Ramblings: The poems I’ve read, the dances I’ve searched the names for, the paintings I’ve looked at, the poets whose names I’ve come to remember, and the classical books whose titles I’ve familiarized myself with—I feel like I’ve become an expert in ancient Chinese literature and arts at this point :))
Ah right, hi everyone, I’m back with another chapter this week! Enjoy~
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 24: Wonderful Sumuzhe
I wake up and find a looming shadow beside my bed. My heart jumps to my throat in fright, but it quickly turns into anger. It’s that damn rascal! Scaring me like this as a child I could forgive, but now he is an adult, so why can’t he understand “男女授受不亲”?!
* 男女授受不亲 (nánnǚ shòushòu bù qīn) is a phrase from a chapter in Mencius (Mengzi)’s book titled “Li Lou I”. It means that “males and females shall not allow their hands to touch in giving or receiving anything” (translation by James Legge). Over time, it becomes an unspoken etiquette rule—men and women should keep a proper distance from each other.
“You slept so soundly. I’ve been looking at you for a long while and still you did not wake!”
Indignant, I curl up into the blanket. The night gown I’m currently wearing is quite thin, I do not know if he has seen my exposed legs and arms earlier.
“Why hide? It’s not like there’s anything to see!”
I throw a pillow at him, but that scoundrel has deftly avoided it. He bursts into laughter, standing not too far from me: “Quickly get up! There are many things going on in today’s Sumuzhe!”
“Then step out so I can change!”
Pusysdeva stops laughing and obediently steps out. But right at the door, he turns around and tells me with a wink: “You look nice in that gown, but you should only wear it in my presence only!”
My anger returns full-force. I look everywhere for some sort of weapon to get at him, but he has quickly made his escape while laughing.
The streets are packed with people. Pusysdeva uses his body to shield me from being pushed around, but I do not enjoy this kind of protection. He has his arm around my shoulders in a tight grip, so anyone who sees us would think we are lovers. Popular lad he is, he gets greeted warmly by many people, men and women alike. The men who see his arm around my shoulders give me ill-intentioned smiles. The women’s eyes are even more complicated, most of them resembling arrows shooting at me, making my heart shudder. But that rascal [Pusysdeva] does not care one bit, how hateful!
I try my best to remove myself from his ‘claws’, but the more I struggle, the tighter his grip gets.
“Hush! Stop moving! The lion dance is about to start!”
Dozens of jiegu players beat their drums in unison, building up the mood. Five lions in blue, red, yellow, white and black from five directions move into the center stage. Each lion is operated by twelve people, all wearing red sashes on their waists. There are two people walking ahead, teasing and taunting with red fly-whisks in their hands. Next to the lion dancers is a choir of more than a hundred people, singing songs in praise of the Kuchan king. The beating drums and singing voices harmonize together, travelling out and upward into the clouds.
The lion is a sacred symbol of the Kuchan royalty, and the king of Kucha is often called the lion king. The people even weave together a story about a brave king of theirs who once tamed the lions. The lion dance was thus born from that story. After conquering Kucha, Lu Guang will bring Kumarajiva and thousands of artists to Liangzhou (now Gansu, Wuwei), and from then on, the lion dance will become part of the Chinese culture. The Lion Dance of Five Directions will then spread all across China.
In front of the main square is a series of extravagant tents. King Bai Chun and the nobles are sitting inside them. I ask Pusysdeva: “Why aren’t you joining them?”
“What fun would there be sitting with those old folks? I’d rather be with you, Ai Qing.” The music is too loud so I could not hear him very well. He leans over and shouts into my ears: “It’s more fun watching you get mad and smile that foolish grin of yours!”
This rascal! Angry, I shove him off, but in just a moment, he has caught up to me. I glare at him threateningly, which he totally ignores, and just continues to look at me gaily. Is my angry face that amusing to him?
