A Ruist (Confucian) Lyricist Reflects upon Daoism to Commemorate Zhu Xi’s Death

“This spring morning, the drizzle has ceased. The sky has become sunny and blue; it is pleasant”
“This spring morning, the drizzle has ceased. The sky has become sunny and blue; it is pleasant”

(This essay has 1380 words)

When Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E, arguably the greatest Ru philosopher after Confucius) died, Xin Qiji (1140-1207 C.E), one of Zhu Xi’s best friends and also one of the greatest lyricists in ancient China, was courageous enough to weep and present an eulogy in Zhu’s funeral despite the fact that the official ban of Zhu Xi’s thought as ‘false learning’ was still enforced. In this post, I translate and comment Xin Qiji’s lyric to show how a genuine Ru friend commemorated Zhu Xi’s death.

感皇恩·讀莊子聞朱晦庵即世

辛棄疾

案上數編書,非莊即老。會說忘言始知道;萬言千句,不自能忘堪笑。今朝梅雨霽,青天好。一壑一丘,輕衫短帽。白發多時故人少。子雲何在,應有玄經遺草。江河流日夜,何時了。

Feeling Grateful to the Emperor (i) • Hearing of Zhu Hui-an’s Death while Reading the Zhuang Zi (ii)

Xin Qiji (1140-1207 C.E)

-

Several books are on my desk,

written by either Zhuang Zi or Lao Zi. (iii)

They say we can only know the Way

once we have forgotten words; (iv)

But they wrote thousands of words,

and thousands of sentences (v):

they themselves are unable to forget them!

I really ought to laugh. (vi)

-

This spring morning

the drizzle has ceased.

The sky has become sunny and blue;

it is pleasant. (vii)

-

One valley, one hill;

a light garment, and a short hat. (viii)

The more your hair turns gray,

the more old friends dwindle.

-

Where is Zi Yun?

His profound writings are still kept by some. (ix)

The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers run day and night;

when have they ever stopped? (x)

-

Notes:

(i) Lyrics from the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) typically had two names: a ‘tune name’ which specified the melody to be used when singing the lyric, and a ‘lyric name’ which summarized its meaning. Each particular ‘tune name’ constrained the lyricist to a fixed meter and rhythm. Xin Qiji's choice of the tune name ‘Feeling Grateful to the Emperor’ is ironic because it was the emperor who, at that time, had banned Zhu Xi’s thought as ‘false learning 偽學.’ This ban remained in effect even at Zhu Xi's death. Xin Qiji intended to be sarcastic by choosing this tune name for his lyric.

(ii) Zhu Hui-an is Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200 C.E), the greatest of the Neo-Ru philosophers; Hui-an 晦庵 is his style name.

(iii) When Xin Qiji received word of Zhu Xi’s death, he was reading the Zhuang Zi. This then became an occasion for Qiji to compose a lyric lamenting and honoring Zhu Xi’s death on the basis of his understanding of the difference between the philosophies of Daoism and Ruism.

(iv) It says in the Zhuang Zi : “The purpose of words is to convey meanings. Once their meanings are apprehended, words ought to be forgotten.” Similarly, the Dao De Jing teaches that the Way which is spoken is not the genuine Way, and that the Name which is said aloud is not the eternal Name. Despite sharing similar philosophical vocabularies, Ruism and Daoism are oriented towards fundamentally different worldviews. Philosophical Daoism represents a primitivist critique of all projects aiming for higher human civilization. Therefore, in order to return to the purportedly most energized, perfect, and primitive human society, Daoists tend to downplay all kinds of means to higher human civilization, including language, government, technology, education, etc. In contrast, Ruism represents a cautious, yet progressive attitude towards sustainable forms of higher human civilization. As a result, while Daoism teaches that people ought to ‘forget words (忘言),’ Ruism sees ‘establishing good words (立言),’ ‘establishing good works (立功),’ and ‘establishing moral worths (立德)’ as the three most important methods for an ordinary human being to achieve their ‘cultural immortality.’ (Concerning the Ruist notion of death, please refer to http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bin-song/a-catechism-of-ruism-conf_1_b_9519626.html). From a Ruist point of view, words do not simply convey meanings; they also mediate human behaviors so as to bring a humane and harmonious society into being. This, ultimately, is why every generation needs to learn and speak words correctly, according to their evolving social contexts. It is also the reason why, together with ‘good works’ and ‘moral worths’, saying or writing ‘good words’ is a sign of a person’s cultural immortality since, according to the Ruist view, this is how the Way is followed by human beings in the human world.

