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Impoverished Gentlemen

Tao, Yuan-ming (365-427 CE)


Everything has its own shelter
Except for a lone cloud 1.
The glow of the cloud is high up in the air
Even though it may vanish into the dim sky 2.
The morning sunshine disperses the night mist.
Birds fly in flocks 3 except for one.
The lone bird leaves the woods late
And returns to its nest long before sunset 4.
If one strives to maintain one’s integrity.
One may suffer cold and hunger.
I should not lament my misfortune
Even if no one understands me.


It is cold and desolate at the end of the year.
In short-sleeved, simple clothing I sunbathe on the porch.
No flowers remain in my backyard.
My front yard is full of withered branches.
My wine jug is empty.
No smoke rises from my stove.
Books lie randomly on my table.
The sun has set,
But my busy farm life barely allows me time for study.
Although quitting my job is not like the crisis that Confucius suffered in Chen 5.
I often lament my hardship.
How can I console myself?
I rely on reading many stories of impoverished gentlemen in Chinese history.


Qi-qi Rong 6 wore a belt of rope in his old age.
He enjoyed playing the lute 7.
Xian Yuan 8 wore broken shoes
As he sang songs of sacrificial rites.
It has been a long time since Emperor Shun reigned over China 9.
Since then, impoverished gentlemen have existed in every generation.
Their shabby clothes cannot cover their elbows.
Their wild vegetable soups are short of rice.
They wish to wear leather coats to keep them warm,
But they refuse to acquire them at the expense of integrity.
Although Zi-gong was good at cunning arguments 10,
He would not understand our ideals.


1 The lone cloud represents a man of principles who refuses to follow the crowds.

2 These two lines say that a man of integrity often suffers cold and hunger even though he has a noble character.

3 "Birds in flocks" refers to government officials who compromised their ideals and accepted corrupt jobs.

4 Tao began to work for the government when he was twenty-eight years old and resigned his position as government official at the age of forty.

5 Confucius suffered hunger in the State of Chen. Most of his disciples were ill and could not rise from their beds. Zi-lu was indignant and went to see Confucius. Zi-lu asked, "Should a gentleman endure misfortune?" Confucius replied, "When a gentleman suffers misfortune, he will maintain integrity. When a villain suffers hardship, he will commit crimes."

6 The essay "Auspicious Signs" in Lei-zi says, "As Confucius visited Tai-shan Mountain, he saw Qi-qi Rong walking in the countryside of the Kingdom of Cheng. The latter was dressed in coarse clothing made of deer skin, with a rope as his belt. He played a lute and sang. Confucius asked him, 'Why are you so happy?' Rong replied, 'First, I am a human. Second, I am male. Third, I am ninety years old. I endure hardship because people suffer it frequently. Death is the inevitable result of life. I live an ordinary life and wait for death. There is nothing to worry about.' Confucius said, 'Qi-qi Rong knows how to console himself.'"

7 The following video provides a sample of lute music:

8 Chapter 9, volume 1 of Han’s Unofficial Documents About the Book of Poetry (written by Ying Han [c. 150 BCE]) says, "Xian Yuan lived in poverty in the State of Lu. His roof leaked and his floor was flooded. He sang as he played his lute. Zi-gong rode a fine horse and wore a leather coat to see him. Xian Yuan welcomed Zi-gong at his yard gate. When Yuan straightened his hat, his hatbands broke. His sleeves were too short to cover his elbows. His toes protruded out of broken shoes. Zi-gong asked Xian Yuan, 'Are you ill?' Xian Yuan looked up and said with a smile, 'I have heard that one without possessions is poor and that one who fails to practice his beliefs is ill. I am poor but not ill. As for following crowds, forming clique to pursue selfish interests, studying so that one can boast, teaching to boost one's fame, or acquiring carriages and fancy clothing at the cost of integrity, I am not interested in these things.' Zi-gong felt ashamed and left. Then Xian Yuan walked slowly with a cane, sang songs of sacrificial rites, and returned to his house. His voice filled heaven and earth and was as loud as a chime. The emperor could not recruit him and the kings could not befriend him."

9 The essay "Autumn Waters" in Zhuang-zi says, "No people lived in poverty during the reigns of Emperors Yao and Shun."

10 The Essay "The Stories of Confucius' Disciples" in Chinese History says, "Zi-gong loved to argue. Confucius often rebuked his cunning arguments."