Appendix 21: Omar in China.

The civilisation of China has always seemed more alien to western eyes than the civilisations of the Indo-European east. But the basic fact that the Chinese have the same cycles of life and death as we do, and pretty much the same experience of life's vicissitudes as we do, means, as one might expect, that Omarian thought is found in China.

In what follows - which is intended purely as a preliminary trawl of Chinese Omarianism! - I have used, principally, Gems of Chinese Literature, edited by Herbert H. Giles, as published in the form of two volumes bound as one (Vol.1 - Prose and Vol.2 - Verse) by Paragon Book Reprint Corp. and Dover Publications Inc. in 1965. This was an unabridged reprint of the two volume edition of 1923. In what follows, page references to Giles will refer to the 1965 reprint.

There were certainly plenty of Chinese wine-swigging poets. Not only do we find individual poets hitting the bottle with gusto, we actually find them forming societies to do it! A good example is provided by one of China's greatest poets, Li Po (AD 705-762), who belonged to two such societies. Giles writes of him:

"He flourished at a dissolute Court, himself one of its most dissolute members. He was a founder of the drunken club called the Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook, and also belonged to the Eight Immortals of the Wine-cup (1). He is said to have been drowned by leaning over the gunwale of a boat in a drunken effort to embrace the reflection of the moon." (Giles, p.328)

Li Po, then, was a rather more extreme case than Omar! The first verse of his poem "The Best of Life is but..." (Giles p.330) reads thus :

"What is life after all but a dream?
And why should such pother be made ?
Better far to be tipsy, I deem,
And doze all day long in the shade."

The notion of life as a dream is one to be found in Omar, not in FitzGerald's version(s), but in that of A.J.Arberry (2):

"The world's affairs, as so they seem,
Nay, the whole universe complete
Is a delusion and a cheat
A fantasy, an idle dream."

Again, one recalls those well-known lines of Ernest Dowson:

"They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream."

Inevitably, too, one recalls the last line of the final poem of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass - "Life, what is it but a dream?"

But getting back to Li Po, his poem "Anti-Pussyfoot" (Giles p.334) reads:

"If God does not love wine,
Why shine the wine-star (3) in the sky?
If Earth does not love wine,
Her flowing wine-spring (4) should be dry.
And since unharmed these Powers combine
To love the wine-cup, so will I."

This, of course, compares with verse 63 in FitzGerald's second edition (verse 61 in subsequent editions):

"Why, be this Juice the growth of God, who dare
Blaspheme the twisted tendril as a Snare?
A Blessing, we should use it, should we not?
And if a Curse - why, then, Who set it there?

As a final example from Li Po, his poem "Last Words" (Giles p.335), which is as much reminiscent of the 1920s song "Me and my Shadow" as it is of Omar, begins thus:

"An arbour of flowers
and a kettle of wine:
Alas! in the bowers
no companion is mine
Then the moon sheds her rays
on my goblet and me,
And my shadow betrays
we're a party of three!"

Another poet, Tu Fu (AD 712-770), addressed his wine-cup thus, "O wine, who gave thee thy subtle power ? - /A thousand cares in one small goblet drowned."(Giles p,336) Such sentiments were echoed by the scholar Chang Yen, who lived in the 9th century AD, in a poem entited "Fill the bumper fair" (Giles p.375):

"All joys are poor to sober glance,
True joys to wine belong -
When every step we take is dance,
And every word is song."

Again, this time from the poet Lu Yu (AD 1125-1209), in his poem "To Wine" (Giles p.398):

"Soft as the spring-time, as the autumn sweet,
One stoup of thee, at night, all joys will yield;
Demons of care fall harmless at my feet,
Therefore I say, Be thou my spear and shield!

Kao Chu-Nien, who lived in the 12th century AD, echoed Omar when he wrote (Giles p.400):

"Let him, whose fortune brings him wine, get tipsy while he may;
For no man, when the long night comes, can take one drop away!"

In China, as in the West, Anonymous wrote quite a bit. One anonymous author of the first century BC wrote, "This day alone gives sure enjoyment - this! / Why then await tomorrow's doubtful bliss!" (Giles p.305) (cf. v.12: "take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest." (5)) Another anonymous author of the first century BC recommended his readers to "quaff good liquor while we may, / And dress in silk and satin every day!"(Giles p.306). Yet another penned this "Drinking Song" (Giles p.419):

"Day by day we grow old and have nothing to show;
Year by year we behold the new spring coming on;
In the winecup is found our chief joy here below;
Why grieve over flowers too soon faded and gone?"

