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Archive for the ‘Down Bowsy Lane’ Category

Le Juif Errant - The Wandering Jew

The Tramp & The Law

Part One

The first tramp was Cain, the last will probably be the Wandering Jew. Between the two lies the history of a whole race of men, who sometimes deserve their ill-fortune and sometimes do not…

The vagrant is a figure in national life all through English history; “remote, unfriendly, melancholy, slow,” he goes on his way a picturesque and pathetic figure. True, he has sometimes been treated with brutality, sometimes with tolerance, but he has survived.

…Their history is, as might be expected, a record of persecution by their fellow-men, interspersed with attempts at coddling them, made in the best of faith.

The early history of the tramp can be dealt with very briefly. Legislation on the subject consists chiefly in devising primitive measures for the suppresion of begging and giving to beggars, wherever these worthy objects could possibly be attained…

…The earliest reference to vagabondage in the British Isles is to be met with in the “Roman History” of Ammianus Marcellinus under the year 368, and this in relation to the Picts and Scots roving over different parts of the country and committing great ravages.

Caledonian Pict

Laws are never made in advance of requirements, but to remedy existing evils, and therefore it may be assumed that vagrancy existed in Saxon times on an extensive scale, for the first record on the subject is that of the Kings Hlothære and Eadric, who respectively reigned in Kent from 673 to 685, and from 685 to 686, when a law was framed to make those who entertained travellers responsible for their acts of misfeasance, a law confirmed by King Edmund in 940.

At that time the lowest classes of the population were sunk in bondage. There were then no inns or workhouses to shelter the vagrant, and monasteries which could give him casual shelter were far apart, in most instances too far to enable him to cover the distance in a day, and only two sources of subsistence remained to him – private hospitality or plunder.

The beginning of vagrancy in England may be found in the old tramping friar, or the itinerant seller or chapman. To the friar it was permitted, by special licence, to wander at his sweet will, taking toll from the laity which materially lightened the load of sins always noticeable on the shoulders of the uncharitable layman. In all ages it has been found that those whose circumstances border on poverty have most sympathy with the poor, and the law of King Ine appears to recognise the fact, for it forbids the ceorl, who stood lowest in the rank of freemen, to harbour fugitives; and at this time the greater number of travellers or tramps, excepting chapmen and friars, were escaped slaves.

The next record is the law of Whitræd, King of Kent 690 to 725, directed against wandering monks, ordaining that they should receive hospitality but once; and this legislation may be taken as giving birth to the principle of vagrancy law of driving the casual or vagrant ever on…

Extract taken from:

The Tramp by Frank Gray, J. M. Dent & Sons, 1931

Frank Gray, Liberal MP, 1931

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June 6th

At the foot of Splendid Cloud Mountain there is a small village of huddled roofs and great banyan trees called Chin-k’an-pei. Somewhere in this region is the Pekin Mining Syndicate, but rather more important than any syndicates are the small houses covered with vines and approached only by long avenues where a few distinguished scholars have retired. This afternoon we called on an old scholar who is famous because in a book of a hundred pages published more than thirty years ago he made a reasonable attempt to synthesise the philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

It was one of the smallest houses I have ever seen, a single room which he used as bedroom and study. He wore an old tattered gown and a grey patched skull-cap; yet he was not poor. He was absorbed in his studies – those studies which would lead him in another ten years if he survived to write another small book of perhaps eighty pages on the religion of the Chinese. He was thin-boned and had once been tall. His skin seemed paper-thin in the light coming from the paper windows. His white beard, like his clothes, was torn in places; but the great jade ring on his wrist, his courtly manners, his sharp beaked nose and the small black eyes peering from behind heavy lead-coloured spectacles, suggested an enormous capacity for sustained thought. We talked about his first work – that small pamphlet which had changed a little the opinions of scholars ever since.

“But scholarship is dying,” he said. “The old order is dying – that is true. Yet scholarship is so precious in itself and as an example to others. In the West you have to put your trust in scholars who are scientists, and perhaps that is legitimate; but I would prefer that there should be some good scholars who remain.”

He apologized for not speaking English perfectly and confessed that he had neither read an English book nor spoken to anyone speaking English for forty years, yet he spoke perfectly. “You have a good few scholars still in the Universities – there is a scholar who has studied the Chinese calendar in all its phases, having read 80,000 books on the subject, in your University. Perhaps he will write a book of 300 pages, or even of 400 pages, for all these things are important. People speak too much – speaking is an excuse for not thinking – and they study too little. Before the revolution we thought carefully before we spoke: today we think little, and talk too much. I cannot read the newspapers. There are speeches; there are battles; there is no thinking. In the old days Chinese scholars were chosen by the Emperor. On them was imposed pure trust, and rarely did they misuse the trust. They lived frugally, governed honestly, wrote little and were content with the world. Our military commanders were scholars, Tu Fu and Su T’ung-po were scholars and officials – even Tao Yuan-ming was an official. This was a world in which the behaviour of scholars was the hallmark of everyone’s existence. Then how could we fail?”

His room was even poorer than the rooms of the Chinese scholars in the University; he was talking a language which they alone understood. There was the table; three or four ivory brushes, a tattered scroll on the wall, a jeweled fly-whisk, which, since it was high summer, he was occasionally flicking against our clothes; there was cheese-cloth mosquito curtain and the thick-soled slippers under the bed, and here and there on the walls, cut out from the scrolls which he had once possessed and considered insufficiently dignified to grace his bedroom, were single characters of Chinese, written boldly and elegantly, with tremendous passion and effrontery. It was as though the calligraphers at the moment of writing had seized the secrets of nature. There were perhaps twenty of thee characters written in different styles and at different epochs; and it was clear that the old scholar believed that in the whole history of Chinese handwriting no characters as good as these had ever been painted. Later, just as we were about to leave, I noticed what appeared to be a bronze umbrella-stand behind the door filled with rolled-up scrolls.

It was then that the room became charged with excitement. One could not ask him – even as a favour – to show us the scrolls. One could only hope that he would notice their presence before we had gone. I felt sure that they were good; and they were better than anything I had ever seen before – copies of T’ang Dynasty paintings, a painting of a monk, perhaps Bodhidharma, in a red robe, a single curlew on a swinging branch painted in thick monochrome like tempera, some golden birds and some court ladies dancing at the foot of the throne, and four or five other paintings and a few pieces of calligraphy.

