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A legendary louse

荊公、禹玉,熙寧中同在相府。一日同侍朝,忽有虱自荊公襦領而上,直緣其鬚。上顧之笑,公不自知也。朝退,禹玉指以告公。公命從者去之。禹玉曰:“未可輕去。輒獻一言以頌虱之功。”公曰:“如何?”禹玉笑而應曰:“屢遊相鬚,曾經御覽。”荊公亦為之解頤。

The Duke of Jing, together with Yuyu, [1] held office as an chancellor during the Xining era [1068-1077]. One day, [they] both attended an audience at court. Suddenly a louse climbed up the collar of the Duke of Jing’s singlet and crawled the length of his beard. His Majesty smiled [when he] saw it, [but] His Grace did not notice [anything wrong]. After the audience, Yuyu pointed at [the louse] and told His Grace about it. His Grace asked an attendant to remove it.

Yuyu said: “It cannot be removed so lightly. If I may, [let me] offer a remark to extol the louse’s merits.”

His Grace said: “What would that be?”

With a smile, Yuyu responded: “A tireless wanderer in the chancellor’s beard, a former subject of imperial review.”

Hearing this, the Duke of Jing also cracked a smile.

 

* From Moke huixi 墨客揮犀, attributed to Peng Cheng 彭乘 (fl. eleventh century), Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987) edition, vol. 1037, 4.7b.

 

[1] Jingong 荊公 (Duke of Jing) is the honorific title of Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), an important politician and writer of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Yuyu is the courtesy name of Wang Gui 王珪 (1019-1085). My translation here stays close to the way of addressing people in the original instead of observing the standard practice of converting all forms of naming to the surname plus the given name. The writer’s way of addressing Wang Anshi and Wang Gui immediately reveals that he views them as respectable peers, and his polite language adds an amusing tone to the story. On the unclear identity of the writer and the complex textual history of this collection, see the editors’ note in the Siku Quanshu.



Portrait of Wang Anshi from the album Lidai shengxian mingren xiang 歷代聖賢名人像 from Nanxundian 南薰殿, the Palace Museum (Beijing), by unknown artist(s)


 

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