Spirit travels through an ancient land

July 24, 2017
Taipei Times

Spirit travels through an ancient land


Former US diplomat John Tkacik ponders Su Dongpo’s ‘Red Cliff Meditation’ and the impact it continues to have on his reading of Chinese


By John Tkacik  / Mon, Jul 24, 2017 - Page 8


During my forty-odd years of Chinese studies, I often found little things that would capture my imagination. Looking back, these little obsessions have been central to my love of the Chinese language. Once upon a time, I came across a scrap of remembrance in a dusty paperback of stray jottings by the Song Dynasty poet-statesman Su Dongpo (蘇東坡1037-1102). Among some vignettes in archaic Chinese syntax, Su mentions clerk Wang Peng (王彭):


“Wang was fond of recalling that ‘when the children in the lane began to act up, and their families were thoroughly fed up, the routine was to give them copper cash, then order them off to sit and listen to ancient tales, particularly recitations of the Three Kingdoms epic. When they learned of Liu Bei’s defeats, there were crestfallen faces and copious tears, and when they heard of Cao Cao’s defeats, there ensued delighted squeals of happiness. Thus was born a strong sense of heroes and villains, a sense that hasn’t let up for a hundred generations.’ Peng (the son of Kai), a recorder for the militia, was well-versed in stories and literature, I think of him often now that he is gone, I wrote his eulogy. His formal name was ‘Long in Years.’”


That poignant entry was written a thousand years ago. Parents in China then are not so different from parents today, and in old age, people still pine for friends of their youth and their shared experiences. Su, popularly known as “Hermit of the East Slope,” conjured his own childhood in a remote Sichuan river port, his delight at the raconteur’s knee, his cheers with the other children at the triumphs of the virtuous and cunning allies of Duke Zhou, and his trembling at the very mention of the evil and arrogant general Cao Cao.




Indeed, love for the Three Kingdoms saga and its “strong sense of heroes and villains” has not let up even in hundreds of generations since Master Su’s time.


Tang Hung (唐鴻), a painter-calligrapher of renown and legendary Chinese language tutor at the US Consulate in Hong Kong in the last century, infected me with his enthusiasm for both Su Dongpo and the Three Kingdoms. My fellow Hong Kong consul and office-mate, Tom Hui (徐光廷), himself an accomplished translator and scholar of Three Kingdoms literature, encouraged me in my obsession for Su Dongpos Red Cliff poems. I still treasure the translations Hui wrote me of Sus poetry and Ming dynasty libretti of Three Kingdoms operas.


Another colleague from Beijing, Stephen Holder, himself a scholar of Yuan dynasty drama, was a much better Chinese speaker than me. Competition with his intellect was hopeless for me, but was sharp incentive to stay conversant in Chinese poetry and classics lest I embarrass myself during Old China Hands’ badinage. I think of them often.


The most memorable episode of the Three Kingdoms epics centered on the Battle of Red Cliff when Duke Zhou took advantage of a rare seasonal upriver breeze on the Yangtze River to launch a fleet of fireships directly into the unsuspecting Cao Cao’s mighty navy destroying the entire invasion in a vast conflagration. Chinese children have for centuries found the legend all the more powerful because it was based on an historical event, the most famous battle of the Three Kingdoms wars.


In 2008, almost exactly 1,800 years after the Red Cliff battle itself, Chinese-American film director John Woo (宇森) produced the movie Red Cliff (赤壁), which grossed US$250 million worldwide and was reportedly the most successful Chinese language film of all time.




The Battle of Red Cliff is, of course, more than a staple of Chinese literature. It is emblematic of Chinas sense of history and place. Sus Red Cliff Meditation (赤壁懷古) one of the poetic masterpieces of Chinese literature, is a transcendent experiment in time and space. And happily it is one of the few great poems accessible to the non-expert Chinese speaker. Its inspiration was a wine-soaked sampan ride nine centuries ago, datable to the night of Aug. 12, 1082, in the moonshine shadows of an ancient Yangtze River escarpment called Red Cliff.