“The rain has got at them,” he said sadly, pointing to the yellow spots, “but perhaps it is better like this. The world no longer appreciates good painting or good government. The world is covered with high clouds, and we hear only the murmur of the rivers and see nothing clearly. All that is good in China has passed and I am too old to hope for a resurrection.”

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read more from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries: Leaves from a Chinese Diary, and, Chungking Diary – The Seal Carver.

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June 3rd

The blind old seal-carver still wears glasses. He sits behind the counter of his little shop, and sometimes he takes off his glasses and gazes up at the sun. He can see very faintly – the difference only between light and shade. The faint incisions which he makes on jade are for ever hidden from him, and perhaps it is not necessary to see, for the sensitivity of his fingers is three-dimensional. I have watched him pass his finger-tips over a seal-carving of my name and tell me exactly to what depth, and in what shape he had carved the letters. He has a long single strand of grey hair which trembles from his upper lip like the antennae of a moth. “These are in the characters of the old bronze seals,” he said, as he gave me the carving. “They are the best. China was great then.” I do not know why it is, but every peasant in China knows that his country was greatest in the Han Dynasty and speaks of past greatness with the terrible sincerity of those who know that it can never return again.

And as we walked down the dusty road in the broad sunlight, where everything dazzled and a clammy warmth came from the moist asphalt in the street, it was pleasant to touch and look at the jade carving done so delicately and with so much passion by a blind man who will never see his handiwork.

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Read another entry from Robert Payne’s Chinese Diaries.

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Leaves from a Chinese Diary

China to Robert Payne is more than a country; it is a way of life, of thought, of feeling. Few Westerners have sensed or pictured its beauty and its people more keenly than this young novelist and scholar. This is a long, rich book of wide range and variety, an eminently sophisticated and intelligent book, written in prose which will be an exciting discovery to the discerning reader.”

(from the preface to Forever China)

March 4th

Why did I come to China? Why does anyone come to China? There are moments in China when the dirt and poverty of the people make one suddenly decide to take the next airplane to India, and then a moment later a girl on a white donkey passes slowly along a dusty road, or a pair of pigeons rise high in the sky, or at night a courtyard opens silently, lamps are lit, you hear the click of tiles and the whispers of women down some deserted alley-way; and then the amazing vitality and beauty of these people, whose arts are so ancient that they have long ago forgotten the origin of their simplest customs, surprise one with their fine excess…

… China was made for the night and the dawn. A few days ago we began to live in a house near the Canadian Mission Hospital far away from the main traffic of the river. You reached the house by a long winding path over the foot-hills, climbing among steep fields of rice, small battered whitewashed houses, duck-ponds, tombs. We would cross the river from the north bank under a full moon, and it was not always a pleasant journey, for the boatman would think nothing of stopping in mid-stream and refuse to take us to the other bank unless we paid another ten dollars, and sometimes, knowing that we would have to walk for miles along the rocky coast, he would allow the boat to drift down-stream. But always the nights were beautiful. The shape of a curving roof against the stars, the songs of the boatmen, the small red fires in the boats along the shore, and the great white cliffs of Chungking would console us for the solitary journey. And even the gravestones, so gloomy and white in the moonlight, and even the dogs grubbing the earth at the root of the recently-made graves, were not real – they were reality raised to a higher pitch of excitement. So we walked alone at night, listening to the children and old men breathing under their poor matchwood sheds, while the moon rose and the great sweep of the river disappeared into a silver distance. Sometimes, too, but very rarely, there occurred the happiness which a Chinese poet of the Sung dynasty described in a long-forgotten poem:

 

I am old. Nothing pleases me any more. Moreover, I am not a great scholar and my ideas have rarely travelled further than my feet. I know only my forest, to which I always return.

The blue fingers of the moon caress my lute. The wind tosses the clouds and ungirds my silken robe.

You fool! You ask me what is the supreme happiness on earth. It is to listen to the song of a young girl as she passes along the road after having asked you the way.

 

Robert Payne, Chungking Diary, 1945.

Note: Chungking Diary was also published as Forever China, and was followed by a second set of wartime diaries, China Awake in 1947. Both of these books were published in one volume as Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946 in 1970.

 

Robert Payne (1911-1983) was a prolific British writer who wrote over a hundred books under a variety of pseudonyms. These include novels, biographies, poetry, travelogues and translations. He spent much of WWII in Asia working in British Army Intelligence as well as being a journalist and teacher. Payne edited The White Pony; An Anthology of Chinese Poetry from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1947. His colourful career and extensive writings are documented at the Stony Brook University Special Collections, to which he donated his manuscripts, correspondence and papers. Read a biblio-biographical piece on Robert Payne, entitled “Under Cover” (starts at page 35).

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In travelling through Ireland a stranger is very frequently puzzled by the singular ways, and especially by the idiomatic equivocation characteristic of every Irish peasant. Some years back, more particularly, these men were certainly originals quite unlike any other people whatever. Many an hour of curious entertainment has been afforded me by their eccentricities; yet though always fond of prying into the remote sources of these national peculiarities, I must frankly confess that, with all my pains, I never was able to develop half of them, except by one sweeping observation namely, that the brains and tongues of the Irish are somehow differently formed or furnished from those of other people.

One general hint which I beg to impress upon all travellers in Hibernia, is the following: that if they shew a disposition towards kindness, together with a moderate familiarity, and affect to be inquisitive, whether so or not, the Irish peasant will outdo them tenfold in every one of these dispositions. But if a man is haughty and overbearing, he had better take care of himself.

I have often heard it remarked and complained of by travellers and strangers, that they never could get a true answer from any Irish peasant as to distances when on a journey. For many years I myself thought it most unaccountable. If you meet a peasant on your journey and ask him how far, for instance, to Ballinrobe? he will probably say it is “three short miles.” You travel on, and are informed by the next peasant you meet, that it is “five long miles.” On you go, and the next will tell “your honour” it is “four miles, or about that same.” The fourth will swear “if your honour stops at three miles you’ll never get there!” But on pointing to a town just before you, and inquiring what place that is, he replies,

Oh! plaze your honour, that’s Ballinrobe, sure enough!”

Why, you said it was more than three miles off!”

