Guan Ju, the Song of Songs, and the Language of Love
Ng Teng Kuan digs into some of the world's earliest love poetry
By Ng Teng Kuan
“The Guan-ju is perfection. Now in its relation to man, the Guan-ju above is like Heaven; below it is like earth. Mysterious and dark is the virtue it hides; abundant and rich the Way it puts into practice. Its transformations are like those of the supernatural dragon. It is complete in its brilliancy and order. Oh great is the way of the Guan-ju! It is that which connects all things and on which the life of human beings is dependent.”
“The entire universe is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs are the Holy of Holies.”
These panegyric pronouncements, respectively made by Confucius and the Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, demonstrate the deep reverence that the Chinese and the Jewish had, and still do have, for these two poems – poems that to a large extent serve as the quintessential love songs within their corresponding scriptural traditions. Their greatness, however, cannot be confined to their particular literary, cultural or historical contexts; thus more than embodying of the poetic principles of the Shi Jing and ancient Chinese verse, “the associations represented in Guan Ju,” as Arthur Cooper affirms, “belong to the universal language of the human mind”. Upon a close examination of the common motifs within Guan Ju and the Song of Songs, we will witness how these similarities reveal the necessarily metaphorical underpinnings that lie at the heart of their enduring poeticism. This will, in turn, lead us to consider not only the implications of the poems’ allegorical significance, but also the very nature of the language of love itself.
Let us begin with a concise consideration of the form and genre of both poems, which will provide us with a framework to appreciate the workings of the metaphorical within them. As the first and most important ode in the Guo Feng section, Guan Ju can be read as either a first or third person narrative; traditional interpretation, such as that of the later Mao School of the Latter Han dynasty (25 – 220 A.D.), views the personae as noble King Wen and Tai Si, a daughter of the House of You Xin. The structural progression of the poem begins with a statement of the male persona’s longing for an ideal beloved in the first stanza, depicts the withholding of fulfillment in the second, and concludes with an eventual realization of these desires in the third stanza.
Likewise, the Song of Songs is traditionally accepted as an epithalamium in celebration of King Solomon and his Shulamite bride, in this respect uniting it with Guan Ju as apotheoses of the amatory lives of wise kings. Taking place in the form of a dramatic interchange, the quasi-narrative pastiche of the Song of Songs flows between, as Robert Gordis limns, alternating states of praise, yearning, sorrow, joy, and fulfillment. Turning to an analysis of the poems themselves, we will see how in spite of their disparate structures they employ many remarkably similar poetic elements, which hint ultimately at the intuitive veracity of Francis Landy’s proposition that “lovers can communicate through the world, through metaphor”.
Guan Ju begins with the onomatopoeic cry of ospreys on an isle in the river, evoking an immediacy that draws us into a vignette of natural beauty while conjuring a sense of pastoral tranquility. Right after this, the central refrain of the poem is introduced: yao tiao shu nu, which James Legge translates as “modest, retiring, virtuous, young lady”. Despite the accuracy of explanation, Legge neglects the crucial blush of connotation brought to mind by the euphonic turn of phrase in the original: the gentle and demure quietude of an intensely feminine loveliness, ripe with suggestion and possibility. When these free-flighted birds are regarded as symbols of speculative infinity, the fact that they should have chosen to roost on this particular islet intimates the attainable nearness of a state of connubial bliss. Coupled with the water imagery indicated by the river in the first stanza, the floating duckweed – which serves as the central trope for the young lady – amidst waters imparts a discreet sense of nascent lushness.
What we observe at work here simultaneously are the Bi (metaphorical, comparative) and Xing (allusive, evocative) methods of poetical composition: contemplation upon this beloved is aroused or emoted by physical phenomena, but at the same time the latter themselves become figures for the beloved within this process. The conflation of the present and the future ideal is further achieved by the rhyme of jiu, zhou, and qiu, and probably that of cai and nu which in several extant dialects are pronounced with an “oi” ending. Yet the imagistic and assonantal associations at work here operate with a certain lightness, without the interpretive strain that often accompanies the use of conceits. Enhanced by the inherent compactness of classical Chinese verse, it proves difficult to distinguish – nor are we inclined to – the real and the imagined. We cannot be utterly certain, to begin with, that the poet actually beholds the ospreys, the islet, and the duckweed, and it is equally plausible that they exist simply within the mind’s eye. And while the stanzas do indicate some form of thematic development and progression, the poem does not provide us with enough to conclusively observe a narrative per se.
