Lu You Visits Jinling

Nathan Woolley

On his way up the Yangtze River in 1170, the scholar-bureaucrat Lu You (陸游, 1125-1210) stayed in Jinling for five days. In the record of his trip, ‘An Account of a Journey to Shu’ 入蜀記, Lu You gave an account of his interactions with the city’s inhabitants and his explorations of many of its places of interest. As a member of the educated elite, he could comfortably roam both through the history of the city and its physical environs. By the Southern Song (南宋, 1127-1279), the city — called once more Jiankang 建康 — presented a complex array of images, but what Lu You physically saw of its past varied with distance from the present.[1]

Southern Splendour

During his brief stay, Lu moved in a landscape marked by names that resonated with the city’s past: Stone City, Zhongshan, Foundry City Mountain, the Qinhuai River, Egret Island. Such names appeared in works of history and literature that were part both of the cultural legacy of the Southern Dynasties and the ongoing remembrance and imagination of them. But coming to the city nearly six hundred years after the end of the period that saw Jinling rise to its greatest political and cultural importance, Lu You could identify few man-made remnants of that apogee; perhaps the most notable were the temples associated with the tombs of prominent figures from the long-vanquished Southern Dynasties.

The fall of the state of Wu (吳, 229-280) to Jin (金, 265-420) had ended Jinling’s first period as the capital of an independent kingdom (when it had been known as Jianye 建鄴), but the capital of Jin was established there in 317 following the dynasty defeat at the hand of northern invaders. Under its new name of Jiankang, the city remained capital of the south — save for a brief interlude — until the region fell to the rulers of the Sui dynasty (隨, 589-618) in 589.

When it first became a capital, Jiankang lacked the prestige of its northern predecessors. To overcome this, in the years after 317 literary works were produced that promoted the legitimacy of the southern restoration. As Jin gave way to other dynasties based at Jinling, expressions of confidence in the cultural splendour of the south continued to thrive. At various periods this encouraged the development of distinctive styles of poetry. Some of these were later derided for their supposed excesses, while others were celebrated for foreshadowing the great poetic achievements of the Tang (唐, 618-907). Among the poets who recorded the splendour of the capital Jiankang was Xie Tiao (謝眺, 464-499) of the Southern Qi (齊, 479-502):

Air on Entering the Court

Jiangnan, ‘land of excellence and beauty;’
Jinling, ‘province of both emperors and kings!’
In graceful curves are its surrounding jade-green waters
Gleaming in the distance, its ascending crimson towers.
Soaring gables flank the [Central] Causeway;
Drooping willows shade the Imperial Moat.
The long shrill [drone of] flageolets accompanies the lofty [carriage-]tops,
While lightly tapping drums escort the flowery draw-shafts.
Those who offered contributions are commemorated on Cloud-[Piercing] Terrace
Where their meritorious names may well be gathered.[2]



Said to have been written by Xie Tiao for the Prince of Sui 随郡王, Xiao Zilong (蕭子隆, 474-494), this poem celebrates the grandeur of the capital and displays the cultural confidence enjoyed by the southern court.

Jiankang as capital offered various pleasures to its inhabitants and visitors, including banquets among the elite, excursions in the local countryside, and salons of like-minded friends. Verse recording such pleasures or written on various themes derived from them had a lasting impact on the development of Chinese literature, serving as models for poets of later ages, especially following their collection in influential anthologies.

Jade Steps Lament

The twilight palace lowers pearl blinds,
Floating fireflies flit and come to rest.
Through long nights she sews his silken robe,
Longing for you, when will it ever end?[3]



This work by Xie Tiao, for example, later influenced Li Bo (李白, 701-762), whose verse of the same title displays similar images and diction.[4]

Due to the size and importance of the city, life in Jiankang under the Southern Dynasties was unique at the time. Xie Tiao expressed his recognition of this as he prepared to depart from Stone City 石城, a key strategic site of Jiankang overlooking the Yangtze.

About to Set Forth From Stone Fortress, I Ascend the Beacon-fire Loft

Wavering and hesitant, I pine over the capital;
With dragging steps, I tread up to the storied loft.
Seen from a height, the palace grounds and gate towers seem close by,
But as I peer into the distance, windblown clouds are many.
Jing and Wu are separated by upsurging hills;
The Jiang [River] and Sea are full of dashing waves.
To fly back home I have no wings or pinions;
What, pray, is there that can match [the pain of] parting?[5]



