To appreciate the beauty of the theories in mathematics or physics requires
time, a strong background, and a good teacher. These theories are subject to
change. In contrast, the appreciation of literary beauty is instant and
instinctive. The beauty is timeless. If one compares great writing with other
examples expressing the same idea, almost any educated person can point out that
the first choice is the best. It seems that there is a common denominator in
describing one's idea beautifully
despite the variety of languages. It is God's
blessing to see beauty reveal itself. I hate that human achievements in art are
wasted simply because of language obstacles. Thus I translate these Chinese
essays to show how the critical thinking and the positive attitude of various
Chinese writers enrich human existence.
Dong-po Su commented on Yu Han's writing: "Chinese literature had been lifeless
for eight generations until Han published his essays. Han proposed that an essay
must have a virtuous theme. His effort in promoting virtue saved China from
drowning in pessimism."
In the rest of this preface, I simply write a few helpful notes.
1. The essays in these Anthology were originally written in concise ancient
Chinese. Many versions have been translated into modern Chinese. I do not
completely agree with their interpretations because literal translation may blur
the essential meaning of a statement.
2. The authors in this Anthology are great writers. Chinese literature can not
be separated from philosophy, so they are great philosophers as well. In olden
times, the Chinese government offered people jobs based on their test scores.
The exam topics came from six Bibles; the test was graded according to writing
skills. The exam had four levels. The basic-level exam was held annually in
local cities. Once one passed the basic-level exam, one became a "xiu-chai", a title equivalent to the bachelor's degree. A xiu-chai
might get a job like a village official. One was entitled to take the
middle-level exam only after passing the basic-level exam. The middle-level exam
was held annually in state capitals. Once one passed the middle-level exam, one
became a "ju-ren", a title equivalent to the master's degree. A ju-ren might get
a job like a city official. One was entitled to take the advanced-level exam
only after passing the middle-level exam. The advanced-level exam was held
annually in the national capital. Once one passed the advanced-level exam, one
became a "jin-shi", a title equivalent to the doctor's degree. A jin-shi might get a job like a state official. One was entitled to take the exam for admission to the Royal [Hanlin] Academy only after passing the advanced-level exam. This exam was held annually in the palace. Once one passed the palace exam, one became a member of the Hanlin
Academy. The first place in the palace exam was called "zhuang-yuan"; the second place was called
"Bang-yan" (the eye of the list); the third place was called "tan-hua" (Gazing at flowers). They were candidates to be the husbands of princesses. If one passed an exam, on the one hand, the government promised one significant income; on the other hand, it was widely regarded as a great honor for one's academic achievement.
3. Summary of Chinese Dynasties.
The Five Rulers 2600-2070
The Xia dynasty 2070-1600
The Shang dynasty 1600-1046
The Zhou dynasty 1046-256
The Western Zhou dynasty 1046-711
The Eastern Zhou dynasty 770-256
The Spring and Fall Period 779-403
The Warring States Period 403-221
The Qin dynasty 221-206
The Han dynasty
206 BCE-220 CE
The Western Han dynasty 206 BCE-8
The Xin dynasty 9-23
The Eastern Han dynasty 25-220
The Three Kingdoms 220-280
The Wei dynasty 220-265
The Shu Han dynasty 221-263
The Wu dynasty 222-280
The Jin dynasty 265-420
The Western Jin dynasty 265-316
The Eastern Jin dynasty 317-420
Northern and Southern Dynasties 420-589
The Song dynasty 420-479
The Qi dynasty 479-502
The Liang dynasty 502-557
The Chen dynasty 557-589
The Northern Wei dynasty 386-534
The Eastern Wei dynasty 534-550
The Northern Qi dynasty 550-577
The Western Wei dynasty 535-556
The Northern Zhou dynasty 557-581
The Sui dynasty 581-618
The Tang dynasty 618-907
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 907-979
Five dynasties 907-960
The Posterior Liang dynasty 907-923
The Posterior Tang dynasty 923-936
The Posterior Jin dynasty 936-946
The Posterior Han dynasty 947-950
The Posterior Zhou dynasty 951-960
The Ten Kingdoms 902-979
The Song dynasty 960-1279
The Northern Song dynasty 960-1127
The Southern Song dynasty 1127-1279
The Liao dynasty 907-1215
The Western Xia dynasty 1038-1227
The Jin dynasty 1115-1234
The Yuan dynasty 1279-1368
The Ming dynasty 1368-1644
The Qing dynasty 1644-1911
Manhattan, Kansas, July, 2001 Li-Chung Wang
The Letter to Shao-qing Ren 1
Si-ma, Qian 2 (145-86 BCE)
I received your kind letter. It taught me to make friends with caution and to
promote the worthy and able 3.
…My reputation was destroyed when I was given the
sentence of castration 4. It seems that I will be blamed for whatever
I do and will make the matter worse whenever I try to help. Therefore, I keep my
sorrow inside. To whom may I speak? There is a saying, "With whom shall I work?
Who will listen to me?" It is like the story of Ya Bo. Ya Bo loved to play the
zither to Zi-qi Zhong because Zi-qi understood what Ya Bo was playing
After Zi-qi Zhong died, Ya Bo no longer played the zither. Why? He did this
because a man works harder when someone appreciates his talents and a woman
beautifies her face only because someone loves her. I am handicapped. Even if my
talent is as brilliant as He Bian's Jade or the pearl of the King of Sui, and
I behave like You Xu or Bo-yi 6, I will not be honored. On the
contrary, it will only remind people of my shame and give them the opportunity
to insult me. I should have replied to your letter earlier. However, when your
letter arrived, I was returning to the capital from a trip in which I
accompanied the emperor to the east. Also because of trivial matters, I did not
have a chance to see you or write you. Now you wonder whether or not you may
live through the end of the winter because the emperor considered you a traitor
and ordered you to be executed. The execution will take place within a month.
Soon I will accompany the emperor to Yong City 7. I am worried that
you may die before I get the chance to explain to you why I could not appeal to
the emperor for your release 8. Then your spirit would be left with
endless hatred toward me. Therefore, I would like to give you my humble opinion.
Please forgive me for not replying to your letter sooner.
I have heard that the performance of good deeds is like a wise man's
signature; loving to give alms is the origin of benevolence; giving or taking
properly is an expression of virtue; suffering shame tests one's courage; and
establishing a good reputation requires a lifetime of devotion. If a man is
wise, kind, virtuous, brave, and has achieved many accomplishments, then he will
establish a foothold in his society and will be respected as a gentleman. Thus,
no attribute is more disastrous than greed. No pain is more bitter than that of
a broken heart. No deed is more scandalous than committing a crime that would
insult one's ancestors. One's worst shame is being given the sentence of
castration. Everyone despises a castrated man. It is true not only now, but has
been true since ancient times. After Confucius saw King Ling-gong of the State
of Wei and Eunuch Yong-qu ride the same carriage, Confucius was angry and left
for the State of Cheng. Liang Zhao was bitterly disappointed that Yang Shang
9 relied on Eunuch Jing-jian's recommendation in order to win the
office of prime minister. Si Yuan was furious when he saw Eunuch Tan Zhao
accompany Emperor Wen-di of the Han dynasty in a carriage. Everyone has despised
castrated men since ancient times. Any mediocre person who befriends a eunuch
will be considered a failure, not to mention a fervent and talented man.
Although the emperor's court lacks talented officials, it does not need a
castrated man like me to recommend people who have extraordinary courage and
ability. By inheriting my father's position as the Official Historian, I have
worked in the capital for more than twenty years. Let me consider my abilities.
In relation to the emperor, I cannot win his trust because I lack talent and
fail to give him good advice. Next, I fail to recruit talented hermits by
enticing them to leave their caves 10. Regarding foreign invasions, I
cannot kill the enemy's generals, fell their flags, or even lead troops to fight
in a battlefield. On behalf of my relatives and friends, I fail to acquire power
and wealth by which they may feel proud of me. Thus, I have failed in the
aspects of ideals, achievements, military affairs, wealth and power. This shows
that I can only curry favors from others to drag out an ignoble existence. I
used to discuss state affairs with other officials. In retrospect, I should have
expressed all my opinions based on political principles before my body was
damaged. Now people consider me the same as the base cleaning slaves. If a slave
holds his head high and makes judgments on state affairs, does he not disrespect
the emperor's court and embarrass the contemporary scholars? Alas! What else can
I say? What else can I say?
It is not easy to explain why I cannot help you. When I was young, I
considered myself to be talented and preferred not to remain in one position for
long. I failed to earn a good reputation in my hometown. However, the emperor
let me inherit my father's position as the Official Historian. Thus, I have had
a chance to work at the emperor's court and utilize my humble talent. One who wears a bucket on one's head cannot see the sky 11. Therefore, I stopped
socializing with my friends and ignored the management of my own property so
that I could concentrate on my work. I worked day and night trying to gain the
emperor's approval. Who would have expected that things could still go so wrong?
Both Ling Li 12 and I worked in the emperor's court. We were not
close friends. Our interests were different. We did not drink or socialize
together even once. However, I observed that he was a man of high principle. He
was loyal to his parents, trustworthy, honest when dealing with money, and just
when giving and taking. He was able to concede when arguing with others. In
addition, he was frugal, humble and respectful toward others. Furthermore, he
was always ready to sacrifice his own life if the country needed him. Thus, the
way he built his reputation led me to consider him an outstanding man of virtue.
Indeed, it was extraordinary that a man could remain devoted to his country when
such devotion put his life in peril so many times. In contrast, many officials
in the emperor's court only knew how to protect their own interests when the
country was in crisis. As soon as something went wrong, these selfish and
cowardly officials immediately concocted slander about Ling Li out of thin air.
I was truly disheartened when I saw such things happen. Actually, General Ling
Li led less than 5,000 infantry when he penetrated deep into the land of the
Huns and attacked their king's camp. Thus, Li’s troops were like bait hanging in
front of a tiger's mouth. Despite the enormous number of Hun cavalry, our
soldiers fought bravely against the enemy. Having fought for more than ten days,
Li's troops killed more of the enemy than one could imagine. The Huns did not
have enough supplies to care for their dead and wounded soldiers. The King of
the Huns was greatly shocked. He summoned all his generals, recruited all his
archers, and sent all his cavalry to surround and attack General Ling Li. Li's
troops moved and fought over hundreds of miles. Their arrows were used up, and
their return route was cut off. Our reserve failed to rescue them in time. Our
dead and wounded soldiers were piled up. After General Li consoled the ailing
and wounded, he raised his arms and cried out. Our soldiers were moved and rose
up with tears. With empty bows, they swallowed their tears, let blood wash their
faces, and rushed to fight against the enemy despite the danger of swords.
Before General Li lost the war, a messenger returned to the capital to report
the victory. All the officials in Emperor Wu-di's court held their wine-cups
high to congratulate the emperor. A few days later the news arrived that General
Ling Li's troops had been defeated. The emperor could not take any pleasure in
eating and was distracted with melancholy when listening to briefings. All the
officials in the emperor’s court were worried, fearful and confounded. Seeing
the emperor sad and wretched, I desired to show my loyalty by consoling him
despite my lowliness and foolishness. In my opinion, General Ling Li never
wanted to gain anything. Whenever there was material gain, he would distribute
it among his soldiers. Consequently, his soldiers devoted their lives to him.
Thus, the leadership of ancient great generals paled in comparison to his.
Although General Ling Li was captured by the Huns, he still tried to look for an
opportunity to serve China. Therefore, he surrendered to the enemy. The odds
clearly showed that the defeat of Li’s troops was inevitable. Actually, the fact
that Li's troops caused great damage to the enemy was sufficient to prove
General Ling Li's loyalty to China. I did not have the opportunity to express
this view until the emperor summoned me and asked for my opinion about Ling Li's
surrender. When he did, I spoke about General Ling Li's contributions to China
in order to console the emperor and to silence the revengeful slander. However,
I failed to clearly explain it to the emperor, so the emperor misunderstood my
intentions. He suspected that I was bribed by Ling Li and that I intended to
insult General Guang-li Li. Therefore, he ordered me court-martialed. The
emperor could not appreciate my straightforwardness and enthusiasm for loyalty.
The judge found me guilty of deceiving the emperor and sentenced me to
castration. I did not have enough money to bribe him to reduce my sentence. My
colleagues would not help me. My friends would not speak a word for me. Unlike
wood or stone, I had feelings. After imprisonment I was only allowed to speak
with my jailers. To whom could I tell my sorrows? You saw all these events
happen with your own eyes. Do I not write the truth? General Ling Li's surrender
destroyed the reputation of his family. As for me, I was sent to the air-tight
surgical room 13 and became the laughing-stock of China. It was a
pity that I could not prove my innocence.
My ancestors never made so great a contribution that the emperors had to
confer titles of nobility upon them. They were only in charge of literature,
history and astrology. The ranks of their positions were close to that of a
fortune-teller or an undertaker. It was appropriate for the emperors to make fun
of them and to treat them like clowns or courtesans. Ordinary people would
despise them. If I were to be sentenced to death by law, my death would be as
unnoticed as a single hair falling from a herd of cattle or as the squashing of
an ant. People would not consider it a death of honor or dignity. Rather, they
would assume that I had committed a felony and tried every way to avoid the
inescapable capital punishment. Why would they think so? This is because what I
have done in the past would not be sufficient to convince them that I was
innocent. Everyone has to die eventually. However, some deaths are heavier than
Tai-shan Mountain; others are lighter than goose feathers. The weight depends on the
manner of death. There are many levels of the importance of death. The highest
level of death is one that does not shame one's ancestors and the next best is
one that does not bring shame to oneself. Following that is one that does not
violate moral codes or cause people to show their scorn. Next is a death that
does not suffer reproach. The fifth through ninth levels are deaths that follow
one form of insult or another. In order, the insults include the punishment of a
long period of kneeling, the indignity of wearing red prison garb, the torture
of being fettered with chains and being cruelly flogged, the burden of wearing a
pillory, the horror of being mutilated or skinned alive. The worst death of all
is one that occurs after the insult of castration. An ancient book says,
"Officials will not allow a sentence to be imposed upon them." In other words,
an honorable man would rather die than endure the shame of being sentenced. A
ferocious tiger in a mountain forest frightens all the other animals. However,
when it is captured in a trap or a cage, it will wag its tail to beg for food.
This is because its fighting spirit fades after it is tamed. Consequently, a
scholar will not enter a prison even if it is a circle drawn in the dirt and
will not answer any query even if it is from an inanimate object such as a
whittled wood judge. He would make an early plan to commit suicide before being
sentenced. While I was in prison, my hands were handcuffed and my feet were
shackled. I was stripped and frequently suffered whipping or flogging. Whenever
I saw a jailer, I would immediately bang my head on the ground for mercy. In
fact, every time I detected someone nearby, I would hold my breath and keep
alert. This was a natural response due to suffering intimidation for a long
period of time. Under such circumstances, if I had said that the suffering was
not a shame, it would not have saved my reputation.
