A square pond of half an acre spreads like a mirror -
Light of the sky and reflection of clouds both linger [therein].
[If one] asks about the reason for such purity,
Because there’s living water coming from its source.
*From Zhu Wengong wenji 朱文公文集, Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 edition.
I like to review my middle school textbooks from time to time and often rediscover things that used to confuse me or bore me as a kid. Some literary figures and works were unjustly made boring because of the design of our literature education. There are also works that were simply beyond my sensibility at the time and therefore did not speak to me until I came to review them five years or a decade later. Of course, some works never spoke and perhaps never will speak to me, but even then, my review session can conclude on the happy note that I still have in me something of my innocent childhood.
This time I was intrigued by this quatrain by Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), the famous Neo-Confucian thinker. He is not known as a poet, and this quatrain was actually the only poem by him I learned in my schooldays.
It’s interesting first to see what the textbook compilers considered as something that needs further explanation. This was my eighth-grade textbook, and I thought children aged 12 to 13 would have known a fangtang 方塘 (square pond) means “a pond that is square-shaped” (fangxing de shuitang 方形的水塘). But well, the annotator might have wanted to give a gentle reminder that this is not to be mistaken for fangtang 方糖 (square candy).
Song poetry is well-known for its incorporation of philosophical contemplation. It’s not that pre-Song poetry has no philosophy in it at all, but Song poets made a habit of incorporating it into their verse. Sometimes such philosophical implications or explicit notes make their poetry sound like preaching and therefore have brought criticisms. But in this quatrain, Zhu Xi made his lesson quite subtle. The four lines would appear to be a nice sketch of a pond, and an innocent reader might not intuitively associate it with reading a book. However, Zhu Xi gave this quatrain a title that makes sure his readers won’t miss his point.
The 12-year-old me laid out all the implications of this poem in the plainest terms (undoubtedly by noting down what the teacher said):
“A square pond of half an acre” is a metaphor for the book he was reading.
“A mirror” is a metaphor for the clear water in the pond.
[The poem] indicates that one must commit oneself to reading and acquire new knowledge from time to time to have an enlightened mind.
I wrote the note on “mirror” twice, once next to the line and once next to the footnote. It is possible that my teacher emphasised this point, or perhaps I just forgot I had already noted it down… I don’t remember how seriously I took these notes when I wrote them. But reading them now I’m somewhat amused and reminded of my 12-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew the other day, when they suddenly engaged in a discussion about the Soviet Union and turned to me the next minute to ask whether I believe in Santa Claus. Now I can’t help but wonder whether all annotators really know what they are talking about. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, for such notes still constitute evidence that at some point some people have expected this poem to be interpreted this way. What’s noted down doesn’t always have to be the original idea or genuine thought of the annotator.
Speaking as an adult reader who devotes a considerable part of her life to reading classical Chinese texts, I should add that the quatrain was written in 1166 when Zhu Xi lived as a lecturer in Fujian. In a letter to his disciple and friend Xu Sheng 許升 (courtesy name Shunzhi 順之, fl. 12th century), Zhu Xi talked about how he was inspired by his recent exchanges with his friends and finally managed to have his first major philosophical breakthrough. He was so thrilled that he described his previous teaching as “simply a one-eyed man leading a group of blind men.”
In fact, Zhu Xi wrote two quatrains on this occasion, with the other one also using water as a metaphor for inspiration. Both quatrains, especially the one translated above, came to be celebrated for centuries as successful philosophical poems. However, in the literary context, it is rarely noted that Zhu Xi soon started to seriously doubt this thrilling breakthrough and even revised it substantially within three years. This process of self-renewal has been one of the key topics in the study of Zhu Xi’s philosophy, but it seems rather peripheral in the realm of poetry, where one is perhaps more concerned with the successful capture of a momentary feeling.
As one would expect, the tourism sector spares no effort to preserve this legacy, despite all the disputes over the exact location of the pond or whether it existed at all. If you visit the town Wufu 五夫 in northern Fujian, where the old residence of Zhu Xi was destroyed in war in the early twentieth century and then rebuilt in 1998, you won’t fail to find an attraction called “a square pond of half an acre” and a stone inscribed with the quatrain by the pond.
 See Zhu Xi shici biannian jianzhu 朱熹詩詞編年箋注 (Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 2000), annotated by Guo Qi 郭齊, 179.
 Zhu Xi, “Da Xu Shunzhi” 答許順之, in Zhu Wengong wenji 朱文公文集, 39.15b: 真是一目引眾盲耳. For a convenient reference, see https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=gb&file=78432&page=33#%E6%B4%BB%E6%B0%B4.
Two photos of the site of Zhu Xi's old residence from the internet.
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