Chapter 27: Appreciating Snow, Composing Poetry
Standing, I turned to face the small lake and in a clear, bright voice, recited:
“Gazing upon the distant cold mountain concealing the full moon,
Reminiscing about the distant shining waning moon,
The fragrant cold does not require the multitude’s appreciation,
A good turn causes the beautiful jade statutes to dance,
An empty hand gently brushes away the water on the instruments.”
Finished reciting, I couldn’t help but laugh happily. Extending a hand forward, I caught a snowflake my palm, watching as it melted in a flash. At this moment, someone laughed aloud from a distance, stating, “Sir Jiang has such a refined and elegant attitude of mind, why have you not invited your host to come?”
When I turned and looked, I caught sight of Li Zhi wearing a light fur cloak. Standing behind him were his advisers. All of their faces were filled with smiling expressions. Following them were two servants; one carrying a large vat of wine, while the other carried a food container.
“Your Highness has to handle much official business,” I stated with a faint smile, “Suiyun is an idle person. How would I dare bother Your Highness and others?”
Li Zhi entered the pavilion, brushing away the snow on his clothes, as he replied, “I am only a person, profaned by the world, who has come to disturb Sir’s refined ambience. This vat of wine is imperial wine gifted by Imperial Father. Sir won’t want to miss out!”
With a faint smile, I replied, “Everything is dependent on order of arrival. Since Suiyun has arrived first, you gentlemen will have to listen to my compositions. Xiaoshunzi, come heat the wine. As we drink, everyone must recite a poem. The topic is ‘Chanting Snow.’ If the verse is good, he will drink one cup in appreciation. If the verse isn’t, then the poet will have to drink three cups as punishment.”
Seeing that I wasn’t displeased at his sudden appearance, Li Zhi replied in a delighted fashion, “Since Sir has set these rules, then this prince can only comply. That’s fine. Everyone listen up … if you can’t compose a good poem, you will have to drink three cups of imperial wine. This prince has to tell you that this wine is rich and fragrant. You will regret it your entire life if you drink too much and miss out on Sir Jiang’s wonderful poetry.”
While we sat down in a circle around the table, one of the servants began to remove the snacks and fruit from the container, placing them one by one on the table. The other servant removed the lid from the vat of imperial wine. The rich fragrance of the wine assailed our senses. Smelling the fragrance, Gou Lian remarked, “If it weren’t for the necessity of listening to Suiyun’s masterpieces, I almost wish I could get thoroughly hammered.”
Li Zhi gestured for the servants to withdraw. With a smile, he stated, “That’s fine. I’ll send you a vat of this imperial wine tomorrow, and allow you to drink as you please.”
Gou Lian hurriedly expressed his thanks, “Your Highness must not regret this decision.”
Not long after we began conversing, Xiaoshunzi had finished heating the first pot of wine and had brought it over, filling each of our cups. I slowly drank the wine, feeling its effects upon my teeth and cheeks, as it warmed my limbs and bones. I could not help but exclaim, “It is really good wine! Although the wine from my Southern Chu are exceptionally good, but when compared to the wine from the north, it inevitably feels diluted and weak.”
Shi Yu smiled and said, “Since Suiyun enjoys this wine, you should drink some more.”
Li Zhi raised his cup with a faint smile. All of us drank several cups in succession, feeling as if we were floating in the air like immortals. The atmosphere gradually became warm and enthusiastic. With a smile, Li Zhi said, “Just a moment ago, we have already heard Suiyun’s composition. In that case, it ought to be our turn to recite poetry. Yongquan, your skill with composition is the quickest out of all us. Let’s start with you.”
Gou Lian stood, turning to look at the falling snow outside. Agreeing, he said, “Fine, I will start.” So speaking, he began to recite:
“The half snow covered fields shine in the night,
Delighted when seeing this beautiful scenery,
Not envying utopia1 or immortals.”
“Excellent,” stated Li Zhi first, “Although the creative conception is ordinary, it closely coincides with what is before our eyes. You may drink a cup.”
I also smiled and stated, “ ‘The half snow covered fields shine in the night, / A warm lake is covered by a jade cloud.’ Brother Yongquan really does have a shrewd poetic sense. Everyone’s relationship with the Prince of Yong seems to be one of liege and vassal on the outside, but in reality the relationship is one of flesh and blood. There is no animosity or suspicion. Here on this winter day, drinking and making merry, truly no need to envy utopia or immortals.”
