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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mother Of Kings


I had been bad. My mind was not in a tiptop shape for the last few days. I spent my nights watching a Chinese serial called, “Mother of Kings”. The translated title is a misnomer although it is actually quite good for advertisement purposes. It captures the basic story in just three words. It is quite a feat in doing so. Unlike in this entry, the correct translation cannot be explained clearly. It is also known by more dowdy title of “The Queens”.

The serial is based on a life story of a woman who rose from obscurity to the pinnacle of power in the imperial history of the Eastern Han Dynasty. She was pivotal in the break of the dynasty for a few short years before it rose from its ashes as the Western Han Dynasty. For those who are not well versed in Chinese history, the other major power of the day was the Roman Empire.

Women in the harem will stoop to nothing; murdering not only their rivals but the male issues of their rivals. This is also true in the harems of the Ottoman Empire. The story is unique because this is the only known case where the infatuated Emperor would allow his baby son and heir to the throne be killed with no consequences for the murderess. Great plots! However the serial skipped many more interesting historical facts. I guess the director was trying to impinge his creative marks on this film. However, what he fabricated can do no justice to the real intrigues of history.

The correct title of the series should be, “The Motherly Model of the Empire” or “The Motherly Rites of the Empire” (母儀天下). However, if translated this way, many will scratch their heads in puzzlement and too long a title. In Chinese imperial philosophy, the emperor is the Son of Heaven, the father of the empire while the Empress is its mother. All subjects are considered to be the children. A very Confucian model indeed. As such, the empress must behave like an ideal mother; a model and paradigm to the nation - in other words, a paragon of virtue. This was stressed later in the serial. Although ancient Chinese is a polygynous society, imperial law stated that there can only be one current empress at any time. Of course, all his other women can have various titles to skirt around the restriction but protocol requires that their ranks be lower than that of the empress. A more drastic way is to depose her and let another takes her place. Whichever the case may be, real power lies with the one whom the emperor favoured most.

What really prompted me to write this article were the poetic lyrics for the ending song. At the same time learning few new Chinese characters (highlighted in red). At first I was astounded by the poetic elegance which summed up the story perfectly.

兼葭蒼蒼,    His double flute sounds are far and misty.
白露為霜.    The pure dew has now become frost.
所為伊人,    This so called person,
在水一方.    Is now somewhere by the river bank.
溯洄從之,    Following the meandering, (I searched for thee).
道阻且長.    The course, full of obstacles, is long and difficult.
溯游從之,    Upstream I went following,
宛在水中央. As if I had entered into the flow.

In the fictionalized story, the main female character has an unrequited love for a nobleman who was a carefree guy. To irk and to circumvent his father’s wishes that he enters the imperial court to seek some high official post, he became a court musician to the crown prince instead; thus satisfying the literal words of his father. His favourite instrument was the flute. Later circumstances made him change his mind to become an imperial chancellor in order to protect his now unattainable love - now the empress. In the end, he was executed for treason due to court intrigue and scorn from a rival empress dowager whom he had rejected her advances (another fabrication to liven up the story). Thus 兼葭 caught my eye. 兼 means ‘double’ or ‘double ranked’. 葭 means a flute; actually a kind of reed used to make the instrument.

The second line of the poem can mean the innocence of the young girls entering the harem and has now become ruthless cold blooded killers. Because of the influence of the story, the river bank can mean the nether world. I have this visual image of the lady searching for the source of the river as if being waded into the river or as if the river had embraced her into its waters to seek the soul of her lover. A sort of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. However, I was wrong. I did some research and found that the director, like some subplots, had fiddled here and there to fit his ideas and to fit the melody. From the internet, I was surprised to find that it was an ancient poem. The keyword changed was 蒹 and not 兼. The difference is the removal of the grass radical. 蒹葭 is Phragmites communis; a kind of reed. See the following link to see how it looks like.

蒹葭(秦風) Reeds (Winds of Chin1)

蒹葭蒼蒼,      The reeds extend far into infinity,
白露為霜.      Pure drops of dew now frosted white.
所謂伊人,      This so called person,
在水一方.      Is somewhere by the river bank.
溯洄從之,      Following the meanders, (I searched for thee)
道阻且長.      The course, fraught with obstacles, is long and difficult.
溯游從之,      Upstream I went following,
宛在水中央.   As if I had entered into the flow.

蒹葭凄凄,      How luxuriant are the reeds 淒 here is the same as 萋
白露未晞.      Pure drops of dew not yet dried.
所謂伊人,      This so called person,
在水之湄.      Is somewhere by the river’s edge 2.
溯洄從之,      Following the meanders, (I searched for thee)
道阻且躋.      The path is tricky and on the rise.
溯游從之,      Upstream I went following,
宛在水中坻3.  As if I am on a rock in the midst of the river.

蒹葭采采,      How thick, are the reeds,
白露未已.      Pure drops of dew still a forming.
所謂伊人,      This so called person,
宛在水之涘.   Is somewhere by the river’s edge
溯洄從之,      Following the meanders, (I searched for thee)
道阻且右.      The way is difficult and twisty.
溯游從之,      Upstream I went following,
宛在水中沚4. As if I am on an islet in the river.

1. The State of Chin where the First Emperor came from. The Chinese word for ‘wind” can also refer to the local customs, scenery or even political winds of change etc.

2. 湄 -The line where grasses and the water meet.

3. 坻 is a rock in the middle of a river.

4. 沚 is somewhat larger than a 3.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

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