While Jiankang enjoyed an imperial imagery during its time as capital from the fourth to sixth centuries, a tension existed between émigrés from the north and established southern elites from the beginning of the Eastern Jin 東晉 in the fourth century. For some northerners, Jiankang in the ‘barbaric’ south could never compare with the greater city Luoyang 洛陽 and the poetry they produced lamented the loss of the northern capital and all it was held to represent. But poetry also inscribed the geography of the north onto the south, presenting thereby a complex array of images both of the past and of another place. Once established, this mode of expression continued for centuries, even when a pre-eminent southern elite no longer imagined returning to the north. In Xie Tiao’s time, Jiankang could still be referred to in verse as Luoyang or Chang’an 長安 along with depictions of scenes of the verdant rivers and lakes of the south. While originally drawing attention to the incongruence of imperial rule in the south, this literary habit became a standard element in representations of Jiankang. At the time, Jiankang could only truly be a capital if it was depicted through memories — be they real or fancied — of the north.

Climbing Mt. Triple Peaks at Dusk and Gazing Back Toward the Capital

From the shores of the Ba River [Wang Can] gazed back at Chang’an,
And from the North Bank of the He [Pan Yue] looked toward the capital [Luoyang],
White sunlight glitters on the soaring gables [of the Jiankang palaces],
As, here and there, they all are visible.
The lingering sunset clouds have scattered and become a bright brocade;
The limpid Jiang is smooth as new-dressed silk.
Vociferous birds are covering the springtime islands;
Variegated flowers fill the fragrant fields.
If I should go away, I might be gone for a long time;
How I would miss them-giving up the happy banquets!
As for the right time, [I’m wondering] in frustration where I’ll ever find it;
Tears come running down like streaming sleet.
All living beings know the longing to go home;
But who can keep black hair from turning gray?[6]



On the day after he quit Jinling some seven hundred years later, Lu You noted that he was probably passing near the spot where Xie Tiao composed this poem. As he continued upriver, he also visited the site of Xie’s former residence near the Black Mountains 青山. Some sixty kilometres upstream of Jiankang on the Yangtze (in what is now Dangtu 當塗), Xie had lived there when he was grand protector of Xuancheng commandery 宣城 in the years 495-497. Poets of the Southern Dynasties clearly played a substantial role in Lu You’s engagement with the city and region.

The Southern Tang

Due to the city’s strategic importance at the time of Lu You’s visit, Jiankang hosted an auxiliary imperial palace occupied by a regency. South of this palace was the Celestial Ford Bridge 天津橋, which Lu You suspected was built during the Southern Tang (南唐, 937-975). Just as the Jin had been reconstituted in the south in 317, so the Southern Tang claimed to be a reconstitution of the Tang proper after that dynasty had fallen in 907. Yet the claim rested on dubious foundations. The rule of this later Tang dynasty was short-lived and accounts of its capital – then named Jiangning 江寧 – are piecemeal at best.[7]

Throughout his travels along the lower and middle reaches of the Yangtze in 1170, Lu You was particularly interested in sites associated with the events of the Southern Tang. While disparaging of its imperial claims, he was fascinated with its position in dynastic history. And this was no idle interest since Lu is credited with writing an eighteen-juan work on the history of the dynasty which remains a significant source for the period.

Visiting a temple in Jiankang, Lu You found an inscription in the hand of the last ruler of the Southern Tang, the celebrated writer Li Yu (李煜, r.961-975). The poetry of ‘Last Ruler Li’ 李後主 as he is known is the greatest literary monument to the Southern Tang. Much of Li Yu’s oeuvre has been interpreted in light of the fall of the Southern Tang and years in captivity under the Song (宋, 960-1279), but since his works are difficult to date, the sentiments they contain cannot often be unequivocally linked to Li Yu’s personal experiences. Some of his apparent melancholy is most likely the result of the conventions of lyrical poetry. Yet regardless of the circumstances of their composition, it is hard to divorce the sentiment of his poems from the fate of his dynasty:

Tune: ‘Dance of the Cavalry’

In this House and Domain of forty years duration,
These hills are rivers three thousand leagues in breadth,
The Phoenix and Dragon Pavilion were linked to the Celestial River,
And jade trees with jewel branches formed a tangled haze;
Never had we knowledge of the weapons of war.
One day, suddenly, we surrendered, to become but subjects and slaves;
With Shen’s thin waist and Pan’s streaked temples I waste away.
Hardest of all, the day I took my hurried leave of our ancestral shrine:
The court musicians went on playing the farewell songs
As I wept in front of my palace women.[8]


The fall of Jinling is here expressed through the last ruler’s description of the fate of the political and cultural attainments of the Southern Tang. Li Yu refers to Shen Yue (沈約, 441-513) the poet and a friend of Xie Tiao who had been active in the salons of Jiankang in the late fifth century, as well as to Pan Yue (潘岳, 247-300) of the Western Jin. These references evoke the past and allow the poet to affirm a sense of shared hardship with those earlier figures and, perhaps, also to lay claim to a measure of their fame.

