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Travelers' Burial

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 2 and 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!" At about sundown, another group of people from the same place came with an update. They said that there were two people dead at the foot of the slope and that one person was sitting alongside and crying. After asking about the situation, I learned that the official's son had also died. The next day, a third group of people from the same area came and said that they saw three corpses lying at the foot of the slope. The servant was dead as well. Alas! How tragic!

    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? I am Shou-ren Wang, a post official of Long-chang City. You and I were born in Central China even though I do not know exactly from where you came. 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? In addition, you have also traded in your son and your servant. If you really came for five bushels of rice, you should have been cheerful when setting out for your journey. However, when I saw you yesterday, you seemed to knit your brow as if you could not bear your sorrow. 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.'"


1 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.

2 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.