The images of "the new spring coming on" and of flowers "too soon faded and gone" are typically Omarian. But getting back to Tu Fu, who was apparently at some stage a court official before he resigned to take up a wandering life, the following poem is of interest (Giles p.339-340):

"From the court every eve to the pawnshop I pass,
To come back from the river the drunkest of men;
As often as not I'm in debt for my glass; -
Well, few of us live to be threescore and ten.
The butterfly flutters from flower to flower,
The dragon-fly sips and springs lightly away,
Each creature is merry its brief little hour,
So let us enjoy our short life while we may."

The heterodox thinker Yang Chu, who lived in the 4th century BC, held similar carpe diem views:

"The men of old knew that with life they had come but for a while, and that with death they would shortly depart again. Therefore they followed the desires of their own hearts, and did not deny themselves pleasures to which they felt naturally inclined. Fame tempted them not; but led by their instincts alone, they took such enjoyments as lay in their path, not seeking for a name beyond the grave. They were thus out of the reach of censure; while as for precedence among men, or length or shortness of life, these gave them no concern whatever." (Giles p.18-9)

In similar vein, though with more emphasis on the ultimate worthlessness of earthly Fame and Power, T'ao Yuan-Ming (365-427 AD), who apparently threw up a good official position to write and to grow chrysanthemums, wrote:

"Ah, how short a time it is that we are here! Why then not set our hearts at rest, ceasing to trouble whether we remain or go? What boots it to wear out the soul with anxious thoughts? I want not wealth; I want not power; heaven is beyond my hopes. Then let me stroll through the bright hours as they pass, in my garden among my flowers; or I will mount the hill and sing my song, or weave my verse beside the limpid brook. Thus will I work out my allotted span, content with the appointments of Fate, my spirit free from care." (Giles p.104)

The two foregoing quotes recall Omar's views on that place "Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known" (v.10), and on "the Wordly Hope men set their Hearts upon" (v.14).

Another Chinese variation on this theme comes from the pen of Chuang Tzu, who lived in the 4th century BC. One day, when he was fishing, two court officials sought him out to offer him a high ranking position in the service of the Prince of Ch'u. Chuang Tzu replied:

"I have heard that in the State of Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead for three thousand years, and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine. Now do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honoured, or be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?"(Giles p.30)

The two officials admitted that the tortoise would no doubt prefer to be alive and wagging its tail in the mud, whereupon Chuang Tzu dismissed the court officials, saying that he too would prefer to wag his tail in the mud!

On a similar theme, Hsu Wei, a poet and prose writer of the 16th century AD, wrote a poem about a wine jar found in the ancient grave of a man who, to judge by his grave goods of jade and silk, had been wealthy in life. Yet, despite his earthly wealth, the grave's occupant could not now enjoy the contents of his simple clay wine jar, leading the poet to conclude that, "a living rat's more worth than a dead king." (Giles p.408) This, of course, recalls FitzGerald's famous dictum, "better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle." (II.335)

Moving on now to a Chinese equivalent of James Hervey's "Meditations among the Tombs" (Appendix 12d), the following poem (Giles p.391-2) was written by the poet Huang T'ing-Chien (AD 1042-1102), a contemporary of Omar, about the custom of the annual worship at family tombs. The second verse reads:

"Perhaps on this side lie the bones of a wretch whom no one knows;
On that, the sacred ashes of a patriot repose.
But who across the centuries can hope to mark each spot
Where fool or hero, joined in death, beneath the brambles rot?"

Compare the notes on verse 10.

