Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju (ca. 179-117 B.C.) was a leading Chinese poet of the Western Han period. He also explored and colonized lands that lay to the south west of imperial territory.
Born in western China, Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju served as an official at the court of the king of Liang, who enjoyed certain local rights of government subject to the overall authority of the central government. Later Ssu-ma served as the leader of two missions which were sent to make contacts with the unassimilated tribes of the southwest; and following his reasonably successful achievements there, he was brought to the attention of the Emperor's court at Ch'ang-an.
Of six long poems attributed to Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju, two are probably not authentic. In addition he composed a number of essays in prose, including one which concerned some of the religious observances of state. It is possible that by this contribution, together with other references in his poems, he helped to persuade the emperor, Han Wu-ti, to conduct the supreme ceremonies of Feng and Shan on Mt. Tai in 110 B.C.
In his poetry Ssu-ma developed the tradition of the South, which was associated with the old kingdom and culture of Ch'u. This type of poetry was distinct from the poetry of the North and was clearly traceable to beginnings made in the Ch'u tz'u, or Songs of Ch'u. In developing a form of poetry known as the fu, Ssu-ma made an important contribution to the growth of Chinese literature.
The fu was a type of rhymed or rhythmical prose, often introduced by a short narrative written in free prose. Unlike other forms of poetry, it was not intended for musical accompaniment but was devised for recitation at the court. Fu are usually long and are characterized by a richness of expression that sometimes appears to be excessively decorative.
In the case of Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju's work, this effect was achieved at a time when the Chinese written language was still developing and many units of vocabulary were being evolved. As a literary form, the fuwas didactic and descriptive rather than lyrical, romantic, or epic. Thus in the Shanglin fu, or fu on the Shanglin, which was an imperial pleasure and hunting ground, Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju describes the scenery and the palace buildings or pavilions before proceeding to the hunting scenes themselves; he then describes some of the spectacles that were presented for the amusement of the Emperor, such as dancing and musical performances.
In Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju's hands the fu was used to synthesize a number of literary elements that had previously been discrete. He wrote fu for the pleasure of the Emperor and called on fantasy and riddles in order to excite the attention of his audience. At the same time Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju was ready to allude to topical matters and events, partly as a means of reminding the Emperor and his officials where the path of duty led; he was more attracted to the Confucian than the Taoist attitude to life.
Further Reading on Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju
The definitive study of Ssu-ma Hsiang-ju is in French: Yves Hervouet, Un poète de cour sous les Han: Sseuma Siang-jou (1964). A study of his life and work is in Burton Watson, Early Chinese Literature (1962). See also his biography in Ssu-ma Ch'ien, Shih chi, translated by Burton Watson as Records of the Grand Historian of China (2 vols., 1961).