Tears and sincerity

A while back I was wondering why people in classical Chinese texts seemed to cry so much. Was being able to shed tears on demand something that people were supposed to be able to do? It turns out that Qian Zhongshu had already written about tears and their role in partings, which were an important ritual in elite society. Qian at least seem to support the idea of a gradual transition towards a more “”masculineist” view that tears are just for women. But really his piece is worth reading just for itself.


That is why people about to part clasp each other’s arms affectionately, and urge the other to take care after they separate. When we parted, your display of love was like that of Zou Wen and Ji Jie, so that your eyelashes were soaked with tears. Yet I merely clasped my hands in a gesture and turned away, ashamed to act like a woman.

—Wang Sengru (465-522),
Letter to He Jiong

The reference here to HeJiong’s weeping is reminiscent of several lines in “Rhapsody on Partings,” byJiang Yan (444-505): “He pushes aside the jade-fretted lute, tears wet the carriage bars,” “When it is time to let go hands, they choke back tears,” “They weep as they say good-bye,” “Kin and companion are bathed in tears.”1

In his essay “On Wailing as a Ritual” Yu Zhengxie (1775-1840) examines the ritual use of “crying facilitators” in ancient funerals, and he observes, “According to the ritual prescriptions, one did not necessarily have to shed tears when crying.”2 I would venture to add that crying was a propriety required not only at funerals. It was also required at partings among the living, although as such it may not have been as universally observed or as ancient as crying at funerals. Furthermore, if a person’s crying at a parting did not include the shedding of tears, he was likely to be faulted for violating propriety. On this point the standards seem to
have been even stricter than those for crying at funerals.

The expectation that one must cry at partings seems to have become widespread only in Jin times (265-420). The narrative of an event that took place shortly earlier is revealing in this regard:

Once when the king of Wei (Cao Cao, 155-220) set off on a campaign, his two sons, the crown prince and Zhi, the lord of Linzi, saw him off at the side of the road. Zhi proclaimed the virtue and merit of the mission with words that were elegant and decorous. Everyone fixed their eyes upon him, and the king himself was pleased with him. The crown prince, by contrast, had a sorrowful expression and seemed not to know what to do. Wu Zhi whispered in his ear, “The king is about to depart. It is permissible to shed tears.” When he said his farewell, the crown prince wept as he bowed. The king and his attendants sighed audibly, so moved were they by this display. Later, everyone said that the lord of Linzi’s speech was excessively florid, while the genuine affection in his heart was insufficient.3

From this we may infer that at the end of the Han dynasty it was not yet customary to cry at partings. That is why Wu Zhi’s clever ploy was effective and caused the crown prince to outshine his younger brother. The Old Tang Dynasty History says, “When Emperor Tai (r. 62,7-649) decided to lead an attack upon the Korean kingdom of Koguryo, he ordered the crown prince to stay behind and guard Dingzhou, Once a date had been set for the emperor’s departure from Dingzhou, the crown prince cried sorrowfully for several days.”4 Was this crown prince also heeding Wu Zhi’s advice of long before?

The failure to produce tears with one’s crying has been variously criticized, explained, or even excused. Forest of Sayings (fourth c.) records the following: “A man went to take leave of Master Xie. Xie shed tears but the other man showed no sign of emotion. Once he left, the attendants said, ‘That guest only showed
gloomy clouds.'” Xie commented, ‘It was even less than “gloomy clouds.” It was “dry thunder.”‘ “5 “Gloomy clouds” is like what is recorded about Empress Lu in Records of the Grand Historian and The Han Dynasty History: “The empress cried but did not weep.”6 Yan Shigu explains in his commentary that “weep” means to produce tears.7 “Dry thunder” is like one of the “three kinds of crying” described in Chapter 25 of The Water Margin’. “To make noise without producing tears is called ‘howling’… ‘dry howling'” and what Monkey says in Chapter 39 of Journey to the West: “There are several types of crying. If the  mouth makes noise but the eyes remain dry, that is called ‘howling.'”8