Another example on the same theme, which calls to mind Hamlet's musings on the skulls unearthed by the grave-digger in Hamlet (Act V, Scene 1), comes again from the pen of Chuang Tzu, quoted earlier:

"Chuang Tzu one day saw an empty skull, bleached, but still preserving its shape. Striking it with his riding-whip, he said, 'Wert thou once some ambitious citizen whose inordinate yearnings brought him to this pass? - some statesman who plunged his country in ruin and perished in the fray? - some wretch who left behind him a legacy of shame? some beggar who died in the pangs of hunger and cold? Or didst thou reach this state by the natural course of old age?'"(Giles p.25)

Much later, the poet Liu Chi (AD 1311-1375) noted that "The mightiest heroes of the past / Upon the hillside sleep at last." (Giles p.402 - note that Chinese burial grounds tended to be dug into hillsides.) Not only do we have here a parallel for Omar's thoughts on Jamshyd and Bahram (v.17), but elsewhere we also find a Chinese parallel for the lion and the lizard haunting "the Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep." Ou-Yang Hsiu (AD 1017-1072), writing of the grave of a friend, wrote:

"A thousand, ten thousand years hence, the fox and the badger will burrow into thy tomb, and the weasel make its nest within. For this also has ever been the lot of the wise and the good. Do not their graves, scattered on every side, bear ample witness of this?" (Giles p.166)

Su Tung-P'o (AD 1036-1101), another contemporary of Omar, wrote a contemplative piece (Giles p.179-180) about a boat excursion he had made with a friend to the Red Wall (apparently an ancient historical monument, of uncertain location.) As they sailed along, they "poured out a bumper for joy" and sang this verse:

"With laughing oars, our joyous prow
Shoots swiftly though the glittering wave -
My heart within grows sadly grave -
Great heroes dead, where are ye now?"

Su Tung-P'o's thoughts are drawn to a great military victory of the past (presumably associated with the Red Wall), whose victor was the hero of his age. "Yet where is he today?" our author asks, adding a little later, "Alas, life is but an instant of Time." His friend's response, after a suitably philosophical muse, is both simple and Omarian - he smiles, and re-fills his wine-cup!

The transience of man-made monuments was also mused upon by Su Tung-P'o, in a piece he wrote about the so-called Baseless Tower. The tower was erected by the Governor of Fu-feng, who, clearly proud of his handiwork, ordered Su Tung-P'o to set down a record of it in writing. What he got probably wasn't what he wanted to hear:

"To this I replied, 'The sequence of fulness and decay lies beyond the limits of our ken. Years ago, when this site was exposed to the hoar-frost and dew of heaven, the home of the adder and of the fox, who could then have forecast the Tower of to-day? And when, obedient to the eternal law, it shall once again by lapse of time become a wilderness and a desert as before, - this is what no man can declare.'

'Where now,' said I to the Governor, as we mounted the Tower together and gazed over the landscape around us, 'where now are the palaces of old, beautiful, spacious buildings, a hundred times more solid than this? They are gone; and not a broken tile, not a crumbling wall remains, to mark the spot. They have passed into the growing grain, into the thorny brake. They have melted into the loamy glebe. Shall not this Tower in like manner pass away? And if towers cannot last for ever, how much less shall we rely for immortality upon the ever fickle breath of praise? Alas for those who trust by these means to live in the record of their age! For whether the record of their age will endure or perish depends upon something beyond the preservation and decay of towers.'

I then retired and committed the above to writing." (Giles p.171-2.)

As one anonymous author of the 18th century AD put it (Giles p.411):

"Riches and rank - a morning dream in spring;
Fame - but an insubstantial cloud above."

There was also, of course, Chinese Omarian skepticism of the human survival of bodily death. Related to the above-mentioned custom of worship at family tombs, T'an Kung, who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, wrote:

"At death, there is a sacrifice of wine and meat; when the funeral cortège is about to start, there is another; and after burial there is yet another. Yet no one ever saw the spirit of the departed come to taste of the food." (Giles, p.40)

Compare the material on libations for the dead quoted in the notes on verse 75.

Han Wen-Kung (AD 768-824), known as the Prince of Literature, foreshadowed Omar's famous line that the dead, "once departed, may return no more" (v.3). In an "In Memoriam" written for his friend Tzu-hou, who had apparently been cut off in his prime, he wrote: "Thou has gone to thy eternal home, and wilt not return." (Giles p.133)

In the first century AD, Wang Ch'ung, who, unlike Omar, advocated the prohibition of alcohol, was another skeptic when it came to the After-life. He wrote:

"The dead do not become disembodied spirits; neither have they consciousness, nor do they injure anybody. Animals do not become spirits after death; why should man alone undergo this change?...When a fire is extinguished, its light does not shine any more; and when a man dies, his intellect does not perceive any more. The nature of both is the same....It can further be shown not only that dead men never become spirits, but also that they are without consciousness, by the simple fact that before birth they are without consciousness."(Giles p.94-5)

This argument, that just as there is no life before birth, so there is no life after death, also features in James Thomson's poem "The City of Dreadful Night" (1874) at the end of Canto XVI. Pondering on the general misery of human existence (Thomson was a depressive and an alcoholic), he finds relief in the fact that it:

"... ends soon and nevermore can be;
And we knew nothing of it ere our birth,
And shall know nothing when consigned to earth."

