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No going back, or, youthful bravado at the Baochan Mountain Cave.

Wang Anshi's travelogue about the Baochan Mountain Cave is best known as a stern plea to ignore the throng and explore our surroundings. Pithy and plain, almost devoid of description, it has been anthologized, translated, annotated, and held up as a model essay for young people to learn from. (1) Yet--and this may be part of its appeal--it also exhibits an off-kilter quality, a sense of incongruity that nags around its edges. The oddness sharpens when we ask a rather obvious question about Wang's outing. An answer to that question may be found by decoding what seems to resemble a clue, set in plain sight within a single word. Could Wang's stern lecture contain remnants of an inside joke? Does his spirit of delving for knowledge extend to analysis of word-play--always a risky philological method? As a step toward approaching these issues, it might make sense to look behind the essay and try to reconstruct the trip: who the explorers were, and what they were doing there.

The year was 1054. Wang Anshi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1021-1086)--who would later become Grand Councillor, architect of state reforms, compiler of new glosses on the Classics and the lexicon itself--was thirty-three, living at home in Jinling [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (modern Nanjing). He had recently finished a two-year stint at Qianshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], up the Yangzi River in what is now Anhui province, as assistant prefect (tongpan) for Shuzhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. During his Qianshan appointment he had written a sizeable number of poems, and some essays, that depict him seeking affirmation or guidance from the wellsprings, brooks, peaks, and pools that he saw on his official rounds. His younger brother Wang Anguo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1028-1074) accompanied him on many of these excursions. Sometimes they wrote poetry together, most notably two long rhyme-jousts inspired by the mysterious hauteur of the Jiuhuashan mountain range. (2) The final and best-known of these explorations of truth from the Yangzi River landscape came on a midautumn day when Wang and a group of intimates went upriver about fifty miles from Jinling to Hanshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], where they explored a cavern at Mount Baochan: (3)


Mount Baochan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is also called Mount Hwah [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "Flowering Mountain." Huibao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a Tang-dynasty man of Buddha, first built a dwelling at its foot and in the end was buried there, for which reason it was later called Mount Bao-Chan, i.e., "the Mountain of Chan Master Huibao." What is now called the Huikong Chan Monastery was Huibao's hut and tomb.

Five leagues east of the monastery is what is called the Huah-Yang Cave, thus named because it is on the yang or south side of the afore-mentioned Mount Hwah, or "Flowering Mountain." About a hundred paces from the cave, a stone tablet lies toppled across the path, its inscription blurred and bleary, the only characters on it that are still recognizable being Hua shan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "Flower Mountain." The current rendering of "Flowering" (hwah) as in the phrase "Flowering and Fruiting" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], is likely a garbled pronunciation. Down in that flat, broad area, a spring gushes out sideways, and visitors have left a substantial number of autographs and records: this is what is called the Front Cave. But up the mountain, five or six leagues in, sits an opening dark, deep and absolutely frigid to enter. When asked its depth, even the heartiest explorers have not been able to plumb it. That is what is called the Rear Cave.

I went in with four others, carrying torches. (4) The deeper we went, the harder it was to move forward and the weirder the sights became. One person who had grown slackish (dai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and wanted to leave, said "If we don't exit now, we will use up the torches!" So we all came out with him. (5)

We probably had spelunked less than one-tenth of the distance that those heartier explorers had reached, yet even so, when we looked on either side within the cave, those records left by visitors had already grown sparse. Most likely even fewer people had reached the greater depths. At that point I had still been strong enough to go in farther, the torches still held enough light, and after we came out there was some blaming of the person who had wanted to turn back. I too felt Regretful (hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) that by following him I had not got my full complement of fun from our exploration.

And that made me sigh! Ancient people learned so much from watching sky and earth, mountains and streams, grass and trees, fish, insects, birds and beasts, because their deep curiosity extended everywhere. Flat places close at hand attract travellers aplenty, but few go where it is dangerous and far. Yet the strangest, grandest, most grotesque and unusual sights of this world are often found in those dangerous, far places that people seldom reach. People without a strong will (zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) cannot reach those places. Nor can those who do have the will, do not stop just because others stop, but lack the physical strength. Nor can those who have both will and strength, do not turn slackish just because others do, but have nothing to guide them once they reach the dark, confusing depths. When it is someone else who does not reach those places even though he has the strength, we might poke fun at him; when it is our own self, we feel Regret ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, if we have fully used our will, even if we do not actually reach the goal, Regret can be absent ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and who would ever poke fun at us? This is what I learned.

And by that toppled stone slab I grew distressed that the ancient writings are not preserved. Who can count how often posterity has garbled what was handed down to it, until no one even knows the name? That is why people of learning have no alternative but to think deeply and make their choices with great care.


