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Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003

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Guan Ju, the Song of Songs, and the Language of Love
Page 2

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?

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QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003


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  Other Essays in this Issue

Female Sexuality in a Clairol Ad and its Reception by its Hong Kong Audience
By Amy Lai.

A Letter from Another Sports Fan
By Miguel Jaime Ongpin.

Drink Deep, Or Taste Not the Pierian Spring
By Toh Hsien Min.

Related Links

Confucius profile
External link.

Guan Ju and Sexual Restraint
External link.

Akiba ben Joseph profile
External link.

Song of Songs text
External link to Bartleby.

Song of Songs, with Explanation and Reflection by Mme Guyon
External link.

Song of Songs as Erotic Love Poetry
External link.


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