In a similar way, the Song of Songs presents a sense of narrative openness, conveyed through the polyphonic (to borrow Mikhail Bakhtin’s apt term) medley of intermingling consciousnesses. Upon a tableaux of naturalistic richness, the voices of the Shulamite, the Beloved, and the Daughters of Jerusalem (alongside their kith and kin) melt into one another in lively fluidity. As Landy astutely points out, “there is no ‘story’ in the Song... only a set of anecdotes, hovering between reality and dream, that exemplify the relationships of lovers”.
The lovers relate to each other in chiefly metaphorical terms, which echo with slight variation the three primary motifs in Guan Ju that we have listed thus far. For instance, the Beloved refers to the Shulamite’s “dove’s eyes,” who in turn uses “my dove” as a term of endearment for him; as a pair of tender “lovebirds,” they parallel Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the ospreys as a figure of right, conjugal happiness. Moreover, he praises her as “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon,” images that conjure an overwhelming verdancy and abundance. Perhaps most striking would be the way in which the Shulamite likens herself to “the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys,” recalling the translations of William Jennings and Arthur Cooper which transpose xing cai as “waterlilies”.
But the figurative and the literal naturalism of the poem are rendered indistinct through their associative propinquity. Even as we are provided with concrete cues of the actual milieu, such as when the Shulamite meditates on how her “beloved has gone to his garden, ...to feed his flock,” the fact that we see in the next verse that “he feeds his flock among the lilies” tells of how the physical itself is suffused with an equally real presence of a sensuous metaphoricity of the body. As it is, the use of the metaphorical is not grounded simply upon aesthetic or technical reasons; rather, it seems necessary for articulating the otherwise ineffable experience of love in the fullness of all its emotional, spiritual, and sexual implications – and it is the latter that notions of decency or propriety leave most unutterable. Hence “the elaborations of the metaphor,” as Robert Alter incisively observes, are essential for conveying this fullness, providing “a way of being at once sexually explicit and decorous through elegant double entente”.
A comparative analysis of parallel segments in the Song of Songs will elucidate our appreciation of the codified eroticism that appears to be silently exerting itself beneath the ostensibly nondescript surface of Guan Ju. In two particularly phantasmagoric sequences we see the Shulamite “by night on her bed” longing for her Beloved before wandering eagerly through the streets in search of him. While on the most apparent level this clearly shows the extent of her fondness, the implicit sexuality of her desire cannot be dismissed; in addition, we are apt to take the palpable desperation evinced in the repetition of “I sought him, but I did not find him” as a covert sign of sexual frustration.
Correspondingly, the tossing and turning of Guan Ju’s male persona upon his bed is a plain indication of his anxious pining for a beloved. But in the same way that the mistress’ coyness can be read to be rife with amorous undertones, the second stanza bears traces of an unfulfilled sexual desire in the throes of the night. This is established by the jarring disruption of the structured, chant-like versification in the second half of the stanza: as anticipated by the preceding lines as well as echoed in the subsequent lines, the replacement of qiu zhi bu de over the primary association with the lady generates a sense of ringing absence or emptiness. This readerly bathos is heightened by the wan, repetitive drone of you zai you zai, which occupies the space where the main refrain (yao tiao shu nu) ought to have been.
Meanwhile, the explicit descriptions to plainly erogenous aspects of the body – such as the sequence where the Beloved gazes mesmerized upon the Shulamite’s conjecturably naked body from her feet to her head – afford us with a further key into perceiving the mutedly sexually-charged nuances in Guan Ju. According to Alter, the lilies in the Song of Songs represent an “ingenious superimposition of an agricultural image on an erotic one, since lilies are elsewhere implicitly associated with pubic hair;” and if this proves reasonable, it would therefore be neither fanciful nor far-fetched to see the duckweed as a euphemistic reference to the female genitalia as well.
As such, this does on one level seem to concur with Jacques Derrida’s famous apothegm that "metaphor is never innocent.” However, this lack of “innocence” extends only insofar as the fact that the use of figurative language is liable up to any multitude of possible interpretations. It is important to note that such shades of obscenity are not intended to be taken too severely, for classical Chinese literature is replete which instances acknowledging the artificiality or hypocrisy of any complete demarcation between the sexual and romantic-conjugal drives – an acknowledgement perhaps reflected, as Chih-Ping Chou points out, in a central tenet especially popular in late Ming literature, you wu qing zhi se, wu wu se zhi qing ("Erotic passion devoid of love exists, but there does not exist a love that is unaccompanied by erotic passion").