Seeing an opening, Gou Lian said, “His Highness has treated us as his own flesh and blood. Why don’t Suiyun should follow our example and serve His Highness, sampling the ambience of not having to envy utopia or immortals.”
“Suiyun has no other aptitude aside from composing poems,” I replied with a faint smile, “As such, I will compose a poem to repay sir’s kindness and hospitality …
“When will the quiet swallow on the maple exhaust itself?
Within the courtyard, the birds flutter their wings with cold,
For the second time, the jade-like zither sounds,
To claim to be rich and yet desolate,
throwing dice across the vast skies.”
Dong Zhi clapped his hands and exclaimed, “What an excellent ‘To claim to be rich and yet desolate, / throwing dice across the vast skies’! One can see that Suiyun’s mind is as the bright moon and the clear skies. There are very few who are so broadminded … You deserve to drink a cup.”
Accepting the cup of wine handed me by Xiaoshunzi, I responded with a smile, “Although my position was low back when I was in Southern Chu, I could only rack my brains and dared not relax. Now that I have finally been able to escape confinement, the so-called ‘returning to the natural state.’ How can brother Yongquan have the heart to force me to be disloyal and confining me in a cage?”
Gou Lian was silenced and could only smile wryly. I smiled and continued, “I have previously discussed war and formations with brother Dong. Today, I hope to experience brother Dong’s poetry.”
Clasping his hands together, Dong Zhi replied, “Please do not laugh at my inadequacy …” So saying, he stood and began to recite:
“The handle of the Big Dipper points to the east,
With an intermediary, he visits a wise liege,
The evening snow penetrates through one’s shoes,
Knowing a guest has come from afar to drink,
While intoxicated hears the news of spring from a turtledove.”
Hearing these verses, my hand trembled, almost spilling my cup of wine on the table. That year when I became an official of Southern Chu, although I originally did not serve a wise liege and did not have the lofty goal of unifying the world, everything that happened subsequently caused me to faintly regret the decision that I had made at the time. If I had been brought to Chang’an by the Prince of Yong, I probably wouldn’t be expressing the prospect of my country ruined and its people starved. Now that I was a guest here in Chang’an, I could not see the smoke and clouds of Southern Chu. This sorrowful and dismal feeling was like a lone goose separated from its flock. Even though I had ultimately yielded and abandoned my country, I was filled with bitterness and misery. I raised my cup and drank the wine. As the wine flowed into my stomach, my worries increased.
Somewhat drunk, I picked up a pair of silver chopsticks. Knocking the chopsticks against the jar to keep rhythm, I began to sing:
Wine cup in hand, at the Overlooking Wave Pavilion I say,
Like Crouching Dragon Zhuge.2
Treading on tips of the pine branches, it scatters the snow,
The remnant hills and rivers have no bearing,
Two or three wild geese look sad and dreary.
Of parting and not meeting we made light,
For water deeply frozen cannot flow.
All travelers are frozen to the bone.
Was I wrong to yearn today?
Now hearing the flute at night, don’t blow us apart.3
Finished singing, I repeated the last several lines, “Was I wrong to yearn today? / If I knew originally, I would have used all my courage. / Now hearing the flute at night, don’t blow us apart.” I recalled the time that I spent unable to sleep when I was strategizing for the Prince of De. Alas, no matter what I did, I was kept at a distance. I recalled the critical memorial that I had submitted and the outcome of never to be employed by the state. Sorrow couldn’t help but rise in my heart, as tears fell like rain.
Dong Zhi hurriedly stood and apologized, “It’s was my fault for evoking Suiyun’s thoughts filled with sorrow. Please forgive me.”
Gesturing with my hand, I replied, “Many days of worry and melancholy are swept clean. Thank you, brother Dong for your wonderful poem.”
Dong Zhi did not dare to continue to try and persuade me, realizing that my had deep emotions towards Southern Chu. How was this going to be resolved? He looked at the Prince of Yong, seeing the admiration and sorrow on Li Zhi’s face.
