The following includes spoilers for Memories of a Graceful Reflection up to Chapter 5 as well as some of my thoughts on how these early chapters set the course for the narrative. For more information on the story and to read my translations, click here.
In Memories, heroine Murong Qing lives in a classic, patriarchal society where a woman’s power of choice, her livelihood, and even her existence belongs to her keeper, whether that be her father or her husband. The only thing that’s truly her own is her private thoughts and keen sense of observation. But because the story is told from the Murong Qing’s first-person perspective, our information is limited to what she knows.
Instead, author Feng Ning Xue Wu uses literary references and vivid metaphors to provide hints about the story and characters. I’ve already shared some information about the significance of the novel’s title here. This time, I’ll be discussing the names of Murong Qing and Nan Cheng Yao’s places of residence within the wang fu and their significance.
Gui Mo and Qing Tian
If you’re familiar with ancient Chinese culture or historical novels, you’ll know that in wealthy households, it was not uncommon for a husband live separate from his wives. He had his own residence and study for daily activities and visit compounds in the inner courtyard (內院 // nei yuan) if and when chooses to be served by a wife or concubine.
In Chapter 5, we are offered major two clues about Murong Qing and Nan Cheng Yao in the form of the names of their individual residences in the Third Wang fu. Third Prince Nan Cheng Yao’s courtyard is Qing Tian (傾天) House. It means “overturning the world” or “overturning the skies,” which is self-explanatory.
Murong Qing’s courtyard is called Gui Mo (歸墨) Pavilion. Its meaning, “return to mo,” is less readily obvious unless you have some degree of knowledge of philosophical theory or history. I myself had no clue what it meant and ended having to do some research. How much of the below is actually part of authorial intent is, of course, up in the air.
The term “gui mo” seems to derive from a text called Ten Wen Gong (滕文公) by Meng Zi (孟子 // Mencius), whom readers may know was a Confucian philosopher who lived during the Warring States period (戰國, 476-221 BC). The Warring States, which followed the Spring and Autumn period (春秋, 771-476 BCE), is exactly as it sounds; a centuries-long period of time in ancient China characterized by warfare and political unrest between several large nations vying for supremacy.
While the Spring and Autumn period also saw wars, the perishing of small states, and battles of conquest, it also gave birth to Confucianism (along with other famous schools of thought such as those of Zhuang Zi, Lao Zi, and Sun Zi). It was a time in which many states experimented with styles of governance by engaging in theoretical discourse; access to education also became more widespread. During Spring and Autumn, battles and wars still followed general rules of chivalry and honor.1
When the Warring States came along, compulsory enlistment and huge advancements in weaponry changed the state of warfare. Though the philosophies from the previous era became the foundation for many states during this time, concepts like glory through honor became secondary to desires of consolidating power by conquest. It was all very Machiavellian, and the many small states of the Spring and Autumn period eventually melded into a handful of winners. This was consequential for common folk because property and crops would get destroyed and young boys were expected to fight for their state. In the Qin State, some twenty or so military ranks were introduced to encourage valor: “Cutting off a single enemy head entitled the soldier to move up the ranking ladder and acquire around 5 acres of land.”2
So…such was the state of affairs when Meng Zi was alive. Yet, he still followed Confucian ideals and believed in basic human goodness. He thought, instead of waging war against other states, a good ruler should wage wars against poverty for the common populace. In the end, his efforts were in vain and he eventually left the public sphere,3 but his views on morality and politics has lived on. He’s now considered an important sage of Confucianism, second to only Confucius himself.
Ironically, Confucianism’s persisting influence is also a large part of why many East Asian societies remain stubbornly patriarchal and traditional. But I digress…
If Not Yang, Then Mo
The book, Mencius, is a collection of philosophical anecdotes, conversations, and debates that Meng Zi engaged in during his travels. Teng Wen Gong, Book 3 of Mencius, touches on two predominant schools during the Warring States. Called Yang (Yangism, from the doctrines of Yang Zhu) and Mo (Mohism, from the doctrines of Mo Di during Spring and Autum) these philosophies existed in direct opposition of one another:
“Yang advocates each one for himself which amounts to a denial of one’s sovereign; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one’s father. But to ignore one’s father on the one hand, and one’s sovereign on the other, is to be no different from the beasts.” —Mencius, Book 3: Teng Wen Gong4
In short, Yang is focused on individualism and ethical egoism while Mo emphasizes equality, merit, and compassion. Mo Zi5 is best known for the concept of “impartial care.” Honestly, the dichotomy between Yang and Mo is basically a comparative essay screaming to be written. It’s not difficult to see how these two schools were able to rise in prominence, especially given the societal changes during the Warring States.