Oh yes! to be sure and sartain, that’s from my own cabin, plaze your honour. We’re no scholards in this country. Arrah! how can we tell any distance, plaze your honour, but from our own little cabins? Nobody but the schoolmaster knows that, plaze your honour.”

Thus is the mystery unravelled. When you ask any peasant the distance of the place you require, he never computes it from where you then are, but from his own cabin; so that if you asked 20, in all probability you would have as many different answers, and not one of them correct. But it is to be observed, that frequently you can get no reply at all, unless you understand Irish.

In parts of Kerry and Mayo, however, I have met with peasants who speak Latin not badly. On the election of Sir John Brown for the County of Mayo, Counsellor Thomas Moore and I went down as his counsel. The weather was desperately severe. At a solitary inn, where we were obliged to stop for horses, we requested dinner, upon which the waiter laid a cloth that certainly exhibited every species of dirt ever invented. We called, and remonstrating with him, ordered a clean cloth. He was a low, fat fellow, with a countenance perfectly immovable, and seeming to have scarcely a single muscle in it. He nodded, and on our return to the room, which we had quitted during the interval, we found, instead of a clean cloth, that he had only folded up the filthy one into the thickness of a cushion. We now scolded away in good earnest. He looked at us with the greatest sang froid; and said sententiously: “Nemo me impune lacessit.

He kept his word; when we had proceeded about four miles in deep snow, and through a desperate night, on a bleak road, one of the wheels came off the carriage and down we went! We were at least two miles from any house. The driver cursed in Irish Michael the waiter, who, he said, had put a new wheel upon the carriage, which had turned out to be an old one, and had broken to pieces. We had to march through the snow to a wretched cottage, and sit up all night to get a genuine new wheel ready for the morning.

The Irish peasant also never answers any question directly: in some districts, if you ask him where such a gentleman’s house is, he will point and reply, “Does your honour see that large house there all amongst the trees, with a green field before it?” You answer, “Yes.” “Well,says he, “plaze your honour that’s not it. But do you see the big brick house with the cowhouses by the side of that same, and a pond of water?” “Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it. But, if you plaze, look quite to the right of that same house, and you’ll see the top of a castle amongst the trees there, with a road going down to it betune the bushes.”

Yes.”

Well, plaze your honour, that’s not it neither; but if your honour will come down this bit of a road a couple of miles I’ll shew it you sure enough and if your honour’s in a hurry I can run on hot foot and tell the squire your honour’s galloping after me. Ah! who shall I tell the squire, plaze your honour, is coming to see him? He’s my own landlord, God save his honour day and night!”

Read more from the Personal Sketches and Recollections of Jonah Barrington (1827) here.

Download a PDF file from the Internet Archive here.

Sir Jonah Barrington (1760-1834) was an Irish judge, politician and writer. His memoirs contain “scathing but humorous thumbnail portraits of contemporary Irish lawyers, judges and politicians during the last years of the Protestant Ascendancy. His Personal sketches also includes vignettes on Irish people from every background.” However, they must be taken with a large grain of salt…

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LIFE in the quarter. Our bistro, for instance, at the foot of the Hôtel des Trois Moineaux. A tiny brick-floored room, half underground, with wine-sodden tables, and a photograph of a funeral inscribed ‘Crédit est mort’; and red-sashed workmen carving sausage with big jack-knives; and Madame F., a splendid Auvergnat peasant woman with the face of a strong-minded cow, drinking Malaga all day ‘for her stomach’; and games of dice for apéritifs; and songs about ‘Les Fraises et Les Framboises’, and about Madelon, who said, ‘Comment épouser un soldat, moi qui aime tout le régiment?’; and extraordinarily public love-making. Half the hotel used to meet in the bistro in the evenings. I wish one could find a pub in London a quarter as cheery.

One heard queer conversations in the bistro. As a sample I give you Charlie, one of the local curiosities, talking.

Charlie was a youth of family and education who had run away from home and lived on occasional remittances. Picture him very pink and young, with the fresh cheeks and soft brown hair of a nice little boy, and lips excessively red and wet, like cherries. His feet are tiny, his arms abnormally short, his hands dimpled like a baby’s. He has a way of dancing and capering while he talks, as though he were too happy and too full of life to keep still for an instant. It is three in the afternoon, and there is no one in the bistro except Madame F. and one or two men who are out of work; but it is all the same to Charlie whom he talks to, so long as he can talk about himself. He declaims like an orator on a barricade, rolling the words on his tongue and gesticulating with his short arms. His small, rather piggy eyes glitter with enthusiasm. He is, somehow, profoundly disgusting to see.

He is talking of love, his favourite subject.

Ah, l’Amour, L’Amour! Ah, que les femmes m’ont tué! Alas, Messieurs et dames, women have been my ruin, beyond all hope my ruin. At twenty-two I am utterly worn out and finished. But what things I have learned, what abysses of wisdom have I not plumbed! How great a thing it is to have acquired the true wisdom, to have become in the highest sense of the word a civilized man, to have become raffiné, vicieux,’ etc. etc.

Messieurs et dames, I perceive that you are sad. Ah mais la vie est belle – you must not be sad. Be more gay, I beseech you!

Fill high ze bowl vid Samian vine,

Ve vill not sink of semes like zese!

Ah, que la vie est belle! Listen, messieurs et dames, out of the fullness of my experience I will discourse to you of love. I will explain to you what is the true meaning of love – what is the true sensibility, the higher, more refined pleasure which is known to civilized men alone. I will tell you of the happiest day of my life. Alas, but I am past the time when I could know such happiness as that. It is gone for ever – the very possibility, even the desire for it, are gone.

Listen, then. It was two years ago; my brother was in Paris – he is a lawyer – and my parents had told him to find me and take me out to dinner. We hate each other, my brother and I, but we preferred not to disobey my parents. We dined, and at dinner he grew very drunk upon three bottles of Bordeaux. I took him back to his hotel, and on the way I bought a bottle of brandy, and when we had arrived I made my brother drink a tumblerful of it – I told him it was something to make him sober. He drank it, and immediately he fell down like somebody in a fit, dead drunk. I lifted him up and propped his back against the bed; then I went through his pockets. I found eleven hundred francs, and with that I hurried down the stairs, jumped into a taxi, and escaped. My brother did not know my address – I was safe.

