The Xia Image in Early Chinese Poetry


 Welcome back to the Inn and Happy - soon to be - Year of the Horse!.

Since I am approaching this genre writer’s notebook as a novelist and adopting the wuxia genre as my writing form, I’d like to continue my focus on the development of this genre in the Chinese literary tradition. I would like to trace some of the images of the xia as recorded by their literary contemporaries medieval Chinese poetry.

Once again, I’m enlisting Professor James Liu’s wonderful book, The Chinese Knight-Errant, since he focuses his research on the xia – I prefer the Chinese term, xia rather than the inaccurate translation “knights-errant,” which Liu also admits is not an accurate rendering of the Chinese term, xia. After a look at xia historical biographies scattered across the history of traditional China, Liu concludes:

The examples of knights-errant given above show clearly that they included men from all walks of life and social classes: professional soldiers and officials as well as poets, musicians, physicians, merchants, butchers, and vagabonds. This should be sufficient evidence that they were not a particular social class or professional group. (Liu, 54)

Liu goes to underscore his contrasting of the xia with the European knights and the Japanese samurai who did form identifiable social classes within their respective societies.

It is interesting that among the “xia occupations” listed by Liu is that of poet. Further, Li Bo (Li Po in Liu’s romanization and also known as Li Bai), the protagonist of my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, is listed by Liu as a xia turned poet. The xia are subject matter for Chinese poets, and it is interesting to consider their depictions in the poetic literature.

Professor Liu writes that, “there is a considerable amount of Chinese chivalric poetry.” It is the literary theme of “chivalry” that Liu finds associated with the xia, though I prefer to use the term “moral integrity” rather than “chivalry,” which is too “medieval European” for my tastes, to describe the basic characteristic of the xia. Liu writes:

The theme of chivalry first appeared in the poetry of the Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 206), became popular during the Six Dynasties (222-589), and remained a favourite with the T’ang poets (618-907). (55)

In summing up the characterization of the xia in this type of poetry Liu writes:

They vary in tone from slight disapproval to enthusiastic eulogy, the majority being sympathetic. The descriptions are more or less realistic, sometimes a little exaggerated but seldom fantastic or incredible. Some poets stress the bravery and altruism of the knights-errant; others mainly depict their free and gay way of life. Thus, in poetry, it is not always easy to distinguish knights-errant from patriotic warriors on the one hand, and from mere dandies on the other. Some poets show a genuine congeniality to the spirit of knight-errantry; others are merely conventional literary exercises. (55-56)

To give a representative sampling of this poetry, Liu says that he translated, “not only poems of real merit but also some purely conventional ones.” (56)

I will select from his selections and reproduce some samples below. I think it is interesting to give us a “first-hand” look at what literate contemporaries of the xia thought of them. We begin where Liu begins, “a few lines from The Western Capital by Chang Heng (A.D. 78-139)”:


            The knights-errant of the capital city,

            Men such a Chang and Chao,

            Equal the Prince of Wei for ambition,

            Rival the deeds of the Lord of Ch’i.

            They take death lightly, but esteem

            The spirit, and form cliques and gangs.

            Numerous indeed are their followers,

            Their attendants as thick as clouds.

            Yuan of Mao-ling, Chu of Yang-ling:

            Ferocious, fearless, fierce, and free,

            Like roaring tigers and wild cats.

            An angry glance, a ‘bone in the throat’,

            And a body falls by the corner of the road. (56)


After identify the names mentioned in the poem, Liu comments that:

The general tone of these lines is somewhat disapproving, especially in the last two lines, where the poet deplores the readiness with which the knights-errant wreak vengeance for slight offences. (57)

The reference “bone in the throat” means a trivial offense.

The next poem, by Ts’ao Chih (192-232 CE), is a much more flattering one:


            A white steed decked with a golden halter

            Galloped past towards the north-west.

            ‘May I enquire who the rider is?’

            ‘A knight-errant from Yu or Ping in the north.

            He left his native district in his youth

            And spread his fame across the distant desert.

            He always carries a find sturdy bow

            With jagged arrows made of bramble wood.

            Pulling the string, he hits the target to the left;

            Shooting from the right, he hits it again.

            Looking up, he shoots an ape in flight;

            Bending down, he hits the bull’s-eye once more.

            He is more agile than a monkey

            And as fierce as a leopard or dragon.

            When alarms came from the frontier

            That barbarian troops had made repeated raids,

            And when a call to arms came from the north,

            He mounted his steed and reached the frontier fort.

            He rode on right into the land of the Huns,

            Holding the Tartar tribes in high disdain.

