Custom Search

To the Tune of "Charming Nian-nu 1 "

Jiang, Kui 2 (1154-1221 CE)


    I stayed at my friend’s mansion at Wu-ling City, the capital of Hubei Province. Wild water runs through this ancient city and tall trees reach into the sky. Two or three friends and I are boating on the river. We drink wine near the lotus flowers (the title of the following video file is "Lotus Emerging from Water": Leisurely and carefree, we seem to live in a world away from humanity. Autumn ponds run dry for now. The lotus leaves are eight feet above the ground, so we sit under them in the shade. When the breeze arrives gently, the green clouds move themselves. From where the leaves are sparse, we can catch a glimpse of tourists on a pleasure boat. This is one of our amusements. Coming and going between Wu-xing City and Wu-ling City, I enjoyed being carefree among lotus flowers on several occasions. I also float in a boat on the Western Lake in the evening. The wonderful scenery inspires me to write this poem.


The boat is covered with fallen flowers.
I recall that when I came,
I had mandarin ducks as my companions.
My lover has not come to the area of thirty-six ponds 3.
There are numerous dew-decorated lotus leaves and wind-clothed blossoms.
The green leaves of lotuses bring in cool wind
Which sprinkles the dew off the cattails and aquatic grass.
The beautiful blossoms enhance my enjoyment of the wine.
When they smile and wave in the wind,
Their cold fragrance flies upon my verse 4.

At sunset the stems of green covers 5 stand erect.
I have not seen my lover.
How can I ride the waves and leave?
I only fear that the dancing robes 6 are too thin to resist chill
And will easily fall.
Sorrows follow the wind to enter the southern shore.
The branches of high willow trees hang down providing shade.
The old fish blow waves.
The shade and waves invite me to stay among flowers.
The lush lotus leaves create a maze.
I am lost on the shoal and cannot find the road to return.


1 "Nian-nu" was a famous geisha girl of the Tian-bao Period. “Tian-bao” was one of Emperor Xuan-zong’s reign titles during the Tang dynasty. The melody, “Charming Nian-nu” was composed to praise her outstanding performance. If a royal banquet lasted a long time, the guests would become noisy and impatient. However, if the host announced that Nian-nu would sing a song, the guests would immediately become quiet. The following audio file is "Charming Nian-nu":

