Mapping Guanxiu’s Travels, Part 2

Guanxiu's travels (whole)

This is a follow-up to my last post, where I showed my first attempt at mapping the travels of poet-monk Guanxiu 貫休 (832-913). In this version, I’ve used a point-to-point map, so it comes off more as a structured journey rather than as a series of disparate points.

The great thing about Palladio, developed by the Humanities + Design Lab at Stanford, is that it integrates a whole range of digital humanities tools in one user-friendly interface. Because I was using a reconstructed chronology of Guanxiu’s life, I could break down all of these travels by date and filter by any span of time. It’s a great storytelling tool, especially when paired with the usual bag of Sinological tricks.

So let me give an example. Below is a map of Guanxiu’s travels in the 880s. Look at the red dot, which represents Changzhou 常州. In July 880, when the Huang Chao rebellion was heading north toward the capital corridor, it passed through Guanxiu’s hometown of Lanxi 蘭溪, forcing the monk to flee to Changzhou, northwest of it. On his way back home, he stopped over in Hangzhou (just south of the red dot) and presented poems to the local officials, establishing connections as the empire collapsed and regional military leaders began to assume control of the land.Guanxiu's travels (880s), Changzhou highlighted

Later in the decade, as the violence seemed to be calming down, 50-some-year-old Guanxiu made his own trip to the capital cities of Luoyang and Chang’an. It was just as he was setting out on this trip that he first met the poet Wei Zhuang 韋莊 (836-910). As the Tang empire continued to fall apart, both poets fled the tumultuous Chinese heartland for the relatively stable southwest, and would meet again about 20 years later in Chengdu, when they were both in their 70s.

The Huang Chao rebellion was one of the most violent uprisings in Chinese history, effectively bringing the golden age of the Tang to an end within a few years. No dynasty would control as much territory until the Qing (1644-1911). Here is a side-by-side comparison of the territory controlled by the Tang (yellow) with the territory of the Song, Jin, Xixia, and Dan. The “legitimate” successor to the Tang is the Song, located in the far southeast.

(Courtesy of Harvard World Maps.)

Thus, as we look back on the life and work of poets like Guanxiu, who watched civilization as they knew it crumble before their eyes, we can’t help but be struck by a sense of tragedy. As the poet-monk fled from his home in 880 to escape the first tremors of this collapse, he is said to have composed a poem lamenting the corrupt and ineffective government which brought about these disasters. He concludes this poem by appealing to the upright officials of the early Tang, switching into the rare enneameter (a nine-beat line) as he reaches an emotional fever-pitch:

An array of ministers just –

Fang and Du,

Sir Wei, Sir Yao,

and Song Kaifu –

With their utmost ascended to that sylphic heaven above

and idle in their palace.

Oh, would they not leave the Emperor on High,

and sink to this sunken earth?

Or could they stand to see us greylife

suffer, suffer, suffer?


And this, says Guanxiu, is the way the world ends: with a bang and a whimper.

3 thoughts on “Mapping Guanxiu’s Travels, Part 2

  1. Great post! To zero in on a nerdy detail, that 苦苦苦 is something I’ve never seen in classical Chinese poetry before. Is triple repetition actually a thing or is this another sign of Guanxiu’s extreme emotional state?

  2. Hi Matt, thanks for the comment. That sort of triple repetition (or “retriplication,” as I like to call it) is indeed quite rare. In fact, I’ve found that, prior to the Song, it’s used almost exclusively by poet-monks. I’m thinking it has to be related to ritual practice in some way, so one of my later dissertation chapters will examine this question at length. It was actually this detail about retriplication that first prompted me to start researching poet-monks about four years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *