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The Song of Stone Drums 1

Han, Yu 2 (768-825 CE)

Mr. Zhang 3 showed me a book, imprinted from the stone drums,
And persuaded me to write a song about them.
Poets no longer live near the Young Tomb 4;
The exiled god 5 is deceased.
Lacking talent as I do,
How can I succeed in writing such a poem?
In the middle of the Zhou dynasty
Law and discipline of the government were in decline.
China heaved in turmoil like a raging sea.
Emperor Xuan-wang rose, brandishing his lance,
And led his troops to crush the rebellion.
He opened his palace to celebrate his triumph.
All the kings and dukes came to congratulate him.
The party was so crowded that the swords hanging from the guests' waists clashed against each other.
In Spring, the emperor and his retinue rode horses south of Qi Mountain.
They hunted and captured all the birds and animals in this area.
To show their great achievement to later generations,
They shaped the huge stones on a tall mountain into drums.
All the officials in the emperor's court were talented.
Emperor Xuan-wang chose their best writings,
Had them carved on these stones,
And left the drums on the mountain.
Although drenched in rain, roasted by the sun, and burned by wild fires,
The engravings have remained in good condition.
Perhaps the patron god has protected them against evil spirits.
I wonder how such a complete copy was made with nothing lost.
Refined rhetoric and profound meaning make it difficult to understand its content.
The form of the characters does not resemble the Jailer 6 or Tadpole 7 form.
The passage of many years has caused the sculpted writings to lose a stroke or two.
Even the character missing a stroke is as full of life
As a dragon whose tail has been freshly slashed by a swift sword.
Each character is as graceful as a goddess
Riding a phoenix and drifting down to the earth.
The calligraphy is as lively and graceful as coral or a green tree
Whose branches intertwine with each other.
The handwriting is vigorous;
The analysis is rigorous
As if the argument were as strong as a gold rope or an iron chain.
The calligraphy is as grandiose and unpredictable as a shuttle that becomes a dragon 8
Or the water splashing when a huge caldron is dropped into the river.
It is deplorable that the shallow scholars failed to include the drum engravings
When they compiled The Book of Poetry.
This omission makes it appear
That Major Grace and Minor Grace 9 were compiled from narrow resources.
Confucius traveled to every country in China to collect historical material,
But his westward trip did not reach the State of Qin 10.
Although he gathered all the stars in the sky,
He left out the sun and the moon.
What a pity that I who love ancient culture was born too late to be able to appreciate it.
Facing such precious writing,
I am tearful, overwhelmed by emotion.
I recall when I was appointed as a member of the Royal Academy
In the year the Yuan-he Period 11 began.
A friend of mine, the secretary of a commander,
Managed to excavate the buried stone drums for me.
I washed my hat and took a bath
Before I went to the Director 12 of the Academy for help
And told him how truly rare this treasure was.
Had the stone drums been wrapped with blankets or straw mats,
It would have taken only a few camels to carry them to the palace.
Had we put them in the royal temple alongside the worshipping caldron,
They would have been valued a hundred times more than the caldron.
Had the emperor allowed them to be preserved in the Imperial University,
The lecturers could have done research on these stone drums
And the students could have studied the findings of their teachers.
In the Han dynasty,
Even a library with ordinary books attracted crowds of book lovers daily.
Such precious writing would surely have drawn the entire nation to rush to see it.
We could have removed the moss on the drums to show the beautiful strokes of the characters.
We could have leveled and stabilized them to prevent accidental damage.
Had we put them in a high-rise with protruding eaves,
We could have provided the drums with lasting protection much earlier.
However, all the officials in the emperor's court cared only about their personal ambitions.
None of them had the vision and enthusiasm to react quickly enough to rescue the treasure.
Now shepherd boys use them to strike a fire
And cattle use them to sharpen their horns.
Who will treasure these precious stones?
Scorched by the sun and eroded by the wind,
These stone drums will soon deteriorate to a complete ruin.
I have looked to the west and lamented in vain for six years.
Xi-zhi Wang sought the beauty in calligraphy.
Even a few pages of his handwriting could win white geese in return 13.
Eight dynasties have passed since the storm drums were erected.
Each dynasty rose from a new war.
But alas! Even though China is at peace now,
Still no one has proposed to preserve these drums.
The government's education emphasizes only Confucianism,
So how can I persuade the emperor to preserve these stone drums?
I wish I could be as eloquent as a waterfall.
My poem about the stone drums stops here
Because no one will listen
No matter how hard I try to persuade them.


