Born in Chengdu (modern Sichuan Province, China), the poet Sima Xiangru (c. 179-117 BCE) grew up during the reign of Emperor Wen of the Han Dynasty (r. 180-157 BCE). Although not a nobleman, the future poet’s family had wealth, allowing him to receive a thorough education and to study swordsmanship. He began his political ascendance as a courtier during the reign of Wen’s successor, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), whom he served as a palace guard. Before long, Sima Xiangru left the capital to join Prince Xiao in Liang, where the poet studied under the musicians, scholars, artists and authors who were prevalent in the prince’s court. It was around that time that he wrote one of his most famous poetic works, the Zixu fu (known variously as Sir Fantasy or Master Nil). After Prince Xiao’s death in 144 BCE, the honed and refined poet returned to his homeland, where he married Zhuo Wenjun. Sima Xiangru and his wife lived peacefully in Chengdu for a time, but the next ruler of China, Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), invited the poet to return to the imperial court after reading a copy of the Zixu fu.
Xiangru cemented his position as a preeminent poet in the emperor’s court by writing a sequel or extension to the Zixu fu—it was called the Shanglin fu, a poem that fantastically and exaggeratedly described the flora and fauna of Shanglin Park and the hunts that were hosted there. Besides poetry, Xiangru tried his hand at being an official with military power; sometime after 135 BCE, he was given a small force and was sent to expand the province of Shu by a mixture of diplomacy and force. Although he succeeded in adding over ten tribes to the province, he was eventually accused of receiving bribes, causing his military post to be revoked. Despite this inglorious end to his government and military career, he remained in the emperor’s good graces and continued publishing new poems. Sima Xiangru went on to write a piece that criticized the late Second Qin Emperor of the previous imperial dynasty, and he published the Fu on The Mighty One, which depicted Emperor Wu on an adventure with various immortal beings. In addition to his poetry, he also wrote several small works of prose, such as his “Letter to Sun Jian,” the “Letter to the Five Lords,” and a chastising memorial that advised the emperor to be careful while out hunting.
Sima Xiangru, who suffered from diabetes, eventually was forced to retire from the imperial court due to ill health. In 117 BCE, it soon became apparent to many, including the emperor, that the poet was nearing his death. When Emperor Wu learned that Xiangru was on his last breaths, he put in motion a plan to collect and preserve the poet’s works, especially any new poems that were written at the end of Xiangru’s life. The efforts taken by the emperor were recorded by the imperial palace secretary and Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE). Yet, as the historian’s quote below will show, the poet had an odd ritual that thwarted the emperor’s plans to collect the poetic manuscripts:
“’Xiangru’s illness seems to be very serious,’ the emperor announced to his attendants. ‘It would be well if someone went to his house and gathered up all of his writings. If it is not done now, they are very likely after his death to become scattered and lost.’ He dispatched Suo Zhong to carry out the task, but when Suo Zhong reached Mouling [where the poet had retired] he discovered that Xiangru was already dead. Finding no manuscripts in the poet’s house, he questioned Xiangru’s wife, who replied, ‘My husband never kept any books or writings around the house. From time to time he used to compose pieces, but someone always came and took them away, so that there is nothing left here now. Before he died, however, he did write one piece and told me that if a messenger came from His Majesty looking for books, I was to present it to him. But outside of that there is nothing else!’” (Sima Qian, Shi ji 117).
The work that the widow mentioned was an additional writing composed in prose, one which encouraged Emperor Wu to complete a ritual known as the Feng and Shan sacrifices. Besides that short letter (which did include a small poem inside it), there were no other poems or new manuscripts reportedly found inside the house. Although Sima Xiangru had given away his personal copies, that did not mean that his poems were lost—after all, he was a prolific writer who had presented copies of his most famous pieces to the courts in which he had worked. Although original manuscripts or later works may have been lost or misplaced, at least 29 of his fu poems and 4 of his prose pieces are thought to exist today.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scholar In A Meadow, painted by an anonymous Song Dynasty artist, c. 11th century, [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.