Saturday, January 29, 2011

A lovely Chinese love poem with a fascinating story behind it

I very much like this poem written by Guan Daosheng to her husband Zhao Mengfu, some seven hundred years ago (I don't know who the translator is because the poetry collection I have on my Kindle doesn't say). I'll give you the poem, and then after that I'll tell you the story behind it, which is a fascinating and ultimately sweet story, even if you don't like poetry.

"A Poem of You and Me"

You and I
Have so much love,
That it
Burns like a fire,
In which we bake a lump of clay
Molded into a figure of you
And a figure of me.
Then we take both of them,
And break them into pieces,
And mix the pieces with water,
And mold again a figure of you,
And a figure of me.
I am in your clay.
You are in my clay.
In life we share a single quilt.
In death we will share one coffin.


Now for the story.

Guan Daosheng was an artist and poet in the days of the thirteenth-/fourteenth-century Yuan Dynasty -- you'll note that in the painting below, she has painted a poem onto the painting, thus combining both of her talents. (And no, I have no idea what the poem says because I can't read Chinese handwriting to save my life.) Her husband was himself a talented artist (arguably the father of modern Chinese landscape painting) -- in fact their son was a world-class calligrapher as well, much to the bemusement of the Emperor, who seems to have thought it wasn't quite fair for all that talent to be concentrated in a single family.

Daosheng and Mengfu married when she was 27, and they were very happy together for twenty years. But as they neared their fifties (and of course fifty was much older in the late 1200's than it is now), it was becoming trendy for older, well-off Chinese men to keep a young concubine, much as it apparently is in China now -- though I think modern Chinese businessmen don't typically tell their wives about their young women the way thirteenth-century Chinese nobles seem to have. Now Mengfu very famously loved his wife very much, but young and beautiful would-be concubines can be pretty tempting, especially when everybody else has one.

Well, Mengfu couldn't quite work up the courage to come right out and ask Daosheng if she would mind his bringing a concubine into the house. So he wrote a poem about it, in which he apparently (I haven't been able to find the actual poem) delivered the message, "I'd sort of like to bring in a PYT like my buddies are doing."

"A Poem of You and Me" was Daosheng's response.

[smiling] Mengfu apparently never again mentioned taking a concubine, and they lived on together very happily until Daosheng died, ten years later, at the age of 57. And three years or so later, Mengfu rejoined her in their "one coffin."

Bamboo and Stone

Ten Thousand Bamboo Poles in Cloudy Mist


At 8:54 AM, Anonymous voodooqueen said...

I wonder which painting contains the famous poem...

At 8:55 AM, Anonymous voodooqueen said...

Because apparently the paintings have poems on them. Still great find on your part.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous voodooqueen126 said...

I found his poem:
I’m a scholar-official
and you are the official wife.
Haven’t you ever heard that scholar-official Wang had Peach Leaf and Peach Root,
Scholar-official Su had Morning Clouds and Evening Clouds?
Even if I marry a few beauties from Wu and Yue – it wouldn’t be too much
since you’re already over forty.
You’ll still control Spring in the Jade Hall.

At 4:07 AM, Anonymous Ken Pierce said...

Oh, well done!! Thanks for finding that. I'll ask my wife to look at the painting and tell me what the poem in the painting says, by the way.

Thanks again!

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