Where does a man go when he has money? To the bordels, naturally. But you do not suppose that I was going to waste my time on some vulgar debauchery fit only for navvies? Confound it, one is a civilized man! I was fastidious, exigeant, you understand, with a thousand francs in my pocket. It was midnight before I found what I was looking for. I had fallen in with a very smart youth of eighteen, dressed en smoking and with his hair cut a l’américaine, and we were talking in a quiet bistro away from the boulevards. We understood one another well, that youth and I. We talked of this and that, and discussed ways of diverting oneself. Presently we took a taxi together and were driven away.

The taxi stopped in a narrow, solitary street with a single gas-lamp flaring at the end. There were dark puddles among the stones. Down one side ran the high, blank wall of a convent. My guide led me to a tall, ruinous house with shuttered windows, and knocked several times at the door. Presently there was a sound of footsteps and a shooting of bolts, and the door opened a little. A hand came round the edge of it; it was a large, crooked hand, that held itself palm upwards under our noses, demanding money.

My guide put his foot between the door and the step. “How much do you want?” he said.

‘“A thousand francs,” said a woman’s voice. “Pay up at once or you don’t come in.”

I put a thousand francs into the hand and gave the remaining hundred to my guide: he said good night and left me. I could hear the voice inside counting the notes, and then a thin old crow of a woman in a black dress put her nose out and regarded me suspiciously before letting me in. It was very dark inside: I could see nothing except a flaring gas-jet that illuminated a patch of plaster wall, throwing everything else into deeper shadow. There was a smell of rats and dust. Without speaking, the old woman lighted a candle at the gas-jet, then hobbled in front of me down a stone passage to the top of a flight of stone steps.

‘“Voila!” she said; “go down into the cellar there and do what you like. I shall see nothing, hear nothing, know nothing. You are free, you understand – perfectly free.”

Ha, messieurs, need I describe to youforcément, you know it yourselves – that shiver, half of terror and half of joy, that goes through one at these moments? I crept down, feeling my way; I could hear my breathing and the scraping of my shoes on the stones, otherwise all was silence. At the bottom of the stairs my hand met an electric switch. I turned it, and a great electrolier of twelve red globes flooded the cellar with a red light. And behold, I was not in a cellar, but in a bedroom, a great, rich, garish bedroom, coloured blood red from top to bottom. Figure it to yourselves, messieurs et dames! Red carpet on the floor, red paper on the walls, red plush on the chairs, even the ceiling red; everywhere red, burning into the eyes. It was a heavy, stifling red, as though the light were shining through bowls of blood. At the far end stood a huge, square bed, with quilts red like the rest, and on it a girl was lying, dressed in a frock of red velvet. At the sight of me she shrank away and tried to hide her knees under the short dress.

I had halted by the door. “Come here, my chicken,” I called to her.

She gave a whimper of fright. With a bound I was beside the bed; she tried to elude me, but I seized her by the throat – like this, do you see? – tight! She struggled, she began to cry out for mercy, but I held her fast, forcing back her head and staring down into her face. She was twenty years old, perhaps; her face was the broad, dull face of a stupid child, but it was coated with paint and powder, and her blue, stupid eyes, shining in the red light, wore that shocked, distorted look that one sees nowhere save in the eyes of these women. She was some peasant girl, doubtless, whom her parents had sold into slavery.

Without another word I pulled her off the bed and threw her on to the floor. And then I fell upon her like a tiger! Ah, the joy, the incomparable rapture of that time! There, messieurs et dames, is what I would expound to you; voila l’amour! There is the true love, there is the only thing in the world worth striving for; there is the thing beside which all your arts and ideals, all your philosophies and creeds, all your fine words and high attitudes, are as pale and profitless as ashes. When one has experienced love – the true love – what is there in the world that seems more than a mere ghost of joy?

More and more savagely I renewed the attack. Again and again the girl tried to escape; she cried out for mercy anew, but I laughed at her.

‘“Mercy!” I said, “do you suppose I have come here to show mercy? Do you suppose I have paid a thousand francs for that?” I swear to you, messieurs et dames, that if it were not for that accursed law that robs us of our liberty, I would have murdered her at that moment.

Ah, how she screamed, with what bitter cries of agony. But there was no one to hear them; down there under the streets of Paris we were as secure as at the heart of a pyramid. Tears streamed down the girl’s face, washing away the powder in long, dirty smears. Ah, that irrecoverable time! You, messieurs et dames, you who have not cultivated the finer sensibilities of love, for you such pleasure is almost beyond conception. And I too, now that my youth is gone – ah, youth! – shall never again see life so beautiful as that. It is finished.

Ah yes, it is gone – gone for ever. Ah, the poverty, the shortness, the disappointment of human joy! For in reality – car en réalité, what is the duration of the supreme moment of love. It is nothing, an instant, a second perhaps. A second of ecstasy, and after that – dust, ashes, nothingness.

And so, just for one instant, I captured the supreme happiness, the highest and most refined emotion to which human beings can attain. And in the same moment it was finished, and I was left – to what? All my savagery, my passion, were scattered like the petals of a rose. I was left cold and languid, full of vain regrets; in my revulsion I even felt a kind of pity for the weeping girl on the floor. Is it not nauseous, that we should be the prey of such mean emotions? I did not look at the girl again; my sole thought was to get away. I hastened up the steps of the vault and out into the street. It was dark and bitterly cold, the streets were empty, the stones echoed under my heels with a hollow, lonely ring. All my money was gone, I had not even the price of a taxi fare. I walked back alone to my cold, solitary room.

But there, messieurs et dames, that is what I promised to expound to you. That is Love. That was the happiest day of my life.’

He was a curious specimen, Charlie. I describe him, just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter.

 

An extract from

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell,

Victor Gollancz, 1933

 


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The Scholars – Ching Yuan

The Scholars – Ching Yuan

By Wu Ching-Tzu [Wu Jingzi]

Another was a man over fifty named Ching Yuan, who kept a tailor’s shop in Three Mountains Street. After finishing work each day he would play the lyre and practise calligraphy. He also liked to write poems.

“Since you want to be so refined,” said his friends and acquaintances, “why do you stick to your honourable profession? Why not mix with some college scholars?”