The Omarian link between mortal Man and Clay is also found in China, though I am not aware of any parallel for the Potter's Shop, or the use of a Potter's Wheel as an image. The Chinese devised several creation myths. In one, Mankind was descended from the fleas and lice on the body of the primeval hero Pan Gu or P'an-ku, the Creator of the Universe (6). In another, the one that particularly concerns us here, it was the goddess Nuwa or Nu Kua who created Mankind from yellow clay (7).

In his note on Liu Ling (3rd century AD), "one of seven hard-drinking poets of the day, who formed themselves into a club known as the Bamboo Grove"(1) and who "gave orders that if he fell dead in his cups he should be buried where he lay," Giles says:

"In this respect, he was perhaps out-Heroded by another famous tippler, who left instructions that he should be buried in a potter's field, so that, 'when time into clay might resolve him again,' he would have a chance of re-appearing among men under the form of a wine-jug." (Giles p.102)

Unfortunately, this true Omarian is not named. (Compare the notes on verse 35 and the epitaph of Katharine Gray in the prefatory note to the Kuza-Nama.)

Still on the theme of mortal clay, the following tale was told by P'u Sung-Ling, who lived in the 17th century AD. This curious story centres on his contemporary, Mr T'ang P'ing, who contracted a severe illness and died. Mr T'ang's soul, though, was not happy, and he set out on a journey to get back into his body. After an encounter in spirit with Confucius and the God of Literature (the latter informing him that it will be difficult to get back into his body on account of its proceeding decomposition), he finds a Bodhisatva who can help. In what follows the sprig of willow goes to make Mr T'ang's new bones:

"Thereupon the Bodhisatva broke off a piece from the willow-branch in the vase beside him; and pouring a little water on the ground, he made clay, and casting the whole over Mr T'ang's soul, he bade an attendant lead the body back to the place where his coffin was. At that instant, Mr T'ang's family heard a groan come from within his coffin; and on rushing to it and helping out the lately deceased man, they found that he had quite recovered. He had then been dead seven days." (Giles p.239)

As regards due respect for the Almighty - or lack of, as the case may be - a rather unusual view of the strange ways of God was touched upon by Liu Tsung-Yuan (AD 773-819), in his short piece "Is there a God?" The writer had walked into an out-of-the-way place of scenic beauty, a high point occupied by an abandoned stronghold of some sort. He wrote:

"Now, I have always had my doubts about the existence of God; but this scene made me think he really must exist. At the same time, however, I began to wonder why he did not place it in some worthy centre of civilisation, rather than in this out-of-the-way barbarous region, where for centuries there has been no one to enjoy its beauty. And so, on the other hand, such waste of labour and incongruity of position disposed me to think that there could not be a God after all." (Giles p.142)

A curious little poem by an anonymous author of the 18th century AD, entitled "An Agnostic" (Giles p.410), reads thus:

"You ask me why I greet the priest
But not his God;
The God sits mute, the man at least
Returns my nod."

The poem "A Scoffer" (Giles p.412), by the poet Yuan Mei (AD 1715-1797), reads thus:

"I've ever thought it passing odd
How all men reverence some God,
And wear their lives out for his sake
And bow their heads until they ache.
'Tis clear to me the Gods are made
Of the same stuff as wind or shade...
Ah, if they came to every caller,
I'd be the very loudest bawler!"

A more positive note was struck by Shao Yung (AD 1011-1077) in the poem "The Kingdom of God is within You" (Giles p.390):

"The heavens are still: no sound.
Where then shall God be found?
Search not in distant skies;
In man's own heart He lies."

This, of course, recalls FitzOmar's "I Myself am Heav'n and Hell" in verse 66 of the 3rd and 4th editions (rather more clumsily worded in verse 71 of the 2nd edition.)

