The First Censor’s Statement
Given to T’au Hsun of the Emperor’s Guard, personal emissary of the Son of Heaven
In the tenth year of the Reign of Everlasting Harmony, on the third day of the third moon (which, of course, was today), we met here at the country home of our friend Wang Hsi-chih the calligrapher. He had invited us once again to celebrate the Water Festival at the Orchid Pavilion, where we would wash away the evil spirits of winter and drink and compose poetry.
And so I arrived with my humble procession of six servants led by my secretary, who carries my seal of office before me, while the day was young and the sun was just beginning to sift through the cherry blossoms. In that ethereal light, with the warm breeze making its quiet song in the bamboo leaves, winter seemed a thousand years away.
“My esteemed friend,” Wang Hsi-chih bowed in welcome, smiling widely, as I stepped from my sedan chair, “it is a glorious day for poetry, is it not?”
“Heaven smiles on our gathering,” I replied. “May we reach the level of inspiration—and drunkenness—that we were so fortunate to attain last year.”
“And here approaches our last guest, himself almost a portrait of spring,” said Wang Hsi-chih. I turned to look.
It would have been impossible not to admire Lu Tiao as he rode up on his white horse. He smiled at us and leaped from the horse’s back, coming to a graceful and light landing—who would not want to be young again and in such high spirits, attired in gleaming silk of the finest work, embroidered blue, gold, and black, dark hair gleaming against pale yellow tunic? He could have been the Immortal youth Lan Ts’ai-ho himself, so beautiful that the gods dispatched a celestial stork to seize him and carry him up to heaven. His face was radiant as he greeted us. “Master Wang—I have had a glorious ride this morning from Shao-hsing. I thought I would be late, but I see I have arrived in time.”
“Just in time,” Wang Hsi-chih said. “Everyone is now present.”
To tell you a little about us: we are all, except for Wang Hsi-chih, government bureaucrats who serve the emperor’s court in some way. Perhaps one might live on one’s poetry if one lived as the birds, without the need for paying for food, lodging, or clothes. As we are not birds, however, we are functionaries for our living and poets for our pleasure. Meng Wei is Scribe of Edicts and Laws, Han Tzu is Historian in Charge of Archives, Hsiao Kan is Collator of Texts, Kao Fu is Instructor of Classics at the Imperial University, Tu Shen is Adjutant-Under-the-Right-Commandant-Under-the-Crown-Prince, and I, Sun Ch’o, am First Censor of Lu-shan.
But we knew that Lu Tiao of the radiant face was different from the rest of us in an important respect: while we were destined to live our lives in official obscurity, it was said (as you probably are aware) that he had the attention of the emperor and would soon be receiving a token of the emperor’s favor in the form of an important post, the first stepping stone to great power and an illustrious career. His youthful circuit of banquets, riding, hunting, swordplay, cockfights, dancing, parties, and poetry improvisations would give way to work and politics all too soon. In a few years, we knew, he would be too important to come to gatherings of humble men such as us.
Wang Hsi-chih led us to his gardens, where the men of our poetry group and other guests awaited, admiring the beauty of the landscape. Tu Shen was talking quietly to Kao Fu and Meng Wei. He looked very somber, as though a sadness weighed on his spirits. I saw him fix his eyes on Lu Tiao with unusual intensity, but Lu Tiao did not seem to notice. Tu Shen is by his nature rather melancholy at times, without any particular cause, but in this case I easily surmised the reason for his mood. He has a plain taste in clothes, and he was probably offended by the daring of Lu Tiao’s garb. At the same time he was too courteous to give a sign—therefore he modified his expression to a general appearance of gloom.
“What news from the Imperial City?” I asked Meng Wei.
“Nothing to speak of,” he replied.
“That is indeed newsworthy,” I said, humorously, “that there is nothing to report.”
“Gentlemen, make yourselves comfortable,” said Wang Hsi-chih. “I think everyone knows the rules? Where a cup stops, that person must give us a poem related to spring, or else pay the penalty and drink the cup. Of course, if you give us a poem and still want to drink the cup, you may do so.”
I chose a delightful spot where the stream made a little curve around a soft mossy bank. To my left grew a small clump of willow, only a few feet high, starting to feather out with tender new leaves, and I sat down with the trunk of a blossoming peach tree at my back. Petals fluttered down around me. I spread my roll of paper before me, ink pot to my right and brush in my hand, in readiness, and then I leaned back against the tree and looked up into its branches and the sky beyond. It was a lovely view with the petals falling—as I watched, a swallow, quickly followed by another, darted through the flower-snow and was gone.
Meng Wei sat down on the opposite side of the stream, removed his shoes, and dabbled his bare feet in the stream, smiling in pleasure.
I began composing. After some thought, and a bit of nibbling on the end of my brush, I had my first poem of the day. I inscribed the characters with some flourish. Then I looked up from my paper.
Lu Tiao was writing furiously, so he had a poem in progress; Meng Wei was gazing abstractedly into the stream.
