Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIV

This entry is part 41 of 49 in the series Blogging Pound's The Cantos

This post is one in a series of readings I’m posting of each poem in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, a few at a time. The readings are atypical, for reasons made clear in my first post in this series.

This post continues my work on the “Chinese” Cantos, covering Canto LIV.

Canto LIV… what to say about Canto LIV? I think I know now why so many people stop reading The Cantos around this point. I indeed found myself imagining what it might have been like if Pound had gotten his hands on the Mahabharata instead of the text he used for the China Cantos, and indeed wishing he had done so…

But Pound here is, as we all know, churning out a verse paraphrase of his source text, which was written by a Jesuit priest by the name of J.A.M. de Moyriac de Mailla, and titled Histoire Generale de la Chine. It was a 13 volume text published in Paris in the late 1700s.

We might be moved to thank Pound for doing the paraphrasing and condensing, except of course that the way he does it makes it perhaps harder work that just reading the original; but, more to the point, we likely wouldn’t read the original to begin with. Pound, would, though, and the intensity with which he focuses his attention leads us to wonder: why? What is it about the history (and mythologized prehistory) of China that makes him want to describe it in such detail? (After all, his treatment of European history is more varied.)

As always, Pound has an ulterior motive, one that emerges when you work at isolating the themes and archetypes he uses. And those themes are archetypes are–if you have the necessary resources to get most of his references–pretty easy to pick out: a lot more easy than with some of the earlier Cantos, where the ambiguities and subtleties of Western history and mythology are allowed some play. Pound’s China is rather like something out of a pulp fiction novel, or perhaps like one of the “terrible” Westerns (ie. cowboy movies) that Pound so adored watching.

I say that because, once you set aside the general backdrop, there are only a few basic character archetypes who appear and reappear in Canto LIV. There are the “good guys”:

  • The Just Ruler: An emperor usually in tune with the peasants, with nature, and with scholarly study, as well as martial necessity. Usually, the emperor has a rational and generous system of taxation (and sensible fiscal policies); an intelligently-established administrative system; a healthy respect for the ideas of Confucius; a proper awareness of (and respect for) the lessons of history; and a willingness to use force when necessary to defend the Empire. 
  • The Good Advisor: A wise, thoughtful, and often courageous individual who provides the emperor with good advice, even when it is potentially risky for himself. 
  • The Great Warrior: A few such figures appear, usually serving the emperor in holding off barbarians at the edges of the empire, though occasionally serving closer to home.
  • The Woman of Virtue: This figure, the rarest sort in Canto LIV, is a figure of intelligence, earnest virtue, and dedication. She helps the emperor to do good, and is often exemplary in her own achievements. 

Then there are the “bad guys”:

  • The Corrupt Royals: Emperors, princes, and empresses who are swayed by weakness, lust, obsession, laziness, or other human failings. These failings sometimes lead to their own destruction, and sometimes don’t… but they always seem to contribute to the weakening and collapse of their Dynasties. 
  • The Wicked Women: Time and again, a concubine, wife, or other woman appears in this poem as an agent of destruction. As I remarked in my discussion of Canto LIII, this calls to mind the characterization of Helen and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the earlier poems as “’Ελανδρος,  Ελεπτολις–the ‘man-destroying, city-destroying’–figure I mentioned in my discussion of Canto VII.” This seems quite familiar from the East Asian history I’ve read: when a ruler turns out to be weak or wicked, the blame is sometimes laid upon the ruler himself, but more often seems to be laid upon one of the women in his life.
  • The Wicked Advisors: Eunuchs, especially, play this role, which seems familiar to me… and no, not just from the TV series A Game of Thrones. I half-recall reading in several books on Chinese history, but especially Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son (about the Taiping Rebellion) that the eunuchs were often feared as having a lot of power in the royal court, and in fact had at times abused this power. (The Taiping court had women in it, in place of eunuchs, a radical change that I think was intended to avoid the powerful manipulations of eunuchs.)
  • The Religious Fanatics: The “budzers” and “taozers,” as Pound, rather acrimoniously, refers to the Buddhists and Taoists. Some commentaries I’ve read suggest that the origin of this acrimony is de Mailla himself–for after all, he was a Jesuit–but I think that’s erroneous. I half-remember a phrase–or rather, remember it whole, but may be misremembering it–from Simon Leys’ The Foresst is Burning, where he quotes Lu Xun as having stated that one who wished to understand China would need to comprehend why people accepted Taoists, but hate Buddhists. (He was suggesting, if I remember right, that both Taoists priests and Buddhist monks were corrupt in the ways that Pound (following Mailla) keeps suggesting, but that the roots of Chinese society were so deeply planted in the indigenous belief system of Taoism that the connection could not be teased apart… whereas Buddhism, being a foreign belief system, provoked rage when the corruptions of various monks saw light. In any case, in this text, Pound clearly privileges Confuciansts and Confucianism, so that Buddhists and Taoists are almost (not quite, but nearly) universally condemned as corruptive, destructive influences… and when a ruler happened to be celebrated and under the sway of these religious groups, Pound specifically avoids mentioning it.