(v) There are more than eighty chapters in the Dao De Jing. The text of Zhuang Zi is even longer. Therefore, although Lao Zi teaches one not to speak in order to attain the genuine Way, and Zhuang Zi instructs one to forget words, they themselves are nevertheless prolific and loquacious writers. By pointing out this irony, Xin Qiji clearly expresses his Ruist stance: no, Zhuang Zi! Especially when a virtuous philosopher friend dies, we cannot believe that we ought to forget his words.

(vi) ‘I’ (Xin Qiji) really ought to laugh, but ‘I’ cannot because of Zhu Xi’s recent death.

(vii) Multiple readings of these purely descriptive verses are possible: 1) they symbolize the lyricist’s new understanding of Zhuang Zi; 2) the lyricist finally feels consoled because he knows how his friend has become immortal: Zhu Xi’s words, works, and moral worth would survive long after his death; or 3) through the images of ‘drizzle,’ ‘morning’ (whose antonym is ‘night’), and ‘sunny’ (whose antonym is ‘cloudy’), we can imagine that the lyricist must have suffered greatly when he learned of his friend’s death.

(viii) This may describe where Zhu Xi once lived and how he dressed, or may describe the lyricist’s case. Regardless, the corresponding relationship between ‘one valley’ and ‘one hill,’ and between ‘garment’ and ‘hat’ symbolize the rare, yet genuine friendship between people such as Zhu Xi and Xin Qiji. After Zhu Xi’s death, Xin Qiji was among the few acquaintances of Zhu Xi who dared to write an eulogy and attend Zhu Xi’s funeral. More details in this regard can be found in the commentary below.

(ix) Zi Yun is the style name of Yang Xiong (楊雄, 53-19 B.C.E), a great Ruist of the early Han dynasty. He wrote many important Ruist philosophical works which later generations of Ruists, including Xin Qiji, continued to read. The lyricist likens Zhu Xi to Yang Xiong in order to express his admiration for Zhu Xi, as well as his confidence that Zhu Xi’s cultural achievements will make him as immortal as Yang Xiong.

(x) The lyricist likens Zhu Xi’s cultural immortality to the everlasting running of the great rivers.

Commentary:

Xin Qiji (辛棄疾, 1140-1207 C.E) was a great lyricist of the Southern Song dynasty. In addition to his literary achievements, he was also a military leader and civil official. Throughout his entire career, Xin Qiji was committed to recovering the northern territories lost by the Song to the rival Jin dynasty. In this sense, he was a great Ruist whose talents showed a rare combination of military leadership, civil governmental skills, and literary achievement.

Xin Qiji was a close friend of Zhu Xi. Biographical passages in the History of Song 宋史 record the memorable friendship between these two great Ruists:

“Qiji once traveled to the mountain of Wuyi together with Zhu Xi. Qiji composed the Nine Folding Song for Paddling an Oar 九曲櫂歌 as a result. Zhu Xi also painted the calligraphic inscriptions ‘Enabling oneself to return to Ritual-Propriety’ (克己復禮) and ‘Get up early in the morning and go to sleep late in the night’ (夙興夜寐) for two rooms in Xin Qiji’s house. When Zhu Xi died, the official ban on Zhu Xi’s thought as ‘false learning’ was still strictly enforced. No students or friends dared to attend Zhu Xi’s funeral. Instead, Qiji composed an eulogy and went to weep at Zhu Xi’s funeral. The eulogy read: ‘The man who is immortal can make known his name for thousands of generations. Who says that you, Master, have died? Sublime and awe-inspiring, your virtue keeps you yet alive! ’”

Unlike other famous poets and lyricists of ancient China, such as Li Bai (李白 701-762 C.E), or Su Shi ( 蘇軾 1037-1101 C.E), who freely incorporated ideas from Ruism, Daoism, and Buddhism into their poems and lyrics, Xin Qiji remained a staunch Ruist who deliberately detached himself from Daoist teaching. In this translated lyric, Xin Qiji expresses his deep sorrow at Zhu Xi’s death, together with a great admiration for and confidence in Zhu Xi’s cultural accomplishments.

Translation, Notes and Commentary: Bin Song ; Editor: Paul Blair

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.