Inspiration: Tang Dynasty Poetry

Someone recently asked where do you get your ideas. It’s one of those questions that changes every time I answer it, but currently the answer is that I do historical research and pray that some idea starts to form. It’s the one thing I envy other writers: their surplus of ideas and ability to plot in series. I also read translations of Tang Dynasty poetry to get a feel for how the use of language and word choice when interpreted in English. For my current WIP, the seed of the idea began with this Tang Dynasty poem:

Observing the Sword Dance Performed by a Disciple of Madam Gongsun

by Du Fu (712 – 770 AD)

Years ago there was a beautiful woman called Madam Gongsun.
When she performed the Sword Dance,
She would cause a sensation throughout China.
The audience seats would be elevated like mountains.
They were amazed by the flashes of reflected sword light accompanied by her agile movements.
Even heaven and earth moved in tuned with her rhythm.
The sword flashed like Yi’s arrows that shot down the nine suns.
She moved quickly and spiritedly like the dragon ridden by gods.
When her dance began, her movement was rapid and fierce like furious thunder shaking heaven and earth.
When her dance ended, her swords slowed down
Invoking thoughts of a mighty river or ocean regaining its shiny reflection.
Now her red lips and ornamental sleeves are gone.
After her death her disciple carries on her legacy.
In Bai-di City, the beautiful woman from Lin-ying City
Gracefully performed the Sword Dance in high spirits.
After I learned that she studied dance under the tutelage of Madam Gongsun,
The dance scene brought back my memory.
I lament that time ruthlessly replaces old with new.
Among eight thousand courtesans in the palace during Emperor Xuanzong’s reign
Madam Gongsun was the best at performing the Sword Dance.
Fifty years has passed away like the turn of a page.
The chaos resulting from rebellions seriously depleted the strength of the Tang dynasty.
The students in the Royal Music Institute scattered like dust.
All that remains of the Royal Music is a female dancer’s swords reflecting the cold sun.
Every tree in front of Emperor Xuanzong’s Mausoleum has grown so large
That it requires a person’s two arms to embrace it.
Ju-tang-shi-cheng City looks bleak and desolate as its grass withers.
As grand banquets and fast flute music ended,
Joy passed its zenith, grief took over, and the moon rose in the east.
I, an old man, am unaware of my destination.
My soles have become thickly callused
As I drift aimlessly on the bare mountain with a heavy heart.


Translation from this website:

After the Storm

*big sigh*

The whirlwind book tour is over! (Though I’m still appearing here and there.)

I feel like a great weight has been lifted and I get to put my writer hat back on. And I must say, it’s pretty darn nice to blog as MYSELF once again.

So I’ve been writing a new short story about a scholar and a musician in Changan; basically tackling the very well-worn and beloved trope of the scholar attempting the imperial exams. And though the length is going to end up between 10-15K, I’ve already purchased four new research books for it: a book on Chinese erotic poetry, a dissertation on the culture of sex in Ancient China, a book of translated short stories from the Tang Dynasty, and Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds. Okay, Bridge of Birds isn’t quite research, but my copy got hopelessly water damaged and lost in the move.

I asked myself, is it necessary to buy so many books for such a short story? Especially when I already have a decent reference library on Tang Dynasty culture, not to mention Google books and other references at my fingertips?

I’ve decided that it’s absolutely necessary!

I’m so unimaginative, I need research books to feed my brain. This is why I will never make any money writing. I have to consume so many orchids to distill them down into a concentrated vanilla extract.

BUT, I am collecting more interesting tidbits of trivia. For instance, the current book I’m reading, The Dragon King’s Daughter, is a collection of short stories. The foreword posits that the culture of the short story blossomed in the Tang Dynasty in large part to the exam culture. Students would often present essays and short writings to the official examiners ahead of time to gain favor. Poetry and writing were often given as gifts, even as payment occasionally. Talk about the value of the written word!

I was jumping up and down when I read that because I have my hero working on an essay that he needs to turn in as an assignment before he can take the exams. I didn’t know if this was true to the culture or not, but I figured, heck, academia can’t be ALL that different back then. Then sure enough, this historical tidbit ties in perfectly to my plot, pulling it even tighter.

And then there’s the whole cyclical pattern of things. The short story maturing as a form in the Tang Dynasty exam culture — and now I’m writing a short story featuring the exam culture. Doesn’t it all just feel right?


P.S. Editing this post to see if it will post onto Facebook…Wish me luck.