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彭蘊章《太平鼓》 “The Taiping Drum” by Peng Yunzhang

太平鼓,聲鼕

白光如輪舞索

一童舞索一童唱,

一童跳入光輪

廣場駢集四方客,

曼衍魚龍鬧元

姹女弄竿竿百尺,

驚鴻宛轉凌風

今夜金吾鐵鎖

銅街踏月人不[1]


The Taiping Drum,[2] dong-dong, it sounds.

A white flash like a wheel, a child swings the rope.

One child swings the rope, another sings,

Yet another skips into the flashing wheel.

Visitors from everywhere gather in the plaza, shoulder to shoulder;

Fish and dragons flow around to revel in the Lantern Festival.[3]

A handsome girl performs on a bamboo pole, a hundred chi long,[4]

With the elegance of a swan goose startled, wings flapping against the wind.

Tonight, the iron locks of the guardians are opened;

People step in the moon[light along] the Bronze Avenue,[5] not returning home.


* See Peng Yunzhang 彭蘊章 (1792-1862), Songfengge shichao 松風閣詩鈔, (Peking University Library edition with prefaces dating from 1821 to 1868), 5.1b. See: https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=42437&page=3#%E5%A4%AA%E5%B9%B3


[1] Coloured characters rhyme. [2] Taiping 太平 reads “very flat” or “peace”. [3] It’s the fifteenth day of the first month in the traditional lunisolar calendar. [4] “A hundred chi” is of course figurative here, but for reference, one chi is about 32 cm. [5] Tongjie 銅街 (Bronze Avenue) originally refers to the Tongtuojie 銅駝街 (Bronze Camel Avenue) in Luoyang and is used here as a metaphor for the high street in town.

 

After staying in Beijing for three years, Peng Yunzhang 彭蘊章 (1792-1862)[6] wrote this poem as part of his “Youzhou tufeng yin” 幽州土風吟, a set of eighteen poems dedicated to local customs.[7] He also mentions in the preface that he meant to imitate the style of popular ditties, but from time to time we still find his verse finished with a more sophisticated literary touch. In the same set, he also offers his poetic records of interesting local activities such as touching gate studs, bathing elephants, shooting straw dogs, dragging ice blocks, etc. One may hesitate to describe these poems as refined artefacts, but there is certainly a joyful spirit in Peng Yunzhang’s observation of folk activities.


The poem above is about the Lantern Festival when the curfew was temporarily lifted for a whole night of lighting and celebration. Given the wonderful acrobatics represented on stone engravings as early as in the Han dynasty, one really shouldn’t be surprised by the hustle and bustle of eighteenth-century Beijing on such a festive day.


(A few examples of merry-making with acrobatics from Zhang Daoyi 張道一, Huaxiangshi jianshang 畫像石鑑賞, Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2019, 162-180)


It was the first four lines that first attracted my attention. Skipping is a highly relatable activity for me, because it was one the most popular between-class activities when I was little. Unlike the performance with a bamboo pole, which is more of a spectacular, skipping is perhaps too ordinary to be worthy of a mention, especially not in poetry. A quasi-folk song by a poet who takes pleasure in observing local customs seems to be a good place for it.


For the particular way of skipping described in Peng Yunzhang’s lines, we can find an apt illustration on a tomb mural from the Liao dynasty (907-1125) excavated in Xuanhua 宣化, Hebei, in 1993. But of course, the history of skipping can be traced further back. The earliest known evidence for skipping in China comes from a Han dynasty brick engraving showing two figures skipping, or maybe two moments of the skipping action of the same figure, as in the way we often do it today (except that we are advised against spreading the upper arms that wide!).[8]


(The mural from the Liao dynasty tomb in Xuanhua. For a focused discussion of this mural, see Zheng Luanming 鄭灤明, "Tiyushi de xin ziliao Qidan youer liaosheng tu kaozheng" 體育史的新資料——契丹幼兒跳繩圖考證 in Wenwu chunqiu 文物春秋 29 (1995: 3): 92-93. The paper only has a picture in black and white, and the picture above comes from: https://www.sohu.com/a/431518708_120104942)

(From an online edition of Yue Tao 樂陶, "Hanhua shang de Zhongguo yudai tiyu" 漢畫上的中國古代體育 in Zhonghua wenhua huabao 中華文化畫報 2008 (7): 80-83; see http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_88ca86ca0101e1w7.html)


I remember when I was little, the girls had several tunes for group skipping, with different sets of movement to interact with the rope (to roll it on the shin in certain ways, not just to avoid being tripped by it). We occasionally made up new tunes or adapted the classic ones to the situation. But generally speaking, I should say the tool for this exercise hasn’t changed that much over the last two millennia.


Until I discovered the invention of ingenious city people: a ropeless skipping rope. The selling points are quite interesting. The ropeless skipping rope is said to be quieter than the traditional rope, which means you don’t have to whip your floor and annoy your neighbour downstairs (so you first need to have a neighbour downstairs to be disturbed). You don’t need to worry about getting tripped because of lack of body coordination. (And there was me who thought one of the purposes of skipping is to improve body coordination.) Also, it requires less space and can protect people around you and your furniture. Ok, kind of makes sense...



As I do have neighbours downstairs to consider and furniture to protect, I decided to make a small investment to satisfy my curiosity. After trying it a few times, I feel I can skip with it, but something is missing. Yes, a rope is missing, of course, together with the motivation to skip properly. Nothing is going to happen when I get slack, so I easily go slacker and slacker. Also, since it’s not completely ropeless, the two balls attached to the end of the short ropes can still hit things.


Fortunately, the skipping rope I got allows me to switch between the traditional and ropeless modes. After putting the long rope back, my skipping exercise immediately became three times more intensive, and the rope started to whip the floor as well as my limbs. No pain, no gain. I must say there are good reasons why this tool hasn’t changed much over the last two millennia...

[6] For a short biography, see Hummel, Arthur W. ed., Eminent Chinese of the Qing Period (Berkshire: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2018 [reprint]), 620-621. [7] Beijing used to belong to the Youzhou 幽州 prefecture. There is a note xinmao 辛卯 next to the title, indicating that the set was written around 1831. [8] Note that the rubbing seems to belong to a private collection, and I haven't been able to verify the provenance of the engraving.

 

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