Seeing this, Guan Xiu hurriedly said, “I only have superficial literary ability. Please do not mock me …” So saying, he rose from his seat, holding the cup of wine in his hands, as he recited:
Exhaustively investigating the cruelty of winter,
Trailing a bamboo staff as we drink wine from every house, climbing every mountain in a palanquin.
Thanking those who taught me to be idle when old.
The Taoist believer returns the debt of a happily married couple, intoxicated by the paper veiled plum blossoms as if within a dream.4
Hearing this poem, everyone could not help but laugh out loud. Gou Lian choked on the wine that he was drinking. While he wiped away the tears in his eyes, he choked out, “Old Guan, I never knew that you had this kind of wit? I have finally got the chance today to experience it.”
I could not help but also laugh. Raising my cup, I said, “Good verses, brother Guan. Suiyun cannot compare, cannot compare.” Everyone laughed heartily for some time, turning the atmosphere increasingly lively and vivacious.
A moment ago, seeing my grief, Xiaoshunzi secretly glowered at Dong Zhi. Now seeing that Guan Xiu’s poem had caused me to smile, Xiaoshunzi couldn’t help but be happy. He hurriedly refilled Guan Xiu’s cup, a cheerful look flashing across his eyes. His behavior was clearly seen by the smiling spectator, Shi Yu. In his heart, he thought, “What a sincerely loyal servant.”
Seeing that I was in a joyous mood, everyone loosened their breath and relaxed. They hadn’t come to anger me. In addition, there was a further hidden meaning to this gathering. I could not be allowed to leave early.
Shi Yu stood and spoke, “Sir Jiang, I have met Sir Jiang much too late. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to seek Sir’s guidance. This cup is to toast Sir, praying that Sir will have fortune and good health.”
I also stood, returning his respect, “For Sir Shi to be like this, you flatter me too much. Suiyun has long heard that Sir Shi is the Prince of Yong’s Xiao He. When His Highness is away on campaign, it is Sir who takes care of the logistics and administration. Without Sir, His Highness would probably face enemies in front and behind. Suiyun greatly admires Sir’s great talent.”
With a smile, Shi Yu replied, “I am ashamed that Suiyun esteems me so highly.”
The Prince of Yong rose from his seat and stated, “It really isn’t esteemed too highly. Without Sir, this prince would not be where I am today.” Thinking back to his many campaigns and the constant efforts by the crown prince to impede, he would not have been able to be so successful without Shi Yu’s help. Raising his cup, Li Zhi toasted, “Today, this prince salutes Sir, to slightly show the appreciation within my heart.”
Shi Yu hurriedly raised his cup in thanks, as tears filled his eyes. A moment later, he said, “I do not have much talent with poetry, but will endeavor to do my best. I hope that Your Highness and everyone does not mock me.” So saying, he began to recite:
“After snow, Chang’an seems to welcome the return of spring,
The borrowed color of the jade stone bewilders the valiant cavalry,
The moon, falling in the western hills, overlooks sky,
Hearing the Taoist immortal youth sing of white snow,
The origin of this song gives people hope.”4
I smiled, clapping my hands. Admiringly, I said, “Sir’s poem has the dignity and aura of a prime minister. It is a pity that Suiyun cannot bear to reside long in the magnificence of the capital. Otherwise, I would most definitely see the elegance and grace of Sir’s leadership.”
So speaking, I calmly began to sing:
Deep freezing clouds, pure shallow weather, the cold harms the open green spaces.
Blazing hot day, quite bright and beautiful, and yet turning out unrestrained.
Buying flowers in an alleyway and footpath, forever lighting the pavilion.
A lazy wind, sweeping away the hazy clouds, clearing up the night.
Jade earth planks, full of magnificent cassia flowers, within the plain light, more worthy of a tour.”5
Finished singing, I smiled and stated, “Everyone is having a lovely time6 right now, just right for touring. There is no need to speak of matters of state. Such pursuits only serve to cause distress. In the olden days, able persons composed poems and lived the life of recluses. I am untalented and cannot eat Great Yong’s grain, and also does not love being paid by Great Yong.”
Hearing my words, everyone’s heart grew dejected. Standing, Li Zhi stated, “Sir aspires to nobility and purity, gaining this prince’s admiration.”
“Your Highness is this place’s owner,” I stated with a smile, “And should compose a poem to clearly state your aspiration.”
