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雁兒落兼得勝令(尤侗《黑白衛》)[To the tunes] “Geese Falling” and “Victory Song” by You Tong



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“[To the tune] Geese falling” {Female leading role}

You only see a pair of banners fly quivering in the lamp[light],

Don’t [you] hear two swords thrusting, clank clank, at the foot of the bed.

I only need my red dress to flutter weightless in the dark.

He’ll then have his white bones falling, kerplop, from the air.




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“[To the tune] Victory Song”

So that his

Bristles and mane are blown into ashes,

Blood and flesh turned into mud,

Grudging soul vanishing with the wind,

Wandering wildfire returning with the rain.[3]


Performing three acts of this play on the stage.

Skilled or not,

To be determined by one move on the chess board.

* From You Tong’s 尤侗 (1618-1704) play “He bai wei” 黑白衛 (Black and white donkeys) in his Xitang yuefu 西堂樂府 (Xuxiu Siku quanshu 續修四庫全書, vol. 1407).

[1] Red and purple characters rhyme. They are deemed to be sharing similar vowels in the composition of qu 曲 (song poem). The red ones are ping 平 (level tones), and the purple ones are qu 去 (departing tone). The positions of these rhyming characters are prescribed by the tonal patterns of the tune titles. The use of ci 刺, by the way, is interesting. It is considered to be from a different rhyme group in the important 14th century rhyme book Zhongyuan yinyun 中原音韻 which represents the Northern sounds.

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

○ level tones, including yinping 陰平 and yangping 陽平.

● oblique tones, including shang 上 (rising tone, ▲) and qu 去 (departing tone, ▼)

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

[3] The gui 歸 (return) here implies returning to the netherworld.


Of all types of classical Chinese poetry, qu 曲 (song poem) is the least known. The tiny number of examples included in anthologies are either single song poems or song suites by several renowned poets. They are good, but to me, they do not really represent song poems in action. In plays, there are tons of song poems, but they are only accessible via translations of several famous plays and are very rarely singled out and treated as poetry. This is understandable as these song poems are embedded in specific storylines, and it can be difficult to treat them on their own. It certainly makes sense to read them in their context. But I also feel that, when reading a play, which consists of tens or even hundreds of such song poems, one could go numb and forget they are poems.

I always find it amazing that playwrights have followed tonal patterns of thousands of tune titles meticulously and played with them at the same time. Although I’m not a theatre fan, I do have great respect for the professionalism of playwrights. I hope the example presented this week shows a little bit about the fun of reading a song poem from a play as a poetic craft.

I’ve chosen a song poem to two tune titles that often come together. When the playwright completes a poem to a tune title but hasn’t quite finished delivering what he wants to convey, he could continue to write a sequel to a “bonus” tune that belongs to the same musical mode as the first tune. “Victory Song” is such a “bonus” tune to “Geese falling,” so I treat the two tunes here as one song poem.

The storyline of the play "Black and White Donkeys" is based on a Tang tale about the female assassin Nie Yinniang 聶隱娘,[4] who was kidnapped by a nun when she was ten and trained to be a professional killer. Of course, she can easily kill a tiger, fly up high to hit an eagle, decapitate a man and, with her magic potion, melt his head into liquid. When I read this tale with undergraduates, I enjoyed watching their reactions when they came to passages such as the one that says the nun opens the back of Nie Yinniang’s head and hides a dagger there. It’s always good to read something radically different from the Lunyu and Mengzi.

Upon Nie Yinniang’s return to her parents, her skills and mysterious disappearance every night scare her father, who is a senior general but "doesn’t dare to disobey" (bu gan bu cong 不敢不從) when she decides to marry a mirror grinder who happens to pop up at their gate. But it’s not a story about an exceptionally powerful girl finding her true love. Nie Yinniang’s husband has no special talent and no say in the family. He doesn’t even have a name in the tale. You Tong seems to enjoy this detail. At one point, Nie Yinniang’s husband tries to shoot a noisy magpie but fails. Our heroine grasps the slingshot and says, so You Tong writes: “這廝好不中用也,待老娘自來!” Taking a bit of liberty, we may read this as, “You useless thing! Watch and learn!” No surprise, she kills the bird with one shot.