A lotus leaf with a small cup of wine on it came floating peacefully down the stream, meandered a bit in an eddy where the stream curved, and then continued on its way. I was happy to let it go. I only had one poem so far, and it was early to start drinking. There would be more cups floating down the current in a short while.
I mused, searching for new inspiration.
My thoughts wandered, what with the pleasantness of the sunshine and the gentle touch of the breeze. I had been home for the past ten days with an illness, a remnant of one of winter’s evil spirits, and this was my first day away from home during that time. I stretched my back and scratched my ankle. Ah… I considered whether I should follow Meng Wei’s example and bathe my feet in the stream.
Another lotus leaf with its wine-cup passenger came voyaging down the stream. It caught on a rock just in front of me.
I saw Meng Wei smile. “You have been selected,” he said.
I stood up, and those who were near enough to hear me all turned their attention my way.
“A poem in honor of this glorious day,” I said, as introduction.
New peach blossoms have opened
Soft in the early light.
Yesterday’s petals drift down
Swirled by swallows’ flight.
The willow is sprinkled
With petals pink and white.
“Well done,” said Tu Shen.
“Elegantly crafted,” said Kao Fu.
Lu Tiao smiled, but said nothing.
We went back to our composing (or, as the case might be, relaxing. Last year the final tally was: eleven of us wrote two poems, fifteen wrote one poem, and sixteen didn’t write any. You may conclude that some of Wang Hsi-chih’s friends are less serious than others about poetry, and those who only wish to admire nature and talk and drink wine are just as welcome as the poets).
And so the time passed pleasantly. Several cups passed by without being caught. Far upstream, someone was reciting a poem, but I could not hear it and did not care to walk up there. Another cup came rollicking down the stream and caught on a bit of gravel in front of young Lu Tiao.
He stood and waited for our attention. Then he said, “The beauty of nature is all very well, but there needs to be a beautiful lady to ornament it—”
The nightingale’s ecstasy spills from the bamboo grove
Thrilling the night air. Greater joy
Seizes me: a girl walks under the full moon,
Trailing her silk robe in the dew.
His voice swelled as he recited, and a faint warmth suffused his face. This is a boy in love, I thought, pleased at my perceptiveness.
We lauded his verse for its beautiful imagery and passion. Scarcely had we finished when another lotus leaf floated down the stream and eddied near Tu Shen. He stood up and there was a long pause; he was composing as we waited. In the silence I could hear the pleasant cry of the cuckoo in the grove—the very sound of spring. Then Tu Shen recited:
His beautiful hen
Is left alone
While the nightingale attends
His lord moon;
The cuckoo consoles her.
A very clever conceit, I thought. And very neat, tying the nightingale from Lu Tiao’s poem to the cuckoo that sang so near us.
To answer your question—does it mean anything?—well, it is a traditional ironic theme: I can think of a dozen poems very similar to it without straining my memory. But perhaps you think it odd that the setting of the poem was at night—here is the beauty of a spring morning and you would expect shining, light-filled ideas to be the stuff we would be working with? Sometimes, you must understand, the poetic imagination is retrograde: it imagines what is not there; it behaves illogically. Contentment makes it contemplate terror, and hardship makes it dream of peace. Why else the practice of celebrating spring by lamenting how quickly it passes? This backwardness is shown again in Lu Tiao’s next work. He jumped up and took the next cup without waiting for it to stop of its own accord—his poems had outpaced the cups and he was impatient—and he said:
The full moon blazes
Overhead, and I cannot sleep.
The night is endless.
Far away I hear her voice
And I run outside to answer.
His eyes were intense as he looked at Tu Shen. Then he sat down again, haughtily, I thought. He meant his poem as a reproach to Tu Shen’s cynical work, that was plain. Of course, the young will always be talking of, dreaming about, pure love: they think it is the only subject. And those to whom art comes easily, in a flood of inspiration, always disdain the craftsman and the ironic voice. Irony, I think—do you agree?—is the quality that one appreciates more and more in art as one matures. I find that I can scarcely write a direct outpouring of sentiment anymore. I am always seeking the short, the understated, that which says what it does not say. I do not mean that I cannot appreciate Lu Tiao’s work: I think it is very good and at times I have been envious. I will recite some of his best poems that he has created in the past, if you wish… No? Then I will continue.
Five cups passed all of us by, going on to those downstream, out of our hearing. (But we do have the texts of all the poems that were made, if you wish to read the ones I did not hear, or if you want to check my memory regarding the ones I did hear; Wang Hsi-chih recorded all of the poems on a scroll at the end of the day, just as he did last year. Ask him: he will show you the scroll.)
Wang Hsi-chih’s servants were very busy, bustling back and forth, some of them catching the cups that made it past everyone, others taking cups back upstream, still others collecting the cups that had been stopped and the ones that had been drunk. And some filled the cups and set them afloat, of course, and others brought us food, so we lacked for nothing to be comfortable. And I sat and took my ease and watched the swallows, the bamboo waving in the breeze, the flowing water.
