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Fantômes dans l'Extrême-Orient d'hier et d'aujourd'hui - Tome 1

Marie Laureillard
Vincent Durand-Dastès

La voix des fantômes : fantômes dans la littérature et le théâtre classiques

Eerie Parties: Ghosts and Shaman in Li He’s 李賀 (790–816) “Songs on Magic Strings” (神絃曲,神絃,神絃別曲)

Fêtes fantomatiques : spectres et chamanes dans les « Chants des cordes magiques » de Li He

怪异的宴会: 李贺《神弦曲》《神弦》《神弦别曲》中的鬼神和女巫

Frank Kraushaar


This study investigates three poems from the works of the early 9th century poet Li He (790–816), notorious in Chinese literature as the “demon of poetry” 詩鬼, on the background of an obvious contradiction between this poet’s absence from most constitutive anthologies of lyrical classics edited after the age of the Tang (618 – 906) and the fascination and high appreciation his style has enjoyed among connoisseurs of ancient and modern ages. The poems in particular seem to describe a shamanistic ritual from a point of view that sympathizes with the female shaman in a way reminiscent of but not congruent with typical constellations in palace-style poetry 宫體 or in the Sao-tradition 騷. Identification with the shaman’s passion and her tragic fate apparently constitutes a fundamental part of the aesthetic game, however, especially in the final poem, the shaman-maiden appears abandoned by the demons she had summoned and hosted in the previous pieces and goes her own random paths away from the charismatic place of sacrifice. My criticism will show that the fantastic genius of Li He’s poetry stems from his witty dissolution of constitutive poetical and aesthetical patterns and is deeply rooted in a perception of the world as unpredictable tension between demonic power and individual fate.

Ce chapitre étudie trois œuvres du poète du ixe siècle Li He (790–816), passé à la postérité sous le nom de « démon de la poésie » 詩鬼. On rappelle le paradoxe que constitue l’absence de Li He de la majeure partie des anthologies poétiques fondatrices publiées après les Tang (618 – 906) alors même que les amateurs de poésie des temps anciens ou proches n’ont cessé de vanter son style et d’être fasciné par lui. Les trois poèmes analysés ici semblent décrire un rituel chamanique du point de vue de la prêtresse qui le célèbre, s’inscrivant ainsi, tout en s’en détachant par certains traits, dans la tradition des « poèmes palatiaux » 宫體 ou dans la lignée du Sao 騷. L’identification avec la chamanesse, dans la passion qui l‘anime comme dans le destin tragique qui est finalement le sien semble au cœur du jeu esthétique mis en œuvre par Li He. Toutefois, en particulier dans le poème final, la jeune chamanesse paraît abandonnée par les démons qu’elle a convoqués et accueillis dans les poèmes précédents, et quitte au hasard des chemins le lieu charismatique du sacrifice. Mon analyse démontre que le génie fantasmagorique de la poésie de Li He procède d’une habile dissolution des modèles poétiques et esthétiques fondamentaux, en s’enracinant dans la vision d‘un monde qui naîtrait d‘imprévisibles tensions entre pouvoirs démoniaques et destin individuel.

本文探讨九世纪初即唐朝时期著名诗人人称"诗鬼"的李贺 (790–816) 的三首诗。 研究出发点基于一个明显的矛盾即是研究中国现代和古代的专家都对李贺诗风赞叹有加, 但是他的诗歌唐(公元618年-906年)以后的大部分精选诗歌辑刊不收录。这三首诗主要描述了一个祭祀神祇的仪式,对女巫给予相当的同情, 风格让人想起典型的宫体诗或者离骚诗体里的华丽辞藻,但是又不尽相同。女巫激情澎湃却命运悲惨,作者对这点的刻画构成了其诗歌美学的基本特征。诗歌临近尾 声这个少女女巫召来鬼神并在前几首诗里以主人相待不料后来召来之鬼神抛弃了她,落了个离开神圣献祭之地四处流浪的下场。我的评论揭示出李贺的才华在于风趣 地消解诗歌和美学的常规模式,他的诗歌深深扎根于对世界的另类领悟,认为个体命运和鬼神力量之间存在不可琢磨的张力。

Texte intégral

The vanishing of ghosts from late Tang poetic culture

1Contemporary literary critics often consider poetry to be one of the great cultural achievements of Imperial China. Historical textual material seems to offer no other option. With the exception of the two pre-imperial canonical anthologies, a few early yuefu ballads and incantations conserved on Zhou ritual vessels or oracle bones, the immense quantity of extant poetic texts produced not only under imperial reign but also in their present form seems to have been generated through the complex aesthetic and intellectual filter of imperial culture. However, one might challenge historical truth by trying to decipher the impact of culture and education on the production of poetic texts against the autonomy any true work of art must claim when it faces the bondages of its age. In simpler words, objectively poetry can become a part of history, but intentionally it never is. If it is true that poetry in its capacity as historical evidence is not yet poetical enough, then it must be unhistorical in essence.

2Considering this perspective, poetry does appear less as one of the gems of imperial culture and more as its stepchild. The conservation of poetry by literary scholars was imbued with the logic of commentators and historiographers, who saw included in words and effectual diction a reflection of timely events and human nature. Commentary tradition claims the poetic persona for its traditional function of reflecting upon present situations and events through the mirror of the past. Only after the poet is deceased has his oeuvre deserved commentary. As soon as the author and his individual voice passed behind the shadows of death, they entered the past. In the eyes of readers of this posthumous work, this past was not composed of individual subjective experience but rather constructed as impersonal, universal historic truth, the proper context for the investigation of the Dao of Men, 人道. Various schools of commentary facing the “Classic of Poetry” (Shijing) lay solid fundaments for their successors to historicize poetic imagination by not only attributing historic personae to texts that often seem only vaguely associable with them, but also by adding historical contexts and inflicting moral judgment or evaluation on the poetic persona that in fact became the focal point of narrative discourses on the central Confucian paradigm “poetry expresses (moral) intention” 詩言志.

  • 1 Lloyd Geoffrey and Sivin Nathan, 2002, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China a (...)
  • 2 This rather was Ezra Pound’s (1885–1972) and Ernest Fenellosa’s (1853–1908) point of departure to (...)