“I’m not trying to be refined,” replied Ching Yuan. “I just happen to like these things: that’s why I take them up from time to time. As for my humble trade, it was handed down to me by my ancestors, and I’m not disgracing my studies by tailoring. Those college scholars don’t look at things the way we do. They would never be friends with us. As it is, I make six or seven silver cents a day; and when I’ve eaten my fill, if I want to strum my lyre or do some writing, there’s nobody to stop me. I don’t want to be rich or noble, or to make up to any man. Isn’t it pleasant to be one’s own master like this?”

When his friends heard him talk this way, they began to treat him coldly.

One day when Ching Yuan had finished his meal and was free, he walked to Chingliang Mountain, the quietest spot in the west of Nanking city. He had an old friend there named Yu, who lived at the back of the mountain. Yu did not study or trade, but had brought up five sons, the oldest of whom was now over forty and the youngest over twenty. Old Yu supervised his sons’ work on their vegetable farm. They had two or three hundred mou of land, and in an empty plot in the middle had planted flowers and trees and piled up artificial mountains. The old man had built a thatched cottage here, and the plane trees he had planted had grown to a great size. When he had seen his sons tend the vegetables, he would go to his cottage and light the fire to brew tea, feasting his eyes on the fresh green as he drank.

When Ching Yuan arrived, Old Yu said: “I haven’t seen you, brother, for some time. Have you been very busy?”

“Yes,” replied Ching. “Today was the first time I could get away to see you, uncle.”

“I’ve just made a pot of tea. Please have a cup.”

He poured out a cup and passed it to Ching, who sat down.

“This tea looks, smells and tastes delicious, uncle,” said Ching. “Where do you get such good water?”

“We’re better off than you folk in the south city. We can drink from all the wells here in the west.”

“The ancients longed for a Peach Blossom Stream where they could escape from the world. I don’t think any Peach Blossom Stream is needed. To live quietly and contentedly in a green plot in the city as you do, uncle, is as good as being an immortal!”

“Yes, but there’s nothing I can turn my hand to. I wish I could play the lyre as you do, brother. That would help to pass the time. You must be playing better than ever now. When will you let me hear you?”

“That’s easy,” said Ching. “I’ll bring my lyre tomorrow.”

After some more conversation he went home.

The next day Ching Yuan carried his lyre over. Old Yu had lit a censer of fine incense, and was waiting for him. After they had greeted each other and chatted a little, Old Yu put Ching’s lyre on a stone bench for him. Ching sat on the ground, and Old Yu sat beside him. Ching slowly tuned his strings and began to play. The clear notes woke the echoes all around, and the birds alighted in the boughs to listen. Soon he turned to a tragic air, expressing grief and longing, and as Old Yu heard the most moving passages the tears ran down his cheeks. After this, the two friends were constantly together. But now Ching took his leave.

For love of the Chinhuai River, in the old days I left home;

I wandered up and down behind Plum Root Forge,

And strolled about in Apricot Blossom Village;

Like a phoenix that rests on a plane

Or a cricket that chirps in the yard,

I used to compete with the scholars of the day;

But now I have cast off my official robes

As cicadas shed their skin;

I wash my feet in the limpid stream,

And in idle moments fill my cup with wine,

And call in a few new friends to drink with me.

A hundred years are soon gone, so why despair?

Yet immortal fame is not easy to attain!

Writing of men I knew in the Yangtse Valley

Has made me sick at heart.

In days to come,

I shall stay by my medicine stove and Buddhist sutras,

And practise religion alone.

From The Scholars, by Wu Jingzi,

translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang.

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The Scholars – Kai Kuan

The Scholars – Kai Kuan

By Wu Ching-Tzu [Wu Jingzi]

Another was Kai Kuan who kept a tea−house. Once he had owned a pawnshop, for when he was in his twenties his family was rich. Besides a pawnshop they had fields and marshlands. All his relatives were wealthy, but he despised their vulgarity, and would sit every day in his library reading or writing poems. He was fond of painting too, and began to paint so well that other poets and artists came to see him. Though their poems and paintings were not as good as his, Kai Kuan prized talent so much that when such visitors called he would feast them, and there would be talk and laughter. And when these friends were short of silver to pay for a wedding or funeral, they had only to ask for a loan and he would give them dozens or hundreds of taels.

Once the pawnshop assistants knew this, they said their master must be a fool, and cheated him right and left till his capital melted away. For several years running, too, his fields were flooded, and he had to make good the loss in seeds and grain. Then some shady characters advised him to sell, and the purchasers, claiming that the land was poor, would pay no more than five or six hundred taels for land well worth a thousand. Yet Kai had no choice but to sell. Instead of making good use of the proceeds, however, he kept the silver at home to use as he needed. So it did not last very long. When this was gone, he had nothing but the income from his marshlands with which to pay his debts. But his assistants were a bad lot who set fire to his fuel stacks; and luck was against Kai Kuan, for after several fires all his thousands of bundles of fuel were burnt to ashes. The reeds fused when they burnt, and twisted into odd shapes like the stones from Taihu Lake. The assistants brought some of these stumps to show him, and finding them amusing he kept them in his house.

“These will bring you bad luck,” warned his servants. “You mustn’t keep them.”

He turned a deaf ear, though, and kept the stumps in his study. Now that the marshlands were done for, his assistants deserted him. Within half a year he had nothing left to live on, and sold his big house to move to a smaller one. In another half year his wife died, and to bury her he sold the small house too. Then, with his son and daughter, the poor man moved to a two−roomed cottage in a quiet lane and started a tea−house there. He made over the inside room to his son and daughter.

In the outer room he put several tables for tea, and under the back eaves set up a stove. On the right he had a counter, with two earthenware vats behind it filled with rain water. He would get up early to light the fire, and when he had fanned it into a blaze would put on a kettle to heat, then sit behind his counter to read or paint. In a vase on the counter he kept a few blooms of whichever flowers were in season, and next to this was a pile of old books. He had sold all his other possessions, but could not bear to part with these precious volumes. When customers came in, he would put down his book to bring them a teapot and cups. There was not much money in this. He made one copper on each pot of tea, and since he sold no more than fifty or sixty a day, he made no more than fifty or sixty coppers, which barely sufficed to keep them in fuel and rice!

He was sitting at his counter one day when an old neighbour dropped in for a chat, and saw that though it was the tenth month Kai was still in a linen gown.

“My friend,” he said, “I can see you are very hard up. You helped a great many people in the past, but none of them come here now. All your relatives are quite comfortably off; why don’t you go to talk things over with them and borrow enough to set up a proper business, so that you can make a living?”

