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The insomniac poets of medieval China

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

What to do on those nights where no matter how hard you try, you just can’t fall asleep? For the literati of pre-modern China there was at least one possible answer: write a poem about it.

Sleepless and in sickness, I matched rhymes with Lu You the “Unbridled Codger”

That bleakness came, bereaving me
Of sleep’s sweet blurry haze.
Trapped in a desolation like never before.
Tilting my head, a sound catches my ears:
Could that be falling leaves…?
Try to focus the mind onto nothingness
Like a withered old monk.
As the wind unfurls in the courtyard, there is the cockerel chant
And a climbing mouse makes its presence known
In dust-drops from empty rafters.
The fourth hour on the clock counts to a close
And who have I for company?
The cold rain through the window shutters
And the lamp on its lampstand.

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《病中無寐用陸放翁韻》

愁來失卻睡瞢騰,坐此蕭條昔未曾。
傾耳有聲疑墮葉,委心無物似枯僧。
風回別院聞雞唱,塵落空梁見鼠登。
數盡殘更誰是伴,半窗寒雨一檠燈。

By Lu Rong (1436–1494)

The experience described by Lu Rong will be a relatable one for many readers. Toward the end of a long and sleepless night, in this case the result of the discomfort of illness, this fifteenth-century poet is desperate to get to sleep. Continually distracted by the movements and sounds made audible by the stillness of the hour, like the mouse and leaves, he tries to clear his mind––to “focus my mind on nothingness” as he puts it. But inevitably, this fails. Finding himself once again distracted by the noises inside and outside, Lu ends up mocking his futile attempt by comparing himself to a “withered old monk” trying to meditate.

With dawn approaching, the rooster crows and Lu Rong seems to give up. Noting the odd loneliness of being the only human awake for miles, accompanied only by the wind, rain and inanimate objects, he composes a sardonic poem about his situation. Perhaps that is the point at which his experience diverges from the modern reader’s.

We happen to know quite a bit about the insomniac tendencies of pre-modern Chinese poets due to the fact that they would often put together a poem about their experiences. And many of these poems happen to have survived to the present day.

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A gentleman sleeping contentedly in a warm, leopard-fur gown. This picture dates to the 14th to 15th century, roughly the same time the above poem. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One convention for pre-modern poetry titles was to namedrop the occasion upon which it was composed. More often, the result was titles like “Upon Seeing Off Magistrate Wang” or “On a Trip up Mount Huang”. But from time to time there appear titles like “On a sleepless night…”, or “Unable to fall asleep…”. Such poems paint a vivid image of a solitary watch in the dead of night, often with overtones of the boredom, frustration, loneliness and fuzzy-headedness that often accompany a sleepless night.

These were poems that were composed to keep one’s mind busy and pass the hours of the night. Several forms of medieval Chinese poetry follow strictly regulated patterns. This involved not just patterns of rhyme, but also patterns revolving around each Chinese character’s designated tone. This means that composing one was somewhat akin a mental puzzle––the task was to think of a particular word to slot into each spot in the poem which not only carried the correct tone and/or rhyme, but also fitted the overall theme, grammatical structure, as well as just sounding good.

Pre-modern Chinese pillows were often made of hard materials like stoneware or ceramics, topped with a fabric or padding for softness. The set-up can be clearly seen in the first picture of the sleeping man. The durability of this material has meant that many pillows have survived to the present day, including the above example from the 12th to 13th century, which is decorated with a boy on a hobby-horse. Images courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Poetry was typically composed mentally or out loud rather than by brush as we might be inclined to assume. In fact, there were many kinds of drinking games and social wordplay which involved poetic composition. This could involve taking turns to complete one line each, or mix the lines of famous poems together to create entirely new––often humorous––creations.

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Of course, it was also possible to play such poem games by oneself as a way to pass the hours on a sleepless night. As Lu Rong’s title––“I matched rhymes with Lu You the ‘Unbridled Codger’”––suggests, what Lu Rong has done here is take the final words of each line from a poem written several centuries earlier (“haze”, “before”, “leaves”, “monk”, etc) and set himself the task of filling in the rest with a description of his present sleepless situation. On some level, this could be compared to the game of “mad-libs.”

Naturally, there were various reasons for the inability to fall asleep. Lu Rong states his reason clearly in the title: he was feeling unwell that night. Other poets take a more subtle route and let us in on what lies behind their insomnia over the course of the poem itself.