3Given this authentic interest in an essentially Confucian commentary tradition, we still have to add the rationalizing impact of the school of Yinyang Five Phases and later Daoist thinkers. Much less trammelled by the authority of “the ancients” 古人, none of whom in fact was ever known as a poet, and not biased by the idea that poets must be responsive to political challenges of their times, these theories claimed aesthetic coincidence for nature’s cyclic time and subjective emotional reality, as both can be conceived by the sublime human mind. It seemed logical that “vital energy” (qi 氣) was not merely physical, but spiritual and mental as well. It was considered a “universal principle of action” and a “universal substance”1 that could transform and be transformed. The well-known transformations of qi were subject to logical operations in various discursive contexts: the body, the cosmos, history (as human action), and aesthetics (as human perception). This means that, beginning from the time of the late Warring States, in traditional Chinese aesthetics “proto-scientific” rationality not only dominated political, philosophical, cosmological and medical discourses but also played a considerable part in a domestication of poetic language that has no parallel in European civilization before the Age of Enlightenment. Nevertheless, by using Needham’s idea of “proto-science” to distinguish culture and the rationality of science and technology in pre-modern China from the idea of modern science proper, I intend to modify the direct impact of rationalization on poetic language under the Tang (618–906). Obviously, this cannot be compared to the pervasive and destructive inundation of European and, consequently, other modern languages by abstract systems of ideas and the terminological and grammatical constructions needed to convey them.2

  • 3 To be concise I will not analyse the metric structure of the four lines but refer to the metaphori (...)

4Tang poetry arrives at a peak of domestication of poetic language expressed in the concentrated discipline required by its innovative subgenres, subsumed under the term “new style” 新體, to make new sense out of the rhetoric material of poetic language. As an example, I quote and briefly analyse a jue ju 絶句 by Wang Changling 王昌齡 (698–756), which openly displays the domesticated emotional response to the ratio of cosmic unity cultivated in the aesthetic spirit of High Tang poetic language:3

  • 4 Author’s translation.

Parting from Adjutant Zhai4
Streaming water, striving waves touch Wugang beyond sight.
Guiding you I neither feel sorrow nor plight.
Way long green mountains go with clouds and rain.
Bright moon – how would our homeland ever divide?

  • 5 Zhang Shuqiong 張淑瓊, 1989, “Tang shi xin shang”, 2, 唐詩新賞, 2, Di qiu chu ban she 地球出版社, Min guo 78 民 (...)


5This poem takes up the theme of separation in a commonly known worldly context. The company of adjutant Zhai, obviously much appreciated by the author, comes to an end. Both take leave of each other at the landing bridge on the banks of the river and, it seems, each does not know much about the other’s future, except the destination of Zhai’s boat, which is the far-off district of Wugang, where he probably will serve. The general setting is a well-known poetic commonplace and was, at one time, a real-life experience for literati officials of Imperial China who pursued the ups and downs of their careers on the road and on the water. The poet takes full advantage of the symbolic subtext of landscape imagery that first makes nature an emanation of subjective emotionality, and then allows the latter to overcome its innate anxiety by responding to nature as a pattern of philosophic and cosmological truth.

  • 6 Or xing yun xing yu 行雲行雨 – “coming with clouds in morning and parting in evening rain” – as other (...)

6As the words “streaming water, striving waves” coincide with the emotional turmoil that separation causes in the heart of those who had only recently become friends, the “green mountains” along the river already seem to echo the emotional curves and transfer them into a more stable, yang-like constitution. “Clouds and rain” still serve to remind the reader of other painful parting experiences. This is also the only place in the text bespeaking the spiritual and demonic character of nature, to which the latter originally owes its eminent function as a rich source of poetic imagery. To the literate reader, yun yu 雲雨 is clearly, although distantly, reminiscent of the female ghosts “riding on clouds and on rain”6 in the gorges of Shaman Mountain (wu shan 巫), where they seduced King Xiang of Chu only to abandon him after a night of mysterious sexual reunion between the roaming ruler and these manifestations of the spirit of nature. The unquenchable pain in the king’s heart caused by this sudden separation soon turns into a stimulus for poetry, if not for the protagonist of the story then for poets referring to it as legend transmitted by Song Yu’s (third c. BC) long poem Gao tang fu 高唐賦. “Clouds and rain” over a river landscape thus became emblematic of the lingering pain of separation and the experience of separation, in this poetic context, involving a negative tension between the profane world of men (ren jian 五倫) and the spiritual realm of wilderness (shan zhong 山中). However, in the second couplet of the poem this contrast, which was conceived sharply and irreconcilably in Song Yu’s text, is softened, if not in fact reconciled, thanks to the poetic evocation of the supremacy of Confucian virtue. In the poem, the virtue of friendship (jiao 交) as one of the five cardinal human relations or principles (wu lun 五倫) eventually overcomes the demon of separation. The appearance of nature could thus be described rather as dramatic, centred in the human drama, and reflecting human ways of self-domestication. It appears to have lost the demonic power it certainly had in the tradition of the Chuci. In the concluding line, not only the present landscape of the departing scenery but also all the imaginable landscapes appear in the light of the “bright moon”. This sudden disbanding of earthly space thus reflects the poetic inspiration of the poem. The depth of intellectual friendship experienced in the company of adjutant Zhai subverts forced separation. In other words, the interiorized experience of Zhai’s company overcomes exterior separation. From now on in their inner lives, both will always share one “homeland”.

7This certainly is an elegant answer to the anxious question: Is there any sense possible in a life broken again and again by the crude force of separation? Yet nor can a certain aspect of superfluous elegance be denied. Why is that? Should elegance have been achieved upon the dispensing of something unpronounced?

