[Wesak special] An artisan’s guide to dunhuang art

Imagine this: You are an aspiring mural artist in 10th-century China, specialising in the making of religious art. Circumstances land you in Dunhuang, a little oasis town in northwestern China on the edge of the Gobi desert.

Your mission? To add your artwork to the walls of the Mogao caves

You are certainly not the first artist to do so. These man-made caves have been around since the fourth century AD. They served multiple functions — as places of worship, meditation huts, living quarters and burial sites for the monks, as well as storage units for scriptures and documents. 

You wander from cave to cave, admiring the artwork your predecessors created, wondering how you can contribute to this growing treasury of human creativity. At the same time, your funds are running low and you need employment. So where do you start?

Who’s the Boss?

First, let’s find out who’s in charge. 

At the point of your existence, Dunhuang was part of the Guiyi circuit which was controlled by the Cao family. They maintained cordial relations with central China. Central China had just experienced the fall of the Tang Dynasty, and was trying to sort itself out of the chaos. This period would go down in history as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. 

In the meantime, Dunhuang enjoyed relative peace. The Cao family were devout Buddhists and were passionate about constructing new caves. 

Portrait of Cao Yijin. He seized control of the Guiyi circuit from his predecessors, the Zhang family. (Painting featured is a reproduction of a mural)

According to popular belief, the construction of Buddhist sites promised great merit; the Caos were more than eager to secure merit in this life and the next. To ensure that their caves were decorated by professionals of the greatest artistic capabilities, the Caos even had their very own institution of painters and sculptors. The best course of action is to seek employment under them. 

You make your way to the Cao family’s art institution and are soon put to work. Your colleagues come from varied backgrounds. Some are skilled craftsmen with the title of ‘Boshi’ and are assigned the most challenging and intricate work; the others are ordinary artisans and interns learning the trade. There are also a number of freelancers who are farmers by profession, looking to supplement their meagre incomes with some craftwork. 

Your hopes of dazzling your colleagues with your creativity are soon dashed. Art has become largely formularised during this period; it is a decline from the beauty and grace of high Tang art. 

You are put to work drawing the likeness of your patrons and their wives. You spend your days painting them in various postures of devotion — eyes half-closed, palms clasped, bearing offerings for the Buddha, clad in their jewels and fine dresses — it feels like a far cry from the austerities demanded by the founder of their religion. But you, a mere wage worker, are not in the position to question the artistic and religious sensibilities of your client.

Female family members of the Cao family. Precedence is given to Cao Yijin’s Uyghur wife and his daughter who married the Uyghur king. The Cao family maintained matrimonial ties with surrounding kingdoms such as the Uyghurs and the Khotans.

At night, you set your tools aside and munch on your plain ration of bread. You listen to your colleagues talking about the hardships of their lives — one particular artisan could not even afford to feed his only son. You close your eyes and imagine a better time and place, a life beyond your reach……

Buddha: A Graphic Guide 

You find yourself standing before a large mural. 

It is a scene of perfect bliss. A number of intricate pavilions are connected by a zig-zagging maze of corridors and stairwells. Steps lead down into lotus ponds. Infants emerge, fully-formed, from the midst of the lotus flowers. 

And in the very centre, at the focal point of the picture, a large Buddha sits on a lotus-shaped dias. He is surrounded by a host of heavenly beings. They cluster around his seat, heads inclined, as if eagerly soaking in every word of his sermon.

Mogao Cave 217

It is the image of perfect bliss. A Buddhist vision of paradise, if it may be called so. The Tang dynasty Buddhists were gripped by the teachings of the Pure Land sect. The Pure Land, it was believed, could be reached at the end of one’s life by the devoted chanting of Amitabha Buddha’s name. And so, artists laid their imaginings down in paint and ink, depicting a perfect world where order and harmony reigned supreme. It was a picture that even the staunchest Confucianists, as opposed to Buddhism as they were, would not object to. 

The paintings were intended as meditation devices. Meditators, seated in the seclusion of these caves, fixed their eyes and minds upon these paintings and achieved transcendental states. At the same time, these paintings were also used as visual aids to educate illiterate masses about Buddhism. Some paintings were based on popular sutras; others (popular during the Wei-Jin era) depicted the life of the Buddha. It was the ancient Chinese’s version of “Buddha: A Graphic Guide”. 

Mural in cave 290 depicting the life of the Buddha

When Apollo Met the Buddha 

As your gaze lingers over the murals, you begin to notice other details. Here, Buddhist imagery basks in the spotlight, but other deities share the stage. Chinese deities such as NuWa and Fuxi hover above the Buddha in one grotto; the Queen Mother of the West rides in a carriage drawn by three phoenixes. Even Apollo, sun god of the Greeks, and Mithra of Persian Zoroastrianism are to be found among the heavenly hosts. It speaks of diversity and pluralism; a signifier of Dunhuang’s former status as an international hub on the Silk Road where the East and the West met. 

Mural in cave 285 depicting a pair of Chinese deities, Fuxi and Nuwa

It is a celebration of all things divine; a world far removed from the joys and sorrows of human existence. You wonder if these heavenly beings, happy as they were in their immortal existence, could ever relate to the pain of ordinary artisans like yourself. 

A Celebration of the Ordinary

And then you see them — ordinary people, just like you, carving out a living in the mortal world. Farmers sow their seeds and reap their harvest; fishermen haul in their catch and hunters chase after prey. A couple celebrate their nuptials with a feast, song and dance; their marital bliss preserved for eternity. 

Depiction of a wedding in Mogao cave 12. The newlyweds are on the right; it was a Tang custom for the bridegroom (in red) to kneel while the bride only had to bow

Mundane activities they may be; a cause for celebration nonetheless. 

You are drawn by these images. Art and religion are but two branches of the same tree. They are a means to transcend, to reach for something higher than oneself.

It is a lot to take in. No wonder, for the centuries-old murals have survived so much. Dunhuang was so out of the way that it survived many calamities that befell other temples such as wars, religious persecution, and natural disasters. 

Your Legacy

You are drawn out of your reverie by the shuffling of boots and the stamping out of your campfire. It is time to call it a day. A new day will begin tomorrow, and you will write the name of your patrons to their portraits. Their names, not yours, will be set in stone, to be preserved for posterity. 

But it is your work that future generations will admire, and future artists will copy. It is your work that will put Dunhuang on the map. Kingdoms rise and fall; ideologies gain and lose appeal. Social and religious contexts has made your art possible; yet, your art will transcend these temporal bounds. Someday, it will be rediscovered and admired for its own worth.

Reference: 马德 《敦煌工匠和敦煌石窟》

[women’s day special: what ming-qing women writers have in common with today’s content creators

The digital age has turned anyone with a stable internet connection into content creators. Although digital inclusion still has a long way to go, marginalised groups have found a space to make themselves heard.

This is hardly a novel phenomenon. A similar cultural shift was present in late 16th-century Jiangnan in Ming dynasty China where women writers emerged in droves.

Of course, women have always written.The three thousand years of Chinese history remembers a few illustrious women writers like Ban Zhao and Li Qingzhao.

However, Ming dynasty women writers had an advantage their predecessors did not. Unprecedented economic growth and urbanisation in the Jiangnan region had made printing and paper affordable. It became easier than ever in Chinese history to get their works out to a wider audience.

Women published poetry collections and wrote commentaries of their favourite dramas. They formed collaborations over time and space, such as the three (successive) wives of Wu Ren, who co-authored a commentary on ‘The Peony Pavilion’ — despite never meeting each other in real life. (The first two died young and the last picked up where they left off)

1. They wrote binge-worthy novels

Ming & Qing women writers were fond of writing ‘tanci’ novels, which were basically novels written in lyrical form that could be set to music with simple instrumentation.

These tanci novels were written chapter-by-chapter and were circulated among friends for their reading pleasure.

Stories often featured strong female protagonists who outshone men in exams and on the battlefield. Some were essentially fan fiction spun off popular tales such as the ballad of Mulan. Others featured original characters, but still favoured the cross-dressing theme popularised by Mulan. (Disney’s remake of Mulan isn’t something entirely new after all.)

Women writers were acutely aware of their literary talents and intellect. They also bemoaned their lack of agency in a male-dominated world — they were barred from enrolling in the imperial examinations and holding official positions.

So, they poured their dreams into fantastical stories of women breaking gender boundaries. One such story, “Zai Sheng Yuan” (Continuing Past Affinities) featured protagonist Meng Lijun who cross-dressed as a man in order to escape a forced marriage. Meng topped the imperial examinations, became a government official, but was pressed to marry the emperor after her identity was revealed.

The novel ends on this cliffhanger—but later writers have attempted to fill the gap by giving Meng Lijun the happy ending she deserves.

This story proved so popular that it became adapted into operas, songs, and even into a 2002 TVB series.

This is similar to modern webnovels in a way. Authors post their works online by chapters while fans eagerly wait for the next instalment. Famous novels are even adapted into tv series — though it is unlikely that the ancient Chinese writers were ever compensated for operatic adaptations of their works!

2. They struggled to get exposure

Every writer knows how hard it is to get exposure for their early works.

One particular tanci author, who lived in the Qing dynasty, prefaced her chapters by noting her ‘view count’—or lack thereof.

Chapter Two, “I sigh for the lack of friends…my crude stories are my solace”

Chapter Three, “Who can I share my thoughts with? No one but myself.”

Perseverance pays off. By chapter ten, she gleefully notes, “I have found friends to send my stories to! Their appreciation makes me proud.”

Any struggling author can surely empathise with that.

