Wu Wenying and the Art of Southern Song Ci Poetry

Wu Wenying and the Art of Southern Song Ci Poetry

by Grace S. Fong


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The author begins with a biography exploring the moral and aesthetic implications of Wu's life as a guest-poet" patronized by officials and aristocrats, and continues with a reconstruction of the historical and literary context needed for modern readers to grasp his poetic techniques.

Originally published in 1987.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691609539
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #824
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Wu Wenying and the Art of Southern Song Ci Poetry

By Grace S. Fong


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06703-2



I. Early Life

Wu Wenying (zi Junte, hao Mengchuang) was born circa A.D. 1200 in the Siming district of Zhedong circuit (present day Yin County in Zhejiang province). During the Song, the Southeast circuits were steadily becoming the leading economic and cultural nexus in the empire. When the north was captured by the Jurchens in 1126, subsequent political turmoil eventually forced the new Southern Song court to relocate its capital to Hangzhou in 1138. Ironically, the shameful loss of half an empire and the resultant geographical dislocation only consolidated an on-going fundamental southward shift that had begun several centuries before. In the triennial civil service examinations which furnished the state bureaucracy with potential new recruits, the Southeast, in particular the two most populous and urbanized circuits, Zhedong and Fujian, came to supply most of the candidates for the competition. In Wu Wenying's own time, a significant share of successful jinshi graduates came from his native district Yin County, and his elder brother was on the list of graduates for the year 1217. Although Wu Wenying himself never attained this distinction, due to lack of participation or to failure in the examinations, the very locale in which he grew up bespeaks a cultured and sophisticated milieu.

Of Wu Wenying's relations, only two brothers bearing the different surname Weng are known. No recorded source accounts for the disparity in the surnames, the most plausible explanation being that Wu Wenying, ne Weng, was adopted into a Wu family. Wu's elder brother Weng Fenglong (z. Jike, h. Shigui) obtained his jinshi ("doctorate") degree in 1217, and is known to have held the position of Vice-administrator of Pingjiang (present day Suzhou) for a period between 1237 and 1240. Not only did Weng Fenglong distinguish himself by passing the civil service examination and thereby entering a career in officialdom, he also acquired some recognition as a shi poet. He was mentioned by Dai Fugu (1167–after 1246), an important poet of the "Rivers and Lakes" School of the Southern Song, in a poem entitled "On reading the manuscripts of the four poets Weng Jike, Xue Yishu, Sun Jifan and Gao Jiuwan." There are two extant poems addressed to Weng Fenglong in Wu Wenying's collection. Judging from their tone and content, it appears that the brothers had a rather congenial relationship with some contact maintained throughout their lives. One poem, to the tune pattern Liushao qing (Quan Song ci 2928/5), dated post-1243 from the preface, was composed on the occasion of viewing snow with Weng Fenglong from a tower named Yanyi. The other poem (QSC 2928/4), written at a later date and subtitled, "Ascending Yanyi after Guiweng (Weng Fenglong) had passed away," reminisces with sadness about the irretrievable times when they had been together, revealing through the imagery and allusions a measure of the brotherly intimacy that had existed between them. The younger brother, Weng Yuanlong (z. Shike, h. Chu jing), seems to have followed in Wu Wenying's footsteps. Not having passed the examination and entered officialdom, he also made a name among his contemporaries as a ci poet, though one whose reputation, to judge by the late Song poet and writer Zhou Mi's (1232–1308) observation, may have been somewhat eclipsed by Wu's own. Nevertheless to all appearances he lived by his talent as a ci poet and enjoyed the patronage of certain high officials. A metaphorically phrased, highly complimentary post-script to his ci poetry is preserved in the collected writings of the chief councillor Du Fan (d. 1245), who is known to have been Weng Yuanlong's patron. 14 There are also two extant poems by Wu to his younger brother (QSC 2881/3, 2931/6).

In spite of the paucity of information, the few details we have concerning the brothers suggest a family of literati background and an education that perhaps cultivated in them a love of literature and helped shape their shared poetic talent.