Throughout Chinese history, many important people have been punished by law.
Emperor Wen-wang of the Zhou dynasty was imprisoned at You-li City while he was a
duke during Emperor Zhou-wang's reign in the Shang dynasty. Si Li, a former
prime minister of the Qin dynasty, received all the five cruel sentences before
he died 14. Duke Huai-yin-hou, a former king, was ordered to be
fettered at Chen City 15. Yue Peng and Ao Zhang
declaring themselves emperors, were imprisoned for their crimes. Duke Jiang-hou, Bo
Zhou, who had established Wen-di as the emperor by defeating Queen Lü
and had been the most powerful prime minister in Chinese history, was arrested
for treason. Duke of Wei-qi-hou 17 who had crushed the rebellion in
seven states wore red prison garb, pillory, and fetters. General Bu Ji
became Zho's slave wearing an iron collar around his neck. General Fu Guan
19 suffered the shame of imprisonment. All these people were able to reach
the status of general, duke, prime minister, or king. They were renowned even in
neighboring countries. Once they offended the law and were found guilty, they
hesitated to commit suicide, hoping to live a little longer. Consequently, they
all suffered the shame of being sentenced. This pattern has recurred since
ancient times. If one reflects on this, it becomes clear that bravery or
cowardice are conditional and heavily dependent on the occasion and other
circumstantial factors. Power is an artifact of circumstance. Once you
understand this truth, you will not be surprised by the above stories. One who
cannot end his life before the law punishes him will forfeit his opportunity to
die in dignity. Therefore, in ancient times, judges were careful in giving
sentences to officials. It is natural for one to love life, hate death, miss his
parents, and care about his wife and children. However, when one is inspired by
moral virtue, then it becomes a different matter, for one cannot betray one's
belief. It was unfortunate that my parents died when I was still young. I had no
brothers to help me, and therefore, grew up completely alone. Shao-qing, look at
me, how can I face my wife after being sentenced? A brave man need not die in
dignity. It is even possible for a coward to realize his dream once he pursues
virtue. Although I was cowardly and lived a life subjected to indignity and
humiliation, I am fully aware of the difference between life and death and the
choice between the two is clear to me. Why was I willing to endure the shame of
imprisonment? Even a slave or a maid has the choice to commit suicide, but I am
deprived of such an option. I was patient enough to endure the imprisonment in a
filthy dungeon simply because I had not yet fully expressed my ideas. I did not
want to die without showing my literary accomplishments to future generations.
Since ancient times, there have been innumerable wealthy and powerful men
whose reputations were obliterated by time. Only the outstanding and
extraordinary ones continue to be glorified. Take Emperor Wen-wang of the Zhou
dynasty for example. It wasn't until after he was imprisoned that he arrived at
the idea he later presented in his book, The Book of Changes (Yi-qing).
Early in his career Confucius traveled all over China seeking to gain employment
by offering his political ideas. In response to his lack of success, he decided
to return home and then write his masterwork, The Spring and Autumn Annals.
Yuan Qu 20 wrote Encountering Sorrows while he was in exile.
After Qiu-ming Zuo 21 became blind, he collected the historical
documents from various states in China and wrote The National Languages of
China. After suffering amputations 22, General Bing Sun wrote a
master treatise on military tactics. Similarly, it was not until after Prime
Minister Bu-wei Lü 23 was
dismissed that the writings of his house guests became popular. Fei Han
wrote the King of the State of Han a letter to offer his advice, but the king
did not adopt it. Following the rejection, Fei wrote many great essays such as
"Lonely Indignation" and "Hardship" to express his dismay. Most of the three
hundred and five poems in The Book of Poetry were written by scholars who
used poetry as a vehicle to vent their sorrows. All of these people had great
ideas but somehow could not realize their dreams. Therefore, they wrote down
their past experiences to benefit future generations. For example, eventually
Zuo’s loss of sight and Sun’s amputations would have prevented them from
remaining employed. Consequently, they resigned their positions and wrote books to
vent their sorrows. They desired to pass down their work to future generations
to show their accomplishments. Despite my lack of writing ability, I challenged
myself to express my ideas. I collected ancient and lost historical documents in
China, verified their authenticity, analyzed their causes and consequences, and
synthesized the principles of success and prosperity. The time frame of my book,
Chinese History 25, extends from Emperor Huang-di
to present. In this book, I wrote one hundred and thirty essays, ten concerning
the time table of historical events, twelve on emperors of China, eight on
institutions of government, thirty on aristocratic families, and seventy on
outstanding figures. I would like to take the opportunity to study the
relationship between the heavens and human life, analyze the changes from
ancient times to present, and establish my own style of writing. When I began to
write my draft, I encountered this catastrophe. Because I had not yet finished
my book, I resolved to endure the severe sentence without any complaint. I
thought if I could finish my book, hide it in a mountain for protection, and
thereby pass it down to future scholars who will popularize it, then the pain I
suffered from being blamed for failing to die in dignity would be alleviated. In
this event, I would not regret what I have done even if I were to die a thousand
times. I can only explain this to a wise man like you. It is too difficult for
me to explain it to an average person.
In addition, having been found guilty, I have a hard time even dealing with
myself. A man with a low social status will be an easy target for slander. The
catastrophe occurred to me due to my careless talk. My neighbors ridiculed me
with a chorus of laughter, which shamed my ancestors. How can I have the courage
to visit the tomb of my parents? The blame placed on me will continue to grow
even after three hundred years. Consequently, my worried bowels churn many times
a day. At home I am often absent-minded, as if I have lost something. When I
leave my house, I am often unaware of my destination. Whenever I think about my
shame, cold sweat covers my back and drenches my shirt. Now people treat me like
a eunuch. How can I pretend to be noble like a hermit in a cave? Therefore, I
drift with the crowd around me and raise or lower my face according to
circumstances in order to blend with the madness and bewilderment of crowds. Now
you have taught me to promote the worthy and able. Wouldn't that greatly
contradict my present intent? Even if I try to use the most beautiful words to
cover my shame, it will not save my reputation. It will only incur more insult
because people will not believe my words. More importantly, determination of
whether one is right or wrong does not occur until after one's death: history
will make the final judgment. In this letter, I can hardly express all that I
have had in my mind. I can only present my humble opinion in brief. Best wishes.
Your humble servant,
1 An was Shao-qing Ren's alternate first name. In 91 BCE, Crown Prince Ju
Liu (128-91 BCE) entered Prime Minister Chong Jiang's office and killed Chong Jiang because he
was angry about having been framed by Jiang. Ju asked General Shao-qing to send
troops to join the rebellion. Shao-qing received Ju's messenger, but he did not
send troops as Ju requested. After the rebellion was crushed, Emperor Wu-di
thought that Shao-qing was an opportunist who sided with whoever was winning.
Therefore, Emperor Wu-di ordered him to be executed by cutting him in half at
his waist. Shao-qing asked Si-ma for help. This letter was Si-ma’s reply. The
main point was to encourage his friend to have vision and realize that although
they were being treated like criminals for the time being, history would
eventually prove them innocent. Si-ma used this letter to console his friend as
well as himself.
2 Zi-chang was Qian Si-ma's alternate first name. His ancestral home was at Xia-yang City in Zuo-feng-yi County. Qian Si-ma was born in Long-men City during
the Han dynasty.
Qian Si-ma's ancestor was the Official Historian in the Zhou dynasty. After
the Zhou dynasty moved its capital eastward, Qian's ancestor lost his position.
Tan Si-ma, Qian's father, was an erudite scholar. In the Jian-yuan and Yuan-feng
Periods during Emperor Wu-di's reign, Tan Si-ma was made the Official Historian.
When Qian Si-ma was ten, he could recite Writings to the Throne, Zuo's
Extended Version of the Spring and Autumn Annals, The National Languages
of China, and many others. When he was twenty, he was ordered by Emperor Wu-di
to travel all over China to collect lost books. During this period, he started
to visit famous mountains, large rivers, and many scenic spots of historic
interest. Two years later, he returned to the capital and became a member of the
Royal Academy. The next year he became a senior secretary of a board. At the age
of thirty-five he went on an expedition with the army as they tried to conquer
the border tribes in Southwestern China. When he was thirty-six, he followed the
emperor to Tai-shan Mountain in order to worship the Supreme Deity of Taoism. At
the age of thirty-eight, he succeeded his father as the Official Historian. When
he was forty-two, he, Sui Hu, and Qing Gong-sun formulated a twelve-month
calendar. Qian Si-ma's high ambition was to succeed Confucius in writing Chinese
history. He considered promoting virtue as his own mission. Perhaps he began to
write Chinese History at this time. When he was forty-eight, he argued
for General Ling Li and thus offended Emperor Wu-di. As a consequence, he
suffered the cruelest and most humiliating sentence of castration. The next year
he was reinstated as the Head of the Legislative Bureau. Although he was treated
with respect and courtesy, he lost the heart for politics. He resolved to focus
all his energy on writing Chinese History. He desired to take the
opportunity to study the relationship between the heavens and human life,
analyze the change from ancient times to present, and establish his own style of
writing. In December, 91 BCE, he wrote this letter to Shao-qing Ren.
Qian Si-ma was a learned and knowledgeable scholar with outstanding talent
and integrity. Consequently, his Chinese History is broad and profound.
The book includes astronomy, geography, history, philosophy, politics,
economics, civil engineering, irrigation works, and handicrafts. In fact, the
scope of this work is so comprehensive that it includes almost every endeavor in
society. Whatever he wrote was so thorough that it appeared as though it were
composed by an expert in each field. He was not only an outstanding historian,
but also one of the greatest writers of all time.
3 Shao-qing wished that Si-ma could have appealed to the emperor to reduce
4 In 99 BCE, China attacked the Huns. Army Commander Guang-li Li, whose
younger sister was Emperor Wu-di's favorite concubine, led 30,000 cavalry as the
main force. General Ling Li (200?-74 BCE) led 5,000 infantry as a secondary guerrilla force.
Commander Guang-li never met the Hun's troops. However, General Ling Li met the
Hun's main force of 200,000 cavalry. Ling Li's troops were surrounded by the
enemy. Although Ling Li's troops fought hard, they were defeated. At last
General Ling Li surrendered to the Huns. Qian Si-ma told Emperor Wu-di that
General Ling Li did his best. Emperor Wu-di suspected that Si-ma was bribed by
General Ling Li and intended to insult General Guang-li Li, so he ordered Si-ma
court-martialed. It turned out that Si-ma was found guilty of deceiving the
emperor and received the sentence of castration.
5 Zi-qi Zhong was able to appreciate Ya Bo's talent while listening
to him play the zither. When Ya Bo thought of a mountain, Zi-qi would tell him,
"Great! The mountain is as imposing as Tai-shan Mountain." When Ya Bo thought of a river,
Zi-qi would tell him, "Great! The music reminds me of the flow of a mighty
river. It is said that the ancient melody, "Tall Mountains and Flowing Water", in a music book published in 1425 was composed by Bo-ya. One may listen to this melody by visiting
6 You Xu and Bo-yi were ancient recluses with high principles.
7 Yong City is now called Feng-xiang-xian City and is located in Shaanxi
8 Qian Si-ma was determined to spend the rest of his life writing Chinese
History. If he were to help a "traitor", Emperor Wu-di might kill him. Then
he would not be able to finish writing Chinese History.
9 Yang Gong-sun was Yang Shang's (395-338 BCE) original name. He was a native of the State
of Wei. While he visited the State of Qin, Eunuch Jin-jian introduced him to
King Xiao-gong of Qin. Yang initiated a political reform to strengthen Qin's
power. He was made Duke Shang-jun. Thus, people called him Yang Shang. Liang
Zhao thought that Yang Shang's use of a eunuch's help was an improper approach
to success. Consequently, Liang Zhao was bitterly disappointed.
10 In ancient China, a hermit in a cave represented a scholarly recluse with
11 This sentence says that one should not engage in two tasks at the same
time. "Wearing a bucket on one's head" and "seeing the
sky" hinder each other. Working for the emperor conflicts with taking care of
the Chinese character that means sky or heavens. "Tian-zi" (son of heavens)
12 Ling Li was a native of Long-xi City (present day Long-xi-xian City in
Gansu Province). Shao-qing was his alternate first name. He was a grandson of
General Guang Li.
13 "The air-tight surgical room" refers to the room where the surgery of
castration was performed. According to ancient Chinese medicine, open air might
cause the inflammation of the affected part. Consequently, the room had to be
14 "The five cruel sentences" were tattooing one's crime on one's brow,
cutting off one's nose, feet, sex organ and head.
15 "Duke Huai-yin-hou" refers to Xin Han (?-196 BCE). He was first made the King of Qi
and then the King of Chu. The capital of Chu was Xia-pei City (south of present
day Teng-xian City in Shangdong Province). Someone accused Xin of planning a
rebellion. By adopting Ping Chen’s plot, Emperor Gao-zu claimed to be going to
visit Yung-meng City. The emperor summoned Xin Han to meet him at Chen City
(present day Huai-yang City in Henan Province). When Xin arrived, Emperor Gao-zu
ordered guards to arrest Xin and sent him to Xian-yang, the capital of the Han
dynasty. Then Xin was pardoned and made Duke Huai-yin-hou.
16 Yue Peng was made the King of Liang in the early Han dynasty. Someone
accused him of planning a rebellion. Emperor Gao-zu arrested him and then
imprisoned him at Luo-yang City. Later, he was killed. Ao Zhang was a son of Er
Zhang, the King of Zhao. Ao Zhang married Princess Lu-yuan. Gao Guan, the King
of Zhao's general, planned to assassinate Emperor Gao-zu, but the plot was
discovered. Both Gao Guan and Ao Zhang were arrested.
17 "Duke Wei-qi-hou" refers to Ying Dou
(?-131 BCE). He was a nephew of Queen Dou, the
wife of Emperor Wen-di during the Han dynasty. During Emperor Jing-di's reign,
Ying Dou was made Duke Wei-qi-hou for his contributions toward crushing the
rebellion in seven states.
18 Bu Ji was a native of the State of Chu. When he was Yu Xiang's general,
General Bu Ji defeated Gao-zu's troops several times. After Gao-zu became the
founding emperor of the Han dynasty, he offered a large reward for information
about Bu Ji. Fearful of Emperor Gao-zu's revenge, Bu first hid in the Zhou family. Zhou
shaved Bu's head and put an iron collar on his neck. Then Bu wore clothing made
of coarse material and mingled with a group of slaves to conceal his identity.
