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蘇軾《迴文菩薩蠻》 A palindrome to the tune “Pusaman” by Su Shi

The world is never short of people with obsessions. The Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King 西漢南越王博物館, for example, houses a collection donated by a couple who were obsessed with ceramic pillows. The collection of more than 200 pillows was donated by Mr and Mrs Yeung Wing Tak 楊永德 in 1992, and the museum has been working on interpreting and expanding it (now more than 500 pillows) since then.[1]

In the plethora of ceramic pillows from Tang to Qing dynasties, several are particularly memorable, such as the one below. It is certainly not the only one inscribed with poetry, but it was the only one on display that comes with a palindromic poem. I once taught people how to tell if an inscription on a painting is poetry. As visual lineation didn’t exist in traditional Chinese poetry before modern times, prose and poetry are graphically arranged in the same way on visual material. For paintings, the basic tricks are to identify possible rhymes and count the overall characters.

However, these tricks won’t work well with these pillows. Unlike paintings which are typically inscribed with shi poetry, these pillows draw on various forms of poetry, including shi 詩 (poetry), ci 詞 (lyrics), and qu 曲 (song-poem). For this palindromic ci poem, one may end up in despair if one tries to find how rhyming works here. But if you read traditional Chinese poetry, you may notice the person who inscribed the poem was nice enough to disclose its title at the end: “迴文菩薩蠻” (A palindrome to the tune “Pusaman”). The title says it all, but only if you have committed to memory the 7/7/5/5/5/5/5/5 pattern of the tune “Pusaman”, or if you happen to be familiar with Wen Tingyun’s 温庭筠 (812-870) poem to the same tune title that was set to music in 2011 by Liu Huan 劉歡 for the popular TV series Zhenhuan zhuan 甄嬛傳 (Biography of Zhenhuan, or, more widely, Empresses in the Palace).[2]

Anyway, time for the final answer. The inscription on the pillow above is to be read as follows:









Falling blossoms in an idle garden, [her] spring shirt is thin;

[She’s with] a thin shirt in the spring garden where idle blossoms are falling.

[In the] tardy days [she] resents [her] longing;

Longingly, [she] resents the days that are tardy.

From dreamland [she’s] back, when the warbler’s tongue chirps;

The chirping-tongue warbler [draws her] back from dreamland.

For the post, asking people makes [her] shy;

[Yet] the shy person asks if [she] can send a post.[5]

It might be interesting to note that the modern scholar Cao Shuming 曹樹銘 refused to accept this poem was a genuine work by Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) because, in his view, it doesn’t have the same artistic mood as other ci poetry by Su Shi. More importantly, he believed Su Shi was too busy to occupy himself with such trivial, tasteless wordplay. This has been refuted by other scholars on the basis that this poem is included in all collections of Su Shi’s ci poetry,[6] a reason unlikely to be appreciated by Cao Shuming who tends to take an anti-syncretic approach.

But apart from this poem’s presence in various versions of Su Shi’s corpus, I can perhaps add that Su Shi does seem like a person who would be happy to waste his time on such things from time to time. In fact, there is not one but five palindromic poems attributed to Su Shi. I wouldn’t blame him if he had indeed indulged himself in such trivial wordplay (only) five times throughout his life.

Its authenticity as Su Shi’s work aside, this palindromic poem gets extra layers of meaning as an inscription on a pillow. Of course, the lines about dreams echo the function of the object. Meanwhile, it prompts its viewer to imagine the scenario in which it may have been used. It may inspire a smile as the owner revisits the “riddle” of the poem before bedtime. Its owner may also sleep on it while thinking about his or her loved one, complaining time passes too slowly... Whoever decided to inscribe the poem on this pillow certainly succeeded in bringing it to life.

Having said that, it sounds like a nice thing to have a pillow with an interesting design. Hundreds of them surely mean a lifestyle of true luxury. Also, I’m always curious about how comfortable it is to sleep on a ceramic pillow. Unfortunately, there is no trace of user feedback in the explanatory scripts in the gallery. I wonder whether their former collectors have slept on them one by one. If so, it would take the couple quite some days to finish one round.

[1] On the official account of the museum, one can also take a virtual tour across the gallery and read the bilingual scripts, although the English version is abridged. [2] [3] 尤 is to be read as 郵, see Su Shi ci biannian jiaozhu 蘇軾詞編年校注 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2002), annotated by Zou Tongqing 鄒同慶 and Wang Zongtang 王宗堂, 839. [4] Coloured characters rhyme. [5] Bold words correspond to each character in the original text in the same order. The rest are my interpolations for the translation, with the words in square brackets of a more interpretative nature. [6] See Su Shi ci biannian jiaozhu, 839.


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