be almost non-existent (striking exceptions do occur, however, several of which are translated here), but poems of grief written at parting from “the man one loves” are innumerable, and to sit with one’s friends, drinking wine and reciting verses, making music or playing chess, were favourite amusements throughout the T’ang period.

Wine-drinking was general, no pleasure gathering being complete without it. The wine of China was usually made from fermented grains, but wines from grapes, plums, pears, and other fruits were also manufactured. It was carefully heated and served in tall flagons somewhat resembling our coffee-pots, and was drunk out of tiny little cups no bigger than liqueur glasses. These cups, which were never of glass, were made of various metals, of lacquered or carved wood, of semi-precious stones such as jade, or agate, or carnelian; porcelain, the usual material for wine-cups today, not having yet been invented. Custom demanded that each thimbleful be tossed off at a gulp, and many were consumed before a feeling of exhilaration could be experienced. That there was a good deal of real drunkenness, we cannot doubt, but not to the extent that is generally supposed. From the character of the men and the lives they led, it is fairly clear that most of the drinking kept within reasonable bounds. Unfortunately, in translation, the quantity imbibed at these wine-parties becomes greatly exaggerated. That wine was drunk, not merely for its taste, but as a heightener of sensation, is evident; but the “three hundred cups” so often mentioned bear no such significance as might at first appear when the size of the cups is taken into account. Undoubtedly, also, we must regard this exact number as a genial hyperbole.

If husbands and sons could enjoy the excitement of travel, the spur of famous scenery, the gaieties of Court, and the pleasures of social intercourse, wives and daughters were obliged to find their occupations within the Kuei or “Women’s Apartments,” which included the gardens set apart for their use. The ruling spirit of the Kuei was the mother-in-law; and the wife of the master of the house, although she was the mother of his sons and the director of the daughters-in-law, did not reach the fullness of her power until her husband’s mother had died.

The chief duty of a young wife was attendance upon her mother-in-law. With the first grey streak of daylight, she rose from her immense lacquer bed, so large as to be almost an anteroom, and, having dressed, took the old lady her tea. She then returned to her own apartment to breakfast with her husband and await the summons to attend her mother-in-law’s toilet, a most solemn function, and the breakfast which followed. These duties accomplished, she was free to occupy herself as she pleased. Calligraphy, painting, writing poems and essays, were popular pursuits, and many hours were spent at the embroidery frame or in making music.

Chinese poetry is full of references to the toilet, to the intricate hair-dressing, the “moth-antennæ eyebrows,” the painting of faces, and all this was done in front of a mirror standing on a little rack placed on the toilet-table. A lady, writing to her absent husband, mourns that she has no heart to “make the cloud head-dress,” or writes, “looking down upon my mirror in order to apply the powder and paint, I desire to keep back the tears. I fear that the people in the house will know my grief. I am ashamed.”

Looking in a Mirror by an Ornamental Box – Wang Shên (1036 – 1093)

In spite of the fact that they had never laid eyes on the men they were to marry before the wedding-day, these young women seem to have depended upon the companionship of their husbands to a most touching extent. The occupations of the day were carried on in the Kuei; but, when evening came, the husband and wife often read and studied the classics together. A line from a well-known poem says, “The red sleeve replenishes the incense, at night, studying books,” and the picture it calls up is that of a young man and woman in the typical surroundings of a Chinese home of the educated class. Red was the colour worn by very young women, whether married or not; as the years advanced, this was changed for soft blues and mauves, and later still for blacks, greys, or dull greens. A line such as “tears soak my dress of coarse, red silk” instantly suggests a young woman in deep grief.

Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses – Zhou Fang (730–800)

The children studied every day with teachers; the sons and daughters of old servants who had, according to custom, taken the family surname, receiving the same advantages as those of the master. These last were, in all respects, brought up as children of the house, the only distinction being that whereas the master’s own children sat “above” the table, facing South, the children of the servants sat “below,” facing North. A more forcible reminder of their real status appeared later in life, since they were debarred from competing in the official examinations unless they left the household in which they had grown up and relinquished the family surname taken by their fathers. A curious habit among families, which extended even to groups of friends, was the designation by numbers according to age, a man being familiarly known as Yung Seven or T’sui Fifteen. It will be noticed that such designations often occur in the poems.