The cultural flourishing and ultimate fall of the Southern Tang mirrored in chronological miniature the experiences of the earlier Southern Dynasties. Due to this, the sense of loss expressed in Li Yu’s works merges seamlessly for later readers with images of Jinling as the ruined capital during the Tang. As Li Yu writes in one of his most famous poems (see also The Lyrics of Li Yu):

Immeasurable Pain

Immeasurable pain!
My dreaming soul last night was king again.
As in past days
I wandered through the Palace of Delight,
And in my dream
Down grassy garden-ways
Glided my chariot, smoother than a summer stream;
There was moonlight,
The trees were blossoming,
And a faint wind softened the air of night,
For it was spring.[9]



By establishing its capital Jiangning on the site of Jiankang, the court of the Southern Tang had consciously associated itself with the cultural prestige of the southern dynasties. Its immediate predecessor in the tenth century, Wu, had its capital at Guangling 廣陵 (present-day Yangzhou 揚州), and this remained the eastern capital under the Southern Tang of the Li lineage. Shortly before the death of Li Yu’s father and second emperor of the Southern Tang, Li Jing (李璟, r.943-961), the court had moved south to Hongzhou 洪州 (modern-day Nanchang 南昌) to distance itself from the frontier established following the invasion of the Later Zhou (後周, 951-960). On his succession Li Yu returned the centre of the dynasty to Jiangning. The existing amenities of this city and the prestige of the site were apparently too potent an attraction for a ruler so given to cultural pursuits.

Rural Retreat

On his fourth day in Jiankang, Lu You visited Zhongshan 鍾山, the mountain to the northeast of the city. He records that he came upon a pagoda bearing an inscription that dated back to the governorship of Wang Anshi (王安石, 1021-1086) in 1074-1075, a position he had been obliged to take following his ousting from the position of Chief Councillor at court. Lu You noted that a nearby temple had once held a portrait of Wang, but it had long since been destroyed by fire. On his re-entry into the walled city that day, Lu stopped for a while at a temple which had once been Wang Anshi’s house. Banshan Villa 半山園, (literally, ‘villa halfway up the mountain’) was a retreat where the statesman had lived following his retirement as Chief Councillor.

Although not a local to the area, Wang Anshi had deep personal connexions with the place. He had first lived in what was then Jiangning during the years 1037-1041 when his father was the local governor.[10] His father was buried there following his death and Jiangning then became the family home. Wang would return there in 1063 from the capital in the north with his mother’s coffin and remained until 1068. In 1074, after several years spent implementing his New Policies, Wang quit the court and was demoted to the governorship of Jiangning; he returned to the capital some ten months later. After retiring from the court for the final time in 1076, he briefly served again as governor before divesting himself of the position and receiving the honorary role of emissary of a local abbey. After many years on the slopes of Zhongshan, in 1084 Wang was granted imperial permission to transform his Banshan home into a Buddhist temple. Subsequently, he moved to live inside the city walls.

In the late eleventh century, Jiangning was not a place of great political importance. It was yet to see the influx of residents following the Jurchen Jin invasion at the end of Northern Song or experience its subsequent development as a strategic military stronghold. Living on Zhongshan for much of the last decade of his life following the vicissitudes of court life, Wang Anshi gave himself over to a simple life and cultivated his interest in Buddhism, meandering on the mountain and in the local countryside, often by donkey.

Impromptu; Late Spring at Banshan
Late spring has snatched away the blossoms,
left me this cool shade instead,
the sloping road quiet under its covering of shadows,
the garden cottage deep in intertwining green.
Bench and mat whenever I want a little rest,
walking stick and shoes for visiting secluded spots—
otherwise I’ve only the north mountain birds
that pass this way, leaving their lovely notes behind.[11]


Zhongshan, the ‘coiling dragon’ in the famous assessment of the site given by the martial strategist Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮, 181-234) during the Three Kingdoms period, becomes for Wang a place of tranquility.