8It is well known that separation, death and communication with the spirit of the deceased – often partnering with the incantation of ghosts to create a cherished poetic ambiguity – form a triangle of motives in the poetic culture of the Songs of Chu 楚辭. Based on this tradition, throughout many periods of literary history, poetic settings were open to the presence of ghosts, so common in vernacular culture, in the context of literary aesthetics. The poem above, however, is located in a poetic setting less intertwined with this tradition and much more so with the Confucian poetics of friendship, officialdom and worldly destiny. The wide river landscape with its hilly shores functions as dramatic background for the impersonal forces of destiny and at once absorbs the emotional response of the poetic persona. It is the latter that finally resolves the tension transforming initial subjectivity into the objective symbolic image of the bright moon that presides not only over a landscape without boundaries, but also reunites those who have suffered separation. Using poetic devices to merge subjectivity with objectivity was one of the major characteristics of Tang poets (and one of their greatest achievements). Without the dualistic paradigm of body person 身 and cosmic nature 天, and the logical mechanisms based on this paradigm, major developments of poetic styles under the Tang would have lacked philosophical foundation.

  • 7 In his introduction essay to The Poems of Li Ho, J. D. Frodsham clearly states: “In short then, Ho (...)

9Li He (791–817), however, has to be considered one of the great contemporary antagonists of these developments. He is among the handful of classical poets who constantly attracted the attention not only of generations of Chinese philologists but also of literary modernists.7 A famous one among the latter was Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書 (1910–1998). In his early treatise, “On the Art of Poetry” (談藝錄) (1948), Qian pays more attention to Li He’s personal style than to that of any other individual poet, expressing his sceptical view on traditional criticism of Li He’s style in one of his striking aphorisms:

  • 8 Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, 1999 [1948], Tan yi lu 談藝錄 (Discourses of the art of literature), Zhong hua shu (...)

Those ancients who feel distress about Changji’s [Li He’s, FK] fondness of the bizarre and the absence of the order of things [好奇無理] do not get his point. It is as if they knew the meaning of wood, yet had no idea of the meaning of saws.8


10This poignant remark brings us to the fundamental question that will guide the subsequent discussion of three of Li He’s poems: Where is the link between the obviously bizarre and seemingly unstructured nature of these texts – the realm of Li He’s “demonic fantasy” – and the poet’s treatment of poetic language not as “natural” substance that assumes its full reality by conveying the “order of things” (li 理) to readers, but as a “tool” (Qian: ju (saw) 鋸) to be employed in a creative process to restore the ambiguity of experience conceived by an individual mind?

  • 9 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827–860), Cambridge, M (...)
  • 10 Owen Stephen, 1996, The End of the Chinese “Middle Ages”: Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture, Sta (...)

11In a study on the reception of Li He’s works, Stephen Owen explains li 理 as the “order of things”, including “order, as good government”.9 In an earlier work on the poetics of landscape in late Tang poetry, this author had already pronounced his view on 理 as a constructive element of landscape poetry associated with the style of Li He’s contemporary Han Yu (768–824). In Han Yu’s “Poem on the Southern Mountains” 南山詩, landscape appears, according to Owen, as a “model of the entire imperial space”10 and therefore refers to the latter’s hierarchical stratification and its inherent logic. Adding to his translation and reading of “Southern Mountains” , an equivalent analysis of Li He’s “Poem on Bright Valley” 昌谷詩, Owen points out the “fragmented character” of Li He’s landscape opposed to the “monumental” aspects disclosed in the eye of the reader following Han Yu’s well-ordered lines and sequences. This criticism suggests a lack of quality of composition as a characteristic deficiency of Li He’s style. And by referring to long landscape poems in this particular sense, the critic speaks implicitly about a certain way of structuring space and time as inherent parts of poetic speech, which participates in the “order of things” as much as nature does. A fragmented language, therefore, must be deficient due to its incongruence with the concept of universal order presiding over and harmonizing the particular orders of things in their diversity.

12Qian Zhongshu, on the contrary, expresses scepticism about Du Mu’s appraisal of Li He’s style in the foreword to Li’s collected poems that Du wrote in 831, about fifteen years after Li’s death. Du Mu spends considerable rhetoric effort in ironing out the folds, cracks and otherwise weird inconsistencies from the texture of a poetic style that hardly complies with the aesthetic achievements and acknowledged tastes of the age:

  • 11 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 158.

A continuous stream of clouds and mists has not such a manner as his [lit. “are not adequate to make his manner”]; waters stretching off far into the distance have not such a mood as his; all spring’s flowering glory has not his gentleness; autumn’s bright purity has not his strictness of form; masts driven by the wind and horses in the battle line have not his daring; tile sarcophagi and tripods with seal-script have not his antiquity, the season’s flowers and fair women have not his sensuality; walls run to weeds and ruined palaces and tomb mounds overgrown with brush have not his resentment and mournfulness; the leviathan’s gaping maw and the leaping sea turtle, the bull demon and the snake god, have not his sense of fantasy and illusion.11

13Qian laconically comments on this in the following words:

  • 12 Qian Zhongshu, Tan yi lu, p. 47.

These parallels are good for nothing, because they do not refer to the real texts. Changji’s words and compositions are unprecedented and stunning; his colours are dark, his ornaments densely wrought. How could it be matched by “waters stretching off far into the distance”, “all spring’s flowering glory”, or “autumn’s bright purity”?12

  • 13 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 157.

14It must be added that earlier in the preface Du Mu utters a clear verdict on Li He’s style, which, he believes, falls short of the appropriate balance between ingenious diction and the li 理 of Tang literati. Stephen Owen sees in Du Mu’s foreword “certainly the strangest preface in Tang literature”13 because “Du Mu clearly disapproved of Li He’s poetry” and at once invented the passage quoted above in order to praise it. In fact, reading Li He and aspiring to write in his style must have been tempting for many literati, but the satisfaction and inspiration one could get from yielding to this temptation obviously was not something to boast about in public. This contradiction precisely reflects the increasing withdrawal of public intellectual culture from demonic fantasy – which, meanwhile, continued to live on in common culture – and from the imaginative realm of the unconscious. As a broad trend, these changes infiltrated the customs of the literati elite in the ninth century, and under the Song resulted in an unprecedented rationalization of official literati culture and aesthetics. The spirit of philosophic aloofness and irony, most strikingly represented by the poetic style of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037–1101), and the playful sentimentality that dominates the poetic mood (Grundstimmung) in the majority of pieces belonging to the emerging subgenre of ci 詞 seem to unfold in a vacuum left by the successive vanishing of the ghosts from literati poetry.

Li He’s “Magic Strings” (神絃): Three farewell songs to the ghosts

  • 14 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 214.

