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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