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吳偉業《子夜歌(其六)》 “Midnight Songs (No. 6)” by Wu Weiye


Responding to a Min courtesan on behalf of a friend





The olive, with two slender ends,[2]

[Finds it] difficult to be round after all.[3]

Even when [its] flesh is all gone,

[Its] abdomen remains firm.

* Wu Weiye 吳偉業 (1609-1672), Wu Meicun quanji 吳梅村合集 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1990), collated and annotated by Li Xueying 李學穎, 7.198.

[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Despite their similar looks and the common name ganlan 橄欖 in Chinese, it is important to note that European olives (Olea europaea) and Chinese olives (mostly Canarium album and Canarium pimela) are actually unrelated plants. The “olive” in this blog refers to Chinese olives unless stated otherwise. [3] This reading associates the yi ge 一箇 (a / one unit) with yuan 圓 (roundness), mirroring the liang tou xian 兩頭纖 (two ends of slenderness, or two ends being slender) of line 1. “A roundness / being round” implies “a reunion”. Alternatively, these two lines read, “The olive has two slender ends: / Difficult to [find] a round one after all.”

Picture source: the Baidu Baike entry of qingganlan 青橄欖 (Canarium album)


Unlike in Mediterranean regions, Chinese olives are not grown primarily for making oil but for eating fresh or making preserved fruits. They grow well in Fujian and Guangdong and used to be perceived as precious and exotic fruits from the edges of the Chinese empire (similar to lychees). In poetry, fresh olives are also celebrated for their lingering, sweet aftertaste following the resinous, acid flavour, which makes them an apt metaphor for everything that makes one struggle but turns out to be rewarding, such as life.

In the poem translated above, Wu Weiye 吳偉業 (1609-1672) uses olives to deliver a different message. With yuan 圓 (“round”, line 2) implying a reunion and the firm abdomen (line 4) unchanged heart/feelings, the little quatrain is a nice addition to the tradition of “Midnight Songs” that has been revolving around love and longings since Han times.

But when you think about it, the characteristics Wu Weiye addresses can actually apply to other fruits: peaches, plums, Chinese jujubes... However, none of them is really as good as the olive, for the brief note on the title tells us that the poem is a love song for a girl from Min (i.e. the Fujian area). As the local speciality of her region, the olive is a very sensible choice of topic.

Apart from symbolising unyielding love, the firm stone of olives can also be put to some other good use. During my visit to Suzhou, I came across a nice display of fruit stone carvings (hediao 核雕) by the contemporary Suzhou artist Lu Xiaoqin 陸小琴 in the new Wuzhong Museum 吳中博物館 (open to the public since last June).[4]

One of the featured objects immediately recalled Wei Xueyi’s 魏學洢 (ca. 1596- ca. 1625) “Hezhouji” 核舟記 (Account of a Stone-Boat) in my middle school textbook. The essay describes in minute detail a stone carving by the Jiangsu artist Wang Yi 王毅 (fl. 17th century) who vividly depicted Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) and his friends enjoying themselves on a boat. In fact, the boat is a popular theme for fruit stone carving, and many draw inspiration from Su Shi’s two “Chibi fu” 赤壁賦 (Rhapsodies on the Red Cliff), a much beloved topic of art across many media.

Most of the works on the display are made from olive stones. When fruit stone carving started to flourish during the Ming (especially around Suzhou), peach stones and apricot stones were more common material,[5] but there were also examples using olive stones.[6] For the boat theme, the shuttle-shaped olive stones are naturally an ideal medium.

Interestingly, Wei Xueyi’s account does not just offer a record of a historical artwork but also immortalises a specific representation of a popular theme via written words. Unlike other carvings that draw inspiration directly from Su Shi’s texts,[7] the stone-boat carving I saw in the Wuzhong Museum follows Wei Xueyi’s account meticulously, including the number of people on the boat as well as their activities and postures.

Of course, just like the carving Wei Xueyi has described, the tiny windows of the boat can open (who would have windows that can’t open!). When they are opened (with proper tools, because human fingers are too clumsy), we can see the balustrade inside. When they are closed, we find two quotes from Su Shi’s “Rhapsodies on the Red Cliff” inscribed on the window panels, again, just as Wei Xueyi has described. The quote on one side, from the second “Rhapsody of the Red Cliff”, reads “山高月小,水落石出” (The mountains are high and the moon small. Rocks appear as the water [level] falls). The quote on the other side, from the first “Rhapsody of the Red Cliff”, reads, “清風徐來,水波不興” (The breeze comes gently without raising any ripples). Everything is there in this inch-long gem.

I love to see different designs of stone-boat carving, but it’s also nice to have a faithful translation of a familiar text from my middle school textbook in an actual artefact. The sort of Matryoshka doll effect I see in the carving at the Wuzhong Museum is quite lovely: with her stone-boat, Lu Xiaoqin is paying tribute to Wei Xueyi’s account of another stone-boat that celebrates Su Shi’s works inspired by his boat trips.

Details of the stone-boat carving by Lu Xiaoqin; scenes from the film by the Wuzhong Museum:

[4] The museum created a nice film showing a selection of beautiful works and their sources of inspiration, see: [5] See He Yue 何悅 and Zhang Chenguang 張晨光, Ganlan hediao bawan yu jianshang 橄欖核雕把玩與鑑賞 (Beijing: Beijing chubanshe, 2012), 5. [6] See, for instance, Gao Lian’s 高濂 (1573-1620) record of a stone carving made from wulanhe 烏欖核 (black olive stone) in his Zunsheng bajian 遵生八箋: [7] For example, the famous stone-boat carving by the Cantonese ivory sculptor Chen Zuzhang 陳祖章 (fl. 18th century) in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (See the picture below). The museum also produced a nice film about it:


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