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The Ounce and the Cup:
Xie Lingyun's Imitation of Cao Zhi

Xie Lingyun’s “Imitation of the Crown Prince of Wei’s Anthology at Ye擬魏太子鄴中集 does not neatly fit any genre or interpretation. The set does not elevate the diction of a model poem, as typical for the “imitation” genre. Nor does it present a traditional allegory. Instead, the poems form a pastiche of the many works dealing with the outings at Ye. Xie demonstrates his extensive learning, often using the language of later writers to point to earlier texts with indirect allusion.

It is tempting to read an imitative consciousness into the series, and many have done so. Three relatively new interpretations of the series have attempted to redefine Xie’s corpus using “Imitations” as a key unlocking the central metaphor. J D Frodsham argues that the retelling of the Ye feasts is a veiled attack at Xie’s political enemies, who had marginalized the rightful claimant to the throne just as Cao Pi mistreated Cao Zhi.1 Mei Jialing analyzes the question of the poems’ genre and concludes that they attempt to create synchronicity between reader, imitator, and imitated.2 Yue-June Liang uses the questions of authenticity and genre to support her thesis that Xie’s natural poetry is a metatextual exploration of the relation between reader and read.3

The relationship of each poem’s text to the works of the imitated author is key to each of these arguments, but a thorough study has not been made. In the following paper I hope to demonstrate the usefulness of this method by analyzing one of the eight poems, the one imitating Cao Zhi. The choice is deliberate. If the poems are close rewritings, Zhi has the largest surviving corpus of the Jian’an poets, making it easier to find textual antecedents. If imitations, he is the figure most admired by Xie. If historical allegory, he stands for the central figure, Liu Yizhen.

In analyzing the piece, I have looked for actual textual allusions, themes or images in Cao Zhi’s writing of which Xie’s couplet might be consider a ni-like elevated rewriting, and later references to Cao Zhi which characterize him in ways owing more to Xie’s imitation than his works themselves. Although my reading of the poem is not conclusive in answering the question of the nature of the series, it is substantially different from existing readings and suggests that this abstract question cannot be accurately answered without more attention to the details of the text.



Zhi, Marquis of Pingyuan

The prince was not in accord with worldly affairs, only enjoying rambling outings. Nevertheless, he sighed at the sorrows of his life.

Most commentators consider the second phrase descriptive of Cao’s years in Ye, and the third of his life afterwards. Given that the poem includes melancholy, his “sighs” do not need to wait until after his years at Ye.

Only this poem is being analyzed, so it is difficult to say how these biographical prefaces function within the set. Without establishing in what sense Xie imagines Cao Pi as anthologist, it is difficult to say anything about it. Clearly, the preface is echoed in the following poem.




In morning rambles, we climb Phoenix Gallery,

At sunset, gather by the verdant pool.



鳳閣 is often glossed as “palace.” Frodsham has shown that Li Shan’s gloss “Department of the Grand Imperial Secretariat” 中書省 is anachronistic and suggested that the name comes from the Phoenix Tower 鳳臺 built by Duke Mu of Qin. A more likely source is the Golden Phoenix Tower 金鳳臺, a later name for Golden Tiger Tower 金虎臺, one of the three terraces of Bronze Bird Park, the location of the most famous outings in Ye. It would have been known by this name in many of Xie’s contemporary sources, including the Ye zhong ji 鄴中記. Zhang Zai’s commentary to the Wei du fu records that: “There are galleryways allowing travel between the three towers and the Palace of Justice” 三臺與法殿皆閣道相通.  These ge are mentioned in Zhi’s “Deng tai fu” 登臺賦 and examined in Cutter, 68 and 131n5. See: Frodsham, vol. 2, 204; Cutter, 70; Knechtges, vol. 1, 444; Wen xuan 6.100a; Shuijing zhu jiaoshi, 10.180; Ye zhong ji, 3-4.



If Xie locates the gathering at Bronze Bird Park, “pool of flowers” likely refers to the fish pond mentioned in the Wei du fu, cf. Knechtges, vol. 1, 444. This is the same pond in Cao Pi’s “Written on Orchid Pond” 芙蓉池作 and its name here is perhaps suggested by its depiction in Cao Zhi’s “Lord’s Feast” 公讌詩: “Vermillion blossoms cover the green pond” 朱華冒綠池. Wen xuan, 20.282b; Trans.: Cutter, 10.

