Yuan Hongdao was a district magistrate in Wu County, with a rank near 7b, in the reign of the Wanli Emperor, at about the same time that Shakespeare was writing his plays. He was intimately involved with the examination process. The exams concentrated on the classics. I came across a citation from Yuan Hongdao on a French blog, Le Lorgnon mélancolique which made me curious about him:
Everything that touches on literature is very difficult to understand.
Those who do not have the talent don’t understand it; those who do understand exactly as little. Those who have culture don’t understand it; those who do have culture understand exactly as little. Those who have talent and culture, but a superficial character and a narrow chest, don’t understand it either.
So I looked up Yuan Hongdao and found this nice article about him. Just as I suspected, he was one of the clerks of literature, a Pessoa of the Late Ming period. He cultivated the art of perspective – that watch for the beautiful moment – but the burdens of his job, his routines, not only dulled his sensibilities but made him question the very existence of the beautiful moment. Yuan Hongdao is known to us from his letters. Even more than poems, letters are in a direct relation to both the beautiful moment and its terrible erosion, and erosion the aesthete can feel undermining him, but seems helpless to arrest. Campbell, the author of the article, is sometimes impatient with his subject, quoting this typical weary sigh, sent to his brother:
“ I passed through the area around [Mt. Heng] whilst inspecting flood damage and had time merely to ascend the heights, with no leisure to appreciate the beauty of the place. Alas, the green paddy fields of yesterday have become the white crested waves of today, and bemoaning the situation with the local elders, how could I find the time to doff my magistrate’s robes and act out the affairs of the true man of taste (zuo renjian fengya shi klmnop)? This occasion alone is enough to reveal the real suffering of the common minor official!” Not a word here about the plight of the common people whose livelihood had been destroyed and whose well-being Yuan Hongdao was responsible for!”
In 1597, Yuan was reprieved of his duties, at his requests. He packed up his wives and concubines, confiding them to a friend, and set out upon a sentimental journey:
Accompanied by his friend Tao Wangling, then back in Shanyin
on leave from his post in the Hanlin Academy, Yuan Hongdao visited West Lake, the sacred site par excellence, for the first time, to sit drinking in Lake Heart Pavilion as the autumnal rains washed the lake red with peach blossoms. He paid calls upon the celebrated monk Zhuhong ¥_ (1535-1615) at his Cloud Perch Monastery. In Wuxi, he sat for hours in the evenings, wearied by a day with his books or out on some excursion or another, listening to Old Storyteller Zhu recite episodes from the Shuihu zhuan [Water Margin]. In Guiji he sought out the “ true” site of the famed Orchid Pavilion where, more than a thousand years earlier, in 353, Wang Xizhi (307-65), the greatest of all calligraphers, had brushed his immortal “ Preface to the Orchid Pavilion Collection” .He boated upon Mirror Lake, tasted the famed watermellow of Lake Xiang, and climbed Yellow Mountain. Sitting one evening in his friend Tao Wangling’s study in Shanyin he came across a tattered edition of the poetry of the eccentric poet and playwright Xu Wei ¦§ (1521-93); he later immortalised this moment in a biography of this man that served as something of a literary manifesto.
LI could get lost in this itinerary! Anyway, I will end this post with the Yuan Hongdao’s vision of earthly paradise – which, of course, is my valentine wish to you, my readers. This is from a letter to his maternal uncle:
Your way of life, my revered sir, is a rich and satisfying one, for you lack nothing it appears and your days and years pass by with all the splendour of a flower. What joys you can speak of. To my mind, however, the true joys of the world are but fivefold, and of this you must be aware. To see withone’s eyes all the most sensuous sights of the world, to hear with one’s ears all its most beauteous sounds, to taste all the world’s greatest delicacies and to join in all the most interesting conversations; this is the first of the true joys afforded us.
Within one’s hall, to have food-laden vessels arrayed in the front and music being played in the background; to have one’s tables crowded with guests and the shoes of men and women scattered everywhere; for the smoke of the lanterns to rise to the heavens and for jewellery to be strewn across the floor; when one’s money is exhausted one sells off one’s fields; this is the second joy.
To have secreted in one’s book trunks ten thousand volumes, all of
which are rare and precious; to have a studio built besides one’s residence and to invite into this studio a dozen or so true friends and to appoint as master ofthem someone with the extraordinary insight of a Sima Qian, a Luo Guanzhong or a Guan Hanqing;40 to then divide them into groups and to have each group compose a book , the prose of which will be far removed from the faults perpetrated by those pedantic Confucian scholars of the Tang and Song dynasties and to have recently completed some masterpiece of the age; this is the third joy.
To buy a junk worth a thousand taels; to invite on to this junk a musical troupe along with a courtesan and a concubine or two and a couple of idle travellers; to have a floating home and mansions afloat; to be able to forget the approach of old age; this is the fourth joy.
If one were to indulge oneself in this manner and to this degree, however, before a decade had passed by one would find one’s money exhausted and one’s fields sold. But then, in a state of total penury and living hand to mouth, to ply the brothels with one’s begging bowl in hand, to share one’s meals with the orphaned and the infirm, to live off the favour of one’s friends and relatives, all without the slightest pang of shame; this is the fifth great joy."