Born in Chengdu, within the province of Shu, Sima Xiangru would become one of the most impressive figures to live in the 2nd century BCE. He was a renaissance man, skilled in a wide variety of subjects, including art, war and statesmanship. Although he was not of noble blood, his talents caught the attention of the imperial government, eventually leading him to be recruited in order to serve princes and emperors.
Sima Xiangru was said to have been born in 179 BCE, at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). He was born into a family of some wealth, allowing him to become a well-read individual during his upbringing. He also studied the art of war, reportedly becoming a respectable swordsman. In music, too, he received some education, allowing him to eventually become a skilled player of the lute. His moderate wealth, immense knowledge and noted fighting ability impressed Emperor Jing of the Han Dynasty (r. 157-141 BCE), for whom Sima Xiangru accepted a position as one of the emperor’s personal guards. Yet, he found his employer’s company to be unfulfilling, as according to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), “Emperor Jing had no liking for literature” (Shi Ji 117).
In order to further his personal studies, Sima Xiangru began searching for new employment. He found his opportunity when the imperial capital was visited by Prince Xiao of Liang, who brought a troupe of scholars in his accompanying entourage. Sima Xiangru was so impressed by the prince’s companions that he retired from his position as an imperial guardsman and relocated to Liang, where he studied under the musicians, rhetoricians and writers in that court. Sima Xiangru’s talents flourished in that environment, and during his stay in Liang he penned his first major poem of public acclaim—the Zixu fu, a title translated variously as Sir Fantasy or Master Nil. Sima Xiangru remained in Liang honing his craft until around 144 BCE, when the death of Prince Xiao prompted the burgeoning poet to return home to Chengdu, in Shu Province.
Upon returning to his home town, Sima Xiangru reportedly found that his family’s wealth had collapsed during his absence. With no opportunities to be had in Chengdu, he moved to the district of Linqiong, where a friend of his was serving as the local magistrate. As a courtier of emperors and princes, as well as a published poet, Sima Xiangru was something of a minor celebrity at that point. Therefore, he was held in high regard in Linqiong, with influential people of the district frequently coming to his temporary residence to pay him respect while he stayed in the area. Besides making calls at his abode, other well-to-do figures in Linqiong were said to have thrown parties for Sima Xiangru—one of these hosted banquets would prove to be one of the most significant events in the poet’s life.
A wealthy merchant named Zhuo Wangsun was one of the figures in Linqiong who held a feast in honor of Sima Xiangru. Attending the party was anybody and everybody who was important in the district. Yet, despite the presence of all the distinguished guests, Sima Xiangru became fixated on one person in particular—a woman named Wenjun. She was the daughter of the party’s host, Zhuo Wangsun, and she had been married in the past, but was widowed at a young age. For Sima Xiangru, it was apparently love at first sight, and he was not dissuaded by the possible taboos or improprieties involved in pursuing her. As soon as the poet learned that she was a sucker for music, he requested that a lute be fetched with great haste, and, when one was brought to him, he used all his poetic and musical skill as a bard to impress Wenjun. Grand Historian Sima Qian described the scene, saying “he used the lute to pour out his heart in an effort to win the young girl’s attentions…the young girl secretly peered in through the door at him and her heart was filled with delight; she felt an instant love for him, and her only fear was that she could not have him for her husband” (Shi Ji 117). As the final finishing touch for his campaign of courtship, Sima Xiangru sent Wenjun presents, accompanied by letters expressing his deep respect and admiration. The poet’s lute playing and love letters greatly affected the woman—perhaps too much. Instead of encouraging marriage negotiations, Wenjun ran away from home and joined Sima Xiangru. Not waiting for her father’s blessing, the runaway and the poet eloped to Chengdu, where they began living as a married couple.
Wenjun’s father, Zhuo Wangsun, disapproved of his daughter’s actions and reportedly cut her off from all of his resources. Yet, Wenjun had a feeling that she and her new husband could eventually win their way back into Wangsun’s good graces. After staying out of sight and out of mind for a time, the newlyweds moved back to Linqiong, where they reportedly set up a winery. Through hard work at their winery, and the help of sympathizers in Linqiong, they were able to slowly but surely mend their relationship with Wangsun. Once the merchant father allowed himself to once more dote on his daughter, he began pouring funds and gifts into the hands of Wenjun and Sima Xiangru. According to Sima Qian, “Zhuo Wangsun finally gave his daughter Wenjun 100 servants, 1,000,000 cash and the clothing, quilts, and other articles that she had received as a dowry at the time of her first marriage. Wenjun and Xiangru then returned to Chengdu, where they purchased a house and some fields and lived a life of ease” (Shi Ji 117). Sima Xiangru’s newfound life of leisure would allow him to focus more time on his literary pursuits. He would eventually be invited to the court of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), who commissioned more poetry from Sima Xiangru and reintroduced the poet into government affairs.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Musicians from the Yanju tomb paintings, c. 5th century, also known as Jiuquan Dingjia Gate No. 5 Tomb, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.