蜀相 – The Chancellor of Shu

It's called the 武侯祠 Wuhouci, if you wish to find it in Chengdu

The Tomb of Zhuge Liang

If there is one period of Chinese history that everyone seems to know about – thanks to certain novelists, but certainly also to the Japanese game-maker Koei and its unremitting efforts – it seems to be the last decades of the Eastern Han, and the Three Kingdoms Period (184 − 280 AD). This is the era of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four Great Novels of Chinese literature (my favourite one, incidentally); but even before that novel was written the period held an enduring fascination for writers.

Of that period, one of the main heroes is of course 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (181 − 234 AD), who even now is a byword for genius in Chinese, but was also known for his loyalty. Having helped his lord 刘备 Liu Bei (161 − 223 AD) conquer the lands of Shu, in modern day Sichuan province, he stabilised, administered and defended that state for a decade after Liu Bei’s death, launching repeated Northern Expeditions against the rival state of Wei in an attempt to reunite China. That he eventually died of overwork and illness was seen as a great tragedy, and part of that view was shaped by the poem we are looking at today.

We last talked about poor Du Fu, the long-suffering sage of poetry, who was kicked this way and that during the turbulent years of the An-Shi Rebellion (749 − 756 AD). One of the many places where he eventually settled was Chengdu, the main city of Sichuan; the province was ideal for Liu Bei because of its position, surrounded by mountains and easily defended, and so it was for the Tang court as well. No doubt Du Fu was all too aware of how another era of instability was washing over the empire again, which drove him to commemorate a hero of another chaotic era.

I’ve been to Chengdu, and visited both the Tomb of the Martial Marquess (Zhuge Liang’s tomb) and Du Fu’s Thatched Hut. The Tomb is indeed a quiet park, well managed and densely vegetated, while Du Fu’s supposed house is a lot more of a tourist trap, more like a Qing Dynasty rich man’s house than the refuge of a poet fleeing a long way from home. Still beautiful, though. I’d definitely recommend both places if one visits Chengdu.

It's a reconstruction, of course. No complaints though.

Du Fu’s thatched cottage, in Chengdu

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An Explanation of ‘Lyrics to the form of _______’, along with three translations of 忆江南 ‘Remembering the South’

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So far it seems I’ve been straying quite a bit into Song Dynasty territory, which is quite an intriguing place compared to that of the preceding Tang Dynasty. It’s a dangerous land – where the poems have no titles, the lines are not the same length, and the rules for matching character to character have become even more fiendish.

Several of the blog posts so far (here, here, here and here) have been about these irregular poems, which in Chinese are called 宋词 – literally ‘lyrics of the Song’. (Yes, yes, I see that too.) So here I will say something about this sort of poetry itself – why it is, what sorts of ‘forms’ there are, and what are some of the rules.
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青玉案-元夕 (Lyrics to the form ‘Azure Jade Table’ – on the Lantern Festival)

Xin Qiji, looking appropriately brooding and heroic

Xin Qiji, looking appropriately brooding and heroic

For some reason the idea of poetry is seen as being ‘unmanly’ these days – something I have never understood. The poetic spirit has risen out of all sorts of places, and ever since history there has been plenty of war poems – the earliest great poems, like the Iliad or the Mahabharata, were all about killing people in very large numbers.

So it is too with China. Today’s poet, 辛弃疾 Xin Qiji (1140 − 1207), is as bad-ass as Chinese poets come. Born in the waning years of the Northern Song Dynasty, when it came under repeated attacks from the rival Jin Dynasty and eventually retreated south (as so many Chinese dynasties do), Xin was an ardent nationalist and a fighter too. It was something that ran in the family; he was named Qiji, which literally means ‘to forsake illness’, to reflect the name of a great general from the Han Dynasty, 霍去病 Huo Qubing (140 BC – 117 BC); Qubing also means ‘to ward off illness’.

A famous wartime exploit of his was when one of his former comrades in the struggle against the Jin Dynasty, a man named Zhang Anguo, switched his allegiance, murdered a Song general and went to the Jin camp with the general’s head. Enraged by this, Xin led a hand-picked group of 50 horsemen, charged into the Jin camp at night, and dragged Zhang Anguo out to be delivered for execution. Because he’s a cultured man, presumably, and due process is the way!