1 In the beginning of the Tang dynasty, ten stone drums were discovered in present day Feng-xiang-xian City in Shaanxi Province. There was a poem inscribed on each stone drum. Yu Han wrote this poem in 811 CE. He recognized the historical value of the stone drums and stressed the importance of preserving them. The engravings on the stone drums are China’s oldest sculpted writing on stones. Yu Han thought the characters were of the form used in the Zhou dynasty. However, recent research has shown that they were of the form used in the Qin dynasty.

2 Tui-zi was Yu Han's other first name. He was a native of Nan-yang City (present day Meng-xian City of Henan Province). His ancestors used to live in Chang-li City (west of present day Xu-shui-xian City in Hebei Province), so he called himself "Yu Han from Chang-li City". When he was three, his parents died. His brother’s wife raised him. He studied hard during his early years and mastered the Six Classics and various schools of philosophy. In 792 CE, he passed the Advanced Exam. At the peak of his career, he was the Minister of the Civil Service. He was given the posthumous name "Wen" (literature) by the emperor.
    In the early Tang dynasty, writers loved to write essays in poetry form. Han advocated that an essay must have a virtuous theme and tried to revolutionize literature by reverting to an ancient style. He also advocated for replacing the contemporary essays written in poetry form with prose. Han's views on literature greatly affected the literature of both his contemporaries and later generations. Anthologists of later generations collected the essays of Yu Han, Zong-yuan Liu, Xiu Ou-yang, Gong Zeng, An-shi Wang, Xun Su, Shi Su, and Che Su as exemplary essays for literature students, and called the above eight essayists the Eight Masters of Literature During the Tang and Song dynasties. Yu Han was ranked first.
    Dong-po Su commented on Yu Han's writing: "Chinese literature had been lifeless for eight dynasties until Han published his essays. Han proposed that an essay must have a virtuous theme. His effort in promoting virtue guided China along a vigorous and prosperous track."
    Tu Si-kong said, "In order to determine the purity of gold, it is sufficient to test it with a bell or a chime. If it is pure gold, it will ring melodiously for both. Similarly, from a poem or an essay one may tell the writer's talent and taste. No writers master one style but not the other. I observe that when one writes a poem or an essay, one typically bases it on one's expertise first. Through comprehensive reading and study, one gradually masters a new style and eventually achieves great accomplishments. A talented writer is like a man of unusual strength who can defeat his enemy no matter what weapon he uses. I have read a hundred of Yu Han's poems. His drive and spirit, like thunder and lightning, shook the world. Anyone who read his writings will be affected by their power and lingering appeal."
    Shi Huang-fu wrote the epitaph for Yu Han's tomb. It says, "In September 824CE Yu Han resigned his position as the Minister of Civil Service due to his illness. He wrote to me, 'Death makes me work hard on what may last after I die. I will entrust my work to you.' Then he died in January 825 CE. [¼ ] Yu Han was a sixth-generation descendent of the An-huan King of the Late Wei dynasty. Rei-su, the Secretary of Gui-Zhou City, fathered Zhong-qing; Zhong-qing fathered Yu. Yu Han loved to study. He wrote essays when he was seven. He indulged his passion in promoting sages' legacy during his early twenties. At first, people ignored him. Later, his writings shook the field of literature and his accomplishments illuminated China. Government officials were amazed by his explosive influence and tried to push him aside. Yu Han endured hardship and frustrations and worked hard in promoting virtue. One cannot classify his writings into a single style because he was a versatile writer. However, all of his writings were refined. Yu Han focused on the essence of Chinese classics, led Chinese literature to the virtuous track, and united with other writers to promote Confucianism. He mastered both classics and contemporary literature. His ability to think and write fast, his vigorous poetry, and his powerful words would burst forth as long as there was a writing brush in his hand. It will be difficult for future generations to surpass him. Yu Han has been the greatest writer in China since the Zhou dynasty. Since he passed the Advanced Exam, he has been appointed to twenty-seven government positions: censor, minister, senior secretary, and member of the Legislative Bureau. Yu Han suffered three demotions because when he attempted to improve the government, the authority considered his advice damaging to the government's reputation. [¼ ] When Yuan-ji Wu rebelled, the emperor sent troops to crush his army. However, the government's attempt to quell the rebellion had been to no avail for a long time. The war depleted the nation's treasury and everyone lived in fear. At that time Yu Han was in charge of defense affairs under Prime Minister Du Pei. When the prime minister's troops left Tong-guan Pass, Yu Han volunteered to go to Bian-liang City in advance to persuade the enemy commander to surrender. Yu Han's success prevented a civil war and led to the capture of Yuan-ji Wu. Later, Ting-cou Wang rebelled and attacked Yuan-yi Niu at Shen City. One hundred thousand relief troops hesitated, stalled, and lacked courage to advance to his rescue. Emperor Mu-zong asked the court officials to go to the rebel camp to persuade them to surrender. All the officials, except one, trembled and excused themselves from the task. Yu Han bravely took up the perilous mission. Yuan Zhen advised the emperor, "It would be deplorable if the rebels killed Yu Han." (In 785 CE, Zhen-qing Yan, the Minister of Punishment and a famous calligrapher, was killed when he went to an enemy camp to summon the rebels to surrender.) Emperor Mu-zong regretted his decision and hurriedly sent a messenger to order that Yu Han find a safe place for negotiation. Yu Han said, "The emperor's message has showed his benevolence, but death is my unshirkable duty." Consequently, he went directly to the enemy camp and rebuked the rebels. The rebels were astonished. They released Yuan-yi Niu, knelt in front of Yu Han and admitted their mistakes. In The Spring and Autumn Annals, Confucius praised Sun-chen Zang for using his possessions to buy grain from the State of Qi and then using the grain to give relief to famine victims. If one compares this event with Yu Han’s story, one may easily tell whose task is more difficult. It can be said that Yu Han was an exemplar of court officials. Soon after Yu Han became the mayor of the national capital. He saved money by reducing the number of imperial guards and used it to buy grain for the victims of drought. During his government he dulled the edges of evil officials’ swords. Then he became the Minister of Civil Service again. [¼ ] Yu Han was hospitable, optimistic and broad-minded. If his relatives or friends could not support themselves, he would help them with food, clothing, and money for their weddings and funerals. He never separated himself from books. When he slept, he used them as a pillow. When he ate, he used them to promote his appetite. He prepared his lectures industriously while he taught at the Imperial University. He often used humor and songs to entertain his students and thus intoxicated them with the grandeur of virtue. His students were so interested his lectures that they often forgot to return home. Alas! It can be said that Yu Han was an easygoing gentleman and literary giant."

