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Congratulations on Can-yuan Wang's Home Catching Fire 1

Liu, Zong-yuan (773 A.D.-819 A.D.)

    From reading Ba Yang's letter I learned that your home was destroyed by fire. It said that there was nothing left. I was scared at first, then doubtful, and joyous at last. I was about to console you, but I changed my mind and would like to congratulate you instead. We are separated in a long distance and Yang's letter was sketchy, so I could not have a full grasp of the situation. If you suffered a great loss or even lost all your possessions, I would congratulate you all the more.

    You take good care of your parents and are happy night and day. All you wish for is a life without mishap. The accident caused by the blazing fire must have shaken you. You might be temporarily without oil or condiments for cooking. Therefore, I was shocked at first. There is a saying: Disaster is what fortune leans on; fortune is where disaster conceals 2; they come and go without any predicable sign. If one aspires to achieve great success, one should expect to suffer misfortune, difficulties and frustration; for example, the misfortune of flood or fire or the anger of villains. One has to work hard and experience many states of mind to achieve one's goal. Every story of a successful man reveals this same truth. However, the path to success is extensive and unpredictable. Even a sage is unsure which challenge will enable one to achieve success. Thus, I became doubtful about whether or not this fire was to your benefit.

    You read classics, write essays, and are a master of philology. Versatile as you are, you have not been promoted to an outstanding position that fits your talent. This is simply because your family's wealth discourages those who value a clean reputation from recommending you. After recognizing your talent, they keep it in their minds and restrain themselves from speaking out about it, because the truth is difficult to verify and people tend to be suspicious. If someone were to recommend you, he would be ridiculed and accused of accepting large bribes.

    I have read your essays and recognized your talent since 799 A.D. However, I have not made any comments on your essays for six or seven years because I have been concerned more about my personal reputation and have been in debt to the public duty of recruiting talented candidates for a long time. I did not just owe you particularly. When I was a counselor on the Board of Rites, I thought I was lucky to be an official close to the emperor. Therefore, I plucked up my courage to praise you among my peers, in hoping that your pent-up frustration could be eliminated. However, I found that they looked at each other and sneered at me. I only hated myself that I failed to cultivate enough morality and establish a sufficiently solid reputation to prevent my peers from being suspicious of my motives. I often talk with Ji-dao Meng 3 about this and we both felt bitter about it.

    Fortunately, this heavenly fire washed away most of your possessions. People's worry about being suspected of taking bribes from you was turned to dust and ashes. Your charred house and reddened brick wall showed that you had nothing. Without being tainted by your wealth, your talent revealed itself and shone. The recognition of your talent by Ji-dao and me for ten years cannot compare with the great favor done by Zhu-rong and Hui-lu 4 in one night. In fact, the fire only helped reveal your talent. Those who wanted to recommend you but feared being suspected of taking bribes can open their mouths now. The one who is in charge of exams may offer you a position without trembling. Now it is impossible for them to be ridiculed by their peers for recommending you. Based on these advantages, I had a great expectation for you. Therefore, I am in great joy at last.

    In ancient times, if a state suffered a disaster, the officials of the other states would console the officials of the same rank in the misfortunate state. When the States of Song, Wei, Chen, and Zheng had a disaster, the State of Xu did not console them 5. Consequently, gentlemen were disgusted with Xu and thought that it would be doomed to perish. However, my attitude toward your situation, as I illustrated above, is different from that of the State of Xu, so I congratulate you instead of consoling you. Though poor as Hui Yan and Sen Zeng 6 were, there was great joy for them in taking good care of their parents. What more do you need?

1 Irony is more difficult to understand because it is a solution to a specific problem. Unless you have experienced the same situation, you can barely appreciate the deep meaning of the irony. The best way to appreciate an irony is to gather a collection of this kind of essay and read a specific one when your mood is tuned in with the irony. In other words, irony helps you understand the problem more deeply, and thus helps you solve it more easily.

2 Lao-zi says, "Disaster is what fortune leans on; fortune is where disaster conceals."

3 Jian was Ji-dao Meng's other first name. He was a native of Ping-chang City during the Tang dynasty.

4 Zhu-rong was Li, the son of Zhuan-xu, an ancient emperor of China. After Li died, he became a god of fire. Hui-lu was also a god of fire.

5 For the detail, see the chapter titled "The eighteenth year during King Zhao's reign" in Zuo's Extended Version of Spring-Fall.

6 Hui Yan and Sen Zeng were disciples of Confucius and were dutiful to their parents.