Unfortunately, he was sold to the Zhu family before he had the opportunity to
19 Zhong-ru was Fu Guan's alternate first name. He was a native of Ying-yin
City. He was upright and loved to drink wine. Fu Guan, a friend of Ying Dou, was
imprisoned for his disrespect because he shouted abuses during Prime Minister
Fen Tian's banquet.
20 Ping and Ling-jun were Yuan Qu's (340-278 BCE) other first names. He was a trusted
advisor of King Huai-wang of the State of Chu during the Warring States Period.
Later, Yuan Qu was slandered by Shang Jin and thereby sent into exile. During
his exile Yuan Qu wrote the poetry book, Encountering Sorrows. Yuan Qu is
honored as the Father of Chinese Poetry for his work.
21 Qiu-ming Zuo (556?-451? BCE) was the Official Historian of the State of Lu during the
Spring and Autumn Period. He wrote Zuo's Extended Version of the Spring and Autumn
Annals based on The Spring and Autumn Annals written by Confucius.
22 Bing Sun (?-316 BCE) and Juan Pang (?-342 BCE) both studied strategies under the tutelage of
Gui-gu-zi (the Man of Ghost Valley). Before their graduation, Gui-gu-zi gave
them a final exam. He sat in a room and challenged his students to persuade him
to leave the room. Pang said, "If you don't leave the room, I will set a fire."
The Man disapproved of Pang's strategy, but let him pass the exam. Sun said, "I
cannot make you leave the room, but I can make you enter the room if you are
outside it." Gui-gu-zi said, "Let us try that", and left the room.
Later, Pang became a general of the State of Wei. He was jealous of Sun's
talent, so he enticed Sun to visit Wei in order to capture him. He used the
punishment of law to brand Sun's face and amputate both of his feet. Pang
thought the disability would prevent him from using his talent. Soon after, the
envoy of the State of Qi came to carry him home. Sun then became the Adviser of
the King of Qi. Later, Sun designed a strategy which caused Pang's troops so
much difficulty that Pang committed suicide.
Bin Sun was a descendent of Wu Sun (535-? BCE), a native of the State of Qi during the
Spring and Autumn Period. Wu Sun helped He-lu, the King of the State of Wu,
dominate among the Kings in China. Wu Sun was also the author of The Art of
War, a book including thirteen essays. Note that The Art of War and
Bing Sun's master treatise on military tactics are different books.
23 Zhong-fu was Bu-wei Lü
's (291?-235 BCE) alternate
first name. He compiled the writings of his house guests as Lü
's Spring and Autumn Annals. This book included eight volumes, twelve
periods, six subjects, and more than 200,000 words. Later, he was dismissed from
the position of prime minister due to his crime. He moved to the State of Shu
and committed suicide to avoid the dishonor of punishment.
24 Fei Han (ca. 281-233 BCE) was a Prince of the State of Han during the Warring States Period.
He was born to one of the king's concubines. Both Fei Han and Si Li (?-208 BCE) studied
under the tutelage of Kuang Xun (310-220 BCE). After the King of the State of Qin read Fei
Han's essays, he valued them highly. Later, when Fei Han became the ambassador
to the State of Qin, the King of Qin was glad to meet him. Fei was framed by Si
Li, the prime minister of Qin, and was imprisoned in Qin. Later, Li fatally
25 The original title of Chinese History was The Records of the
Official Historian. The essay entitled "The Biography of Biao Ban (3-54)" in
History of the Late Han Dynasty says, "Qian Si-ma wrote Chinese History."
Consequently, later generations called Qian Si-ma's book Chinese History.
It was the first history book to focus on the people involved in historical
events rather than the events themselves. It records historical facts fully and
accurately, describes people vividly, and analyzes events carefully. It was the
progenitor of formal history books, and its essays served as the models for
26 In 4600 BCE, Huang-di unified China and declared himself emperor at You-xiong
(having bears) City (present day Xin-zheng City in Henan Province), the capital of China at that time.
Tao, Yuan-ming 1 [ 陶淵明 ] (365-427 CE)
My yard is turning into a wilderness. It is time for me to go home to take
care of it. I no longer feel upset since I realize that it is not worthwhile to
enslave my mind to earn a living. Although I cannot change my past, I can still
pursue a new life. Let bygones be bygones! Fortunately, I have not gotten in too
deep. I resolve to correct my mistakes in the future.
The canoe glides lightly, driven by easy strokes. The breeze
is blowing my clothes. After landing at my home town, I ask a passerby for
directions to my home. It is dawn. I hate that the sunlight is not bright enough
for me to hurry. Upon seeing my house, I start to run with great joy as if I
were bringing back bountiful gifts for my family. The servants welcome me home
and my child is waiting at the door. … With tilted head, I study a branch in
my yard to amuse myself. By leaning against the southern window, I regain my
freedom. Now I finally realize that peace and happiness can also be found in a
small place like my room. Over time, I become fascinated with my daily walks in
the garden. Although my house has a door, it is often closed. I love to walk
with a cane and then take a rest as I please. Oftentimes I crane my neck to
enjoy the view. Clouds depart from mountain valleys without a destination. Birds
fly back to their nest after an exhausting day. It is getting dark. The sun has
almost set, but I still cherish the solitary pine tree 2 and linger,
reluctant to leave.
Since returning home, I have stopped socializing altogether. I have no
interest in advancing my station and feel no need to flatter and impress others.
… The joy I
derive from my zither and my books eliminates my sorrows. Farmers tell me that
Spring has arrived and we should cultivate the western field. Sometimes we drive a
curtained wagon, and sometimes we paddle a canoe. We might visit a deep canyon
or traverse a rugged mountain path. The trees are flourishing luxuriantly and
the spring trickles to start a river. I admire how everything adapts to the
season so well. This inspires me to think about what I should and should not do
with my life.
Let it be. How long can our bodies last in this world? Why don't we take it
easy and let things run their course? Where do we want to go? Why are we so
anxious? Wealth and power are not my desire. The heavenly village is beyond my
reach 3. I cherish a nice day to travel alone or go to my field with
a cane to weed and plant seedlings. Sometimes I go up to the east river bank and
shout to release my frustration. Sometimes I look out over the river and
improvise poetry. Since natural changes must lead to an end, why should I
hesitate to accept my destiny happily?
Qian and Yuan-liang were Yuan-ming Tao's alternate first names. He was a native
of Chai-sang City (present day Jiu-jiang-xian City of Jiangxi Province) in Xun-yang
County. His friends gave him a posthumous name, Jing-jie (integrity). His
character was noble and unsullied. He did not desire fame or fortune. Tao was
the Mayor of Peng-ze City, but he resigned his position shortly after he assumed
office. He said, "I
should not bow for five bushels of rice and I will not serve base people in my
hometown with eagerness and enthusiasm." Of all the reclusive pastoral poets,
Yuan-ming Tao is the most famous.
A pine tree can endure the cold and remain green in winter, so it is used
to symbolize those who can endure hardship and stand unyielding in their
The chapter titled "The Heavens and the Earth" in Zhuang-zi [ 莊子 ]
written by Zhou Zhuang (ca. 369-286 BCE) says,
"Riding that white cloud, they reach the heavenly village."
The Springhead in a Blooming Peach Grove
Tao, Yuan-ming [ 陶淵明 ] (365-427 CE)
In the Jin dynasty, a fisherman from Wu-ling City rowed his boat along a
creek. He forgot how far he had traveled. Suddenly he encountered a grove of
blooming peach trees. As far as he could see, there was nothing but peach trees.
The grass on the banks was fresh, pretty, and fragrant. Fallen flower petals
drifted like confetti. The beautiful scene amazed the fisherman. He continued
rowing, looking for what lay beyond the grove. When the grove ended, he found
the source of the creek at a mountain. The mountain had a cave with a small
entrance. Thinking that he saw lights inside, he left his boat and entered the
The first part of the cave was so narrow that only one person could pass.
After he walked another fifty feet, an expansive paradise suddenly appeared. The
land was vast and the houses were orderly. There were fertile fields, a
beautiful pond, and plants such as bamboo and mulberry trees. The paths in the
village were well connected for easy travel. As he approached the village, he
heard dogs bark and roosters crow. People were coming and going, busy with farm
life. … When they saw the fisherman, they were amazed.
They asked him where he had come from. The fisherman answered all their
questions. … They
claimed that they had come here a long time ago to escape the tyranny of the Qin
dynasty 1, and that after their families and neighbors settled down
here, they never left. Consequently, they had lost touch with the outside world.
They did not even know of the Han dynasty 2, not to mention the Wei
and Jin dynasties 3. When they asked the fisherman what year it was,
he responded in great detail. After listening to his description, the villagers
sighed over the problems outside. During his stay, the fisherman enjoyed
delicious food and kind hospitality. After a week, he wanted to go home. When he
was leaving, the villagers said, "Please
do not tell anyone about this place."
After he found his boat and started his return journey, he carefully placed
many trail markers along the way. As soon as he arrived at the city, he reported
to the mayor about what he had seen. The mayor sent people to search for the
village immediately. They followed the fisherman's
markers, but soon got lost. Later, a gentleman, Zi-ji Liu 4 of
Nan-yang City 5, heard the story and eagerly planned to go there. His
search also failed and soon he died from a disease. After that, no one would ask
for the directions.
The Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE).
The Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE).
The Wei dynasty (220-265 CE); the Jin dynasty (265-420 CE).
Lin-zhi was Zi-ji Liu's alternate first name. He loved to travel in the
Nan-yang City is now called Nan-yang-xian City and is located in Henan
Tao, Yuan-ming [ 陶淵明 ] (365-427 CE)
We did not know where he came from. We did not know his name. There were five willow trees beside his house, so we called him Mr. Five-willow-trees. He was quiet and did not speak much. He did not envy those with fame or wealth. He loved to study, …. When he had an epiphany from reading a book, he often forgot to eat his regular meals. He loved wine, but he was poor, …. His relatives and friends … would prepare wine and invite him to drink. Once he started drinking, he would consume all the wine he could, looking forward to becoming drunk. After he was drunk, he would leave as the whim struck him. He never allowed considerations of etiquette or tradition to change his mind. The walls in his house were worn down and could not shelter him from wind or sun. His rough clothes were darned and patched. In his kitchen the bamboo bowl
1 and the gourd ladle 2 were usually empty. However, he was quite content with what he had. He often wrote essays to amuse himself. The essays showed his moral philosophy, but he did not care about success. ….
Hermit Lou Qian said, "Do not worry about poverty; do not rush to pursue power and wealth." Does his description apply to Mr. Five-willow-trees? Given that he drank wine and spoke poetry to fulfill his ideals, shall we consider Mr. Five-willow-trees a follower of Emperor Wu-huai-shi? Shall we consider him a follower of Emperor Ge-tian-shi
1 A bamboo bowl was a small container to hold cooked rice.
2 A gourd ladle was a gourd cut in half used for drinking water.
3 Wu-huai-shi and Ge-tian-shi were ancient emperors of China. Their leadership was based on their service rather than conquest or social structure. For example, they taught people to farm, prevent floods, and use herbs as medicine. Therefore, their people could fully enjoy nature and life.
Advice to Emperor Tai
Wei, Zheng 1 (580-643CE)
I have heard that if we want a tree to grow tall, we should
solidify its roots; that if we want a river to flow far, we should dredge its
springhead; and that if an emperor wants his country to have peace, he should
accumulate his virtue. …
All heads of state bear God's grand order. They work hard to set an example
to their people during hardship. However, their virtue declines after success.
Many emperors have a good start, but few can keep God's work to the end. Is
governing a country more difficult than establishing a country? When a leader
suffers hardship, he will be sincere to his subjects. Once he gains absolute
power, he will become arrogant by doing whatever he likes. When one is sincere,
even an enemy becomes a friend. When one is arrogant, even a brother becomes a
stranger. … While people are like water in a
river, the emperor is like a ship. The water may make the ship go forward, but
it may also tip the ship over. This is the reason why an emperor should take
great care of the people's problems if they have any complaint. One should not
neglect the danger when riding a carriage with a worn-out rein.
If you see something you want, you should restrain your desire by being
content with what you have. If you want to declare a war, you should consider
when you will end it to relieve people. If you worry that your high position is
unstable, you should cultivate virtue with humility. If you worry about being
complacent, you should think that an ocean is lower than hundreds of rivers
2. When you go hunting, you should only explore three directions and leave
one direction undisturbed so that there will still be animals to hunt in the
future. If you worry about indolence, you should start with a careful plan and
manage to finish it. If you worry that the truth is hidden from you, you should
humbly listen to people's problems. If you resent flattery, you should stand up
for your morals and denounce evil. When you award someone, you should not
excessively praise him simply because you like him. When you punish someone, you
should not severely abuse him because of your anger. If you follow the above ten
guidelines, promote nine morals 3, choose qualified people to work
for you and choose good advice to follow, then wise people can optimize their
plan, brave people can achieve their potential, kind people can spread their
aid, and responsible people can devote loyalty to their country.
… Even though an emperor would play zither or join his hands together
4 without saying anything, the entire empire would come to order. Why
do you need to worry about various problems, do your subjects' work, enslave
your acute senses and, violate the principle of governing by noninterference
1 Xuan-cheng was Zheng Wei's other first name. He was a native of Qu-cheng
City (west of present day Jin City in Hebei Province) of Ju-lu Country. During
his childhood he was a poor orphan, but he was ambitious. He loved to read books
and gave his attention to the principles of developing a country and governing
people. At the end of the Sui dynasty China was in great chaos. General Mi Li
rose in rebellion. Zheng Wei gave him ten pieces of advice, but Mi Li did not
adopt them. Later, Wei followed Mi Li to surrender to the Tang dynasty. Crown
prince Jian-cheng loved Wei's talent and appointed him to be his officer. After
Jian-chang failed to win the throne and died, Shi-ming succeeded the crown
prince and summoned Wei to be his manager. After Shi-ming became the emperor, he
appointed Wei to be his Advisor. Wei was a man of principle and great ability.
He saw Emperor Tai trust him, so he always told the emperor his opinions without
reserve. In total, he gave Emperor Tai more than two hundred pieces of advice
when he was the Advisor. They were all to the point. Later, he successively
assumed the offices of the Deputy Secretary of State and the Guardian of the
Crown Prince. After Wei died, Emperor Tai wept bitterly, avoided his court duty
for five days, offered Wei an honorary title of Minister of Public Works, and
buried him in the Imperial Cemetery. Afterwards, Emperor Tai missed Wei very
much and told his entourage, "If one uses bronze as a mirror, one can groom
oneself. If one uses history as a mirror, one can understand the principle of
rise and fall. If one uses advice as a mirror, one will know one's gain and
loss. I treasure my three mirrors. After Wei passed away, I lost one mirror."