Recorded by Mr Wang of Linchuan, on the ___ day of the seventh month, in the first year of Zhihe [1054].

There really should be no hidden meaning here. Wang sets his point in full view, and reinforces it by constantly repeating two words: wei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "this is what is called" (five times), and zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "reach" or "attain" (ten times). The message seems to be that we should learn to look; not just accept what things "are called," but wade straight into the landscape, to physically "reach" every corner. We must be accurate, vigorous, and not succumb to others' inertia. Human beings, "slackers" by tendency, will mistakenly call a mountain "Flowering Mountain" for generation after generation because this is "what it is called," even while they literally stub their feet against a fallen stone that labels it "Flower Mountain" in big script. After centuries of that kind of inattention, people stop using even the wrong name, because it too is forgotten. Instead, the working name becomes "Monk Huibao's Mountain," after someone who happened to live there once. Within the mountain hides a natural landmark that can demonstrate how such laziness occurs: a cave whose freezing darkness saps travellers' interest, so that they turn back the minute their least ambitious member decides he has had enough. Consequently they never see the wonders within. How shameful compared to the ancients, who amassed their knowledge--their legacy to us--only by taking dangerous paths, ignoring warnings, criticisms, and whining. They cultivated Strength, maintained their Will, and in the end "reached" the depths.

These depths seem to be more physical than metaphorical. When Wang mentions knowledge about the physical world, it may be misleading to assume that he takes moral, ethical or emotional exploration as the main area of the ancients' daring sorties. The word zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("reach") should indicate that knowledge is something we literally go to. Lazy, hearsay information, things that people talk about (wei [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), will lead to nothing real. Wisdom comes from listening to birds, watching beasts, climbing hills, and--while we are at it--calling actual things by their right names. It is indeed a sober charge Wang has left for posterity, and he joins Ouyang Xiu, Liu Chang, and other serious Confucians in giving us this command, tinged as it is with three mentions of "Regret" (hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (6)

Such is the cave's general message: succinct, sincere, reinforced with time-honored literary techniques. But a sense of unease persists. Rather like Su Shi's "Second Red Cliff Rhapsody," in which the poet suddenly ditches his guests to scramble up a bluff on an awkwardly spooky evening, the Baochan piece seems to have left something unsaid. (7) This is not a matter of neglecting to describe the cave: cursory or non-existent descriptions are fairly common in Tang and Song travel pieces. Something else seems to be causing the oddness--perhaps a problem with knowing how to gauge the essay's attitude and tone. To put it bluntly, it can be hard to read this piece without asking a basic question, not about the essay but about the event: simply stated, who was the quitter?

It would seem cantankerous, and in conflict with the essay's high aspirations, for Wang to call that person "slackish" (dai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], while not exactly an insult, is hardly praise), to say he felt "Regretful" about allowing the group to follow this person out of the cave, to lecture the rest of us on the dangers of shortchanging our noble wills the way that person did, but then to list the exact names of everyone in his party. The slacker may well be on that list! Why would Wang embarrass him, along with the others on the list, who would be suspects as well? Would Xiao Jun-gui, for instance, have come all the way from Jiangxi, Wang's native region way upriver, to join this outing if he had known that the now-urbanized Wang would place him on a lineup of the fainthearted for an eternity of readers to think about? Are we witnessing a preview of the famous harshness toward subordinates, co-workers, and even the Emperor, let alone toward enemies, that Wang is said to have exhibited as he pushed his nuovi ordini onto a skeptical nation fifteen years after Baochan? Is this essay simply tactless? Or is there another factor? (8)

The easiest solution is that the slacker (or slackers) was not one of the named companions, but a servant, a local guide, a member of another group of tourists who went in at the same time, or one of the other extra people whose presence we should always assume whenever premodern gentlemen went anywhere. It is unlikely that Wang's party of five climbed into the cave all by themselves. The person may have been in charge of the torches: "We're losing our light" coming from a torch-holder would have sounded more authoritative than from the servant who carried the lunch or the spare coats, and it would make sense that Wang's party would follow him without overriding his judgment, especially if he were a local. In this type of scenario, Wang would be viewing the turn-tailer as representative of the half-educated, stale modes of thinking that he never learned to tolerate: tourists who visit a temple in search of "Ten Thousand Transformations" (wan bian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or who gossip about rain-dragons in a mountain tarn, unable to appreciate subtlety or simply admire the scenery for its own sake. Such are the people one must deal with when visiting public attractions. (9)

After everyone came out, Wang notes that there was "some blaming" (huo jiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of the person (or people) who had wanted to exit, and later he implies that they "poked fun" at him (ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Blaming a servant, fellow tourist (especially a self-styled "hearty explorer"--haoyouzhe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or even a local guide is a plausible reaction. Poking fun, however, seems less likely, at least to the person's face. For Wang's group to poke fun at someone they had just met would be going a bit far, and it would be undignified to make fun of a servant that way--even one of long employ such as Wang Anshi's valet Huang Jiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], who may have been with them. Neither the blaming nor the fun-poking at anyone outside the group of five seems plausible, unless it happened behind the person's back; but although Wang's wording is ambiguous, he seems to imply that the slacker was aware of being "poked fun at"--an indication that Wang's party did grumble to the person's face.