“Why, uncle,” replied Kai Kuan, “don’t you know the proverb? Warm feelings may turn to coldness. Men are drawn to prosperity but not to adversity. When I had money I dressed respectably and had smart attendants to wait on me. I didn’t disgrace my relatives when I saw them. But if I called on them as I am today, even if they didn’t take offence, I should feel out of place myself. As for the people you say I helped in the past, they are all of them too poor to pay me back. They have gone to look for other rich men now; why should they call on me? If I go to look them up, I shall only annoy them for nothing. That would be pointless.”

When the neighbour heard how bitterly he spoke, he said: “Your tea−house is very quiet. I doubt if you’ll have many customers today. Since the weather’s fine, let’s take a walk outside the South Gate.”

“That would be very pleasant,” responded Kai Kuan. “I have no money though.”

“I’ve a little loose silver. Enough for a simple meal.”

“Well, this is very good of you.”

Kai called his son out to mind the shop, then walked off with the old man through the South Gate. For five silver cents they had a vegetarian meal in a Mohammedan eating−house. When the neighbour had paid the bill and left a tip, they walked on into the Temple of Kindness Repaid. They looked at the hall and south corridor, at Tripitaka’s burial place and the great frying pan, then went back to the entrance to buy a packet of sweetmeats, and sat down in a tea−house behind the pagoda to drink a pot of tea.

“The world has changed,” said Kai’s neighbour. “There are fewer visitors now to the Temple of Kindness Repaid. And they buy less sweetmeats than twenty years ago.”

“You must have seen a good deal, uncle, in the seventy years of your life. But things are not what they were. If I’d lived in the time of Dr. Yu and the others, with my slight gift for painting I needn’t have worried about each bowl of rice! Who could have thought things would come to such a pass!”

“You’ve reminded me of something,” said his neighbour. “To the left of Rain Flower Mount is Tai Po’s Temple, built by a Mr. Chih of Chujung. That was a fine sight the year when he asked Dr. Yu to sacrifice here! I was little more than twenty then, and I squeezed through the crowd to watch, losing my cap in the crush! But today there is nobody to look after the temple, and the buildings are falling down. When we’ve finished our tea, let’s go there to have a look.”

They ate a dish of dried beancurd, paid for the tea and left. Having climbed the left side of Rain Flower Mount, they saw the main hall of Tai Po’s Temple with the front half of the roof caving in. Five or six children were playing football beside the double gate, one half of which had fallen to the ground. Going in, they came upon three or four old women, who were picking shepherd’s purse in the temple courtyard. All the lattice−work in the hall had disappeared, and the five buildings at the back were completely stripped−−not even a floor plank was left. After walking around, Kai sighed.

“To think that so famous a place should have fallen into such ruins!” he said. “And no one will repair an ancient sage’s temple!”

“In those days,” said his neighbour, “Mr. Chih bought many utensils, all of the antique kind, and kept them in large cupboards on the ground floor of this building. Now even those cupboards have gone!”

“It makes you sad to speak of old times,” said Kai. “We had better go back.”

They slowly retraced their steps.

“Shall we go to the top of Rain Flower Mount?” suggested Kai’s neighbour.

They gazed at the green, fresh mountains across the river, and the boats plying to and fro − they could see each sail quite clearly. The red sun was gradually sinking behind the mountains when the two of them paced down the hill and back to the city. For another half year Kai Kuan went on selling tea. In the third month of the following year he accepted a post as tutor at a salary of eight taels.

From The Scholars, by Wu Jingzi,

translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang.

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The Scholars – Chi Hsia-nien

The Scholars – Chi Hsia-nien

By Wu Ching-Tzu [Wu Jingzi]

One was a calligrapher named Chi Hsia-nien. Having no home and no means of support from his childhood, he had to put up in temples. When the monks beat the clapper in the hall, he would pick up an earthenware bowl and stand there to eat with them, and the monks did not object to him. His calligraphy was superb. He would not study ancient writing, though, but created a style of his own and wrote as his brush dictated. Three days before he was to write he would fast for a day, then grind ink for a day – no one else could do this for him – and even for a couplet of fourteen characters he prepared half a bowl of ink. He would use only brushes other folk had discarded, and would not start writing till he had three or four people to hold his paper. Moreover, if they did not hold it properly, he would swear at them and beat them. He wrote only if he happened to be in the mood. If he was not in the mood, then no matter whether you were prince, duke, general or minister, or what silver you heaped on him, he would not even look at you. He did not care for appearances either, but wore a tattered gown and a pair of straw sandalswhich barely held together. When he received his fee, he would buy what he needed to eat and give what was left to any poor man he happened to meet, not keeping a cent himself.

One day he walked through a snowstorm to visit a friend, and his sodden sandals trailed slush all over the study floor. Knowing Chi’s temper, the host tried to hide his annoyance. He simply said:

“Your shoes are worn out, Mr. Chi. Why don’t you buy a new pair?”

“I can’t afford to,” said Chi.

“If you’ll write me a couplet, I’ll buy you a pair of shoes.”

“Haven’t I shoes of my own? I don’t want yours!”

Disgusted by his slovenly ways, his host went inside to fetch a pair of slippers.

“Please change into these,” he said. “Your feet must be cold.”

Chi lost his temper at that, and marched out without saying goodbye.

“Who do you think you are?” he shouted. “Aren’t my shoes good enough for your study? I honour you by sitting in your house! What do I care for your shoes!”

He walked straight back to the Heavenly Kingdom Monastery, and angrily ate with the monks. Then he saw a case of the finest, most fragrant ink in the chief monk’s room.

“Are you going to write something with this ink?” he asked.

“Censor Shih’s grandson sent me this yesterday,” replied the monk. “I’m keeping it to give to one of our patrons. I don’t intend to use it.

“Let me write a scroll,” said Chi.

He would not take no for an answer, but went to his room to fetch a large ink-stone, selected a stick of ink, poured out some water, and sat on the monk’s bed to grind the ink. The monk, who knew quite well what he was like, had deliberately provoked him in order to make him write. As Chi was grinding happily away, a servant came up to the monk.

“Mr. Shih from Lower Floating Bridge is here,” he announced.

