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柳宗元《柳州峒氓》“The Cave People of Liuzhou” by Liu Zongyuan


異服殊音不可 青箬裹鹽歸峒客,

綠荷包飯趁虛 鵝毛禦臘縫山罽,

雞骨占年拜水 愁向公庭問重譯,


The city extends south and reaches well-connected ports.

[People there, with] different costumes and a peculiar tongue, are not approachable.

[Those with] salt packed in verdant bamboo are wayfarers returning to the caves.

[Those with] food wrapped in green lotus leaves are people going to the “merkat.”[2]

[They wear] geese feathers to withstand the coldest month, sew with hairs from the mountains,[3]

[Use] chicken bones to prophesy the year, and pay homage to the water spirit.

Frustrated, [I] turned to the local office to consult the translators,[4]

Considering throwing away [my] official cap, getting a tattoo.[5]

* From Liu Zongyuan shi jianshi 柳宗元詩箋釋, collated and annotated by Wang Guoan 王國安 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1993).

[1] Red characters rhyme.

[2] I hope this Scottish form of “market” conveys a bit of the regional flavour of the original wording.

[3] Ji 罽 refers to fabrics made from hairs, fur, wool, etc.

[4] Chongyi 重譯 could be used as a generic term for translation or translators, but it literally says “multiple translations” and is often used to describe the communication with alien peoples whose languages can only be understood after several rounds of translation.

[5] This line alludes to a Zhuangzi story about a man of Song (in present-day Henan) finding his collection of ceremonial caps (a symbol of a cultured man) useless in Yue (in present-day Zhejiang), for the locals cut off their hair and tattoo their bodies. For a convenient reference:


This heptasyllabic regulated verse (qiyan lushi 七言律詩) presents an interesting mix of anthropological notes and stereotypes of “uncultured people” around the border area of the Chinese empire. The second and third couplets (lines 3-6) have struck many historical readers as realistic and exquisite poetic craft.[6] Some of the customs even last until now. A market is still called xu (instead of the Mandarin word jishi 集市) in the countryside. There might be no need to go to town for salt, but food wrapped in lotus leaves or rice cooked in bamboo shaft are always in the programme of a primary school hiking day. When my mother was a girl, she heard about people wearing coats made of geese feathers. Also, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are still memories of the water spirit. It’s really interesting to see such traces of Liu Zongyuan’s Liuzhou. The last line of this poem, however, is certainly figurative. The Zhuangzi allusion applies not to the far south but a southeastern region. I’m not sure about tattoos, but people of the far south in medieval China wore a cone-shaped hairdo (zhuijie 椎結),[7] which means they could tie up the cap if they really wanted to.

Nowadays, Liu Zongyuan is so often praised as a respected prefect and a cultural celebrity of Liuzhou, which has somewhat encouraged a very optimistic reading of his poems. For example, some would read the last line as Liu Zongyuan’s genuine interest in mingling with the locals. Interestingly, many historical readers believe instead Liu Zongyuan’s intention to “throw away the official cap and get a tattoo” indicates he has given up on his life out of utter frustration. When Liu Zongyuan was exiled in Yongzhou, Hunan, he complained that he had been “living amongst barbarians for a long time” (ju manyi zhong jiu居蠻夷中久) and had even come to be accustomed to local people who “made noises with a shrike’s tongue” (jueshe zhuozao 鴂舌啅噪).[8] So, there are reasons to believe Liu Zongyuan might have become a bit more comfortable with the languages spoken in Liuzhou in the end. Hopefully he did.

Today’s Liuzhou is part of the southwestern Mandarin area. Although the Liuzhou dialect shares some distinct southern vocabulary with Cantonese (which is spoken in some parts of Guangxi), it can be safely categorised as a variation of Mandarin. A Mandarin speaker from outside Liuzhou only needs a bit of time to figure out the patterns of tone conversion between Mandarin and the Liuzhou dialect, and to pick up some funny colloquial vocabulary, such as sìmà, which can stand for the two words shénme 什麽 (what) and sǐmǎ 死馬 (a dead horse) in Mandarin.

The term dong 峒 (cave) is still used for naming the different residential areas or communities of some ethnic groups in Guangxi, although they no longer live in caves. I was tempted to translate the dongmeng 峒氓 (cave people) in the title as “cavemen,” but that is perhaps too much… Although people of the South of the Ridges reportedly “lived in nests and resided in cliffs” (caoju yachu 巢居崖處) in medieval China, they also farmed, which is not a typical occupation of cavemen. I should also note that Guangxi is known for its karst geology, and there are some extraordinary caverns and caves near Liuzhou. Apart from Liu Zongyuan, another local cultural icon is Liujiang Man (Liujiang ren 柳江人) who is among the earliest human beings found in East Asia, dating back at least 67,000 years.

This Wednesday, I visited the new museum built for the Palaeolithic cave Bailiandong 白蓮洞 (White Lotus Cave). The cave itself is currently closed, so I didn’t have the opportunity to explore the nearly 2000 metres’ depth of it. But I had plenty of fun in the museum and learned a lot of exciting stories about prehistoric maritime life, dinosaurs, giant apes, elephants, real cavemen, etc. Ah, I also for the first time learned of the existence of the Confucius bird (Confuciusornis)! The museum was a really positive surprise. It opened last September. During my Wednesday visit, my mother and I accounted for half of the visitors in the gigantic new building.

It is unfortunate that the caves were not excavated until the mid-twentieth century, more than a thousand years after Liu Zongyuan’s death. He did write about his explorations of the mountains near Liuzhou city, but I haven’t seen any account of the characteristic caverns and caves. If he had been able to visit the caves and learn about their history, perhaps he would have found a reason to enjoy the city.

[6] See, for example, the long list of historical comments collected in Wang Guoan (ed.), Liu Zongyuan shi jianshi, 332-334. There are heated debates about who is the best poet of heptasyllabic regulated verse, Liu Zongyuan or Du Fu. Critiques disagree on the champion, but there is no dispute that Liu Zongyuan’s late heptasyllabic regulated verses, such as the one presented here, are admirable.[7] See the treatise of geography of the Suishu 隋書:

[8] See Liu Zongyuan’s letter to Xiao Fu 蕭俛 (courtesy name Siqian 思謙), quoted in Liu Zongyuan’s biography in the Xin Tangshu: A shrike’s tongue” is a symbol of incomprehensible regional languages, especially of those who are conceived as barbarians. The expression is not Liu Zongyuan’s invention. It is attested in the Mengzi:

Photos from my Wednesday visit:

1-2 Reconstruction of the real cavemen's life in Liuzhou

3-5 Bailiandong (White Lotus Cave) and the small mountain where it is located

6-7 The Bailiantong Cave Museum


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