Emperor Tai's words showed how greatly he held Wei in esteem.
2 Dao-de-jing (The Bible of Morality) written by Lao-zi says,
reason that rivers and oceans are kings of all the valleys is that rivers and
oceans are good at lowering themselves." The Man by the River comments, "Rivers
and oceans lower themselves, so all the rivulets flow to them like people flow
to their emperor."
3 The nine morals are mentioned in the chapter titled
"The Plan of Gao-tao"
in Cannons of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun, a.k.a. The Book of History.
It says, "One should be generous and earnest, flexible and independent, discreet
and respectful, temperate and responsible, compliant and resolute, honest and
gentle, simple and economical, courageous and trustworthy, as well as strong and virtuous."
4 "Joining one's hands together" is a gesture for welcoming friends.
5 Dao-de-jing written by Lao-zi says, "Nature often does nothing; yet
it accomplishes everything." It also says, "A sage says, 'I do nothing and
people automatically become civilized. I love quietness and people automatically
become rich. I have no desire and people automatically become frugal.'"
The Tower of King Teng 1
Wang, Bo 2 (650-675 CE)
Hong-zhou City was called Yu-zhang City during the Han dynasty. If one
studies the heavens, it lies below a line dividing Yi Star and Zhen Star. In
terms of geography, the city connects Heng Mountain and Lu Mountain. Three
rivers 3 to the city's south are its lapels. Five lakes
surround the city like a belt. The city controls the States of Jing and Chu and
has a road leading to Ou-yue. The city has treasured swords which shine so
brightly that the light may reach the Constellations of Herdboy and the Southern
Big Dipper 5. Because this place is blessed, talented people come
forth in great numbers. Ru Xu enjoyed Fan Chen's couch 6. As this
grand city displayed its prosperity, talented scholars came to this party like
stars circling the moon. The city's moat and watch tower lie between China and
its neighboring country. The host and guests of the party included all the best
scholars in southeastern China. General Yan, the host and military governor, has
a high reputation. We could see from a great distance that his escorts were
holding fork-headed flags and approaching the party. Yu-wen, the role model and
new mayor of Feng-cheng City, rode in a curtained carriage and stopped to join
the celebration. We had to work nine days to receive a day off. During this
holiday friends came together in crowds. The guests greeted each other. Many of
them came from a great distance. All the seats were filled with ladies and
gentlemen. They discussed both literature and military affairs. Regarding
literature, their talent could compete with Poet Meng's 7. Their
conversation was brilliant and impressive like a dragon flying or a phoenix
dancing. As for war strategy, some said that leadership should stimulate courage
like the sea god's purple lightning. Others said that the military should be
full of noble spirit and dignity like cold frost. The variety of the topics,
like the weaponry in General Wang's armory 8,
included everything. …
The party was held on September 9th, at the end of autumn. The
muddy rainwater had dried on the ground, so the cold lake had become
transparent. The light mingled with lingering mist, the entire mountain appeared
purple at sunset. Incoming guests rode carriages along the mountain path in high
spirits and visited scenic spots on the plateau. After arriving at the green
delta, they climbed up the stone steps and entered the Tower of King Teng. The
layers of mountain peaks were towering with greenery above the clouds. The
reflected image of the tower was rippling on the lake water. Its red color was
flowing back and forth. The lake seemed bottomless. Cranes gathered at the
riverside. Geese landed on a small island. They were far down on the winding
area of the archipelago. Cassia trees and orchids were planted in the front yard
of the tower which was built to match the grandeur of the mountains.
Opening the embroidered door, we came out, ascended to the top floor and
looked down on the engraved roof ridges. The plateau was so broad that we could
not see its ends. The huge waves at the river bend were intimidating; they might
swallow us at any moment. We could see the entrances of villages here and there
below. Rich families rang the bells to announce dinner and displayed their
caldrons while they ate. The large boats and warships were jammed at the port.
The view of the waterway was obscured. Their sterns were sculpted into the shape
of a dragon or a phoenix. The rainbow disappeared and the rain stopped. The
colorful sunshine penetrated the clouds and the earth lit up. The clouds at
sunset and a lonesome goose flew together. The autumn water and the endless sky
blurred into one color. The fishermen sang evening songs. Their voices reached
far down to the shore of Lake Po-yang. The ranks of wild geese were startled by
the cold air. They would not fly further north. Their honking was stopped at the
river bank south of Hen Mountain.
Our deep thoughts started to flow smoothly and our inspirations flew high and
fast. A cool breeze came from the fresh songs of nature. When fine music
surrounded the party, the white clouds seemed unwilling to leave. Under the
green bamboo trees at Sui-yang Garden 9, the guests' poems at King Liang-xiao's party might have matched Yuan-ming Tao's. The light of lotuses in
the pond at Ye City 10 shone on the brush pens at Lin-chuan City
11. … The high sky and broad earth made us feel that the
universe was endless. As happiness ended, sadness came. We realized that fortune
and misfortune are dictated by fate. Facing west, we saw Chang-an City beneath
the sun from a distance. Facing east, we pointed to Wu-hui City nearby among the
clouds. As we looked down south, the land's elevation dropped steeply and
continued to descend into deep South Cnina Sea. As we looked up north, Tian-zhu
Mountain 12 was tall, but the North Star was
even further away.
Yuan Qu was a talented official, who missed his king but
could not see him. How many years did Yi Jia have to wait for the emperor to
summon him back to Xuan Hall 13?
… One may have no luck and one's life journey may suffer many setbacks.
Tang Feng of the Han dynasty was recommended to Emperor Wu for his talent when
he was more than ninety years old. He was already way past the retirement age.
General Guang Li 14 won many wars, but because of bad luck he did not
receive the title of duke. Yi Jia could not realize his political dream even
though his emperor was great. Hong Liang 15 had to flee to a bay on a
sea even though he lived in a great era. Fortune seemed to ridicule the above
people. However, a virtuous man is content with what he can have and a
broad-minded man resigns himself to fate. Once one establishes a goal, he should
pursue it like General Yuan Ma 16. The older he was, the stronger he
became. Even when his hair turned gray, he would not change his mind. One should
pursue one's goal like Bo-yi 17 as well. The poorer he was, the more
steadfast he became. If one persists in one's pursuit, then one will remain
clean even after drinking from the Spring of Greed 18 and remain
optimistic even after encountering difficulties. The Northern Sea seems far
away, but a speedy storm can reach it from the south. Although the morning has
already passed, it is still not too late to start one's work in the evening.
Chang Meng 19 was an official of integrity, but he never realized his
political dream. Occasionally, I would like to live wildly and freely as Ji Ruan
20, but I will not let my emotion run out of control as he did.
I am a low-ranking official with a three-foot ribbon 21 and only a
student. I wish I could have the opportunity to ask for tassels as Jun Zhong did
at my age 22. I would like to discard my pen
23 and pursue
a military career. I especially admire General Que Zong's spirit that desired to
ride on a strong wind 24. Now I give up my career to pursue wealth
and power, and follow my father to his distant job to take care of him. Although
I am not as talented as the treasured tree of the Xie family
would like to have nice neighbors like those who Mencius' mother found for her
son by moving from place to place 26. After settling down at Jiao-zhi
City, I was to receive my family education from my father. This morning I raised
my sleeves to greet my seniors and was glad to enter the dragon's gate. I have
not yet met De-yi Yang, so I patted my Reaching-the-Clouds 27 poems
and felt sorry for myself. When I met General Yan, I felt as though I was
meeting a congenial friend as Bo-ya had met Zi-qi Zhong 28. So why
should I feel ashamed to play the melody, "Flowing Water" 29?
… Great scenery will not last and a great party will not repeat. The
Orchid Gazebo 30 no longer exists and Chong Shi's summerhouse has
become ruins. I was honored to write parting words for this grand party. Our
host hoped that all the guests could ascend the tower and write poems for the
occasion. I took the liberty of respectfully presenting a short poem with eight
stanzas and one rhyme. Hopefully, everyone will follow my lead and present a
poem as mighty as a river like Yue Pan's and as mighty as an ocean like Ji Lu's
The tall Tower of King Teng overlooks the river's delta;
After the geisha girls have finished dancing,
Their ribbons rest and their tambourines stop ringing.
At dawn the pictures on the columns look like flying clouds bound to Nan-pu
At sunset the rain of Xi Mountain 33 is revealed when the pearl
blind 34 is raised.
Time, like clouds or reflections in water, passed quietly without notice;
Things changed, stars moved, and many years have elapsed since its glorious
Where is King Teng now 35?
The river beyond the balustrade continues to flow and murmur alone.
1 King Teng, Yuan-ying Li, was the twenty-second son of Emperor Gao-zhu of
the Tang dynasty. The Tower of King Teng was built by him. It was located in
present day Nan-chang City in Jiangxi Province. The Annuals of Jiangxi
says, "During the Xian-qing Period, while Yuan-ying Li was the Commander of
Hong-zhou City, he built this tower. Near the time the building was completed,
he received the title, 'King Teng'. Consequently, he named his new tower after
his new title. Later, General Bo-yu Yan became the Commander of Hong-zhou City.
His son-in-law, Zi-zhang Wu, was a writer. Yan ordered Wu to compose an essay
about the Tower of King Teng in advance so that he could boast of Wu's talent at
the party celebrating the Chong-yang (Double nine, September 9th) Festival. At
this time Bo Wang was on his way to Jiao-zhi City. His boat arrived at Ma-dang-shan
City, 450 miles away from Hong-zhou City. On the night before the Chong-yang
Festival he dreamed that a god promised to create a wind to assist him. At dawn
his boat reached Hong-zhou City, enabling him to join General Yan's party. Yan
asked his guests to write an essay for the occasion. All of them politely
declined except Bo Wang. He accepted the challenge. After he presented this
essay of his, everyone at the party admired his talent." Miscellaneous
Records During the Tang Dynasty says, "Bo Wang wrote 'The Tower of King Teng'
when he was fourteen. Although Bo Wang attended the party, General Yan did not
pay attention to him. Yan wanted his son-in-law, Poet Meng, to present the essay
for the occasion. In fact, Yan ordered Meng to compose an essay in advance. When
Yan passed paper and pens around to his guests, all of them politely declined
except Bo Wang. He accepted the challenge. Yan was furious, showed his contempt
by shaking out his sleeves and left. However, he secretly sent people to
discover what Wang was writing. The first one reported, 'Hong-zhou City was
called Yu-zhang City during the Han dynasty.' Yan said, 'It is average.' The
second one reported, 'If one studies the heavens, it lies below a line dividing
Yi Star and Zhen Star. In terms of geography, the city connects Heng Mountain
and Lu Mountain.' Yan commented, 'They are stale words.' The third one reported,
'Three rivers to the city's south are its lapels. Five lakes surround the city
like a belt. The city controls the States of Jing and Chu and has a road leading
to Ou-yue.' After Yan heard the report, he murmured to himself and then
remained silent. In a moment reports arrived one after another. Yan only nodded
his head and smiled. When Yan heard the report saying, 'The clouds at sunset and
a lonesome goose flew together. The autumn water and the endless sky blurred
into one color.', he rose startled and said, 'Bo Wang is a true genius. This
essay of his will be immortal.' Soon Wang completed his essay. General Yan was
greatly pleased. They enjoyed the festivity to the utmost. When Wang was about
to leave, General Yan awarded him a gift certificate for 500 rolls of silk.”
The Records says that Bo Wang wrote this essay at the age of fourteen. This
is incorrect. According to various experts' verifications, when Wang wrote this
essay, he was already twenty-six.
2 Zi-an was Bo Wang's other first name. He was a native of Long-men City in Jiang-zhou County. Long-men City was located west of present day He-jin City in
Henan Province. Bo Wang wrote a fluent and elegant essay at the age of six. When
he was nine, after reading Notes on the History of the Han Dynasty,
written by Shi-gu Yan, he wrote ten chapters to point out the author's error. At
the age of ten, he finished reading all the Six Bibles. In 644 CE, at the age
of fourteen he was recommended to the emperor due to his genius. The palace
arranged an oral exam for him. He received a high score and thereby was offered
a court position. Afterwards, he presented several poems to the emperor. After
King Pei heard Wang's talent, he recruited him to be his editor in charge of
revising historical records. When he was an editor, he wrote a book,
Ping-tai-chao-lue, with ten chapters. At that time many kings loved to raise
their own roosters for fighting. Wang wrote a playful essay titled "Kings'
Cockfighting". However, Emperor Gao lacked a sense of humor. After he read
Wang's essay, he thought the way Wang had described rooster fighting was close
to the way someone would describe sex. The emperor angrily rebuked Wang and
banished him from the palace. After Wang lost his job, he traveled to the
distant Han River. In 673 CE, Wang heard that there were many medicinal herbs
at Guo City, south of present day Ling-bao City in Henan Province. Consequently,
he applied for the position as councilor of Guo City. During his tenure, he was
inordinately proud of his ability and hated by his colleagues due to jealousy.
As it so happened, a government servant committed a crime and Wang hid him.
Later Wang feared the secret would be disclosed, so he killed the servant. When
the whole truth came out, Wang should have been sentenced to death. Later, he
was pardoned. His father, Fu-zhi was then a councilor of the State of Yong in
charge of officials' job evaluations. Because of his son’s crime, he was demoted
to Mayor of Jiao-zhi City. In 675 CE, Bo accompanied him when he traveled to
assume his office. When they sailed across South China Sea, Bo fell into the
water. Lingering fear made him sick and he died soon thereafter. Bo Wang's
essays were magnificent and beautiful. He, Jiong Yang, Zhao-lin Lu and Bin-wang
Lo were together called "The Four Brilliant Writers in the Early Tang Dynasty".
3 "Three Rivers" refers to the Jing River, the Song River, and the
4 "Five Lakes" refers to Lake Tai, Lake Po-yang, Lake Qing-cao (green grass),
Lake Dan-yang, and Lake Dong-ting.
5 During the Reign of Emperor Wu in the Jin dynasty, Hua Zhang asked Huan
Lei, "Why is there purple light between the Constellations of Herdboy and the
Southern Big Dipper?" Lei replied, "It is because of reflection from treasured
swords." Later, Lei became the Mayor of Feng-cheng City. He excavated a mountain
and unearthed two swords: Gan-jiang Swords and Mo-xie (virtuous) Sword. Here the
sentence in Wang's essay says that the city is not only strategically important,
but also contains extraordinary treasures.
