Jasmine Hu, Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University, examines recent female performances of ci poetry on Chinese television and the relationship between gender and genre.
Castration, infanticide, and imperial power plays — no, this isn’t a new season of Game of Thrones. It’s the 2011 mainland Chinese television series Hou Gong Zhenhuan Zhuan, which portrays a world of scheming and intrigues within the harem of the Qing Emperor Yongzheng (r. 1723–35). Featuring dialogue embellished with high diction and courtly etiquette, the show received acclaim for its fidelity to traditional Chinese culture and language. (A fidelity less to any historical realities than to a closed, Sinocentric vision of erudition — the Emperor and his concubines, after all, never speak their native Manchu.).
Traditional poetry, in particular, is often quoted by the concubines of Zhenhuan Zhuan, finding its way into battles of wits and acts of seduction alike. But the characters tend to eschew the canonical shi of high-Tang dynasty greats like Du Fu or Li Bai in favor of quoting ci, ‘song lyrics,’ from the late Tang to Southern Song. Ci, always a secondary genre to shi, are verses composed after set tunes with fixed rhyming, tonal, and metrical structures. Born out of a tradition of female courtesan-entertainers singing the words of male lyricists (who would often — in a curious double ventriloquism — adopt plaintive female voices), ci’s prominent presence in Zhenhuan zhuan alludes to the genre’s association with these layers of gendered voices.
To cite one example: our protagonist Zhenhuan first captures the Emperor’s attention by quoting a ci line by Northern Song lyricist Cai Shen: “Delicate as a graceful Chu waist.” ‘Chu waist’ alludes to King Ling of the ancient state of Chu, whose predilection for tiny waists inspired court ladies to starve themselves to death. Zhenhuan’s quotation functions as both disguised eroticism (inviting the Emperor to imagine her own hidden form) and an ominous allusion to the internalized violence of the concubines’ battle for imperial favor. In this and other instances, ci poetry allows female characters to speak obliquely, hinting at that which would be improper for them to state overtly.
Take Zhenhuan’s theme song, which lifts its lyrics directly from a Tang dynasty ci. This lyric, “Pusa man” (“Bodhisattva Barbarian”), is attributed to late Tang poet Wen Tingyun (ca. 812–866). Wen’s ci also functions diegetically: An Lingrong, a low-ranked concubine talented at singing, performs her own rendition for the Emperor and central antagonist Consort Hua. This performance, rendering Wen’s lyrics in hushed, mournful suspension, highlights the isolation and empty decadence of the inner court:
Little mountains repeat in many layers, the flicker of golden glow. Temple-hair clouds about to drift past the snow of fragrant cheeks.
Languidly, she rises to draw her elegant brows, to her makeup and toilette she slowly rises.
Reflected flowers in mirrors front and back, the flowers and her face each illuminate each other.
Newly stitched on her embroidered gauze gown, in pairs and pairs are golden partridges.
Readers accustomed to the tight parallelisms of regulated verse shi will notice the relative syntactic freedom that the ci form affords. For example, the second couplet’s near-synonymous adverbs 懶 (languidly) and 遲 (slowly) are not placed in parallel positions; instead, one is line-initial, the other line-final.
This sense of fluidity extends to the poem’s movement, which relies on the beguiling, deceptive play of scale and surface. The first line presents what seems to be a distant, hazy mountainscape. But the second line reveals that the “little layered mountains” are actually a metaphor for some feature of a coy female visage: her coils of upswept hair, perhaps, or a painting on a boudoir screen hiding her just out of view. “Drifting clouds” are her temple-hairs, “snowcaps” are her cheeks — the metaphor itself acts as a kind of flickering screen that the female figure passes in and out of, always beyond complete apprehension.
The short-lived stability of the second couplet, which shows the female figure slowly rising to make her toilette, gives way once more to the realm of untethered artifice. Flowers placed between two facing boudoir mirrors endlessly reproduce in a mise-en-abyme. The woman’s face, too, enters this circuit, amplifying the beauty of her surroundings as they in turn illuminate her.
