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李白《流夜郎聞酺不預》 “Exiled to Yelang, [I] heard about the banquet that [I] did not join” by Li Bai

北闕聖人歌太

南冠君子竄遐

漢酺聞奏鈞天樂,

願得風吹到夜[1]


The sagacious one in the northern tower [2] is singing for Great Peace;

The gentleman with a southern cap [3] is banished to the far wilderness.

At the Han banquet, [4] [so I] heard, [they] play heavenly music

Which [I] wish the wind would carry along to Yelang.


* From Li Taibai quanji 李太白全集 (Beijing : Zhonghua shuju, 1977), edited by Wang Qi 王琦 (1696-1774), 1163.


[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] The Northern Tower was where ministers waited for an audience with the emperor and is often used as a symbol of the imperial palace. [3] Nanguan junzi 南冠君子 (gentleman with a southern cap) alludes to the musician Zhong Yi 鍾儀 (fl. 6th century BCE) from the state of Chu 楚 (roughly modern Hubei and Hunan). He was once a captive in the state of Jin 晉 (roughly modern Shanxi), where his southern style cap drew the attention of the lord of Jin. When asked to show his craft. he played the music of his homeland; see Zuozhuan 左傳: https://ctext.org/chun-qiu-zuo-zhuan/cheng-gong/zhs. He has been praised for his loyalty to his homeland and often appears in literature as a symbol of attachment to one’s homeland. [4] Han pu 漢酺 (Han banquet) refers to the occasional nationwide banquet holiday granted by imperial order. The tradition originated in Han times (when a drinking party of over three people for no good reason was subject to a fine) and thus was often dubbed a “Han banquet”. Wang Qi dated this poem to 757 as there was a five-day banquet holiday during the twelfth month of that year; see Wang Qi’s annotation in Li Taibai quanji, 1163.

 

This poem has an instantly striking title, as the poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762) is a famous “immortal in liquor” (jiu Zhong xian 酒中仙). Drinking gives his talents and spirit full rein, and he is known to have enjoyed some time and banquets in the imperial palace. However, he didn’t stay at court for more than two years. After travelling around for a decade, Li Bai joined the forces of a prince who was defeated by his brother (later the new emperor) during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763). As a result, Li Bai was consigned to Yelang (located roughly in modern Guizhou).


In fact, Yelang was not too far away from Li Bai’s familiar land of Shu (modern Sichuan) where he spent his childhood and teenage days, but this “gentleman with a southern cap” was not expressing his sentiments about leaving his hometown. As he was banished to the much less developed land towards the southwestern borderlands of the empire, he was also driven away from the centre of his cultural and spiritual homeland to which he was attached.


Yelang is actually the name of a lost kingdom that fell during the first century BCE. Having emerged as a state of considerable size and power during the third century BCE, it was the first state of non-Han peoples in the region and the biggest state in the southwest of China at the time. Nowadays, Yelang is a well-known name because of the set phrase Yelang zida 夜郎自大 (lit. “Yelang considers itself big”). During the early Han, the Han regime developed in the Central Plain was not yet widely known in southwestern regions. The ruler of Yelang famously asked the envoy from the Han, “Which one is bigger, the Han or my [land]?”[5] Thereafter, “Yelang considers itself big” became a common phrase to describe someone who is ignorant and too satisfied with himself.


When I visited the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King 西漢南越王博物館, I didn’t expect to come across a temporary exhibition about Yelang, a synonym for arrogance and ignorance. But it really shouldn’t have been a surprise. Before it fell completely under the control of the Han, Yelang at one point allied itself with the Nanyue Kingdom, which was destroyed by the Han in 111 BCE.


As with many other cultures at the time, the only transmitted records about Yelang are all written in Chinese. Local people left no written record that can tell an alternative story about themselves. The objects at this exhibition, therefore, offer a precious opportunity to get some glimpses of who they really were.


I particularly enjoyed the bronze vessels from Yelang. As expected, there are shapes and decorative motifs that are distinct from the ones from the Central Plain. I do appreciate the exquisite bronze vessels I saw in the north which so often occupy the pages about ancient Chinese art in textbooks. Visiting museums in Henan, Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi is an experience filled with the excitement of seeing celebrities in person. But coming across underrepresented bronze cultures outside the Central Plain offers a different kind of excitement, opening up a more colourful world of diverse regional characters and cultural interplay. I don’t remember, for example, seeing a bronze frog, or fish- or oxhead-shaped belt hooks elsewhere. The boating motifs that are comparable to those found in Yunnan, Guangxi, and Vietnam are also fascinating.



As the exhibition has now ended, most objects have returned to Guizhou Provincial Museum that houses them. I gather from their website that there is more to be explored at the museum, which can probably fill the gap between the ancient state of Yelang and modern embroidered suits of the Miao people at the temporary exhibition. And I’ve never been to Guizhou before. Li Bai probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s now on my list of future destinations.

[5] See Shiji 史記: https://ctext.org/shiji/xi-nan-yi-lie-zhuan/zhs (passage 6). It’s interesting that the king of Dian 滇 (roughly modern Yunnan) asked the same question, but there is no set phrase mocking him.


 

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