Children Playing on a Winter Day – Song Dynasty

Only four classes of persons were recognized as being of importance to society and these were rated in the following order: scholars, agriculturalists, labourers, and traders—officials, of course, coming under the generic name of scholars. Soldiers, actors, barbers, etc., were considered a lower order of beings entirely and, as such, properly despised.

China, essentially an agricultural country, was economically self-sufficient, producing everything needed by her population. The agriculturalist was, therefore, the very backbone of the state.

In rendering Chinese poetry, the translator must constantly keep in mind the fact that the architectural background differs from that of every other country, and that our language does not possess terms which adequately describe it.

Apart from the humble cottages of the very poor, all dwelling-houses, or chia, are constructed on the same general plan. They consist of a series of one-story buildings divided by courtyards, which, in the houses of the well-to-do, are connected by covered passages running along the sides of each court. A house is cut up into chien, or divisions, the number, within limits, being determined by the wealth and position of the owners. The homes of the people, both rich and poor, are arranged in three or five chien; official residences are of seven chien; Imperial palaces of nine. Each of these chien consists of several buildings, the number of which vary considerably, more buildings being added as the family grows by the marriage of the sons who, with their wives and children, are supposed to live in patriarchal fashion in their father’s house. If officials sometimes carried their families with them to the towns where they were stationed, there were other posts so distant or so desolate as to make it practically impossible to take women to them. In these cases, the families remained behind under the paternal roof.

Doors lead to the garden from the study, the guest-room, and the Women’s Apartments. These are made in an endless diversity of shapes and add greatly to the picturesqueness of house and grounds. Those through which a number of people are to pass to and fro are often large circles, while smaller and more intimate doors are cut to the outlines of fans, leaves, or flower vases. In addition to the doors, blank spaces of wall are often broken by openings at the height of a window, such openings being most fantastic and filled with intricately designed latticework.

I have already spoken of the Kuei or Women’s Apartments. In poetry, this part of the chia is alluded to in a highly figurative manner. The windows are “gold” or “jade” windows; the door by which it is approached is the Lan Kuei, or “Orchid Door.” Indeed, the sweet-scented little epidendrum called by the Chinese, lan, is continually used to suggest the Kuei and its inmates.

Besides the house proper, there are numerous structures erected in gardens, for the Chinese spend much of their time in their gardens. No nation is more passionately fond of nature, whether in its grander aspects, or in the charming arrangements of potted flowers which take the place of our borders in their pleasure grounds. Among these outdoor buildings none is more difficult to describe than the lou, since we have nothing which exactly corresponds to it. Lous appear again and again in Chinese poetry, but just what to call them in English is a puzzle. They are neither summer-houses, nor pavilions, nor cupolas, but a little of all three. Always of more than one story, they are employed for differing purposes; for instance, the fo lou on the plan is an upper chamber where Buddhist images are kept. The lou generally referred to in poetry, however, is really a “pleasure-house-in-the-air,” used as the Italians use their belvederes. Here the inmates of the house sit and look down upon the garden or over the surrounding country, or watch “the sun disappear in the long grass at the edge of the horizon” or “the moon rise like a golden hook.”

Plan Of A Typical Chinese House Of The Better Class

Shaded Sections—Buildings.

White Sections—Courtyards.

The house faces South.

