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趙翼《偶書所見(其一)》“Casual notes on my observations (No. 1)” by Zhao Yi

老尚手一編, Despite my age, [I] still have a book in hand [1]

藉作消閒。 To while away my leisure time.

或謂今生書, Some say books in this life

可為來生。 Lay the grounds for the next life.

樂全未了經, It was a pleasure to complete the unfinished sutra; [2]

香山之無。 Xiangshan [recognised] the characters zhi and wu. [3]

皆自夙世來, All of these came from their previous lives,

徵驗若左。 Proving [the statement above] like the left part of a tally. [4]

我聞喜不寐, With this knowledge, I’m too joyful to fall asleep:

一讀便兩。 Reading once lasts for two lives!

卻笑老健忘, Yet [I] mock myself for being old and forgetful

掩卷已不。 Who remembers nothing once the book is closed.

及身尚如此, Such is my current life,

遑問他生[5] What about the next!

* From Zhao Yi 趙翼 (1727-1814), [6] Oubei ji 甌北集 (Oubei quanshu qi Zhong 甌北全書七種 edition, published by Shoukao tang 壽考堂 in 1812):

[1] This poem was written in 1801, when Zhao Yi was 74 years old. [2] The allusion here is unclear. According to Hu Yixian 胡憶肖, this refers to an anecdote about Fang Guan 房琯 (697-763), a chancellor during the Tang Dynasty. It is said that he was Master Zhiyong 智永 (fl. 6th century) in his previous life who left an unfinished sutra to be completed in his current life; see Zhao Yi shixuan 趙翼詩選, annotated by Hu Yixiao (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1985), 205. Hu Yixiao does not provide any reference at this point, but the account in the Minghuang zalu 明皇雜錄, the main source of this anecdote, gives different details. Fang Guan was taken to a deserted Buddhist temple by a Daoist priest, who had his servant dig out a jug containing letters between Lou Shide 婁師德 (630-399) and a Master Yong 永師, who is traditionally identified as the famous calligrapher Master Zhiyong. When Fang Guan saw the letters, he suddenly recalled that he had been this Master Yong in his previous life; see Zheng Chuhui 鄭處誨 (fl. 9th century), Minghuan zalu: [3] Xiangshan is the style name of the eminent Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846). In a letter to Yuan Zhen 元稹 (779-831), he recalls how he learned the characters zhi 之 and wu 無 when he was only six or seven months old without even being able to speak; see Bai Juyi, Baishi Changing ji 白氏長慶集: [4] A tally (fu 符 or qi 契) in ancient China is a proof of authorisation (for military movements, for example) that consists of two parts and is used as a common metaphor for perfect harmony or accordance. [5] Red characters rhyme.

[6] Zhao Yi, one of the most prominent Qing historians, authored the Niener shi zhaji 廿二史箚記 (or Ershier shi zhaji 二十二史劄記) and was known for his original views on official histories.

Detail of "Duiyue tu" 對月圖 by an anonymous Yuan artist (ca. 1332)

Picture credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (

A tiger tally from the Warring States period (481/403 BCE - 221 BCE)

Picture credit: Shaanxi History Museum (


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