“In that case, Sir must not ridicule me for my poor performance,” replied Li Zhi before reciting in a clear and bright voice:
“The blue sky darkens as dawn is enfolded by fog,
Forming on leaves, making profuse the color of clouds,
Gleaming on towers: lustrous white, just like powder,
Like drifting willow floss the flying blossoms float,
Whirling pearls are piercing dew through drapes.
And the jade clustered, from the tops to bottoms of trees.
And swirls around the peaks, like lotuses wrapped in purity.
As if hesitating or lingering, the year nears its end.
Embracing treasure: I am ashamed by hidden virtue,
From among the flowers, it flies to the Imperial Gardens,
If I were to chant the ‘Hidden Thoroughwort’ song,8
Together we will enjoy the ‘Yellow Bamboo’ piece.9, 10
I savored this poem for some time before speaking with admiration, “Your Highness’s poem is profoundly invigorating and steady. The language is robust and heroic, carrying the aura of an emperor, as if it was composed by the Heavens. Our poems, although graceful and elegant, are coarse in comparison. Suiyun is filled with admiration.”
With a smile, Li Zhi responded, “I am an imperial prince. The dare not apply four words, the ‘aura of an emperor,’ to myself. Do not harm me, Sir! At last, I didn’t lose face. This prince is already perfectly satisfied. I would like to invite Suiyun to compose one last poem to conclude this gathering.”
I smiled and jokingly replied, “If I were to continue composing, I would have used all my creative powers.”11 I was already seventy percent drunk and felt too warm. I undid the front of my fur coat and walked to the side of the pavilion. Feeling the blowing wind, I recited:
“One body touches and violates the scales of a flying dragon,
Gentlemen, look upon the city of Chang’an in the olden days,
Ziyou12 hears the sound of the wind blowing against his bamboo window,
What difference does every day’s sun have upon the shadows in the mountains?
I need not worry if there is wine in the gentleman’s home,
Xie Shang13 knows the dance of the crested myna,
Excited to stop drumming and paddling crossing the river,
Pining from a thousand li away, the Bright Moon Pavilion.”15
Finished reciting this poem, I returned to the table. Picking up a cup of wine, I downed it in one gulp. Amidst the haze of intoxication, I laughed heartily and said, “Everyone has enjoyed themselves to the fullest before the party ends,16Suiyun thanks Your Highness.”
Li Zhi looked at Jiang Suiyun. Today’s appreciation of the beauty of snow was being used as an opportunity for the heir to become his student, while becoming closer to Jiang Zhe. Who would have expected that Jiang Suiyun’s interest in poetry would on full display? He had responded rigorously to the hidden attempts by everyone to persuade him. Overtly, his poems controlled the entire situation. With this kind of refinement and literary talent, even if one didn’t know about his heaven-shaking talent, he could not be allowed to slip away. Thinking of this, his heart was even more eager.
At this moment, Xiaoshunzi took the opportunity to walk to my side. In a low voice, he reported, “There is someone coming. Young master must be careful not to misspeak.” Afterwards, he helped me arrange my clothes. With a smile, he said out loud, “Young master’s health is poor and has drank a few too many cups, be careful not to catch a cold.”
My conscious quickly cleared. My ears caught the faint sound of footsteps of about five people. Among them, one pair of footsteps was a bit unsteady and light, as if it was a child. Sobering up, I accepted the hot towel that Xiaoshunzi handed me. I wiped my face and stated, “Drinking too much has caused me to forget myself. I pray that Your Highness and everyone would forgive me.”
“Wild song and excessive drink are the comportment of a famous scholar. How can you say that you forgot yourself?” replied Li Zhi with a smile. Growing serious, he continued, “But your servant is correct. Sir has just somewhat recovered and must not catch a cold. It would be better to drink a few more cups to warm yourself.”
I returned to my seat, accepting the heated wine, slowly sipping away. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Li Zhi and the others exchange mutual looks. I could not help but secretly laugh.
Subsequently, I heard a young and tender voice call out, “Princely Father, Princely Father!” Raising my head to look, I caught sight of a young boy gaily dashing towards us waving his arms. The boy was no more than four or five years old. His appearance was graceful and he wore the yellow garb of a prince. Following behind him were two wet nurses and two eunuchs. At this moment, a greater part of the young boy’s body had traces of snow. It was likely that he had fallen a few times.