A good strategy to get exposure is to get an established writer to give you a shoutout. Established poets, male and female, were invited to write prefaces for poetry collections.

Others leveraged their connections to form poetry collectives and compile works for publication. Ming dynasty poet Shen Yixiu undertook such an endeavour; she published a poetry collection of 241 poems by 46 female poets. In a letter to her husband, she expressed her wish to help other women writers preserve their works for posterity.

Women supporting women — that’s the way to go.

3. Some successfully monetised their content

Every author dreams of making a living off their art. Some succeed spectacularly; others barely earned a penny.

A number of Ming and Qing writers did become professional writers and poets and supported their families with their works.

One such example is Huang Yuanjie. She lived in the late Ming dynasty and kept her family alive by selling her artworks and poems. Her fame grew and controversy followed suit.

Her contemporaries hardly knew what to think of her. Here was a woman of good birth, who travelled about (presumably on her own), sold her works for profit, and mingled with courtesans.

“Her works smack of the wind and dust [of the pleasure quarters]” one critic sniffed.

“She probably plagiarised her poems” another contended.

It was an era where women writers were still controversial, despite, or perhaps because of their increasing visibility. Some thought it better for women to commit their poems to the flames instead of publishing them. As to selling them for profit — totally unthinkable.

But Huang Yuanjie was too busy to care. The bills have to be paid, the children have to be fed. And people actually enjoyed her poems. If you have traffic, why not monetise your content?

4. They had to fight for the resources to write

At a literacy rate of ten percent among the general population, women writers were the exceptions to the rule. Many came from the literati class and had the wealth and connections to write and publish.

They were a privileged lot, but privilege is relative. Writing is not a prerequisite of a good Confucian wife and daughter. Household duties were still a priority. Even if a woman was fortunate enough to receive a good education in girlhood, she may find any literary ambitions dashed by the demands of married life.

Consider this lament penned by a Qing dynasty writer Qiu Xinru, “I have been burdened by housework since my marriage. My mind occupied with worries, my hands busy at work. I tended to my wifely duties with anxiety. How do I find the leisure to dip my brush in ink? Alas, my poetic instincts are mired in sauces and seasonings.”

Despite her difficulties, she was inspired to pick up her brush by her sister. Nineteen years has lapsed since she last wrote; but words proved therapeutic. Her life did not get any easier from that point onwards; writing kept her spirits alive.

It is unclear exactly how women back then managed their time. We know they wrote late into the night — the only time of the day when they could proceed undisturbed. They were motivated to write for the other women they cared about — mothers, sisters, friends.

Today’s content creators know how it feels like to squeeze our work into every silver of spare time. During commute, over lunch, before the day begins. This was how this article and it’s accompanying artwork came into being — and that is why I find the stories of these women relevant, even if they belong to another time and place.

If there’s one thing we content creators can learn from them, it is this: Life gets in the way — but we will find the time to create, somehow.

Why (Tang) Courtesans Need to be Featured in More C-dramas

Chinese historical dramas are famous for their depictions of scheming palace concubines, bickering family members, and deities doing whatever deities do. Emperors, empresses, concubines, and even the more common (though often wealthy) folk – these people, the top 0.01% of ancient Chinese society, make up the bulk of Chinese historical dramas.
近代古装剧层出不穷,但题材不外乎是宫斗、宅斗、仙侠等,拍的也是王公贵族的故事。而占据中国古代社会大多数的普通人,往往不过是横店路上的一抹风景。


However, one cohort that rarely gets center stage is the courtesans. Yes, you heard me right, courtesans.
而古代艺妓,更是几乎不曾成为主角。虽然她们身怀绝技,甚至名载史册,但仍改变不了后人对她们的偏见。


We all know why courtesans don’t get their fair share of showtime even though, as I will argue, they are interesting characters worthy of the spotlight. The very word has PG-18 connotations. Understandably, tv producers may not see them as something for your 8 pm family tv slot. However, as I will continue to demonstrate, we may have misunderstood them all along.
这也难怪。一说起中国古代青楼文化,人们脑海中浮现的,往往都和情色沾边,她们也自然很难成为老少咸宜的题材。然而,我们可能对她们有一定的误解。她们在中国文化及艺术音乐史上扮演着举足轻重的角色,唐代歌舞的兴盛、宋词的发展,都离不开她们的贡献。这篇文章,将为她们正名。


I will focus on Tang courtesans in this article since this is inspired by Hanfugirls Collective’s interactive dance drama showcase — Yanzilou: Forgotten Tales. However, the arguments would likely apply to all courtesans across the dynasties of imperial China from the Tang Dynasty onwards; although there were cultural shifts on the scope of the courtesans’ work and the arts they had to master.
这期的主题画灵感源自于Hanfugirl Collective的线上舞剧《燕子楼》,说的是唐代名妓关盼盼及她手下诸妓的故事。因此,此文也将于唐妓为着重点。


Why Courtesans make good tv show characters

为什么艺妓应该成为古装剧大女主

They were insanely talented

It is a truth universally acknowledged that every Chinese historical drama has a Mary Sue. You know, that main female character who seems to know everything—she dances, sings, plays at least one instrument, and always has the upper hand in verbal feuds. Not to mention that all the guys in the show seem to be obsessed with her.
现代的大女主剧似乎都有一个共同点:女主角不仅琴棋书画舞乐诗词样样精通,还口齿伶俐,能言善辩,顺带迷倒全剧优秀男性角色。这种人设似乎有些牵强,但对唐妓们来说,这些不过是她们工作上所需具备的素质。


This may sound like a tall order, but these are merely part of a courtesans’ job description. Tang Dynasty courtesans were not simply valued for their looks, but for the wide repertoire of skills she brought to the table. The Tang Dynasty book, “Records of the Northern District”, lists a number of courtesans by name and by expertise. A number were noted as being not especially pretty but were highly skilled in one form of the arts or another.
《北里志》记载了一众知名艺妓,她们各有所长,有者虽然相貌略逊,但因依然受到追捧。可见艺妓们的才艺可弥补她们颜值上的不足。


Some courtesans were so talented that they left their mark in history and literature. Think Bai Juyi and his “Ode to a Pipa Player”— where he describes the amazing Pipa-playing skills of a retired courtesan he met on a boat. Or Lady Gongsun, with her sword dance performance that “moved heaven and earth” (It’s also said to have inspired a new style of calligraphy). Or Yongxin, a singer in Emperor Xuanzong’s court whose voice was said to “reverberate across the nine streets of Chang’an”.
有才艺精湛者,甚至还名留诗册。白居易《琵琶行》中琵琶女十三岁就成了国家队首席琵琶演奏家;杜甫笔下的公孙大娘舞艺高超,一舞惊天下,还促进了草书的发展;又比如唐玄宗的御前歌女永新,歌声嘹亮,响遍长安。


Even the less privileged courtesans, who served the masses, were no less talented. 148 poems in the Tang records of poetry were written by courtesans. The famous Xue Tao, who showcased her early talent for poetry when she was eight, authored 88 poems in total.  Of course, the number of poems written by the Tang courtesans was way more than that, but most of the works have been lost in time. For some, only the titles of their poetry collection remain.
一般艺妓们才艺上也丝毫不输。全唐诗里有148篇为艺妓所作,其中有88篇是名妓薛涛一人的著作。当然,艺妓们实际上所创作的诗词比这还要多,但多已失传,留下的也不过是诗集名称而已。


They contributed to culture and literature 
Every industry has its superstars. Some courtesans may have been particularly outstanding; the ones who were forgotten were no less worthy of mention. As a whole, they left a legacy on Chinese music and literature. Tang poetry, with its structured meter, cannot be put to music easily. From there, sprang a new form of verse (ci). While poetry was considered serious business, the ‘ci’ was originally regarded as informal and personal – better suited for parties and gatherings. As such, the poets felt more at ease speaking their minds in verse. These verses were then given to courtesans to sing. Courtesans were even known to be picky about the verses they sang – one refused to sing a verse written to the tune “Willow Branch” because she felt it was written in an overly frivolous manner. 
俗话说,行行出状元,艺妓当中自然有知名者,但作为一个整体,唐妓们为中国诗词发展作出不小的贡献。所谓,“诗以言志”,唐代诗歌是一个颇为正式的媒体,既是诗人述说心思的媒介,又是官场交流的工具。相对之下,词并没有承载如此深重的功用,所以诗人们写词时,更能自由地抒发个人的情感。而且,词的格式不如诗严谨,更适合用于唱诵。因此,文人们喜欢作词,再交予歌妓们传唱;歌妓们也拥有一定的鉴赏能力,她们不是随便什么词都愿意唱的。歌妓德言就曾因为一首词写得过于浮夸,而拒绝唱诵。


In a pre-Spotify age, courtesans helped to popularise the works of otherwise obscure poets to the knowledge of the masses. This is very much in the style of singers making the works of songwriters famous. Some courtesans were even known to value poetry over money — one particular courtesan, Ling Bing, often requested her clients to write her poems in lieu of payment.
在没有Spotify的时代,文人们所写的词,靠的就是歌妓们争相传唱,才得以广泛流传,为众人所知。这种关系,就好像周杰伦把方文山唱红一般。有些艺妓还重视诗词多于金钱,允许文人们以诗代酬劳;《北里志》里的令宾就是一个例子。