Finally, we see in both poems the need for metaphorical language in conveying the eventual realization of these drives and desires. In the Song of Songs, this realization is arguably interspersed throughout the poem, since the rhythm of its structural progression does not drive towards one singular conclusion. One of the most powerful expressions of this culmination, though, would have to be the Shulamite’s choric confession of abandonment to her Beloved’s affection: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me”. Though not overtly figurative, the chorus builds upon, and gathers its vigor from, the basic symbolic systems that run through the poem. In the first two occurrences the metaphors of the pastoral and the sensual are commingled: the lilies that the flock now feeds upon (consumption here being akin to consummation) are at once literal and figurative. But most arresting of all would be the third time the refrain occurs towards the end of the Song. Arising from a rapturous exchange of kisses between the intoxicated lovers – the Beloved tells the Shulamite that “the roof of [her] mouth [is] like the best wine,” who in reply speaks of how “the wine goes down smoothly for my beloved” – it offers a resolution to the air of latent hopefulness and the ecstatic wine metaphor that the poem had begun with, encapsulated in the Shulamite’s imploration, “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth – For your love is better than wine!”
In Guan Ju, the fulfillment of these desires are conveyed through tone and rhythm as well, but it is still the metaphorical underpinnings of the poem that prove most forceful. In comparison to the open-endedness suggested by the lightly-toned particles of de, fu, and zai at the end of each verse of the second stanza (with the exception of ce which intimates a turning) the heavily-toned rhyme of the substantive syllables mao and yao that conclude the poem amplify the tone of finality. And whereas in the second stanza the drifting, elusive nymphoides were sought in vain, here a decisive obtaining – again literal as well as symbolic – is denoted by the verbs cai and mao. Structurally juxtaposed with earlier signs of silent, listless yearning (wu mei si fu) are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic images of lutes, bells, and drums (qin se you zhi; zhong gu yao zhi). On the one hand, as Mark Asselin proposes, it must be admitted that the “refined use of music” that we witness here might be a synecdoche for Ritual, which possibly “emerges as the proper antidote to the male persona’s tossing and turning in bed”. On the other hand, the music we hear can also be a simple expression of matrimonial celebration and delight (since these instruments are employed in wedding processions), or more specifically, jouissance – in the fullest sense of the word. Whether or not actual consummation is indicated here, its ineluctability is clear.
As we draw towards the end of our discussion, let us turn to a consideration of the poem’s allegorical possibilities – without which their canonization would have been improbable – which will provide conclusive insights into the crux of the issue. From the early medieval period of Chinese history, hermeneutical schools have variously read Guan Ju as a “lesson of manners” inculcating concubines with the virtues of selflessness; as a paradigm for the “proper comportment of the queen; and as an encomium to the balanced “separation of the sexes,” among many other things. Evidently the Song of Songs has also served analogous didactic purposes: as a warning to sexual restraint and patience (“Do not stir nor awaken love until it pleases”), and even as an “excellent premarital manual”.
Yet where it diverges from Guan Ju hermeneutics would be its metaphysical dimensions, for both Rabbinic and Christian traditions have read it as a powerful allegory for the intimate relation between God and His people, or Christ and the bride of His Church. Even as it is certainly beyond the ambit of this discussion to delve into the authenticity of the two scriptural canons and the exact conceptions of transcendence that each hold to, from a philological perspective it does appear reasonably doubtful, as George Steiner eloquently argues, if “a hermeneutics and a reflex of valuation... can be made intelligible, can be made answerable to the existential facts, if they do not imply, if they do not contain, a postulate of transcendence” (italics mine). In this light, if indeed “poetic truth is metaphysical truth” – a notion first formulated by Giambattista Vico that has taken root in contemporary religious and anthropological discourse – it is not because the former conditions or determines the latter, but because it is in the poetic that the metaphysical finds articulation.
In conclusion, we have thus seen that the compelling poeticism of both Guan Ju and the Song of Songs are essentially founded upon their common metaphorical motifs. Together with their intricate variations in structure and rhythm, the poems mimic in their own unique way the suspension and eventual realization of desire in moving and memorable terms. In spite of the force of their poeticity, both still retain a certain subtle grace that does recall Confucius’ dictum of how “there is joy without wantonness, and sorrow without self-injury” (le er bu shang, ai er bu you). This delicate balance of joy and sorrow, in the final analysis, seems to be achieved through a poetic cadence, a cadence that dances between language and silence, as both Guan Ju and the Song of Songs (as Landy succinctly puts it) “[verge] always on the limits of language, which points to that which cannot be spoken”. And what else can this profound metaphysical mystery be, “[connecting] all things and on which the life of human beings is dependent” – but the unutterable sanctity of love?