There’s the cast of characters, and one look suggests they’re worthy of either a pulp novel, or a traditional opera: big, bold, exteme characters–each with either a white or black cowboy hat in full view of the audience. Seriously, this is some pulp magazine-level stylization.

So what’s the storyline? Well: it seems more than anything to be a mystery, with Pound casting himself as the detective. The mystery he’s solving is: why do civilizations rise and fall? Or, rather, historical paradigms, as embodied in civilizations. The backdrop of this poem embodies that question: dynasties are founded, flourish, and over time they collapse, are rehabilitated, suffer collapse under poor leadership, and crumble to dust, as a new dynasty is launched… to go through the same process. Part of this poem covers the Warring States period, where this kind of struggle is intensified, but the process is traced all the way down to the T’ang Dynasty.

In terms of answering Pound’s question, anyone who reads Jared Diamond today is likely to talk about resource usage, or to note that the reasons for the rise, flourishing, decline, and fall of civilizations are complex. But Pound’s answer to the question is clear from his cast of characters: when the people with the white hats are in charge–rulers with good respect for the rites, for fiscal commonsense, for scholarship, and a willingness to wage war when necessary (and to parley when expedient), as well as virtuous women, good advisors, and good military leaders aiding them–then dynasties flourish or, when already in decline, experience renaissances.

But when the folks with the black hats on get too much power, even a good ruler can fall into bad, destructive patterns of action. A corruptive influence among the advisors, or the women in an emperor’s life, or any kind of Buddhist or Taoist influence, is just bad news for an emperor.

And what this Canto does, essentially, is rehearse the pattern of rising and falling of dynasties, following that exact dynamic.

There are a couple of little narratives worth noting, such as:

  • Tian Dan’s Fire Cattle Columns: So you want to screw with your enemy, and ruin their camp. What can you do? Well, if you have a thousand bulls to spare–as one often does, right?–you tie daggers to their horns, and burning torches to their tails, and then drive them through the enemy camp. Fun times:

This is one of the most famous incendiary attacks in Chinese military history. The account is narrated in Ralph Sawyer’s “Fire and Water”, and gives a good idea of the drastic swings of fortune that could occur among the Warring States:

Decades earlier, in 333 BC, the eastern state of Qi had exploited Yan’s mourning to invade and seize some ten cities. Although they were eventually returned, the affront continued to rankle. However, two decades later civil war caused such disaffection among Yan’s populace that they refused to defend the state, allowing King Min of Qi to occupy it in 314 BC. Persuaded not to annex it, in 312 BC King Min supported the accession of King Zhao [of Yan], who immediately committed himself to the task of reviving his vanquished state. Assiduously cultivating hs Virtue in the prescribed fashion, he nurtured his people, sought out talented men, revitalised the military, and adroitly avoided conflict with other states. Finally, prompted by King Min’s arrogance and recent conquest of [the state of] Song, King Zhao embarked upon a campaign intended to punish Qi for its predatory behaviour.

Having recently defeated armies from Chu and the Three Jin [i.e. the states of Han, Wei and Zhao that had once constituted the larger state of Jin], attacked Qin, destroyed Song, and aided Zhao in extinguishing [the small state of] Zhongshan, Qi’s power and territory were unsurpassed. Yan therefore cobbled together an allied force consisting of the states of Han, Wei, Zhao, and Qin and invaded Qi in 285 BC with Yue Yi 乐毅 [a very famous statesman and general of the time] as commander in chief. The coalition was disbanded shortly after they severely defeated Qi’s forces west of the Ji River, though Yan’s armies continued to sweep through the countryside, seize the capital, subjugate several cities, and persuade others to voluntarily submit, all within six months. However, despite King Min having been slain, two Qi cities resolutely resisted demands to surrender and Yue Yi’s tempting promises of leniency.

Unwilling to needlessly incur heavy casualties, Yue Yi undertook a virtually interminable siege. However, detractors back in Yan assailed his failure to swiftly reduce the remaining cities and accused him of wanting to prolong his authority or even become King of Qi. Since King Zhao perspicaciously disbelieved these slanders, the siege continued for nearly five years. However, when King Zhao died in 279, Tian Dan 田单, who had been named [Qi] commander in chief at Jimo [one of the two besieged cities] by popular acclaim, exploited the new monarch’s flaws and inexperience to sow discord by employing double agents who successfully reiterated the same accusations, resulting in Yue’s replacement by Qi Jie.