This leads us into the issues of theodicy and the apparent injustices inflicted by God, some western aspects of which were dealt with in Appendix 2 and the notes on verse 63. Such speculations seem not to be common in Chinese literature (at least in Giles' cross-section), though they do occur. The following poem, "Apologia" (Giles p.403-4), written by Hsieh Chin (AD 1369-1415), is a good example:

"In vain hands bent on sacrifice
or clasped in prayer we see;
The ways of God are not exactly
what those ways should be.
The swindler and the ruffian
lead pleasant lives enough,
While judgements overtake the good
and many a sharp rebuff.

The swaggering bully stalks along
as blithely as you please,
While those who never miss their prayers
are martyrs to disease.
And if great God Almighty fails
to keep the balance true,
What can we hope that paltry mortal
magistrates will do?"

I particularly like the closing dig at human magistrates: if God cannot get it right, what chance has mere Man?

A rather curious explanation of the mysterious ways of God was penned by the philosopher Mo Ti, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries BC. It is entitled "Divine Vengeance":

""If we do not do that which God wishes us to do, but do that which God wishes us not to do, then God too will not do that which we wish Him to do, but will do that which we wish Him not to do. What are those things which men wish not to suffer? - disease, misfortune, and bewitchment. Now, if we do not do what God wishes us to do, but do that which He does not wish us to do, we shall drag the myriad people of the empire along with us into misfortune and bewitchment. (Giles p.15)

Basically, then, the human race has only itself to blame: God is innocent of all charges!

Another good example of the oriental approach to life's misfortunes was penned by the author Liu Yin (AD 1241-1293). The following comes from a piece entitled "Design":

"When God made man, he gave him powers to cope with the exigencies of his environment; and resources within himself, so that he need not be dependent upon external circumstances [for good or evil].

Thus, in districts where poisons abound, antidotes abound also; and in others, where malaria prevails, we find such correctives as ginger, nutmegs, and dog-wood."

Liu Yin went on:

"Chu Hsi said, 'When God is about to send down calamities upon us, he first raises up the hero whose genius shall finally prevail against those calamities.' From this point of view, there can be no living man without his appointed use; nor any state of society which man should be unable to put right." (Giles p.209)

Note again the political moral at the end, like that of Hsieh Chin, quoted above.

Notes to Appendix 21.

App. 21, Note 1
The Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup ("immortal", like Shakespeare, in a purely literary sense) were a group of Tang Dynasty scholars. They were the subject of a poem by the 8th century poet, Du Fu, who was, incidentally, a friend of Li Po's. The Six Idlers of the Bamboo Brook were all active in the 8th century AD.

The Seven Poets of the Bamboo Grove all lived much earlier, in the 3rd century AD, and took their name from their meeting place, a bamboo grove near the house of one of their number.

App. 21, Note 2
A.J. Arberry, Omar Khayyam: a New Version based upon Recent Discoveries (1952), second verse of the double quatrain no. 37.

App. 21, Note 3
The Wine Star seems to have been a star or group of stars in the present-day constellation of Leo.

App. 21, Note 4
The wine-spring, apparently, is not here a metaphorical device, representing wine as a product of the fruits of the earth. Rather, it seems to have been regarded as an actual spring of wine which emerged, according to some, in the province of Kansuh!

App. 21, Note 5
There is a Chinese proverb (Giles p.283), "Better eighty percent ready money than a hundred percent on trust."

App. 21, Note 6
See, for example, E.T.C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China (1922), p.77, and the article "P'an-ku" in The Oxford Dictionary of World Mythology, ed. Arthur Cotterell (1997 ed., p.122-3.) As both sources note, this gives Man a lowly origin indeed, in contrast to the Christian story of Adam and Eve, in which Man is the focus of God's Creation! Cotterell writes:

"Striking is the lowly position ascribed to man: not the centre of creation, not a colossus in the landscape, but rather a small figure in the great sweep of natural things. The insignificance of men, as formulated in the P'an-ku myth, finds perfect expression in Chinese landscape-painting, where tiny figures are set down amid the magnificence of Nature, mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, clouds and waterfalls, trees and flowers."

In other words, Chinese landscape painting has its Omarian side!

App. 21, Note 7
See, for example, Werner, op.cit. p.81 and Edward H. Schafer, The Divine Woman: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T'ang Literature (1973), p.72. Schafer quotes a snippet of Li Po:

"Nu Kua played with the yellow earth,
Patted it into ignorant, inferior Man."

This recalls the lowly origins of Man as envisaged in the P'an-ku myth cited in note 6 above.


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