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皮日休《病中有人惠海蟹轉寄魯望》 "When [I] was ill someone kindly gave [me] sea crabs..." by Pi Rixiu

皮日休《病中有人惠海蟹轉寄魯望》

“When [I] was ill someone kindly gave [me] sea crabs which [I] sent to Luwang instead” by Pi Rixiu

紺甲青筐染菭衣,

島夷初寄北人

離居定有石帆覺,

失伴唯應海月

族類分明連瑣𤥐,

形容好箇似蟛

病中無用霜螯處,

寄與夫君左手[1]

Blue black shells in the dark green basket, tinted with a layer of moss:

[That was] when the island people just sent [them] to the northern man.[2]

[Their] leaving home is certainly realised by the Stone Sail;[3]

The loss of companion must only have been noticed by the Sea Moon.[4]

[Their] kind is visibly connected with the suoji-clams;[5]

[Their] appearance is similar indeed to that of the pengqi-crab.[6]

With [my] illness [I] have no use of the frost chelae[7]

Which [I’m] sending over for you to hold in [your] left hand.

* From Quan Tang shi 全唐詩 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1960), vol. 18, 7071. [1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Beiren 北人 (northern man) probably refers to the poet himself. As a native of Jingling 竟陵 (present-day Tianmen, Hubei), Pi Rixiu was not really from the north. There are two possibilities here: 1. Pi Rixiu was in the north of the island whose people sent him the gift; 2. If we read line 2 in a more general sense, it may read, “[This is] the season when the island people start to send [crabs] to northern men.” [3] Shifan 石帆 (literally “stone sail”) refers to a type of fan-shaped choral polyp (Subergorgia reticulate). [4] Haiyue 海月 (literally “sea moon”) refers to the windowpane oyster (Placuna placenta). [5] Pi Rixiu provided an annotation for the suoji-clam, saying it’s a type of clam that seeks food for the small crab inhabiting its shells; see Quan Tang shi, 7071. [6] Pengqi 蟛蜞 is the common name for several types of small reddish crabs, whereas xie 蟹 (as in the title) usually refers to bigger crabs. However, eating pengqi can cause vomiting and diarrhea, as recorded in the famous Shishuo xinyu anecdote: https://ctext.org/shi-shuo-xin-yu/pi-lou. [7] The word shuangao 霜螯 (literally “frost chelae”) stands for crabs that are said to be enjoyed best in autumn, especially around the time of the solar term Shuangjiang 霜降 (Fall of Frost).

 

Just as the once alien pyramid-shaped zongzi has entered my family,[8] we had more crabs than ever this autumn despite the fact that I don’t remember eating crabs as an obvious local tradition. In the past week or so, I had crabs four times, but unfortunately I still haven’t learned to appreciate them and enjoy them in the way they are often written about in literature. Of course, it is possible that we didn’t have the right crabs. What I had were mostly fist-sized crabs with pathetic slim legs, very different from, say, the famous Hokkaido crab, which I’ve never tried. From my recent experience, I think the taste and the small amount of reward wasn’t worth the hassle at all. My fingers stank for the whole evening after handling a crab. Besides, I haven’t been able to understand the beauty of tomalley that is so widely considered a superb delicacy...

When it comes to the world of classical poetry, there is tons of praise for crabs, which are often served with other autumn stuff like new liquor, oranges, and chrysanthemum. By the way, it’s also quite impressive how often poets have stressed “holding a crab in the left hand.” But given my (possibly misguided) experience with crabs, I’ve found the endless poems that unanimously praise the great taste of crabs too predictable and not particularly exciting.

So, Pi Rixiu’s 皮日休 (ca. 834-883) poem translated above offered me a breath of fresh air as he would rather not have had the crabs given to him as a gift. Pi Rixiu was one of the most eminent late Tang poets and is known for his social criticism. In this poem, however, there is no exposure of the hardships of common people. It is a nice, simple poem sent to his close friend Lu Guimeng 陸龜蒙 (courtesy name Luwang 魯望, d. 881) who was also a major late Tang poet. For quite some years, they both lived in Suzhou, where eating crabs has always been popular, and had frequent exchanges of poems.

The second couplet (lines 3-4) is definitely my favourite part. The use of two puns (shifan as “stone sail” and choral polyp; haiyue as “sea moon” and the windowpane oyster) presents four sea-related images on two layers. Meanwhile, these two lines trigger our imagination about what the sea, including the animated life and inanimate objects therein, may have felt about the loss of its crab companions.

It is not quite true that an ill person cannot eat crabs, for crabs (even the ones that are usually considered poisonous) can serve medical purposes. We don’t know what kind of illness Pi Rixiu was suffering from at this point and whether the crabs were indeed of no use (line 7). Perhaps Pi Rixiu was just among those who like myself don’t have any affection for crabs. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to come across someone who would also say no to this widely recognised delicacy.


1. "Qiuxie" 秋蟹 (Autumn Crab) by Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521-1593)

2. A crab I had recently

 

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