Family Instructions of the Yan Clan (sixth c.) says:

Separations occur frequently, whereas reunions are difficult to bring about. That is why the ancients assigned great importance to partings. At farewell banquets in the South, one weeps when speaking of the imminent departure. There was, for example, the case of a prince who was the younger cousin of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. When the prince was leaving to take charge of Dong Prefecture, he bid farewell to the emperor. The emperor … wept tears that covered his face, but the prince only showed “gloomy clouds”
and then left, blushing with embarrassment. For this reason he was punished (by winds that would not let his boat depart).. .. Northern customs, by contrast, pay no regard to this convention. Standing at a crossroads, friends say good-bye with a merry laugh.

There are, however, also people who, by nature, are not given to shedding tears. Their heart may be breaking but their eyes remain perfectly clear. This type of person should not be blamed for failing to weep at a departure.9

A person who sheds no tears though the heart is afflicted is said to have “a soft heart and stiff eyes.” This is the terminology used in Zhu Shuzhen’s (fl..1095-1131) couplet, “Although a woman’s eyes are said to be soft, / Tears do not flow forth for no reason” and in the anonymous early Ming song, “I’ve always had stiff eyes, / Which don’t show sadness before lovely scenery.”10 Classified Sayings (1136) quotes an account of Liu Xiaochuo’s farewell to Wang Yuanjing, when Yuanjing was departing on an official mission: “Xiaochuo wept, but Yuanjing had no tears. He apologized for this, saying, ‘Please don’t hold it against me. After we separate, tears will stream down my face.'”11 He means that although at the moment he has no tears, later he is bound to weep, fulfilling the required response. When Wang Seng-u parted from He Jiong, as we have seen earlier, Jiong wept but Sengru had “stiff eyes” and thus was in violation of the Southern custom. Moreover, unlike Wang Yuanjing, Sengru neglected even to excuse himself by promising to cry subsequently. That is why he subsequently sought to justify his conduct in a letter.

Despite the social convention of crying at partings described above, there was also a tradition of viewing tears shed by men as being “womanly” or even disingenuous. Wang Sengru’s letter says, as we have seen, “your display of love was like that of Zou Wen and Ji Jie…. Yet I merely clasped my hands in a gesture and
turned away, ashamed to act like a woman.” The allusion is to The Kong Family Masters (third c. B.C.):12

Zigao traveled to Zhao, where among the retainers of the Lord of Pingyuan there were Zou Wen and Ji Jie, who befriended Zigao. When it was time for Zigao to return to Lu,… as he took his leave. Wen and Jie had tears all over their cheeks, but Zigao merely clasped his hands in a gesture…. Later, Zigao said, “At first I thought that these two were true men of stature. Today I see that they are just women.” … His attendant asked, “Is there no good to be found in weeping?” Zigao replied, “Weeping has two uses. Men of great treachery use it to persuade others of their sincerity. Women and cowards use it to make a show of their

Similarly, A New Account of Tales of the World says, “When Zhou Shuzhi was appointed prefect of Jingling, his older brothers, Zhou Hou and Zhongzhi, went tobid him farewell. Zhou Shuzhi cried and wept without stopping. Zhongzhi said indisgust, ‘This man acts for all the world like a woman. When he parts from some-body, he does nothing but yammer and blubber.’ Whereupon he removed himselfand left.”14 Zhou Shuzhi knew that weeping was a propriety required at partings,but he did not realize that the same propriety, carried to extremes, could provokedisgust and enmity rather than affection. (Luo Yin’s [833-909] poem, “Tears,” says,”Ever since the realm of Lu disappeared / It has either been treacherous men orwomen [who shed tears]” clearly also drawing upon The Kong Family Masters pas-sage.15 Li Yu’s [937-978] farewell to his younger brother, the prince ofDeng, says”Sorrowful tears and sweet words are the habitual manner of women and girls, I willhave none of it.”16 The use of such language in a farewell composition is likewise a veiled allusion to The Kong Family Masters.)