Detail from “Napping Under Water Reeds”, showing a man fast asleep aboard a small boat. Image courtesy the National Museum of Asian Art

Homesickness and anxiety was one reason, as we shall see in the next poem by Tang dynsaty poet Qin Taoyu 秦韜玉 in the late ninth century. Qin lived through some highly traumatic times of famine and popular unrest. Having accompanied his fleeing emperor to the faraway southwestern region of Sichuan as a rebellion overwhelmed Tang capital, Chang’an (now Xi’an), this minister-poet must have endured many a sleepless night. In this poem, he expresses his longing for the lost capital which happened to double as his hometown:

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Writing out my sorrow for Chang’an

The chill of the wind blows through the rain
As the cold night-hours drip by
Thoughts of home impend a sense of unease.
This wish to return, long-held and bridled around my horse’s neck
Allows me to bear the sleeplessness and the pillowside cricket-screech.
The mountain fog envelops the southern ranges
To blend with azure skies
Above the autumn-dyed River Xiang in whole and perfect clarity.
When will I be free to don a straw cape and leave
Upon a fishing boat
Sidling into the depths
Of the orange fruit fragrance?

《長安書懷》

涼風吹雨滴寒更,鄉思欺人撥不平。
長有歸心懸馬首,可堪無寐枕蛩聲。
嵐收楚岫和空碧,秋染湘江到底清。
早晚身閒著蓑去,橘香深處釣船橫。

“Night-Shining White”, a renowned Tang dynasty horse picture from just over a century prior to Qin Taoyu’s poem. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

As the title “Writing out my sorrow for Chang’an” suggests, this poem seems to have been composed by Qin to gain some release from the emotions that were causing his insomnia. This is a contrast to Lu Rong’s poetic approach, which was simply to pass the time rather than deal with the insomnia head-on. After all, no amount of poetry-writing could cure Lu Rong’s illness, but perhaps by getting some thoughts off his chest, Qin Taoyu was able to catch some sleep on his long southward journey.

Indeed, the poem soon takes a more optimistic turn. Towards the end, Qin seems to take solace in nature, which has remained calm and still irrespective of all the turmoil and disarray of the human experience of the times. The natural world of the warmer South that has surrounded Qin ever since his flight from the capital has resolutely continued to follow its well-worn patterns of seasonal change, altering the sediment levels of the River Xiang and producing ripe oranges right on time.

The seasons appear a lot in this group of poems––some even blame the sleeplessness itself on a change in the seasons.

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Detail from “A Poet Dreaming in his Riverside Pavilion”. Image courtesy the National Museum of Asian Art

The Chinese character for “Autumn” (qiu 秋) was a close match in sound and form to “melancholy” (chou 愁) and the similarity is frequently invoked for poetic effect in pre-modern Chinese poems. Even “The bleakness came…” which begins the first poem in this article brings to mind “With Autumn’s arrival…”. Qin Taoyu’s poem talks about Autumn dyeing the River Xiang, but by the same token this makes it sound somewhat as if the river itself has been steeped in melancholy.

As in many poetic traditions across the world, the seasons and emotions are often used to signify each other in pre-modern Chinese poems. For example, Spring takes a prominent place in this short sleepless poem by the Later Tang (Five Dynasties) poet Xu Xuan 徐鉉 (916–991):

The Moon on a Spring Night

For a lonesome hermit like me,
With an innate love of Spring views
How to cope with this night of blossom with the moon at its brightest!
This evening I found myself speechless and sleepless
And wound up the stairway in step with the fragrant vines.

《春夜月》

幽人春望本多情,況是花繁月正明。
竟夕無言亦無寐,繞階芳草影隨行。

Here Xu Xuan attempts to intertwine his own emotions with the seasons in an almost literal way, as he wanders out for night-time stroll mirrors the winding spring vines. There is a lot going on here: this line is a clear metaphor for Xu’s ambition to advance in his career as a civil servant by emulating virtuous examples of the men who had walked this path before him, given the standard connotations of his chosen wording.

Regardless of the metaphor, getting up and going for a walk was a strategy often taken by our insomniac poets. Several other poems describe the poet’s route and sightings on a sleepy stroll in the early hours of the morning.

So, next time you find that you just can’t fall asleep, why not take a leaf out of these medieval Chinese poets’ book and put pen to paper?

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

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