The monk went out to greet the censor’s grandson, who had already reached the hall. Shih saw Chi Hsia-nien, but they did not greet each other. Instead, the visitor walked to one side to chat with the monk, while Chi finished grinding his ink and fetched a sheet of paper. He spread this on the table and ordered four acolytes to hold it for him. Then, taking up an old brush and dipping it well in the ink, he stared at the paper for some time, and wrote a line all in one breath. Then the acolyte at the far right-hand corner moved, and Chi jabbed him with his brush so that he shrank to half his height and shouted as if he were being murdered. The monk, running over to see what was happening, found Chi still bellowing with rage. He urged him to calm down, and held the paper himself while Chi finished writing. Censor Shih’s grandson came over to look as well, then took his leave of the monk.

The next day a servant from the Shih family came to Heavenly Kingdom Monastery, and happened to meet Chi Hsia-nien.

“Is there a calligrapher here named Chi?” he asked.

“Why do you want to know?”

“My master wants him to come to our house tomorrow to write.”

“All right,” said Chi. “He isn’t here today. I’ll tell him to go tomorrow.”

The next day he went to Shih’s house at Lower Floating Bridge. But when he tried to go in, the gateman stopped him.

“Who are you?” called the gateman. “Trying to sneak in like that!”

“I’ve come here to write,” said Chi.

Just then the servant came out of the gate-house and saw him.

“So it’s you!” he said. “Can you write?”

He took him to the hall and went in to announce him. As soon as Censor Shih’s grandson rounded the screen, Chi turned on him and cursed him.

“Who do you think you are to order me to write for you! I don’t want your money, I’m not impressed by your position, and I don’t expect any favours from you! How dare you order me to write!”

He shouted and swore till Mr. Shih, quite speechless, hung his head and went back inside. After a few more oaths, Chi returned to the monastery.

From The Scholars, by Wu Jingzi,

translated by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang.

Read & Download this Text: Munseys.com

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The Philosopher

IT was surprising to find so vast a city in a spot that seemed to me so remote. From its battlemented gate towards sunset you could see the snowy mountains of Tibet. It was so populous that you could walk at ease only on the walls and it took a rapid walker three hours to complete their circuit. There was no railway within a thousand miles and the river on which it stood was so shallow that only junks of light burden could safely navigate it. Five days in a sampan were needed to reach the Upper Yangtze. For an uneasy moment you asked yourself whether trains and steamships were as necessary to the conduct of life as we who use them every day consider; for here, a million persons throve, married, begat their kind, and died; here a million persons were busily occupied with commerce, art, and thought.

And here lived a philosopher of repute, the desire to see whom had been to me one of the incentives of a somewhat arduous journey. He was the greatest authority in China on the Confucian learning. He was said to speak English and German with facility. He had been for many years secretary to one of the Empress Dowager’s greatest viceroys, but he lived now in retirement. On certain days in the week, however, all through the year he opened his doors to such as sought after knowledge, and discoursed on the teaching of Confucius. He had a body of disciples, but it was small, since the students for the most part preferred to his modest dwelling and his severe exhortations the sumptuous buildings of the foreign university and the useful science of the barbarians: with him this was mentioned only to be scornfully dismissed. From all I heard of him I concluded that he was a man of character.

When I announced my wish to meet this distinguished person my host immediately offered to arrange a meeting; but the days passed and nothing happened. I made enquiries and my host shrugged his shoulders.

“I sent him a chit and told him to come along,” he said. “I don’t know why he hasn’t turned up. He’s a cross-grained old fellow.”

I did not think it was proper to approach a philosopher in so cavalier a fashion and I was hardly surprised that he had ignored a summons such as this. I caused a letter to be sent asking in the politest terms I could devise whether he would allow me to call upon him and within two hours received an answer making an appointment for the following morning at ten o’clock.

I was carried in a chair. The way seemed interminable. I went through crowded streets and through streets deserted till I came at last to one, silent and empty, in which at a small door in a long white wall my bearers set down my chair. One of them knocked, and after a considerable time a judas was opened; dark eyes looked through; there was a brief colloquy; and finally I was admitted. A youth, pallid of face, wizened, and poorly dressed, motioned me to follow him. I did not know if he was a servant or a pupil of the great man. I passed through a shabby yard and was led into a long low room sparsely furnished with an American roll-top desk, a couple of blackwood chairs and two little Chinese tables. Against the walls were shelves on which were a great number of books: most of them, of course, were Chinese, but there were many, philosophical and scientific works, in English, French and German; and there were hundreds of unbound copies of learned reviews. Where books did not take up the wall space hung scrolls on which in various calligraphies were written, I suppose, Confucian quotations. There was no carpet on the floor. It was a cold, bare, and comfortless chamber. Its sombreness was relieved only by a yellow chrysanthemum which stood by itself on the desk in a long vase.

I waited for some time and the youth who had shown me in brought a pot of tea, two cups, and a tin of Virginian cigarettes. As he went out the philosopher entered. I hastened to express my sense of the honour he did me in allowing me to visit him. He waved me to a chair and poured out the tea.

“I am flattered that you wished to see me,” he returned. “Your countrymen deal only with coolies and with compradores; they think every Chinese must be one or the other.”

I ventured to protest. But I had not caught his point. He leaned back in his chair and looked at me with an expression of mockery.

“They think they have but to beckon and we must come.”

I saw then that my friend’s unfortunate communication still rankled. I did not quite know how to reply. I murmured something complimentary.

He was an old man, tall, with a thin grey queue, and bright large eyes under which were heavy bags. His teeth were broken and discoloured. He was exceedingly thin, and his hands, fine and small, were withered and claw-like. I had been told that he was an opium-smoker. He was very shabbily dressed in a black gown, a little black cap, both much the worse for wear, and dark grey trousers gartered at the ankle. He was watching. He did not quite know what attitude to take up, and he had the manner of a man who was on his guard. Of course the philosopher occupies a royal place among those who concern themselves with the things of the spirit and we have the authority of Benjamin Disraeli that royalty must be treated with abundant flattery. I seized my trowel. Presently I was conscious of a certain relaxation in his demeanour. He was like a man who was all set and rigid to have his photograph taken, but hearing the shutter click lets himself go and eases into his natural self. He showed me his books.

“I took the Ph. D. in Berlin, you know,” he said. “And afterwards I studied for some time in Oxford. But the English, if you will allow me to say so, have no great aptitude for philosophy.”