They had interesting backstories

We all love those rags-to-riches stories of self-made millionaires, or of people who worked tirelessly to become the top in their field. Although the career of a courtesan could be inherited from mother to daughter, many courtesans were not born into that life. Some were born into noble families and were forced into their occupation as a punishment for some crime their fathers or husbands committed. (Totally unfair I know, but that was how things were). That huge contrast between their privileged upbringing and their eventual lives in the lowest rung of society makes for a very interesting plot.
古装剧总喜欢给女主角设定一个极为悲惨离奇的童年—家道没落,父母双亡,女主靠着自身的毅力和智慧,一层一层地攀上巅峰。
而古代娼妓属于贱籍,属于社会的最底层。她们其中一部分是家里男人犯了事而受牵连,被贬入奴籍,难以翻身。这种大反差,最为编剧所喜爱。


Others may have come from backgrounds of extreme poverty. They had a hard life at first — their proprietors were known to set them to work learning music and dance, and beat them if they slacked off. However, those who made it to the top could enjoy a life of privilege unknown to the members of their caste. 
而有些艺妓出身贫寒。她们需经历最严苛的训练,才能成为行业里的佼佼者。最顶峰的艺妓,享受的荣华富贵,是同为奴籍们的婢女难为触及的。


Despite their talent and connections, courtesans were considered the slave caste and were treated by the law as such. Personal courtesans (owned by families rather than the state) could be bought and sold like cattle. Even the top performers were not guaranteed a pension and comfortable retirement. The pipa player of Bai Juyi’s poem ended up in an unhappy marriage as a last resort. She was one of the more fortunate ones; a courtesan, known by the name of Chu Er, ended up with an abusive husband. Her fame as one of the best courtesans did not save her from her fate. Some lucky ones did manage to end up as wives and even as imperial concubines, effectively moving up the social ladder.
尽管如此,她们在法律中仍然属于贱籍,像个人财产一样,可以送人买卖,没有人身自由。哪怕是琵琶女这样的顶尖艺人也没有所谓的退休金,只能“老大嫁作商人妇”。琵琶女的结局还算幸运;《北里志》里的楚儿虽然属于行业里的佼佼者,但她最后只能嫁作姬妾,还要被丈夫暴力对待。尽管如此,不是每一位艺妓都后世凄凉;极少数成功实现阶级跨越,成为正室甚至是宫中妃嫔。


However, despite their low social status, courtesans enjoyed more freedom in certain aspects than wives of noble families. They were not obliged to obey the Confucian principles which proscribed a code of conduct for women. They were not expected to bear male heirs, or to manage and run a household, which left them time to hone their craft. The very top courtesans were even free to choose their clients, and could even tease or snub men they didn’t like.
然而,虽然她们地位相对低下,艺妓们也享受更大的自由。她们不被礼教束缚,不必操持家事,生儿育女,因此也有更多时间去提升才艺。 最顶端的艺妓们甚至可以选择自己的客户,也不必对客户一贯低声下气,该怼就怼。《北里志》里就记录着艺妓讽刺、嘲笑言行过于轻狂的客户。


They knew who’s who in town 

It goes without saying that the top courtesans rubbed shoulders with the rich and mighty. They may not have single-handedly changed the course of Chinese history, but they were well acquainted with those who did.
顶级艺妓们服务的对象多社会顶层,其中不乏历史名人。


The courtesans were highly sought after for their literary and musical talent as well as for the fun parties they hosted. Courtesans were often invited to prestigious parties such as “The Feast of Qu Jiang”, hosted especially to celebrate those who had aced the final level of imperial exams. The courtesans’ ability to hold intelligent conversations and to host drinking games made them a welcome addition to any feast, official or private. Existing records speak of individual courtesans and their diverse strengths. Some were known for being especially witty and for being quick with comebacks. Their presence heightened the atmosphere and diffused any tension that might turn the party sour.
艺妓们因为一身技艺而深受文人官员们推崇。唐代大小宴席上缺不了她们的身影,比如为进士专设的“曲江宴”。艺妓们不仅能以歌舞招待宾客,还善于言谈,并能行酒令,适当把控宴席气氛,巧妙化解尴尬,让场面保持欢愉。因此,根据《北里志》里记载的诸妓长处,其中不乏口齿伶俐,善于谈笑者。她们的口才是她们的加分项,让她们成为宴席上不可或缺的份子。


Even though the nature of the courtesans’ relationship with their clients was founded on a monetary basis, some courtesans developed strong relationships with their clients. And by relationship, I don’t mean romantic ones only — though romance and breakups certainly weren’t unheard of. A number of Tang poems bear the title, “To X courtesan”, “Parting with Y courtesan”, “Remembering Z courtesan”, suggesting feelings stirred by actual regard for a fellow human being. Another story might as well illustrate this point — when the poet-courtesan Ling Bing died, her clients sent their regards in the form of poems lamenting her passing. (which were angrily discarded by her mamasan, but that is another story altogether).
虽然艺妓和客户的关系建立在利益上,但其中不乏人性的成分。有些艺妓和客户们产生出深厚的感情。这感情并不止停留在男女情爱上。唐诗中多有《赠妓》、《忆妓》为题的作品,不难看出文人和艺妓超出利益的交情。有一则故事,更能凸显出这一点— 当热爱诗句的令宾去世时,她生前的客户们纷纷以诗词哀悼。
琵琶女、公孙大娘为例的艺妓们虽然与服务对象的身份悬殊,但她们凭借自己的才能,和文人们进行精神交流,博得文人发自内心的尊重。


Conclusion

Imagine telling the story of the Anlushan rebellion and the decline of Tang Dynasty from the perspective of the courtesans, as the Hanfugirl Collective did. Or imagine a series on Emperor Xuanzong’s reign from the eyes of the palace courtesans and court musicians in his service. Wouldn’t it provide a refreshing perspective, quite different from the overused tropes of harem shows? 
若古装剧能从艺妓生活的角度出发,再往外延伸至贞观之治、安史之乱等历史事故,岂不是一个全新的叙事角度呢?

Further reading: https://hanfugirl.blog/2021/11/24/tang-courtesans%e5%94%90%e5%a6%93-trendsetters-influencers-celebrities-nah-theyre-just-women-of-taste/


Reference: 尚宝珠《唐代诸妓研究》

Anecdotes mostly from “Records of the Northern District” 《北里志》

Duan Wu 2021 Feature- Qu Yuan’s Flowers

1. A Sea of Orchids

Some two millennia and three centuries ago, on the grassy plains of the Kingdom of Chu, a field of orchids and melilotus blossomed in full glory. 


A solitary figure approaches. His attire is rather peculiar, consisting of an upper garment woven from water chestnut and lotus leaves, and a lower garment was sewn from lotus petals. 


He picks up a hoe and begins to till the land. Carefully, he places seedlings of sweet lichens and cart-halting flowers on the ridges, and fills the spaces with asarums and angelica.

 
He rubs the soil from his fingers and says, smiling, “When the time is right, I will return for a fine harvest!” 


“But what if they languish in obscurity?”


He shrugs, 
“There’s nothing to be sorry for, even if that happens.” 


His face darkens as a thought crosses his mind, 
“That said, I shall grieve should they be choked by weeds and wither away”


This scene is more literary than it is historical. It shouldn’t take much imagination to see Qu Yuan’s actual meaning. The plants he cultivates are not plants, really, but students. 

It Is his greatest wish that this students may serve the king of Chu when they have completed their training. 


And he’d rather see their talents waste away in obscurity, than to have them discard their conscience and join the ranks of the immoral. 


2. A Flowery Imagery

No ideas are born in a vacuum.


Similarly, Qu Yuan’s allegorical use of plants is rooted in the climate and culture of the Chu nation.


Flowers and herbs were used extensively in the shamanistic rituals of Chu. The deities in Qu Yuan’s “The Nine Songs” were depicted with colourful personalities and wore beautiful flowers to match. They were greeted by Shamans purified by flower-water baths, and treated to orchid-infused offerings laid out on melilotus petals.


The “Songs of Chu” also reflects the Chu practice of self-adornment with flowers and fragrance sachets. Qu Yuan’s adds to this realism an allegorical touch, in which this practice is a manifestation of his ideals and personal qualities.


Prehistoric tribes associated flowers and plants with love and fertility. Qu Yuan’s poems attributes the plants with new associations.


In his telling, the pepper (prickly ash) is a slanderous and prideful creature; while the fraudulent dogwood finds its way into a sachet and passes itself off as a herb. The plants were more than mere metaphorical devices; personified such, they were able to participate in, and even drive the narrative.


At the same time, Qu Yuan used romantic love as an allegory to describe the complex relationship between himself, his king as a peer. Here, flowers are exchanged as gifts between lovers, re-evoking the prehistoric association of plants with romantic love.


3. An Everlasting Fragrance

This is but a brief look into the complex imagery of plants in Qu Yuan’s writings. It was but the beginning of a long tradition in Chinese poetry. [2]


From then on, poets and writers no longer saw plants as merely plants. They were personified, attributed with human qualities, and were used directly as symbols to express certain ideals.


For example, the Song dynasty thinker Zhou Dunyu’s famous piece “On the Love of the Lotus” praises the lotus for being unsullied by the mud it rises from. His gushing praise of the lotus, and his apathy for the peony, is simply an expression of his lofty ideals and his unwillingness to go with the flow.


Similar themes are common in Chinese literature. By understanding Qu Yuan, we gain a new insight into the works of later poets. We can better understand the message they were trying to put across by writing about wilted flowers and lonely women.


Qu Yuan’s flowers may have wilted. However, his “Li Sao”, as well as his personal qualities, have influenced later writers greatly and is an unsurmountable achievement in the course of Chinese literature.


Modern society encourages us to speak our thoughts directly. We no longer use flowers as a metaphor for ideas too personal, or too subversive to express in words.


