A wonder of the ancient world

If you can, every now and then it is good to escape the reality which you have settled into. Of course, youth is the time to escape as much as possible before reality has even had time to settle.  With the passing years, career, marriage, children, gathering responsibilities – and with more and more of those passing years accumulating ‒ the opportunities to escape reality grow fewer and in any case the inclination to escape gets weaker. The prospect of cruising the world and attending all the festivals palls compared with the luxury of enjoying what you have come to know and love. The garden at your doorstep beckons more seductively than the golden groves of Hindustan. I myself have become as much as anyone, and I think more than most, a creature of comfortable habit and routine.

Still … the urge to seek new worlds does not disappear, though the decrepitude of age and the horrors of modern travel reduce the ambition to venture forth to an occasional twinge of desire.

Fortunately, the desire for adventuring in new realms is comfortably satisfied by travelling in the marvellous kingdoms which books discover and deliver beyond the confines of the world you know. Hardly a week passes without the experience through reading of a different country, a long-ago age, a completely foreign way of life, some land whose history and geography are extraordinary, people whose lives are strange and beautiful and previously unknown.

Recently I revisited an old book I loved about the T’ang Dynasty in China (600-900). What wonders are there revealed, so vivid they hardly seem a thousand years second-hand. Are a few days spent vicariously with the T’angs not as good as, even better than, a visit in the flesh to some holiday destination?

Let me give the smallest flavour. The Grand Canal, 1,200 miles long, a massive feat of engineering, joined north and south and an astonishing network of highways and waterways linked 1,859 cities, 22 of them with populations of at least half a million. The capital Ch’ang – an (today’s Xi’an in central China) had 2 million people, the largest city in the world by far, covering thirty square miles laid out in a precise grid pattern with wide avenues lined with fruit and flowering trees and patrolled by unforgiving policemen, the Gold Bird Guards.

You get lost in the endless wonders of this world which once so vibrantly existed. Life was codified exactly and enforced by imperial edict: the length of tunics, market prices, the colours that may be worn by the various Ministers, the number of blows with a thin rod that a coachman caught speeding should receive. There were prohibitions against eating a white sheep that had a black head or serving a dish of pheasants with walnuts. So much to discover – the costumes, the etiquette, the musical instruments, the myriad of entertainments, the palace bureaucracy known as the Service of Radiant Emolument, in charge of banquets among other things – steamed bear paws, Bactrian camel humps, jellyfish with cinnamon, in summer melons kept cool in jade urns of ice brought down from the mountains. Women in the courts painted their eyebrows green; the standard of beauty was to have brows as delicately curved as the antennae of moths. There were holidays for viewing the full moon and for attempts to outshine the moon;  one emperor raised a lantern tree two hundred feet tall with 50,000 oil cups lit by a thousand palace women costumed in brocade.

T’ang art was extraordinarily rich. For the first time in history, artists were considered as belonging to schools rather than as isolated individual talents. There were painters who specialized in women or horses, hawks or flowers, insects or animals, portraits or landscapes. There were eccentric geniuses, strange as any in our modern menageries of exotics; Mo Wang, for instance, known as Ink Wang, who painted only when he was drunk. It was said that after countless cups of wine, he would throw ink on a piece of silk and then, in the words of a T’ang critic, “He would kick at it, smear it with his hands, sweep his brush about or scrub with it, here with pale ink, there with dark. Then he would follow the configurations thus achieved, to make mountains or rocks or clouds or water.” So many centuries have passed but he comes wonderfully alive before our eyes, Ink Wang, the great and drunken painter!

But the T’ang dynasty was, above all, a time of poetry. This is universally considered China’s golden age of poetry. Some 50,000 poems by 2,200 poets survive. There were poems about everything from stomach aches to the decline of empire. It was a poetry of precise observation and concrete images of everyday life and nature. But it was also a poetry where the sublime and the whole range of emotions were expressed by not being explained explicitly, shown not told. It was a poetry of individuals at home, in the office, in town, in the country, in exile, at war. It is a poetry brilliantly concise and compressed. Here is a poem by Tu Fu which, in Chinese, has just eight lines:


I Pass The Night at General Headquarters

A clear night in harvest time.

In the courtyard at headquarters

The Wu-Tung trees grow cold.

In the city by the river

I wake alone by a guttering

candle. All night long bugle

calls disturb my thoughts. The splendour

Of the moonlight floods the sky.

Who bothers to look at it?

Whirlwinds of dust, I cannot write.

The frontier pass is unguarded.

It is dangerous to travel.

Ten years wandering, sick at heart.

I perch here like a bird on a

Twig, thankful for a moment’s peace.


My favourite, though, amidst all the wonders is Li Shang-Yin who worked as a simple proof-reader in the Imperial Library. It is impossible, of course, at this distance to appreciate the labyrinth of references and allusions in his poetry but what remains is a presence which transfixes you. Li Shang-Yin’s poetry, like most great poetry, hovers on the edge of being understood and is never quite understood and endlessly needs to be understood.



 The brocade curtains have just

   rolled back. Behold the Queen

       of Wei.

    Still he piles up the embroidered

    quilts, Prince O in Yueh.

  Drooping hands disturb, tip over,

    pendants of carved jade:

  Snapping waists compete in the

     dance, fluttering saffron skirts.

    Shih Ch’ung’s candles – but who

      would clip them?

      Hsun Yu’s braziers, where no

     incense fumes.

    I who was given in a dream the

         brush of many colours

     Wish to write on petals a message

to the clouds of morning.


And here back home the politicians squabble and new taxes are much debated and the lights go on and off and the herons rise off the eternal fields of rice.


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