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Z. Kirkova FROM PURSUIT OF IMMORTALITY TO COURT ENTERTAINMENT. TRANSFORMATIONS OF THE YOUXIAN 遊仙 («ROAMING INTO IMMORTALITY») THEME DURING THE SIX DYNASTIES PERIOD The objective of my article is to introduce a so-far little studied current of Chinese poetry – «roaming into immortality» (youxian 遊仙) which evolved and reached maturity during the Six Dynasties period (222–589). In the early VIth century anthology «Wenxua» 文選 it is distinguished as a thematic category of lyrical poetry shi詩, and seven «Youxian shi» by Guo Pu郭璞 (276–324) and one by He Shao何劭 (236–301) are provided. Approximately fifty poems or fragments of poems under the title «Youxian» 遊仙from the period IIIrd – VIth century are extant, but the number of compositions dealing with immortality is much higher. Among them are poems with titles explicit in terms of content («Shenxian» 神仙; «Liexian» 列仙, etc.), a large number of yuefu songs with conventionalised titles («Qiuhu xing» 秋胡行, «Huansheng ge» 緩聲歌, etc.) and even poems traditionally anthologised


under different thematic categories such as «Singing of One’s Heart» (yonghuai 詠懷), «Beckoning the Recluse» (zhaoyin 招隱) or «Sightseeing» (youlan 遊覽). Thematically, the youxian verse describes higher realms of nature and mystic cosmic flights in search of perfected and eternal life. While written by court poets and a part of «secular» poetry, the themes, imagery and motifs the youxian verse employs are essentially religious – which to a large degree accounted for the low regard in which traditional Chinese literary criticism held this type of poetry. This «otherworldly» poetic current was closely connected with the cult of the xian 仙 (conventionally, albeit imprecisely translated as immortals or transcendents), which was consistently developing within the context of Daoist religion since the Han dynasty. One of the central themes of the youxian verse, as indicated by its very name, is the roaming you 遊/ 游 (with general connotations of leisurely, easy and playful roaming). Indeed, besides the title «Youxian», poems on immortality often bear titles indicative of cosmic travels, such as «Yuanyou» 遠遊 («Distant Journey»)

company a shamanistic ritual of invocation, perhaps a religious dance or pantomime. The cosmic journey theme is also at the core of the «Lisao» 離騷 («Encounter with

Bao Zhao 鮑照, Liu Xiaosheng 劉孝勝, Lu Sidao 盧思道), «Lingxiao» 凌霄(«Skimming the Empyrean», a rhapsody by Lu Ji 陸機), etc. However, in different periods and in different social milieu the theme of roaming you could be imbued with very different meanings. Considerations of these transformations can provide us also with an insight into the changing meanings and function of the youxian poetry in general and its relation to the other poetic developments of the period. The idea of a flight beyond the human world has been intimately connected with the xian-immortality ever since the origin of the immortality cult at the end of the 4th century BC. The old form of the term xian – 僊 (used for example in the «Shiji») was probably derived from an archaic pictogram of a body with wings. General belief during the Han period held that through appropriate practices the body of the immortality adept would start to grow feathers and his arms would transform into wings. One of the major sources of the youxian verse are the descriptions of unrestrained cosmic wanderings in early Daoist texts such as «Zhuangzi» and «Huainanzi». The «free and easy roaming», xiaoyao you 逍遙遊, epitomizes ultimate freedom, spontaineity and cosmic potency and appears as a hallmark of the Accomplished Men (至人), the Divine Men (神人), the True Men (真人). Of equal, if not even more crucial importance to the youxian verse were the accounts of distant celestial journeys as developed in the poetry of the «Chuci» 楚辭 anthology (early IIIrd cent. BC to early IInd cent. AD). «Chuci» abounds in vivid descriptions of cosmic flights in chariots drawn by flying dragons or a phoenix, with retinues of gods and spirits. This theme is well developed in the most ancient «Chuci» poems – in the «Jiuge» 九歌 («Nine Songs») which were apparently designed to ac-