Su was a beloved but disgraced Song dynasty scholar-official in internal exile for championing what can truly be called “compassionate conservatism” against radical statists in the imperial court. In 1082, at age 45, “Master Su” — he called himself Suzi (蘇子) but the title merely means “a son of the Su family” — was settling into a life of welcome obscurity three years after an imperial commutation of death sentence for writing a collection of poems deemed disrespectful of the Emperor.


The prospect of Su’s imminent execution horrified the emperor’s mother and so he was reduced to exile in a backwater Yangtze hamlet a short way from the putative battleground.


The ancient Red Cliff battle had fascinated Su since childhood and, during his banishment, he often hired a poor boatman to row him into the turbulent waters at the foot of the cliff where he contemplated existence. He became a devout Buddhist, especially after his brush with the executioners axe, and he found the reassuring solidity of Red Cliff’s rocks a peculiar comfort in the light and space of ephemeral humanity.


Su warmed to the ghosts of great navies of rivermen; some 800,000 sailors and warriors commanded by Cao Cao, the notorious chief minister to the pretender to the collapsed Han Dynasty. Against Cao Cao’s force were arrayed 200,000 riverine warfare veterans under the wily King Liu Bei, the handsome Duke Zhou and General Zhuge Liang, the most renowned strategist in all Chinese history.




Before composing the poem Meditation on Red Cliff, Su had drafted his Prose Essay at Red Cliff (赤壁賦), which itself is certainly the greatest work of its genre in Chinese literature. However, the work is dense, grammatically compact and quirky, loaded with literary allusion, which over the centuries has become Chaucerian even to educated Chinese speakers. Still, the complex Red Cliff prose sets the atmosphere for the clear Red Cliff poem.


In his preliminary essay, Master Su said his overnight outing with friends to Red Cliff’s waters in August 1082, began precisely at 7:48pm when “the moon rose at East Mountain,” continued to 11:45pm (if the 21st century astronomical software Stellarium can be trusted), “when the moon neared the constellation Sagittarius,” and ended at dawn. (Here, I must caution that Stellarium software doesn’t have the Moon and Sagittarius anywhere near each other that night, but why ruin the moment?)


Master Su, well-provided with gourds of wine and platters of snacks, was in the company of two friends, one a Buddhist monk named Can Liao (參寥) who was a virtuoso on the bamboo flute, the other remains, alas, anonymous.


For Sus essay, the cliffside waters were still and glassy, layered in dense evening mist and illuminated by a full moon. Eventide fogwater and light melded into sky(水光接天) and their craft was transported into empty space solitary and unearthly,(遺世獨立) as if, bewinged,(羽化) they had joined the celestials in heaven. In the stillness, Su and company tipsily sang old riverboat ditties until the monk-flutists accompaniment grew melancholy and contemplative, and finally downright depressing.


Su asked the Buddhist monk why his music was so sad. In reply, the flutist mused that Cao Caos navy, vast fleets of warships once jammed the entire Yangtze river for a thousand li,(舳艫千里) their masts, banners and flags blotting out the very sky(旌旗蔽空). They battled on that exact spot 800 years before. The monk reminded his companions that Cao Cao’s forces were destroyed.


Alas, where be he now (安在哉)?


Great Cao Cao and his venerated adversaries, towering figures in China’s history, no longer existed; their great civil war did not matter. Su and his friends, on the other hand, did exist “steering a leaf-like sampan” as mere “mayflies between heaven and earth.”


Su found Confucian solace in his unity with existence and responded with a quotation from Confucius: On a riverbank had said, all flows thus, ceaseless day and night,(在川上曰:逝者如斯夫,不舍晝夜) just about the same time that Heraclitus in Greece observed that one never steps into the same river twice.”


Ovid, at the time of Christ, wrote “time itself glides on with constant motion, ever as a flowing river, neither river nor the fleeting hour can stop its constant course.” So too had Su been struck by the paradox of the Yangtze’s permanence and the ceaseless change of its waters.


Su took delight in sensing the river’s colors, sounds and breezes, which he consumed greedily with no fear that he would ever exhaust them. With that, the boaters laughed, rinsed their wine cups in the river, drank again, “taking no notice of the sky brightening in the East (不知東方之既白).