2 Xiao-zhang and Bai-shi were Kui Jiang’s other first names. He was a native of Fan-yang City (present day Po-yang-xian City in Jiangxi Province). His ancestors came from Tian-shi-xian City. His seventh generation ancestor, Pan, taught at Rao City in the beginning of the Song dynasty. Later, Pan moved to Jiangxi Province. Kui Jiang’s father, E, passed the Advanced Exam in 1160 and became the Mayor of Han-yang-xian City. He died while he was still the mayor. Kui, following his father, traveled between Mian City and E City for almost twenty years. After his father died, Kui Jiang moved to Hunan Province to join his sister's. During the Chun-xi Period (1174-1187), he, through a friend's recommendation, studied under the tutelage of De-zao Xiao (1130?-1200?) from Ming-qing City (of Fujian Province). De-zao mastered poetry. He, Wan-li Yang (1127-1206), Cheng-da Fan (1126-1193), You Lu (1125-1209) and Mao You (1127-1202) were equally famous poets. After meeting Jiang, Xiao said that only after forty years of writing poetry was he able to find this congenial friend. Xiao married the daughter of his elder brother to Jiang. Jiang brought her to Hu-zhou City and lived there. By the recommendation of Wan-li Yang, Jiang met Cheng-da Fan at Su-zhou City. Fan thought Jiang’s poetry and character were like those of refined scholars in the Jin and Liu-song dynasties. Jiang learned from Fan some ancient songs.
    Later, he traveled between Su-zhou City and Song-zhou City and loved to compare himself to Hermit Gui-meng Lu (?-881). At that time celebrities like Yao Lou (1137-1213), Shi Ye (1150-1223), Tang Jing (1138-1200), and Shen-fu Xie (1139-1204) all befriended him. Xi Zhu (1130-1200) loved Jiang's skill in liturgy. Qi-ji Xin (1140-1207) admired Jiang's poetry. In 1197, Jiang presented two essays "Grand Music" and "The History of the Zither and Harp" to the emperor. These essays discussed music and musical instruments as well as the gain and loss of poetry. The emperor sent Jiang's essays to the Royal Academy for evaluation. The scholars were jealous of Jiang's talent, so his work did not gain the Academy's recommendation. In 1199, Jiang presented twelve movements of "Military Music of the Great Song Dynasty" to the emperor. The emperor broke rules to exempt him and gave him the opportunity to attend the Palace Exam. Jiang failed the exam, so he never received any government position during his lifetime. Later, he died by the Western Lake.
    Jiang looked so thin and weak that it seemed he should not be able to bear the weight of his clothing. He was so poor that he did not have any real estate. However, he never ate a meal without a friend beside him. His collection of books and works of calligraphy could fill a house and make cattle sweat to carry them. Yan Zhang (1248-1320?) compared Jiang's poetry to a wild cloud flying alone: it comes and goes without leaving a trace. Jiang mastered both poetry and music. Sheng Huang (c. 1240) said in the area of Jiang’s expertise, even Bang-yan Zhou (1056-1121) paled in comparison. In 1191, Jiang visited Wan-li Young and listened to long lost lute music of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE). Jiang studied it and created some music of similar style. In the same year Cheng-da Fan retired and invited Jiang to his mansion at Wu-xian City (present day Su-zhou City). After he visited nearby scenic spots, Jiang composed two songs, "Hidden Fragrance" and "Sparse Shadows", and presented them to Fan. Fan ordered his maid, Xiao-hong, to sing the songs. The music was melodious. Fan praised Jiang very much and gave Xiao-hong to Jiang.
    Jiang wrote a poem first and then composed music to complement it. Seventeen of his accompanied scores have been passed down to the present day as his legacy. Fourteen of them were created to match the poetic forms he created. Three of them were created to match existing poetic forms. He wrote a prologue for each of his melodies to provide its motive and background and the techniques to play it. Jiang's music scores matched seamlessly with his poetry. They are considered one of the most precious treasures in Chinese music history.
    Kui Jiang had a love affair which vaguely appeared in some of his poems. Without knowing the story of his love affair, people had difficulty understanding Jiang's poems. Cheng-tao Xia (1900-) finally figured out Jiang's love story. The story went as follows: In his early years, Jiang lived at He-fei City in Anhui Province. He met a pair of sisters who played lute. Jiang fell in love with one of them. Because Jiang did not have a job, they separated eventually. People used to consider Jiang's poems lacking in romance. In fact, Kui Jiang's passionate devotion to his lover could only be matched by that of You Lu to Wan Tang. Cheng-tao Xia found evidence of this love affair in twenty-two of Jiang's poem. Now people consider Jiang's love poems outstanding.
    Kui Jiang was above worldly interests all his life. He befriended Jian Zhang, a grandson of General Jun Zhang. Jian Zhang was Jiang's patron for a long time. After Jian Zhang died, Jiang lost the financial support and lived next to Bai-shi (white stone) Cave at Xu-kang City in Wu-xing County. Zhan-weng Pan called Jiang "Bai-shi-dao-ren ('dao-ren' means 'god or Taoist [Taoist was considered a demigod]')". Kui Jiang responded with a humorous poem. It says, "What does the god at Nan-shan Mountain eat?/ He cooks white stones for his meal every night./ People called him the God of White Stone./ His food costs teeth instead of money." This poem reveals Jiang's poverty and hardship.
    Kui Jiang was a famous calligrapher. His book, A Guide to Calligraphy, containing eighteen chapters, was the most important theoretical work on calligraphy since Guo-ting Sun's (646-691) book by the same title. Let us glimpse some of Jiang's ideas in the following three chapters:
Chapter 1. Introduction
    If one merely imitates the calligraphical works of masters, one's calligraphical works will lack spirit; if one merely tries to energize one's calligraphical works, they may look vulgar. In short, successful calligraphers must practice constantly and imbue their calligraphical works their feelings.
Chapter 2. The regular script
    The regular script should not look lifeless: A dot is a character's eye which may reveal a beauty's feelings; a falling stroke is a character's limb which should move like a fish's fin or a bird's wing; a rising stroke is a character's manner of walking which must be tranquil and graceful. The cursive hand frequently uses a smooth turn, while the regular script frequently uses a sharp turn. When one's writing brush makes a sharp turn, it should stop for a moment. This will add strength to the character. When one's writing brush makes a smooth turn, one should not stop in the middle. Otherwise, the character will lack vigor. If we add sharp turns to the cursive hand or add smooth turns to the regular script, it may increase a character's strength. Every downward vertical line should come to a point; at the end of each stroke, one should move one's writing brush back somewhat.
Chapter 4. The elaborate cursive hand
    The elaborate cursive hand may appear as though a person sits, stands, walks, sleeps, cries, dances, rides a horse, or rows a boat. Even though the same character can have different appearances, there are certain artistic rules for the stroke arrangement in a character's structure. An improper cursive hand may look ugly as though a snake slithers or an earthworm wriggles. A proper way to master the elaborate cursive hand is to first learn the natural structure of characters from the calligraphical works of Zhi Zhang (c. 192), Xiang Huang (c. 250), and Jing Suo (239-303) and then study the calligraphical works of Xi-zhi Wang (303-351). One should press one's writing brush hard when writing dot strokes and lightly when writing other types of strokes. A successful elaborate cursive hand requires careful observation, sensitive feelings, comprehension through contemplation, a broad mind, rich life experiences, and skills gained from constant practice.

3 "The area of thirty-six ponds" is an imaginary place often used in ancient poems. This phrase was used to explain that there were many ponds in that area.

4 De-zao Xiao, Kui Jiang's teacher, wrote the following fable: "Once upon a time there was a mad monk who drank wine and caused trouble on the streets. The mayor of the city arrested him and decided to banish him to his hometown. Thus, the monk was sent away under escort by Constable Wu. The constable mistreated the monk. One night while they stayed in a hotel, the monk got the constable drunk, had his head shaved, swapped clothes with the constable, put shackles on his feet, and escaped by climbing over the wall. After awakening the next morning, the constable stroked his shaven head and said, 'The monk remains here, where have I gone?'" In the epilogue, De-zao Xiao remarked, "In this world there are many people who are as lost as Constable Wu." De-zao Xiao separated the constable's soul from his body and placed it within another bodily form to illustrate the theme of his fable in an interesting manner. Kui Jiang embodied his "verse" with a physical form to strengthen the poetic quality of this line. Xiao and Jiang's writings might look different, but they were derived from the same artistic device: dividing one concept into its conceptual and physical sides.

5 "Green covers" refers to "lotus leaves".

6 "The dancing robes" refers to the lotus blossoms.