Sorrow») attributed to Qu Yuan 屈原 (late IVth – early IIIrd century BC), where it is partly secularised and transformed into an allegorical expression of the poet’s resentments and sorrows. A further transformation of the theme of cosmic flight can be observed in the «Yuanyou» 遠遊 («Distant Journey») poem which dates back to the second half of the IInd century BC and is considered to be the direct forerunner of the subsequent youxian verse. This composition describes the mystical journey of a Daoist adept through the whole cosmos which ends in ecstatic oneness with the Dao itself. The cosmic journey described in the «Yuanyou» is immediately prompted by the feelings of frustration and sorrow, connected with the protagonist’s afflictions in the human world of his time. The poet apprehends the corruption of the present world and the continuing advance of time and decides to follow the example of the famous immortals of the past, rise beyond the dusty world and embark on a distant, free roaming. What distinguishes the cosmic journey in «Yuanyou» from those in the earlier «Chuci» pieces, is that it is detached from the quest theme. It is motivated neither by a search for a divine mate (as in the «Jiuge») nor for an appreciative ruler (as in «Lisao»), but is conceived as a successive process of achieving immortality. At the key points of his cosmic circuit the protagonist acquires additional knowledge and powers which propel him to the next phase of his pilgrimage. Essential stages are a preliminary instruction from the ancient immortal Wang Ziqiao, purification and transformation of the body through physiological and meditative Daoist practices and absorption of elixir substances. There follows a ritual circuit of all the coordinates of the universe, during which the traveler pays respects to the guardian spirits of the four directions. One of the last stages is a ritual banquet in the presence of divine women and heavenly music, which exalts the hero to the highest spheres. At the culmination of the ecstatic cosmic circuit he is transported to the Grand Primordium (Taichu 太初), where the Dao is found in its most essential form. It is the act of traveling itself that engenders special powers, induces a change of the travelers’ state of being and leads to an ecstatic union with the Dao. The sao model of linking the cosmic journey with the lament over the human world determined the mode of expression in the subsequent youxian poetry. However, both the journey theme and the theme of anguish underwent major transformation in the post-Han poetry. Towards the end of the Han human transience, physical deterioration itself, became a significant theme in poetry, as illustrated by the poetic cycle «Gushi shijiu shou» 古詩十九首 («Nineteen Old Poems»). Frustration and sorrow connected with the awareness of the impermanence of one’s life permeate most of the youxian verse of the IIIrd century (Cao Cao 曹操, Cao Zhi, Ruan Ji 阮籍, Xi Kang 嵇康, etc.). In the yuefu and shi poetry of this period the cosmic journey appears in much simplified and schematic form. Abrupt shifts in diction and themes are typical. While in the «Chuci» tradition it is possible to discern a fairly uniform journey plot,



(contained in «Chuci» and one poem by Cao Zhi 曹植), «Wuyou» 五遊 («Five-fold Roaming» by Cao Zhi), «Shengtian» 升天 («Ascending to Heaven» by Cao Zhi,

the subsequent verse presents a variety of situations and topoi that can hardly be subsumed under one single scenario. These verses draw both on the yuefu and the sao traditions and freely incorporate «Chuci» poetics, early Daoist descriptions of «free and easy roaming», Daoist techniques of levitation and some popular imagery. Such is, for example, the «Youxian pian» by Cao Zhi: 人生不滿百 歲歲少歡娛 意欲奮六翮  排霧陵紫虛 蟬蛻同松喬 翻跡登鼎湖  翱翔九天上, 騁轡遠行遊 東觀扶桑曜. 西臨弱水流 北極登玄渚 南翔陟丹丘

Human life never fills a hundred years, Year after year one’s joys abate. I wish to spread my six wings, Push the mists apart, skim the Purple Void. Like Red Pine and Wang Qiao slough off my old shell. Reverse the tracks, climb up from the Cauldron Lake Hover above the Nine Heavens, loose the reigns and wander afar. In the East I’ll watch the blaze of the Fusang tree In the West approach the Weak Water’s stream Advancing in the North, climb the Dark Islet, Soaring in the South, ascend the Cinnabar Hill. (Lu Qinli: 456)