The morning/evening formula is a common introduction in Jian’an poetry, setting out the topic of the following poem and suggesting the completeness of the action described. Xie Lingyun often uses the same sort of introduction in his nature poetry. Here, Xie suggests the completeness of his portrayal of Cao Zhi and the two halves of the body of the poem: Zhi’s lonely rambling and thoughts in lines three to ten and the festive gathering in lines 11 through 20. Although commentators have read all of the poem as a banquet piece, the following couplet very clearly shows Cao in lone reflection.



From drooping branches I pick the delicate tips,

Grasp at boughs and pluck the fragrant dogsbane.



The closest textual parallel in Cao’s poems is in “Zhong ge bian” 種葛篇: “Plucking a branch, I give way to long sighs;/Falling tears wet my collar.” 攀枝長歎息,淚下沾羅衿。 Huang Jie, Cao Zijian shi zhu (Taibei: Yiwen yinshuguan, 1973), 2.23b-24a; David T. Roy, “The Theme of the Neglected Wife in the Poetry of Ts`ao Chih,” JOAS 19.1, 29. 



Plucking at fragrant grasses is an image associated with the man deciding between reclusion and noble service as far back as the Chu ci. This image as continued by Xie Lingyun becomes caught up in the myth of Cao Zhi, so that Jiang Yan’s imitation of Zhi seems to reference this line and the next: 褰裳摘明珠,徙倚拾蕙若。“We’d lift our skirted robes and gather bright pearls, To and fro gathering sweet basil and pollia.” Wen xuan 31.445a; John Marney, Chiang Yen. (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 82.

Translators and commentators have usually taken all of the poem’s activities as communal.4 However, after the introductory couplet, Cao Pi and the guests do not appear until line 11. Biographical information fills the corresponding couplets in the other poems in the series. Lines 3 to 10 of this poem present studies in various characters and themes from Cao Zhi’s poetry. As we will see, they borrow imagery from his works and speak for him from many voices: the abandoned woman, plaintive brother, martial hero, and separated friend. 

This couplet describes Cao with imagery traditionally associated with the neglected lover, as presented in yuefu ballads or the political allegory of the Chu ci poems. 



This way and that I restlessly exhaust the view,

My gaze extends to reach all I seek:



The phrase originates with the Chu ci “Xiang fu ren:” “Over the white sedge I gaze out wildly” 白蘋兮騁望. Trans.: Hawkes, 38. The term 徙倚 also appears in two of Zhi’s works on supernatural themes: “Five Excursions” 五游詠: “Pacing, I play with flower aromatics” 徙倚弄華芳。Cutter, 295. “Fu on the Luo Goddess” 洛神賦: “The Luo Goddess is moved by it, is wavering and uncertain” 洛靈感焉,徙倚彷徨。Cutter, 281.



This phrase is borrowed from “Zhao hum” in the Chu ci: “The eye travels on a thousand li, and the heart breaks for sorrow.” 目極千里兮,傷春心。Trans.: Hawkes, 109. It is connected with the restlessness of the guests in Zhi’s “Cockfight” 鬥雞: “Their wandering eyes have seen all the wondrous dancing.” 遊目極妙伎

If the previous couplet presented images of the lover abandoned by a worldly companion or king, this one incorporates the imagery of the lover jilted by supernatural forces: the disappearance of the goddess or the soul of the king. Some of Cao Zhi’s poetry, especially the Luo shen fu 洛神賦, uses this imagery. Critics speculate that Cao intends the spirit as allegory for his brother.5 The allegorical speaker’s love for the goddess is manifested in Cao’s desire to do some patriotic service, as in the following couplet.



To the west I peer at the Taihang Mountains,

And northward gaze at the Handan Road.



The Taihang mountains run roughly North-South at the meeting-point of modern Shanxi, Hebei and Henan, roughly twenty miles west of Ye. Cao Cao’s “Ku han xing” 苦寒行, a yuefu ballad of the hardships of military service, has the line: “Northward I climb the Taihang mountains,/Sighing: ah! how rocky and steep.” 北上太行山,艱哉何巍巍! Cao Cao ji 曹操集 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 6. The image of craning the neck is connected with Zhi’s desire for an active role in court and military life in “For Biao, King of Boma” 贈白馬王彪: “I turn back to look, reluctant to leave the court, Craning my neck, feelings painful inside.” 顧瞻戀城闕,引領情內傷。Cutter, 360.



