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FAMILY LETTERS OF A CHINESE POET

MAINSCHOLAR • LETTERS OF A CHINESE POET

by Cheng Pan-Ch'iao
Translated by Lin Yutang

TO BROTHER MO FROM T'AOKUANG TEMPLE, HANGCHOW, 1732

There is no one in the world who is not a descendant of the Yellow Emperor, and Yao and Shun. But today some have unfortunately become slaves, slave girls, concubines and poor laborers, living in poverty and distress and unable to help themselves; it would be wrong to assume that their ancestors were slaves, slave girls, concubines and poor laborers in generations ago. Once they make up their minds and are willing to work hard, some of them become rich and honored in their own life time, and others become so in the next generation. Is there such a thing as blood among kings, dukes, premiers and generals? Some scions of former noble or well-known families taunt others on their birth and brag about their previous generations, saying "Who is he, and yet he is high up? I am such and such a person, and yet I am down and out. There is no justice in heaven or in the affairs of man." Alas! they do not know that this is exactly the justice of heaven and of human affairs. Heaven rewards the good and punishes the licentious; it is in accordance with reason that he is good and therefore rewarded, and you are licentious and therefore poor. What is wrong with that? For the way of Heaven goes in a cycle. His ancestors were poor, and now it is his turn to be rich and honored; your ancestors were rich and honored, and now it is your turn to be poor. Again, what is wrong about that? This is the way of heaven and also of human affairs.

After I, your foolish brother, became a government graduate (hsiu-ts'ai), whenever I found in the old trunks at our home some deed of a slave sold into our family in the former generation, I at once burned it over the oil lamp. I did not even return it to the person concerned, for I felt if I did, it would be an obvious act and increase the man's embarassment. Since I began to employ people, I have never required contracts. If we can get along with the servant, we keep him; and if not, we send him away. Why keep such a piece of paper to provide a pretext for our next generations to use it as a claim or a means of extortion? To act with such a heart is to have consideration of others, which is to have consideration for ourselves. If we try always to obtain a legal hold, once we get into the meshes of legality, we shall never be able to get out again. We shall only become poor more quickly and disaster will follow immediately. The posterity of such people will soon be involved in scandals and meet with unexpected disasters. You just look at the people of the world who are shrewd at calculations; do they ever succeed in overcoming others by their shrewd calculations? They are only calculating toward their own ruin.

What a pity!
Remember this, my young brother.

TO BROTHER MO, WRITTEN AT SHUANGFENKO, CHIAOSHAN

There is a cemetery lot at Hochiachuang, which costs twelve ounces of silver. Father once wanted to buy it, but on account of a grave without an owner there, which had to be removed, he said, "Alas! How can one dig up another person's grave to make room for one's own?" Father therefore never did buy the lot. But if we don't buy it, someone else will, and that ownerless grave will be dug up. I am thinking of writing to cousin Ho to find out what has happened to it. If it's not yet sold, I shall send him twelve ounces of silver and buy it for burial ground for myself and my wife. We shall never leave that grave untouched as a place for buffaloes to lie down, and set up an inscription in stone asking our posterity never to disturb that grave. Would this not be in accordance with our deceased father's kindly thought and an improvement upon it? Although it is said we shouldn't believe geomancers, if we always try to retain generosity and eschew meanness of heart, wouldn't even an unlucky grave turn into good ground?

There can be no doubt about this point. When our posterity visit our graves on the annual ch'ingming festival, they shall also offer sacrifices to that grave, with one chicken, a cup of wine, a bowl of rice, and a hundred packs of hundred paper money.

Let this be an established rule.
June 10, 1734.

TO BROTHER MO, FROM THE MAGISTRATE'S RESIDENCE AT FANHSIEN

The family cemetery at Ch'ayuansze belongs in common to the East Gate branch of our clan. Because there was no other place, I buried our parents there, and thanks to its power, I have become a chinshih (One who passed successfully the national examinations, equivalent to a doctor's degree, but much more highly honored). For several years now I have occupied an official post without any mishap, which means that I have robbed the clan of its luck and monopolized it all myself. Can my heart feel at ease?

It is pitiful to see our relatives at East Gate catch fish and shrimps, working on their boats and repairing nets, living in huts and eating chaffs and wheat gruel. They pick floating heart, radish and water-bamboo and boil them and if they have buckwheat cakes to go along with them, they consider them delicacies and the young children fight for them. Whenever I think of them, tears fill my eyes.

When you bring money from my salary home, you should distribute it from house to house. Although the six families at the South Gate, the eighteen families at Chuhuengchiang and the lone family at Hsia'tien are more distant relatives, they are of the same blood, and should be given something also.

Where is young granduncle Ch'ilin? Such an orphan boy without parents to depend upon is often bullied by the people of the village. You should find out where he is and comfort him.