If Wang and his friends indeed told the quitter directly what they thought of him, the essay becomes more interesting and provocative. If the quitter in addition was one of Wang's named companions, it not only becomes more provocative, but in a strange way more natural as well. "Blaming" would be a normal reaction among friends or brothers; and the way Wang mentions "poking fun" at the person suggests intimacy--he does not say "we made fun of him," or even "fun was made," but rather the delicate phrase "when it is someone else who does not reach those places even though he has the strength, one might poke fun at him ..." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Such indirection in the final write-up is consistent with trying not to hurt someone's feelings, and "poking fun" itself, if done face to face, is most likely to occur within a group of social equals who know each other well.

But if Wang's group did include the one who quit, it appears somewhat mystifying why he would name each member for the world to see. There are at least two possible explanations: one might be that he was trying to write an accurate "Record," like that rejected "Flower Mountain" slab, to leave at the site as an alternative to the platitudes most visitors wrote; it could serve as a model for future inscriptions by saying what actually happened to his group--unvarnished--and what they had learned. A further explanation might be that Wang intended the piece as a stern but loving lesson for the culprit: the fellow's name would be forever enshrined as a constructive warning to him and the rest of the world. Both possibilities would accord with the dogged, thick-skinned Wang Anshi of legend and rumor. But they only partially mitigate a modern reader's sense of unease. The problem may be that neither hypothesis accounts for Wang's genuine, documented lighter side, and the possibility that this essay reflects it. It was written for those four other men, after all, not for the general public (unless Wang decided to inscribe it at the cave, in which case it would disappear into the sea of other inscriptions anyway). (10) It was assuredly not intended to humiliate his companion in front of millions of high-school students and anthology readers today. Clues about an in-joke float to the surface if we briefly scrutinize the group.

Once again, Wang Anshi's companions were Xiao Jungui, Wang Hui (1024-1065), and two of Wang Anshi's brothers, Anguo (1028-1074) and Anshang (born before 1039).

We know nothing about Xiao Jungui except that he was the outsider, listed first as a guest of honor, perhaps visiting from his home in Jiangxi. Conceivably his visit was the pretext to take this journey to begin with.

Wang Anshang was still in his teens.

The remaining two members were close friends with each other: Wang Hui (age thirty), visiting from up north in Ruyin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and Wang Anguo (age twenty-six). Wang Anguo was an extrovert of warm personality and rotund physique, while Wang Hui was almost certainly a distant cousin of Wang Anshi and his brothers; their mother liked him (perhaps she saw him as a reliable companion for Anguo), and he showed promise as a writer and thinker--his essays had impressed Ouyang Xiu among others. Wang Hui and Wang Anguo shared a particular bond as brothers-in-law, having each taken a bride from among the nine younger sisters of Zeng Gong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1019-1083), a good friend of both Wang families. (11) Both men's scholarship treated women seriously: Wang Hui would later re-edit the Han-dynasty Lives of Exemplary Women (Lienu zhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), while Wang Anguo (less orthodox) would study the harem-verses of Lady Flowerbud (Huarui furen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) from the Five Dynasties. (12) In addition, neither Wang Hui nor Wang Anguo had yet cemented his potential with an actual jinshi degree. That made them decidedly junior compared to Wang Anshi, who had held his jinshi for twelve years and had served in three substantive posts.

All five men, except perhaps Mr. Xiao, were emotionally close. It would have been an intimate and surely boisterous group. No matter who the slacker was, each of the others would have reacted personally, and inevitably those reactions ("blaming" and "poking fun") would color the rest of the day. In guessing who the person might have been, it is probably safe to eliminate Xiao Jungui, because had it been Xiao, not even the gruff Wang Anshi of legend would likely have embarrassed a guest by listing his name. It could have been Wang Anshang, still young enough to be lectured by his big brother. Wang Anguo is possible as well: he had a cautious, conservative streak, and perhaps did not enjoy long walks as much as his fitter siblings (it had been almost four miles from the monastery to the cave's mouth). And there has always been a sub-current of speculation that the quitter was Wang Anshi himself, or that there was more than one quitter. (13)