Handan, (modern Handan, Hebei, roughly thirty miles north of Ye) the capital of Warring States era Zhao, is mentioned in Zhang Zai’s commentary to the Wei du fu in connection with its 257 bc defense against a Qin seige. The story forms the bulk of the biography of Lord Pingyuan 平原君, a Zhao prince who enjoyed a leisurely life until called on as diplomat and guerilla general to defend the city. See Knechtges, vol. 1, 470; Shi ji 76. The location is mentioned in other Wei literature in connection with this story. Wu Zhi’s “Letter to the Crown Prince of Wei from Yuancheng” 在元城與魏太子牋 mentions Lord Pingyuan and has the phrase: “I gaze southward at Handan, longing for the vigor of capable Lin” 南望邯鄲,想廉藺之風, Wen xuan, 40.567a. Lin is Lin Xuangru, a famous Zhao general, involved in the same incident, whose biography appears in Shi ji, 81. For this poem, Li Shan glosses Handan with a reference to the biography of Zhang Shizhi in Shi ji, 102 and Han shu, 50. Emperor Wen “pointing to the Xinfeng road, said, ‘That is the road that goes to your native city of Handan.’” 文帝指慎夫人新豐道曰:此走邯鄲道也。Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 469. It is unclear why Li chose this gloss rather than the pre-Qin allusion. The rather tenuous connection is the previous incident in the biography, in which Zhang punishes the heir apparent for violating propriety in rushing through the Marshall Gate. Cutter 1983, 541; Watson, 469.

In light of the contemporary texts, these two places are clearly linked with Zhi’s desire to do some martial service for his country.6 Xie has carefully read through these texts and combines a certain bookishness with a careful reading of Cao’s works, even noticing the small detail of “looking back” in connection with his ambition. The following couplet presents him as no longer yearning, but accepting his fate.



The level avenue is broad and straight,

The aspens, how they sough in the breeze.



Aspens (Populus tremula or European Aspen, commonly translated by the more general “poplar”) soughing in the wind appear as desolate images in “Old Poems” 13 and 14 on the transience of human life. The line in 14: “Aspens filled by doleful winds.” 白楊多悲風 is the source of 多悲風, one of Zhi’s most common phrases.

Although the translation of line 9 is quite straightforward, its interpretation will only be tentative. I suggest that Xie is cleverly turning around a common image in order to fit the structure of this poem. Normally, the long road beset by difficulty or cut by rivers represents separation or the impossibility of fulfilling ambitions. The speaker has just reflected on these problems and now turns to the alternate option: the level, clear road of revelry. The roads to Taihang and Handan are difficult, both allegorically and in reality, but this is the “eastern road” which Cao Zhi’s poetry refers to, leading back to Ye and the festive gatherings.7

This interpretation also gives added meaning to the soughing aspens, which remind the speaker of the transience of life. To all his previous desires and yearnings, he says in essence: life is too short and this way is easier. Here, the poem makes its transition from his private thoughts to the festive gathering.



The assistant lord commands our drinking and feasting,

In revelry we purge our cares and fears.



Li Shan says this refers to Cao Pi, glossing fujun with a quote from Han shu 71: “The Crown Prince is heir to the state and assistant lord.” 太子國儲副君也。 



Zhi’s “Entertaining Guests” 娛賓賦: “In this air of goodwill I forget my cares.” 聽仁風以忘憂。 

Thanking the host and describing his actions in commencing the occasion are formal necessities of the gathering poems. Cao Zhi’s “Lord’s Feast” 公宴 and “Seated in Attendance on the Heir Apparent” 侍太子作 both follow this formula. The idea of the feast releasing and relieving sadness is also conventional. 

Having provided such compliments, it is also necessary that the guests not desire to end the feast.



Happy ramblings know not day or night,
so what need to speak of eve and morn?