15Li He’s style obviously contradicts this complex development and – in order not to be absorbed by it – assumes its own authentic complexity unmatched by any poet of the age. What follows here is an attempt to outline the poet’s approach towards a conception of space comprising both the growing distance between the human mind and the world of demons and a longing for reunion. The latter emerges from a paradoxical nature of distance that excludes the idea of harmony conveyed by the “order of things”. On an ultimate level of interpretation that can be reached only by interpreting all three poems as a coherent sequence, the spiritual landscape is transformed into a mundane one abandoned by those ghosts the shaman passionately summoned at the beginning of the sequence. The shaman also withdraws from the magic site, supposedly located in Central China, and then appears as a traveller passing by in the Southern Mountains. It is not clear if this female shaman, who is not the poetic persona but rather the central and only human figure in this sequence of poems, is supposed to be an alter ego of the poet or the reader. In any case, it is a subject entirely devoted to serving ghosts, and yet she is ultimately abandoned by her idols. This seems to be a sad destiny, but one will find no similarity with the tragic character of Qu Yuan (343–278), who falls in despair over wordly injustice and ignorance. This shaman finds her way from the sacred place inside the mountain on a boat carrying her back into the human realm. The latter, however, is not placed in direct opposition to the spiritual world of the mountains. Only in the last of the three texts can the direction of the retreating shaman from the sacred mountain be guessed. As the mountain ghost who had left the eerie party earlier to proceed on mysterious paths through the wilderness of alpine nature, she first descends from the height of a plateau somewhere in the Zhongnan mountains and then passes by the foothills of Shaman Mountain (wu shan, 巫山) in a boat following the course of the Yangzi to one of the populous merchant places at its shores. There is thus no clarity concerning the geographical location of the overarching narrative. In the first of the three pieces, we cannot identify any concrete place name, while the second locates the particular scenery in the Zhongnan mountain range in Central China. The last poem in the supposed sequence refers to “Witch Mountain” (Shaman 巫山)14 along the northern shores of the Yangzi, where it flows from Sichuan into contemporary Hubei province. To some readers, it may seem unnatural to attribute a common narrative built around the same plot to all three of the poems. On the other hand, it is obvious that a separate reading of each of the texts will hardly result in a satisfying interpretation.

  • 15 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 214, n. 1.

16The three poems in the collection of Li He’s verse 李賀詩注 compiled by the Ming scholar Zeng Yi follow one after another. Their titles are “Song of the Magic Strings” (神絃曲), “Magic Strings” (神絃) and “Farewell Song of Magic Strings” (神絃別曲). Despite the open similarity, nothing suggests that the three texts form a coherent group. Frodsham comments on only the title of the first text without discussing the question of how closely the two variations should be relatable to the first title. “Song of the Magic Strings” ) alludes to “a female shaman [that] exorcizes evil spirits. A ballad of this title existed as early as the third century AD. It originated in the south, long the home of shamanistic culture.”15 This informs us that, if the titles do not directly allude to shamanistic ritual, then they allude at least to a poetic tradition referring to such traditions. This aspect seems to support the conventional classification of Li He as a poet of the Sao tradition. However, further on we will look more closely at the fact that the author did not unite three poems under the same title but opted for variations and, accordingly, developed a conjunctive narrative that makes the reader sensitive to corresponding differences among each of the texts. We will see that the narrative refers to a frustrating experience of invoking the spirits and eventually being abandoned by them, and to the reaction that accounts for this experience by integrating it into a quite original perception of space and distance.

17For this discussion, I rely basically on Frodsham’s translation. My own translation into German differs in various respects, and in a couple of details I do not agree with Frodsham. I will argue for my own reading where the course of this interpretation seems to require it. For a better evaluation of my approach, the reader may have recourse to my translations into German placed in the appendix. Frodsham’s translation of the first poem is the following:

Song of Magic Strings
As the sun sets in the western hills
The eastern hills grow dark.
A whirlwind blows the horses along,
Steeds trampling the clouds.
Painted zithers and plain flutes
Play soft, weird tunes.
To the rustle of embroidered skirts
She treads the autumn dust.

Cassia leaves stripped by the wind,
Cassia seeds fall,
Blue racoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall are painted dragons,
Tails inlaid with gold,
Rain-elves are riding them away
To the autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Find emerald fire, laughing wildly,
Leaps from their nests.

18In this text, the scene is opened with a panoramic view over unnamed mountains. The irrelevance of the place is concordant with the sunset that is about to make all distinguishable forms and contours disappear in the dark. Perhaps following the incantation of the shaman, a whirlwind already announces ghosts approaching from afar. The reader can anticipate this person, still invisible but already present in the back of the scene, because the poem seems to present an invocation. The trampling of horses as metaphor for rolling thunder – ma ta yun 馬踏雲 – evokes the tradition of shamanistic yuefu ballads.

19Music coming closer is described as 畵弦素管聲淺繁 and insufficiently translated by Frodsham as “Painted zithers and plain flutes / Play soft, weird tunes”. A sound described literally as “shallow and pompous” 聲淺繁 seems to express the prevailing hesitation of the spirits rather than weirdness. However, in the last line of the first stanza, which echoes in a homophonous rhyme, the shaman enters the scene. Now, she is performing her dance in “rustling embroidered skirts” on the “autumn’s dust”.

20This last image is weird indeed. The term 秋塵 can make one think only of a mass of fallen leaves in the autumnal mountains. One naturally imagines these leaves whirling in the breeze caused by the arrival of the divine entourage. Simultaneously, the shaman performs her dance in movements that correspond to those of the leaves, while her “flowery skirt” 花裙 is visually at odds with the seasonal setting. Is she attempting to charm the ghosts of the mountains with her youth, which is, however, in disaccord with the withering leaves in the mountainous environment? Moreover, the “flowery skirt” is not necessarily a style of dress characteristic of a shaman. It could also be reminiscent of a lady of the palace and, in that case, would rather evoke stylistic patterns of palace-style poetry 宫體詩, allowing a male poet to speak through the masque of a fictive palace lady or a female shaman.

  • 16 Kern Martin, 1994, Zum Topos “Zimtbaum” in der chinesischen Literatur; Rhetorische Funktion und po (...)