6 Ru Xu , a man of integrity who was above worldly interests, often visited
Fan Chen, the Mayor of Hong-zhou City. Chen respected Xu so much that he
purchased a special couch just for Xu's visits. These two sentences in the text
say that Hong-zhou City has not only extraordinary treasures but also talented
7 Quan was Poet Meng's first name. He was a great master of literature and an
illustrious guest at the party.
8 "General Wang" refers to Seng-bian Wang, a native of Qi City during the
Southern Liang dynasty. Wang mastered nine schools of philosophy (Confucianism,
Taoism, philosophy of geomancy, philosophy of politics, philosophy of law,
philosophy of fame, philosophy of love without distinction, philosophy of
agriculture, and miscellaneous philosophy) and the seven military stratagems. He
was the Mayor of Jiang-zhou City and the Commander of the Eastern Theater. In
548 CE, he captured Jian-ye City and crushed the rebellion led by Jiang Hou.
He was awarded the title, Duke of Eternal Peace, for his victory. The seventh
chapter of Dan-qian (cinnabar and white lead powder
— formerly used in revising books) -za-lu
(miscellaneous records), written by Shen Yang of the Ming dynasty, says, "King
Ming Xiao wrote a letter to Seng-bian Wang saying, 'You should recruit all kinds
of private armed forces. After gathering enough soldiers, you should build a
powerful army and store all the frost-like lances and lightning-like tripods in
9 King Liang-xiao was the second son of Emperor Wen of the Han dynasty.
Liang-xiao rose to power during Emperor Jing’s reign. At Sui-yang City he built
the Eastern Garden and a palace to attract people who had the virtue required
for public service. He planted dodders and bamboo trees in the garden. The
Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital says, "King Liang-xiao visited
Sorrow-free Hall. He gathered talented scholars in his party and asked them to
write poems. Yang Zou wrote a wine poem." Therefore, the later generations used
the party at the Liang Gargen to describe the magnificence of a banquet.
10 Ye City was located at present day Lin-zhang City, a place where Cao Cao
rose to power and a home of many writers. At the end of the Jian-an Period, Pi
Cao, the eldest son of Cao Cao, was the Commander-in -Chief. He, his younger
brother, Zhi Cao, and dignitaries such as Can Wang and Zhen Liu often visited
the Western Garden and communed there. The poem, "The Discussion at the Official
Gathering", written by Zhi Cao, says, "The lotuses emit red light from the green
11 "The brush pens at Li-Chuan City" refers to Xi-zhi Wang or Ling-yun Xie.
Xi-zhi Wang, an essayist and great calligrapher, was once the secretary of
internal affairs at Lin-chuan City. Ling-yun Xie, the best writer during the
Eastern Jin dynasty, was also once the secretary of internal affairs at
12 "Tian-zhu" means "sky-column". Tian-zhu Mountain is part of the Kunlun
13 Xuan Hall was the main building of Wei-yang Palace. Yi Jia was a talented
essayist. Emperor Wen appointed him to be "Distinguished Scholar". In less than
one year, he was promoted to a high-ranking official. The powerful dukes, Bo
Zhou and Ying Guan, opposed the promotion. Therefore, Jia was reassigned to be
the Tutor of the King of Chang-sha. Later, the emperor missed Yi Jia, so he
summoned him back to Xuan Hall, asked him questions about gods, and held him in
extreme esteem. Here the sentence in Wang's essay means "When can I be summoned
back to the palace by the emperor?"
14 General Guang Li of the Han dynasty was the Mayor of Beiping City during
Emperor Wu's reign. The Huns called him General Flying Tiger.
15 Hong Liang was a native of the Kingdom of Wei during the Three Kingdom
Period. He felt ashamed to serve the powerful. Evil officials slandered him.
Consequently, he fled to the Kingdom of Wu and hid himself at a bay on a sea.
16 General Yuan Ma was a native of Mao-ling City in Fu-feng County. Once he
told his guests, "After a man has made a resolution, the poorer he is, the more
steadfast he should be; the older he becomes, the stronger he should be.” In the Jian-wu Period, he was given the title,
"General of Crushing Waves". He crushed
the rebellion in the State of Jiao-zhi (present day Vietnam), so the emperor
made him Duke of New Peace. When the tribes at Wu-xi City in Wu-ling County
rebelled, he asked to lead the troops to crush them. At that time he was already
sixty-two. He wore armor, mounted a horse, sat on the saddle and looked around
to show that he was useful. Consequently, Emperor Guang-wu sent him to battle.
In the end General Ma died while serving.
17 Bo-yi was loyal to the Shang dynasty. He refused to eat rice from the
warehouse of the Zhou dynasty. He only ate grass growing on a mountain. Later,
he died from starvation.
18 Yin-zhi Wu went to Guang-zhou City to assume his office as mayor. Ten
miles before his destination, he stopped at the Spring of Greed in Shi-men City.
Local seniors told him, "If one drinks this water, he will become greedy even if
he is a man of integrity." After listening to their words, Wu drank the water
with a ladle and wrote a poem. It says, "The ancients said, 'If one just sips a
little, gold will fill his mind.' If Bo-yi were to drink this water, he would
not change his honesty."
19 Bo-zhou was Chang Meng's other first name. He was the Mayor of He-pu City
during Emperor Shun's reign in the Han dynasty.
20 Si-zong was Ji Ruan's other first name. He was a native of Wei City in the
Kingdom of Wei during the Three Kingdom Period. He loved wine and was
unconventional and unrestrained in manners. One time he rode a carriage to
ascend a mountain. When he reached a dead end of a mountain path, he wept
bitterly and returned.
21 In the protocol of the Zhou dynasty, the ranks of officials were divided
into nine classes: The emperor and kings were of the nine-star rank, archdukes
were of the eight-star rank,
dukes were of the seven-star rank, earls and counts were of the six-star
rank, viscounts and barons were of the five-star rank, sirs were of the
four-star rank, sergeants-first-class were of the three-star rank, sergeants
were of the two-star rank, and corporals were of the one-star rank. The chapter
titled "Green Aquatic Plants" of The Protocol says, "The length of a
corporal's ribbon should be three feet long." Bo Wang used to be a councilor of Guo City, so he compared himself to a corporal.
22 The Kingdom of Nan-yue (present day Vietnam) and the Han dynasty
negotiated peace. Jun Zhong was twenty years old. He asked the emperor for the
long tassels (The tassels of an officer’s hat represented the military position
Zhong desired). Soon he captured the King of Nan-yue and sent him to the Han
23 Chao Ban of the Han dynasty used to be someone's secretary. He despised
his job, so he discarded his pen, and aimed at achieving the rank of duke by
making great contributions to his country.
24 Que Zong was a native of Nan-yang City in the Kingdom of Song during the
Northern and Southern dynasties.Yuan-gan was his other first name. When he was a
child, his uncle asked about his ambition. He replied, “I want to be a boat that
rides on a strong wind and break waves of a thousand miles.” Later, the emperor
made him the Duke of Tao-yang as he had expected.
25 "The treasured tree of the Xie family" refers to Xuan Xie, the nephew of
Prime Minister An Xie in the Eastern Jin dynasty.
26 While Mencius was a child, his first neighbor was a thief. By and by,
Mencius learned to steal, so his mother decided to move. Unfortunately, they
moved next-door to a gambler. After Mencius watched him gamble many times, he
started to gamble as well. Therefore, his mother decided to move again. This
time she chose a scholar to be their neighbor. Because of the influence of his
neighbor, Mencius began to study books.
27 After Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty read "Reaching the clouds", written by Xiang-ru Si-ma, he
praised it very much. Therefore, De-yi Yang recommended Si-ma
to the emperor. Here "Reaching-the-Clouds poems" refers to Bo Wang's precious
28 Zi-qi Zhong was a native of the State of Chu during the Spring-fall
period. Bo-ya was a great zither player. While he improvised his zither music
with the theme of flowing water, Zi-qi Zhong would comment, "The water flows
like a mighty river." Thus, Zi-qi Zhong could read Bo-ya's mind from his music.
29 "Play the melody, 'Flowing Water'" means "present this essay of Wang's to
General Yan at the party".
30 The Orchid Gazebo was where Xi-zhi Wang, the Father of Chinese
Calligraphy, gathered his friends and had parties.
31 An-ren was Yue Pan's other first name. Shi-hen was Ji Lu's other first
name. They both were great poets during the Tai-kang Period in the Western Jin
dynasty. Criticisms on Poems says, "Yue Pan's talent is like a river; Ji
Lu's talent is like an ocean." Here Bo Wang used Pan and Lu to describe the
talent of the writers who attended the party.
32 Nan-pu City was located southwest of present day Nan-chang City in Jiangxi
Province. The city was a place where boats were coming and going.
33 Xi Mountain, also known as Nan-chang Mountain, was located west of present
day Xin-jian City in Jiang-xi Province and twenty miles away from the Gate of
the Zhang River.
34 A pearl blind is a bamboo blind decorated with pearls.
35 King Teng died in 684 CE, nine years after Bo Wang's death. Here this
sentence just means King Teng who had built this tower had to leave Hong-zhou
City and move on to another job.
Congratulations to Yuan Li on His Return to the Winding Valley
Han, Yu 2 (768 -824 CE)
… In the valley, there
are rich soils, luxuriant vegetation, and sweet spring water, but few
inhabitants. … "The secluded location and difficult passage
invites hermits to meander around this valley." My friend Yuan Li lived there.
Yuan said, "I have witnessed the life of a dignitary. He is the one who does
favors for others and is celebrated during his time. While he sits in the
emperor's court, he appoints and dismisses officials, and assists the emperor in
giving orders. When he goes out, his entourage displays splendid flags and
various weapons to flaunt his importance. His guards lead the way with his
followers crowding behind, blocking traffic. Servants provide the dignitary with
supplies and services. They line both sides of the road and speed along with his
errands. If the dignitary is happy, he will reward them. If he is angry, he will
punish them. Talented people congregate around him and praise his greatness by
comparing him to historical figures. He never tires of listening to these
stories. His wives have arched eyebrows and rosy cheeks. They wear white powder
and paint their eyelids green. They are beautiful outside and brilliant inside.
Their voices are clear and melodious, and their footsteps seem weightless. While
they walk, their sleeves and the trains of their garments flow behind them. They
live lives of leisure in fancy chambers. Some are jealous; others are secure.
They compete to win their master's love with beauty and delicacy. This is the
life of a person who assumes authority and is regarded highly by the emperor.
"I have no objection to a life of high rank and would not try to escape from
it if given the opportunity. It is my fate that I cannot enjoy such a fortunate
life. I live simply in the wild and climb mountains to look into the distance. I
love to sit under a luxurious tree all day and then take a bath in a limpid
spring. The wild vegetables I gather in the mountains are delicious. The fish
caught from the water are fresh. My daily life has no set schedule. I do
whatever pleases me. I would rather be found blameless by future generations
than be honored by people around me. I would rather be free from worry than
enjoy sensual pleasure. If one does not desire a splendid carriage or fancy
clothing, he will not be punished for his greed by knife and saw. If one is not
involved in politics, his emotions will not be affected by promotions or
demotions. This lifestyle suits one who is idealistic but has no chance to
realize his dreams. I resolved to pursue this ideal.
"Suppose one serves a high-ranking official at the official's
door, busily running about to follow the trend to worldly success. His feet are
going to advance, but he hesitates to move. He wants to speak the truth, but he
does not have the courage to do so. By and by he no longer feels shame for being
corrupted. Once he violates the law, he may be sentenced to death. However, he
still wants to pursue that unattainable wealth and power by any means until he
becomes old and dies. It is easy to decide whether or not this kind of life is
After listening to Yuan's words, I admired his decision to return home.
Therefore, I toasted him and sang for him, "The Winding Valley is your paradise.
You may cultivate its land. Its spring can cleanse and can be enjoyed for its
beauty. This valley is difficult to reach. Who would want to take this land from
you? The Winding Valley is long and deep. It is so wide that you have plenty of
space to live. It is sinuous: it goes one direction and then suddenly turns
back. It is a great joy to live in this place. The traces of tigers and leopards
are remote; horned dragons have fled and hidden. The patron god protects this
land and repels ill omens. The food and drink produced here will give you a long
and healthy life. You have everything you need, what else do you desire? Let me
prepare my carriage and feed my horses. I would like to follow you to the
Winding Valley and live a carefree life."
1 After Han's friend Yuan Li was dismissed from his office, Han wrote him
2 Tui-zi was Yu Han's other first name. He was a native of Nan-yang City
(present day Meng-xian City of Henan Province). His ancestors used to live in
Chang-li City (west of present day Xu-shui-xian City in Hebei Province), so he
called himself "Yu Han from Chang-li City" When he was three, his parents died.
His brother's wife raised him. He studied hard during his early years and
mastered the Six Bibles and various schools of philosophy. In 792 CE, he passed
the Advanced Exam. At the peak of his career, he was the Deputy Minister of the
Civil Service. He was given the posthumous name "Wen" (literature) by the
emperor. While he was the Deputy Minister of the Judicial Department, Emperor De
sent an envoy to India to acquire Buddha's bones. Yu Han wrote the emperor a
letter to admonish him for his edict. Emperor De was furious and wanted to put
Han to death. Due to Du Pei and others' rescue effort, Han's punishment was
reduced from death to a demotion to the position of mayor of Chao-zhou City. His
reputation of moral courage caused a sensation throughout China. He had great
expectations for himself and regarded developing Confucianism as his
responsibility. From the Wei and Jin dynasties through the Tang dynasty,
Buddhism and Taoism were popular. Yu Han rejected them without regard for his
own life. In the early Tang dynasty, writers loved to write essays in poetry
form. Han advocated that an essay must have a virtuous theme and tried to
revolutionize literature by reverting to an ancient style. He also advocated for
replacing the contemporary essays written in poetry form with prose. Han's views
on literature greatly affected the literature of both his contemporaries and
later generations. Anthologists of later generations collected the essays of Yu
Han, Zong-yuan Liu, Xiu Ou-yang, Gong Zeng, An-shi Wang, Xun Su, Shi Su, and Che
Su as exemplary essays for literature students, and called the above eight
essayists the Eight Masters of Literature During the Tang and Song dynasties. Yu
Han was ranked first.
The Mountain of Little Rocks
Liu, Zong-Yuan (773-819 CE)
…If you circle round the citadel and reach its top, you can see very far. There is no soil around. The nice trees and beautiful bamboos simply grow out of rocks, making them seem all the more strange and strong. Some trees reach towards the sky, others grow sideways. Some groves are dense, others sparse. The arrangement seems to be designed and calculated by a clever artist.