Tu Shen received the next cup. He said:
The frozen heart of a great river
Does not grow softer in the spring
When he becomes a raging torrent.
This poem, of course, was suggested by the landscaping all around us, which, as I mentioned, is very fine: the stream represents a river, rocks are set into the ground to represent mountains. The thawing of the river signifies spring. This poem was also well praised.
The next to receive a cup was Kao Fu. He recited:
The dragon holds a pearl in his mouth.
But when it loses its luster
He crushes it.
A dragon may symbolize the emperor, sometimes, that is true. But there is nothing puzzling here for one who holds the key. Are you not a lover of gardening? Ah, if you were, you would recognize Dragon-with-a-Pearl-in-his-Mouth as a type of peony, highly coveted. It is a brilliant red with a small cluster of white petals in the center. Wang Hsi-chih has a very beautiful specimen in his garden.
Since you continue to question me about what these poems mean, I will elaborate on some general principles, as I understand them. It is a common misconception among those who do not cultivate the art to believe that in a poem things always mean something else. They do not think that there is anything worth saying about a caterpillar, a bird, or a moonlit night. They are blind to the art of words. A well-chosen phrase or perfect image is the same to them as the most ill-chosen and inapt—indeed, the unskilled may find the poorer work preferable, if they recognize a familiar sentiment. Please do not take offense. But think how it would pain you if I or another one, unable to differentiate between good and bad, praised an incompetent swordsman or condemned a skillful rider. You understand? Consider the sword hilt upon which your hand rests. It is solid to the touch, made of bronze, inscribed with a design of clouds and inlaid with gold and silver; the handle is of fine wood, the grip covered with ray skin. You know that it is indeed a sword, is that not true? Your hand, your eyes do not allow any doubt. Consider further what you would think of someone who told you that a sword was actually a tongue, or a man. You would think that person lacked fundamental understanding of the world.
Thus I explain that a poem means what it says. A poet labors to make you truly and vividly see what he describes. A symbol is not a thing that hides another thing. It is itself, in plain view. It exists to be noticed and contemplated, but not to change what is.
I am sorry to confuse you.
Meng Wei then, at last, had a turn. He stood and we waited to hear while he prepared himself. He spoke very feelingly, for he is always affected by his poems.
A shining plum blossom
Lived for a day.
The dew lay on her like pearls.
She will never know autumn.
It was astonishing—and very affecting—to see and hear his emotion. It was so powerful that we received this poem in silence and considered it.
And then Lu Tiao of the radiant face stood, and I could see that the poem had also affected him. He stared at Meng Wei, who only looked back at him without speaking, and then he looked at each of us, in turn, his gaze never resting. He did not even notice that he had upset his ink pot and a black stain was coiling down the stream.
Now do you understand what it is like to be a poet? We find tragedy in the passing of a delicate flower, for although the flower is only a flower, it reminds us of things in our lives that are fragile and loved and fleeting.
Wang Hsi-chih walked up to Lu Tiao—I had not even been aware that he had approached—and he took him in an embrace and released him and said:
“You are in the grip of intense feeling, Lu Tiao. You should express it in a poem so that you do not lose it.”
But Lu Tiao could not speak. He struggled, but the creative spirit had fled, and no words came. He was staring into space, almost as though dazed, when our eyes were attracted by another cup floating slowly down the stream. It stopped beside us. Wang Hsi-chih bent down and picked it up. He said:
The lowly herb bends
And will not with the winds contend;
In yielding it is preserved,
The storm is merely dew.
After this, Kao Fu took the cup from him and spoke:
Range after range of mountains
Recede into clouds and haze:
Mist wets the pilgrim’s hat brim,
Dew soaks his hem.
With sandals on his feet
And staff in his hand
He looks behind at the dusty world
As a land of dreams.
Then he gave the cup to Lu Tiao, who drank it. He stood in silence with the cup in his hands and I could see he was composing. We all waited. At last he handed me the empty cup and said:
The golden prince, lord of the sky
Courses his burning steeds across heaven.
Across the eight corners of the land
The boar and hare bow in homage
The lordly stag bends his head
The flying partridge prostrates himself
Before the keeper of life.
What can the sun show me
That I will desire?
The night is deep and endless
Far away I hear her voice
And I run to answer.
And then he left the garden, walking back toward the house and the road. When we finished, in the afternoon, he was gone.
And so, you see, while I understand that you are angry to have arrived too late, it cannot be helped: Lu Tiao is gone. I hope I have not been overlong in answering your questions. I judge by your expression that you find us very foolish, grown men with our heads in the clouds.
I am saddened to hear of Lady Shan’s death. It seems only yesterday that she was a child—Little Plum Blossom, her father called her. Neither I, nor anyone else here, knew that Lu Tiao had offended Lord Shan. We spent the day making poems—merely that—as is fitting for loyal subjects of the Son of Heaven who gather to celebrate the Water Festival. The final tally was this: one of us wrote three poems, nine wrote two poems, sixteen wrote one poem, and eleven didn’t write any.
“The First Censor’s Statement” copyright © 2012 by Donna Royston