But I would like to suggest another suspect, based--though this may be a stretch--upon a single word. The suspect is Wang Hui, and the word is his name. Hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] literally means "turn around" or "go back," and his zi (Shenfu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) contains the word "deep." Not only that, but Wang Hui had a brother (not with the group) named Wang Xiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (xiang meaning "toward"), whose zi was Zizhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--i.e., "Master Straight." What group of young, close-knit males could resist the joke-potential that would result if Wang Hui--"Mr. Deep"--had been the one who said "Let's go back: this is dull, and we are losing our light"? Imagine the situation: they emerge, stand blinking in the daylight, torches still blazing, plenty of time left in the afternoon. Recriminations begin. Wang Anshi, suddenly miffed that he has not received his "full complement of fun," says something sharp. Young Wang Anshang is raring to rush back in. Wang Anguo makes a joke to the effect of "All right, 'Mr. TurnBack,' are you happy now?" Someone might even say, "Surely your little brother Wang Xiang ('Mr. Toward') would have kept walking straight forward" (i.e., "Zizhi"). Wang Hui was eminently roastable: a family friend, sandwiched in age between Wang Anshi (aspiring savior of the peasant class) and Wang Anguo (former boy genius); he had been fingered as a rising national talent, at one point having almost rubbed shoulders with the great leaders of the Qingli-era reforms. Presumably he was named after Confucius' favorite disciple, the brave and diligent Yan Hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (originally named Yan Yuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "Mr. Wellspring"--a word close in meaning to "Deep"). A healthy joshing from Wang Hui's companions, perhaps led by his in-law Wang Anguo, would have been a good way to relax after what anyone with common sense should have found terrifying--creeping into a dank fissure in the mountains far from home, with only sooty pine-sticks for light. On one level, even Wang Anshi may have felt grateful, despite his regret, that someone had the presence of mind to declare this exploration unnecessary, at least for that group on that day, even if exploration in general was a useful activity approved by the ancients.

In other words, this is a speculation that the terse, sober "Baochan Mountain" essay contains a pun that would have been obvious to the members of that group, who were probably the essay's first readers. Speculations based on word-play, of course, can lead to trouble when long-ago, faraway literature is involved. The temptation to sleuth out coded clues from words in exotic script can distract from learning the all-important surface meaning of a literary work, and distort the search for context, allusions, and broader significance. But sometimes those coded meanings are real. In many cases they lie in plain view, not codes at all: "Sung ... / The Fourth ... / Has Been ... / Here ..." [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], boast the first words of each line in a bandit's poem from a teahouse tale. (14) In even plainer sight, the word "stop" (zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in each line of Tao Qian's "Stopping Wine" surely at some point must be understood as "drink" (yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (15) Slightly less obvious but eminently plausible examples include that of Yuan Zhen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (779-831), whose ode to a girl with a "double name" (shuang wen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) may be evidence that his story of "Ying-ying" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] actually happened; or an instance in which Cao Xueqin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1715?-1763?) describes a clock in the depths of night striking four times, in order (says Red Inkstone) to avoid saying it was the hour of yin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (his father's name). (16)

Oral puns are another kind of word-play. Puns in literature that had morphed into hoary cliches long before Wang's time include furong ("lotus flowers/husband's face" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); lianzi ("lotus seeds/ darling children" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); "breaking off" (jue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) relations by bestowing a jade "semi-disk" (jue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), then calling the person back (huan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by sending him a jade "wheel-round" (huan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

Finally, there can be visual word-play built into the written character forms, as when Lu An [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 262) inscribed "Phoenix" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] on Xi Xi's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] door (ostensibly a compliment, actually a put-down if the character is split into "Ordinary Bird" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); or when Liu Yong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. 1045)--trapped among the temptress Shishi, the loyal Xiangxiang, and the longtime love of An-an--described it as "caught in the vortex of one word: cheating" (jian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], also written as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], or "three women"). (17) And every visitor to Mount Tai learns to read the famous inscription [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (apparent nonsense) as "Breeze [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Moon [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 'Without Borders'" (feng yue "wu bian" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