Until Valentine’s Day comes around, and lovers exchange roses as declarations of love. Only then we realise—that perhaps nothing much has changed, in the gulf of time that separates Qu Yuan and ourselves.


[1]: In the original poem, Qu Yuan’s cultivation of orchids and melilotus comes before his wearing of lotus and water chestnut leaves. Strictly speaking, these events should belong to different time frames, but I have chosen to merge them in this artwork.


The names of these flowers are taken from David Hawke’s “The Songs of the South, An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets”. However, it is worthwhile to note that the name ‘orchid’ may not be a good translation of ‘lan’, which may refer to either Eupatorium fortunei, Lycopus asper  or any other herb common to the Chu region in Qu Yuan’s time. Similarly, it is unclear what plant the ‘cart-halting flower’ is in modern terms.


[2]: Of course, as a literary work, this can be interpreted differently. In an article about the role of time in “Li Sao”, Chen ShiXiang interprets these lines as a cultivation of personal morality. At this point, Qu Yuan is still subject to the laws of time, and can only ‘wait’ for its harvest. However, the view that these lines refer to the cultivation of young talents appear to be more widespread.


[3]: The metaphorical use of plants in poetry is not Qu Yuan’s invention. The “Classic of Poetry”, which predates the “Songs of Chu”, employs this literary technique. However, there are subtle differences between the metaphorical techniques in the “Classic of Poetry” and “Songs of Chu”. Details can be found in ‘references’ (text in Chinese)


Reference: 江林昌.从原始“意象”到人文“兴象”、“寄象”—中国文学史中的文学书写[J].文艺研究,2017,9:53-62

古人真会玩系列之四 – 唐代人最爱的三朵花:有钱花,尽量花,牡丹花 Ancient Chinese Pastimes: Tang dynasty’s ‘Peonymania’

欢迎收看我们的《古人真会玩》节目。

Thank you for tuning in to our program “Ancient Chinese Pastimes”.

我们不是常说嘛,现代人最爱的三朵花是:有钱花、随便花、和尽量花。

You may have heard of the ‘tulipmania’ in 16th-century Netherlands, when tulips became an expensive and highly-sought after luxury item. It is said that the price of a single bulb could cost as much as the yearly income of a skilled artisan.

早在一千多年前的唐朝,人们不仅喜欢这三朵花,还在购买花卉上充分体现了这三朵花的精神。

But, did you know that a similar craze for peonies happened in the Tang dynasty?

今天我们邀请了三位嘉宾,来和大家揭秘唐朝人在买花这方面到底有多“舍得花”。

Today, we have invited three distinguished speakers to our panel. They will reveal just how willingly the Tang dynasty folks splurged on a premium sprig of peonies.

首先,我们来邀请第一位嘉宾,唐玄宗杯斗花大赛冠军,杨贵妃!掌声欢迎。

First, let us invite our very first speaker, Lady Yang, de facto first lady of Tang Xuanzong’s regime. Let us give her a big round of applause!

主持人:““云想衣裳花想容”,久仰芳名,今日终有机会一睹真容,幸会!幸会!贵妃,李白所做的《清平调·禁庭春昼》中有一句,“百草巧求花下斗,只赌珠玑满斗”。您能不能给我们解释下这两句话是什么意思?”

杨贵妃:“这就是说我花费心思“斗百草”,赢了就有一斗的珠宝作为奖品呢!”

主持人:“这“斗百草”是什么意思呢?”

Moderator: “I have heard so much about you, and it is such an honour to meet you in person.

My lady, in Li Bai’s poem “A Tune of Peaceful Joy: A Spring Morning in the Palace”, you engaged in a contest of “a hundred grasses” in exchange for a bet of costly jewels. Can you explain to us what “the contest of a hundred grasses” means?”

杨贵妃:“这是一种游戏,参赛者收集各种花卉草木,以花卉种类的繁多决定胜利者。再挑战点呢,就让参赛者把收集来的花卉名字一一念出,谁收集的花朵最多,而且识得名字的,谁就胜出。”

Lady Yang: “The “Contest of a Hundred Grasses” is a game popular among our people. Participants are required to gather as many plants as they can. The person who collects the largest variety is declared the winner. This game can be made even more challenging by requiring the participants to correctly name their collection.”

主持人:“这么说,唐朝人多少也得懂得一些自然科学知识,对吧?”

Moderator: “If that is the case, you have to be knowledgeable in natural history to win.”

杨贵妃:“嗯呢。还有一种形式,叫“武斗”。 比赛前,参赛者们收集韧性高的草茎,将草茎交叉成“十”型,再用力拉扯,不断者为胜。”

Lady Yang, “Indeed. There is another variant of the game.  Participants intertwine the stem of their plants, and try to pull them apart. The one whose stem doesn’t break is declared the winner. Naturally, the toughness of the stems is an important consideration while selecting your plants.”

主持人:“那你们除了斗花以外,还有没有其他的和花朵有关的娱乐活动?”

Moderator, “What other leisure activities do you carry out with flowers other than these contests?”

杨贵妃:“这当然。我们唐人最爱赏花了。赏花也有讲究的。就好比我哥杨国忠,他以沉香等名贵木材打造了一座赏花阁,以乳香等香料涂抹四壁,牡丹花开时,就邀请各界名流前来赏花。”

Lady Yang, “We Tang dynasty folks love to admire flowers. Some take great pains to enhance the experience. For example, my cousin, Yang Guozhong, went to the extent of constructing a costly pavilion with agarwood for the sole purpose of admiring flowers. He even smeared the walls with frankincense and musk. You can imagine just how lovely it smelled with mingled with the fragrance of peonies in full bloom. Then, he would invite important guests to admire the peonies when they bloomed.”

主持人:“这么说,盖楼的成本要比花卉本身高多了。那么赏花岂不是像你哥那样的大土豪,哦不,有钱人专属了?”

Moderator, “If that’s so, flower admiration must be a costly activity exclusive to the ultra-rich like your cousin.”

杨贵妃:“当然还有更低成本的做法。就是到郊外去,遇见好看的花朵,以下裙为帷幕,当地设宴赏花。再不然就是在特定日子,等官方园圃或寺院对外开放,再一同前往赏花。”

Lady Yang, “Of course, there are less costly ways to go about it. For example, the ladies of Chang’an would organise excursions to the countryside. If they were to chance upon a beautiful flower, they’d host picnics on the spot, using their skirts as a screen. Another option is to admire flowers planted in official gardens or temples on days when they are open to the public.”

主持人:“非常感谢杨贵妃的精彩分享。唐朝人的花卉文化,背后少不了花农们的默默耕耘。 下一位嘉宾就是种花达人郭先生,郭先生种的牡丹花闻名长安,他种的树木哪怕是从外地移植过来,几乎没有不存活的,可谓是花农第一人。掌声欢迎!”

Moderator, “Thank you, Lady Yang, for your delightful snippets of information. Now, we must not forget the flower farmers who made this culture of flower admiration and contests possible. Let us welcome our next speaker, Mr. Guo. He is renowned in Chang’an for his ability to cultivate beautiful peonies. Let’s give him a big hand!”

“郭先生,听说您种的牡丹闻名长安,今天请您和我们观众分享下,这牡丹要种得好,背后有什么诀窍呢?”

“Mr. Guo, your peonies are prized by the citizens of Chang’an. Do you mind sharing the tricks you use to cultivate peonies successfully?”

郭先生:”这牡丹花天生娇贵,不能日晒雨淋,必须养在花棚中。栽培时,得像养育小孩子一样,格外谨慎;栽种后,就让花朵本身顺着天性发育,不要急于求成。千万不要像一些花农那样,等下又用指甲划破树皮,检查树木是否还活着;一下子又摇晃树茎,看看树根是否扎实。这样天天折腾,你说这树怎么受得了?就像培育人才一样…(此处省略N字)

Mr. Guo, “Peonies are delicate by nature and cannot be exposed to harsh weather. It is advisable to grow them in enclosures. During the early stages of cultivation, you have to be careful with them — as if you were raising little children. After that, you must let them be and allow them to grow as nature dictates. Do not try to hasten results. Some farmers intervene too much with their plants; they’d scrape and shake the stems just to ensure their plants are alive and have well-formed roots. How can you expect your plants to flourish if you disturb them in that manner? It’s just like raising children… (several passages omitted)

主持人:“如此精心培植,必能卖得好价?”

Moderator, “You tend to your flowers with such love and care. Are you able to get a good price for them?”

郭先生:“那当然。这种花是一回事,把花千里迢迢地,从花田搬移到花市去,又得格外注意。还是一样搭花棚、围布幔、洒水封土,一样不可少,确保花色能如在花田时一般鲜丽,才能卖得好价。”

Mr. Guo, “Of course. Cultivating the plants is a challenge of its own; but you also have to ensure that the flowers are not damaged when transported from the farms to the flower markets of Chang’an. As before, you have to construct enclosures, water them constantly, and pack their roots with soil. Then the flowers can be sold for a good price.”

主持人:“一般能卖得什么价格呢?”

Moderator, “How much do you usually sell them for?”

郭先生:(讪讪笑着)”这不方便透露,只能说,一束花最高能卖出十户中产阶级家庭一年所缴的赋税了“

Mr. Guo, “(Grins sheepishly) I prefer to not disclose. All I can say is, a good spray of flowers is worth as much as the yearly taxes of ten middle-income family.”

(主持人正欲接话,第三位嘉宾坐不住了)
Before the moderator could speak, the third panelist could no longer contain himself.

”荒唐!荒唐!”

“Ridiculous!”

