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辛棄疾《醜奴兒》 To the tune “Ugly Slave” by Xin Qiji


○ ○ ⊙ ● ○ ○ ●[1]


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As a young man [I] knew nothing about the taste of sorrow,

[And] liked to climb layers of towers.

[I] liked to climb layers of towers,

[And] forced sorrow [out of myself] to compose new verses.

Now [I’ve] learned everything about the taste of sorrow,

[Yet] words stop on the tip of [my] tongue.

Words stopping on the tip of [my] tongue,

[I] say instead, “What a fine, cool autumn day.”

From Jiaxuan ci biannian jianzhu 稼軒詞編年箋注, collated and annotated by Deng Guangming 鄧廣銘 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1993).

[1] These symbols represent the tonal pattern prescribed by the tune title. Specifically:

○ level tones: yinping 陰平 and yangping 陽平

● oblique tones: shang 上 (rising tone) and qu 去 (departing tone)

⊙ characters at this position could be either level or oblique tones

Unlike in a qu 曲 (song poem), as shown in last week’s example, the tonal pattern of a ci does not prescribe where to use shang 上 (rising tone) or qu 去 (departing tone).

[2] Red characters rhyme.


Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 (1140-1207) is one of my favourite poets. The breadth of his poetry is akin to that of Su Shi’s work, but the two are distinct from each other, partly due to the different historical contexts they lived in. The latter has more philosophical musings on life, whereas the former has more horses, soldiers, swords, and a persistent expression of the urge to regain the former Song territory in the north, where he was born and grew up.

When I was young, I enjoyed quite a few books on poetry by Yeh Chia-ying 葉嘉瑩. She mentions that if she were to choose a poet to be her friend, she would choose Xin Qiji. Her favourite poet is actually Li Shangyin 李商隱 (ca. 813 – 858), but he is too gloomy.[3] Li Shangyin’s poetic world is way too foggy for my taste, but I do share Yeh Chia-ying’s view of Xin Qiji, who is a man of great passion and of action. I too believe he would make a wonderful friend.

By the way, unlike Li He who wrote “Don’t plant trees,” Xin Qiji seems to like planting and writes about it a lot. His style name, Jiaxuan 稼軒, reads “farming house” or “crop window.” He coined it for himself after his suspension in 1182 when he started to take on the life of a farmer-poet in Shangrao, Jiangxi. As a man from the north, he was never really trusted by the Southern Song government, so there is always a suppressed hero in his poetry. The thing I like about him is that he is often disappointed, disheartened, but never really depressed. He can always look at things with fresh eyes, and I would very much like to join him in digging a tiny pool to invite the moon to his garden and in asking the gulls to persuade the cranes to sign up to his little walking club.

Apart from his heroic works, Xin Qiji has quite a few poems that show his humane and sensitive side. The small ci 詞 (lyric) poem translated above, for instance, has no swords and horses. It is a nice work that always makes me sigh and smile. Like He Zhizhang’s quatrain, this lyric by Xin Qiji consists of simple words but conveys something delicate and sincere.

I should note that the repetition of the second line in each stanza is not compulsory. Other poets who write to this tune usually do not repeat themselves at this point. The repetition is Xin Qiji’s choice, and he uses this trick in several other lyrics to this tune. In my opinion, it’s a great choice at least in this lyric here. I hope it’s not just me, but I think the same lines read differently when repeated, hence my slightly different treatment of them in translation.

The first stanza might be interpreted as a very poetic way to describe something similar to chūnibyō 中二病 (“middle-school second-year disease,” or “eighth-grader syndrome”), which is a colloquial Japanese term that has gained huge popularity in China in the recent decade. This “disease” describes early teens who think they are no longer kids, want to be recognised but paradoxically believe no one can understand them, or even go as far as to live in their delusions and believe they have secret powers. One can also use this word to describe adults who have similar thoughts or behaviour.

I wasn’t in the habit of climbing towers and seeking literary inspiration by gazing into the distance, but there were days when I was a teen in gloom. Fortunately, I wasn’t very good at forcing sorrow out of myself. With a good volume of manga, I’d be rolling on my bed laughing in minutes, so the gloom came and went rather quickly. Nevertheless, I enjoy this poem by Xin Qiji every time I read or think of it. It’s not just about a person learning something about life but also becoming less prone to be disturbed as time goes by. It reminds me of the small sadnesses, worries, disappointments and all kinds of other things that have ceased to destroy the day as they used to.

But after all, as Xin Qiji suggests, there really is no adequate language to explain or even just express all these feelings and processes. A comment on the cool autumn day is a fine concluding remark. When savouring this last line, I wonder whether he ever wanted to go back to the days when he had no reason for sorrow unless he forced it out of himself. [3] See Yeh Chia-ying, Nan Song mingjia ci xuanjiang 南宋名家詞選講 (Beijing: Beijing Daxue chubanshe, 2007), 48-49.

"Yueyang Lou" 岳陽樓 (Yueyang Tower) by Guo Zhongshu 郭忠恕 (ca. 929-977)

© National Palace Museum, Taipei

"Zhulou tu" 竹樓圖 (Bamboo Tower) by Qiu Ying 仇英 (1494?-1552)

© National Palace Museum, Taipei


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٣ تعليقات

١٢ مايو ٢٠٢٠

Perhaps I should note that the use of "to the tune" in the title is not my invention. It's widely used in the translation of ci and qu to indicate that the title is a "tune title" (詞牌/曲牌名) and not necessarily relate to the content of the lyric/song poem.

For most tune titles, I don't think we can say much about their origins with confidence. 醜奴兒 could originally be sung by a ugly servant, or about a ugly servant. I personally don't see a link between this tune title and Xin Qiji's poem here.

For 強說愁, yes there's a distinction between your two options. The text itself, however, doesn't seem to give a clear answer, so I suppose one could…


١١ مايو ٢٠٢٠

Well now I know why you said “To the tune”. Because it’s a 詞牌名。


١١ مايو ٢٠٢٠

I really wonder what 醜奴兒 is referring to?

Is he forcing sorrow out of himself or is he forcing himself to talk on the topic of sorrow even though he’s clearly not familiar with it? I think there’s a distinction there.

This poem seems to be critiquing those who compose sorrowful poems. The implication is possibly that if they truly understood sorrow they wouldn’t desire to share it. 卻道⋯⋯。It reminds me of 道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名。愁嘗盡,口抿抿。

愁滋味 reminded me of 降珠草受雨露滋養脫草胎換人形的生活方式。

“終日游於離恨天外,飢則食蜜青果為膳,渴則飲灌愁海水為湯,” {紅樓夢:第一回}

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