Nie Yinniang’s autonomy is also seen from her decision to abandon her patron in her native region and to serve his enemy whom she believes to deserve her loyalty. Her former patron won’t let go of his enmity and plots assassinations of Nie Yinniang’s new master. The first assassin comes soon after Nie Yinniang leaves her former patron. The narrative of the Tang tale represents the fight as two banners, the red one being Nie Yinniang and the white her opponent, flying entangled around the bed. After a while, a man with his head severed falls from the air. Nie Yinniang then appears, drags the corpse out and melts it with her magic potion. In You Tong’s play, it is at this scene when she sings the song poem translated above.

The words in bold in the text above are prosodically important and follow the tonal pattern prescribed by the tune titles. All the rest (in italics) are padding words (chenzi 襯字), something unique to song poems. The number and tones of padding words are completely up to the writer. In “Geese falling,” we see You Tong add quite a lot of padding words, significantly elongating the rhythmic unit. And the padding words have a neat design. The same number of characters are added to each line. They first make the grammatical subject explicit and address the audience directly by using the second person pronoun. We then find an ABB type of word in each line. The phrases chanweiwei 顫巍巍 and xupiaopiao 虛飄飄, in the first and third lines, are both adverbial, whereas the phrases jidingding 吉丁丁 and putongtong 撲通通, at the same position in the second and fourth lines, are both onomatopoetic. I think his design has made the otherwise steady flow of heptasyllabic lines livelier and more engaging.

You Tong handles the “Victory song” in a very different way, which creates a rhythmic contrast with the “Geese falling.” The “Victory song” basically says “I want him dead” from four perspectives, which is a bit unusual for a female role. There is also an interesting comment in the page margin suggesting these lines are reminiscent of the words that the King of Wu said to Gongsun Sheng 公孫聖 (d. 483), as recorded in the Yuejueshu 越絕書. The king was unhappy with Gongsun Sheng who advised against his plan of attacking the neighbouring state. Before he was put to death, Gongsun Sheng requested his body be put in the mountain (instead of being buried) and hoped to make himself heard later. The king had his body left in the mountain and said, “Tigers and wolves eat your flesh. Wild fire burns your bones. East wind arrives and blows away your ashes. [Let’s see] how you can make a sound! (虎狼食其肉,野火燒其骨,東風至,飛揚汝灰,汝更能為聲哉!)”[5] Maybe You Tong did take inspiration from the king’s words. Maybe not. In either case, it is interesting to see a historical reader try to dig it out.

There are about three dozen more song poems like this in this three-act play. As always, reading the marginalia is great fun. These historical readers noted down whenever the script made them laugh, left them amazed, or reminded them of other texts. This play is not among the famous plays now, but these marginalia have shown that the crafts in it have not been taken lightly. Some people once read it with great care and expressed their lively feelings. Perhaps their joy could be shared if we, readers from hundreds of years later, do the same.

[4] See Taiping guangji 太平廣記, scroll 194: A summary and analysis of the narrative can be found in chapter 2 of Roland Altenburger’s The Sword or the Needle: The Female Knight-Errant (Xia) in Traditional Chinese Narrative (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009). This tale has been adapted into the 2015 film The Assassin (Cike Nie Yinniang 刺客聶隱娘), directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢. The film is a re-creation of the tale and an artwork in its own right. But I must say, in terms of storyline, the film is more sensitive and romantic, significantly different from the original subversive or even outrageous Tang tale.

Ren Xiong’s 任熊 (1823-1857) depiction of Nie Yinniang in his Sanshisan jianke tu 三十三劍客圖


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1 comment

1 Comment

May 04, 2020

It’s always good to read something radically different from the Lunyu and Mengzi.” That should be the slogan used for all Chinese studies departments at all Universities.

But I must say, in terms of storyline, the film is more sensitive and romantic, significantly different from the original subversive or even outrageous Tang tale”

No surprises there. It’s what I call self-imposed colonialism.

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