21Nevertheless, the irritation at the end of the previous stanza appears as a minor discord in comparison to what follows now in the second stanza, which again, line by line, clings together through a monotonous rhyme. In the beginning, the divine guests expected to attend the banquet approach, and the wind that escorts them becomes stronger and violently “brushes” 刷 the seeds out of the cassia tree. Once again, Frodsham’s “stripped by the wind” does not seem sufficiently precise to me. The cassia tree, of course, bears connotations of magical purity, as in the Chuci,16 and this makes the violence of the wind irritate, if not distort, the reader. But the images and words following now in short sequence chill the spine: blood-weeping racoons and dying foxes out in the cold, rainmaker ghosts (Frodsham’s “elves”) riding the painted dragons from the ruined walls where they had long rested towards chilly autumn waters, and the sudden metamorphosis of a century-old owl into a fire ghost, “wildly laughing” and then leaping out of the nest, evoke the sinister aura of a nightmare.

  • 17 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. xli.
  • 18 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. xli and Li He shi zhu 李賀詩注, p. 212.

22Thus, already from the middle of the first poem, the reader faces ambiguity in the narrative about an anonymous shaman that might function as a masque of another subject, perhaps the poet himself. With this reading, the description of the shaman’s relationship with the ghosts is likely to be a confession of the poet’s love of mountain ghosts or of his “belief in Heaven”.17 The passionate invocation depicted in the first stanza, coupled with the eerie appearance of the ghosts in the second, which seems to be the immediate response from the spiritualized environment, results in a distorted picture that seems characteristic of the poet’s personality as it appears through his own works, or at least in its interpretation by his friends and contemporaries. Li Shangyin’s 李商隱 (813–858) “minor biography” of Li He includes the narrative of his premature death, which strangely reminds us of the previous scene. On his deathbed, the poet has the vision of a celestial envoy summoning him to leave his relatives and follow him to heaven. At first the dying poet breaks down in tears and is unable to follow, but after a while the air in front of the window by his bed fills with haze, the arrival of invisible carriages is announced by the sounds of flutes, and people standing by the bed hurry to offer sacrifices to the spirits while the poet himself passes away.18

23In the poem, however, the shaman remains at the scene. Having succeeded in summoning the mountain ghosts, these ghosts then seem to expect the best treatment that will make them feel comfortable and want to stay. This is where we are left at the end of the first poem. The presence of the ghostly society is clearly discernible through the irritating culmination of images that resembles an accumulation of incoherent symbols. The guests have arrived, although the shaman may have imagined them arriving in a more solemn manner. Now, in their presence, the party can begin on the threshold between life and death:

Magic Strings
The witch pours out a libation of wine
And clouds cover the sky.
In a jade brazier charcoal burns –
Perfumed boom of a drum.
Gods of the sea and mountain demons
Flock to her seat,
Crackle of burning paper money
As whirlwind moans.

She plays a love-wood lute adorned
With golden, dancing simurghs,
Knitting her brows, she plucks a note
For each word uttered.
She calls down stars and summons demons
To savour meat and drink,
When mountain-goblins come to eat,
Men are breathless and hushed.
Colours of sunset low in a coign
Of Chung-nan range,
Long lingers the Spirit. Something or Nothing?
We cannot tell.
The Spirit’s anger, the Spirit’s delight
Shows in her face,
Ten thousand riders escort him back
To the emerald hills.

24The shaman, meanwhile, has appeared from the backstage, which served mostly as shelter in the previous poem. Now, she captures the scene. Frodsham makes 女巫 a “witch”, but I think she should more appropriately be called a “charmer” or a “sorceress”. The poem neither makes her appear heretical from a Confucian perspective nor is her sex appeal the main source of her attraction. On the contrary, in the middle of the ghostly scene she acts quite appropriately, first serving her guests and then performing a proper ritual to make them feel better.

  • 19 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 213, n. 1.

25The line 玉爐炭火香鼕鼕 has been controversial among critics. Frodsham mentions a Qing critic who claimed that the text must be corrupt, but he argues against it: “This is synaesthesia, sound and scenery blending into one.”19 I basically agree, but is there any meaning in the author’s choice? Looking once again at the line more closely, we can observe that the irritation caused by the last three characters comes from an inversion of the conventional hierarchy of sensual perception in both Western and Chinese aesthetics. The text says that the boom of a drum is perfumed. It would ring rather more conventional if the word order were to be transposed as 玉爐炭火鼕鼕香. In that case, an approximate translation would be: “In the jade brazier charcoal burns – its fragrance, shaken by drumbeats.” It seems much easier – and more “natural” – to imagine heavy drumbeats “shaking” perfumed clouds that ascend from a brazier instead of having the idea of perfume that scents the drumbeats. Obviously, heavy drumbeats would physically “shake the air”, but no heavy perfume whatsoever could physically act upon a drumbeat. This poetic device seems clearly intended to distract the reader’s imagination from the sensual order of things (the qi of sounds/music acting upon the qi of incense) and merge into a virtual space open to spirituality. Only now the feast has really begun, and over the remaining lines of the first stanza we see “gods of the sea” (hai shen 海神) and “demons of the mountains” shan gui (山鬼) pour onto the scene to take their places around the seat of the shaman, who is ready to continue her performance directly beneath their gaze.

26From the very beginning of the second stanza, Li He uses strong language to suggest the aura of ecstasy now established during the performance of the shaman. The line that most strikes our attention in this passage is 山魅食時人森寒 – “When mountain-goblins come to eat, / Men are breathless and hushed.” Thus far, we have not read of any human beings joining the party except for the shaman herself. At the peak of her ecstatic reunion with the spirits, she falls back into what modern language calls her “being”, her being human. My own reading differs slightly from Frodsham’s due to my understanding of ren sen han 人森寒. I think 人 first refers to the shaman personally by indicating her humanness, and therefore she is not predestined to participate in the meal of the “mountain-goblins”. Yet this does not exclude Frodsham’s reading, which seems to draw a more categorical line of distinction between “men” and “ghosts”, thus dimming the immediacy of the shock the shaman herself must have experienced. Another divergence between Frodsham’s reading and my own involves the precise understanding of the term 森寒, which has no entry in Zhongwen da cidian (hereafter ZDC) (中文大辭典). Nevertheless, it seems evident to me that the compound han 寒 expresses not only awe with regard to the demons but also the feeling of abandonment.

