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Inscription on my Shabby Abode

By Liu Yuxi 劉禹錫 (772-842)



A mountain needs not height –

the immortal therein lends it fame.



Waters need not depth –

the dragon therein makes them numinous.



This is a shabby abode,

my virtues alone fragrant.



Green are the traces of lichen up the step,

Verdant are the tinges of grass through the blind.



Masters are here to share a hearty laugh;

The ignorant never darken my door.



I can tune my unadorned zither,[1]

read the precious scriptures.



No silk and bamboo disturbing my ears,

nor office documents wearying my frame.



[As with] Zhuge's hut in Nanyang,[2]

Ziyun's pavilion in Xishu,[3]


Master Kong would say, "What's shabby about it?"[4]

[1] I'm not sure whether Liu Yuxi's "unadorned zither" has any strings. The famous poet Tao Yuanming 陶淵明 (365?-427) from nearly four centuries earlier was famous for enjoying playing his "unadorned zither" that had no strings. Tiao 調 may refer to "playing" the zither in a more general sense, but I suppose if Liu Yuxi wanted to express the generic idea of "play," he could have used zou 奏.

[2] Zhuge refers to the famous strategist Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234) during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280). Liu Bei 劉備 (161-223, rulled 221-223), who founded the Kingdom of Shu (based in modern Sichuan), visited Zhuge Liang’s hut in Nanyang many times before he agreed to serve as Liu Bei’s advisor. There is dispute about the exact location of Nanyang. The modern city of Nanyang in Hebei province and Xiangyang in Hubei province both claim a connection with the legendary Zhuge Liang.

[3] Ziyun refers to Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53-18 BCE), an eminent philosopher, writer, and linguist of the Han times (221 BCE – 220 CE). He was a native of Sichuan, and his pavilion (presumably a studio) is in Western Shu (modern Mianyang, Sichuan), where local people rebuilt a pavilion to commemorate him. A Chinese reader will notice the contrast of nan 南 (south) and xi 西 (west) in the two place names here.

[4] This is from the Analects (9.14). When Confucius suggested he wanted to live among the barbarians, someone asked, "It's a shabby place. What are you going to do about it?" The Master said, "When a gentleman lives there, what's shabby about it?"

© National Palace Museum, Taipei

Note: The images in this gallery are arranged according to the reading order (right to left, up to down). The first leaf is the leftmost one, and the last leaf rightmost. You can find out more about this album here (in Chinese only).


Many of my colleagues and students have heard me saying, "I'm not a literature person." And I did try to avoid translating literary works as much as possible in my academic research and writing. However, that was not because I hate literature. Quite the contrary. A lot of literary works evoke huge resonance in me, and I often have the feeling that the resonance is just too overwhelming to be put into words. I couldn't bear to tear my favourite literary works apart by any sort of analysis or put forward some blasphemous translations in my mediocre English that doesn’t sound like "literature" at all.

I still think, as many years ago, that the way an individual resonates with an artistic work is shaped by this individual's personality, upbringing, taste, education, experience, and many other factors that can't possibly all be duplicated in another individual. And I still think it is pointless to try to explain my unique bond with a work in words and hope others can see exactly what I mean. People may say, "Oh yes, I know what you mean!" I say that too. But at the bottom of my heart, I know we're only talking about some of the explainable parts of our actual feelings. The more I try to put my feelings into words, the more I find it hopeless. Indeed, words can never fully express thoughts! [5]

Stubborn person as I am, something in me has changed. During the past years in the UK, I often found myself in a situation where I had to put what I think and feel into words, even in a foreign language. My fear of becoming the culprit for destroying the reputation of Chinese literature turned out to be a great motivation for learning. More intriguingly, I have also learned to appreciate and enjoy the process of trying to get some delicate connotations across in another language.

My blog is called "Ramblings," so there we are: I've warned you that the articles and translations I post here might be a bit all over the place, just like my reading interests. The photo on the home page is a glimpse into my study and an allusion to Liu Yuxi's "Inscription on my Shabby Abode." Every Chinese kid from around my generation has been asked to commit it to memory, but it was not until recent years that I started to really appreciate it. I have a few modifications to make though. The name of my qin (seven-string zither) is Wuwen 無聞 (No-heard, soundless)[6]; my library collection covers a lot of topics and genres, but really not many precious scriptures. So, perhaps "調啞琴,閱雜經" (tune the mute zither and read miscellaneous classics) can better describe what's going on in my shabby abode.

(Above)The name inscribed on the bottom of my qin and its "tag line" presented as a seal.

I've been working as a teacher and tutor for seven years now, but in this blog I don't want to be an educator. The posts are simply my humble efforts to continue exploring both Chinese and English language and literature. You'll come across terribly awkward English in my translations from time to time, but that is exactly why I am writing about them here: I want to share things I enjoy reading, looking at, and experimenting with (hence a "lab"!), and I want to get better at conveying them to interested readers of English. After all these years in London, I hope I've become better at expressing my ideas in proper English or at least explaining what I'm trying to do :) Tell me if you have any questions or suggestions. I'll be happy to discuss with you!

There's another reason for opening this blog. Many Chinese classical texts and poets are now available in Western language translations. Some are even available in multiple translations that are more than one can read. The discovery of the lesser-known authors or lesser-known works by the big names, on the other hand, remains the subject of academic enquiry. I do enjoy reading academic works (sometimes); there are great papers and books that really make me laugh and go wow. But I also think it is a shame that so many fascinating materials are discussed almost exclusively in academic writing which is (understandably) unlikely to be an intuitive choice of bedtime reading for most people.

I taught academic writing at university and perfectly understand why we need to follow what is considered good practice. But deep in my heart, I also fear academic training could constrain people's interests in reading and writing. I rarely enjoy modern academic publications as much as I enjoy the brilliant prose by the learned Republican writers of the early 20th century who hadn't even heard about the good academic practices of our days. Knowledgeable and truly able to enjoy life, they gave fresh insights into even the most trivial things such as reading in the toilet (by Zhou Zuoren 周作人, from whom, by the way, I learned about the humane and humorous side of the eminent Qing scholar Hao Yixing 郝懿行).

(If any student who has been tortured by me for their academic writing is reading this, hey, don't get too excited! You still need to stick to good academic practices if you want to earn your degree!)

What I'm trying to do in this blog is to provide an alternative way of looking at Chinese literature. As suggested above, I'll put my focus on the lesser-known writers and works. In other words, the underexplored "countryside" of Chinese literature is where my ramblings will take you. Wherever possible, I'll link important figures and texts to open resources for your information. Whereas translation always involves a certain degree of interpretation, footnotes and analysis will be kept to a minimum (except for the recipes) so that the work hopefully has more space to speak for itself.

If academic writing is not your thing, or you just want to take a break from it, I hope my light-hearted presentations of the "hidden gems" can ignite or refresh your passion for Chinese literature.

[5] See the Book of Changes: 言不盡意. [6] Inspired by the Daodejing 道德經 which says the greatest sound is not to be heard: 大音希聲.


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Music to go with.



I once listed it as potential exam material for the undergraduates to read and translate by themselves. I hope they didn't have a hard time, haha!



I just remembered that I did a initial translation of this a couple months back...........Never to return.

A small mountain need only rely on immortals to become famous.

A shallow river need only rely on a dragon to become mystical.

As for me....

my hut may be lowly,

but my heart maintains it’s beauty.


Oh, I never found the Giles translation. At the time I was content just to know it in Chinese, but I'm glad to have an English take on it.



Lucky you! I remember I tried to find a translation of it, but it wasn't easy. I think I only found the old translation by Giles in the end.

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