主持人:“司马先生,稍安,待会儿自有您发言的机会。”

Moderator, “Please remain seated, Mr. Sima. There’s opportunity for you to speak later.”

司马扎:(不理会主持人)“你们放弃耕田,将耕种粮食的土地化为花圃,不种粮食,人民吃啥?这牡丹花能吃啊?”

Sima Za, “(Ignores the moderator) You turn your backs on crop cultivation and convert farms into flower gardens. If you do not plant crops, what are the people supposed to eat? Peonies are no substitute for sorghum and wheat!”

郭先生:“有需求就有供应,没有金主们背后的支持,我们没事种什么花呀?要骂就骂那些沉迷牡丹,攀比成风的贵族土豪们去。”

Mr. Guo, “Supply comes with demand. It is no fault of ours — you should criticise the aristocrats who use peonies as a means to flaunt their status.”

(杨贵妃面露难色)
(Lady Yang looks uneasy)

主持人:“司马先生,您写出《卖花者》一诗,批判花农为了牟利,不种粮食种植花卉的现象。您能否和观众们大概叙述下,大唐的 “牡丹热”达到什么程度?”

Moderator, “Mr. Sima, you are known for your poem “The Flower Sellers”. In it, you criticise the flower farmers for planting flowers instead of crops for profit. Can you briefly describe just how obsessed your people were with peonies?”

司马扎:“除了以上说的价格虚高以外,每到牡丹花开的时候,整个长安就会大塞车。那些种植牡丹的寺院俨然成了网红们的打卡景点,更不用说那些特地为了赏花而砸钱盖楼的人们了。(瞥了杨贵妃一眼)”

Sima Za, “As mentioned, peonies were sold at inflated prices. Apart from that, the entire capital would be jam-packed with horses and carts during peony season. There’d be a huge crowd at monasteries with peonies — very much like how your influencers flock to instagrammable spots. And of course, there are those who’d build costly structures just for the sake of admiring peonies.” (Glances at Lady Yang)

主持人:“感谢司马先生的分享。在结束访谈之前,您还有什么想补充的?”

Moderator, “Thank you for your time. Before we end our session, is there anything else you’d like to add?”

司马扎:“理性消费,切勿盲目跟风!”

Sima Za, “Spend in moderation and do not follow trends blindly!”

主持人:“好吧,感谢我们三位嘉宾。我们的《古人真会玩》节目就此告一段落,接下来我们就是两大传统节日,节目也将围绕这新主题展开,敬请期待!”

Moderator, “That is all for today. A big thank you to all three panelists. Our “Ancient Chinese Pastimes” series has come to an end for now. Next, we will celebrate two traditional festivals. Our programme will be updated accordingly. Thank you for your support!”

编者按:史上确有杨贵妃和司马扎二人,但花农郭先生是我杜撰的,其形象参考了柳宗元的《种树郭橐驼传》。文章只说郭橐驼“种树”,并未提及牡丹,但“以指甲刮树皮”、“摇晃枝干”等都源于文章。在这里和唐代的花农一职整合,以“郭先生”这个形象概括了唐代花农这一群体。
而郭先生部分言论(花价堪比十户赋税)则源自白居易的《买花》

Comments: Lady Yang and Sima Za were actual historical figures. However, I invented the character of Mr. Guo as a stand-in for the flower farmers of the Tang dynasty. His image is loosely based on an essay by Liu Zongyuan, “Guo Tuotuo the Farmer”. The essay mentions that Guo Tuotuo is an excellent farmer but does not mention peonies exclusively. The bits about “scraping and shaking the stems” are inspired by the essay.

The prices of the peonies are taken from BaiJuyi’s poem, “Buying Flowers”. In it, he also provides another reference for the prices of the peonies — 25 rolls of fabric. According to estimates, this is roughly equivalent to 50,000 RMB in today’s value.

参考文献/延伸阅读:
李白《清平调·禁庭春昼》

王仁裕《开元天宝遗事》

白居易《买花》

司马托《卖花者》


论文类:

李漠.唐代牡丹风尚研究[D].辽宁:辽宁大学,2016.

谢斯琪.唐代女性娱乐活动相关问题研究[D].陕西西安:西北大学,2016.

孙玉荣:《论唐代女性的日常休闲活动》,《玉溪师范学院学报》2014年第5期

古人真会玩系列之三:东晋流觞曲水 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 3: Eastern Jin Dynasty – Wine, Poetry and Philosophy

又名: #酒会上的人生终极问题

上次在宋代茶馆喝了茶,今天我们要到东晋和名门望族们喝酒。但这酒,不光是那么喝,还要有一丁丁仪式感。

Having sampled tea prepared meticulously by our Song Dynasty masters, now it’s time to go back further in time and attend a wine-drinking session with the nobility of the East Jin dynasty in the third century A.D.However, let’s not drink it all in one gulp. The East Jin nobles knew just how to create the right kind of atmosphere for their wine-drinking sessions.

把你的高脚杯和芝士拼盘收起来吧。我们今天要去的不是个西式高档party, 而是中国东晋的时期名流们的聚会。这场聚会历史上非常有名,但我先不剧透,待会儿你就自己知晓了。

And it has nothing to do with wine glasses or cheese platters. Today, we will attend an outdoor party that will go down in history as one of the most famous gatherings in Chinese history. That is all I will say — you will find out soon enough.

来,根据我的指示,在时光机的控制器里输入以下资料。时间:公元353年农历三月三日地点:会稽山阴兰亭

Now, let us key in the following details into the control panel of our time machine.

Year: 353 A.D, Third Day of the Third Month

Place: Kuaiji, Shanying, Orchid Pavilion

“又是三月三?” 你问。 “上次和唐代小姐姐们出去野餐,也是三月三日。”

还记得我们上次说过吗?三月三在古代是个重大节日。在远古时期,人们会相伴到水边沐浴,洗去累积了一个冬天的尘垢,据说能洗去身上的邪气,达到祈福的目的。(其实就是闷在家里太久了出去透透气,疫情下的你们懂的)

“The Third Day of the Third Month again?” You ask. “We had a picnic with some Tang Dynasty ladies on the Third Day of the Third Month too!”

Well, remember what I mentioned last time? This date marked a very important festival in Ancient China. A very long time ago, people would perform ceremonial baths, in hopes of warding off evil and bringing good fortune. (Any excuse just to get a breath of fresh air after holing up at home the entire winter — as anyone who is enduring a Covid lockdown would know)

而到了魏晋南北朝,人们不再结伴下水沐浴了,而是以祭祀、宴饮、春游等雅事延续这古老的传统。

By the time of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, communal bathing was no longer the norm. Instead, people kept this tradition going by organising excursions and picnics near water sources.

“叮!” 时光机到了。来,戴好你的巾,整理下衣袖,我们出发咯!

今天的天气特别好,四周群山环绕,熙和的暖风迎面吹来,穿过一片茂盛的竹林,前方传来潺潺流水声。只见前头有一条小溪,溪边坐满了四十来人。他们身上穿着都是当代的时尚精品 – 头上裹着窄小的头巾,身上穿着的是宽袍大袖。

So here we are. Put on your head wrap and adjust your sleeves. Now let’s disembark!The weather is simply perfect. Tall mountains surround the area, and a warm breeze blows invitingly. Let us cross this bamboo thicket — do you see the stream ahead? The party has assembled. And look at just how they are fashionably dressed — in loose, flowing robes and tight hair wraps.

来,别顾着欣赏美景,见过宴会诸人。这是谢安,这是孙绰,这是王羲之…别,别激动,等下还有机会一览大神的书法真迹的。

大家依序坐下,只见在旁伺候的童子们在酒杯中盛满了酒,把酒杯放入小溪里,任其漂流。水杯跟着水流转动,一旦停在哪人面前,哪人就提起酒杯,作诗一首,一饮而尽。

Let us exchange greetings our fellow guests — this is Xie An, this is Sun Zhuo, and this is Wang Xizhi…hold your horses. You will get a chance to admire his calligraphy later, I promise.

Now, take a seat and let me explain the rules of the party. You see, we won’t be served wine directly by the servants. See how they are placing cups of wine into the stream? The cups will float downstream. When a cup pauses before you, pick it up and compose a poem. Then drink it up.

什么,喝酒开趴还要作诗?没办法,诗歌做为一种社交媒介,不会作几首诗都不敢到这种高大上的场合露几手,这门槛越高,才能显示自己的出身和修养呀。既然我们是穿越过来的,九年义务教育也没教这些,就只管喝多点酒谢罪,别和他们较量吧!

一杯一杯酒下肚,大家的诗也做了差不多了,今天玩得好开心,反正诗也写不出来,要不就拿这些纸折纸船玩玩儿…(古人云:浪费纸!)

But what if poetry isn’t my thing? You see, the Ancient Chinese elites had to know a thing or two about poetry in order to mingle in high society. However, since we are time-travellers with limited knowledge of Classical Chinese, they wouldn’t expect us to compose at their level —let’s just drink a bit more to make up for it.

Uhm, and even if we aren’t writing any poems, I don’t think it is a good idea to waste paper, an expensive commodity, by making paper boats…

这时,谢安转身对王羲之说,“大家都做了那么多诗,你就来给他们的诗写个序吧!” 王羲之礼貌性地推辞不果,便缓缓提起笔,思索片刻,洋洋洒洒地写下这几个字,

Just then, Xie An turned to Wang Xizhi and said, “We have composed a good number of poems today. It’s only fitting that you should write a preface for the poems composed today.” Wang Xizhi picked up his brush, pondered for a moment, and began to write with deft strokes,

“永和九年,岁在癸丑,暮春之初…”

“In the ninth year of Yonghe, at the beginning of late Spring…”

“是日也,天朗气清,惠风和畅。仰观宇宙之大,俯察品类之盛”

今天天气真好呀,风也很暖和。抬头看天空,看宇宙多么大呀!低头看天下万物是多么繁多呢!

