"Spirit Visit to an Ancient Land" - Su Shi's Meditation on Red Cliff

March 1, 2014
The Wall Street Journal

  The Wall Street Journal 

March 1-2, 2014, Page C-13

Masterpiece – Red Cliff Meditation (赤壁懷古): Su Shi (蘇軾 - 1082)

'A Spirit-Visit to an Ancient Land'  

A Chinese poem re-creates an epic third-century naval battle



Nowadays, harried parents plop their little ones in front of a TV set or an iPad to keep them occupied. A millennium ago in China, village storytellers would, for a small fee, recite from memory, with a little help from their prompt books, hundreds of ancient warrior tales—particularly those of the Three Kingdoms—to entertain the young ones.


The Song Dynasty statesman-poet Su Shi (1037-1101) remembered his own childhood delight at the raconteur's knee, his cheering with the other children at the triumphs of the virtuous and cunning allies of Duke Zhou, and his fearful trembling at the very mention of the evil and arrogant general Cao Cao 曹操. Master Su wrote that China's love of the Three Kingdoms saga and its "strong sense of heroes and villains hasn't let up for a hundred generations (以是君子小人之澤, 百世不斬)."


The most memorable episode of China's great Three Kingdoms civil war centered on the Battle of Red Cliff in the winter of 208-209, when Duke Zhou took advantage of a rare seasonal up-river 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. In the 21st century, the battle at Red Cliff is more than a staple of Chinese literature. It is emblematic of China's sense of history and place. (In 2008, Chinese-American film director John Woo's movie on the battle grossed $250 million world-wide, reportedly the most successful Chinese-language film of all time.)


Su Shi's "Red Cliff Meditation," a masterpiece of Chinese poetry, is a transcendent experiment in time and space. And happily it is one of the few great poems accessible to the nonexpert Chinese speaker. (It is also available in translation.) Its inspiration was a wine-soaked sampan ride on the night of Aug. 12, 1082, in the moonshine shadows of a Yangtze River escarpment called "Red Cliff."


Su Shi was a Song Dynasty scholar-official in internal exile for championing compassionate conservatism against radical statists in the imperial court whose agenda forced common folk into "green-seedling" agricultural loans (qingmiaofa 青苗法) that they didn't want and couldn't afford. (His conservatism makes him an awkward hero in today's China.) In 1082, at age 45, Master Su—he called himself "Su Zi 蘇子," but the title merely means "a son of the Su family"—was settling into a life of welcome obscurity three years after commutation of a death sentence for writing poems deemed disrespectful of the emperor.


The prospect of Master Su's imminent execution horrified the emperor's mother, and so he was banished, instead, to a backwater Yangtze hamlet a short way from the putative battleground. The ancient Red Cliff battle so enthralled Su Shi since childhood that in his exile he would often hire a poor boatman to row him into the turbulent waters at the foot of Red Cliff. A devout Buddhist, especially after his brush with the executioner's ax, Master Su found the reassuring solidity of Red Cliff's rocks a comfort. There, he 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 puppet emperor of a collapsed Han Dynasty. Against Cao Cao's force were arrayed 200,000 riverine warfare veterans under the wily King Liu Bei 劉備, the handsome Duke Zhou 周瑜and Gen. Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮, the most renowned strategist in all Chinese history.


Before composing this poem, Master Su had drafted a fu, his "Prose Essay on Red Cliff" (前赤壁賦)—itself, the greatest work of its genre in Chinese literature. But the prose essay is dense, grammatically compact and quirky, and loaded with literary allusions. Over the centuries it has become difficult reading even for educated Chinese.


Still, Master Su's complex Red Cliff essay sets the atmosphere for the accessible poem. On the mighty Yangtze, he found solace in a quotation from Confucius. On a riverbank in the sixth-century B.C., the sage had said that "all flows thus, ceaseless day and night 子在川上曰,逝者如斯夫不捨晝夜 (Analects book IX, chap. XVI)." That same century, Heraclitus in Greek Ionia observed that "one never steps into the same river twice." Ovid, at the time of Christ, wrote that "time itself glides on with constant motion, ever as a flowing river, neither river nor the fleeting hour can stop its constant course." In 1082 Master Su, too, had been struck by the paradox of the Yangtze's permanence and the ceaseless change of its waters.


Distilling his fu into the short—some 22 lines—lyrical poem (a c i sung to the tune of a popular ballad), Master Su begins "Red Cliff Meditation" with four pounding characters: "Great River Eastward Flows大江東去." Time past is to the west and flows eastward into the future. The river's "waves wash away浪淘儘/a thousand years of celebrities千古風流人物." Master Su coined the phrase "men of the flowing wind 風流人物," still a colloquial term for "celebrities" 10 centuries later. "Westward of a bygone fortress故壘西邊/folk suppose人道是/lie the Three Kingdoms and Duke Zhou's Red Cliff三國周郎赤壁."


In a series of images contrasting the solidity of nature with transient humanity, the poem continues: "there, clouds collapse against confusions of rock亂石崩雲/jarring breakers split the riverbanks驚濤裂案/scrolling up a thousand piles of snow捲起千堆雪." Even the inexpert Chinese reader notices that the character for "breakers" (tao) is written with an ironic element that means "long life." Of the two characters for "piles of snow," one connotes solidity, the other transience.


He concludes the scene, "the river, the mountains, as in a painting江山如畫," setting the theme for the poem's second stanza, which moves from nature to humanity and resolves into the parallel phrase "amid men, as in a dream人間如夢." Master Su's "Meditation" is populated with metonymy. Historical figures exist not in themselves but in solid things associated with them ("his feathered fan羽扇" and "headdress綸巾") or by transitory ambiance ("amid talk and laughter談笑間"). His poem reaches its climax with a single line describing the Red Cliff battle itself: "that wall of warships, in flying ash and smoke, destroyed檣臚灰飛煙滅," ideographs filled with "fire" radicals that are the most vivid six-character portrayal of the battle in Chinese literature.


Suddenly, the ships destroyed, Master Su admits it was nothing more than "a spirit-visit to an ancient land古國神遊/so maudlin one ought to laugh at me多情應笑我/hair long ago grown gray早生華髮/ amid men as in a dream人間如夢." His poem concludes with a scene from the Red Cliff essay where the poet raises a goblet of wine in a mystical toast to the great river and to the moon reflected in it.


Of course, these un-Shakespearean English excerpts are flat and unraiséd 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 spoken Chinese even today, the historical continuity of the fireship legend, the conversational elegance of the poem's structure—all make "Red Cliff Meditation" a rewarding read even for nonspecialist Chinese speakers seeking a gateway to a rich literary tradition.


—Mr. Tkacik is a retired foreign service officer in Washington.


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