The day passes quickly as I go through performance after performance, eat various Kuchan snacks, and argue with Pusysdeva. When the night falls, I carefully lock all the doors and windows of my room to prevent both robbers and Pusysdeva. When I wake up in the morning, there is no Pusysdeva to frighten me half to death, but the price I have to pay for that is irritated skin from sleeping through a summer night in a stuffy room. I open the door and find Pusysdeva leaning against a column, face sly, as he passes me a small bottle. Curious, I take the bottle and ask him what it is. The brat tells me it is astringent powder*, and then goes on to lecture me about how important it is to maintain proper air ventilation during the summer. I quickly grab the broom at the corner of the room and chase him around the yard, mouth yelling at him all the while.
* the modern equivalent would be baby powder, meant to soothe the skin and keep it dry and comfortable
Of course I am no match for him. It has been that way since he was ten. After a few rounds, I am already breathing hard. I drop to the ground, hands lifting up the broom, wheezing: “I surrender. Great general, please give me mercy!”
As soon as I finish the sentence, I feel a sense of wrongness. How could I so easily utter the sentence that Pusysdeva as a child used to force me to say when we played soldier? Damn it, it has become a conditioned reflex, a conditioned reflex! Pusysdeva is bending over laughing in the middle of the yard. The house servants who rushed out earlier due to the noise are now looking at us strangely. Oh my dignity, it has been torn to shreds!
A great number of song and dance performances are still being performed on the third day of the Sumuzhe Festival. Artists from all over the Western Regions have gathered here in Kucha, making each day full of excitement and surprises. Pusysdeva, playful as he is, keeps dragging me to wherever a crowd is. At this time, we are standing at a corner of the main square. A stage has been set up in the center, and in the middle of it is a huge lotus dais. The drummers sound three beats; the lotus opens and reveals a girl inside, her face covered by a chiffon-like veil. She is a wearing a long purple dress with long flowing sleeves, hidden by a cloak and adorned with tiny bells attached to a long piece of cloth draping over her shoulders, and on her feet is a cute pair of red shoes. At the sound of the music, the girl begins to dance, each move accompanied by the sound of bells ringing, creating a sweet cheery jingle.
“That is the Mulberry Branch* Dance,” Pusysdeva whispers into my ear, “Don’t get too embarrassed later on, alright?”
* A dance that originated from Sogdia (or Sogdiana), which was an Indo-European kingdom located in areas of today’s Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. I could not find the original name for it so I opted for transliteration of the name from the Chinese characters.
His breath tickles my earlobe. I tilt my head to the side to avoid it. Must he be so close when talking?
The drumming intensifies. The dancer twirls her body along, soft like a cloth, as if she has no bones. The drumming abruptly comes to a stop. The girl removes her embroidered cloak and throws it on top of the lotus dais. Now she is only wearing a short coat with a fitted purple bodice underneath, together with an exquisite skirt in the same colour. The drumming resumes, getting faster and faster. The girl’s skirt flutters with each move she makes, fluid and elegant—the picture of a celestial nymph. The drummers stop again. She takes off her short coat, revealing bare arms and hints of a curvy body underneath the bodice. The audience cheers, excitement rising, me included. The girl starts to dance again at the sound of the drums, twirling in seemingly infinite circles. She then rips off her skirt, revealing bloomers the colour of soft pink. After that, both the sash and her bodice are also removed, leaving her clad only in a bra-like garment and bloomers. She continues to dance in various suggestive postures, so erotic it makes the audience breathless.
“Goodness, this is clearly a striptease kind of dance!” I exclaim.
My eyes are opening as wide as they can. My throat is busy swallowing. I did not expect to see how liberal-minded the people of the Western Regions were 1,650 years ago! In the 21st century, to see this kind of striptease, one must go to a bar or a nightclub. And yet here the dance is being performed publicly in front of a crowd!
Someone swipes my nose.
“How strange, I had thought that a Han woman would become very embarrassed watching this kind of performance, and yet you look even more excited than I am!”
I cover my poor nose. Compared to the Kuchan people, my nose is not as straight, and now it has become even more crooked thanks to that hateful guy.
“If you like it this much…” The wolf is leaning closer again, “then you should perform it for me tonight.”
He receives a punch to his nose as revenge for earlier. He clutches his nose, face contorted into extreme pain, clearly exaggerated, but still manages to add: “Never mind, there is nothing to see underneath anyway.”
Clearly he does not want his nose to ever be straight again!
