As I’ve been focusing on general description rather than close discussion of text over the past months, I find myself longing to present a Night Chats entry in its entirety. I am sick of giving overviews, tired of being told to be careful not to get into too much detail. Every time I have to paraphrase an anecdote instead of presenting a full translation, I cringe. Why? Reoccurring themes or possible motives are all very well, but it is the actual text, in Huihong’s words, that I find fascinating.
I have taken to my blog again simply to console myself and remember what this is all about: the value of frivolity and the importance of detail! These accounts are not trying to be earth shattering theories or profound lessons. They might not even be “true.” But ironically, the snapshots they give of human character, poetic creativity, and relationships, are in some ways even more significant than elaborate theories or lucid lessons.
Recently, I’ve been trying to paraphrase and discuss an account about Yuancai, Huihong’s eccentric uncle. In order to demonstrate a point about accounts of officials who exhibit personality flaws, I force myself to consolidate an anecdote of about 400 characters into a few measly English sentences: “One account describes Huihong’s uncle, Yuancai, boasting of his ability to dowse for water and to subdue snakes. But when his skills are put to the test in each case, he fails miserably. When Huihong mentions his deficiency in these areas in a preface for Yuancai’s book, he gets annoyed, even though he had asked Huihong to be ‘impartial.'” Maybe a little wordy, but seems okay, right? No! It is cringeworthy when you compare it with the original account:
Yuancai was good at discussing military affairs, he advised the Music Bureau, and he was thoroughly versed in the music of all lands. He once boasted,
“When troops set up camp, they are always worried that there won’t be enough water. Recently, I heard about a method for finding wells that is extremely marvelous.”At the time, he was staying at Daqing Guan [Taoist temple], where every day he would inspect the ground and dig, but no water was to be found. He also tried digging several feet away to check [for water] to the point that all four sides [around the temple] encountered his shovel and were full of holes. One moonlit night, the Taoist ascended the tower, looked around and frowned, saying,
“Has my temple become a cracked tortuous shell? How come there are so many holes everywhere?” Yuancai was not pleased.
Another time, when he accompanied Defender-in-Chief Guo to see his garden, [Yuancai] boasted,
“Recently, an extremely marvelous method for eliminating snakes was passed to me. With just a recitation of a spell, the snake will hear and be trapped, just as if [I was] ordering around a small child.” Suddenly there [appeared] an extremely fierce snake. The Defender-in-Chief shouted: “Yuancai, you can put your skills to use!” The snake reared its head and rushed towards them. Yuancai didn’t try any method whatsoever; he just turned around and ran until he was huffing and puffing and dripping with sweat. He threw down his official hat, and said,
“[The snake] is the spirit of the Defender-in-Chief’s residence. It can’t be stopped!” The Defender-in-Chief only grinned.
When [Yuancai] submitted a book on music to the court, he obtained the appointment of “Chief Musician.” He had me write a postscript for the book, saying,
“When you let your brush go, you should be impartial. Don’t exaggerate my strengths just because we are uncle and nephew.”
“When Yuancai was among the common populace, he had aspirations for statecraft. He is good at discussing military affairs and advises about imperial music. Writing is his [secondary] pastime. But getting rid of snakes and finding places for wells are not his strengths.” When Yuancai saw this, he said angrily,
“When Sima Zi (Sima Qian) wrote the biography of Mr. Li he wrote about the exceptional things that he did. [Mr. Li’s] only mistake was to try to persuade [Han]Gaozu to enfeoff six states, so in his biography [Sima] didn’t mention it, but filled his biography entirely with his good qualities, but he still recorded [the mistake] in Zifang’s (Liu Bang’s) biography because he did not want to hide the truth. So why did you record the stuff about stopping snakes and finding wells?” Everyone who heard this laughed until they fell over.
I’ve included the whole account with a rough translation, and I let my readers make of it what they will, which is probably what Huihong would have wished in the first place.
Of course, the work of drawing out significant points from these texts is not completely useless. But it can be difficult and unless you are very good at it, the results are often disappointing. Here we have Yuancai demonstrating some of Huihong’s “favorite” character flaws: an inflated sense of one’s abilities or arrogance, and hypocrisy. He boasts about non existent abilities, makes excuses when he fails, and gets angry when Huihong follows his directions to be impartial in his description.
But Huihong clearly adores Yuancai as a character. Yuancai’s ability to make people laugh perhaps helps to redeem him of his faults. It is hard to take him too seriously in any case. Since he is not in a high position, his personality flaws will not have negative long term effects on those beneath him.
Other accounts deal with high ranking or well-known officials. These accounts are usually not so ridiculous. While some emphasize behavior or words demonstrating virtues such as authenticity and discernment, others point to instances where officials fall short of such ideals. One account consists of some critical remarks Xu Fu 徐俯 made about the luminaries Su Shi, Huang Tingjian, and Chen Guan, pointing out that even upright gentlemen such as these have their imperfections. For each of these individuals, Xu points out a case where they didn’t live up to their professed principles. If I had my way (and time), I would include this entry in its entirety as well. You would hear about how Su Shi was willing to lay down his life in defense of his principles in writing, yet he still he sought after immortality techniques. Or Chen Guan’s occasional habit of telling peoples’ fortunes even though he prided himself on putting into practice his intentions and viewing rank and salary as dung and dirt.
Well, back to the dissertation, which progressively feels like the trashcan where I put everything I don’t want to write about!