Very little is known about Wu Wenying's early life. When Weng Fenglong became a jinshi in 1217, Wu was in his late adolescence. It is possible that Wu was brought into contact with a broader literary society that had connections with the government bureaucracy around this time as a consequence of his brother's success and subsequent debut in official life.

From references made in some late poems, it can be inferred that as a youth Wu Wenying had traveled away from his native district and had also sojourned at intervals during a period of ten years in the capital Hangzhou, where he had his first love affair with a singing girl.

Wu's earliest poem is dated 1224. It was composed in Deqing County in Zhexi circuit (northern Zhejiang), which, according to lines 11–15, he evidently had already visited sometime prior to this date. To the tune He xinlang and prefaced "A lyric on Small Rainbow Bridge written for Magistrate Zhao of Deqing," this youthful and rather artful attempt reads:

1 Ripple reflections wrinkle in tortoise shell patterns.
Dipped in mist, half moistened are the red and green
Of windows pillowed on the stream.
A thousand feet of roseate cloud recline languidly on
the water.
5 Myriad arrays of silk screens embrace embroidery.
Again and again, the boats to Wu turn their bows,
And wild geese returning north would not reach Lake
I ask the man fishing through snow in the vastness if he
knows —
woodman's song, remote,
10 Traverses the deep verdure.

Coming here again I arrived in time for the blossoms.
I recall lingering among these empty hills in the night
Then spring wine at the pavilion of parting.
Under newly planted peach and plum trees where a
footpath forms,
15 All this after the wanderer left.
Still the mandarin prunus at the East Lodge is
delicately thin.
A single splash of oars — in the green of hills and
During the day the swallows are silent, the wind stills,
curtains hang motionless.
In the hushed chill,
20 With sleeves dangling I chant.

(QSC 2898/4)


This poem serves to illuminate several aspects of Wu Wenying's life. First, it demonstrates the minimal extent of Wu's travels to that date, involving a route that could easily have taken him through the metropolis Shaoxing and the capital Hangzhou. Secondly, since this poem was written for a magistrate (upon his request?), Wu Wenying may already have enjoyed some fame as a young poet, and Magistrate Zhao only inaugurates a long list of government officials and high dignitaries with whom he associated and for whom he composed many poems throughout his life. Stylistically, this poem already exhibits certain salient characteristics of Wu's verse as a whole: the penchant for unusual words and novel images (line 1), metonymic language (lines 2–3), an implied rather than explicit logic in the structure, and frequent use of allusions.

Thus far we can picture Wu Wenying as a young man, not terribly ambitious, in all likelihood devoting much of his time and energy to learning the art of writing ci poetry and growing proficient in it. He ranks among the few Southern Song ci poets with an expert knowledge of music; there are a number of much admired tune patterns created by him. Wu's sole fame as a ci poet and his apparent lack of success in public life have occasioned one writer's remark that, though no doubt intelligent, Wu might have been of the type that was "addicted to poetry and dull in the Classics." Instead of treading the traditional time-honored path to worldly success, Wu traveled, cultivated the friendship of officials — those who had already made their mark, and perhaps tried to find in their employ or patronage some means of support. In fact, the next known period in Wu's life, the early 1230s, finds him in the staff of the Grain Transport Office in Suzhou.

III. The Suzhou Period (ca. 1232–ca. 1244)

The exact dates of Wu Wenying's move to Suzhou and of his entry into the Grain Transport Office remain obscure. The preface to a poem dated 1232 (QSC 2920/3) provides some basis for assuming that Wu had already been working at the Grain Transport Office for a time: "In the company of colleagues from the Granary I attended a farewell banquet held for Sun Wuhuai at the garden residence of Guo Xidao on the day before the leap Double Ninth." He was then in his thirties. Beginning around this time and lasting until about 1244, his sojourn in Suzhou continued for roughly twelve years. For a number of these years, Wu was employed on the clerical staff of the Grain Transport Office. With the exception of some possible official assignments, which took him to a few locales within the general confines of Zhexi circuit (Jiangsu and Zhejiang), and some trips to Hangzhou, Wu's activities, for the most part, were centered in the vicinity of Suzhou.