“The weather is fine today, and the breezes are pleasant. I look up and admire the expanse of the universe, and cast my gaze downwards at the variety of things in the world…”

“所以游目骋怀,足以极视听之娱,信可乐也”

放任目光四处游览,感觉心胸开阔不少。 视觉上的,听觉上的娱乐都满足了,真让人快乐呀!

“Our gaze drifts and our minds wander. We take pleasure in the sights and sounds, it is a joy indeed!”

写着写着,他陷入了哲思。这人生苦短,哪怕今天诸位聚在一起,享受这片刻的欢愉,但终究逃不出衰老和死亡的自然规律。这生与死,难道真像庄子说的那样,是一样的吗?这长寿与短寿,难道真是同等事情吗?

At this point, his thoughts wander off on a philosophical trajectory. Life is short and conditioned to suffering. We enjoy each others’ company — but who knows what the morrow will bring? The philosopher Zhuangzi claimed that death and life is but two aspects of the same phenomena. But how true were his claims?

想起平日读的文章,引起古人感慨的事情,也能引起我们的共鸣。哪怕时代变了,遭遇的事情不同了,可是牵索人类的那些终极问题,还都是一样的呀。

Wang Xizhi thought of the essays he read. The writers were long gone — yet, the issues that concerned them troubled him too. Times change, but the concerns of mankind were ever the same…

这好好的饮酒作乐,怎么就突然说起生死大事了呢?这还需要说起东晋的时代背景。简单八个字 — 政权更迭,内忧外患。西晋政权因为八王之乱崩塌,游牧民族建立的政权造成极大的威胁,西晋皇室和士族们往江南一带迁移。贵族们尚能觅得一刻安宁,百姓们却无处可躲,只能在烽火中苟且偷生罢了。

Hey, I thought we were supposed to be merry. What’s with that sudden metaphysical bent?

Well, let’s just consider for a moment how chaotic Wang Xizhi’s time period was. The Western Jin dynasty collapsed as a result of internal and external threats. Warlords vied for power, while nomadic tribes gained enough traction to establish new political regimes.

These threats, internal and external, drove the Western Jin ruling class to escape southwards, establishing the Eastern Jin dynasty. The elites enjoyed momentary peace— yet, the awareness of their precarious situation loomed in the back of Wang Xizhi’s mind, even in a joyful setting as this one.

“眼看他起朱楼,眼看他宴宾客,眼看他楼塌了” 这不确定性极大的环境中,务实的儒家思想给不了人们心里的慰藉,人们对于生死问题极大关注,玄学流行于一时。王羲之提出的想法,正是当最热的议题之一。

Verses from the Ming dynasty play, “The Peach Blossom Fan” aptly captures his frame of mind: “I saw him building a mansionI saw him feasting with guestsBut I saw too, how his mansion collapsed”

The uncertainty faced by Wang Xizhi and his contemporaries drove them to rekindle an interest in Daoist thought. Daoism was concerned with questions the ever pragmatic Confucianists were reluctant to consider. The questions raised by Wang Xizhi in his essay were topics hotly debated by his contemporaries.

生,是否和死只是一体两面的事?

如果人们最后都会死,那么这些片刻的欢愉,这些良辰美景,又该如何去正视?

这宇宙如此浩瀚,万物如此繁多,人又如何找到自己的定位?

又如何以最好的方式渡过一生?

Is life and death but two faces of the same coin?

If death is inevitable, and if happiness is fleeting, what attitude should we keep?

And how do we find our place in this vast universe, as one among the multitude of things?

这些尖锐的问题,你一时也找不到答案。 它们曾困扰你,但生活琐事极多,你也无暇多想,只能关注眼下能及之事,仿佛这样就能给无常的人生赋予一点次序。

You feel some sympathy for Wang Xizhi. Like him, these questions had troubled you before. However, you have chosen to leave them aside as more pressing matters compete for your attention. Or perhaps, you were trying to install a sense of control as you focus your energy on immediate concerns.

“你们后人看到这篇文章,想必也会被我的话所打动吧?” 王羲之望向我们,问道。

“Perhaps you, our descendants, will be moved by my words.”

Wang Xizhi says to us.

你看着他,笑而不语。 生死大事,你不知。 但你很明确地知道,这场聚会,这篇《兰亭集序》,必能留传百世,绝卓千古。

You meet his gaze and return a smile.

The matters of life and death are beyond comprehension.

But there’s one thing you know for sure —This gathering, thanks to the “Preface of Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavillion” (Lan Ting Ji Xu) will be remembered and talked of for generations to come.

#古人真会玩#画说文史#插画#流觞曲水#兰亭集序#artXhistory#xlnyeongart

古人真会玩系列之二 – 宋代“咖啡”拉花 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 2: Song Dynasty ‘Latte’ Art

街头开了一家新的咖啡馆,要不要过去坐坐?

There’s a new cafe in town. Let us check it out!

你大步走过去,打开玻璃门,迎面而来的不是咖啡香,却是谈谈的茶香。“咦?”你望向吧台后的小哥哥。他穿着一件交领短衫,头上围着一条头巾,一看不像现代人的样子。

The cafe, rather peculiarly, is filled with the aroma of tea leaves instead of freshly brewed coffee. But that’s not all – the barista – with his crossed-lapel shirt and headscarf, looks as though he hails from another time and place.

你又把目光往店里一瞄,只见两位身穿褙子,头梳高髻的女子有说有笑地往座位走去。

You approach the counter as two whispering women brush past you. They are dressed in loose jackets and long pleated skirts, while their updos were adorned with flowers and accessories.

“你们是宋代穿越过来的吗?”略懂传统服饰的你,一脸哑然。

“Are you time-travellers from the Song dynasty?” You ask, recognising the time period of their garments.

“也许是,又或许,我们只是爱好宋代文化的现代人呢。”茶师小哥哥神秘地说。只见他手握茶匙,拨弄着盏里的茶汤。 他手法娴熟,不经一会儿功夫,乳白色的茶沫上出现了一只小鸟的图样。

“Perhaps we are. Or perhaps, we are just historical re-enactors obsessed with Song dynasty culture.” The barista, or rather, tea master is deliberately vague. He whips a cup of tea with a deft hand. The foam settles; the likeness of a bird emerges.

“好漂亮呀!”你惊叹。爱喝咖啡的你,习惯了咖啡师们在拿铁上用牛奶拉出的花样。只是,你却未曾想过,宋代人早就已经会在茶上“拉花”。

“That is wonderful!” You gasp. You have always thought of latte art as a modern fad. But tea! The people of the Song Dynasty were really a creative bunch!

“这算什么。你知道吗,五代时有个福全和尚,可厉害了!他能在一碗茶上写一句诗,四碗茶就是一首四言绝句了! [1])对了,这位客官,我们店里今天进了新货,惊蛰时节采摘的福建建安好茶,要不尝尝?”

“This is nothing. There was a certain Buddhist Master Fu Quan of the Five Dynasties who was able to shape tea foam into lines of poetry. People flocked to his temple just to see him. By the way, we have a new batch of tea from Jian-an, Fujian, picked during the ‘jingzhe’ season (March). Would you like to try it?”

你点点头。茶师拿出一个铜板大的小茶饼,用砧椎砸碎,再用茶碾迅速地研磨成粉。接着,他用筛子把茶叶细细筛过几遍,才将茶粉舀入用开水烫过的茶盏中。You nod. The tea master retrieves a block of tea no bigger than a Chinese copper coin, and crushes it with a rolling pin, before grinding it into fine powder. Then, he sieves the tea powder several times until the consistency is even. Only then does he scoops the tea powder into a warmed cup.

光是准备工作,已如此繁琐。习惯了随手将茶叶包扔进杯子的你,却意外地享受这个过程。 你回过神来,只见茶师已将茶粉和少许水分调成膏状。他再次提起执壶,一点一点地将开水注入茶盏中,一边用一个小刷子快速搅动,只见绿色的茶汤中渐渐泛起乳白色的泡沫,煞是好看。

The preparation process is already time-consuming. Nevertheless, you enjoy the novelty of the whole thing, even if tea bags will always be your first choice for convenience.

You emerge from your thoughts to see the tea master mixing the power with a little water to achieve a paste-like consistency. Once again, he lifts the kettle and pours water bit by bit into the teacup while whisking it with a brush. A layer of white foam began to form above the green liquid.

“这是什么?” 你指着“刷子”问。“这是茶筅。”茶师解释。“这注水和击拂要来回七次,每次力度和方式都要看着情况变化,不可过于大力或无力,否则这茶汤上的泡沫不能持久,一下子就散开了。” [2]

“What is this?” you point at the ‘brush’.”That is a tea-whisk” The tea master explains. “This process of whisking and adding hot water has to be repeated seven times. The tea has to be whisked with varying force, depending on the situation. If the force isn’t right, the foam will thin out after a while.”

茶师放下茶筅,指着茶盏,“您细瞧”。只见茶汤上覆着一层厚厚的,像云朵般酥软的乳白泡沫,泡沫和茶汤形成的脉络,呈现出一副山水图。[3]

Putting aside his whisk, the tea master points at the teacup, “You see.” A fluffy and thick layer of foam sits on the surface of the tea. The foam parted at places to reveal the green liquid underneath. Together, they looked just like a landscape painting.