The next morning, as soon as I wake up, I am greeted by a pair of light grey eyes watching me from a very close distance, giving me yet another heart attack. I must get used to this, must get used to this, I tell myself. This time, my defensive move was to not change into my night gown. I went to bed last night in the same clothes I wore during the day. That was how I was able to sleep with the windows and doors open.
Disappointment makes its way across his Pusysdeva’s face: “Why didn’t you wear the gown from before?”
I give him a smug smile: “Didn’t you say I have nothing to show anyway?”
“That is true,” he nods, thinking for a second and then adds, “Ai Qing, you should eat more meat.”
“So that this part will get bigger,” he touches my chest, “You’re too skinny so there’s no feeling here.”
Heavens above! Is there anybody who can help me destroy this pervert?
Yet another day is spent wandering the streets. I seem to have forgotten about my work altogether, spending each day playing and resting instead. Pusysdeva is a fun companion, always full of new exciting ideas. Each day he would bring me to a different place to eat, allowing me to try all kinds of food—Indian, Central Asian, Persian, Chinese—from dishes befitting royalty to snacks sold by food stalls on the streets. My waist has increased considerably. During the seven days of the Sumuzhe Festival, I play harder than I ever did during any Labour Days [May 1] or National Days [Oct 1] in the 21st century. The street performers are extremely talented, and the way in which those performers engage with the public is admirable. Whenever the music plays, everyone, regardless of age or gender, would join in and dance along.
On the fourth day of the Sumuzhe Festival, I get to see the long-awaited Whirl Dance* at last. This dance originated from the Sogdian Kingdom in Central Asia (now part of Samarkand, Uzbekistan), and will later rise to prominence after reaching the Central Plains.
* The Chinese characters for it is 胡旋舞 “Hu Xuan Wu”. In English, it is called the “Sogdian Whirl”, a term coined by Dunhuang scholar Susan Whitfield in her 2004 exhibition.
During the Tang Dynasty, a great number of poems were written about this dance, the most famous of which was the poem by Bai Juyi:
Heart answers strings,
Hands answer drum.
When strings and drums sound together,
Both of her sleeves lift high,
And she drifts in twirls like circling snow,
And dances the spinning tumbleweed.”
* Translated by Stephen Owen, found in “China: The Glorious Tang and Song Dynasties” workshop materials (pg.20). Note: This is only the first stanza of the poem. In fact, both the Viet and Chinese version of FBFY only include the first four lines. I would have loved to include the full English translation of the poem, but I could not find it (short of rummaging through university libraries once again).
It is said that Yang Consort1 performed this dance very skillfully, to the point where Bai Juyi wrote: “Yang Consort’s whirl dance deluded our lord’s heart.”2
1 Yang Guifei (guifei is her rank), real name Yang Yuhuan, was a beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang in his later years and one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. However, she was put to death during the Ao Lushan Rebellion due to her cousin’s involvement in it, and for the fact that Ao Lushan (who was half Sogdian) was her adopted son.
2 This line is found in a later stanza in the poem above.
Now, seeing this dance with my own eyes, I can finally confirm it is as beautiful as it was described. This is a dance meant for a group, and it is currently being performed by a dozen of enchanting girls, whirling round and round, their moves light and elegant. The poets that described these dancers “fast as a shooting star”, “bright as the sun”, clearly did not exaggerate! When I visited Egypt, I got to see the locals performing Sufi, which also involves non-stop whirling, but it was performed by men. The Egyptian dancers also wore multi-coloured skirts, so when they whirled, the result is a magical kaleidoscope of changing colours. I was both amazed and worried, wondering if they felt dizzy doing it [Sufi].
In the evening, I try to lull myself to sleep by thinking of Rajiva, of all the sweet memories we shared. Even the smallest details about him would make lost in a trance for a long while. The past few days, I have been enjoying myself to the fullest, playing harder than I have ever done before, and for so many days in a row too. If only Rajiva is here with me… No, I must not linger on such a thought. He cannot be like Pusysdeva, who sits on the street with me and eats lamb skewers. Speaking of Pusysdeva, I must tell him tomorrow to not come into my room every morning any longer!