Things did not go so well for him, though, with his own authorities; the pro-peace sentiments in the Song court meant that Xin was repeatedly sidelined, which in the end was not good for his health and mood. It’s turned out quite well for Chinese literature, though, as frustration tends to; much of Xin’s best works, like the following poem, came from his later years.

There is a certain ambiguity in this poem; on one hand, it could be a romantic poem about finding a loved one during the Lantern Festival, when young men and women were allowed to mingle and admire lanterns. On the other hand, given Xin’s political frustrations, it could also be about the strange gilded age around him in the southern capital at Lin’an (modern day Hangzhou) – the Southern Song Dynasty, after all, was immensely rich, wealthy and cultured, and yet always teetering at the edge of being destroyed.

Fun fact about this poem – the Chinese search engine and portal Baidu, which literally means ‘a hundred times’, comes from a line in this poem. Which makes sense, as you will find out.

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念奴娇 -赤壁怀古 (Lyrics to the form of ‘Missing the Songstress’ – Reminiscing at the Red Cliffs)

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Su Shi, or Su Dongpo – who has been featured on this blog before, here and here – is known these days for being good at just about every civilised pursuit there was. As a politician in the turbulent years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960 − 1127), though, he often became the chew toy for the Imperial administration. Twice in his life he was caught up in court intrigues and exiled from the capital in 开封 Kaifeng (in modern day Henan) towards the south, first to modern day Hubei, and then all the way to Hainan.

Many of Su’s most famous works were written during these periods of exile, and the poem we are looking at today is one of them, dating from his exile to the prefecture of Huangzhou (in modern day Hubei). Its subject matter, though, is probably what’s most famous about the poem – the Battle of the Red Cliffs in 208 AD.

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A bit of Jazz!

She’s been a long time coming, and many of us thought she wouldn’t be coming at all. But I think it’s safe to say Lady Summer’s finally upon us, in a spray of vaguely floral scents, lots of gorgeous flowers and adorably clumsy bees, and flies. Clouds and clouds of the damn things.

In short, FUCK YEAH. So here’s a bit of noise for that.

Sikpou Saturdays: Lemongrass Chicken

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Lemongrass is just such a versatile plant. Its flavour is friendly to both sweet and savoury dishes, and yet it is completely unmistakeable, standing out like an attractive and sociable person in any setting. Even outside of food, it has its uses; the oil is a good insect repellent, especially since it smells better than most alternatives, and also has antiseptic effects.

No wonder it’s so popular in the tropics, where food is strongly flavoured and the bugs are everywhere. The Malays use it liberally to season grilled meats; the Thais put it in their soups. But in my family, lemongrass goes with chicken, and a rich, dark gravy.

I asked my mother for specifics about this recipe, which I rarely do on my own, and now that I have it, there is a striking similarity between her recipe and the Vietnamese recipe for a lemongrass marinade to grill pork with. Of course, as a marinade, the ingredients are properly blitzed and basted; but all the elements are there. How on earth my mom learned this recipe (she doesn’t know any Vietnamese people or restaurants, as far as I know) is a bit of a mystery again. But you know what, I’m not complaining at all. Life is so much poorer without mysteries. And lemongrass chicken.

Being a proper homemaker and cook, she says I ought to use chicken legs with the bones included; the high heat cooking can glean more flavour from the bones. I didn’t do that in the end, but that’s personal preference. I expect chicken wings would do well with this sauce as well, if you brown them first; then the gravy becomes more of a deep-coloured glaze, fragrant with a slight ginger-kick.
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Travel Wednesday Special: Review of Riddle and Finns

I’m with George Orwell on a lot of things, but In Defence of English Cooking is an essay I have always been a bit ambivalent about. Nonetheless, in London at least, I can see his point. If someone says that the Brits can’t cook, the capital has plenty of Berkeley-style refutations (kick optional).

But.

Ah, the slippery, denigrating bastard says. I never said Brits can’t cook anything. What I mean is, they can’t cook seafood, and they can’t cook it in a British style.

That’s a bit harder to refute in London, where seafood is generally (and mystifyingly) woeful. But now I have a refutation for that too. It involves taking the critic to Brighton, and then taking them into one of the small back-alleys near the city centre. I’m not advocating violence. I’m saying you take them to Riddle and Finns.

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