你啧啧称奇,真是意想不到,宋人居然有这样的巧思妙想,早在一千年前就将喝茶这件事玩得出神入化了。“客官想不想叫点吃食呢?”茶师将茶盏放置在你的面前。“我们店里有包子、重阳糕、丰糖糕、生淹水木瓜、酥油鲍螺…”

You marvel at the tea master’s handiwork. The Song dynasty tea masters were such a creative bunch!”Would you like some snacks to go with your tea?” The tea master asks. “We have steamed buns, glazed papaya, spiral-shaped pastries…”

“不了,我品这一碗茶就好了。” 你付了钱,找了个靠窗的角落坐下。细细啜饮,顿时茶香满溢,苦涩中带着泡沫般的轻盈,一时神清气爽。你眯着眼睛,倚靠在软垫上,午后一点斜阳正从落地窗透进,时间似乎在那刹那间,静止了。

“No thanks, I will just enjoy my cup of tea.” You pay the tea master and look for a nice sunny spot next to a window. You close your eyes slightly and take a sip. At once, the invigorating smell of tea lifts your spirits. You let your lids drop as you lounge on the couch, enjoying your moment of stillness.

恍惚中,你突然想起,刚才忘记拍照发朋友圈了。“临风一啜心自省,此意莫与他人传” [4] 脑海中忽然飘出这句话。

It was then when you realised — you forgot to post on social media.

你释怀了。不分享也罢 — 毕竟这盏茶的滋味,这慵懒的时光,只属于自己,无法言传。

It didn’t matter anyway. There are moments in life that can could not be shared in entirety. It belonged only to yourself, to be experienced and to be lived out fully, in this present moment.

[1]:《清异录》

[2]: 宋徽宗 《大观茶论》

[3]: 《荈茗录》

[4]: (元)洪希文《煮土茶歌》

#古人真会玩#宋代分茶#ancientpastimes#digitalart

古人真会玩系列之一:唐代裙幄宴 Ancient Chinese Pastimes 1: Tang dynasty Ladies’ Picnic

[CH/EN]

这春节一过,不知不觉又到了三月三日的上巳(si4)节。唐代的小姐姐们,今年想好到哪里出游了吗?

Chinese New Year is over. Spring has come. And the lovely ladies of the Tang dynasty are determined to make the most of this long awaited day.

唐朝人最喜欢在上巳节出门玩,而且根据传统,还要找个靠水的地方,欣赏春色。 这冬天闷在家里久了,怎样都要趁着大好春天出门透透气。

“What festival is this?” You, a 21st century time traveller, asks. It is the third day of the third month (of the lunar calendar), and it was a big deal for the ancient Chinese. Centuries ago, it was customary to undergo a ritual cleansing bath , but our Tang dynasty ladies no longer practiced public swimming. Rather, they put on their finest, packed their picnic boxes, and sought out a nice riverbank to make the most of the festival.

而小姐姐们拎着吃盒,穿上漂亮的衣裙,成群结伴,找个景色宜人的地方,准备在那儿野餐。可是,这大家闺秀,在大庭广众下吃吃喝喝的,怎么说都不太好看吧?这时,身上的长裙就发挥了用处—她们将裙子挂在竹竿或树枝上,就地搭成一个帷幕,就在帷幕内野餐。外头人一看,只见在风中飘逸的红色长裙,却看不见里头的人儿…这样即尽了兴,又添加几分神秘。

However, even the open-minded Tang dynasty folks considered it unseemly for highborn young ladies to picnic in public. So the ladies, not wanting to miss out on the fun, draped their skirts on poles and branches, effectively forming a makeshift screen. Then they would feast in privacy, safe from prying eyes. (On a side note, there’s a Tang dynasty mural of a group of men feasting in public while people gathered to watch…I suppose our ladies wouldn’t have appreciated being stared at while digging into their packed lunches!)

作画灵感x唐代点心:

据《开元天宝遗事》记载,“长安士女游春野步,遇名花则设席藉草,以红裙递相插挂,以为宴幄。其奢逸如此也”。 虽然典籍里写的是“红裙”,但我已将人物色调设定为暖色,为了突出人物,就将背景的裙子涂成冷色调。

We know of these activities thanks to a book “Tales from Kai-Yuan and Tian-Bao Regime”. (a.k.a a historical/novella/gossip column about the period spanning 713-756 A.D.) I have taken liberties with the colours of the skirts here, depicting them as blue-green instead of the red described in the book.

而从这短短的文字中,从“设席”、“宴幄”中便可知,这种户外活动必定少不了吃的。所以我就脑补了她们野餐的画面。那唐代人野餐吃什么呢?《开元天宝遗事》中没写清楚,但我想,她们应该会携带一些方便外带的食品,于是我就参考了新疆阿斯塔那古墓群出土的面饼。

So what did our ladies pack? The book gives no clue (apart from the fact that feasting was involved), so I’ve drawn some easy-to-pack baked goods, using some ancient pastry samples excavated from the Astana tombs in Xinjiang.

说起唐代的点心呢,和我们现代名媛们崇尚的法式下午茶不太一样, 黄油、砂糖这种东西太名贵,大部分人都吃不上。但唐朝吃货们发展出一套自己的方法,他们很喜欢吃烤饼和煎饼,有些上面撒有芝麻,有些里面包着馅料。而且根据出土的文物,这些面饼有些带着用模具印出样纹,有些这被扭成各式各样的形状,视觉上有点像德国的pretzels。(这里多加一个冷知识点:唐代人称一切面食食品为“饼”,所以我们现代认知中的面条、饺子、馒头、包子,统统称为“饼”)

Butter and refined sugar were expensive in the Tang dynasty. So the Tang dynasty folks had to improvise — and the result was an astonishing variety of roasted, steamed and deep-fried wheat-based pastry. (Now ‘pasty’ or ‘bing’, is a very generic term for anything made with wheat flour).

Some were stuffed with a variety of fillings, while others were topped with sesame seeds. And the Tang dynasty bakers took great care to make them aesthetically pleasing too. The excavated pastries from the Astana tombs come in various interesting forms, some twisted into pretzel-like shapes, and others pressed with decorative patterns.

当然,新疆离长安还有一段距离的,长安仕女们出游未必吃烤饼,若吃烤饼也未必和新疆的长得一模一样。这里就不那么讲究了。

Of course, there’s quite a distance between Xinjiang and Chang’an, so there may have been regional variations. And the Chang’an ladies did not necessary have pastries during their picnics. It is just imagination on my part.

唐代人也有吃水果的习惯。他们喜欢吃沾上蔗浆和醍醐(酥酪提炼出来的油)的樱桃,入口又甜又酸,(别问我怎么知道,白居易他老人家告诉我的),类似我们的草莓+cream的搭配。这里犯了一个小错误,就是樱桃成熟的季节是春末夏初,和仕女们春游时间不符。但我毕竟是个热带国家的现代人,这点小错就放过我吧。

The people of the Tang dynasty also loved fruits. They had a habit of dipping cherries into cane syrup and refined cream. As the poet Bai Juyi describes it, the end result is both sweet and sour. I’ve taken another artistic liberty here — cherries were only in season at the end of spring, and the ladies enjoying their early spring excursion would not have feasted on it. As a modern person who has no concept of seasonal fruits, (apart from the durian), I beg pardon for this mistake.

此外,唐代点心还有贵妃红、水晶龙凤糕、玉露团等等,光看名字就让人食欲大增。有些还流传到了现代,比如说,上过《舌尖上的中国》的贵妃饼。这款糕点据说传唐宫,但唐朝人吃的和现代版有多大出入,是否长成这个样子,就不得而知了。

The Tang dynasty folks also enjoyed a range of desserts with poetical names. Let me attempt to translate a few – “Scarlet Consort”, “Crystal Dragon and Phoenix Cake”, “Jade Dew Ball”. Here I’ve included the “Consort Pastry” (the white things with red dots) as featured on the series “A Bite of China”. It is said to have originated from the Tang court cuisine, but truth to be told, we have no idea if the pastries actually looked like this, or if they tasted the same as their modern counterpart.

如果现代吃货一个不小心穿越回去,应该会很想念现代的辣椒土豆番茄什么的,但他要是手上有点闲钱,大概也不会太失望吧!

So I guess Tang dynasty food culture is enough to satisfy the modern foodie, despite the lack of chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and whatnot. Provided, of course, you are financially able to splurge on these delicacies! #古人真会玩#裙幄宴#唐代风俗#历史#插画#AncientPastimes#xlnyeong

How Mulan’s Image Evolved Throughout Chinese History

Let us talk about the latest Mulan movie.


And no, I am not going to talk about how ridiculous the movie is. How the ancestral phoenix has been compared to a kite, the Rourans to the Dothrakis, the emperor to Fu Manchu and our very heroine Fa Mulan to a mutant superhero who belongs to Professor X’s Institute (of Marvel fame) instead of to, I don’t know, a fantasyland called ancient China. Except, of course, that the so-called fantasyland reeks badly of last-century Orientalism mingled with a whiff of the Salem witch trials.


And I am not going to talk about how awkward the costumes look. How the character development arc is basically unneeded when you enter the scene with superpowers. How a mute phoenix represents Chinese ancestral beliefs no better than a talking dragon. How loose flowing hair with beach waves is not a mark of ancient Chinese femininity. Or how qi, a life-force permeating the entire universe, is reduced to some gendered thing just so Disney could spin a feminist tale out of it.

Instead, let us talk about something that is less controversial. About the fact that Mulan has a sword with the words ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ on one face and ‘Filial’ on the reverse. That, along with Christina Aguilera’s song of the same title, is Disney’s attempt at a closer representation of the original ballad.


