Poem: ‘Powers and Names’

E.P. Thompson

(With apologies to Szuma Chien)

      You have the power to name:
      Naming gives power over all.
But who will name the power to name?
                Asked the oracle.


Like a silkworm on a mulberry leaf
The unmannerly earth
Gnawed at the edge of the sky and bit out mountains.

Gorged with matter it dropped by the edge of the ocean,
Cocooned in unconsciousness and grass,
An existence unknown to itself,
Waiting to be spun by nimble tongues into languages.

Let us conciliate the powers by giving them names.
Let us swallow the worm.
Let us tame the world by taking it into ourselves.


The dragons and the lions are furious.
They would like to eat us.
If we model their rage in clay
Will we drive terror away?

Naming the Gods

Ten suns flared in the sky.
They scorched the crops and hatched out of the clay
Fire-breathing demons. The great archer Yi
Chose from his pouch
Nine arrows flighted with a shaman’s charm
And slew one sun with each, and ever after we
Named Yi as deity.

But Heaven’s pillars cracked
And water gushed out of the broken arch,
Washing the corpses to the sea. So Nüwa raised
A paste of melted rocks
To patch the gashes in the sky, and from a giant turtle
She hewed its legs to prop Heaven back in place.
The goddess Nüwa be praised!

Then water must be educated
And led in levels to the fields. Yu the Great
Accomplished this in thirteen years of toil.
A winged dragon aided him
And once he changed himself into a bear
To scratch a passage through an obstinate hill.
We named Yu god of the soil

And Chi his son hereditary
Owner of all under Heaven, he and his family
In perpetuity. From that ancestral power
Sprouted the state:
Armies invented slavery: astronomy
Led the stars captive through the calendar:
Taxes invented the poor.

The Scholars

In scarcely a millennium
Spring diminished into autumn.
Was the world worse
In the time of incessant wars
Between the city states
Or were there benefits
For the autonomy of thought
In the competition of courts?

Congestion on the roads
As the scholars and their schools
Imagined luminous codes –
Ideologues and pedants,
An orator with an umbrella,
A sophist astride a mule,
A hermit in sandals of straw –
Pestered for audience,
Oppressed the courts of kings
And persecuted princes,
Urging them to restore
Obedience to Heaven’s law.

When Confucius was lecturing
Lord Ling, the Duke of Vei,
Enforcing Heaven’s rules
On the virtues of benevolence,
The Duke allowed his eyes
To leave his tutor and follow
Some wild geese in the sky.
At this indiscipline
Confucius took offence
And gathering up his school
Went off in a huff to Chen.

Says the Grand Historian:
It was a great mistake
To tutor power, for when
The law at last was learned
From legalist or mystic
By the Emperor of Chin
He ordered the imperial rule
Of benevolence to begin:
He buried the scholars alive
And the Book of Songs was burned.

O that Confucius
Had learned to keep his cool,
And had lingered to watch the geese
With the duke and his fool!

The First Emperor

In the 26th year of his reign the King of Chin
Assembled his counsellors.

In the desert of his nature little winds of boredom
Stirred eddies of dust. His throat was dry
And malice constricted his voice like that of a jackal.
Dust stirred in his slitted eyes. He said:
‘I have conquered six states. I have captured or killed their kings.
Whoever opposed me has been enslaved.
All between the four seas has fallen under my rule.
I have defined the laws, making known what is forbidden,
And discovering (to the surprise of some) 600 degrees of sin
Hitherto nameless and now made manifest to all.
I have closed up the gaps in the Great Wall and garrisoned it from end to end.
What is there left for me to be omnipotent in?’

The counsellors bowed and puffed their sleeves:
The first minister, the marshall, the grand censor,
The executioner and the eunuchs of the royal commission.
They said: ‘O thou ineffable Vocative!
Great Straightener, Almighty Regulator of All!
How couldst thou be more egregious than thou already art?
Thou hast brought letters level, made measures match,
And thou hast brought cash and morals into uniformity.
Men and women must now walk on different sides of the street,
Thanks to thy wisdom. Thou showest no favour no way.
Adulterers (if they are poor) may be boiled in cauldrons.
Officials abusing thy ordinances are always castrated.
Indeed, thy benevolence
Blesses the beasts in the fields, who press to the court,
Bleating to be thy meat. The water buffalo
Bellows thy name; the bees bring thee wax; the fish
Wish only to be thy dish; the rice crowds into the carts
And offers itself as tax ...’ Et cetera.

The King of Chin was gratified.
He ordered that their speeches be engraved upon stone
At the gateways to his 36 provinces.

Then he ascended a throne of alabaster
And, hiding his regal presence within veils,
Announced that Empire had commenced:

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