Tian Dan then embarked on a multi-stage effort to simultaneously undermine the enemy’s will and rebuild the defenders’ spirit. First he created an “auspicious omen” by having food left out in the courtyards whenever the people offered sacrifice, thereby attracting flocks of birds, a phenomenon which puzzled Yan’s soldiers. Second, he imparted a transcendent veracity to his measures by pretending to receive spiritual instruction. Third, correctly anticipating it would make his troops resolute, he ruthlessly sacrificed the well-being of prisoners held in Yan’s camp by volubly worrying that Qi’s spirit would be adversely affected if their noses were cut off. Fourth, he had double agents bemoan the severe consternation they would suffer if the outer graves were exhumed, thereby tricking Yan into enraging the populace when they burned the corpses. Next, his family led in the fortification work, he personally feasted his officers, and he nurtured Yan’s overconfidence by concealing the able-bodied, visibly displaying only the weak and wounded. Finally, Tian Dan not only exploited the antique ruse of false surrender to induce laxiy, but further augmeted its effectiveness by bribing Yan’s generals.

As recorded in his Shiji biography, Tian Dan then implemented his famous unorthodox measures:

Tian Dan herded the thousand cattle within the city together and had them covered with red silken cloth decorated with five-coloured dragon veins. Naked blades were tied to their horns and reeds soaked in fat bound to their tails. They then chiseled dozens of holes in the walls and that night ignited the reeds, releasing the cattle through them. Five thousand stalwart soldiers followed in the rear. When their tails got hot, the cattle angrily raced into Yan’s army.

Being the middle of the night, Yan’ troops were astonished. The brightness from the burning torches on the cattle was dazzling. Everywhere Yan’s soldiers looked there were dragon veins [and they thought they were being attacked by dragons?], everyone the cattle collided with died or was wounded.

Accompanied by a great drumming and clamour from within the city, 5,000 men with gagged mouths [to ensure silence before the attack and thus preserve the element of surprise] exploited the confusion to suddenly attack. The old and weak made their bronze implements resound by striking them, the tumult moved Heaven and Earth. Terrified, Yan’s army fled in defeat. Thus, through psychological operations, unorthodox tactics, and a touch of fire, just 7,000 exhausted soldiers and another 10,000 inhabitants trapped in Jimo defied a siege force of perhaps 100,000. Thereafter, aided by uprisings in the occupied cities, Qi’s reinvigorated armies quickly drove Yan’s disorganised forces out beyond the borders, allowing Qi to reclaim its position, however weakened and tarnished, among the extant states.

  • The Burning of the Books and Burial of Scholars (焚書坑儒) was insane, though Pound speaks of it approvingly (justifying it as “because of fool litterati). According to Wikipedia:
    According to the Records of the Grand Historian, after Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, unified China in 221 BC, his chancellor Li Si suggested suppressing the intellectual discourse to unify all thoughts and political opinions. This was justified by accusations that the intelligentsia sang false praise and raised dissent through libel.

    Li Si proposed that all histories except those written by the Qin historians be burned so that they would not be available to the public; those in the imperial archives would be exempt. And he proposed, moreover, that the Classic of Poetry, the Classic of History, and works by scholars of different schools be handed in to the local authorities for burning; that anyone discussing these two particular books be executed; that those using ancient examples to satirize contemporary politics be put to death, along with their families; that authorities who failed to report cases that came to their attention were equally guilty; and that those who had not burned the listed books within 30 days of the decree were to be banished to the north as convicts working on building the Great Wall. The only books to be spared in the destruction were books on warmedicineagriculture and divination.

    This backfired, of course, when rebels burned the remaining copies of the destroyed books when they sacked the Qin Capital. It got worse when, after two self-described alchemists fooled the emperor, he decided to bury alive a bunch of scholars (between 400 and 1100 of them!)… including the eminent scholars of Confucius.

    The Qin Dynasty ended soon after, and it was blamed on this orgy of knowledge-destruction. Book-burners beware. (Little wonder that this cautionary tale would appeal to Pound.)