All those word-plays, in all three types--direct use of characters without punning intent; orally based puns; and codes within the graphs--are designed into the works where they occur, are easy to find, and derive from the culture of the times. We can believe them with confidence. Wang Anshi is on record as enjoying those three kinds of word-play as well. He was one of several Song poets who wrote elaborately punning herb-name songs and birdcall verses. On the graphic level, he used split characters in jokes, as when he told his friend Liu Bin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1023-1089) "You're not worth a penny coin" (fen wen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], split out from Liu's name bin [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and also used the concept in a rapturously serious way when he compiled his massive etymology, the Words Explained (Zi shuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), ultimate homage to the theory that each element of a character is part of its meaning. ("Husband" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is a Heaven [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] to his wife, but the husband's "oneness"--is lesser than the celestial Oneness of Heaven, hence appears lower within the graph--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] not [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. "Plum" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is a case in which "Wood [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] bears Seeds [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] when it reaches the East." "Thorngrass" or "Thatch" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is a "secondary grass" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].) (18) But more relevant to the Baochan Mountain piece is that as a young prose writer Wang had already shown he could plant a friend's name in full view--not as a character dissected visually, not quite a pun, but a simple direct use of the character. It happened a decade before Baochan, when he inserted the word "stubborn, absolutely" (gu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) nine times in a letter defending Zeng Gong--whose courtesy name was Zigu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or "Master Stubborn." (19) By contrast to the nine gu's of that letter, which are impossible to miss, the almost total masking of hui in the Baochan "Record," if this is indeed what we are dealing with, could reflect Wang's having gained a bit of subtlety, in a piece written among friends at age thirty-three, that he had not yet developed when defending Zeng Gong's honor at twenty-two.

There could be a further pun as well: the semi-homonym hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], meaning "regret," which appears three times. (Different tone from hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], same spelling.) Its first occurrence, in the phrase "I felt Regretful that by following him out ..." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), offers only indirect punning possibilities; but later in the essay when Wang Anshi talks about someone who has the strength but does not go the distance, saying that such a person deserves our derision and "his own Regret," he could also be saying "When this describes ourself, we have a Hui" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). And when it comes to "fully using our Will" though we do not reach the goal--in such a case "Hui is unnecessary" (i.e., we can do without Regret [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In other words, "Hui" slacks off though he has the strength, and cannot be counted on to carry a tenuous quest through to the end. There may be a gentle admonition here: Wang Hui should try harder to develop his talent. Why have he and Wang Anguo not yet passed the jinshi? Are they needlessly holding themselves behind? Will Wang Hui "regret" that he "turned back" from his challenges? (20) Wang Hui once recorded an actual joke that Wang Anshi (whom he called "my friend") levelled at him, by way of just such an admonition, about Hui's new edition of the Lives of Women: "As if Liu Xiang wasn't enough of a grind already when he put all those female fanatics' stories into a book as examples for his ruler--when did you become so paltry as to actually enjoy working with that stuff?" ("Even the Sages have always kept 'fanatical' and 'feisty' as part of their Path," Wang Hui shot back, "Let alone women!"). (21)

There could even be a whiff of that second pun ("regret") in the obituary Wang Anshi would write for Wang Hui eleven years later: Hui "could almost be without Regret" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) because he had come so close to becoming the next Yang Xiong--yet death took him far too early. The possibility of a pun in the obituary is tenuous, but if Wang Hui's friends had used "Regret" as a pun on his name before, this too might have been a muted, warm-hearted homage to those days. (22)

Enticing as it may be, perhaps it is going too deep to try this kind of code-breaking on an old text, especially when it appears that no one else has looked at it this way before. The entire "hui" / "return" / "regret" hypothesis, impossible to prove, must remain speculation. And even if true, surely it would be excessive to claim that Wang Anshi wrote the whole piece just to frame Wang Hui's name; there are other layers to the essay, including the indispensable surface layer. Nor should we assume the essay was intended to make fun of anyone. Indeed, Wang Anshi may have written it partly to apologize for having been sarcastic or brusque after they got back outside. If so, it would be a grand, constructive apology: Wang analyzes how this kind of ridicule can take place, and incorporates a lesson to encourage us during those weak moments when we feel like retreating from a goal. In other words, our "regret" at "turning back" from the depths can still inspire us for next time. It would be then, as Wang Hui himself once wrote: (23)
 No greater joy than the interplay of Friends,
 Whose vying to pare and polish brings about Trust.

Thus the essay can still carry the same legitimate exhortation that people have seen in it all along. The difference is that if Wang Hui was the "chicken," it means Wang Anshi couched that exhortation in a moment of close-knit ribbing and chagrin, with the clue to his message placed nonchalantly at the end, hidden within the single word hui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (one obvious graph encased within another), to give insiders a chuckle and for outsiders to discover, if they could. Such a hypothesis reminds us that oddness in old literature can have a simple explanation. It further suggests that if we outsiders can find a bantering streak in sober people such as Wang Anshi, we can also learn to see more accurately the sober side of "gay geniuses" such as Su Shi or Dongfang Shuo. If hui contains a code, it may amplify the Baochan piece's interplay of moods, and perhaps bring us closer to the real people who were there. That is, unless we, too, are "garbling" the record that has been bequeathed to us.



This piece evolved from a presentation at the American Oriental Society's 2005 Western Branch meeting in Tempe, Arizona. I am grateful to Paul Kroll for insight and encouragement. All errors, and the basic premise, are the author's.