1. Chao Pi.Spirit Wall. Built to protect the main entrance from the malign influence of evil spirits: these move most easily in a straight line and find difficulty in turning corners, therefore a wall before the Great Gate is an effective defence.
2. Ta Mên.Great Gate.
3. Mên Fang.Gate-keeper’s Room.
4. Ting Tzŭ Lang.Covered passage leading from the Reception Hall to the Great Gate and opening on the street.
5. Lang.Covered passage-way.
6. T’ing.Reception Hall.
7. Lang.Covered passage-way.
8. T’ing.Inner Reception Hall.
9. Ch’ih.A stone-paved courtyard. It has no roof and is raised in the centre. On great occasions, such as weddings, birthdays, and so on, it can be roofed and floored, thus being made a part of the house. Trees and flowers are not planted in this court, but are set about in pots.
10. T’ing.A courtyard. In this second courtyard, to which steps lead down, trees and flowers are planted, making of it an inner garden.
11. Tso Ma Loa.Running Horse Two-Story Apartments. This is the Kuei so often spoken of, the Women’s Apartments. It is a building in which the rooms surround a courtyard, and are connected by verandahs running round the court upstairs and down. The space in the centre is known as T’ien Ching or Heaven’s Well. There are eighteen rooms in the upper story, and eighteen in the lower. The wife uses the front rooms; the daughters, the back.
12. Hou T’ing.Back Court. It is bounded by a “flower wall,” or brick trellis, through which flowers can twine, and is used by the inmates of the Kuei as a garden.
13. Nü Hsia Fang.Women’s Lower House. A house for the women servants. As in the house for men servants, No. 18, the floor is actually on a lower level than those of the master’s apartments.
14. Fo Lou.Buddhist Two-Story Apartments. In the upper story, images of Buddhas, and of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, are kept. As a rule, it is locked, and only people who have washed carefully and put on clean clothes may enter.
15. Tsê Shih.Side Inner Apartment. In this house, poor relations may live. The concubines who do not enter the Kuei except on invitation also live here. Guests do not go further into the house than to the wall bounding this building on the South.
16. Tung Hua T’ing.Eastern Flower Hall.
17. Tui T’ing.Opposite Hall. This and No. 16 are used for theatrical entertainments. The guests are seated in No. 16, facing South, and the stage faces North in No. 17. A cloth covering is stretched over the courtyard, and a wall divides the two T’ing from the rest of the house.
18. Nan Hsia Fang.Men’s Lower House. A house for men servants divided as far as possible from the quarters of the women servants, also placed conveniently near the Great Gate where guests enter.
19. Ta Shu Fang.Great Book Room. This room is used as a library and study, and in it the teacher instructs the sons of the family.
20. Hsi Hua T’ing.Western Flower Hall. Here guests are entertained at meals. Flower gardens are placed on either side, and also walls which prevent either the study or the women’s rooms from being seen from it.
21. Tsê Shih.Side Inner Apartment. A building used by the ladies of the house as a study or boudoir, where they embroider, paint, or write. The light is very good, whereas in the Kuei, on account of most of the windows opening on the court (“Heaven’s Well”), it is apt to be poor.
22. Ch’u Fang.Kitchen. This is placed conveniently near to No. 20, where the men of the family dine, and No. 21, the dining-room of the ladies.
23. Ch’ü Lang.Passage-of-Many-Turnings. The superstitious belief in regard to the difficulty experienced by evil spirits in going round sharp corners governs the planning of this strangely shaped passage.
24. Shu Chai.“Books Reverenced.” The study, or students’ room.
25. Hsien.A Side-room or Pavilion. This is a long, low, outdoor passage, where guests sit and amuse themselves.
26. Ma Fang.Stable. The stable is placed as far as possible from the house. The horses, however, are kept saddled near the Great Gate for a large part of the day, in order to be in readiness should they be needed.
27. Hua Yüan.Flower Garden. The gardens are arranged with hills, water, and rockeries, to look as much like natural scenes as possible.
28. Ssŭ So.Privy.

Another erection foreign to Western architecture is the t’ai, or terrace. In early days, there were many kinds of t’ai, ranging from the small, square, uncovered stage still seen in private gardens and called yüeh t’ai, “moon terrace,” to immense structures like high, long, open platforms, built by Emperors and officials for various reasons.

Second Month from Activities of the Twelve Months Court
Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1911)