Oh! For a long time I have wondered whether there is a Creator. After seeing this rocky mountain, I feel the answer is definitely yes. It is strange that this beautiful landscape is not located in central China, but on its borders. It is so remote, that it would take a hundred or a thousand years to get a talented artist to reach this location and appreciate its beauty. It seems to be a great work of art born of a tremendous effort but with no clear purpose. If it were not so, then there would be no Creator. Some say, " It serves to console the wise people who are exiled and become frustrated here." Others say, "The heavenly spirit is not embodied in men but in things. Consequently, on China's border, there were few great men, but many beautiful landscapes." I do not believe in either of the two explanations.
Liu's great grandfather's brother was China's Prime Minister. Liu passed the third-level exam at the age of 21. Then he became a judge. At one time, the government made a short period of political reform. He was appointed to be the Minister of Education. Soon the king was sick. A new king succeeded the old king. The officials who opposed the reform gained power.
Liu was demoted to be the mayor of a small city. On the way to his new job, he was demoted again to a even lower job. However, he was not discouraged. He still did a lot for the local people. For example, he tried to abolish slavery. Poor people borrowed money from a lender. The lender took their children as collateral. If the borrowers failed to pay back the principal and the interest in time, the children would become the lender's slaves.
Liu helped borrowers negotiate with the lender in order to bring the children back and make labor contracts: The borrowers had to work for the lender until the debt was paid off. Later Liu's method was adopted in other cities. A thousand children could go home to unite with their parents.
Liu, Zong-Yuan (773-819 CE)
…I was demoted to live near the River S because I was so stupid that I could not get along with the authorities. I love this creek. Going along the creek for 2 or 3 miles, I found a great location and built my house there. In ancient times, there was a place called "The Valley of Fools". Now my home is on the creek. My neighbors still argue about the creek's name. Based on this precedent, I should name it Creek Inferior.
Wise people usually love water. Why would I alone like to give this creek a bad name? Because its elevation is so low that we can not use the water for irrigation. The water runs steep, fast and there are many huge stones underwater, so the big ships can not come into it. Furthermore, the creek is too narrow, too shallow, and too far from a town. The patron god could not use the creek to create clouds and rainstorms, so he finally abandoned it. Since the creek is useless just like me, it is justifiable to call it Creek Inferior.
Mr. N became foolish while the government was corrupt. He was a wise man who knew how to protect himself. Mr. E lived in his high ideas like an idiot. He is a clever man who looks like a fool. They are not really foolish. I was born in a uncorrupted era, but I contradicted reason and messed things up. No fool can be worse than I. Consequently, they cannot compete with me in naming this creek. Only I could enjoy the privilege to call it Creek Inferior.
Although the creek is of no use to the world, its water is completely clear. Thus it may reflect all things as they are. When its waves hit the stones, the sound is metallic. The sound would make fools smile, wander around, and hate to leave. Though I do not fit in this world, I console myself by writing essays. This creek washes everything clean and reflects everything as it is. After praising the creek in my foolish words, I felt that the creek and I approached each other and became one. It seems that I detached myself from everything in the universe and entered a silent and invisible world. No one could see, hear, or understand me. I felt very lonely, so I wrote eight foolish poems and inscribed them on a rock.
The Arborist, Humpback Guo
Liu, Zong-yuan (773-819 CE)
We do not know Humpback Guo's
original name. Because he was deformed, he walked bent over low like a camel
with a raised hump. Consequently, the villagers called him Humpback. After he
heard his nickname, he said, "Great! Humpback is a suitable name for me."
Therefore, he abandoned his own name and called himself Humpback.
He was born in Feng-le 1 Village, in the west part of Chang-an
City. He made a living by planting trees. In Chang-an City, fruit sellers or the
rich people who tried to beautify their garden, all competed for his service
with excellent offers. The trees he planted or transplanted all lived. They
would grow large and luxuriantly and produce more fruit earlier. Although other
arborists secretly observed him planting trees and tried to imitate his method,
still no one could equal his talents.
A man questioned Humpback about his secrets of planting trees. He replied, "I
cannot make a tree live longer and grow up. All I can do is develop a tree's
potential by acting according to the tree's nature. Thus, the roots should be
spread out and covered with old soil. Fertilizer should be distributed evenly.
After the tree is planted, the top soil should be packed. Then the tree should
be left alone. … After I plant the tree, I
put it aside as if I am discarding it. Then the tree's nature is protected and
its potential can develop. … Other arborists plant trees
differently. When they plant a tree, they bend the roots like a fist and fail to
leave old soil on the roots. When they feed the tree, they add either too much
or too little fertilizer. Even if they can correct their problems, they dote on
the tree too much and worry about it too often. … They scratch its bark to check if the tree is alive. They shake its roots to
check if the soil is properly packed. By their interference, the spirit of the
tree is driven away. Although they claim they love the tree, they actually
damage it. Although they claim they worry about the tree, they actually act like
its enemy. Therefore, their trees do not grow as well as mine.
The same man questioned again, "Is it possible to apply your method of
planting trees to politics?" Humpback answered, "I only know how to plant trees.
Politics is not my specialty. However, while I live in the village, I see that
the officials love to give orders. It seems that they sympathize with people's
ignorance, but the orders actually become disasters for the people. The
officials constantly come to say, 'We urge you to cultivate, encourage you to
plant, and will assist you with your harvest. You should reel silk and weave
cloth early. You should provide for your children and attend your livestock.'
They beat drums to gather people and strike wood to summon them. Even if we do
not take meals, we still cannot find enough time for ourselves simply because we
have to respond to these officials. How can we find peace and prosperity?
… Is such an interference similar to the
improper way of growing trees?"
wrote this story as a cautionary tale for a government.
1 In Chinese "Feng" means "plentiful"; "le" means "happy".
Yue-yang Tower 1
Fan, Zhong-yan 2 (989-1052 CE)
In Spring 1044, Zi-jing Teng 3 was demoted to mayor of Ba-ling
City 4. One year later the city government prospered and people lived
in harmony. Matters that had been neglected were attended to. Consequently, the
city remodeled Yue-yang Tower and expanded its dimensions.
The most beautiful scenery in the city is Lake Dong-ting 5
which connects to the remote mountains and swallows the Yangtze River. The lake
is so huge that one cannot see the other side. From morning till evening, the
personality of the lake changes constantly. …
Suppose it is the rainy season; there has been no sunshine for months;
sinister wind howls; the yellowish billows gather, rise and crash against the
sky; the sun and stars shine faintly; the mountains are hidden by fog; masts
fall and oars break; merchants dare not travel; tigers roar and apes howl as the
night falls. If we were to ascend the tower at this moment, we would be
overwhelmed by melancholy. For instance, we would miss our hometown or brood on
rumors and slanders. Bleak and desolate sights would greet eyes everywhere. We
could become so sensitive that we might easily grow pessimistic.
Suppose spring is in the air and scenery is clear; the lake water is calm;
the lights in the sky and on the water display an expanse of green; gulls fly
together in the sky; colorful fish swim in the water; the fragrant plants along
the shore and orchids on the islets are lush and green; after the smoke from
home-fires disperse in the evening, the sky becomes fresh and clean; the
moonshine spreads thousands of miles; the lake surface is glittering like gold;
the reflected image of the moon appear to sink into the lake bottom; the
fishermen sing songs to each other; … If we were to ascend the
tower at this time, we would be carefree and joyous and forget all of our honor
and shame. We would beam with joy while we drink wine facing the breeze.
I have discovered that in ancient times a gentleman with vision would think
differently about these two situations. He would not allow material things to
affect his mood. He would not be upset by his personal problems. When he was in
power, he would grieve over people's sorrows. When he was exiled to remote
border regions, he would worry about his emperor. In other words, he would
always concern himself with important state affairs regardless of his promotion
or demotion. When would he be happy? I would say that he would worry about his
country's problems before anyone else
and he would enjoy happiness only after all of his people were happy. Without
such a role model, whom would I follow?
Yue-yang Tower is located in Yue-yang City of Hunan Province. While Zi-jing
Teng remodeled the tower, Zhong-yan Fan wrote this commemorative essay,
Calligrapher Zi-mei Su copied it on the wall, and Song Shao inscribed the
tower's name in seal characters on a sign board. Their works were known as "Four
Guo-shang-hou wrote, "The wonderful part of this essay is the last paragraph:
Only sages with vision are able to concern themselves with important state
affairs and only they can enjoy true happiness; One's vision should not be
affected by one's promotion or demotion. Although these words came from Zhong-yan Fan's self-importance, Fan also used them to encourage Zi-jing Teng."
Xi-wen was Zhong-yan Fan's other first name. He was a native of Wu-xian
City of Su-zhou County during the Northern Song dynasty. When he was two years
old, his father died. His mother subsequently married Mr. Zhu of Chang-shan
City. At that time Zhong-yan Fan took his step-father's surname and was called Yue (happy). When he grew up, he discovered who his real father was. Then he
said good-bye to his mother and went to Ying-tian-fu City to study with Tong-wen
Qi. He read books day and night. When he was tired on winter nights, he would
wash his face with cold water. If he did not have enough food to eat, he would
drink thin gruel to survive. In 1015 CE, he passed the Advanced Exam and was
appointed to the position of staff officer in Guang-de City. After he assumed
his office, he sent for his mother and took good care of her. Then he returned
to using his original family name and changed his first name to Zhong-yan.
During Emperor Ren-zong's reign, he was promoted to the position of councilor in the
Ministry of Civil Service advising Kai-feng-fu City, the capital of the Northern
Song dynasty. Because he offended Yi-jian Lü
, the prime minister, Fan was demoted to Mayor of Rao-zhou City. When King Yuan-hao
Zhao of the Kingdom of Western Xia rebelled, Fan planned and built the defense
in Shaanxi Province to fulfill his duty as Scholar of the House of Dragon
Pictures. He had defended the frontiers for several years. His orders were clear
and strict. The Qiang Tribe called him "The Old Man of Dragon Pictures". The
generals in the Kingdom of Western Xia said, "There are millions of soldiers in
Fan's chest." The did not dare invade China's borders. In 1043 CE, Fan was
appointed to be the Vice President of the Privy Council and soon after he was
reappointed to administer state affairs. He attempted to reform the government
on a grand scale, but he suffered great opposition. Consequently, he resigned
his position and was demoted to Mayor of Qing-zhou City. Soon after he died from
disease. The emperor honored him by giving him the posthumous name "Wen-zheng"
(Duke of Virtue and Literature).
Zi-jing Teng used to be an advisor. His advise offended the emperor, so he
was demoted to mayor of Ba-ling City.
Ba-ling City is now called Yue-yang City and is located in Hunan Province.
Lake Dong-ting, 320 miles long and 160 miles wide, is the largest
freshwater lake in China. It is located in Hunan Province. It is surrounded by
Hua-rong, Nan-xian, An-xiang, Yuan-jiang, and Xiang-yin Cities. Ba-ling City was
at the lake's mouth where the Yangtze River enters. The rivers north of Yue-cheng, Ming-zhu, Du-pang, and Qi-ting Cities on Wu-ling (the five ranges of
mountains which formed the northern boundary between what are now Jiangxi
Province and Guangdong Province) such as the Xiang River, the Zi River, the Yuan
River, and the Feng River all converge into Lake Dong-ting. There are many hilly
islands on the lake. Jun Mountain is the most well-known of them. The water in
the lake is shallow in Spring and Winter, but greatly swells in Summer and
Autumn. The lake appears like the open sea during the latter seasons.
Ode to the Sound of Autumn
Ou-yang, Xiu (1007-1072 CE)
One night while I was reading, a startling sound came from the southwest. I
was frightened when I heard it. I said to myself, "This sound is strange." At
first, it was as soft as the drizzle of rain or the rustle of leaves. Suddenly
it became loud with the sound of waves crashing. It seemed that the waves were
howling in the dark to herald an imminent storm. When Autumn touches something,
it sounds like rain hitting a tin roof. The sound was also like soldiers
marching forward silently to engage the foe. No verbal commands could be heard
except for the rushing of people and horses.
I said, "… Its color is dreadfully pale like that of
gathered clouds of mist and snow. Its appearance is clean and bright like the
shining sun in the lofty sky. Its air current is cold and stings people's flesh
and bones. It desires to turn the landscape bleak and desolate, including the
mountains and rivers. Consequently, the sound of Autumn is bitterly sad as if
someone were wailing. Before Autumn arrives, grass and bushes compete at
growing. Trees are lush, green and lovely. However, after Autumn arrives, the
leaves of a tree will fall and grass will change its color. This destruction is
due to the excessive killing power of the chill.
"The Autumn Department in the Zhou dynasty
1 was in charge of
punishment. This name was chosen because the Autumn season brings destruction to
mind. Due to its destructive power, autumn resembles war and corresponds to gold
in the five basic elements 2. Thus, Autumn symbolizes the dignified
spirit of virtue spanning heaven and earth, which works through extermination.
In nature, trees grow in Spring and produce fruit in Autumn. In music, autumn
corresponds to the 'Shang' tune 3, a common feature of western
music. In pitch pipe music, July corresponds to the 'Yi' semitone
'Shang' means 'sadness' in Chinese. It is sad that things grow old. 'Yi' means
'extermination' in Chinese. The surplus of plants and animals should be
"The trees have no emotions, but their leaves are still going to
fall. A human is the most sensitive creature. Hundreds of problems occupy his
mind. Great labors tire his body. An affliction of his mind will shake his
spirit. In addition, he thinks about things that are beyond his ability to
understand and worries about problems that he can not solve. No wonder a young
face looks haggard and black hair turns gray. His body is made of flesh and
blood rather than gold or stone, but he still likes to compete with flowers for
vanity. Given that his mortality results from his own actions, how can he
complain about the sound of Autumn?"
My servant boy did not reply. He lowered his head and fell asleep. I only
heard cicadas singing aloud in all directions. They seemed to accompany my sigh.
The government was divided into six departments during the Zhou dynasty.
The Autumn Department was one of them.
The ancient Chinese believed that the universe consists of five basic
elements: gold, wood, water, fire, and earth.
We should appreciate Ou-yang's astute observation and amazing sensitivities
which enabled him to obtain a conclusion similar to Darwin's theory of
evolution. Because Ou-yang could not explain his discovery with a scientific
argument in his time, it was natural for him to resort to metaphor or mysticism
in his explanation. Similarly, it is superficial to classify Homer’s Odyssey
as mythology. The correct attitude is to view it as Greek history and treat its
mysticism as the ancient Greek method of explaining historical events.
"Gong, Shang, Jiao, Zhi, and Yu" were the notes of the pentatonic scale in
ancient Chinese music. They were similar to the notes of "Do, re, mi, sol, and
la" in western music.
It is natural to associate each season with the direction from which the
wind comes. Consequently, Autumn corresponds to the west wind.