Crying and weeping were frequently used as a shortcut up the mountain of officialdom, which is one reason they were so often viewed with suspicion. The earliest record of this occurs in the biography of Wang Mang in The Han Dynasty History. In the autumn of the fourth year of the Dihuang period (A.D. 23), Mang
led his assembled ministers to the southern suburb to lift their eyes toward Heaven and cry aloud in an effort to suppress the national calamity. “Students and commoners gathered in the morning and cried out until the evening…. Those who showed extreme grief and those who could recite his Announcement to Heaven from memory were promoted as court attendants. Over five thousand men earned appointment this way.”17 The Old Tan^Dynasty History says, “Erudite Wei Chifen requested that Li Jifu be given the posthumous epithet ‘Respectful of Regulations.’ Zhang Zhongfang objected and criticized Jifu’s character, saying, ‘Fawning tears hung upon his eyelids and flowed our at every convenience. Clever words served him like the reed mouthpiece of a musical instrument, which sings out soothingly whenever blown upon.'”18

Chen Jiru (1558-1639) comments, “Whenever I read this, I smile, thinking it should be posted on-the walls of pleasure quarters everywhere as a warning.”19 He is equating “treacherous men” with “women,” saying that their behavior in this respect is interchangeable: the treacherous man’s tears are like those of the courtesan, and the courtesan’s tears are themselves a form of treachery. Yuan Mei’s Remarks on Poetry quotes lines thatJiang Sunfu addressed to a courtesan, “I ask that you not wipe away those lovesick tears, / Save them to send off another man tomorrow morning.”20 This shows the reality of “crying at the time of parting” in the pleasure quarters!

The association of tears with opportunistic men who are anxious to display their “loyalty,” and likened to insincere women eager to prove their “love,” continues in later periods. Shen Defu (1578-1612) observes:

Shamelessness among men of learning has never been more pronounced than during the Chenghua period (1465-1487). Since the Jiajing period (1522.-1566), it has manifested itself again. Wang Hong knocked his head on the floor and wept as he pleaded with Grand Secretary Zhang Fujing; Zhao Wenhua bowed a hundred times as he wept and beseeched Grand Secretary Yan Song; and Chen Sanmo knelt and wept on and on before Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng, Each of these men regained favor and salary because of a few streaks of glistening tears. The ancients said, “Women sell love by weeping, and vile men peddle treacherous schemes by weeping.” It is really so!

(The reference here to “the ancients” is also to the passage in The Kong Family Masters.) Wang Shizhen (1634-1711) says:

When Dong Na was leaving his post as censor to become governor-general of Zhejiang and jiangxi, one of his former colleagues in the Censorate went to say farewell and, sitting down close beside him, burst out crying and would not stop. Dong was very moved by this display and everyone present considered it most extraordinary. When he was done, the man went directly to visit Yu Guozhu, the minister from Daye, and as soon as he entered the room and bowed, he burst out laughing. Startled, Yu Guozhu asked him why he
laughed. The man replied, “Dong is gone. The nail has been extracted from my eye!

This may serve as a gloss upon Chen Jiru’s remark about the warning that should.
be posted on the walls of pleasure quarters.

In fact, the usefulness of “selling tears” is no less than that of the courtesan’s ploy of “selling smiles.” Moreover, the sheer volume of the “bribes by tears” and “proprieties of tears” that have been offered by men through the ages may exceed that of the “three pools of tears” mentioned by Tang Chuanying (1620-1644) as well as the celebrated “debt of tears” that must be repaid by Lin Daiyu in Tbe Story of the Stone.24 (As for the latter, it may be noted that such notions as the “repayment of tears” and the “owing of tears” mentioned in Chapters 1 and 5 of the novel may be traced to Meng Jiao’s [751-814] lines, “You owe me ten years of love/I must have a debt to you of a thousand streams of tears,” in a poem lamenting the death of his son, and Liu Yong’s [mid eleventh c.] lines, “You have tied my heart to you for a lifetime /1 must owe you a thousand streams of tears.” These are the first occurrences in literary works of the idea of a debt of tears.)23

Notes (not copyedited)

SOURCE: Guanzhui Uan 4:1435-38; cf. the addendum, ibid., 5:251-252.
EPIGRAPH; Wang Sengru, “Yu HeJiong shu,” Qyan Liang wen 5l.4a.

