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.
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