All relatives in the four generations counting from our great-grandfather should be given each two dollars, and it will be easier later for us to get along with them. Hsu Tsungyu and Lu Poyi are my college friends, and we used to go about daily together. I still remember discussing ancient literature with them in an old temple deep into the night with the falling leaves flying about. Sometimes we sat on the stone lions and discussed ancient warfare and all topics in the universe. They have been unfortunate, and must also be given a share of my money for old friend-ship's sake.

People usually think a great deal of their own writings and scholarship and believe that getting degrees is an easy matter for them, but do not realize it is all due to luck.

Suppose I should happen to be still unsuccessful in the examinations, to whom could I complain? This is therefore not something to make one conceited toward friends. The principal thing is to cement good-will among relatives and members of the clan and remember old friends; for the rest, you can do what you think fit in the way of helping the neighbors and people of the village.

Spend it all; I shall spare the details.

TO BROTHER MO, FROM THE MAGISTRATE'S RESIDENCE AT FANHSIEN II

I received a letter from home on the twenty-sixth of the tenth month, and was delighted to learn that we got twenty-five hundred bushels from the new fields at autumn harvest. From now on I can afford to be a farmer during the remainder of my days. We must have all sorts of things made - mortars, grinding-stones, sieves, bamboo pans, big and small brooms and rice measures of all kinds. The women of the family shall lead the maids in the housework and all learn to pound rice, shake grains and work with thir hands an feet. It will give an atmosphere of living on land and bringing up children there. On a cold, icy day, when poor relatives come to our door, first give them a big bowl of (boiled) toasted rice, which, helped out with a small dish of pickled ginger, is the best means of warming up the aged and the poor. In our leisure days, we can eat cakes of broken rice and cook "muddle congee," and eat it sinking our head into the bowl held between the hands. On a frosty or snowy morning, this makes the whole body warm. Alas! I hope to be a farmer until the end of my days!

I think the best class of people in the world are the farmers. Scholars should be considered the last of the four classes (the traditional classification is: scholars, farmers, artisans and business men). The most well-to-do farmers have a hundred mu (about sixteen acres), the second seventy or eighty mu, and the next fifty or sixty mu. They all toil and labor to feed the rest of the world. Were it not for the farmers, we should all starve. We scholars are considered one class higher than the farmners because we are supposed to be good sons at home and courteous abroad, and maintain the ancient tradition of culture; in the case of success, we can serve and benefit the people, and in the case of failure, we can cultivate our personal lives as an example to the world. But this is no longer true. As soon as a person takes a book in hand, he is thinking of how to pass the examinations and become a chujen or shinshih, how to become an official and get rich and build fine houses and buy large property. It is all wrong from the very start, and the further one goes, the more wicked one becomes. It will all come to a bad end. Those who are not successful at the examinations are still worse; they prey upon the people of the village, with a small head and thievish eyes. True, there are many who hold firm to their principles, and there are everywhere some who set the highest standards for themselves. But the good suffer on account of the bad, with the result that we have to shut up. "All scholars know how to talk. As soon as you become officials, you will not be saying the same things." That is why we have to keep quiet and accept the insults.

The artisans make tools and turn them to good use, while the business men make possible the exchange of goods. They are all of some use to the people, while the scholars alone are a great nuisance (STI feels a bit different about that :)) to them. One shoule not be surprised to find them considered the lowest of the four classes of people, and I doubt that they are entitled to even that.

I have always thought the most of the farmers. The new tenants should be treated with courtesy. They should call us "hosts" and we should call them "guests." the host-and-guest relationship is reciprocal. What reason is there to suppose that we are higher than they? We must be courteous to them and love them. If they ask for help, help them, and if they cannot repay, make it easy for them. It has seemed incredulous to me that all the T'ang poets who wrote poems about the Cowherd and the Spinning Maid descibed only the parting of the lovers and lost sight of the original meaning of their names. For the Spinning Maid reminds us where our dress comes from, and the Cowherd reminds us where our food comes from; therefore they are the most honored among the stars of Heaven. If Heaven thinks a great deal of them, shall man look down upon them? The hard-working farmers who toil to give us the essentials of living may be said to have followed the example of these stars.

The women of our town cannot weave coarse silk or cotton, but they can still cook and sew and do their bart nobly. Recent many listen to the drum-stories or play at cards. The manners are becoming loose and should be corrected.

Although we have threee hundred mu of land, they are mortgaged property and cannot be depended upon. Hereafter we should buy two hundred mu, so that we brothers shall have each one hundred mu, which is in accordance with the ancient teaching that each farmer was to receive a hundred mu. More than that will be robbery of other people's property and a crime. There are many people in this world who have no land, and who are we should be so greedy? Where shall the poor ones be forced to go? It may be argued that there are plenty of people whose lands stretch for miles in thousands of mu, and what can we do about it? The reply is "Let others attend to their affairs, while we attend to ours. When good customs prevail, unite around the King in harmony. When the customs degenerate, abstain from walking in evil company."

Let this be the family tradition of Pan Ch'iao.

   
 
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