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賀知章《回鄉偶書》“Written impromptu upon returning to my hometown” by He Zhizhang


少小離家老大

鄉音無改鬢毛[1]

兒童相見不相識,

笑問客從何處[2]

In youth [I] left home. As an old man, [I] return.

[My] hometown accent hasn’t changed, [yet] the hair at [my] temples is receding.

The children saw me [but] did not know me.

Smiling, [they] asked from where their guest came.



* From Hengtang tuishi 蘅塘退士 ed., Tangshi san bai shou 唐詩三百首 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959).


[1] Some editions have cui 摧 (decline, weaken, destroyed) instead of cui 衰. Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673-1769) suggests 衰 is to be read as cui 縗, which could be a scribal mistake for cui 摧.

[2] Red characters rhyme.

 

When I re-read my old literature textbooks from primary and middle school days, I often make interesting re-discoveries in the presumably familiar texts. As a kid, I was too ignorant to realise I was reading good literature (which, unfortunately, doesn’t apply to all texts in these textbooks). The quatrain above was (and still is) in the primary school textbook for children who are about 7-8 years old. I wonder what they are supposed to make of this poem. It certainly contributes to character exercises, and the character 鬢 (simplified: 鬓, for the word “temple”) could easily give a kid nightmare. I can’t recall how I felt when I first read it, but I suppose children of that age perhaps identify with the children in the last two lines of the quatrain instead of the poet who was considered a stranger in his hometown.


Now I am no longer a kid and spend years away from my hometown, I have come to appreciate this quatrain. It captures a situation that many people who live their lives in places other than their hometowns might experience. The poet encapsulates the situation of being (considered as) a stranger in one’s hometown within twenty-eight characters, and he stops right there. After the innocent question posed by the children, what’s next? Readers can freely fill in the blank based on their own reactions in a similar situation, perhaps feeling surprised, sad, lonely, or emotionally tangled...


If one knows something about the poet, the interpretation might be slightly different. He Zhizhang 賀知章 (659-744) did not leave many poems behind, and it was not until the twentieth century that the first collection of his works came into being.[3] But he was an important figure during the early Tang. His life might be the dream of many. From a young age, he was renowned for his literary talent and took first place in the imperial examination during the reign of Wu Zetian 武則天 (624-705, ruled 690-705). After that, he served in various high positions in the central government all the way until his 80s. On the poetic stage, he was well-connected to many famous poets. Li Bai’s 李白 (701-762) sobriquet “banished immortal” (Zhe xianren 謫仙人), for instance, was coined by He Zhizhang. Du Fu’s 杜甫 (712-770) “Song of Eight Drinking Immortals” (“Yinzhong ba xian ge” 飲中八仙歌) describes him in the first two lines, “Zhizhang rides his horse as if sailing on a boat, / spots in [his] vision, [he] falls in a well and slumbers underwater (知章騎馬似乘船,眼花落井水底眠).”[4]


He Zhizhang wrote this heptasyllabic quatrain when he returned to his hometown Yongxing 永興 (modern Xiaoshan, Zhejiang) at the age of 85. Given his relaxed character, he was perhaps amused by the children who apparently had no idea they were talking to an old fellow countryman who was one of the most respected people in the whole empire. But it doesn’t matter. I think it is good that He Zhizhang didn’t go into these details and left us with something universal in these lines.


In fact, I’ve found it quite fair to be considered as a stranger in my hometown nowadays. It has been fourteen years since I left my hometown. A few days ago, someone on the street asked me for directions, and I could only say, “Sorry, I don’t know. I don’t live here.” I also think of my cousins’ kids whom I met on tomb-sweeping day. They looked at me as if I were an outlander, and they had every reason to feel that way.


I’ve also found it not so easy at all to keep one’s hometown accent unchanged. Several years ago, on a train back to my hometown, I sat next to two students who went to universities in the north and got totally confused between Mandarin and our dialect. I couldn’t bear listening to the dialogue in their half-baked dialect and wished in my heart that they could just speak Mandarin. Before long, I realised I was too harsh on them. I speak my dialect with my family, some of whom don’t even speak Mandarin, let alone English. I’ve noticed how difficult it has become to tell them about the recent decade of my life in our dialect, which I haven’t really spoken for too long.


I wonder how He Zhizhang felt about living in his hometown and speaking to his countrymen again, but unfortunately there’s no way to find out. Perhaps he never had many opportunities to consider these things, for he died soon after his return.

[3] The He Mijian yishu 賀祕監遺書 in Zhang Shouyong’s 張壽鏞 (1876-1945) collectanea Siming congshu 四明叢書 that is dedicated to historical works of local interest (Ningbo, in modern Zhejiang). [4] Stephen Owen’s translation in The Poetry of Du Fu (Boston/Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2016), 55. With modifications.



From Ren Renfa's 任仁發 (1254-1327) "Yinzhong ba xian tu" 飲中八仙圖 (Scroll of the Eight Drinking Immortals)

© National Palace Museum, Taipei



 

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