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To the tune “The Moon Over the West River”—Pingshan Hall | 西江月 · 平山堂

“Detail from 宋人拜月圖軸 (house)”, Anonymous, National Palace Museum, Accession Number: K2A000186N000000000PAA [Public Domain]

Introduction to the Text

Ouyang Xiu, whose work is also included in this collection, was a highly respected and influential teacher of Su Shi. He built Pingshan Hall in 1048 CE. Before the composition of this song, Su Shi had passed by the hall twice due to transfers at work. The song marks the occasion of his third visit to Pingshan Hall, at which point Ouyang Xiu had long since passed away. The song serves to commemorate Su Shi’s teacher, as well as to reflect on the inconstancy of life; the latter effort is supported by Su Shi's use of Buddhist imagery, such as “a flick of the finger” to express the rapid passing of time. The final lines, especially the sentiment that lived experience is a dream, refer to the philosophy of the Diamond Sutra (金刚经). 

The Diamond Sutra is an important Buddhist scripture which contains the discourse of the Buddha to a senior monk, Subhuti. The major themes are anatman (not-self), the emptiness of all phenomena and the liberation of all beings from attachments. Buddhism developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and the Five Dynasties period (907-960 CE), and continued to prosper under the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty government supported and organized the translation and publication of various Sutras; multiple commentaries on Sutras were also produced during this period. Most of the Song Dynasty emperors either believed in Buddhism or supported its spread. The most dominant faction was the Zen Buddhism of Mahāyāna Buddhism, and the Diamond Sutra was considered to be one of their most influential texts, well-known both to the non-secular and secular world. 

Su Shi himself was highly influenced by Buddhism; his brother was very invested in Buddhist philosophy and practices, as were his second wife, Wang Runzhi, and his later partner, Zhaoyun. Throughout his life, he befriended many monks and incorporated Buddhist practices into his life through copying Sutras, building pagodas and temples and painting figures of Buddha. Su Shi’s lines on the dream-like quality of existence in the final two lines of this ci likely come from the four-line gatha at the end of Section 26 of the Diamond Sutra: “All conditioned phenomena are like a dream, like an illusion, like a bubble, like a shadow. Like dew or like a flash of lighting; thus we shall perceive them.”

The ci genre of Chinese poetry first emerged in the Sui dynasty (581-619), was further developed in the Tang dynasty (618-907) and matured in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Ci is usually translated into English as "song lyrics". This is because ci were composed by poets to fit pre-existing tunes. The number of lines, the line lengths, and the tonal and rhythmic patterns of ci vary with the tunes, which number in the hundreds. One common occasion for composing ci would be a banquet: song lyrics would be scribbled down by guests and then sung by musical performers as entertainment. Other occasions for composing and enjoying ci would be more casual: the poet might sing the lyrics to himself at home or while travelling (many ci poets were civil servants of the Imperial Court and often had to travel great distances to carry out their work). Sometimes the lyrics would be sung by ordinary people in the same way as folk songs. This oral and musical quality sets it apart from other genres of poetry in China during the same period, which were largely written texts with more elevated objectives. There are two main types of ci: wǎnyuē (婉约, "graceful") and háofàng (豪放, "bold"). The wǎnyuē subgenre primarily focuses on emotion and many of its lyrics are about courtship and love, while the háofàng subgenre often deals with themes that were considered more profound by contemporary audiences, such as ageing and mortality, or the rewards and disappointments of public service.

Su Shi 蘇軾 is one of the most popular Chinese poets of all time, and certainly one of the best-known poets of the Song Dynasty. Among his many roles - principled politician, esteemed poet, celebrated calligrapher - he was also a major reformer of the ci genre. Before Su Shi, the primary form of ci was wǎnyuē (婉约, "graceful"). This was considered to be an inferior form of literature due to its thematic focus on love and desire and its association with the courtesans who usually performed it. Su Shi wrote lyrics on a broad range of non-traditional topics, often closely related to his own life experience. His compositions dealt with themes that were considered more profound by contemporary audiences, such as ageing and mortality, or the rewards and disappointments of public service. As a pioneer of the háofàng (豪放, "bold") type of ci, he incorporated references to typically masculine pursuits, including frequent use of a hunting motif. He also frequently incorporated ideas from Buddhist philosophy and allusions to political events, which usually appeared only in more elevated forms of poetry.

Although Su Shi was a highly-regarded poet during his lifetime, his political career was consistently unfortunate. In 1066, he was forced to leave the Court when he openly opposed the chancellor’s socio-economic reforms, known as the New Policies. Over the next thirteen years, he was frequently demoted, serving as prefect or sub-prefect in Hangzhou, Mizhou, Xuzhou and Huzhou. Many of his ci reference these postings and the exhaustion of constant travel. A report about the troubling economic conditions of local people written while he was prefect of Huzhou landed him in prison for three months. He was finally sent back to Hangzhou and given a job with no salary. Although living in poverty, he grew fond of Hangzhou and wrote many of his most famous ci there.

Because of the occurrence of specific real names and locations in Su Shi's lyrics, as well as the introductory notes he wrote to accompany many of them, his lyrics often invite a biographical reading. This differentiates him from other ci poets featured in this collection, whose writings did not usually reference their own lives in such a direct way. Yet although Su Shi's lyrics evoke specific lived experiences, the enduring popularity of his poetry is due, in part, to the fact that diverse audiences can identify with the feelings he describes.

About this Edition

The original text of this ci is based on the edition by Tang Guizhang 唐圭璋 (Quan Song Ci 全宋詞. Vol 1. Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju, 1965). Punctuation follows the edition. Since ci poetry rarely includes personal pronouns, and gender-differentiated pronouns did not exist in Classical Chinese of this period, the gender of the speaker as well as their perspective (e.g. first, second or third person) must often be deduced by the translator from context.

Further Reading

Chang, Kang-i Sun. The Evolution of Tz’u Poetry: from Late Tang to Northern Sung. Princeton UP, 1980.

  • A standard survey of the early history of Chinese song lyrics (romanized as both ci and tz’u).

Egan, Ronald. “The Song Lyric.” The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, vol. 1, edited by Stephen Owen, Cambridge UP, 2010, pp. 434-452.

  • An overview of the genre.

Owen, Stephen. Just a Song: Chinese Lyrics from the Eleventh and Early Twelfth Centuries. Asia Center, Harvard UP, 2019.

  • A recent new history of the genre.

Tang, Guizhang 唐圭璋, editor. Quan Song Ci 全宋詞. Zhonghua shu ju, 1965. 5 vols.

  • A comprehensive edition of ci from the Song dynasty and the source text for the ci in this collection (introductions and annotations are in Chinese).

Credits

Text based on Tang, Guizhang 唐圭璋 (ed.). Quan Song Ci 全宋詞. Vol 1. Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju, 1965, 302.Translation by Qian JiaNotes by Nina Du, Runqi Zhang, and Dante ZhuEncoded in TEI P5 XML by Manya Bansal, and Dante Zhu

Suggested citation: Su Shi 蘇軾. "To the tune “The Moon Over the West River”—Pingshan Hall." Trans. Qian Jia. Global Medieval Sourcebook. http://sourcebook.stanford.edu/text/tune-%E2%80%9C-moon-over-west-river%.... Retrieved on November 29, 2021.