Su had been promoted to the imperial court from a major provincial governorship because he was the most respected “compassionate conservative” in the Song empire and was the most articulate opponent of radical economic “reforms” which, among other things, forced China’s farmers and peasants to borrow money from the imperial treasury at heavy interest whether they needed to or not.


While the radical party in the capital argued that the enrichment of the state enabled the empire to stockpile grain as a hedge against famine, governor Su countered that the common citizens in his charge were impoverished. The radicals had Su recalled to the capital where he was given a prestigious but powerless sinecure, yet he continued his eloquent opposition in both imperial memorials and moving poetry. He was so persuasive that his rivals at court purported to discover allusions in his Poems of the Black Terrace (烏臺詩案) offensive to the emperor.


The subsequent scandal and Su’s commuted death sentence of 1079 stirred sympathy for the poet throughout the empire, but Su himself was chastened. In banishment, he sought meaning in life. He found it in the joy of friendship and the fulfillment of human interaction.


We know from many of the letters Su wrote in exile that he campaigned tirelessly against female infanticide, writing emotion-laden tracts urging friends to finance a Buddhist temple’s fund to aid poverty-stricken families who could not afford to feed female babies, a fund to which he contributed a large portion of his own meager wealth. He later lobbied to improve conditions of local militia barracks explaining that the soldiers protected his city from bandits and predators yet were housed and fed like slaves. But because staying out of politics was a condition of his commuted sentence, he begged his correspondents to burn his letters. They did not.


Su was also one of the Song Dynasty’s four most renowned calligraphers. To burn Su’s letters was to burn priceless art. (In fact, a scroll mount of Su’s handwritten prose essay on Red Cliff is probably the most valuable possession of the thousands of Chinese art treasures in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.)


Distilling his essay into a short poem, Su launches Red Cliff Meditation with four pounding characters: “Great River Eastward Flows.” Time past is in the west and future flows east. The river’s “waves and breakers pass like thousands of ancient celebrities.” The phrase “men of flowing wind” is still a common phrase for “celebrities” 10 centuries later. “Westward of the fortress ruin, people say, is Duke Zhou’s Red Cliff.”




In a series of images contraposing the solidity of nature with ephemeral life, the poem continues: “there, a rocky confusion pierces mists, alarmed breakers split the riverbanks rolling up a thousand piles of snow.”


Even the amateur Chinese reader notices that the two homophones for breakers() are written differently, the second time with an ironic element that means long life(). Of the two characters for piles of snow,(堆雪) one connotes solidity, the other transience.


The next line reads: rivers and mountains are as in a painting (江山如畫).It sets the theme for the poems second half which begins with another four-character line: heroism eruptsand contains the line: amid people, as in a dream (人間如夢).Here, the word amid() connotes an empty space betweenpeople, not the people themselves.


Su’s Meditation is populated with metonymy. Historical figures aren’t described in life, but by inanimate things associated with them — “a feathered fan and a headdress” (羽扇綸巾) — or by their actions — “talk and laughter” (談笑間).


The poem climaxes with a single line describing the Red Cliff battle itself: the wall of warships, flying ash and smoke, destroyed,(檣櫓灰飛煙滅) six characters that are the most vivid portrayal of the battle in Chinese literature.


Suddenly, the ships destroyed, Su admits it was nothing more than spirit travels to an ancient land, so maudlin you ought to laugh at me, my hair already graying, amid men as in a dream (故國神遊,多情應笑我,早生華髮).


The poem concludes with a scene from his Red Cliff Prose where the poet raises a goblet of wine in a mystical libation-toast to the great river and to the moon reflected in it (一樽還酹江月).


Alas, Shakespeare would call my translated excerpts “flat, unraised spirits” compared to the original. The cadence of monosyllabic Chinese, the ingenious solid/vaporous contrasts of Chinese ideographs, the timelessness of an ancient language that infuses the Chinese language up to today, the historical continuity of the fireships legend, but above all the conversational elegance of the poem’s structure, all make Red Cliff Meditation a rewarding read for even the non-specialist Chinese speaker seeking a gateway to a rich literary tradition.


And I, in my latter years, find consolation in ancient poetry and prose which helps me relive the excitement of youth, and the intellectual passions I shared with teachers, classmates and colleagues now passed.








John Tkacik directs the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia.


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