27The dramatic turning point in the narrative, which connects the three poems, becomes obvious only if we realize that it is the shaman and no one else who, at the climax of her ecstatic ritual dance, feels tragic separation. The anonymous place in the mountains now becomes associated with a geographical area: “Colours of sunset low in a coign / Of Chung-nan [Zhongnan] range”. Even the spirit she had courted is irritated, lingering between “Something and Nothing”. The repercussions of passion once again glide over her face while she conducts her guest and his entourage on their way back into the wasteland.

28The word “god” or “spirit” 神/ figures five times within this poem, which seems to be the middle part of the sequence. It cannot be found anywhere else in the text corpus, except in the titles of each of the poems. This can be interpreted as a device to remind the reader of an inner coherence between the three texts. In a subtler interpretation, it can indicate a differentiation between the ranks of the main spirit/god and his entourage. The latter has already been characterized in a way that we should rather think of the whole entourage as ghosts (gui 鬼). In the explicit use of the character 神, we can see an attempt to accentuate the divine dignity of their leader, which corresponds to the depth of passion and desire expressed in the invocations by the shaman. It is not incidental that the dense use of the word 神 in the second poem contrasts with other words referring to the demonic company in its predecessor. These words are “racoons” (狸), “foxes” (狐), “rain-elves” (雨工) and “forest demons” (木魅). The assembly of the first poem has not yet accumulated the aura of illustrious spiritual dignity while in the second poem the shaman looks at the assembly in awe.

29We have to look upon the sequence as a whole in order to detect other images that may help to understand its structure and development of meaning. First of all, there is 風, the wind. As “whirlwind” 旋風, it symbolizes mutual affection that unites the spirits and the shaman in the first poem and in this one. In the last poem, below, a supple wind caresses the waves of the Yangzi. The third symbol in the group is the cassia tree (gui 桂). In the first poem, it figures in direct conjunction with the tree, brushing the seeds out of its branches. Given the traditional Sao symbolism of the cassia tree as an emblem for magical purity, discernible through its fragrance, the violent attack of the wind has already been evoked above as an irritating momentum. The only clear conclusion that can be drawn from this observation in the first poem is that its scenery also has a seasonal setting. It must already be late autumn. Reference to the season seems to have dropped out of the conception of the second poem, but it is clearly intended again in the last poem. With the seasonal cycle that has proceeded to spring, the cassia tree comes back on the scene, but by that time, our shaman is not a “witch”, “charmer” or “sorceress” any longer:

Farewell Song of Magic Strings
The Maiden of Witch Mountain now departs
Behind a screen of clouds.
In spring a breeze blows flowers of pine
Down from the mountain-side.
Alone beneath her emerald canopy she returns
Through fragrant paths,
White horses and flower-decked poles
Dazzle before her.

On the River in Shu blows a limpid wind,
Water like gauze.
Who will float on a fallen orchid
To come to see her?
A cassia tree on a southern hill
Is dying for her.
Her robes of cloud are slightly stained
By its rouged petals.

30The medium has turned into a “maiden” or simply a “girl” from “Witch [or Shaman] Mountain” (巫山) (in my translation I chose to render 小女 as “mademoiselle”, which in German provides a subtle sense of irony and erotic appeal). This means that in the concluding poem, the perception of her has profoundly changed. The term 巫山小女 also reminds one of 巫山神女, a term designating the two legendary female spirits from Shaman Mountain who seduced King Xiang of Chu and in yuefu tradition became associated with the aristocratic endeavour for longevity through sexual practices. More ambiguity shines through the lines in Chinese when we see her depart “behind a screen of clouds”, as Frodsham puts it. However, the translator invents an inaccurate and artificial image. The passage here refers to 隔雲别, literally, “separated by clouds, taking leave”. It echoes the initial line of the previous poem, “clouds cover the sky” (雲满空), where the “clouds” seem to ascend from the incense burner.

  • 20 Kern Martin, 1994, Zum Topos “Zimtbaum” in der chinesischen Literatur, p. 47.

31Reading the “mundane” version – and thus following the idea that the clouds screening the girl are painted on a real screen, and that the whole landscape depicted thus far is a metaphor for the excitements of the bed chamber – would allow us to decode all that has so far happened as erotic fantasy, including the wind storming into the cassia tree in the first poem as symbolic of sexual stimulation. (In the “Nine Songs”, the cassia tree is part of the symbolism of erotic desire and spiritual sacrifice.20) But reading the “spiritual” version – with the clouds being real clouds, and the girl not leaving a bed chamber but taking leave of the mountain site of her previous incantations – the whole landscape still resembles a fairyland beyond the bondages of this world. From there, it seems, the girl now “returns” 歸 to a secular realm, with the pine trees shielding her head as a “green canopy”. My understanding of bai ma 白馬 also differs from Frodsham’s. He translates more or less literally: “White horses and flower-decked poles / Dazzle before her.” The image the translation produces may seem of enticing perplexity to Western readers – as often happens to those who roam about Li He’s verse. However, I do not feel satisfied with the idea of “horses” and bamboo “poles”, both emblems with an aura of nobility, appearing in the rather nebulous complexion of a mountain site. Taking into consideration the problem of geographical location, one should also ponder the option to read 白馬 as a place name. ZDC indicates several examples of historical place names written with the characters for “white horse”. In reference to 太平寰宇, one article notes that a town in Shaanxi was named “White Horse” according to the legend of the poet and scholar Zhang Heng (78–139), who is said to have ascended to the heavens of immortals from the same settlement. Thus 白馬 can be read as a concrete place name. In this case, it would refer to the vicinities of the Zhongnan mountain range, the setting of the previous poem, and to the legend of a Daoist immortal. Its function would be not only to indicate the aspiration of the shaman to communicate with the realm of immortals but also to prepare for the action to be moved from the first setting, the Zhongnan mountain range in Central China, to another geographical location, which already in the next line will be the Yangzi and Shaman mountain range in Southern China.

