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蘇舜欽《獨步遊滄浪亭》 “Strolling alone to the Canglang Pavilion” by Su Shunqin





Flowering branches tilt low, grass in an even shade -

No riding into [it], [but] a stroll would be a delight.

Every so often [I] go [there] alone with wine,

No one to witness [my] drunkenness, save the spring wind.

* From Su Shunqin 蘇舜欽 (1009-1049), Su Xueshi ji 蘇學士集, Wenyuange Siku Quanshu 文淵閣四庫全書 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), vol. 1092, 8.4b-5a.

[1] Red characters rhyme.

"Canglang qingxia" 滄浪清夏 (Pure summer at Canglang); album leaf from "Gusu shi jing" 姑蘇十景 (Ten Views of Suzhou) by Wen Boren 文伯仁 (1502-1575).

Picture credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei


As Suzhou has too many famous gardens, I always have difficulty choosing which one to visit. For my recent trip, I chose the Canglang Pavilion in the end not because it has the longest history among Suzhou gardens, but because I like its name. Canglang reads as “surging wave” or “navy blue wave”, a reference to the “Yufu” 漁父 (Fisherman), one of my favourite pieces in the Chuci 楚辭 (Songs of the south):





When the Canglang’s waters are clear,

I can wash my hat-strings in them;

When the Canglang’s waters are muddy,

I can wash my feet in them.[2]

These lines are also quoted in the Mengzi 孟子 (Mencius) as a children’s ditty. The Mengzi concludes that people pay the price for their choices and that things always corrupt from inside.[3] On the other hand, the “Yufu” uses this verse to indicate that one should adapt to one’s environment, a theme shared by Su Shunqin’s 蘇舜欽 (1009-1049) account of his encounter with the place where he built the Canglang Pavilion.

Basically, it’s another story about an exiled literatus finding his therapy in nature. Following the failure of the reform led by Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 (989-1052) in 1044, Su Shunqin, a supporter of the reform, was banished from the court. As he tried to find a nice place to escape from the summer heat in Suzhou, he came across a deserted piece of land that used to be the garden of Sun Chengyou 孫承右, a member of the ruling house of the Kingdom of Wuyue 吳越 (907-978). Immediately captivated by the landscape, Sun Shunqin bought the land and built the Canglang Pavilion.[4] From then on, he often enjoyed a cup or two in the pavilion and indulged in nature in all its glory, which is attested by multiple poems by himself as well as his literati friends.

Sounds nice, and familiar. There were so many poets and writers in history who became literarily productive only when they were experiencing adversities in their political career. And perhaps eight out of ten, if not more, were healed by nature. I sometimes wonder if there is another way to become a good writer.

I’m a bit sorry, but I have to admit that I had never really paid attention to Su Shunqin’s works before I visited the Canglang Pavilion. What I knew about him didn’t go much further beyond the two to three pages about him in histories of Chinese literature. I had definitely not read his “Canglangting ji” 滄浪亭記 (Account of the Canglang Pavilion) before. I hadn’t had any reason to do so before I stood in front of a copy of the text in his garden. Nice prose. But to be honest, it’s not really the kind of writing that I can’t help but keep coming back to. In fact, I’m not sure if I would read it again back home if I had not encountered one of the security members of the garden.

The garden was very quiet when my friend and I visited. My friend was keen to learn about the story of the pavilion but wasn’t used to reading unpunctuated literary Chinese in traditional script. As I was helping her to go through the “Account of the Canglang Pavilion” on the stele at Guanyuchu 觀魚處 (Fish-Watching Spot), our noises attracted a middle-aged security guy.

After a brief greeting, he asked my friend, “Which year (of your undergraduate programme) are you in?”

“Well, anyway, I haven’t graduated yet,” replied my friend and former flatmate who did her MA in Anthropology in London.

“What do you study?”

“Sports,” she said.

“Then your literature course must have been taught by your PE teacher! How is it possible that you haven’t read this text before?”

I didn’t dare to say that my literature courses were delivered by professors in Chinese literature, but unfortunately, Su Shunqin’s “Account of the Canglang Pavilion” happens to have escaped them too.

My friend and I ended up sitting on the bench, listening to the security guy reading and explaining Su Shunqin’s text. He also provided useful information about the historical background as well as the history of the surrounding areas of the garden.

When he finished, my friend asked, “How do you know all this?”

“I’ve been working here for six months. Shouldn’t I know all this?” Then he left us, saying, “We’re closing in five minutes.”

The ending was good, really cool, like the very last scene of a legend.

I would still say there are good reasons why Su Shunqin’s text isn’t included in many anthologies or mentioned in histories of Chinese literature. The long tradition has so much to offer that it’s essential to leave many things out to make it digestible.

For the same reason, I was happy about our encounter in the garden. The security guy’s elaboration on the text was good. More importantly, he reminded me of what such literary heritage means to local people and how it may be integrated into their life and shape their aspirations. Su Shunqin would probably be happy too, for the unexpected “guided tour” has at least prompted one more reader to dive into his literary world and write a blog about his cherished pavilion.

[2] Canglang is traditionally taken as a geographical term in line with the Shangshu 尚書, see Chuci buzhu 楚辭補注, annotated by Hong Xingzu 洪興祖 (1090-1055) (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1983), 180-181; translation by David Hawkes (1923-2009) with a minor amendment to the transcription system, see The Songs of the South (Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin, 1985) , 207. [3] See (Mencius 4A.8). [4] See Su Shunqin, Su Xueshi ji:


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Lovely story about the security guy! Thanks.

May 30, 2021
Replying to

Yes, such an episode is certainly one of the things that make a trip unforgettable!

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