Sima Xiangru Additional Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese poet, scholar-official, and musician{$I[g]China;Sima Xiangru} China’s greatest composer of a type of rhapsodic poem in a complex and highly stylized language, Sima Xiangru also was one of Imperial China’s most revered players of the seven-string zither prized by the literati for its evocative expression. The marriage of Sima Xiangru and his young wife Zhuo Wenjun is a classic love story in traditional Chinese culture.

Early Life

Sima Xiangru (sur-mah shyang-rew) lived during the Western, or Former, Han Dynasty (206 b.c.e.-23 c.e.). Information about his life, including versions of his most important writings, comes primarily from biographies—largely similar to each other—in the early histories the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993) of Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien, 145-86 b.c.e.) and the Han Shu (also known as Qian Han Shu, completed first century c.e.; The History of the Former Han Dynasty, 1938-1955) of Ban Gu (Pan Ku; 32-92 c.e.).

Sima Xiangru was from a well-to-do family in Chengdu (Ch’eng-tu), the principal city of the prosperous southwestern region of Shu (modern-day Sichuan Province). He was provided with an excellent education in literature, history, and philosophy and is said to also have studied swordsmanship in his youth. Sometime around age twenty-five he was able to use his family wealth to purchase an appointment at the imperial court. Finding this posting not to his liking due to the emperor’s lack of interest in literary composition, he resigned on the pretext of illness in 151 or 150 b.c.e. and joined the literary coterie gathered under the patronage of the emperor’s younger brother Liu Wu (r. 168-143 b.c.e.), then king of the state of Liang (in modern-day Henan Province). Sima Xiangru had been impressed by Liu Wu and his entourage during their recent stay in the imperial capital; the group included such literary luminaries as Zou Yang (Tsou Yang; c. 206-129 b.c.e.), Mei Sheng (Mei Cheng; d. 141 b.c.e.), and Zhuang Ji (Chuang Chi, also known as Yan Ji; c. 188-105 b.c.e.). It is during the period when Sima Xiangru was associated with the Liang court circle that he produced the first of the poetic compositions that would gain him recognition and praise both in his time and throughout history.

Life’s Work

Sima Xiangru composed Fu (poetic form) the Zixu fu (second century b.c.e.; Sir Fantasy, 1971) a few years after joining the group of highly talented literati at Liu Wu’s court. It was an imagistic tour-de-force description of the royal hunting preserve in the old state of Chu (located in Hubei and Hunan Provinces), framed as a dialogue between two characters who boast of the relative merits of their states. Sir Fantasy, on a visit to the state of Qi (located in Shandong Province), is taken on a hunt in the royal park. When asked about his experience, he launches into a description of the vast Yunmeng Park in his native state of Chu, detailing the park’s natural attributes and the fantastic progress of the royal hunt. His rhapsodic outburst overwhelms his interlocutor and he is accused of poor manners and inappropriate, overt boasting. An example of the descriptive vocabulary and complex prosody Sima Xiangru used throughout the composition is seen in David Knechtges’s translation (1987, vol. 2, pp. 55-57):

The mountains:
Twisting and twining, tortuously turning,
Arch aloft, precipitously piled.
Peaked and pointed, jaggedly jutting,
They leave the sun and moon covered and eclipsed.
Multifariously merging, complexly conjoined,
Upward they invade the blue clouds.
Slanting and sloping, sloping and slanting,
Below they join the Jiang and He.
In their soil:
Cinnabar, azurite, ochre, white clay,
Orpiment, milky quartz,
Tin, prase, gold, and silver,
In manifold hues glisten and glitter,
Shining and sparkling like dragon scales.

Another example (Knechtges, p. 63) recounts the carnage of hunting:

Swift and sudden, fleet and fast,
They move like thunder, arrive like a gale,
Course like stars, strike like lightning.
Their bows are not fired in vain;
Hitting the mark they are certain to split an eye,
Impale a breast, pierce a foreleg,
Or snap the heart cords.
The catch, as if it had rained beasts,
Overspreads the grass, covers the ground.

When Liu Wu died in 144 b.c.e., Sima Xiangru returned, impoverished, to his home in Shu. However, he soon found the support of an old acquaintance, now a local official in Linqiong, a smaller town to the southwest of Chengdu, where he soon attracted the attention of some of the richest men in the area. One of these, an iron merchant and manufacturer named Zhuo Wangsun, whose household included eight hundred indentured servants, paid a visit to Sima Xiangru and was immediately won over, all the more so after Sima Xiangru performed a few songs for him on the qin (seven-string zither). As it happened, Zhuo Wangsun had a recently widowed seventeen-year-old daughter who had a passion for music, and thus began one of the most renowned love stories of early China.

Sima Xiangru was invited to the Zhuo estate, where he arrived fully intent on winning the rich man’s daughter. While Sima Xiangru was ostensibly entertaining Zhuo Wangsun by playing the qin during the drinking festivities, his music and song really were directed toward seducing the daughter, Zhuo Wenjun (Cho Wen-chü), who spied on him through a crack in the doorway and lost her heart. Sima Xiangru bribed the young lady’s servants, and the two eloped to Chengdu. Disinherited by her father and with no other means of support, Zhuo Wenjun soon convinced her new husband that they should move back to Linqiong, where they could borrow from her brother. They sold their property and set up a small wine shop, where she minded the bar and he washed the pots. Zhuo Wangsun was mortified, but after a time he was persuaded to reconcile with his daughter. He sent his daughter servants, cash, and all of the property she had accumulated in her first marriage, and the couple returned to live in wealth on an estate in Chengdu.

Sima Xiangru is portrayed as a confident man with great flair, although with a weak physical constitution and some tendency toward aloofness. The song that he is supposed to have played to woo Zhuo Wenjun, with unambiguously pathetic and provocative lyrics, is about finding one’s ideal mate. The highly attractive characters, complex web of circumstances, and evocative, romantic nature of the tale have contributed to its perennial popularity. It also is one of the few romantic stories in which a marriage for love finds success, rather than...

(The entire section is 2893 words.)