  • 21 Compare the parallel line of my translation in the appendix.

32The second stanza presents the shaman maiden already adrift on the Shu river, the Yangzi, which, in reality, passes by Shaman Mountain. Frodsham’s translation simply continues commenting upon the girl travelling by boat from the perspective of an observer. To my mind, this steals the plot of the series because line six offers good reasons to continue reading the text as a concluding monologue of the girl. This would be much in the sense of action running through the fragmented structure of all three poems. The girl has left the sphere of incantation and sacrifice; her direct communication with the spiritual world is interrupted. What must follow is an inner monologue (or fictive dialogue). The translation of 堕蘭誰泛相經過, then, rather should be: “Who would together with me pass by [Shaman Mountain] on a fallen orchid’s leaf?”21 The implicit answer, concealed in the realm of the spirits, would be: “No one anymore!” And so the girl would continue in her melancholy: “A cassia tree on a southern hill, because I am dying for you! / Has dressed in a cloudy skirt stained with reddish flowers.”

33It seems coherent that red stains in the cloudy skirt hint at the girl’s desire to become the bride of the mountain spirit. However, by now, this clearly has become no more than her melancholic dream. She is no longer the “charmer” she had been in the first two poems. The spirits remain silent; this is why she encloses herself in a monologue.

34Evidently, the contents of the three poems correspond to the following dramatic pattern:

  • incantation from afar;
  • ecstasy and beginning disillusion; and
  • post-hallucinatory reflection.
  • 22 This is highlighted by the fact that the first poem in the sequence goes without any geographical (...)

35This shows that Li He’s poetry is neither pure “phantasmagoria” in the sense of shamanistic incantations, nor does it exploit alleged phantasms as “material” for allegorical poetry, as occurs in the poetic tradition based on Chuci commentaries. The distance created in the course of the narrative development between the spiritual sphere in the high mountains and the mundane world by the river and between the Zhongnan mountains in Shaanxi and the Shaman mountains along the Yangzi in Sichuan and Hubei is deliberately artificial.22 The cassia tree appears as a symbolic archetype of transcendence between the two spheres (spiritual and mundane), assaulted by a divine whirlwind in the first poem but disguised by a “cloud skirt” in the last one. Although the shaman girl remains subjected to mundane fate, she does not renounce the hallucinatory depths of her spiritual passion. The words “I am dying for you!” (為君死) certainly should not be misunderstood as an exclamation of despair, but rather as a promise that death will open the gate for a reunion with the spirit.

36An interesting aspect that appears only through a reading of all three poems as a coherent series is the shift of geographical location, which is clearly revealed in the midst of the last poem. The scenery of the first poem seems to be part of a nameless mountain landscape. Only the second poem mentions a locality that seems not too far from the places of Central China that Li He knew well enough from his own travels. But the last poem, supposing that the reading offered here is accepted, reveals that the shaman, after having offered sacrifices to the demons of Zhongnan mountain, returns 歸 to her original homeland, “Witch Mountain” (or Shaman Mountain 巫 山) on the Yangzi. This reading is also supported by the title of the last poem defining the latter as a “farewell song” (bie qu 別曲).

37Thus, a close reading of the three texts in fact results in perplexity, but this perplexity is of a stimulating nature. First the reader realizes that the poet does not intend or pretend to directly invoke the spirits. The shaman is not the masque of the poet, but the protagonist of the narrative. Second, we realize that the shaman not only plays her role perfectly as an enchanter of the mountain demons who must also accept eventually being neglected by them, but also that, during her retreat from the sacred place, she changes and becomes aware of herself as someone who returns to the world from an ecstatic experience. It is this inner distance that at the end of the third poem allows us to look at the shaman not as diviner and medium but as an individual re-entering the human realm. Paralleling this, the geographical shift seems to suggest that the maiden from Shaman Mountain 巫山小女 retreats from an expedition to the central Zhongnan range to her spiritual homeland. These paradoxes do not exclude the coherence of the three pieces; on the contrary, poetic intensity increases by becoming aware of them. The paradoxical composition of the series raises questions about the provenance of the shaman – her identity does not seem limited to her role as shaman – as well as about the mysterious god and his divine entourage summoned by the girl somewhere in Zhongnan mountain’s no-man’s-land. The dramatic plot in the second poem modifies the traditional motive of separation of divine and human beings – the stimulus of poetic voices in the Chuci tradition – into a turning point bringing the shaman girl back into the human realm, where she once again faces a cassia tree. Now its petals are not “brushed off” by a violent wind but are half-hidden in the fog. The sad autumnal scenery of the first poem has in the last turned into a more balanced mood. The shaman girl makes no more effort to attract spirits. In fact, her passion for reunion with them seems to have transformed into a contemplation of nature. The latter, however, in the context of this series is all but a micro-cosmos. It appears as the folio of a highly subjective and thus fragmented experience.

  • 23 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 178.

38Qian Zhongshu’s critique of those who praised the subtle beauty of Li He’s style but knew only “the meaning of wood, yet had no idea of the meaning of saws” elucidates an understanding of Li He’s poetics that seems more relevant to modern readers than to his contemporaries and post-contemporaries. It alludes to a poetry that does not complete itself by adapting the reader’s mind to a cosmic natural order but achieves its “fragmentary density”23 by deconstructing “nature” as a prejudice of human apprehension. Li He in fact seems to reflect upon the complexity of the experience of roaming over indistinct borders between the might of human ratio and supernatural power. The limits of his verse coincide with neither cosmic order nor personal integrity as “objective aesthetic values”. Thus Li He may be labelled a “fantastic” poet. However, at the core of his conception of poetic space there seems to be a commitment to the individual experience of disintegration of supernatural powers and human fate. Poetic perception becomes a process of transition via the fragmented structures remaining after this disintegration.



