Rhapsody for a Skeleton 髑髏賦

The long, ornate, rhapsodic fu 賦, in so far as it had an ancestor, derived from the shaman-chants of the South. Its lexical richness, euphuism and hyperbole suited an expansive, adventurous age in which Chinese armies penetrated deep into Central Asia and Chinese merchandise regularly found its way into European markets, but were deeply disturbing to right-minded Confucians, and therefore, ultimately, to the writers themselves; so that, amidst all the self-confident exuberance, a not of guilt and unease kept stealing in.

David Hawkes, ‘The Age of Exuberance’,
in Classical, Modern and Humane, 1989.


The Bones of Zhuangzi

Zhang Heng (73-139CE)

張衡《髑髏賦

A traveller who has wandered through the Nine Wilds and the vastness of the west comes across a pile of bones by the roadside. He addresses them and learns they are the remains of the thinker Zhuangzi.

The traveller is told:

Beyond the climes of common thought
My reason soared, yet could I not save myself;
For at the last when the long charter of my years was told,
I, too, for all my magic, by Age was brought
To the Black Hill of Death.

游心方外,

不能自修壽命終極,

來此玄幽。

Why does this wayfarer question him so …

I answered:
‘Let me please for you upon the Five Hill-tops,
Let me pray for you to the Gods of Heaven and
the Gods of Earth,
That your white bones may arise,
And your limbs joined anew.
The God of the North shall give me back your ears;
I will scour the Southland for your eyes.
From the sunrise I will wrest your feet;
The West shall yield your heart.
I will set each several organ in its throne;
Each subtle sense will I restore.
Would you not have it so?’

對曰:
我欲告之於五嶽,
禱之於神祗。
起子素骨,
反子四肢。
取耳北坎,
求目南離。
使東震獻足,
西坤援腹。
五內皆還,
六神盡復。
子欲之不乎?

The dead man answered me:
‘O Friend, how strange and unacceptable your words!
In death I rest and am at peace;
in life, I toiled and strove.
Is the hardness of the winter stream
Better than the melting of spring?
All pride that the body knew
Was it not lighter than dust?
What Chao and Xu despised,
What Bocheng fled,
Shall I desire, whom death
Already has hidden in the Eternal Way —

‘Where Li Zhu cannot see me,
Nor Zi Ye hear me,
Where neither Yao nor Shun can reward me,
Nor the tyrants Jie and Xin condemn me,
Leopard nor tiger harm me,
Lance prick me nor sword wound me?
Of the Primal Spirit is my substance; I am a wave
In the river of Darkness and Light.
The Maker of All Things is my Father and Mother,
Heaven is my bed and earth my cushion,
The thunder and lightning are my drum and fan,
The sun and moon my candle and my torch,
The Milky Way my moat, the stars my jewels.
With Nature my substance is joined;
I have no passion, no desire.
Wash me and I shall be no whiter,
Foul me and I shall yet be clean.
I come not, yet am here;
Hasten not, yet am swift.’

The voice stopped, there was silence.
A ghostly light
Faded and expired.
I gazed upon the dad, stared in sorrow and compassion.
Then I called upon my servant that was with me
To tie his silken scarf about those bones
And wrap them in a cloak of sombre dust;
While I, as offering to the soul of this dead man,
Pour my hot tears upon the margin of the road.

髑螻曰:
公子之言殊難也。
死為休息,
生為役勞。
冬水之凝,
何如春冰之消?
榮位在身,
不亦輕於塵毛?
飛風曜景,
秉尺持刀。
巢、許所恥,
伯成所逃。
況我已化,
與道逍遙。
離朱不能見,
子野不能聽。
堯舜不能賞,
桀紂不能刑。
虎豹不能害,
劍戟不能傷。
與陰陽同其流,
與元氣合其樸。
以造化為父母,
以天地為床褥。
以雷電為鼓扇,
以日月為燈燭。
以雲漢為川池,
以星宿為珠玉。
合體自然,
無情無欲。
澄之不清,
渾之不濁。
不行而至,
不疾而速。

於是言卒響絕,
神光除滅。
顧盼發軫,
乃命僕夫,
假之以縞巾,
衾之以玄塵,
為之傷涕,
酹於路濱。

— translated by Arthur Waley,
from John Minford and Joseph Lau, eds,
An Anthology of Translations of
Classical Chinese Literature, Volume I,
Columbia University Press, 2000, pp.308-309.