            He threw himself before the pointed swords

            Without giving a thought to his own life.

            He did not even worry about his parents,

            Let alone his children and his wife.

            His name entered the register of heroes;

            His heart had no room for personal feelings.

            He risked his life at a time of national disaster,

            And regarded death merely as returning home. (57-58)


Liu remarks that, “this description is rather idealized.” Even so, we can see why the Confucians would take issue with some of the xia values when we read of this wandering blade's attitude toward his family. But this is a common conflict in Chinese society, or any society that advocates a hierarchical system of values – Which comes first? Duty to the state/society or personal relationships to the family?

It would seem that the xia had little problem here as their sense of “appropriate” behavior was very individualistic. Others, especially intellectuals, throughout Chinese history found these issues extremely vexing. And as such, they are of intense interest to fiction writers. Thus, the Li Bo character in my novel, Dream of the Dragon Pool, finds himself wrestling with a personal desire to regain his lost prestige at Court vs. the duty to his family given his death exile that forces him to leave them behind. And so to with his travel companion, Ah Wu, who has devoted himself to Li Bo’s protection since he can no longer protect his own family. Other characters in the story must deal with their own conflicts in sorting out their social relationships – and in the world of this novel, some of these relationships extend beyond the Yang world of the living.

Following up these conflicts that are inherit in the xia way of life, Liu gives us Chang Hua’s  (232-300 C.E.) picture of young men indulging in their martial arts skills:


            The brave lads indulge in heady chivalry,

            Their fame overwhelms unruly youths.

            They wreak vengeance on behalf of friends

            And kill people by the market-place.

            Curved knives clang in their hands,

            Or swords with edges sharp as autumn frost.

            From their waists jut white halberds,

            In their hands, white-headed spears.

            These they wield as fast as lightning flashes,

            Or whirl around as fleeting beams of light.

            A hand-to-hand fight decides the issue;

            One across another, corpses lie.

            They’d rather die and become heroic ghosts

            Than enter prison with its encircling walls.

            In life, they make friends with noble men;

            In death, their chivalrous bones smell sweet.

            Their bodies perish, their hearts do not repent;

            Their brave spirit spreads everywhere. (59)


This seems right out of a kungfu movie, but actually the opposite is true! I think you get the picture by now, the xia were a very colorful, controversial, and dangerous group of people. Yet, we haven’t touched upon the greatest of the “xia poets.” He was a Tang poet and claimed to be from the ranks of the xia – there is no evidence for this background other than Li Bo’s claim, and Li Bo claimed many things. There is, however, no doubt about his poetic skills. I’d like to quote one Li Bo poem in particular for it has a intriguing tie in with a story by the great Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi.

Professor Liu translates the first part of Li Bo’s "Song of the Knight-errant" as follows:


            The man from Chao wears a tasselled hat,

            And a curved knife as bright as frost or snow,

            His silver saddle shines on his white steed

            On which he rides as fast as a shooting star.

            He would kill a man every ten paces

            And go on for a thousand miles without stop.

            After the event, he dusts his clothes and leaves,

            To hide in secret his person and his name. (64)


Li Bo, as Chinese writers traditionally did, used allusions and bits of lines from past writers in his works. It was a way of adding depth to the poem or prose piece and of showing off one’s erudition. In this poem, Li Bo chose a couple of lines from the great Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Those lines are from a fascinating story in the Zhuangzi, the great work that bears the philosopher’s name. And interestingly enough, the story is titled, “Of Swords.” It is a story in which Zhuangzi also claims to be a master swordsman. It is worth relating to get a take on Zhuangzi’s view of the xia.

There are two translations of the story in my library: An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, edited and translated by Stephen Owen, pp.104-107; and Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of Chuang Tzu, translated by Victor H. Mair, pp.312-316. I will paraphrase and quote from Professor Owen’s translation.


“Of Swords”

During the Warring State Period (403-221 B.C.E.), King Wen of Zhao [in Liu’s romanization of the Li Bo poem, “Chao”] enjoyed swordsmanship. Over three thousand men thronged his gates seeking patronage as swordsmen. Every year, more than a hundred died. This went on for three years and the kingdom’s fortunes declined.

The Crown Prince Kui, seeking to redress this appalling situation sought help to dissuade his father from this insanity. His advisors recommended Zhuangzi. The Crown Prince interviewed Zhuangzi and pointed out that the King would only see swordsmen.

Zhuangzi, “Understood. But I am rather good with the sword.”

Crown Prince, “Be that as it may, the swordsmen that our king sees all have messy hair with bristling lock and slouching caps [or in Liu’s translation of Li Bo’s poem, “tasselled hat”], plain rough cap-strings, robes hitched up in the back, bulging eyes, and stumbling speech. This is the sort the king prefers.”