The romantic image of the revelers continuing late into night, or early into the morning, does not appear in Zhi’s poems on the Ye feasts, but does appear in the letters remembering the events. One of Cao Pi’s letters to Wu Zhi records: “When the white sun disappeared, we carried on by the bright moon.”8 

Their ramblings consist in extemporaneous poems and high-minded discussion:



Assembled guests—each uniquely skilled,
Refined words—dripping with elegance.

Praising the assembled guests, in part to honor the host who has been able to summon them, is a traditional part of the banquet poem. This couplet is less related to Zhi’s works, though, and appears to have some place in the set as a whole: all eight poems mention the splendid guests and refined conversation, though they disagree on many other details. Any further discussion of the image will have to wait for a full study of the set. 

Matching their conversation is excellent music, so sorrowful that it moves nature itself.




The sorrowful sounds make whirling cranes descend,

Lingering notes pierce the clear heavens.



The Hanfeizi records that Master Kuang played the music of the pure zhi mode for Duke Ping of Jin and “twice times eight black cranes appeared from the south and gathered on the ridgepole of the gallery gate.” Trans.: Burton Watson, Han Fei Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 54-5.



According to the Liezi, Qin Qing sung a song so sad it “shook the trees in the forest, the echoes stilled the drifting clouds.” Trans.: AC Graham, The book of Lieh-tzu (London: Murray, 1960), 108-9. The allusion here is established only through Lu Ji’s poem, for which see below.

This paper has already identified many allusions in the poem, some with seemingly tenuous connections, resting on only one or two characters or a chance grammatical similarity. Tracing the history and use of each of these could be a paper in itself. As a brief example of how carefully intentional Xie Lingyun’s diction is in this poem, I will briefly trace the antecedents to this couplet. It makes use of the image of sad music, as enhanced by a common Jian’an pattern opposing the music of Qin and Qi in parallel couplets, and further elevated by the replacement of these geographical locations with relevant allusions.

The image of sorrowful music first appears in five-character poetry in “This Day’s excellent feast” 今日良宴會, fourth of the “Nineteen Old Poems” 古詩十九首:







Wen xuan 29.410a

The harp is struck, the notes rise free,

new tunes so fine they touch the gods.

Those with virtue sing high words,

those skilled in song will hear what’s true.

Trans.: Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature (New York: Norton, 1996), 255.

Cao Zhi’s “For Ding Yi” 贈丁翼 presents the same sorrowful music in its characteristic Jian’an form, with the pairing of the music of Qin and Qi to represent the completeness of the entertainment:



Wen xuan, 24.341b

Zhengs from Qin play western airs;

Ses from Qi raise an eastern song.

Trans.: Cutter, 86, 152n84.

A slightly later variation on this image is seen in Lu Ji’s imitation of the “Old Poem” quoted above. Lu elevates the diction of those four lines by adding the Qi/Qin pairing, naming two particular yuefu ballads, and alluding to two stories from the Liezi:







Wen xuan, 30.435a

The boy from Qi will play “Song of Liangfu,”

And the beautiful maiden from Qin will play “Zhangnü Tune.”

Mourning sounds wind round the beams,

While lingering echoes enter the Cloud River.

Trans.: Chiu-Mi Lai, “River and Ocean: The Third-Century Verse of Pan Yue and Lu Ji,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington, 1990, 254.

Xie’s couplet borrows the sorrowful music of Qin Qing (a native of Qin) and the plaints of Zhang E (who was traveling in Qi) to indirectly fulfill the Qi/Qin convention. He also adds the allusion from the Hanfeizi. His two lines seem to wrap up all the conventional images and allusions on the subject of doleful music.

In much the same way, The entire banquet description is a catalogue. Although all of the themes and images are quite traditional, actual banquet poems were written to praise a particular host, to thank particular guests, to commemorate a specific occasion, and might touch on some, though not all, of the traditional themes. Xie’s poem seems to dutifully touch on all of these themes in an attempt to catalogue the variety of Cao Zhi’s banquet poems. The continued elaboration also serves a dramatic effect, like the piled-up couplets on Zhi’s lonely wanderings. Just as his previous resolve to patiently wait for a chance to serve his country eventually succumbed to the easy revelry of the feast, so the revelry fades away in the following couplet, and yields to a very different resolve in the final one.



Even with Zhongshan wine, I don’t seem drunk,

Consuming of its power I feel quite full.



Zhongshan refers to alcohol made there. It was twice fermented and reputably extremely strong. See: “Wei du fu” in Knechtges, vol. 1, 468 l.669.