Except that it is not.


Now is the time to look at the ballad itself. It starts with a scene of Mulan — not skidding on roof tiles before her aghast neighbours — seated idle at her loom. She sighs heavily. Dad has been called to serve in the army. There’s no adult male to take his place.


Alright then, I’ll go.


The ballad is as simple as that. There’s no grand declarations of filial piety. No sentiments of serving king and country. Just an ordinary girl faced with an impossible task. A family crisis, calling for action. Her father was in no state to serve — death is a foregone conclusion. And without the breadwinner, how would her family survive?


The poem proceeds with an almost disinterest in the machinations of war. Mulan bids her parents farewell. She sets up camp by the Yellow River. The river gushes in her ear. She hears not the calls of her parents. She is far, far away from home.


The troops cover a great distance. Their armour glint in the cold winter’s light. Ten years pass in a flash. Some experienced generals die. Some survive.


Mulan is one of the lucky ones.


She stands before the Khan. He dishes out rewards for his soldiers. Positions at court? Military titles?


No. Give me a fast camel. I want to go home.


At the city gates, dad and mom wait. They have aged. They lean on each other for support. Younger brother has grown up. Elder sister is as lovely as ever.


It is so good to be home. One might imagine Mulan’s sigh of relief as she puts on her civilian clothes. It is over. Peace has been restored — for goodness knows how long.


In fact, Mulan’s era was one of the most tumultuous in Chinese history. Wars were continually fought. Against the Rouran in the north, against the ethnic Han regimes in the south. Territories lost and reclaimed. Boundaries reestablished. Kingdoms rise and fall. Civilisations wiped out forever from existence.


And in the midst of it, there were just a group of women, desperately trying to survive.


They belonged to the upper classes. Had times been good, they would be cloistered in their rooms, secluded from the world, secure in their wealth and their place in society. They may have counselled their sons. Do some embroidery. Stroll around gardens and recite poetry. The men of the family would have protected them from harm. Or at least, they might have proceeded as Confucius would have envisioned.


Confucius envisioned a world in which everyone knew their place. That everyone would be filial to their parents at home and loyal to their superiors abroad. A society in which filial piety and loyalty, dual images of each other, would work together in some mysterious harmony to guarantee order and stability.


Except that the Han dynasty and its Confucianist convictions had long been overthrown. And in times of chaos, women had to do what they had to do.
Avenge their father while their male relatives sat in despair? Check.Train a retinue of maidservants for self-defense? Check. Break through enemy lines to save a town from starvation? Check.


It was during these times when we hear such stories of remarkable women who were skilled in martial arts, and actually used their talents for good. The stories all ran along a similar thread. A crisis has struck. The men of the family were either absent or weak. Some woman takes matters into her own hands. She crosses moral boundaries. Ultimately, she achieves victory, and is forgiven for whatever transgression committed.


Mulan’s story may seem one-of-a-kind when read in isolation. However, when seen in this light, against the multitude of stories featuring women and their attempts at survival, we see a common thread. And we come to realise that it is very much a product of the times. That no story is possible in a vacuum. Historical and material conditions have to come together to make a story possible. And in a way, Mulan, if she existed at all, is one of the many women who temporarily took the place of men to defend themselves and their family. It does not make her story any less exceptional. Rather, it gives us context, and we can understand Mulan’s motivations better yet.


So how did Mulan’s story become one of filial piety and loyalty?


Let us fast forward to the middle of the Tang Dynasty. The empire has been unified. The mighty Tang stretches deep into the West while firming its grip over China proper. Each year, the Silk Road brings in foreign traders and a vibrant, international culture.


Under this grand facade, things were coming apart. The An Lushan rebellion greatly weakened the empire’s might. An emperor was reinstated, but regional warlords still held power. How might a declining kingdom recall loyalty among its former subjects?


Now, there was a certain Wei Yuanfu, court official, loyal subject to the old Tang emperors. The shifting political climate would not have escaped his keen eyes. And, perhaps coincidentally, he penned a poem about Mulan.


It is an unremarkable piece of work in the rich repository that was Tang poetry. It neither had literary merit nor was it very novel. It reads very much like a rephrase of Mulan’s original ballad, except for the four concluding lines.
“Could there be officials/With a heart like Mulan’s/Both filial and loyal/Deserving of everlasting fame”


We know that Mulan had been revered as some semi-deity by the common people of Tang Dynasty. A temple was dedicated to her. It may have been a tourist hotspot of sorts. The famed poet Du Mu was known to have visited, and commemorated his trip with a dedication to Mulan. Still, it was the first time, at least in written history, that anyone had made the dual themes of filial piety and loyalty from Mulan’s story explicit.

Now, as it must be reminded, Mulan’s poem never framed her enlistment as an act of filial piety. And if her actions could be somehow construed as a filial self-sacrifice, it would take a leap of imagination to infer her loyalty to her sovereign. If anything, it was more like a by-product of her actions, rather than a motivation for her enlistment.


Casting that aside, Wei Yuanfu’s claim must have made so much sense to the Tang Dynasty literati. Of course Mulan was both filial and loyal. Wasn’t this something that our very own emperor Tang Xuanzong recommended in his commentary of the “Book of Filial Piety”? Convert your filial piety to your father into loyalty for your sovereign. And oh, most conveniently, loyalty should always come before filial piety.

Tang Xuanzong’s admonishments and Wei Yuanfu’s burning loyalty did little to save the Tang Dynasty from its inevitable demise. China was plunged once again into chaos, but not for long. In a matter of half a century, the Chinese found a new master in the Song emperors, and all was well again. For the time being.


The Song loved Mulan. They unquestioningly accepted the Tang dynasty’s designation of her as some figurehead of the filial piety-loyalty duality (that’s quite a mouthful, but I am sticking with it). And Mulan was made more popular than ever, thanks to development of moveable type printing. Which meant stories about heroes and heroines of yore could be circulated among the masses. And at the same time, literature became secularised, and stories like Mulan’s could be enjoyed by all.


And the people needed it. The Song Dynasty flourished for over a century, before a humiliating invasion by the Jin. The emperor and his dad were taken hostage, a sizeable chunk of the territory lost, and the elites migrated to the south. As time passed, and as generals fought in futility to regain lost lands, the people began to turn to another mode of solace. Stories in which brave heroes and heroines fought to defend their homeland. Mulan was one of them. She was worshipped, and revered, to the extent that no one quite thought to question certain glaring gaps in her story.


Where did she learn how to fight?
How did she conceal her identity for so long?
How did her parents feel about her leaving?


It was a century later when the Ming dynasty came along. Mulan had become a staple figure in Chinese imagination. But the Ming playwrights and novel writers were scratching their heads over the blank pages they had to fill. The original ballad gave hardly any details about these questions at all. Sure, it made for a very succinct read, very appropriate for a poem. But those moviegoers and novel readers had to be filled in with more details. They wanted to see some good action, some suspense. Perhaps a bit of humour, thrown in here and there.


In other words, the perfect goddess Mulan of filial piety-loyalty fame had to be pulled down from her pedestal. To be reworked, infused with flesh and blood, emotions, and very human concerns. She had to be made relatable in a way that would meet the expectations of her time. For example, her feet. Ming dynasty women had bound feet. As historically inaccurate as it was, a Ming dynasty audience could not imagine a time when women ran freely on unbounded feet.

So the playwright (among other things) Xu Wei gave her a pair of bound feet (which she unbounded), an opportunity to declare her purity (another fixation of Ming dynasty minds), and a heroic scene in which she captured the leader of the enemy alive. And not to mention, the perfect match to complete her story in a very satisfactory manner.


Xu Wei’s retelling caught on. And from then onwards, every single retelling of Mulan twisted her story in ways fan fiction authors would be familiar with. One story had her become sworn sisters with a fellow female warrior. In another, Mulan had a woman fall in love with her. (The woman later became Mulan’s co-wife).

In a number of retellings, Mulan’s relationship with her parents are explored. They protest, weep, beg and faint as they deal with the multitude of emotions that arise upon hearing of Mulan’s decision. It is very much unlike the stoicism implied by the ballad. Then again, given the ballad’s brevity, we cannot really know.


Now, the strong, weapon-bearing, family-protecting women embodied in Mulan’s ballad were a thing of the past. Apart from the occasional female warrior, many women would expect to spend their lives within the confines of their homes. But some women of the Ming and Qing dynasty had a new weapon — the pen. Female literacy was at an all-time high in the Qing dynasty. Over 3000 women had works published in their name — ten times the number in all the previous dynasties added up together. Their influence was such that a new genre catering to women writers and readers was born. It was a mixture of lyrical and prosaic form, and they became a medium in which women gave voice to their inner thoughts.


Mulan inspired some of these works. A recurring theme features women who’d cross dress out of desperation, but ends up with public recognition. And unlike the Mulan who tosses away her accolades to return to the private sphere, these new ‘Mulans’ do not give up their hard-won recognition so easily.

Perhaps these character archetypes were a foil for the hidden ambitions of these talented writers.

If I were given the chance, if I were a man, no — if I could dress and look and act like one, perhaps I could make something of myself.

Perhaps I could ace the imperial exams. Perhaps I could shine in public service.

But I am a woman, and a woman cannot make something of herself. She has to stay at home and mind the in-laws — but she can write.

Maybe someday things will change.

Maybe some day my granddaughter will pick this story up and see the desire written between the lines.

Perhaps she will go out there and prove herself.

Perhaps, she will no longer have to dress like a man.