The Shrine of Lord Liu [sits] along the brook,
[Yet] the brook, trees and wild mist are not as in the past.
With the passing of many generations, inhabitants no longer bear the surname Ran;
[Among] remarkable traces, springs and rocks bear nothing but the foolish poem.
[As] the city enters spring, along the banks of the Xiang [River] are jumbles of flowers and woods;
[As] islets fall into night, fishermen’s singing sounds clear through bamboo branches.
Talented men in history were mostly banished officers,
[And here] Changsha is still saddened by the verse of Scholar Jia.
* From Shicang lidai shixuan 石倉歷代詩選, edited by Cao Xuequan 曹學佺 (1573-1646), 481.20a; in Yinyin Wenyuange Sikuquanshu 景印文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji, 1987), vol. 1393.
 Red characters rhyme.  These two lines allude to Liu Zongyuan’s “Yuxi shi xu” 愚溪詩序 (Preface to the Foolish Brook Poem); more on this later.  In 176 BCE, the eminent Han writer Jia Yi 賈誼 (ca. 200-169 BCE) was exiled to Changsha, some 300 kilometres northeast of Yongzhou. As he passed by the Xiang River, he composed “Diao Qu Yuan fu” 吊屈原賦 (Rhapsody Lamenting Qu Yuan) to express his sympathy for this noble pre-Qin poet who was framed by evil opponents at court and ended up drowning himself in a branch of the Xiang River. It is not difficult to see the analogy between Jia Yi and Qu Yuan, so this rhapsody is often interpreted as Jia Yi’s lament for himself.
In 805, Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 (773-819) was exiled to Yongzhou 永州 because of a failed political reform in the capital. He decided to settle on a plot of land near the brook locally known as the Ran Brook. This name probably had never been recorded in writing, so there were disputes over how the character Ran should be written. One theory was that the brook was named after a Ran 冉 family who once lived nearby; another theory said people used the brook water to dye (ran 染) cloth. To settle the disputes, Liu Zongyuan changed the name into Yuxi 愚溪 (Foolish Brook) as, so he stated, he was sent here because he was punished for his foolishness. He wrote a poem with a preface to record his encounter with the place for his new home and to elaborate on his contemplation about being foolish.
The preface mentions that Liu Zongyuan left a poem on a rock by the brook, which is perhaps why it was lost. With line 4, Yan Song 嚴嵩 (1480-1567) probably meant the memory of the poem was known to the springs and rocks around the brook, or perhaps he indeed saw some form of the poem when he visited there.
Nevertheless, the preface has been transmitted and celebrated as one of Liu Zongyuan’s finest works. I quite enjoy the subtle criticisms and self-mocking tone as he insists that he is the one and only true fool under the heaven and thus has the exclusive privilege of insulting this useless yet beautiful brook (like himself) by naming it “foolish”.
Liu Zongyuan enjoyed the company of this brook for ten years, which were his most productive period as a writer. Therefore, Yongzhou has been a famous destination of literary pilgrimage for over a millennium. Unlike in Liuzhou, where the Shrine of Liu Zongyuan is located in the heart of an intermediate-sized modern city, the Shrine of Master Liu in Yongzhou sits in a quiet area away from the city centre.
It was a bit cloudy when I went there. I was surprised to find the Master Liu Street running in front of the shrine was not (yet) a standardised tourist street like those found in many attractions of historical interest. It still had the look of an age-old community where local people live and work, without many tourist shops in sight. But the dilapidated buildings and old people residing therein will probably be all gone someday.
The Shrine of Master Liu was first built in 1056, and the current building complex was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century. The front façade with the high wall looks a bit formidable, but I enjoyed the fact that, when one goes through the entrance hall and looks at it from the back, it turns out to be a theatre stage. I’m not sure whether people still perform on it nowadays, but the design indicates there was a somewhat intimate and relaxed relationship between the shrine and its visitors at one point.
And of course, a walk along the Foolish Brook is a must. Liu Zongyuan’s style as an essayist is best demonstrated in the eight essays collectively known as the “Yongzhou ba ji” 永州八記 (Eight Accounts of Yongzhou). Four of them are about sites and scenery near the Foolish Brook, and steles inscribed with these four essays are established at the sites identified (with controversy) as Liu Zongyuan’s subjects.
As in Liu Zongyuan’s days, the Foolish Brook is still a humble brook with some nice views and corners. There are public footpaths along the banks, so I didn’t have to make my way by chopping and burning shrubs as Liu Zongyuan did, and I would love to believe that I came across some of the rocks that he described as “resembling horses and oxen drinking at the brook” (如牛馬之飲於溪).
One may sigh for Liu Zongyuan’s political encounters as Yan Song (who, by the way, was one of the most powerful statesmen in Chinese history) did in his poem above. However, I also feel that the joy Liu Zongyuan wrote about when he explored the beauty of this humble land is genuine. His elaborations on the shape of rocks, the sound of water, and the pleasure of lying on the top of the hill are full of passion and amazement. If Liu Zongyuan had not written about all this, who would have come here to follow his steps and celebrate the beauty of this brook? In light of this, it’s not such a bad thing for the brook to adopt the name of foolishness.
 According to the Guangyun system, 冉 and 染 characters are homophones in Middle Chinese (Baxter's reconstructions: 冉: nyem / nyemX 染: nyemH / nyemX); see the Digital EDOC http://edoc.uchicago.edu/edoc2013/digitaledoc_linearformat.php
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