A Sketch of Mount Zhong
Noiselessly, the mountain stream
circles the bamboo grove;
West of the bamboo, flowers and grasses
sport with the tenderness of spring
I sit under thatched eaves
facing this all day;
Not a single bird sings,
the silence of the hills deepens.[12]


As he wandered on its slopes, Wang often gave expression to Buddhist-inspired musings:

Two impromptu poems — I
The cloud rises from the Chung Mountain,
And yet returns to the Chung Mountain.
May I ask people in the mountain:
Where, now, is that cloud?[13]

即事二首 其一

But Wang was hardly immune to Jinling’s historical aura and military significance:

Meditation on the Past at Jinling III

The lay of the land bends eastward here
on the river’s thousands of miles,
among the clouds, ‘Heaven’s Turrets’,
paired peaks for eternity.
In those days troops moved over the earth,
a manly hero took it;
when a Sage came forth in the heartland,
each place surrendered in turn.
In a vast silence of river and hills
the royal aura lies buried,
a gloomy bleakness of mist in the wind
fills the windows of monks.
Ruined barrows and rifled tombs
stripped of their caps and swords who
again will weep on his sash
and pour out a cup in libation?[14]
金陵懷古四首 其三


Just as Jinling has lost its past lustre, so Wang had left the pinnacle of official service living in his rustic residence halfway between the city and the mountain. He never returned to court.

The city would face a different fate. It was later elevated in status under the Southern Song and regained its title of Jiankang in acknowledgement of its defiance to the invading Jin dynasty (金, 1115-1234). The location of the capital had remained a point of contention for decades after the reestablishment of the Song court in the south. Many officials believed Lin’an 臨安 (latter-day Hangzhou) lacked prestige and the geographical potential of other sites, among them Jiankang. In 1163, Lu You went so far as to promote Jiankang even further by petitioning the emperor to move the court there permanently.[15] Evidence for his views on this can be found in the record of his 1170 visit. He took pains to explain to his readers the strategic significance of the Stone City and dismissed those who failed to see its continuing importance in controlling this crucial stretch of the Yangtze.

His trip in 1170 was not the only time he went to Jinling. Lu You had been there before and would come again. In a poem he wrote on leaving Jiankang eight years later, he pondered the shared fate of the Stone City and of the southern courts that now faced the threat of a bellicose foreign dynasty in the north:

At night mooring by Dragon Temple and filled with emotion on gazing back toward Jiankang
Drunkenly I pass along the water,
My body as weightless as flying mist.
Fish and dragons call to each other mournfully,
Companions in my sleepless night.

A feathered fan shifts the floating clouds;
The moon hangs between the Ox and the Dipper.
The axis of the Yellow and Han Rivers is askew once more,
The [chill of the] wind and dew now all-embracing.

The undulating heights of Stone City
Have been silent for seven hundred years.
The affairs of the world stir my emotions,
As I, shooting up, enter into the dark sky.[16]


Despite the efforts of Lu You and others, the capital remained at Lin’an for the rest of the Song dynasty. The city of Jiankang would have to wait centuries for an opportunity to return magisterially to the centre stage of Chinese history.


[1] Lu You, Ru shu ji 入蜀記, in Congshu jicheng chubian, Shanghai: Shangwu Yinshuguan, 1936, 2:12-16.
[2] Richard Mather, The Age of Eternal Brilliance: Three Lyric Poets of the Yung-ming Era (483493), Leiden: Brill, 2003, 2:64.
[3] Anne Birrell, New Songs from a Jade Terrace: An Anthology of Early Chinese Love Poetry, Translated with Annotations and an Introduction, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982, p.274.
[4] Mather, The Age of Eternal Brilliance, 2:25 n1.
[5] Ibid, 2:57.
[6] Ibid, 2:140.
[7] Xue Zhengchao 薛政超, Wudai Jinling shi yanjiu 五代金陵史研究, Beijing: Zhongyang Bianyi Chubanshe, 2011.
[8] Daniel Bryant, Lyric Poets of the Southern T’ang: Feng Yen-ssu, 903-960, and Li Yü, 937-978, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1982, p.98; with tune title taken from his earlier translation in Sunflower Splendour: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975, p.304.
[9] Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1946, p.194.
[10] Details of Wang Anshi’s life taken from Jonathan Pease, ‘From the Wellsweep to the Shallow Skiff: Poetry of Wang Anshi’, PhD Dissertation, University of Washington, 1986, pp.10-15, 72-75 and 163-231.
[11] Burton Watson, ed. and trans., The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984, p.344.
[12] Translated by Jan W Walls in Liu and Lo, eds, Sunflower Splendour, p.334.
[13] James JY Liu, trans., ‘Six Poems by Wang An-Shih’, Renditions, 1 (Autumn 1973): 92.
[14] Stephen Owen, ed. and trans., An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, New York: WW Norton, 1996, p.692.
[15] Philip Watson, Grand Canal, Great River: The Travel Diary of a Twelfth-Century Chinese Poet, London: Frances Lincoln, 2007, p.71.
[16] Lu You, Jiannan shi gao jiao zhu 劍南詩稿校注, Shanghai: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, 1985, 10.282.