A common feature is that the experience of reaching the higher realms and higher state of being is no longer important. These scaled down versions of the cosmic journey seldom contain a comprehensive process of physiological and spiritual cultivation or a successive progress through the cosmic landmarks, as in the earlier «Yuanyou». Most of these poems are voiced as wishful thinking, expressed through verbs such as yuan 願 («to wish, long for»), yu 欲 («to desire»), si 思 («to think, brood, long for»), xiang 想 («to think, imagine»). At times a poem with the title «Youxian» might not even present scenes of immortal life or distant journeys but merely voices the poet’s futile longing to attain the perfected state (the 5th poem of the «Youxian» cycle by Guo Pu 郭璞 (276–324). Thus, in the course of the IIIrd and IVth centuries the theme of journey into immortality is transformed into a reflection of the meaning and the limitations of human life. Preoccupied with lyrical self-expression, the youxian verse of that period often comes close to the point of merging with the current of yonghuai, «voicing of one’s innermost thoughts». Indeed, over one quarter of Ruan Ji’s eighty-two «Poems Singing of my Heart» («Yonghuai shi» 詠懷詩) take immortals as their theme. Side by side with the increasing subjectivisation, a certain «naturalization» in the treatment of the «distant journey» theme can be observed during the 4th century. Instead of leading into distant otherworldly realms, the fantastic journey in search of immortality often unfolds on the scale of earthly mountains. This new turn in the youxian verse was connected both with the religious and with the literary developments of the period. The very ideal of immortality had undergone a significant change by that time. Authors such as Ge Hong 葛洪 (284–364) privileged the concept of the 396

terrestrial immortal (dixian地仙) who lingered in absolute freedom and everlasting life in this world amid the great mountains and rivers instead of rising at once to Heaven. Although in the divine hierarchy he belonged to an inferior grade, compared to the Heavenly immortals (tianxian 天仙), he enjoyed more freedom and bliss than his celestial counterparts, who were burdened by a number of tedious bureaucratic duties. About the same time there was formed the concept of the paradise «grotto-heavens» (dongtian 洞天) which were contained on earth within certain sacred mountains. The immortals roamed for pleasure in these subterranean paradises, but only a few initiated mortals could find their elusive passageways and penetrate them. Furthermore, during the third century youxian poetry had been developing parallel to the currents of xuanyan 玄言 verse, and poetry written in praise of living in reclusion (zhaoyin shi). Although it is possible to single out typical poems on reclusion and typical poems on journeys into immortality, no clear-cut boundary exists between them, and both were coloured by the ideas and language of the xuanyan poetry. It was the setting above all that determined the sub-genre under which a poem was classified in traditional nomenclature, as can be seen in the «Wenxuan» anthology. While the zhaoyin poetry describes the alluring wilderness of remote mountains, the youxian verse is generally set in higher otherworldly realms. Both youxian and zhaoyin, however, offered poetic stylizations of idealised worlds, and in the IVth century the rather artificial borderline between them is often blurred. In the poetry of the period the images of the transcendental immortals and of the Daoist hermit, sharing the same mountainous surroundings and the same attitude towards «mandated» service, often merge together. This «naturalization» of the originally fantastic theme is most pronounced in the «Youxian» cycle by Guo Pu. Although some of his poems describe paradise sceneries and distant journeys (VI, IX, X), many of the pieces take as their locus «mountains and forests» (shanlin 山林). In the opening poem of the «Youxian» cycle Guo Pu even questions the need to strive after distant paradises and give preference to eternal life in this earthly paradise instead of a celestial flight to the worlds beyond: 臨源挹清波

By a spring scooping up clear waters,


On a ridge gathering cinnabar buds.