The last couplet — presenting more surface and more doubling in the repeating motif of paired patridges embroidered on her gown — reveals the poem’s emotional nucleus. Though surrounded by so many images of sumptuous excess, and swathed in elaborate folds, the woman ultimately is, unlike the mated birds, very much alone. Here, in Wen’s lyric, ci’s feminine lament is reduced to the barest hint: blink and you might miss it.
An Lingrong uses the veiled nature of this lament to send a coded message to the Emperor. Juxtaposing the teasing hide-and-seek of the lyric’s female figure with her own physical presence, she stages a scene of eroticized loneliness, and issues a discreet plea for the Emperor to cure it with a visit to her chambers. (The villainous Consort Hua, though, is a keen auditor, detecting the lyric’s plaintive theme as well as its subtext of erotic invitation; she swiftly and brutally quashes An’s attempts at seduction.)
Zhenhuan Zhuan’s popularity reflects a recent neotraditionalist trend in Chinese society that, in a departure from Maoist iconoclasm, has been increasingly adopted into state policy. Spearheaded by President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has shifted its focus to the project of cultural revival. Here, both poetry and television play a prominent role; the CCTV game show China Poetry Congress, begun in 2016, transformed poetry memorization from stuffy gaokao fare to hit game show material. And just this year, a new CCTV program called Everlasting Classics invited celebrities and ordinary people alike to perform traditional poetry set to original music.
Both programs aim to make the classical poetic tradition a seamless part of the national cultural fabric, as infectiously catchy and familiar as a pop song. (In fact, though Everlasting Classics is noncompetitive, it adopts vestigial organs of the pop idol show format to create a sense of dramatic tension and audience participation: always-approving experts take the place of snarky judges, and audience members press heart-shaped LED buttons to signal their appreciation.)
Unlike Zhenhuan Zhuan, which was met with ambivalence by government censors (who in recent years have subjected historical dramas to greater scrutiny), Everlasting Classics invokes a vast Chinese poetic canon stretching from antiquity to Maoist modernity. The feminized palace erotics of Zhenhuan Zhuan’s ci have little place in this constructed canon. Instead, the ci of Everlasting Classics is by and large portrayed as a genre of masculine feelings, from the dethroned Southern Tang Emperor Li Yu’s tragic recollections to Su Shi’s haofang stylings. Very few songs are amorous, and any hint of eroticism is typically neutralized.
Sometimes, however, the implicit tensions surrounding gender and genre bring about fascinating results:
Here, a famous Su Shi ci, “Prelude to the Water Song,” is performed via a duet between the Peking opera singer Wang Peiyu and the hologram vocaloid Luo Tianyi. Both are unorthodox female voices: Wang Peiyu, who presents androgynously on stage, is renowned for singing laosheng (old man) roles, while Luo Tianyi’s moe-anthropomorphic avatar, the “face” to a text-to-song synthesizer technology, represents a posthuman, disembodied digital voice.
Yet both simultaneously tout novel linkages to the past: Wang’s cross-dressing revives interest in an old art form in danger of dying out, while Luo, designated by the state as a Youth Ambassador for Chinese culture, cheerily encourages children to learn about the beauty of traditional culture while “dancing” across the stage in a billowy-sleeved hanfu-style gown. Such non-normative representations of gender also serve to supplant the sensual associations and anxieties surrounding the female body in ci performance.
The cases of Zhenhuan Zhuan and Everlasting Classics attest to the unruly potentialities of ci and female performance. Zhenhuan’s concubines use ci and performance for their own ends as a means of both seduction and self-expression, subverting palace hierarchies and social taboos. In contrast, Luo Tianyi’s cyborg voice is wholly evacuated of subjectivity, able to perform anything anyone wants her to. (An attractive quality in a state-sponsored youth icon, who, unlike real pop stars, will never embroil herself in a sex scandal or contradict the government.)
As China moves into the future with an eye toward the cultural past, how will it narrativize its poetic tradition and the heterogeneous voices that have participated in its construction? In what new ways will old poems be read — and sung?
Jasmine Hu is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at Harvard University and a Graduate Student Associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.