CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


The Family Studio of a Ci Poet | China Heritage Quarterly

The Family Studio of a Ci Poet

John Minford

We present two cameos from an extraordinary exhibition mounted in 2006-2007 by Soong Shu-kong 宋緒康 (Taipei-based architect and designer), in which he recreated, through artworks, calligraphy, seals, inkstones, fans, threadbound books, and photographs the literary lineage of his distinguished family during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The exhibition was itself an installation of a family studio, of an inner chamber, or family sanctuary, an assemblage of objects, of memorials from a vanished world, carefully contrived to conjure up out of the past the poetic community that revolved around his ancestors and their friends.[1] Browsing through the catalogue brings to mind the immortal words of Wang Xizhi (309-c.365), where he celebrates that original of all Chinese picnics, the open-air, waterside 'studio' of Orchid Pavilion: 'As our eyes wander from object to object, so our hearts too, ramble with them. Indeed, for the eye as well as the ear, it is pure delight! What perfect bliss!'

The two poems were written by Shu-kong's father, Soong Hsun-leng 宋訓倫, and are taken from his collection of twenty-nine lyrics, entitled The Fragrant Hermitage 馨菴詞稿.[2] The accompanying illustrations were kindly provided by Shu-kong.

Poem 1: The Old Pavilions

To the tune 'Red Candlelight'

Gao Yingsan the seal carver from Yujiang (Yangzhou) came with his son Tianxin to earn a living carving seals in Wuxing. They frequently came to my home on social calls, and I used to brew them some of our best Biluochun tea. Tianxin wrote a poem with the line:

Once the horse trainer Bole has gone, It will be hard for him to return.

Fifteen years later, when the Japanese were running amok, Tianxin and I ran into each other unexpectedly in Chengdu, and I presented him with this lyric of mine.

Fifteen years ago
I recall
In the wilds
Near Huzhou,
By the Tiao stream,
I walked arm in arm
With you, great son of a great father:
Your fame as artists will be known
For generations to come.
That day
I pointed out to you
Chaoyin bridge
In Huzhou,
And my home,
Studio of the Plum Blossom Eulogy,
Named in honour of the great Tang statesman
(My namesake) –
Who once wrote in praise
Of that flower.
We drank
The best tea:
You wrote
A fine poem.
Ah! What exquisite moments of leisure
We had!

Now, in these days of turmoil
We meet again,
Both grey-haired
With the commotion of the times.
We urge one another
Never to abandon
The lofty ideals of a scholar.
We swallow the bitter taste
Of the Japanese invaders.
When will our warships
Sail east again?
When will we see
The old pavilions
Once more,
In our homeland
Of water and clouds?
When the mood takes you,
You grind your stones;
When I am tipsy,
I write my verses,
While round us stretch the rivers and hills,
A mighty landscape scroll.

Poem 2: The Old Seal, the Old Spirit

To the tune 'Partridge Skies'

This poem was first published in the Hong Kong journal Ta-ch'eng 大成雜誌 on 15 January 1973.

At the Jigu Studio 集古齋 antiquarian bookshop in Hong Kong I once bought a copy of Li Ciming's 李慈銘 Diary from the Studio of Unadorned Silk (Yuemantang Riji 越縵堂日記). On the title-slips for each volume I saw staring me in the face my own father Soong Ho-sun's seal! And sticking out of the cloth covers for the cases were the very tags I had myself written when I was a boy. Alas! Half a century had passed, and here I was thousands of miles away from home, and yet this 'thing' had returned to its original owner! It was something unthinkable even in a dream!

An Ocean of Learning,
Rolling, tumbling,
Boiling with energy;
Great scholarship
And poetry
United in one person.
His journal
A record
For posterity;
And yet he obtained a reputation
For reviling others,
Like that fabled creature
'Mountain Grease'.

The worlds has changed
In startling ways;
The desolation of it
Is palpable.
This document
From my old family home
Testifies to the old spirit.
I look back
To events of fifty years earlier –
What I remember most is
Wielding the writing-brush
In my father's presence.


1. Dennie Soong and Soong Shu-kong, eds., The Cultural world of a Ci Poet, catalogue for an exhibition held at the University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong, 9 August-24 September 2006; and at the National Museum of History, Taipei, 13 July-12 August 2007.

2. The Fragrant Hermitage, Twenty-nine Ci poems by Soong Hsun-leng, translated by John Minford and privately published by Soong Shu-kong, Taipei, 2005.