Rhapsody in Fu

John Fairbairn

Ma Rong (79 ~ 166) was a famous classical scholar of ancient China whose pupils numbered over one thousand. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms tells a story about this. Whenever he lectured, he stood in front of a red curtain. He would let the curtain fall to reveal a group of singing girls. One pupil, Zheng Xuan, attended for three years and never once let his eyes stray from the master. Eventually, Ma Rong said, "Only one man has penetrated the inner meaning of my teaching. That one is Zheng Xuan."

Whether or not the story is true, Zheng Xuan (127~200) did become famous as a scholar in his own right, and it does at least illustrate Ma's reputation. It was no doubt deserved. He was probably the first to use what we now regard as a trivial item - footnotes. His use of them (or more precisely interlineal comments) in his interpretations of the Five Classics was a groundbreaking achievement.

Ma, styled Jichang but nicknamed also the Universal Scholar, was from Maoling in modern Shaanxi. In the Eastern Han era, at the time of the Andi Emperor (reigned 106~125) he became a Reviser. Under the Huandi Emperor (146-168) he eventually became Governor of Nanjun (modern Hubei). He also wrote a long poem on go.

It tells us, in particular, a lot about the level of skill at the time. It even includes technical terms. It almost certainly implies Ma himself was more than a half-decent player.

Strictly it is not classed as a poem but as a fu. Sometimes tepidly called a prose-poem, a better term is a rhapsody - emotive, extravagant, rambling, rococo, baroque. This genre was popular in the Han period. It was a vehicle for showing off. To excel, the writer had to be richly descriptive, including allusions, multi-layered meanings and recondite or technical terms, as well as keeping to a rhyme scheme. He was at least spared the need to follow rules for tonal patterns within lines, which is perhaps why some prefer not to class the fu as poetry, but it was a severe technical challenge nonetheless - some degrees harder than doing the Times crossword in five minutes, but no doubt a mere bagatelle for an expert go player, especially one who could ignore the pretty girls.

I have published about half of this rhapsody in translation before, but never the complete work. What is new here is that this is the first time the whole work will appear in English. But I have not just added the extra lines. I have also reworked the previously published version into something rather more rigourous as regards poetic structure in the hope of doing Ma Rong a small service, though maybe a disservice where keeping to the flow and four-beat structure may mean stretching a meaning or two.

If you are the type who likes to know the nuts and bolts, the most signficant point about the original work's structure is that the lines are of uniform length and rhyme. It is in the nature of Chinese writing that while Ma Rong's text looks today as it did then, the sounds are very different. In particular, the complete rhyme scheme is no longer evident from the modern Chinese reading of the poem. In the reconstructed sounds of the period, the first 23 lines would have ended in a sort of -ang sound. The last 23 lines, bar one blip which may indicate a corrupted text, would have ended in a sort of -at or -et sound. The effect of this is to imbue the descriptive first half with a leisurely pace, which quickens markedly in the exhortatory second half - rather appropriately as it happens. An attempt has therefore been made to replicate this in the translation. Open or long vowel sounds are used for the final words in the first half, and closed or short vowels in the second - at least insofar as my limited skill allows.

Despite the need to be descriptive, Ma does not use much in the way of adjectives or adverbs. His text is very much a verb-and-noun structure, which is partly why it is such a concrete and thus objective and useful record for us almost 2,000 years on. Beyond the attempt at matching the rhyme scheme, though, no attempt is made in the translation here to match the compactness of Ma's writing - or the delights behind the curtain.

The allusions and other textual problems would best be dealt with by recourse to footnotes, and rather than a cop-out by the translator they could in this case be regarded as a tribute to Ma Rong's more important innovation. However, the footnotes are omitted on this site. They may be found on the GoGoD CD version.


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