The Magic Gorge is fitting for withdraw,


What need to climb the Cloud-ladder?1 (Lu Qinli: 865)

Similarly, during the IVth century the journey in search of the immortals often leads the poet not into distant other-worldly realms (Kunlun, Penglai, etc.), but into the famous mountains of China. Moreover, in the poetry of the period the image of 1

According to the «Wenxuan» commentator Li Shan 李善the Magic Gorge/Stream (靈谿) is the

name of an actual river, whereas the expression to «climb the cloud-ladder» (登雲梯) refers to the search for xian immortality. 397

the celestial voyager is often replaced by that of a herb-gatherer, who searches for divine herbs or mineral substances able to cure decease, prolong life and provide immortality. Many of the poems from the fourth century onwards that deal with the theme of immortality have as their title «herb gathering», caiyao 採藥 (Yu Chan’s 庾 闡 (286?–339?) «Caiyao shi» 採藥詩, Wu Jun’s吳均 (469–520) «Caiyao Dabu shan» 採藥大布山詩). Similarly, some of the poems under the title «Roaming into immortality» speak about collecting «herbs» in the mountains (Yu Xin’s 庾信 (513–581) «Fenghe Zhaowang youxian» 奉和趙王遊仙詩). Nevertheless, the «Yuanyou» type of journey – not an elixir guest, but a mystic journey, which in itself transforms the traveler and engenders powers – did not disappear altogether. During the 4th century it rather went a significant transformation, being transposed onto the scale of earthly mountains. By that time, under the influence of xuanyan thought, the poets recognised the mystical dimension of nature as the physical expression of the Dao itself. The transformation of the former cosmic circuit into a mystical ascent of an earthly mountain is best illustrated by Sun Chuo’s 孫綽 (ca. 314 – ca. 371) «Rhapsody on Roaming the Celestial Terrace Mountains» 遊天台山賦. This composition describes a spiritual journey taken not into the far distance, but in depth, beyond the concrete features of the physical nature. In the course of his mountainous ascent the poet gradually rises beyond the shapes and colours of the surrounding landscape, beyond the immediate sensual perceptions, and at the climax of his journey attains a mystical insight, whereby he himself is unconsciously identified with the «Naturally-so» (ziran 自然), with the Dao (similarly to the «Yuanyou»). In order to unearth this ultimate reality no longer a magical circuit of the cosmic quarters is necessary; it is the single mountain that holds in its landscape the underlying principle of things. The communion with it is not searched somewhere far beyond in space, as in «Yuanyou», but is a state of the mind, penetrating beyond the physical configurations of the earthly phenomena. This composition indicates one of the directions along which the mystic journey theme was developing in the IVth century, a direction that ultimately lead to the poetry on mountains and rivers, shanshui shi, as exemplified by the landscape poetry of Xie Lingyun. And yet another transformation of the «journey into immortality» took place in the court poetry of the Southern Dynasties. While in the earlier poetry the distant journey was conceived as rising beyond the sorrows of human existence, the youxian poetry from the court milieu is generally devoid of reflections on the world corruption and impermanence of life. The poets focus instead on elegant and visually powerful descriptions of paradise landscapes and divine processions and feasts. This transformation is connected above all with the context of composition of youxian verse. In the literary salons of the aristocrats poems on immortality were written as occasional poetry, as part of refined entertainment. They were composed in mutual poetic exchange – as poems harmonising (he 和) with pieces written on 398

the same theme by others, or extemporized on an assigned title (fude 賦得), or written in response to the requests of literary friends and patrons. Surviving youxian poems come from the brushes of renowned court poets such as Shen Yue 沈約 (441–512), Wang Rong 王融 (466–493), Jiang Yan 江淹 (444–505), Yu Xin and many others. Among the authors of youxian verse we even find emperors and princes, like Liang Wudi 梁武帝 (464–549) and Liang Jianwen di 梁建文帝 (502– 551). In the highly cultured circles where poetry was practiced as amusement and artistic display, elegant improvisation was not primarily a means to voice one’s mind, but a way to express one’s verbal artistry and wit. The youxian theme with its precious imagery and striking figures provided a superb occasion to display one’s poetic skill and cleverness. Typical examples are the «Youxian» poems by Shen Yue, harmonizing with poems on the same theme by Xiao Ziliang 蕭子良 (d. 494), Prince of Jingling (竟陵王): 朝上閶闔宮 暮宴清都闕 騰蓋隱奔星 低鸞避行月 九疑紛相從 虹族乍升沒 青鳥去復還 高唐雲不歇 若華有餘照 淹留且睎髮