Prefaces that can be dated to this period provide the only substantive and specific record of Wu Wenying's activities. From them it can be gathered that he circulated among the staff of the Grain Transport Office, officials in the district, career poets, and a group of friends of apparently wealthy gentry background. Together these members of the educated elite cultivated a style of living imbued with the elegance and refinement afforded by the material prosperity of the Southern Song. The more affluent among them had estates on which were constructed villas and luxuriously landscaped gardens where frequent social gatherings were conducted. The ways and manner of entertainment and literary diversion were considerable and often lavish; we come across occasions such as the banquet aboard a large decorated boat where potted peonies provided the theme of attraction (QSC 2890/1), or the morning garden party at which the guests engaged in lute playing and games of chess — the polite arts of a scholar-gentleman (QSC 2919/4) — or the simple celebration of the completion of a new house (QSC 2925/4). The occasions for social affairs seemed endless and all called for verse making. Wu Wenying consequently left a large volume of occasional and commemorative ci poems, written at birthday and farewell banquets, flower-viewing and other parties, and during excursions to scenic and historic sites. Given the popularity of ci poems for such occasions in the Southern Song and Wu's fame as a ci poet, we may infer that Wu was commissioned to write some of these poems, and in fact it is quite likely that many of these were impromptu lyrics, each written within a time limit and performed on the very occasion that the lyric celebrates. Much is jotted down that is merely technically skillful, floating, or suggested by the exigencies of rhyme or the demand for appropriate allusions. As poetry, many in this category lack intrinsic literary merit but are valuable for the vignettes of literary society they offer. Wu Wenying seems to have delighted in the company of high society and, with his poetic talent, must have fulfilled his role with consummate ease. The preface to the poem dated 1236, which he wrote on the night of the Lantern Festival (the fifteenth day of the first month) reveals a youthful exuberance soon to be clouded by age and personal tragedies:

This year the Lantern Festival in Suzhou was more spectacular than usual. While lodging in a quiet and secluded ward, I met many eminent people of the time. A banquet with wine was held, followed by the joys of polite company. It was indeed a grand affair. I received the rhyme word jing. (QSC 2919/2)

During this relatively long and stable period in Suzhou, Wu Wenying established lasting associations with certain high functionaries, which may have permitted him to later adopt a mode of life whose economic basis rested on an artist-patron affiliation. Most notable among these associations were those with Wu Qian (1196–1262), the top candidate among the jinshi graduates of 1217, and Shi Zhaizhi (1205–1249), from both of whom Wu enjoyed some form of patronage during certain periods after he left Suzhou. Although there is no direct evidence, a third figure could also be included in this category. This is Yin Huan, who together with Shi Zhaizhi is addressed more frequently than anyone else in Wu Wenying's extant works. Not much is known about Yin Huan other than that he also obtained his jinshi in 1217, the same year as Weng Fenglong and Wu Qian; was promoted to the position of Left Division Chief in the Department of Ministries in 1247; and is known to have composed ci poetry. Most important in relation to Wu Wenying, Yin Huan wrote a preface, still extant, to a now lost collection of Wu's ci poetry. One may recall the Councillor Du Fan's postscript to Weng Yuanlong's ci poetry; it was not an uncommon practice for patrons to write a preface or postscript to their protégés' work.

One may well ask at this point how Wu Wenying managed to cultivate these relationships, and if there is no more reliable evidence for such patronage than inferences and inductions. In considering the first question, two things need to be kept in mind. First is Wu Wenying's growing renown as a ci poet, and second is that his personal connections through his elder brother Weng Fenglong enabled him to meet and be noticed by the official class in Suzhou. One cannot, for example, overlook the possibility that his friendship with Yin Huan and Wu Qian grew out of initial introductions to them that came about because they had passed the jinshi in the same year as Weng Fenglong.