1. Jiang Yan, “Hen fu,” Wen xuan i6.27b, 28a, 28b, and 2gb; trans. Burton Watson,
Chinese Rhyme Prose, pp. 97-99, modified.

2. Yu Zhengxie, “Ku wei liyi shuo,” Gwisi leigao 13.504-505. Qian’s quotation is actu-
ally a paraphrase.

3. Pei Songzhi’s commentary on Sanyo zbi 21.609, quoting Shi yu.

4. JIM Tangs(iM4A.65-66.

5. Yiwen leiju 29.512.

6. Shi ji9.388andHansfow97A.3938.

7. Yan Shigu commentary on Han sbtt 97A.3939.

8. Shi Nai’an, Shuihu quanzfcuan 25,400; and Wu Cheng’en, Xiyouji 39.535.

9. Yan Zhitui, Yanshi jiaxun jijie 6,91; cf, trans. by Ssu-yii Teng, family Instructions for
the Yen Clan, p. 31.

^  10. Zhu Shuzhen, “Qiuri shuhuai,” Zhu Shuzhen ji 6.103; and “Xiaoyao Ie,” quoted in Li
Kaixian, Ci nue, p. 938.

11. Zeng Zao, Lei shuo 53.2a.

12. Qian notes parenthetically that the quotation of Wang Sengru’s letter in Yiwen leiju

26.481 erroneously gives “Guo Li” for “Zou andJi” (my “Zou Wen andJiJie”), an error he
attributes to a copyist who did not recognize the KongFamily Masters.

13. Kongcongzi, “Rufu,” 8.13.86-87.

14. Liu Yiqing, Shishuo xinyu, “Fangzheng,” 5.26.308 (following Liu’s text); trans. Rich-
ard B. Mather, A New Account of Tales of tile World, p. 164, modified.

15. Lo Yin, “Lei,” Qyan Tangshi 658.7561.

16. Li Yu (Houzhu), “Song Deng wang ershiliu di mu Xuancheng xu,” Qyan Tang wen

17. Han shu 990.4188.

18. Jro Tangshu 171.4443.

19. ChenJiru, Taiping qinghua 2.5b.

20. Jiang Sunfu, “Zeng zhi,” quoted in Yuan Mei, Suiyuan shihua 1.22.

21. Reading “Chenghua” instead of “Chengzheng” (in both Shen’s text and Qian’s
quotation), which must be a mistake. Cf. a similar reference to the Chenghua period earlier
in Shen’s work: Shen Defu, Wanliyehuo bian 21.541.

22. Shen Defu, ibid., 21.549. Qian abbreviates and paraphrases the original,

23. Wang Shizhen, Gufuyu ting zaiu 1.11, following Wang’s text.

24. For Tang Chuanying, see Xianyu bihua, p. 3a-b. For Lin Daiyu, see the citations to
Honglou meng below.

25. MengJiao, “Diao youzi,” Qyan Tang shi 381.4273; and Liu Yong, “Yi dying,” Qyan
Song ci 1:49. Cf. Cao Xueqin, Honglou meng 1.5 and 5.78.

Tears and sincerity


  1. I suggest that crying upon parting among Chinese is not a thing of the past. Just in my experience weeping tears is not uncommon upon meeting after a period of time and upon departing. This is heartfelt, not a show. Never has it brought shame or the suggestion that it is unmanly. Rather, exhortations to cease crying are of concern, along the lines of 别 着 急。Tears in Chinese medicine are related to the heart or 心。 In fact, tears are regarded as a fluid of the heart and direct expression that one is of a moral and compassionate nature 心 地 善 良。

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