1. Original locations of the essay: Linchuan xiansheng wenji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (based on 1560 edn.: Beijing, Zhonghua shuju, 1959; rpt., Hong Kong, Zhonghua shuju, 1970), 83/868; Wang Wen'gong wenji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (facs. rpt., Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1962), 35.8b-10a. Anthologized versions: Xie Bingying [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] et al., eds., Xinyi Guwen guanzhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Taipei: San min shuju, 1971), 686-88; Shimizu Shigeru [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], To So hakkabun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Tokyo: Asahi shimbunsha, 1966), 2: 482; Wang Shuizhao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ed., Songdai sanwen xuan zhu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1978), 29; Central People's Broadcasting Station, ed., Tang Song badajia sanwen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 1983), 148; Fan Yuxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ed., Tang Song bajia wen yishi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Heilongjiang renmin chubanshe, 1983), 203-4; Feng Zhongyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ed., Tang Song badajia sanwen xuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shandong renmin chubanshe, 1983), 319; Xie Xianmo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ed., Tang Song badajia wenxuan xiang zhu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Jiangxi renmin chubanshe, 1985); Wu Gongzheng [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] et al., eds., Guwen jianshang cidian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Jiangsu wenyi chubanshe, 1986), 975; Chen Xuanrong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] et al., eds., Tang Song badajia wenxuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Fujian jiaoyu chubanshe, 1988), v. 2, 190. Commentary only: Li Fujiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Qing dyn.), Guwen bifa baipian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (rpt. Changsha: Yuelu shushe, 1983), juan 9. Translations into English: Jan Walls, "Wang An-shih's 'Record of an Excursion to Mount Pao-ch'an': A Translation and Annotation," in William Nienhauser et al., eds., Critical Essays on Chinese Literature (Hong Kong: Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong Press, 1976), 159-66; Stephen Owen, in Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 180-90; Liu Shih-shun, "A Visit to the Pao-ch'an Mountain," in Chinese Classical Prose: The Eight Masters of the T'ang-Sung Period (Hong Kong: Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong Press, 1979), 352-54; Richard E. Strassberg, "The Mountain Where Hui-pao Meditated," in Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), 175-77. The Internet, of course, is filled with information and opinions about the mountain, the cave, and the essay.

2. "Two Poems on Viewing the Nine-Petalled Peaks from a Boat, Written to Wang Anguo's Rhymes" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in Linchuan 12/176; Li Bi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1160-1222), comp. and ann., Jianzhu Wang Jing wen'gong shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (orig. pub. 1214; 1306 edn., facs. rpt. Taipei: Kuang Wen, 1974), 17.1a. Commentary in Zhu Ziqing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Song wujia shi chao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shanghai Guji chubanshe, 1981), 80. Trans. by Jonathan Pease, "From the Wellsweep to the Shallow Skiff: Life and Poetry of Wang An-shih (1021-1086)" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1986), 486-502.

3. The Qianshan appointment began in the ninth month of 1051, and I believe it effectively ended in mid-1053 when Wang was called to inspect dyke-work at Kunshan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (modern Suzhou). He went east to Kunshan, spent several weeks on the assignment, then probably went back part of the way upriver to his home at Jinling, where he remained through the rest of 1053 and most of 1054. During this time, while he negotiated with the central court about his next appointment, he occasionally left Jinling to visit friends and places nearby. (Zhenjiang in the sixth month of 1053, perhaps on his way to or from Kunshan; Wujiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], with his brother Anguo, sometime in 1054, possibly on the same trip that took them to Mt. Baochan. He also wrote a record of the sea-dykes at Tongzhou [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [modern Nantong, out east], dated sixth month, sixth day, 1054, but that does not mean he actually went there to write the piece.) Most commentators assume that Wang stayed in Qianshan all the way through mid-1054 (with one interruption in 1053 for the Kunshan assignment), and visited the Baochan Cave on his way home to Jinling after the stint at Qianshan ended. This is perfectly possible, but I tend to favor the timeline outlined above, by which he had left Qianshan for good in 1053. Even in the eleventh century, people did travel for pleasure at times, and did not necessarily wait to visit a place until it was on the way to or from somewhere else. Mt. Baochan would have been a fairly easy journey from Jinling, only about fifty miles in pleasant fall weather. For data on the years 1053-54, see Cai Shangxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Wang Jinggong nianpu kaolue [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (originally published 1804; typeset edn. 1930, rpt. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1959; Taipei: Hong shi, 1975), 74-81; Li Deshen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Wang Anshi shiwen xinian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shaanxi renmin jiaoyu chubanshe, 1987), 78-86. Because the evidence is sparse, neither of those sources can be completely reliable for this period. Among Wang's many pieces written in the lower Yangzi region, including at Gaoyou, Wujiang, Zhenjiang, Kunshan and Tongzhou, only a few are datable, including an inscription on the wall of Master Ruixin's monastery at Jinshan ("Ti Ruixin daoren bi" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Linchuan 71/756), dated sixth month, fifteenth day, 1053; and a "Record of Construction of the Tongzhou Sea Wall" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Linchuan 82/866), dated sixth month, sixth day, 1054. I have found no datable texts that place him in Qianshan, or anywhere else farther upriver than Mt. Baochan, anytime after the middle of 1053 until 1058.

