Like a lustrous pearl hidden in the soil, Yuan Dynasty Songs (or 元曲) have been neglected for nearly 800 years.
The Yuan Dynasty Song, as a novel form of literature, is the cream of the crop with regards to Yuan Dynasty literature. The Yuan Dynasty Song is equally accomplished as Tang Dynasty Poetry (唐詩) or Song Dynasty Lyric Verse (宋詞). In fact, the three forms of literature all flourished in China’s poetry arena.
Why have Yuan Dynasty Songs been neglected for nearly 800 years? A commonly known reason is that Yuan Dynasty Songs rose from the “lower class.” Hence, no self-respecting Chinese literary man was willing to write any Yuan Dynasty Song. A distinctive difference between Yuan Dynasty Songs and regular ancient poetry is that unlike poetry, Yuan Dynasty Songs are still closely related to folk songs. A distinctive difference between Yuan Dynasty Songs and Song Dynasty Lyric Verse is that the latter had lost its original musical basis. Through it all, Yuan Dynasty Songs have always been developed and spread as a form of dramatic performance through the “lowly” Chinese opera houses, which has caused it to be given a lowly literary rank since its birth. In hindsight, it might be a blessing in disguise. Because Yuan Dynasty Songs were performed in Chinese operas, their rhyming requirements were much higher than those of Tang Dynasty Poetry or Song Dynasty Lyric Verse. In other words, Yuan Dynasty Songs, when recited, sound almost musical. On the other hand, the Chinese government agency responsible for collecting poetry treated Yuan Dynasty Songs with contempt and was above collecting or compiling them. Literary men in the Yuan Dynasty also failed to value or improve Yuan Dynasty Songs. As a result, Yuan Dynasty Songs failed to spread from the drama stage to literary men’s gatherings. This is the primary reason why Yuan Dynasty Songs have been neglected for nearly 800 years like a lustrous pearl buried in the soil.
In sharp contrast with Tang Dynasty Poetry and Song Dynasty Lyric Verse, Yuan Dynasty Songs are full of life and their language is very animated. They also allow richer and more colourful expressions. Moreover, they are distinctly more beautiful when recited or sung because of their more perfected rhyming. When they first become acquainted with Yuan Dynasty Songs, readers who are used to reading Tang Dynasty Poetry and Song Dynasty Lyric Verse often find Yuan Dynasty Songs very refreshing. They are often brought to grins and even laughter.
Poetry is a language of gods. A Yuan Dynasty Song is also a type of poetry. Poetry does not discriminate among its readers. Everyone, regardless his background, is able to enjoy poetry. The same law applies to Yuan Dynasty Songs. Therefore, we will explain and appreciate every selected Yuan Dynasty Song in the same manner we explain and appreciate each selected poem in our “Fun with Tang Dynasty Poetry” series. We will explain the surface meaning of each selected Yuan Dynasty Song and then interpret its connotations in a way we feel most consistent with its author’s personality and art style and in a benevolent way to promote kindness in readers. By doing so, we hope to bask our readers’ souls in the radiance of the beautiful and kind nature of humankind and to give our readers an opportunity to renew and upgrade their souls.
Tang Dynasty Poetry, Song Dynasty Lyric Verse and Yuan Dynasty Song are the three most lustrous pearls in the history of Chinese literature. Only the two former pearls attained glory in the Chinese literary arena, but it is high time that the third pearl be valued as the treasure it is and it is high time that the three pearls claim glory in the Chinese literary arena together. If we compare the three forms of poetry to divine flowers, it is high time that the three divine flowers compete for glory together.