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左延年《秦女休行》“The Girl Xiu from the Qin [Family]” by Zuo Yannian

This week’s yuefu poem is about an extraordinary girl by the name of Xiu. It is not as elaborate as the more famous narrative poems about Mulan 木蘭 and Qin Luofu 秦羅敷, but it does a good job of telling a story of resentment, disappointment, determination, despair, and relief. This poem starts with a few lines at a steady pace that are reminiscent of several other yuefu poems, but as the story unfolds, the length of its lines varies greatly, very much reflecting the simpler and freer style of yuefu poetry and possibly intended as a means to echo the increasing tension in the narrative.

After Zuo Yannian 左延年 (fl. 220-226) dedicated this yuefu poem to Xiu, Fu Xuan 傅玄 (217-278) and Li Bai 李白 (701-762) each wrote a poem with the same title. The longer poem by Fu Xuan largely consists of pentasyllabic lines, whereas Li Bai’s work uses pentasyllabic lines exclusively. Also, the rhyming practice of Fu Xuan and Li Bai is much neater than the somewhat random use of repetitive rhyming characters in Zuo Yannian’s poem. However, I personally think Zuo Yannian’s version is more exciting. His crude poetic techniques have manifested the power of the original story that is diminished by the distractions of literary embellishment in the poems by Fu Xuan and Li Bai.

Another interesting thing is that Fu Xuan, though using the title “The Girl Xiu from the Qin,” spoke of another woman by the surname of Pang. Pang’s story was recorded by Huangfu Mi 皇甫 (215-282) in great detail in his Lienü zhuan 列女傳, and is likely to be a story developed from Xiu’s story. There are interesting discrepancies in the narratives in these sources, which will be noted below.

* From Huang Jie zhu Han Wei Liuchao shi liu zhong 黃節注漢魏六朝詩六種 (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2008), 205-207.

PS: I thought it was difficult to use a spear with only one hand in a fight and assumed "holding a white-goat blade in her left hand / And a Wan spear in the right" indicated Xiu was armed (like the man on the left below. However, some Han brick stone reliefs (for example the one on the right below) depict men charging with a spear-like long thing in one hand and something else in the other...

Rubbings of Han brick stones.

From Zhongguo meishu quanji huihua bian 18 中國美術全集繪畫編18, plates 261 (left) and 231 (right).


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