Of course, this is a huge simplification of their philosophies. I would recommend that anyone who’s interested do some of their own research as well.
In Teng Wen Gong, Mencius is actually criticizing both Yang and Mo, each for being extreme and dangerous in its own way. Of course, my focus here will be on Mo. Mo Zi thought that selfishness was the source of all evil; choosing universal love over the pursuit of power was the solution for peace. However, Mencius saw his concept of embracing universal love without regard to social status as subversive.6
The line where “gui mo” actually shows up in the text is as follows:
tiān xià zhī yán, bù guī yáng, zé guī mò
It means something like: “With the current teachings of the world, if one doesn’t return to Yang, then they will return to Mo.”
On its own, the line doesn’t seem very significant. It merely implies that these two schools are so prominent that if a person doesn’t belong to one, then they probably belong to the other. I think the deeper significance of “gui mo” in respect to Memories of a Graceful Reflection is likely in the philosophy of Mo Di.
The Burdens of Love (or Power)
What happens when one person desires love but the other desires the entire world?
As of today, I’ve posted up to Chapter 5 of Memories of a Graceful Reflection. In this short amount of time, Feng Ning Xue Wu has laid out some basic information regarding Murong Qing and Nan Cheng Yao. While we can infer some things about them, important things like motivation and loyalties remain unclear.
Still, there’s much that can be inferred from “gui mo” and “qing tian.” Mo Zi placed emphasis on compassion, virtue, and non-aggression.7 But Mencius believed that this focus in love for all meant that as long as something benefits mankind, Mo Zi would pursue it, even if it meant sacrificing his own head or feet (Mencius, Book 7: Jin Xin). It’s simply too prone to fallacy. Even though Murong Qing keeps her feelings from everyone, even the readers that she narrates to, it’s clear that she is fundamentally someone who uses her heart to make choices. The most obvious example is her decision to give up her freedom and marry Nan Cheng Yao for the sake of her family. How much this type of decision-making by means of pursuing love over the self will affect Murong Qing is something that remains to be seen.
Nan Cheng Yao’s “qing tian” is much easier to dissect, painting him as someone who desires the world. Aided by his absence in the early chapters, this tidbit adds to the shroud of mystery surrounding him. The seal he’s placed on his personal affairs is near air-tight, so Murong Qing can only rely on hearsay to form an opinion on her new husband. Only characters with a keen eye will be able to work past the glittering facade and recognize him for who his is. All signs point to Murong Qing being that person.
At the same time, keep in mind that the “reflection” in the title comes from a poem about a false reflection of a beauty in rippling water, which is mutable and capable of showing a constantly changing image. We’ll find out soon enough if Murong Qing is capable of wading through all those deceptive appearances to find love amidst all the chaos.
If you made it all the way through this blog, thank you for humoring me and I hope you enjoyed this little piece. For those interested in reading the novel, the link below goes to the chapter index. 🙂
Some Further Reading:
- Mo Zi on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Why is the Spring and Autumn Period Called Spring and Autumn? on Quora
- Difference Between Spring & Autumn Period and Warring States Period on Quora
- Mencius — Great Philosopher of Confucianism and His Benevolent Ideas on China Fletching
- Source: China Fetching.
- Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.
- Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia.
- Translation Source: Siris, Chinese Text Project.
- Zi (子) is a suffix often used as part of the honorific name of venerated scholars in ancient times. Examples include Kong Zi or Kong Fu Zi (Confucius), Meng Zi (Mencius), and Lao Zi (Lao Tzu).
- Source: Ancient History Encyclopedia. (1) (2)
- Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.