Seeing this young boy, Li Zhi’s face was filled with delight, as he called, “Jun’er, why are you covered with snow? Come let Princely Father take a look.”
The young boy bounced and skipped into the pavilion, snuggling against Li Zhi’s knees. His eyes, capable of distinguishing right from wrong, were glued to me. With a faint smile, I stated, “This commoner greets the heir.”
The young boy walked closer to me. Pulling on my sleeve, he asked, “Sir, who are you? Jun’er has never seen you before.”
I faintly responded, “This commoner is Jiang Zhe, styled Suiyun. I hail from Southern Chu. The heir has naturally never seen this commoner before.”
Hearing my name, Li Jun muttered for some time before replying, “I remember now. Sir’s poems are very well written … ‘A thousand hills, but no birds in flight, / Ten thousand paths, with no person’s tracks. / A lonely boat, a straw hatted old man, / Fishing alone in the cold river snow.’17 This poem of sir’s, River Snow, is excellent. It is only a bit too lonesome. Is it really so lonely on the river in Southern Chu?”
I smiled and responded, “Although Southern Chu possesses illustrious heroes and spirits of the places, it still has many uninhabited regions. There are many rivers there. Therefore, there is indeed such a place. As far as the eye can see, there is only the cold river, snow, and ice. That year, I was traveling far from home with my father. There were no boats on the river because the new year was approaching. Everyone was home with their families. My deceased father personally piloted the boat, having brought me along to fish on the river. Although the river wasn’t iced over, there was vast expanse of whiteness everywhere.”
Li Jun’s eyes brightened, as he lamented, “Sir’s father was wonderful. Every single time I ask Princely Father to bring me out to play, Princely Father would always say he isn’t free. Sir, if you have time, can you accompany Jun’er to fish on the Wei River?”
With a smile, I answered, “The heir’s body is precious. How can it be treated the same as us commoners? If the heir is interested in fishing, why don’t you angle from within this pavilion? I have seen countless fish within the waters of the lake. Catching them must certainly be extremely amusing.”
Disagreeing with me, Li Jun replied, “There is no point in catching fish here. If I can’t hook them, those servants would gladly hang a fish from the fishhook. In addition, my Princely Father fought with the army when he was a young teenager. I want to be like Princely Father. But I am not even allowed to leave the residence, how will I be able to one day go on the battlefield and fight?”
Although a look of appreciation appeared on Li Zhi’s face, he said, “Jun’er must not talk nonsense. In the future, you must properly handle government affairs, and not copy Princely Father and go to battle. When the time comes, our Great Yong will have unified the world. There will be no need for you to go to battle.”
Disagreeing with his father, Li Jun explained, “Princely Father is incorrect. I have heard the Sirs say that it is necessary to be vigilant even in peacetime. If we don’t have enemies in the future, if this child is unable to go to battle, then how will I safeguard Great Yong? Therefore, I not only need to learn how to handle government affairs, I also need to learn the art of war.” So saying, Li Jun revealed an embarrassed look, as he continued, “Thus, Princely Father must allow me to go out and see. This child will not look for trouble.”
Smiling, Li Zhi chided, “You little urchin. You merely want to act willfully. If you wish to go to battle, you must be a match for ten thousand enemies. First, you must be familiar with the classics and the histories. What happened with the teacher that Princely Father selected for you? Why did you once again drive him away?”
Stealing a glance at his father, Li Jun replied, “That teacher was useless. I only asked him one question. He could not answer it.”
As everyone took interest at Li Jun’s words, Li Zhi inquired with a smile, “What question did you ask that your teacher wasn’t able to answer?”
Satisfied with himself, Li Jun answered, “That day, I heard maternal uncle speak with Princely Father about a case before the Court of Judicial Review.18 The case involves a man who killed his stepmother because his stepmother killed his father. The county level officials judged him guilty of high treason. But he did not agree with this verdict and petitioned. I asked teacher and he replied that the verdict was correct. I only drove him away because he could not understand the logic.”
Li Zhi remembered this case, also remembering that he had discussed the verdict with his brother-in-law. This incident wasn’t known by outsiders. It was definitely a good topic. Glancing at Jiang Zhe, Li Zhi smiled and said, “That’s because you asked the wrong person. Aside from Princely Father, everyone here can explain how the case should actually be judged.”
