top of page

朱穆《與劉伯宗絕交詩》“Severing the Relationship with Liu Bozong” by Zhu Mu





In the north mountain is an owl,

That never cleans its wings.

[It] doesn’t fly with proper direction,

Nor does [it] rest with regularity.





When hungry, [it] hunts from the wood.[2]

When full, [it] hides in the mud.

A glutton for dirt,

[It] eats nothing but what stinks.





Stuffing [its] guts, filling up [its] crop,

It has a desire for food that never ends.

With a long cry, [it] calls the phoenix,

Claiming it has no virtue.





Where the phoenix is going

Is a different world from yours.

Now let us part for good.

May each of us strive in our own way.

* From Xian Qin Han Wei Jin Nanbeichao shi 先秦漢魏晉南北朝詩, edited by Lu Qinli 逯欽力 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983), 181.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] This probably suggests it hunts the baby birds from their nests in trees. An alternative reading is “When hungry, [it] grabs the wood,” which may refer to the bird sitting on the top of the tree to look for potential food.


Speaking of the art of severing relationships, readers of Chinese literature will first recall Ji Kang’s 嵇康 (also known as Xi Kang, 223-262) eloquent letter to Shan Tao 山濤 (205-283).[3] I read excerpts from this letter with undergraduates and enjoyed Ji Kang’s excuses for his rejection of the official position on offer. Ji Kang was known as one of most respectable and handsome men of his day. But to get rid of his ex-friend and his recommendation, he described himself as a guy who only took a bath every fifteen days or when his whole body had become itchy, and who wouldn’t bother to go to the loo unless he was on the verge of bursting.[4] The letter is very long and replete with allusions, but it’s definitely a fun read.

In contrast, Zhu Mu 朱穆 (100-163), the earliest known author of a letter and a poem announcing the end of friendship, is a relatively obscure figure. In fact, he might be the only author who has been remembered in the history of Chinese literature just for telling his former friend to clear off.

About the friendship between Zhu Mu and Liu Bozong, we only know from Zhu Mu’s account that Zhu Mu used to be Liu Bozong’s superior and treated him well. But later when Liu Bozong became Zhu Mu’s superior, he did not return the latter’s favour and treated him with disrespect instead.[5] We don’t know what exactly happened to Zhu Mu, but the scenario is not too difficult to imagine. I’m actually more interested to know whether Liu Bozong reacted to this announcement at all. But perhaps the absence of documentation of how this incident ended says it all. If Liu Bozong had paid any heed to Zhu Mu’s moral accusation, someone would have been excited enough to spread the word and make sure it was recorded as one of the rare cases in which the virtuous one succeeds in transforming an ungrateful person into a decent gentleman.

What I also find interesting is Zhu Mu’s choice of tetrasyllabic verse. He could have employed pentasyllabic verse that started to gain popularity during the Han times, or perhaps lines of irregular lengths. The yuefu 樂府 (music bureau) example of “You suosi” 有所思 (The One I Love) proves that irregular verse can be an effective device for cursing a fickle lover. Tetrasyllabic verse is a more archaic style that is exemplified by the Shijing 詩經 (Book of Songs). Indeed, many of Zhu Mu’s lines are reminiscent of the Shijing poetry, not just in their moderated rhythm, but also in syntax. This choice gives the poem a very solemn tone and almost a ritual flavour.

The announcement was certainly intended as a serious one, although it might appear somewhat amusing (for instance in my eyes). A few days ago, some people in the translator group I joined had a discussion about how to sever their relationship with unreasonable companies or project managers. Sometimes such break-up talk ends up with nasty resentment. It’s not easy to end any relationship, and I suppose something bad must be said at some point. On this front, reading literature about the art of severing relationships might actually be of help. It showcases how to say something bad (or even rude) in an elegant way. Even if it doesn’t help you get what you want, it is a rather nice thing to transform pure fury or hatred into something more beautiful. You might as well be appreciated and remembered for your practice of this art.

[3] For more discussion of severing relationships, see Thomas Jansen, “The Art of Severing Relationships in Early Medieval China,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society 126, 2006(3): 347-365. He has also translated and discussed Zhu Mu’s poem in depth. [4] For a convenient reference, see the Wenxuan edition of this letter here: [5] Zhu Mu’s account is preserved in Li Xian’s 李賢 commentary of the Hou Hanshu 後漢書. For a brief discussion about his, see Jansen’s “The Art of Severing Relationships in Early Medieval China,” 354, footnote 33.

© National Palace Museum, Taipei

Zhao Mengfu's 趙孟頫 calligraphy of Ji Kang's letter (detail)


Copyright Declaration*:

The texts and images used on the website of Rachelle's Lab are either from the public domain (e.g. Wikipedia), databases with open data licences (e.g. Shuhua diancang ziliao jiansuo xitong 書畫典藏資料檢索系統, National Palace Museum, Taipei), online libraries that permit reasonable use (e.g., or original work created for this website.

Although fair use of the website for private non-profit purposes is permitted, please note that the website of Rachelle's Lab and its content (including but not limited to translations, blog posts, images, videos, etc.) are protected under international copyright law. If you want to republish, distribute, or make derivative work based on the website content, please contact me, the copyright owner, to get written permission first and make sure to link to the corresponding page when you use it.



*Read more about copyright and permission here.



bottom of page