Toward the end of this period in Suzhou, Wu Wenying was demonstrably an accomplished, mature poet of substantial reputation. His poems were being included in contemporary anthologies of ci poetry. His "canon" of ci composition was recorded in the Yuefu zhimi by the poet and critic Shen Yifu (?–after 1297), who first met Wu in 1243 toward the end of the Suzhou period. Although no dates can be associated with their appearances, sources indicate that Wu Wenying's poems were printed during the Song in an edition of poetry entitled Liushi jia ci [Ci by sixty poets), and that a manuscript of his poetry in his own handwriting entitled Shuanghua yu was in circulation. The no longer extant collection to which Yin Huan had composed a preface must have been compiled at the end of this period or shortly afterwards, since this preface was partly quoted, along with a selection of Wu Wenying's poems, in the anthology of ci poetry compiled by Huang Sheng (fl.1240–49) in 1249. In this preface, Yin accords Wu highest honors among his contemporaries: "If one were to seek models of ci poetry in our age of the Song, there was Zhou Bangyan in the past and now there is Wu Wenying. These are not only my words, but the unanimous opinion within the four seas."

While Weng Fenglong was Vice-administrator of Suzhou from 1237 to 1240, the record of Administrators in the Suzhou gazetteer Wuxian zhi shows three names for this period which, significantly, are also found in Wu Wenying's collection of poetry. From 1237 to 1238 the post was held by Wu Qian, to whom we shall return at a later stage in Wu's life, and from 1239–1241, by Zhao Yuchou (fl.1240s), whose relevance to Wu's life is uncertain, since Wu only addressed one extant poem to him (QSC 2907/3). The administrator of Suzhou in these years whose relationship with Wu Wenying offers tangible areas for speculation is Shi Zhaizhi.

Also a native of Siming, and son of the notorious chief councillor Shi Miyuan (1164–1233), Shi Zhaizhi began his official career with the emperor's bestowal of a jinshi degree in 1233. Shi had two terms of office in Suzhou; succeeding Wu Qian in 1238, he left for the capital in 1239 when Zhao Yuchou assumed the post and returned in 1241 for a second term, which lasted till the beginning of 1243. During his first term as Administrator of Suzhou, Shi renovated the historical public building Qiyun Tower. There is a poem by Wu Wenying with this building as subject (QSC 2884/2). Both the poem and Wu's acquaintance with Shi are thought to date from about this time. As mentioned, there are more extant poems addressed to Shi Zhaizhi and Yin Huan by Wu than to anyone else. Though Shi was a few years Wu's junior, the deferential titles xiansheng and weng by which Wu invariably addresses him suggest more respect than might be warranted simply by Shi's seniority in rank. Furthermore, all the poems in question were either congratulatory or written at banquet gatherings — on just those occasions when a readily available talent was called for. The above factors would tend to support the possibility of a patron-artist relationship. Of the six poems whose place of composition can be determined, one was written at a banquet on a boat in Suzhou (QSC 2801/1), three were congratulatory lyrics written in Hangzhou (QSC 2875/5, 2919/5, 2935/4), another was from a night banquet held at Shi's garden residence, probably located in his native district Siming (QSC 2914/1), and the last one was composed during an excursion to view snow at Feiyi Tower in Shaoxing (QSC 2916/1). Of the remaining five poems, three were written at Shi's residence, though at which one of his residences is not clear. Considering the varied locales of Wu's poems for Shi, it seems fairly safe to say that Wu had formed part of Shi's entourage at times. It is likely that, with his purported interest in poetry, 39 Shi Zhaizhi may have invited Wu Wenying to act as a kind of poet-in-residence at times during the period from 1241, when he assumed his second term of office in Suzhou, until his death in Hangzhou in 1249. When Wu's movements between Suzhou and Hangzhou became discernible in 1243 and 1244, leading to his eventual move from Suzhou in 1244, their relationship to Shi Zhaizhi's departure from Suzhou in 1243 may be seen to be more than merely coincidental.


Excerpted from Wu Wenying and the Art of Southern Song Ci Poetry by Grace S. Fong. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • PREFACE, pg. ix
  • Chapter 1. Biography, pg. 1
  • Chapter 2. The Art of Southern Song Ci, pg. 32
  • Chapter 3. The Poetry of Wu Wenying: Major Themes and Subgenres, pg. 78
  • Chapter 4. Critical Views, pg. 162
  • Glossary, pg. 177
  • Bibliography, pg. 181
  • Index, pg. 189

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