Bamboo pitch pipes used in ancient Chinese music categorized sound into
twelve semitones corresponding to the months of a year.
Su, Xun 1 (1009-1066 CE)
The first step for a man to become a general is to discipline his mind: Even
if Tai Mountain collapses in front of him, his facial expression will not
change; even if a deer jumps beside him, his eyes will not move. Then he can
judge the consequences of actions and can confront enemies. Soldiers should
respect a virtuous cause. They should not abandon their duty despite monetary
temptation. … Only a virtuous
cause may motivate a soldier's determination. The soldier, being motivated by a
virtuous cause, may fight again and again.
Consider the strategy for winning a war. During peace time, we should build
the country's wealth. Immediately before a war, we should cultivate our
strength. When the war begins, we should raise our spirits. After winning a war,
we should preserve our troops' aspirations. To build wealth, we must keep our
farmers free from worry by assuring them that beacon-fire 2
will be raised when an enemy invades and that we will carefully observe the
enemy's deployment. To maintain the country's strength we must take good care of
soldiers and reward their accomplishments generously. Aiming at a bigger target
after a small victory and fighting more vigorously after a small defeat are the
ways to raise our spirits. By not giving them the assignment that one most
desires, we instill a hunger for more accomplishments. It is important to keep
troops' fighting spirit high and prevent their desires from being fully
satisfied. If one's fighting spirit is high, one will be brave. If one's desire
is not satisfied, one will strive for more. …
If we do not keep our troops
desirous of more accomplishment, they will lose their vigor after winning just a
A general must be wise and strict and his troops must obey his orders. Wisdom
makes him unpredictable. Strictness deters his troops from violating his orders.
Thus his troops will devote themselves to their duties. Only after soldiers are
trained to obey orders can they die for a virtuous cause. Only after collecting
intelligence about the enemy's commander and generals, may we risk ourselves by
carrying out our attack plan. General Ai Deng 3 attacked King Chan
Liu 4 by rappelling from a mountain top. Had King Chan Liu not been
so foolish, he could have captured all General Deng's troops even if their
numbers had exceeded a million. General Deng thought little of King Chan Liu, so
he had the courage to make such a risky move. Thus, a wise general in the past
used his troops to test his enemy, and used his enemy to test his own ability.
When a crisis arose, he could make a wise decision based on his experiences.
Consider the path to becoming a competent general. Only after teaching his
troops to understand the virtuous cause may he ask them to obey his orders. Only
after studying the enemy's situation may he initiate an attack. Only after
understanding the benefit of temperance, may he use his army to its maximum
strength. Soldiers with the knowledge that justice is on their side are
fearless. If the general understands the enemy's situation, he will not get
frustrated with uncertainty. If he can set limits to expenditures, his resources
are endless. When the general sees a small prize, he will not rashly grab it.
When he must suffer a small loss, he will not try to avoid it. He understands
that small prizes and small losses are not sufficient to test his skills. By
ignoring trivialities, the general will gain the opportunity to win grand prizes
and deal with more significant problems. Only those who cultivate their skills
and respect themselves are invincible. That is, wise endurance may surpass a
hundred acts of bravery. Staying quiet at the right moment may prevent a hundred
attacks. … Someone asked me, "We love to
show and use our strength, but the enemy does not want to fight in that way. We
try to hide and avoid using our weakness, but the enemy exploits it. Then what
shall we do?" I replied, "We should expose our weakness and make the enemy feel
suspicious and withdraw. Then we should secretly cultivate our strength so that
the enemy may underestimate our abilities and fall into our traps.
The best way to lead soldiers is to free them from worry and provide them
something they can rely on. If one is free from worry, one will be glad to die
for a glorious mission. When one has something to rely on, one will be convinced
that there is a chance to win. Suppose one has a whip in hand. Even if he meets
a tiger, he will attack it with vigor. Suppose one has no weapon available. Even
if he encounters a lizard, he may change his countenance and step back.
… If one holds a
sword even with his arm unprotected, he will stop a brave man's attack. If one
wears armor, carries a weapon, but falls asleep, then even a boy can kill him.
Thus a general must be fortified with a strong image. Fortified with a strong
image, he will have strength to spare when dealing with problems.
Ming-yun and Lao-chuan were Xun Su's other first names. He was a native of Mei-zhou City. It is now called Mei-shan-xian City which is located in Sichuan
Province. He was not determined to study until he was twenty-five. After he
failed the Advanced Exam many times, he went home to study the Six Bibles
and read all schools of Chinese philosophy. He paid attention to contemporary
affairs, mastered argumentative writings, and became a great essayist. During
the Jia-you Period, he came to the capital along with his two sons, Dong-po Su
and Che Su, to pay homage to the literary giant, Xiu Ou-yang. Xun Su presented
22 of his essays to Ou-yang. Ou-yang enjoyed reading Su's essays and recommended
them for people to read. Later, Xun Su was appointed to revise books at the
Imperial Library through the recommendation of Qi Han, the prime minister.
A beacon fire was used as a signal by which one watchtower informed the
next watchtower of the enemy's invasion. Thus, the fire signal allowed the
border guards to quickly inform the capital of the enemy's advancement.
Ai Deng was a native of Ji-yang City in the Kingdom of Wei during the Three
Kingdoms Period. He helped Yu Si-ma, the Founding Emperor of the Jin dynasty,
resist the troops of the Kingdom of Shu-han, so he was made Guan-nei (the area
south of the Great Wall) Duke. Later, he became the Commander in Charge of a
Western Expedition. In 263 A.D., Ai Deng led troops to invade the Kingdom of
Shu-han. From Ying-ping City, his troops passed through no man's land for 450
miles. His generals and soldiers had to tunnel through mountains, scale cliffs
by climbing from tree to tree, and advance in single file. When they reached Jiang-you City, the defending general, Miao Ma, surrendered. When they reached
Cheng-du City, the Capital of Shu-han, King Chan Liu exited the City gate and
Chan Liu was the Last King of the Kingdom of Shu-han. He was the son of Bei
Liu, the Founding King of the Kingdom of Shu-han. A-dou was Chan Liu's other
first name. He surrendered to the Kingdom of Wei in 263 A.D.
Visiting Bao-chan Mountain
Wang, An-shi 1 (1021-1086 CE)
Bao-chan Mountain is also called Hua Mountain 2. Monk Hui-bao of
the Tang dynasty lived here and was buried here, so the mountain was named after
him. The current location of Hui-kong Zen Temple was the former site of
Hui-bao’s home and then his tomb. Three miles east of the temple is Hua-yang
Cave 3. The cave gains its name because it is located on the southern
side of Hua Mountain. A little more than one hundred feet away from the cave
there is a tablet that has fallen over, lying on the path. Wind and rain have
weathered the characters; all that remains legible is "Hua Shan
Today we call it Hua Mountain because in Chinese "colorful" and "flower" are
pronounced almost the same 5 and misinterpretation gradually changed
the name of the mountain. Inside the cave, the floor is flat and expansive.
… On this wall many people have
recorded their travels. This cave is called the Front Cave. Three miles further
uphill, there is another cave which is deep and far-reaching. It was chilly as
we entered it. When we asked people how far the cave extends, we found that even
the most experienced visitor had not reached its end. We call this cave the
My two friends 6, two brothers
7 and I entered the
cave, carrying a torch. As we went further into the cave, it became more
difficult to proceed and the sights became more beautiful and remarkable. One
individual who lacked an adventurous spirit wanted to leave, so he said, "If we
do not leave now, the fire will die out." Therefore, we all left with him.
We had only reached one tenth of the furthest known distance traveled into
the cave. Even so, we noticed that there were fewer visitors' etchings to the
left and right. The further depths were even less frequently traveled. At that
moment we still had the strength to continue and our fire was sufficient for a
while. After we exited, some of the others blamed the cowardly one for cutting
our expedition short. I also regretted that we followed his request to exit, and
thereby failed to make the most of our adventure.
Consequently, I sighed: When our forefathers observed the heavens, earth,
mountains, rivers, … birds and beasts, they often
gained insight by expanding the breadth and depth of their thoughts. If a place
is near and flat, there are many visitors. If a destination is remote and risky,
few people arrive. The most beautiful and marvelous sight is often found in a
remote and dangerous location that people rarely attempt to reach. Thus, one
cannot reach one's destination unless one has the will. Even if one has the will
to continue despite others giving up, he will still not reach his destination if
he lacks strength. Even if one has the will and the strength, and does not give
up when others do, one still cannot reach one's destination unless one has the
tools to overcome the dark and uncharted path. However, if I have the ability to
reach my destination but I fail to do so, for others it is laughable, for myself
it is regrettable. If I have done my best, but I cannot reach my destination, at
least I will not suffer regret and others will not have reason to criticize my
failure. This is what I have learned from my experience visiting Bao-chan
As for the tablet lying on the ground, I lamented that the old writing could
not be properly understood because of misinterpretation. … This is why a scholar must contemplate and approach truth
Jie-fu and Ban-shan were An-shi Wang's alternate first names. He was a
native of Lin-chuan City of Fu-zhou County during the Northern Song dynasty.
Lin-chuan City is now called Lin-chuan-xian City which is located in Jiangxi
Province. In 1042 CE, An-Shi Wang passed the Advanced Exam at the young age of
twenty-two. Xiu Ou-yang wrote a poem to congratulate him. It said, “As I grow
older, I pity myself for my unfulfilled ambitions./ Talented as you are, who can
compete with you from now on?” This shows that Ou-yang valued Wang highly.
Later, Wang followed Ou-yang's teaching and dedicated himself to writing Chinese
classics. He became one of the Eight Greatest Essayists during the Tang and Song
During Emperor Shen-zong's reign, Wang was appointed prime minister twice. He
served his first term between the ages of forty-nine and fifty-four and his
second term between the ages of fifty-five and fifty-six. While he was the prime
minister, he attempted to make political reforms by establishing new law codes
for agriculture, irrigation, transportation, the tithing system, and enlisting
laborers. However, his reforms failed. Many historians attribute the failure to
his practice of appointing the wrong people to execute his plans. In 1076 CE,
Wang resigned his position as prime minister.
Before Wang, China's Civil Services Exams were based on the ability to write
poetry. Wang made a drastic change by using the analysis of the Six Classics for
the exam topics. He wrote the essay, "In a Neighborhood, Virtue Is Beautiful" as
a model. Thus, he took the lead in writing the stereotyped form of Chinese
literary essays. This change greatly influenced later Chinese scholars' approach
As revealed in the essay "Visiting Bao-chan Mountain", Wang had a strong
character that allowed him to persevere. He also had an amazing ability to think
and to organize. He claimed that the purpose of literature is to serve society,
that its content must be true and virtuous, and that ostentatious expressions
are not as important as virtuous themes.
2 "Hua" means "colorful".
3 "Yang" means the southern side of a mountain.
4 "Hua Shan" means "Flower Mountain".
There are four basic tones in Mandarin (the Beijing dialect). The first
tone (-) starts near the top of a speaker's voice
range and continues on that level until the end. The second tone (/) starts at the mid-range and rises rapidly to the top of the range. The third
tone (Ú) starts below mid-range, dips to the lowest
pitch, and rises above mid-range. The fourth tone (\) starts near the top of the
range and falls very rapidly toward the bottom. Flower (huā)
and colorful (huá ) [the tone mark is placed
over the main vowel letter] are two examples.
6 "My two friends" refers to Jun-gui Xiao and Hui Wang. Jun-gui Xiao, a.k.a.
Jun-yu Xiao, was a native of Lu-ling City, present day Ji-an-xian City of Fu-jian
Province. Hui Wang, a.k.a. Shen-fu Wang, was a native of Chang-le City, present
day Chang-le-xian City of Fujian Province.
7 "Two brothers" refers to An-guo Wang. a.k.a. Ping-fu Wang, and An-shang
Wang, a.k.a. Chun-fu Wang.
Ode to the Red Cliff 1 (I)
Su, Dong-po 2 (1036-1101 CE)
On August 18th in 1082,
My guests and I were taking a boat ride beneath the Red Cliff.
The breeze blew gently.
The water remained calm.
I toasted my guests, recited the poems in the chapter entitled "The Moon Rises"
And then sang the song, "Being Modest and Retiring" 3.
Soon after the moon rose above the eastern mountain
And lingered between the Dipper and the Herdboy 4.
The reflection of the light blurred into the hues of the sky.
We let our small boat drift freely like a reed
And rode along the expanse of the unknown.
Unaware of where the rushing boat would end up,
We had the thrill of riding the mighty wind.
It seemed as though we were lightly leaving this world of cares,
Had grown wings, ascended, and become immortal.
Then we drank and celebrated.
We drummed the boat’s side and sang,
"The oars of laurel and orchid strike the reflection of the moon.
The boat goes upstream.
My feelings reach the distance where the flowing water leads.
I am longing for the sages 5 at the other side of the sky."
One guest accompanied the song with a bamboo flute.
The music was sad as if he were weeping, yearning, or lamenting.
The sound was melodious and lingered like an endless silk thread.
A dragon lying hidden in the secluded valley would be inspired to dance to
And a widow in a lonely boat might be brought to tears.
I straightened up and earnestly asked why he played such a sad tune.
The guest replied,
“‘The moon is bright and the stars are sparse;
Ravens fly south.’
We recite this from Cao Cao's poem 6, don’t we?
We can see Xia-kou City 7 in the east
And then Wu-chang City in the west.
Mountains and rivers intertwine each other.
The trees here are lush and green.
Was this not where Cao Cao was defeated by Yu Zhou 8 ?
When Cao Cao seized Jing-zhou City, captured Jiang-ling City 9,
And rode along the Yangtze River downstream to the east,
His fleet of warships stretched hundreds of miles;
The flags and banners of his troops filled the sky.
Drinking wine in front of a river,
General Cao improvised poetry while brandishing his lance.
Surely he was the hero of his time, but where is he now?
We fish and fell trees on this small island,
Befriending deer, fish, and lobsters.
Riding a small boat,
We raise gourd cups to toast each other.
We are like a speck of grain in the sea
Or mayflies between heaven and earth.
I lament that our life is short,
And covet the endlessness of the Yangtze River.
I wish I could roam in the sky by grasping a flying fairy
And embrace the moon with which I could live forever.
I am aware that this dream cannot be realized.
Therefore, I entrusted the lingering music to the sad wind."
I asked my guest,
"Do you truly understand the nature of water and the moon?"
Instead of waiting for his answer,
I expressed my point of view,
"The stream flows away, but never dries up.
The moon may appear full or crescent-shaped,,
But it never changes its size.
From the viewpoint of change,
The world cannot remain the same for longer than a moment.
From the viewpoint of constancy,
Everything including us will last forever.
So why should we envy other things?