4. Strassberg (p. 176) believes there was only one torch: "I entered it holding a torch in the company of four others" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

5. "One person": it could be more than one. The sentence literally says "There was one who [or 'there were some who'], out of slackishness, wanted to exit" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

6. Wang was certainly not the only intellectual to be concerned with calling things by their historically accurate names, in resistance to folk traditions that are colorful but wrong. Scholars have sounded this theme since early times. During Wang's own era there were pieces by his elders Ouyang Xiu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1007-1072) and Liu Chang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1008-1069), about the famous "Little Lonely Isle" (xiao gu shan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), traditionally misnamed "Little Lady Isle" (xiao gu shan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), complete with ostensibly true tales about the "lady" and her rustic swain. Ouyang Xiu quanji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Taipei: Shijieshuju, 1971), "Guitianlu" 2/1033; Gongshi ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Guoxue jiben congshu edn.), 5/51; Liu Chang's poem trans. in Pease, "Liu Ch'ang and Liu Pin: Two Northern-Sung Kiangsi Intellectuals," Journal of Asian History 37.1 (2003): 22-23.

7. "Red Cliff": Su Shi wenji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1986), 1/8; analyzed by Ronald Egan, Word, Image and Deed in the Life of Su Shi (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard Univ., 1994), 245-50.

8. I have found no commentators, even within the tour-guide patter reproduced on the Web, who overtly ask who the slacker was. Shimizu is the only commentator who remarks on the tone of voice, saying that since the slacker was probably among Wang's party, Wang's listing of the names is "sarcasm" or "irony" (hiniku [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). (To So hakkabun, note on p. 487.) Zhao Qiping [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] mentions the issue obliquely, saying that listing the party allows us to see that there were real people behind the reactions to the spelunking, and that Wang did not just make it up--i.e., the names make Wang's point seem more grounded (Central People's Broadcasting, Tang Song badajia sanwen, 153). Stephen Owen writes a brief digression on "laziness" ("for the unnamed person who wanted to leave the cave"), but does not speculate who it might have been.

9. "Ten Thousand Transformations": from a poem written around the ninth month of 1051 at Fanchang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "The Spirit Mountain Temple" (Lingshan si [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), a spot apparently less gaudily spectacular than the temple complexes at Jinshan Island: "What do travelling fun-seekers think they are up to / When they pass here, yet never slow their step?... The world dotes on ten thousand variations, / But excitement is hard to make with art ..." [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. In Li Bi 21.6a/537; Wan Wen'gong wenji 48.9b (the only complete text). Translated in Pease, "From the Wellsweep," 503-4. Gossip about dragons and miracles: "The Nine Wells" (Jiu jing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), possibly written at Qianshan in 1051 or 1052 (Li Bi 18.4b/490, trans. Pease, "From the Wellsweep," 260-61); see also "Horse-leap Springs" (Yuema quan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), written in 1067 (Li Bi 18.3a/487).

10. It seems doubtful that a man still in his thirties, not especially famous, who had merely come on a casual visit and had no other connection to the place, would permanently install such a long piece at the site. But we cannot be sure.

11. Wang Anguo married Zeng sister no. 3, Wang Hui married no. 6. One of Wang Anguo's great-aunts was a Zeng (his mother's father's brother's wife); Wang Hui's mother was named Zeng, though not from Zeng Gong's clan at Linchuan. For family trees, see Pease, "From the Wellsweep," 653-57; Li Zhen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Zeng Gong nianpu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Suzhou daxue chubanshe, 1997), 14. On Wang Hui in general: Zeng Gong ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1984), 12/196, 12/198-99, 42/578, 45/606; elegy in Linchuan 86/896 ("My mother knew thee / Better than did I at first" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); obituary in Linchuan 93/962; letters in Linchuan 72/766ff. and appendix, 1081; Li Bi 36.9a/893, trans. Pease, "From the Wellsweep," 346.

12. Wang Hui's preface to his revised edition of the Lienu zhuan survives: Quan Song wen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 1988), v. 35, 1515/351. Dated ninth month, twenty-eighth day, 1063. Wang Anguo's investigations into "Huarui furen's" works are attested in Zhao Yushi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Southern Song), Bin tui lu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shanghai Guji chubanshe, 1983), 1/1, 10/31; also Li Qi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Song dyn.), Gujin shihua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in Guo Shaoyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ed., Song shihua jiyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1980), 167.

