Fun with Yuan Dynasty Songs: Lamb on the Hill

Sui Han

PureInsight | October 31, 2005


"Lamb on the Hill" in the Tune of "Zhonglu"
By Xue Angfu

I travel east by water and west to Chang'an.
In pursuit of fame and a successful career as a government official, I have traveled all over China.
I am disgusted with traveling by boat and carriage. I long for the harp and books.
My sideburns have turned gray, but I am still unable to retire and spend the twilight of my life in melon paddies.
When my heart is content, I will be content with my fame.
In high places, there are hardships. In low places, there are hardships.

[中呂] 山坡羊


About Xue Angfu (薛昂夫)
Xue Angfu came from the Uigur tribe in Xinjiang Province. Because his Chinese surname was Ma, he was also known as Ma Angfu. He studied under the tutelage of Liu Chenweng, a literary man in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 A.D.) He created many Yuan Dynasty Songs with a contemporary of his named Sa Dula. Sixty-five of his songs have been preserved, totaling three suites of Yuan Dynasty Songs.

About the Song
Yuan Dynasty Songs (元曲) is a form of literature performed with musical tunes. It gained popularity during the Yuan Dynasty (1271 – 1368 A.D.) Each song must follow a specific format called "Song Format" (曲牌) and each format has a name. This poem is written for the music tune of "Lamb on the Hill."

Xue Angfu wrote this song before his retirement to express how he had been disgusted with his life as a government official but had been unable to escape from it. To travel east by water and west to Chang'an means to travel on his official capacities. Traveling by boat and carriage means traveling between northern and southern China because boat was the most common means of travel in the south whereas horses and carriages, the north. Melon paddies refer to Shaoping in the Han Dynasty, the location of melon paddies outside of the East Gate of Chang'an. It means to retire and lead an idyllic life.

The Author's Interpretation

Xue Angfu worked as a government official but in his heart he longed for an idyllic life. He had worked over 20 years as a government official before he wrote this song. He had failed to rise through the ranks, but he was unable to give it up altogether and retire. He felt bitter and exhausted by his pursuits. Although he knew very well that he was unhappy because of his greed for a more successful career and fame, he found it was easier said than done to give it all up.

It is easier to not pursue something you have never had, but it is comparably more difficult to sever things you already own! Once wrapped around by fame, you will become a slave of fame and your heart can never be free.

A contented man is a truly happy man. A discontented man is in misery because of his relentless pursuits. How can anyone not feel hardships while pursuing things arduously?

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