神絃曲 Das Lied zu den Geistersaiten (Herbst)a
西山日沒東山昏。 In die Westberge die Sonne sinkt und die Ostberge im Dämmerlicht.
旋風吹馬馬踏雲。 Wirbelwind die Rosse jagt wie Hufschlag aus den Wolken bricht.
畫絃素管聲淺繁。 Mit Saitenklang und Flötenlaut – fliehend bald, dann wieder dicht –,
花裙綷縩步秋塵。 Ihr Schritt im blumigen Kleid mit herbstlichem Staub sich mischt.
桂葉刷風桂墜子。 Aus des Kassiabaumes Laub wäscht Wind die Kassiablüten.
青狸哭血寒狐死。 Der schwarze Fuchs heult Blut, den Marder wird die Kälte töten.
古壁彩虯金帖尾。 Auf der alten Wand ein Drache, dessen Schwanz vergoldet gleist.
雨工騎入秋潭水。 Die Regengeister reiten ihn ins Herbstgewässer eines Teichs.
百年老鴞成木魅。 Eine hundert Jahre alte Eule wird im Nu zum Elfengeist,
笑聲碧火巢中起。 Der dann lachend, blau entflammend, seinem Nest entsteigt.
a. The indication of a seasonal context for each of the three poems


is my own interpretative act. Several details in each poem


may be referred to in order to give evidence. However, if the order of poems


in Ceng Yi’s edition is intentional, the sequence of the seasons adds another distorted symbolic level, because it begins with decay (autumn), traverses stagnation (winter) and ends abruptly when nature


regains strength (spring). Thus, this timely order seems to run against time as cyclical regeneration.


神絃 Geistersaiten (Winter)
女巫澆酒雲滿空。 Die Zauberin kredenzt den Wein, Wolkennebel steigt zum Himmel.
玉爐炭火香鼕鼕。 Von der Asche auf dem Herd raucht polterndes Getrommel.
海神山鬼來座中。 Wassermänner und der Berge Alben sind zu Tisch gekommen:
紙錢窸窣鳴旋風。 Knisterndes Papiergeld, seufzend Wirbel, funkelndes Gewimmel.
相思木帖金舞鸞。 Sie spielt die Sehnsuchtszither mit dem goldnen Phönixhals,
攢蛾一啑重一彈。 Brauenzuckend Wort um Wort reisst sie die Saiten mit Gewalt.
呼星召鬼歆杯盤。 Die Sterne ruft sie, beschwört Geister, ihre Opfer anzunehmen.
山魅食時人森寒。 Sind die Gnome erst beim Schmaus, erstarrt sie staunend, aber kalt.
終南日色低平灣。 Über der weiten Bucht der Zhongnankette dämmert es schon bald,
神兮長在有無間。 Lange zögert so noch zwischen Sein und Nichts die Gottgestalt.
神嗔神喜師更顏。 Götterzorn und Göttergnade spiegeln sich in ihren Zügen,
送神萬騎還青山。 So geleitet sie ihn und die seinen auf den Rückweg in den Wald.


神絃別曲 Ein Abschiedslied zu den Geistersaiten (Frühling)
巫山小女隔雲別。 Mademoiselle Zauberin steht abgeschieden hinterm Wolkenschirm.
春風松花山上發。 Im Frühlingswind die Kiefern blühen auf den Bergeshöh‘n.
綠蓋獨穿香徑歸。 Alleine unter grünen Schirmen auf dem Duftpfad kehrt sie heim –
白馬花竿前孑孑。 Auf dem Weißroßpass glitzert vor ihr der Bambus im Blüh‘n.
蜀江風澹水如羅。 Der Wind weht auf dem Yangzi sacht, das Wasser eine Seidenbahn.
墮蘭誰泛相經過。 Wer wird mit ihr Vorbeiziehn auf der Flut ihm Orchideenkahn?
南山桂樹為君死。 „Ein Kassiabaum am Südberg, weil ich den Tod für dich erleide,
雲衫淺污紅脂花。 Hat sich in blütenrot gefleckten, weißen Wolkendunst gekleidet.“


1 Lloyd Geoffrey and Sivin Nathan, 2002, The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece, New Haven and London: New York University Press, p. 253.

2 This rather was Ezra Pound’s (1885–1972) and Ernest Fenellosa’s (1853–1908) point of departure to create a modern intellectual myth of written Chinese as a “medium of poetry”. However, Pound, while developing an astonishing intimacy with certain Confucian classics, intuitively or deliberately avoided contact with the theoretical contexts of Chinese poetry in the classical periods posterior to antiquity.

3 To be concise I will not analyse the metric structure of the four lines but refer to the metaphoric level only.

4 Author’s translation.

5 Zhang Shuqiong 張淑瓊, 1989, “Tang shi xin shang”, 2, 唐詩新賞, 2, Di qiu chu ban she 地球出版社, Min guo 78 民國 78, Taipei, p. 103.

6 Or xing yun xing yu 行雲行雨 – “coming with clouds in morning and parting in evening rain” – as other translations suggest.

7 In his introduction essay to The Poems of Li Ho, J. D. Frodsham clearly states: “In short then, Ho’s work is closer in many respects to modern Western poetry than to the classical Chinese tradition.” (Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho (791–817), Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. xliv.)

8 Qian Zhongshu 錢鍾書, 1999 [1948], Tan yi lu 談藝錄 (Discourses of the art of literature), Zhong hua shu ju 中華書局, p. 10.

9 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang: Chinese Poetry of the Mid-Ninth Century (827–860), Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 158.

10 Owen Stephen, 1996, The End of the Chinese “Middle Ages”: Essays in Mid-Tang Literary Culture, Stanford: Stanford University Press, p. 40.

11 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 158.

12 Qian Zhongshu, Tan yi lu, p. 47.

13 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 157.

14 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 214.

15 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 214, n. 1.

16 Kern Martin, 1994, Zum Topos “Zimtbaum” in der chinesischen Literatur; Rhetorische Funktion und poetischer Eigenwert des Naturbildes kuei, Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, p. 42.

17 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. xli.

18 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. xli and Li He shi zhu 李賀詩注, p. 212.

19 Frodsham J. D., 1970, The Poems of Li Ho, p. 213, n. 1.

20 Kern Martin, 1994, Zum Topos “Zimtbaum” in der chinesischen Literatur, p. 47.

21 Compare the parallel line of my translation in the appendix.

22 This is highlighted by the fact that the first poem in the sequence goes without any geographical allocation.

23 Owen Stephen, 2009, The Late Tang, p. 178.


University of Latvia, Riga