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Sima Xiangru

In the history of Chinese classic literature, Sima Xiangru (179–117 BC) was largely responsible for establishing fu as a literary genre. Often translated as “rhapsody”, fu is a descriptive metered verse with rhyme interspersed with prose. The rhymed and paralleled sentence group patterns of fu were to have constant influence on Chinese prose literature of later dynasties. Fu was a dominant prose form from the Han Dynasty to Early Tang Dynasty, and Sima Xiangru was its most successful practitioner who utilized the genre to its best. Representative works of Sima Xiangru include: Rhapsody of the Shanglin Park, Rhapsody of the Changmen Palace, and Phapsody of Mr. Zixu.
Sima Xiangru playing zither at the banquest while Wenjun peeped at him from behind a curtain. The romance of Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun is one much-told anecdote in the history of Chinese literature.

Yet, Sima Xiangru’s contribution to Chinese culture and history is not limited to his writings only. His romance (and elopement) with Zhuo Wenjun is a much-repeated story. Sima Xiangru was a native of Sichuan, and had shown special talents in poetry when young. He managed to become a mere minor official in the Han court, and returned to Linqiong County soon after, upon the invitation of a friend of his, the magistrate of Linqiong, where he lived a frugal life. One day, Sima Xiangru attended a banquet given by Zhuo Wangsun, the wealthiest merchant in the county. The latter had a widowed daughter named Wenjun, who was fascinated by Sima Xiangru’s fame as a literary talent and peeped at him from behind a screen. Pretending to be unaware of her glances, Sima Xiangru took the opportunity to woo her by playing “The Male Phoenix Wooing the Female Phoenix” when asked to play the guqin (zither). The two fell in love, soon, and eloped one night. Zhuo Wangsun, the father, was angry about the elopement which was considered a most immoral conduct, and refused to give her any dowry. The penniless couple pawned the few possessions they had and returned to Linqiong where they opened a small wine shop. Every day, Wenjun held a ladle and served wine to customers while Sima Xiangru worked as an odd-job man. Seeing his own daughter, a daughter of a millionaire, be reduced to strike a subsistence living by selling wine, Zhuo Wangsun considered it an unbearable loss of face, and recognized their marriage, finally, granting the couple a big fortune.

The now well-off couple settled in Chengdu. Later, Sima Xiangru’s literary was recognized by the new emperor, and was to have a fairly successful literary career. Interestingly, though a first-class man of letters, Sima Xiang was a stammerer.


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