Fun with Yuan Dynasty Songs: “An Autumn Reflection” in the Song Format of “Heavenly Pure Sand”

“An Autumn Reflection” in the Song Format of “Heavenly Pure Sand” (天淨沙) and in the Music Scale of “Yue Diao” (越調)
By Ma Zhiyuan

The withered vine, the weathered tree and the crow on the bough
The little bridge, the streaming brook and the country dwelling
The ancient way, the westward wind and the scraggy horse
The sun is setting in the west
At the end of the world is a woeful soul with a broken heart

“An Autumn Reflection” in Chinese
[越調] 天淨沙.秋思
馬致遠

枯籐老樹昏鴉,
小橋流水人家,
古道西風瘦馬。
夕陽西下,
斷腸人在天涯。


About Ma Zhiyuan (馬致遠)

Ma Zhiyuan (approximately 1,250 – 1,320 or 1,324 A.D.) was also known as Ma Qianli or Ma Dongli. He, along with Guan Hanqing (關漢卿), Bai Pu (白樸), and Zhen Guangzu (鄭光祖), were known as The Four Masters of Yuan Dynasty Songs.

Ma Zhiyuan’s songs were mostly about divine beings or Taoist cultivators. Hence, he was given a nickname, “Immortal Ma.” He had a very straightforward, carefree and laid-back style. His individual songs were better known than his song suite. Over 100 of his individual songs, as well as 22 song suites, were preserved. Among his song suites, “An Autumn Reflection” suite in the Song Format of “Night Boat” is revered as the best out of a million.

About the Song:

Yue Diao is one of the music scales in Yuan Dynasty Songs. “Heavenly Pure Sand” is the name of a Song Format. This song titled, “An Autumn Reflection,” is revered as the best among all songs bearing the same Song format. It is also the most widely recited and praised song of the Yuan Dynasty.

The Interpretation of the Song:

In the middle of autumn, a traveller far away from home was riding a skinny horse on a desolate road on the bleak autumn day. Crows stood on top of an old tree draped with dried vines at dusk. A brook ran under a small bridge. Across the bridge there was only one household. The sun was setting, it was getting dark and the wind made it all the more chilling. Nevertheless, the lonesome traveller and his skinny horse had to continue their journey as the exhausted horse struggled to move forward. What a heartbreaking picture!

The Author’s Interpretation:

A homesick traveller has been a timeless subject for poets throughout the ages, but where exactly was the traveller in the song going? It is obvious to all readers that the traveller is terribly homesick, but the poet did not even have to mention a word about home or homesick. This is exactly why this song stands out among all the masterpiece poems about homesick travellers!

That the world’s people miss their homes may be a reflection in the human realm of their souls searching for the origin of their lives or their real homes. Ma Zhiyuan enjoyed writing about the subject of divine beings and Taoist cultivators, the very subject that describes the tangible process of seeking the origin of one’s life. In real life, Ma Zhiyuan always searched for the origin of his life. Hence, I believe that Ma Zhiyuan meant to express his undying pursuit for the origin of his life in this poem. Ma Zhiyuan was not given the nickname “Immortal Ma” for nothing. After he retired from his job in the government, he lived as a recluse. Hopefully, he finally found his true home and no longer had to travel to the end of the world on a skinny horse, looking for his home!

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