Shi jing 247: “We are drunk with wine, we are sated with power.” 既醉以酒,既飽以德。 Trans.: Arthur Waley, Joseph R. Allen, ed., The Book of Songs (New York: Grove Press, 1996), 248.

Although wine and the offering of toasts are common images in banquet poetry, I am unaware of a poetic precedent for denying alcohol’s efficacy. Although Frodsham takes these lines as a continuation of the festive gathering,9 they clearly present a dropping-off from the ideal revelry, which is often described as getting participants drunk even without alcohol. This line, like Cao Zhi’s consideration of the “eastern road” in line 9, is a transition in which the speaker’s previous ideal seems to fail and he adopts another. In this case, his thoughts turn to prolonging his life.



I desire, in my yellow-haired old age,

To nourish life and hope to live long.

Frodsham points out that this concluding couplet’s mention of Daoist practices is antithetical to the drinking and revelry which immediately precede it.10 The reader is tempted to take the statement metaphorically, as Cao’s intention to prolong his life by staying out of politics.11 In reality, Cao’s corpus includes many poems on Daoist themes, including practices of “nourishing life” through diet, breathing techniques, and other methods.12

If there is a contradiction between the poem’s presentation of patriotic desires, drunken revelry, and Daoist practices, the contradiction lies not in the poem, but in the man. Cao Zhi’s life and works contain such contradictions, as indeed do Xie’s. This poem does not attempt to untangle them, as it does not aim to imitate any one of Cao’s poems. Instead, it provides a literary overture to his works: presenting the important themes closely together, so that their tension is felt, but not resolved. 

In examining the text of the poem, no apparent evidence can be found for any of the prior theories about the nature of Xie’s imitation. Although there is certainly an abstract similarity between the political situations in Xie’s time and Cao’s, the lines quoted from Cao’s work focus on his desire to do a great deed, not the selection of his brother as heir. The poem fits more as allegory for Xie’s mixed political desires than for the infighting of the Liu Song princes. Similarly, although the nature of Xie’s imitation is certainly complex, he is not revolutionarily metatextual; he is, indeed, precisely traditional in his use of allusions and scholarship as the basis for the imitation. 

This paper has only examined a small portion of the set “Imitation of the Crown Prince of Wei’s Anthology at Ye” and is not conclusive. Although Xie clearly tries to present a pastiche of Cao Zhi’s works and identifies with Cao himself, many questions remain about the set. Do all of the poems present each poet in relation to Xie, or do the other poets stand allegorically for other figures in one of Xie’s literary salons, perhaps his younger nephews? To what extent do the poems agree in theme and diction on the circumstances of the feast? How does the character of Cao Pi as anthologist relate to the grand preface and the biographical prefaces for each poet? These questions among others cannot be answered without a detailed study of the complete set.


1 J D Frodsham, The Murmuring Stream (Kuala Lampur: University of Malaya, 1967), vol. 1, 160.

2 Mei Jialing 梅家玲, Han-Wei-liuchao wenxue xinlun 漢魏六朝文學新論擬代與贈答篇 (Beijing: Beijing daxue xhubanshe, 2004), 24-26.

3 Yue-June Liang, “The Redefinition of Landscape Poetry, Xie Lingyun,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1999, 15-22.

4 Frodsham, vol. 1, 168 includes “we” even here in line 3, where the action of plucking at branches is clearly an image of loneliness.

5 Cutter, 277-291

6 For a full discussion of this theme in Zhi’s poetry, see Cutter 355-76.

7 The “eastern road” appears in “For Biao, King of Boma” and the fifth of “Miscellaneous Poems.” In both places, Zhi rejects the option, which would take him away from the real political or military happenings. See Cutter, 360.

8 Cutter, 70, Wen xuan 41.591a

9  “Chung-shan wine can never make us drunk, Yet quaffing of his power we feel quite sated.” Frodsham, vol. 1, 168.

10 Frodsham, vol. 2, 205.

11 Gu Shaobo 顧紹柏, Xie Lingyun ji jiao zhu 謝靈運集校注 (Taibei: Li ren shuju, 2004), 233.

12 Cutter, 277-352 fully examines the question of supernatural phenomena in Cao’s poetry.