Sure enough, based upon Li Zhi’s understanding of his son, Li Jun’s eyes looked at everyone before falling on me. Li Jun sincerely believed that the advisers understood how to judge this case, but what about this person? Pulling on Jiang Zhe’s clothes, he asked, “Can Sir tell Jun’er how this case should be judged?”
With an indifferent smile, I replied, “There are laws regarding this matter. This one is only a commoner. How do I have the qualifications to discuss this?”
Not letting me get away so easily, Li Jun stated, “If Sir is able to explain, then Jun’er will take Sir as my teacher. If you cannot answer, then Sir will be Jun’er’s attendant.”
I glanced at Li Zhi, seeing the pleasant surprise in his eyes. It seemed that he hadn’t deliberately incited the heir to speak in this way. I could not help but smile, as I responded, “This commoner is a guilty subject of Southern Chu. How can I be the heir’s teacher? But if the heir were to ask me, I would answer that although this man killed his stepmother, he also took revenge for his father. Killing her husband, the stepmother cut off all relations with her husband’s family. As such, the man only killed an outsider and did not fail his responsibilities per filial piety. He should be judged guilty of murder and not guilty of high treason.”
Li Jun happily replied, “Sir is indeed someone who understands reason. I have used this incident to ask many people. None were able to explain it so clearly.” So saying, Li Jun kneeled before me, stating, “Although Jun’er is young, I understand the importance of keeping one’s promises. Jun’er is willing to take Sir as my teacher. Sir must bring me fishing on the Wei River.”
I could not but giggle. This child went around in circles without getting anywhere. His goal was to have me bring him out of the residence to play.
At this moment, Xiaoshunzi’s voice sounded in my ear, “Young master cannot agree.”
My heart shivered for a moment, as I stated, “The heir is joking. As heir, you have a precious identity. I am no more than someone from a destroyed country. Everyone else here is more suitable than this one to be your teacher. I dare not agree.” So saying, I stood. Turning to Li Zhi, I said, “Suiyun cannot handle his alcohol and will bide my farewell.”
Just as I turned and prepared to depart, I heard Li Zhi’s disappointed voice ask, “Sir Jiang, are you really so heartless?” My body trembled slightly. I ultimately did not respond.
Footnotes:???, taohuayuan – the Peach Blossom Spring, a hidden land of peace and prosperity; utopia ???, Zhuge Liang, aka Crouching Dragon, served as a strategist and administrator for Shu-Han who lived during the Three Kingdoms Period. This is a poem entitled ‘Congratulations to the Bridegroom’ by the Song Dynasty poet, Xin Qiji (???). This is a poem by the Song Dynasty poet, Zhu Dunru (???), entitled ‘Partridge Weather.’ This is a poem entitled ‘White Snow’ by the Tang Dynasty poet, Cen Shen (??). This is a poem entitled ‘Ganzhou Command’ by the Song Dynasty poet, Liu Yong. A county in Luoyang, Henan The ‘Hidden Thoroughwort’ song that is paired with the song ‘White Snow’ within the song anthologies by Song Yu and Sima Xiangru. The ‘Yellow Bamboo’ is a poem sung by King Mu, the fifth king of the Zhou Dynasty, during a snowstorm to express his sorrow over his subjects. This poem is by the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty, Li Shimin, entitled ‘Happy Snow.’ ????, jianglangcaijin – idiom, lit. Jiang Yan has exhausted his talent; fig. to have used up one’s creative powers, to have writer’s block Refers to Wang Huizi (???), styled Ziyou (??), who was a Jin Dynasty poet and calligrapher. Xie Shang (??) was a Jin Dynasty official who was skilled in dance. Sima Xiangru (????) was a Han Dynasty official who was the court poet, writer, and musician of Emperor Wu of Han. This is the second of two poems by Li Bai (??) with the title, ‘Jeering Wang Liyang.’ ????, jinhuan’ersan – idiom, lit. to disperse after a happy time; everyone enjoys themselves to the full then party breaks up This is a famous poem entitled ‘River Snow’ by the Tang Dynasty poet, Liu Zongyuan. ???, dalisi – the Court of Judicial Review was a government department responsible for reviewing judicial proceedings