  • Han Sieun (Xuan of Han) was a great emperor. Like, totally awesome, dude. He was so great that even the Tartar barbarians respected him.
  • Buddhism, much as it is reviled, gets its brief moment in the poem, with this recounting of the myth of the virgin birth, Buddhist style:
          Et les indiens disent que Boudha
in the form of a white buck elephant
          slid into Queen Nana's bosom, she virgin,
and after nine months ingestion
               emerged out the dexter side
  • Ouen Ti (Wen of Liu Song) was even more awesome. He went so far as to give the “shave-heads, the hochangs” the boot. (“Hochang” is a typical Poundian corruption of “ho-shang,” a Chinese term for a Buddhist.) He also kicked ass on a corrupt judge named Yupingtchi (“Yü Ping-Chih”). He had an advisor Pound compares to Valturio, Sigismundo Malatesta’s military engineer, too, and dutifully he and his wife carried out the rites, and so on. Too bad his heir sucked. That was the end of the Liu Sung Dynasty.
  • Ou Ti of Leang (Emperor Wu of Liang, founder of the Liang), was pretty good at first, restoring Confucian study, schools, supporting the elderly, caring about the commoners, and so on. Then be became a Buddhist, and started sucking.
  • Taï Tsong (Emperor Taizong of Tang) must have been really, really awesome because Pound spends a couple of pages on his rule (from the middle of 285 to the middle of 287). Along with all the usual stuff done by white-hat emperor good guys, Taizong derided Buddhists, agreeing that “Kung is to China as water is to fishes,” and being eminently reasonable when it came to taxes and finances. His foreign policy was also excellent, with the exception of his desire to invade “Corea,” which failed over and over. Which, by the way, was exciting for me: Korea making any appearance in the Cantos was unexpected, and pleased me.


  • There were a few interesting cases of “foreigners” turning up in this poem: note just the constantly present Tartar barbarians, but also the emissaries from someplace called Koulihan (Ku-li-kan–maybe Xiongnu? someplace North of the Caspian) of “short nights / where there is always light over the horizon”) and “the red-heads of Kieï-kou / Blue-eyed and their head man was Atchen or Atkins Chélisa.” Terrell suggests these emissaries were Europeans, but of course, we know now that the Tocharians, ancient people living in Central and Eastern Asia–possibly long-ago migrants from the Near East–had a bunch of people with light (and often red) hair and light-colored eyes. So these were probably Central Asians visiting the Chinese court.
  • Té Tsong (Emperor Dezong of Tang), in Pound’s opinion, kind of didn’t get it. When he visited a peasant who complained of taxes and forced servitude, the emperor relieved the specific peasant who complained of this burden… but only that individual. Not that he seems to have been a bad guy, just kind of clueless in some ways.

Notably (and mercifully), the only Chinese character to appear in this poem is one we saw last time:

Beside the character, Pound recalls the line we saw it in:


… which, for those who cannot remember, means “new day, day new,” the phrase from Ch’êng T’ang’s “bath tub,” which Pound translates as one of his favorite phrases ever: “Make it new.”

Well, Pound is attempting to make Chinese history new, but the “new” story is quite pulpy, rather simplified, and altogether very much programmatic if you ask me. Norman Spinrad envisioned Hitler, in an alternate history, becoming an SF author, but I imagine Pound penning the scripts for comic books about history… for kids. Rather poorly-selling comics, I imagine, though maybe they’d get adapted by Disney into feature films in this alternate history’s present-day.

The question of how this relates to my fantastical, occult-powered Pound, though, is an interesting question. It intersects with a couple of concepts that are particularly of interest in SFnal circles.

One of them is the idea that motivates Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, at least the original trilogy (which, after all, draws upon the work of Edward Gibbon — which has notable parallels with de Mailla’s text, and is approximately contemporary to it in terms of publication dates as well): that there is an inevitable pattern of rise, flourish, decline, and fall in any civilization… and that individuals can work in groups to manage this inevitable pattern, to shorten the dark age between the fall of one civilization and the renaissance which gives rise of the next. Pound’s interest both in historical cycles of dynasties (and thus of civilizations), and in the technical practicalities of bringing about renaissances, suggests this would interest him greatly. What if the organization in which he was involved was dedicated to hacking or loopholing this dynamic in some way–rebooting the declining civilization of the West, or prolonging its survival at least?

Another possibility is that Pound is searching Chinese history for more great figures upon whom to impose his necromantic investigations. He must be desperate, for he has ceased performing poetical necromancy of the kind seen in so many of the early Cantos. Now, he is simply scanning history for figures he can call upon, figures he can hold up as exemplars.

But I am weary of writing about this Canto, and had said all that I believe I can. So: next time, I’ll hit Canto LV, which seems shorter, and perhaps will be a less onerous task! (Or maybe I’ll try tackle LV and LVI and kill two birds with one stone… leaving only thirty pages more of China Cantos to go–each of which is much shorter than the one I’ve discussed today!) We’ll see what I feel up for when the time comes.

Series Navigation<< Blogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LIIIBlogging Pound’s The Cantos: Canto LV (Plus, What Do Ezra Pound, Robert Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and Sun Ra Have In Common?) >>

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