13. How many quitters? There is no way to prove whether Wang's dai er yu chuzhe [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] was singular or plural. A survey of available notes, commentary, and translations into English, Japanese, and modern Chinese yields no consensus. Of the native speakers of Chinese: Zhao Qiping in the Central People's Broadcasting anthology, Fan Yuxiang, Chen Xuanying, and the modern editors of Guwen guanzhi assume one person; Liu Shih-shun assumes more than one; others make no indication. Of the Internet sites, more seem to assume a single slacker than plural slackers. All four non-Chinese commentators (Shimizu, Walls, Owen, Strassberg) assume one person.

14. The full doggerel reads: "The Sung Dynasty's free and easy vagabond / Throughout the Four Seas enjoys renown / He has been to the top of the Cauldron of Peace / Here, as everywhere, his fame resounds" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. From "Sung the Fourth Raises Hell with Tightwad Chang" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in Gujin xiaoshuo [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1958), 36/530. Translation by Timothy Wong (without the italics), in Y. W. Ma and Joseph S. M. Lau, eds., Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1978), 539.

15. Tao Qian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (365-427), "Stopping Wine" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in Jingjie xiansheng ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Hong Kong: Zhonghua shuju, 1973), 3/37 (following his fully twenty pieces about "Drinking" wine).

16. Yuan Zhen's girl with a double name: see Wang Bijiang's thick file of poems, by Yuan Zhen and others, including "To One with a Double Name" ("Zeng shuang wen" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), compiled as evidence that the girl in Yuan Zhen's "Yingying zhuan" was real. See Wang Bijiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Tangren chuanqi xiaoshuo (Shanghai: Zhonghua shuju, 1959, anon. rpt. Taipei: Shijie, 1980), 143; also J. R. Hightower, "Yuan Chen and the Story of Ying-ying," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 33 (1973): 90-123. The hour of yin: at the end of chapter 52 in The Story of the Stone. See Commentary by "Red Inkstone," in Zhu Yongkui [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], comp., Zhiyanzhai chuanben Cao Xueqin Shitouji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Wenjin chubanshe, 1988), 52/751.

17. "Ordinary Bird": story from Liu Yiqing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (403-444), Shishuo xinyu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Hong Kong, 1969; rpt. Tainan: Pingping, 1974), 24/4, p. 579; trans. in Richard Mather, Shih Shuo Hsin Yu: A New Account of Tales of the World (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1976), 24/4, pp. 393-94. "Caught in the middle of one word": "Xijiang yue" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], attributed to Liu Yong but perhaps a folk piece, in Tang Guizhang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], comp., Quan Song ci [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1965), v. 1, 55.

18. "Not worth a penny coin": In Wang Zhi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (fl. 1126), Mo ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Beijing: Zhonghua, 1981), 2/26. For other jests with Liu Bin, including Liu's satirizing of the Zi shuo, see Pease, "Liu Ch'ang and Liu Pin ...," 17. The Zi shuo does not survive, but we still have about seventy complete or partial entries from it, over two hundred glosses from Wang's annotations to the Zhou li (glosses that he mined when he compiled the Zi shuo), and several dozen examples from anecdotes and written sources by Wang and others. The three examples cited here all come from Wang's Zhouguan xinyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Congshu jicheng edn.), 1/2 (fu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), 13/189 (ci [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and the "Kaogongji" section A/249 (li [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). See also Yang Shi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1053-1135), "Wang shi Zishuo bian" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in Guishan ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Siku quanshu zhenben edn.), 7.1a-7a; Ke Changyi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Wang Anshi pingzhuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1933), 238-49; and especially Winston W. Lo, "Philology: An Aspect of Sung Rationalism," Chinese Culture 17.4 (1976): 1-26.

19. "Reply to Duan Feng" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Linchuan 75/796. Probably dates to 1043, or 1044 at the latest, ten years before Baochan.

20. Wang Hui would pass the jinshi three years later, in 1057.

21. "A grind": yu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; "female fanatics": kuang nu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; "paltry": ququ [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; "fanatical and feisty": kuangjuan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. See Wang Hui's preface to the Lienu zhuan, in Quan Song wen, v. 35, 1515/352; finished about nine years after the Baochan trip.

22. Obituary: Linchuan 93/962-63; anthologized in Gao Buying [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], ed., Tang Song wen juyao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Shanghai Guji chubanshe, 1982), 7/941.

23. "Rhapsody on Love" (Ai fu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Quan Song wen, v. 35, 1515/343.
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Author:Pease, Jonathan
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Date:Apr 1, 2006
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