In this world, everything has its natural master.
If it does not belong to me,
I dare not take it even if it has little value.
However, there are two exceptions:
The fresh wind on the river becomes a pleasant sound
As long our ears open to it;
The moon 10 between the mountains becomes beautiful
As long as our eyes are aware of it.
Free and inexhaustible,
The breeze and the moon are the Creator's endless treasure
Which we may enjoy together."
My guest emerged from his sorrow and smiled.
Then we washed dishes, ate our meal, and toasted each other.
After we finished eating,
The dishes were scattered about in disorder.
We reclined against each other in the boat,
Unaware of the sun rising in the east.
1 Four different mountains in Hubei Province all have the same name: the Red
Cliff. The first is located northeast of Ja-yu-xian City. This was where Yu Zhou
of the Kingdom of Wu defeated Cao Cao. The second is located southeast of
Wu-chang-xian City. The third is located in Dun-kou City of Han-yang County and
is also known as Wu-lin-feng Mountain, which belongs to the Lin-zhang Mountain
Range. The fourth is outside the city Dong-po Su visited, Huang-gang-xian City.
Su's essay said that this was where Yu Zhou defeated Cao Cao because Su wanted
to add another dimension to his essay by using this historical event.
2 Shi (a bar in the front part of a carriage for passengers to hold onto, not
fancy but essential for safety) and Zi-zhan were Dong-po Su's other first names.
He was a descendant of Wei-dao Su (648-705), a prime minister during Empress
Ze-tian Wu's reign. Dong-po Su was a native of Mei-shan City (present day
Mei-shan-xian City in Sichuan Province). He, his father, Xun Su, and his younger
brother, Che Su, were all famous essayists. Today people call them the "Three Sus". Their essays are outstanding and especially excel in argumentative
writing. There was a Chinese saying, "If one masters the essays of the Three Sus, one eats mutton. Otherwise, one eats the roots of greens." The saying
showed that their argumentative writings were considered model essays for those
who tried to prepare for the Advanced Exam. The Three Sus are included among
"the Eight Masters of Ancient Chinese Prose". Dong-po Su was learned and
talented. In 1057, he and his younger brother took the Palace Exam at the Board
of Rites. Xiu Ou-yang was the examiner. In this exam, Dong-po Su wrote the essay
"When Punishing or Awarding People, We Must Be Kind and Sincere" as his paper
when taking the Palace Exam. Ou-yang asked him, "In your essay, Gao-tao said
three times, 'Kill him.' Emperor Yao said three times, 'Pardon him.' Where does
this story come from?" Su replied, "I thought it must have been so." Ou-yang
praised Dong-po Su highly and said to himself, "I should keep this man out of
the limelight." This statement showed Ou-yang's caution for nurturing young
talent. In the above exam, Su's score was the highest, but Ou-yang put him in
second place and put Gong Zeng in first place. Ou-yang said, "Su is only
twenty-two years old. If I put him in first place, he might become proud."
Later, Dong-po Su was appointed as the mayor’s assistant at Feng-xiang-fu City
and then an Editor of Historical Records.
In 1069, An-shi Wang became the prime minister. He established new law codes
for reform. Dong-po Su opposed Wang’s reforms for the following reasons: Wang
emphasized establishing new law codes, while Su emphasized appointing talented
government officials. Wang wanted to quickly apply his new laws to the entire
nation, while Su promoted slow and steady reforms. Wang put top priority on
exploring sources of revenue, while Su considered frugality essential. Su's
proposal was not adopted by the emperor's court. In 1071, after Su asked to be
transferred to Hang-zhou City, he was appointed as the city's assistant mayor.
In 1076, An-shi Wang resigned as the prime minister because his reforms failed
due to making poor choices when appointing officials. In 1079, corrupt officials brought a false charge against Dong-po Su. They accused him of harboring malicious intentions because Su frequently criticized the government. Later, they arrested Su and proposed to sentence Su to death. This proposal was opposed by Prime Minister Chong Wu, Ex-prime Minister An-shi Wang, and Queen Mother Cao. Consequently, Emperor Shen-zong ordered to reinvestigate the case. After having been imprisoned from August 24 to December 5, Su was released and demoted to Deputy Commissioner of Militia at Huang-zhou City.
In 1086, Guang Si-ma became the prime minister. During the
Yuan-you Period Su became a member of the Royal Academy and then an imperial
tutor. However, Su disagreed with Si-ma's policies because the latter only
wanted to make nominal changes rather than truly consider the well-being of
common people. In 1094, he was demoted to Deputy Commander at Qiong-zhou City.
In 1099, he was pardoned and moved north. In 1101, he died at Chang-zhou City.
See the biography of Dong-po Su in Chapter 338 of The History of the Song
Wu-guan Lu said, "People claimed that Dong-po Su could not sing, so his folk
style poetry was not harmonious with music." Yi-dao Chao said, "In the beginning
of the Shao-sheng Period, Dong-po Su and I parted at a ferry crossing on the
upper stream of the Bian River. After drinking wine, Dong-po sang the song, 'Gu-yang Pass'. It proved that Su can sing. However, his poems are so
unrestrained that they may not comply with musical rules. I tried to sing a few
of Su's poems. After finishing, I felt that the wind from the sky and the rain
from the sea had been moved by the power of the song."
Chui-jian-lu (Small Voices) written by Wen-bao Yu (c. 1240) of the
Southern Song dynasty says, "One day in his office, Dong-po Su showed his poem,
'Nostalgia at Bei-gu Pavilion in Jing-kou City' (to the Tune of 'Lovely Nian-nu'), to one of his staff who was good at music. After the latter read the
poem, Su asked, 'How does my poem compare with those of Yong Liu's?' The staff
member replied, 'Liu's typical lines, such as 'I may be in a boat beneath the
waning moon/ As the morning breeze brushes the willow trees along the
riverside.', are suitable for singing only by a seventeen-year-old girl who
keeps time with wooden clappers. In contrast, it requires a hefty male westerner
who plays a bronze lute or beats a gong to sing your line, 'The mighty river
flows eastward.'' Dong-po Su roared with laughter."
In a letter to mayor's assistant Min-shi Xie, Dong-po Su wrote about the
profundity of writing. He said, "Writing is like clouds drifting or water
flowing. At first, it does not have any direction. However, it goes where it is
supposed to and stops where it should. In other words, the development of an
essay should be natural; a good essay is like a graceful woman whose bearing is
full of charm." Dong-po Su commented on his own writing, "My essays stem from
tremendous resources. They run like a spring which may emerge anywhere from the
ground." Su truly understood the profundity of essay writing. He was not only a
great essayist, but also a great poet. In addition, Dong-po Su was a man greatly
accomplished at practicing calligraphy, playing the game, "Go", appreciating
wine, and studying Buddhism. Su forged Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in one
stove with one flame: Confucianism inspired him to save the world; Buddhism and
Taoism expanded his vision. It can be said that Dong-po Su was a man of many
3 "Being Modest and Retiring" was the first poem in the chapter entitled "The
Moon Rises" in The Poetry of the State of Chen, a volume of The Book
of Poetry. The poem says, "When the bright moon rises,/ With a beautiful
woman as my companion,/ My sorrow is relieved/ And my harassed mind becomes
4 "The Dipper" refers to "the Constellation of the Big Dipper"; "the Herdboy"
refers to "the Constellation of the Herdboy".
5 Here "the sages" refers to the virtuous officials in the emperor's court.
6 Cao Cao, a.k.a. Meng-de Cao, was the prime minister at the end of the
Eastern Han dynasty. He forced Emperor Xian-di to do his bidding. Cao Cao and
his two sons, Pei Cao and Zhi Cao, were great poets during the Jian-an Period.
7 Xia-kou City is located in Hubei Province.
8 In 208 CE, Cao Cao's navy sailed from Jing-zhou City downstream along the
Yangtze River. King Quan Sun of the Kingdom of Wu made his commander Yu Zhou and
King Bei Liu of the Kingdom of Shu-han unite their forces to fight against Cao's
navy. They defeated Cao's navy at the Red Cliff.
9 Jing-ling City is located in Hubei Province.
10 The following video shows Li-jun Deng singing Dong-po Su's poem, "To the
Tune of 'Prelude to the Water Song'":
The first line of this poem is "How long will the bright moon appear?". The
poem centers around this question which inspired Su's concern and blessings for
his country and his family. His observations of the moon made him understand
that nothing is perfect. It also provided support for his life philosophy: Be
content with what one has and be optimistic about the future.
Wang, Shou-ren 1 (1472-1528 CE)
On July 3, 1509, an unknown official from Beijing took his son and a servant
to his new place of employment. They passed by Long-chang City
put up for the night at a local family’s home. I saw them through a bamboo
fence. It was dark, rainy, and overcast. I intended to go to their home and ask
them about the news in the north, but I did not. The next morning, I sent people
to see them. The official, his son, and his servant were gone. Around noon
people came from Wu-gong Slope 3 and said, "One
man died at the foot of the slope. Two people were weeping at his side." I said,
"It must be the official who died. How sad!" …
I was sorry that the corpses were exposed in the wilderness and that no
friends would claim them. Therefore, I carried a shovel and a bucket and went to
bury them. I also asked two boys to help me, but they appeared reluctant to go.
So I said, “We are in the same situation as they are.” Then the two boys wept
with pity and agreed to go bury the corpses. At the foot of the mountain we
found the corpses. Nearby we dug three graves and buried them.
After offering a chicken and three bowls of rice to honor the
dead, I spoke to the spirit of the deceased official through tears, "Alas! What
an unfortunate event! Who are you? Who are you? …
Why did you come here to become ghosts of this mountain? In
ancient times, people would think seriously before leaving their home town. If
they had a job offer more than a thousand miles away from their home town, they
would not accept it. It is appropriate for me to stay here because I am in
exile. But what crime could you have committed that forced you to suffer such
misfortune? I heard that your new position was a jailer. Its salary is less than
five bushels of rice a month 4. You might earn that amount of money
by farming with your wife. Why did you trade your precious life for such a low
salary? … During your long journey, you risked
frostbite and had to climb numerous cliffs and mountain tops. You had to endure
thirst, hunger, hardship, and exhaustion. The plague attacked your body, and
sorrow attacked your mind. How could you avoid death? Although I know you had to
die, I am surprised that your death came so soon and that your son and your
servant also died so suddenly. You have only yourself to blame for this tragedy.
What else can I say?
"Since no one would have claimed your corpses, I came to bury you. This
grieves me endlessly. Alas! How sad! The foxes from the gloomy mountain edges
gather in groups. The vipers in the dim valley are each as thick as a wheel. If
I had not buried you, they would have devoured you and you would not have been
exposed to the elements for long. Now that you are insensible, how could I have
the heart to let that happen? I have lived in Long-chang City for two years
since leaving my home town. I can survive the plague because I have never been
dejected even for a single day. I am sad today because I care more about you
than about myself. It is no use to mourn your death further. I would like to
sing for you. Please listen!
"'A continuous chain of mountain tops meets the sky. Even a
bird can not fly over them. Like wanderers, we miss our homes. We wish we could
find a way to leave here. Although I cannot see my home, my family and I share
the same sky. Although I live in a primitive region away from home, I am glad
that there is no sea to separate me from my family. We should be optimistic and
feel at home wherever we are. Spirits! Spirits! Please do not grieve too much!'
"I sang again to soothe the spirit of the deceased jailer: 'You and I left
our home town and came here, we could not understand the local dialect. In such
a plagued region, one cannot expect to live long. If I die here, please bring
your son and your servant to join me! We may travel for pleasure. We may ride a
purple tiger or a colorful dragon to view our homes in the distance. Perhaps we
will weep with grief because we cannot be there with our families. If I can
survive and return home, your son and your servant can still follow you. Do not
be upset about loneliness. There are plenty of graves along the roadside. Most
of the dead came from Central China. You may greet them with whistles and walk
with them back and forth. You can survive by eating wind and drinking dew. In
the morning, you can befriend deer. In the evening, you can rest with apes. May
you remain here in peace. Do not bother people in this area.'"
Bo-an and Yang-ming were Shou-ren Wang's other first names. He was a native
of Yu-yao City in Zhejiang Province during the Ming dynasty. He built a dwelling
and gave lectures in Yang-ming Cave at the foot of Kuai-ji Mountain in Shao-xing
City. Scholars call him Master Yang-ming.
Shou-ren was extremely clever and had a heroic spirit. When he was fifteen,
he visited Ju-yong Pass and Shan-hai Pass of the Great Wall. The grand wall
inspired his aspiration to administer China’s frontiers. In 1499 CE, he passed
the Advanced Exam at the age of twenty-eight. Then he was appointed Assistant
Director of the Board of Punishment. When he was thirty-five, he wrote a letter
to his superior because he wanted to rescue Xian Dai, the Supervising Censor of
Nanjing City, and more than twenty other people. The letter offended Jin Liu, a
powerful but corrupt eunuch. As a consequence, Shou-ren Wang endured forty
floggings and was demoted to a low position at China's western border. This
essay "Travelers' Burial" was written during his exile. After Jin Liu was
killed, Wang was promoted to Assistant Director of the Board of Punishment at Nanjing City, and then Lord High Chamberlain's Censor. In 1516 CE, he was
appointed to the position of censor, in charge of patrolling the southern area
of Jiangxi Province, along the Ting River and the Zhang River, and crushing
local insurgents. In 1519 CE, he also defeated the rebellion instigated by Chen-hao
Wang. Soon after Shou-ren Wang was promoted to the position of Director of the
Board of War and was made the Count of Xin-jian. In 1527 CE, he was appointed to
the position of joint governorship of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, and was
in charge of crushing rebellions instigated by chieftains of the tribes in Si-en
City and Tian-zhou City.
Shou-ren Wang is regarded as a great philosopher both in China and in Japan.
He claimed that knowledge and action are two aspects of the same entity. He
advocated for developing one's talent to the utmost. His disciples were all over
China. Later generations called his school of philosophy "Yao-jiang School". His
philosophy is similar to that of Jiu-yuan Lu of the Song dynasty. Scholars
usually put their names side by side and call them "Lu and Wang". The school led
by Jiu-yuan Lu and Shou-ren Wang as well as the school led by Hao Cheng, Yi
Cheng, and Xi Zhu were the two major schools of Neo-Confucianism in modern
China. Shou-ren Wang's essays are broad, profound, and virtuous; his poems are
graceful and exquisite.
Long-chang City is now called Xiu-wen-xian City and is located in Guizhou
Province. During the Ming dynasty it was China's western border city where the
Han people and the Miao people lived together.
3 "Wu-gong Slope" means "The Mountain Slope of Centipedes".
4 "Five bushels of rice a month" is not a generous salary.