The Crown Prince goes onto say that Zhuangzi will no doubt wear his scholar’s clothes and the whole thing will fail. Zhaungzi, however, asks for a set of swordsman’s clothes and shows up wearing them. The king receives him, sword drawn, but Zhuangzi doesn’t even bow. The king wants to know what Zhaungzi expects to do for him. Our philosopher responds, “I’ve heard the king enjoys swordplay, so I’ve come to see the king by way of swordplay.

The king responds, “How can that sword of yours defend you.” To which Zhuangzi replies, “If I had an opponent every ten paces, I could go a thousand leagues without pausing.” [Sound familiar!?]

The king likes the response and says there must be no match for Zhuangzi, to which our Taoist philosopher replies, “In swordplay one displays himself as vacant, initiates by advantage, is second to swing the blow, is the first to strike home.” [Mair’s translation of this very interesting statement reads: “One who wields a sword reveals his emptiness to his opponent, gives him an advantageous opening, makes his move after him, arrives before he does.”  And there, if I’m not mistaken, is a tenet of, at least, Taichi martial arts stated over 2000 years ago!]

The king was impressed and told Zhuangzi to go to his quarters. He would be invited to a “contest to the death.” Then the king tested his swordsmen against each other for seven days. Sixty men died and five or six swordsmen were picked. Zhuangzi was called.

The king asks Zhuangzi what type of sword will he use, long or short.

Zhuangzi, “For my own use, anything is fine. However, I have three swords that may be used only by a king. Let me tell about these first, and then we will have the trial.”

Naturally, the king is intrigued and allows Zhuangzi to explain. [Here I will quote Professor Owen’s translation at length]

Zhuanzi, “There is an Emperor’s sword, a sword of the great nobility, and the sword of an ordinary man.”

The king said, “What is the Emperor’s sword like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of an Emperor:

has as its point Yan Valley and Mount Stonewall,

has as its blade Tai Mountain in Qi,

has its blunt edge in the kingdoms of Jin and Wei,

has as its guard the kingdoms of Zhou and Song…

[I am abridging here]

This sword, when held straight, has nothing before it,

pointed up, has nothing above it,

pressed downward, has nothing below it,

and swung, has nothing around it.

It slashes the clouds that drift above,

it cuts to Earth’s axis below.

Use this sword but once,

and the nobility will all be brought in line,

and the whole world will yield—

for this is the sword of an Emperor.

As if in a daze, King Wen was completely absorbed. He said, “What is the sword of the great nobility like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of the great nobility:

has as its point shrewd and valiant gentlemen,

has as its blade honest and unassuming gentlemen,

has its blunt edge in good and worthy gentlemen,

has as its guard loyal and wise gentlemen,

has as its hilt daring and outstanding gentlemen…


It takes its model from the roundness of Heaven above,

whereby it moves with sun, moon, and stars.

It takes its model from the squareness of Earth below, 

whereby it moves with the four seasons.

From the center it knows the people’s will,

by which it brings peace to lands all around.

Use this sword but once,

and it is like a rumbling quake of thunder.

Within the boundaries all around,

there is no man but yields to it

and obeys the bidding of their lord.

This is a sword of the great nobility.”

The king then asked, “And what is the sword of the ordinary man like?”

Zhuangzi said, “The sword of the ordinary man belongs to one with messy hair, with bristling locks and slouched cap, plain, rough cap-strings, robes hitched up in the back, bulging eyes, and stumbling speech, men who hack at each other in front of you. A high hack will chop off a neck, and a low one cuts liver or lungs. This is the sword of the ordinary man, and it is no different from cockfighting, with a life cut off in a single morning. It has no use at all in the workings of a kingdom. We have here a king, to whom belongs the position of an Emperor, and yet who is in love with the sword of the ordinary man. And for this king’s sake I have taken the liberty of disparaging it.”

The king retired to his palace and didn’t leave it for three months. All his swordsmen “perished on their own swordpoints in their places.”


So what was Li Bo up to quoting from this Zhuangzi story in a pro-swordsmen poem? I don’t really know, but if I had to guess it would be that he was just being Li Bo and tweaking all our noses!

We’ve gotten a glimpse of the Chinese literati’s view of the xia. It is both complementary and derogatory. I find it interesting to read those poems and imagine scenes from my favorite kungfu movies – do the xia of the silver screen match up with the glimpses we’ve had here of their poetic images? And if you’ve never read Zhuangzi before, and even if you have, isn’t he (or the writings attributed to him) amazing!