The Desolation of Chang’an, Wei Zhuang

Chang’an lies in mournful stillness: what does it now contain?
— Ruined markets and desolate streets, in which ears of wheat are sprouting.
Fuel-gatherers have hacked down every flowering plant in the Apricot Gardens,
Builders of barricades have destroyed the willows along the Imperial Canal.
All the gaily-coloured chariots with their ornamental wheels are scattered and gone.
Of the stately mansions with their vermilion gates less than half remain.
The Hanyuan Hall is the haunt of foxes and hares.
The approach to the Flower-calyx Belvedere is a mass of brambles and thorns.
All the pomp and magnificence of the older days are buried and passed away;
Only a dreary waste meets the eye; the old familiar objects are no more.
The Inner Treasury is burnt down, its tapestries and embroideries a heap of ashes;
All along the Street of Heaven one treads on the bones of the State officials.

This is from ‘The Silk Road‘ by Valerie Hansen to cap the chapter dealing with Chang’an, detailing the sacking of the old capital in 881 by the rebel armies. I found the poem incredibly evoking, mostly due to the very vivid description brought forward.

Retyping it I was also astounded by the note that it goes from a very specific point out to general and then focusses in again for the end note. It gives the sense that Wei Zhuang had a particular interest in the Inner Treasury and the Street of Heaven, and that their destruction is especially harrowing. Or, perhaps, as a conscientious poet, he noted that the destruction of the Street of Heaven was synonymous with the destruction of the Mandate of Heaven and the permission to govern?

The typical response to the above would be the classical statement:

An empire long divided, must unite. Long united, must divide.

Nevertheless, that the story of Chinese history can be summed up beautifully and poetically does not make it any easier to live through. And, yet, it was no doubt easier for Wei Zhuang to evoke sentiments by the destruction of glorious places, much like ‘Ruin’ did (and still does) for its Anglo-Saxon audience.

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