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How I Chose My "Style Name"


[Su] Dongpo[1] called morning drinking "watering the books." Li Huangmen[2] called his lunchtime nap "spreading out the rice." Lu Wuguan[3] once wrote a quatrain which reads:

"Watering the book with a handful from the maggot-floating jar,[4]

Spreading out the rice across the butterfly-dreaming bed.[5]

Don't laugh at the mountain man who finds out about this secret[6] too late.

'Tis still better than being occupied in Vanity Fair[7] for a lifetime!"

*From Wei Qingzhi's 魏慶之 (fl. 13th century) Shiren yuxie 詩人玉屑 (Jade Powder of Poets)

[1] Dongpo 東坡 (Eastern Slope), or Dongpo jushi 東坡居士 (Gentleman of the Eastern Slope), is the style name (more on this later) of Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101), the eminent and versatile literatus of the eleventh century.

[2] I'd be grateful if someone can help me identify this guy.

[3] Yuguan 務觀 is the courtesy name of Lu You 陸游 (1125-1210), arguably the most prolific poet of the Song dynasty.

[4] Thankfully, this is not to be read literally. Fuqu 浮蛆 (floating maggots) refers to the foamy bits floating on top of fermenting alcohol. It might sound a bit too gruesome to be a poetic image, but it is actually a common literary reference to alcohol. Another variant is fuyi 浮蟻 (floating ants).

[5] This refers to the famous story in chapter two ("Qiwu lun" 齊物論, On Equalising Things) of Zhuangzi 莊子. One day, Zhuangzi dreamed that he became a butterfly. Upon wakening, he wondered whether it was him who dreamed of becoming a butterfly or his life was the dream of a butterfly.

[6] Of happy life, I think.

[7] Chaoshi 朝市 literally says "court and marketplace."


I came across Chen Hongshou's 陳洪綬 (1598-1652) album Yinju shiliu guan 隱居十六觀 (Sixteen Views of Reclusion) a few years ago and was totally amused by the leaf about Su Shi (see below). Of course, we all know he had a lot of books in his belly to water!

© National Palace Museum, Taipei

When I was having fun with designing member badges for the forum, this nice painting came to my mind. Well, I don’t have that many books in my belly or a craving for alcohol in the morning that necessitates jiaoshu 澆書 (watering the books), but I do spend a lot of time on jiaoshu 教書 (teaching). As I enjoy the painting and the anecdote about Su Shi, I decided that the semantic difference between these two homophones is within tolerances. To finish it with a noun suffix, the word sanren 散人 ("an unaffiliated/unattached person") just popped up in my head: a perfect fit for my current status as a freelancer!

A revelation suddenly occurred to me. About why Chinese literati gave themselves (sometimes numerous) "style names."

For the uninitiated, it's very useful to note at least three types of names used by literati in the East Asian context: ming 名 (personal name, given name), zi 字 (courtesy name), and hao 號 (style name, art name). For a boy, the given name is usually given by his father shortly after his birth. When the boy becomes an adult, a respected man in the family or community is invited to give him a courtesy name that typically extends the meaning of his given name.[8] A style name, however, is to be chosen by the boy (now an adult man) himself at any point of time, to suit any type of mood. It's like a pen name.

The differences between these names are sometimes flattened, and they are simply presented as a set of "alternative names." Many translators standardise the reference to one person to help the reader follow the storyline/argument. I know. It takes a bit of time to figure out Su Shi, Su Zizhan, and Su Dongpo are the same guy. A more challenging case might be that Zhu Ruoji, Zhu Achang, Dadizi, Qingxiang laoren, Kugua heshang, and Xiazunzhe (the list can go on!) all refer to the Qing artist Shi Tao 石濤.

A bit confusing indeed...But still, I think it's worth the effort. These names can talk to the reader and send out messages about the writer's self-perception and how s/he perceives his/her relationship with the person s/he writes about. You wouldn't, for example, be so rude as to address someone you regard as your peer by his given name (which is to be used by his superiors or as a self-derogatory "I"). But if you want to curse him, you might not want to curse by his courtesy name. As for the self-designated "style name," it is a great window into someone's aspirations and, in some cases, the change of aspirations through different stages of life. For a reader, knowing what these names are and what they mean definitely makes a more pleasant and rewarding reading experience.

So, that's a tradition that I knew. But knowing it is different from feeling what it can do to one's state of mind. Once my personalised badge – akin to a style name, I would say – was coined, I instantly became a happier person because of the privileges it brought me. The effect was immediate. Now since this is the blog of a "loose person" who aspires to a Schnapsnase, not a peer-reviewed academic journal, I can exploit my non-authoritative status and fully enjoy my right to make mistakes and jokes. I can freely make use of "I" when talking about my thoughts, without pretending to be an omniscient narrator who reports on objective observations and tells something about the truth. I can also happily share good literature without an obligation to analyse it and just leave everything to you, my dear readers, because I trust that when you enjoy something, you'll smile.

[8] For instance, the given name of Lu You, you 遊, means "to travel." His courtesy name Wuguan 務觀 reads something like "must-see" or "devoted to viewing."


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