In the morning [we][I] ascend the palace of Changhe, By nightfall [we][I] feast within the pylons of the Pure City. Flying canopies obscure the rushing stars, Low chariots evade the coursing moon. The host of Jiuyi accompanies [us][me] in grandeur, Rainbow banners emerge and submerge now and then. Azure birds fly off and then return1, At Gaotang clouds never cease2. By Ruo Hua remains lingering light3 Where [we][I] still dally and dry [our][my] hair. (Lu Qinli: 1636–1637)

In diction, imagery and topography this poem is fully derived from the Chuci poetry. Nevertheless, Shen Yue develops only one of the many motives, comprising the «Chuci» cosmic journey – namely the description of splendid celestial procession. Moreover, unlike the Cao Zhi variation on the «Yuanyou» cited above, this poem provides no reflections on the constrictions and impermanence of the human world and focuses on beautiful and evocative description instead. This poem (and the compositions with which it harmonises) was probably composed during a poetry gathering or an outing to a park or private estate, which might be celebrated as roaming of the immortals. Thus, in the court «roaming into immortality» the para-

1 The azure birds are the messengers of the Queen Mother of the West, which she sent to the Emperor Wu of Han. 2 Allusion to the amorous encounter between King Huai of Chu (r. 328–299 BC) and the Goddess of Mountain Wu, described in Song Yu’s «Gaotang fu» . 3 The flowers of the Ruo tree ( 若華), growing in the farthest west, represent the sunset.


dise realms no longer present an alternative to a sorrowful earthly existence, but merge with the elegant and refined surroundings of the court poet. It is no longer needed to undertake a distant journey in space (as in «Yuanyou») or in imagination (as during the Wei-Jin period), for the poet can discover the paradise in his immediate court surroundings. The fantastic imagery of otherworldly realms is often incorporated into descriptions of actual excursions in the mountains (for example Jiang Yan’s poem «Accompanying the General Commander of the Troops, the Prince of Jianping, I Ascend the Incense-Burner Peak of Mount Lu» 從冠軍建平王登盧山香爐峯, or a poem by Yu Xin variously anthologised under the different titles «Roaming into Immortality» 遊仙, and «Roaming in the Mountains» 遊山). Evocations of Daoist paradises are commonly integrated into poems that describe visits to Daoist temples – a novel theme, which appears in the poetry of the late Vth–VIth century. The temples are transformed into Daoist lands of bliss (fudi 福地), full of paradise wonders, and the priests dwelling there are praised as heavenly immortals. On the other hand, spiritual journeys are commonly evoked in poems, composed on the occasion of consuming a drug (such as the notorious hanshisan 寒食散, «cold-food powder») or being presented with an elixir. One might speculate on the degree to which the conventional youxian imagery of some of the poems might in fact reflect actual feelings of lightness, flight and clarity induced by the drug. All these different adaptations of the «roaming into immortality» theme are rooted in the court life and transpose actual events and personal experiences of the poets onto the plane of the divine. This pursuit of highly aesthetic and ornate court «realism» does not necessarily mean receding of the religious feeling. Exactly during the Southern Dynasties period the youxian verse exhibited a very intimate connection with the Daoist religious currents (especially the Shangqing 上清, Supreme Clarity tradition), and often betrayed immediate influence of the revealed celestial texts and the poetry dictated by Daoist divinities. However, the complex relation between court poetry and Daoist literature is a separate theme which falls beyond the aims of the present brief introduction.


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393 395 394 1 According to the «Wenxuan» commentator Li Shan 李善the Magic Gorge/Stream (靈谿) is the name of an actual river, whereas the expre...


393 395 394 1 According to the «Wenxuan» commentator Li Shan 李善the Magic Gorge/Stream (靈谿) is the name of an actual river, whereas the expre...

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