Though he put the remark apologetically it was evident that he was not displeased to say a slightly disagreeable thing.

“We have had philosophers who have not been without influence in the world of thought,” I suggested.

“Hume and Berkeley? The philosophers who taught at Oxford when I was there were anxious not to offend their theological colleagues. They would not follow their thought to its logical consequences in case they should jeopardise their position in university society.”

“Have you studied the modern developments of philosophy in America?” I asked.

“Are you speaking of Pragmatism? It is the last refuge of those who want to believe the incredible. I have more use for American petroleum than for American philosophy.”

His judgments were tart. We sat down once more and drank another cup of tea. He began to talk with fluency. He spoke a somewhat formal but an idiomatic English. Now and then he helped himself out with a German phrase. So far as it was possible for a man of that stubborn character to be influenced he had been influenced by Germany. The method and the industry of the Germans had deeply impressed him and their philosophical acumen was patent to him when a laborious professor published in a learned magazine an essay on one of his own writings.

“I have written twenty books,” he said. “And that is the only notice that has ever been taken of me in a European publication.”

But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon. He accepted its philosophy with conviction. It answered the needs of his spirit with a completeness which made all foreign learning seem vain. I was interested in this because it bore out an opinion of mine that philosophy is an affair of character rather than of logic: the philosopher believes not according to evidence, but according to his own temperament; and his thinking merely serves to make reasonable what his instinct regards as true. If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do.

My host lit a cigarette. His voice at first had been thin and tired, but as he grew interested in what he said it gained volume. He talked vehemently. There was in him none of the repose of the sage. He was a polemist and a fighter. He loathed the modern cry for individualism. For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society. He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius. He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students, fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilisation in the world.

“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilisation been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenceless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

But at that moment we were interrupted. A little girl came softly in and nestled close up to the old gentleman. She stared at me with curious eyes. He told me that she was his youngest child. He put his arms round her and with a murmur of caressing words kissed her fondly. She wore a black coat and trousers that barely reached her ankles, and she had a long pig-tail hanging down her back. She was born on the day the revolution was brought to a successful issue by the abdication of the emperor.

“I thought she heralded the Spring of a new era,” he said. “She was but the last flower of this great nation’s Fall.”

From a drawer in his roll-top desk he took a few cash, and handing them to her, sent her away.

“You see that I wear a queue,” he said, taking it in his hands. “It is a symbol. I am the last representative of the old China.”

He talked to me, more gently now, of how philosophers in long past days wandered from state to state with their disciples, teaching all who were worthy to learn. Kings called them to their councils and made them rulers of cities. His erudition was great and his eloquent phrases gave a multicoloured vitality to the incidents he related to me of the history of his country. I could not help thinking him a somewhat pathetic figure. He felt in himself the capacity to administer the state, but there was no king to entrust him with office; he had vast stores of learning which he was eager to impart to the great band of students that his soul hankered after, and there came to listen but a few, wretched, half-starved, and obtuse provincials.

Once or twice discretion had made me suggest that I should take my leave, but he had been unwilling to let me go. Now at last I was obliged to. I rose. He held my hand.

“I should like to give you something as a recollection of your visit to the last philosopher in China, but I am a poor man and I do not know what I can give you that would be worthy of your acceptance.”

I protested that the recollection of my visit was in itself a priceless gift. He smiled.

“Men have short memories in these degenerate days, and I should like to give you something more substantial. I would give you one of my books, but you cannot read Chinese.”

He looked at me with an amicable perplexity. I had an inspiration.

“Give me a sample of your calligraphy,” I said.

“Would you like that?” He smiled. “In my youth I was considered to wield the brush in a manner that was not entirely despicable.”

He sat down at his desk, took a fair sheet of paper, and placed it before him. He poured a few drops of water on a stone, rubbed the ink stick in it, and took his brush. With a free movement of the arm he began to write. And as I watched him I remembered with not a little amusement something else which had been told me of him. It appeared that the old gentleman, whenever he could scrape a little money together, spent it wantonly in the streets inhabited by ladies to describe whom a euphemism is generally used. His eldest son, a person of standing in the city, was vexed and humiliated by the scandal of this behaviour; and only his strong sense of filial duty prevented him from reproaching the libertine with severity. I daresay that to a son such looseness would be disconcerting, but the student of human nature could look upon it with equanimity. Philosophers are apt to elaborate their theories in the study, forming conclusions upon life which they know only at second hand, and it has seemed to me often that their works would have a more definite significance if they had exposed themselves to the vicissitudes which befall the common run of men. I was prepared to regard the old gentleman’s dalliance in hidden places with leniency. Perhaps he sought but to elucidate the most inscrutable of human illusions.

He finished. To dry the ink he scattered a little ash on the paper and rising handed it to me.

“What have you written?” I asked.

I thought there was a slightly malicious gleam in his eyes.

“I have ventured to offer you two little poems of my own.”

“I did not know you were a poet.”

“When China was still an uncivilised country,” he retorted with sarcasm, “all educated men could write verse at least with elegance.”

I took the paper and looked at the Chinese characters. They made an agreeable pattern upon it.

“Won’t you also give me a translation?”

Tradutore—tradittore,” he answered. “You cannot expect me to betray myself. Ask one of your English friends. Those who know most about China know nothing, but you will at least find one who is competent to give you a rendering of a few rough and simple lines.”

I bade him farewell, and with great politeness he showed me to my chair. When I had the opportunity I gave the poems to a sinologue of my acquaintance, and here is the version he made. I confess that, doubtless unreasonably, I was somewhat taken aback when I read it.

You loved me not: your voice was sweet;

Your eyes were full of laughter; your hands were tender.

And then you loved me: your voice was bitter;

Your eyes were full of tears; your hands were cruel.

Sad, sad that love should make you

Unlovable.


I craved the years would quickly pass

That you might lose

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the cruel splendour of your youth.

Then I alone would love you

And you at last would care.

The envious years have passed full soon

And you have lost

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the charming splendour of your youth.

Alas, I do not love you

And I care not if you care.

W. Somerset Maugham: On A Chinese Screen, 1922

Note:  The character of the ‘Philosopher’ is based on the Chinese writer and diplomat, Ku Hung-ming, [Gū Hóngmíng 辜鴻銘] (1857-1928).

Read more about Ku Hung-ming

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