Monday, May 7, 2012

Mother Xu embodies "virtu"

In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the two exemplars of xian (the neo-Confucian equivalent of Machiavelli's virtu) is a woman, Mother Xu.  She was the mother of the first consiglieri to Liu Bei, the Loyalist Lord of one of the Three Kingdoms.  Her son is tricked into visiting her as she was held hostage by Cao Cao, the Usurper Lord of another of the Three Kingdoms.  Once there, he would not be free to serve the Loyalist cause again.  His mother excoriates him thoroughly for this stupid mistake and then steps into the room next door to underline her lesson by committing suicide. 
The text continues to extol her xian, quoting a poem in her honor.  To reflect the changing times and tastes/styles, three translations are presented here:

Wise Mother Xun, fair is your fame,
The storied page glows with your name,
From duty's path you never strayed,
The family's renown you made.
To train your son no pains you spared,
For your own body nothing cared.
You stand sublime, from us apart,
Through simple purity of heart.
Brave Liu Bei's virtues you extolled,
You blamed Cao Cao, the basely bold.
Of blazing fire you felt no fear,
You blenched not when the sword came near,
But dreaded lest a willful son
Should dim the fame his fathers won.
Yes, Mother Xun was of one mold
With famous heroes of old,
Who never shrank from injury,
And even were content to die.
Fair meed of praise, while still alive,
Was yours, and ever will survive.
Hail! Mother Xun, your memory,
While time rolls on, shall never.
(C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, 1935).

Mother Xu’s integrity
Will savor for eternity.
She kept her honor free from stain,
A credit to her family’s name.
A model lesson for her son,
No grief or hardship would she shun.
An aura like a sacred hill,
Allegiance sprung from depth of will.
For Xuande, words of approbation.
For Cao Cao, utter condemnation.
Boiling oil or scalding water,
Knife or axe could not deter her.
Then, lest Shan Fu shame his forebears,
She joins the ranks of martyred mothers.
In life, her proper designation;
In death, her proper destination.
Mother’s Xu’s integrity
Will savor for eternity.
From, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, translated by Moss Roberts, Peking, Foreign Languages Press, 1995.) 

     Formidable Mother Xu honors a thousand ancestors!
Implacable in her principles, she thus nurtures her family.
She instructs her children to stay true despite hardship,
To keep their spirit unshakeable as the hills and mountains,
With righteousness from the bottom of their hearts.
She cherishes Liu Bei, despises Cao Cao.
She is not intimidated by religious trappings; 
She disdains the executioner’s axe.
She fears only that her offspring might disgrace their ancestors.
She would rather die than witness such degradation--
She would rather break her loom and endure the indignities of war!
Born to this honorable name, she would lay down her life for it.
Formidable Mother Xu honors a thousand ancestors!
From The Battle at Chibi, translated and retold by Hock G. Tjoa.  2009.

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