3 "Mr. Zhang" refers to Che Zhang, a disciple of Yu Han. According to others, "Mr. Zhang" refers to Ji Zhang.

4 Fu Du, a great Chinese poet, used to live in the neighborhood of the Young Tomb. After the rebel troops stormed and captured the capital and Emperor Xuan-zong fled, Du called himself the Old Adherent of the Young Tomb to signify his loyalty to the emperor. The Young Tomb was the tomb of Queen Xu, the wife of Emperor Xuan-di of the Han dynasty.

5 The exiled god refers to Poet Bai Li.

6 The form of characters used in the Qin dynasty made them difficult to write. When imprisoned for his crime, Miao Cheng of the Qin dynasty created this more convenient form for jailers who needed to write official documents.

7 The Tadpole form is the form of Chinese characters used in the Zhou dynasty.

8 It was said that one day during the Jin dynasty, the child Kan Tao went fishing at Thunder Pond. He caught a weaving shuttle. After returning home, he hung it on the wall. Before long, there was a thunderstorm. The shuttle suddenly became a dragon and flew away. Here the shuttle describes the unpredictable transformations of the words used.

9 Major Grace and Minor Grace were two major poetry books in ancient China.

10 The stone drums were discovered in a location that had belonged to the territory of the State of Qin during the Warring States Period.

11 "Yuan" means perfect; "he" means harmony. "Yuan-he" was Emperor Xian-zong's reign title during the Tang dynasty.

12 The title of the Director of the Royal Academy is "Libationer", but his duty was to oversee the Royal Academy.

13 Xi-zhi Wang was the father of Chinese calligraphy. It is said that he copied Dao-de-jing (the Bible of Taoism) for a Taoist priest. The priest rewarded him with a cage of geese.