CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 22, June 2010


Contemplating Reading: Sixteen Views | China Heritage Quarterly

Contemplating Reading: Sixteen Views (Dushu shiliu guan 讀書十六觀)

Chen Jiru 陳繼儒 (1558-1639)

Translated by Duncan M Campbell

Translator’s Note:

Issues associated with reading—its purpose, its processes, its content as much as its various contexts—were of intense concern to the men (and women) of letters during the late-imperial period in China, dating roughly from the middle of the sixteenth century. This can be illustrated, for instance, by reference to the diary kept by the painter, art critic and influential arbiter of good taste Li Rihua 李日華 (1565-1635).[1] Late in the 1st Month of the 45th Year of the reign of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor of the Ming dynasty (1617), Li records that he obliged a friend with a painting entitled ‘Reading’ (Dushu tu 讀書圖) in response to a request which had accompanied the gift of some mulberry paper. In his Diary of the Water Tasting Studio (Weishuixuan riji 味水軒日記) Li Rihua goes on to record the poem that he had inscribed on the painting:

Tossing aside my books I lift my gaze to the mountain peaks,
Resolved not let my eyes be clouded by the dust of the world.
But now and then when I close my eyes I am in a dream,
And I find myself on Hermitage Mountain editing books of history.

Seven days later, Li Rihua copied out for the same friend seven short comments from one of the most important contemporary discussions of the topic of reading, Chen Jiru’s ‘Contemplating Reading: Sixteen Views’. He added to it a few notes related to his own life as a reader.

In the minds of many of his contemporaries, Chen Jiru was ‘the Grand Councillor in the Mountains’ (shanzhong zaixiang 山中宰相), that is a man whose true vocation lay not in service to the court, but in the loftier pursuit of learning in its own right.[2] Having failed the provincial examinations twice, the second time in 1585, in 1586 Chen undertook a very public and subsequently much discussed ritual of renunciation of the life of a scholar-official—he burnt his scholars’ robes and cap.

An observation from his Clear Words from a Peaceful Age (Taiping qinghua 太平清話), take us to the heart of Chen’s intentions as a lay scholar:

To collect ten thousand marvellous books; to wrap them up in brocade of a most marvellous quality and to suffuse them with an incense, again, of a most marvellous variety; to sit in a thatched hut behind reed curtains, with paper-lined windows and clay walls; to remain all my life a commoner, whistling and singing away in the midst of all this—such is my fondest desire. A guest who happened to overhear me saying this exclaimed with a laugh: ‘And of all men between Heaven and Earth, such a one as this is the most marvellous of all.’

Having chosen his lifestyle, Chen had to address the issue of how he would survive. For more than thirty years, he served as tutor to the son of one important man after another. It is doubtless in such a context that Chen Jiru developed his ideas on reading—what the Qing dynasty editors of the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries (Siku quanshu 四庫全書) were to label ‘the methods of reading’ (dushu zhi fa 讀書之法) in their catalogue entry on the work here translated.

As is also obvious from the entry in Li Rihua’s diary cited above, this text circulated widely within contemporary scholarly circles, both in manuscript and in printed form. ‘Contemplating Reading: Sixteen Views’ was included in a number of Chen’s own collected works, as well as in the continuation to the Shuofu 說郛 that was published in 1646. The present translation is based upon that version of the text. Reference has also been made to lightly annotated modern versions of the text, particularly that included as juan 4 of the Ming loyalist Wu Yingqi’s 吳應箕 (1594-1645) A Record of the Finest Observations on Reading (Dushu zhiguan lu 讀書止觀錄), reprinted in 1990 by Huangshan Shushe in Hefei, Anhui province.


Fig. 1 ‘Venerable Friends’ (Shang you tu 尚友圖, 1652), by Xiang Shengmo 項聖謨 (1597-1658). A group portrait of (clockwise): Lu Dezhi 魯得之 (1585-?1660), Dong Qichang 董其昌(1555-1636), Chen Jiru, Xiang Shengmo, Monk Qiutan 秋潭 (1558-1630) and Li Rihua. [Source: Chu-tsing Li and James C.Y. Watt, eds, The Chinese Scholar’s Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987, p.144.]

So intense on the part of the men of the past was their love of ancient text that they would clamber up ladders to reach the most inaccessible cliffs or have themselves lowered on ropes into the deepest caverns, all in order to search out and then pass on to future ages whatever inscriptions were to be found engraved on stone or metal. Such rubbings they would then fumigate with the finest of incense and wrap up in exquisite brocades of blue and yellow, such was their obsession with these ancient texts. For all my manifest failings, I too was afflicted with this particular predilection, and so would collect unusual volumes, declaring to disciples with delight: ‘To read a book that one had never previously heard about is akin to making a new friend; coming across a book that one has already read is like encountering an old friend. Although by nature I am fond of entertaining, what I dread more than anything else is giving offence and so it is books alone that I have learned to rely upon for it is only with books that one can grow old alongside, behind closed doors.’ Sitting beside my bamboo window therefore I have recalled to mind the following anecdotes and gathered them together under the title ‘Contemplating Reading: Sixteen Views’, in imitation of the Sutra of the Sixteen Contemplations (‘meditations’ or ‘views’, Shiliu Guan Jing 十六觀經) that for followers of the Pure Land sect represents the ultimate expression of their faith.[3]
This preface has been written by Chen Jiru of Huating.


Contemplation the First: Precisely as Lü Hui 吕誨 (1014-1071) has claimed: ‘With reading, it is not a matter of the number of books that one reads, rather of the extent to which one puts into practice each and every word that one reads.’ Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107), for his part, made essentially the same point in the following manner: ‘Far better it is to put into practice an inch of one’s reading than to read a foot of books.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Second: Ni Si 倪思 (1149-1220) once wrote that: ‘The soughing of the wind amongst the pines, the gurgle of a mountain brook, the chorus of the mountain birds, the chirping of insects at night, the singing of the cranes, the melody of the lute, the clack of chess pieces upon the board, the drip of rain on the steps outside, the thud of snow falling at the window, the gurgle of water boiling in readiness for a pot of tea—all these constitute the purest of sounds. But the purest sound of all is that of someone reading. And if it is a true delight to hear someone else read, then the joy of hearing one’s own disciples read is quite beyond description.’ On another occasion he said: ‘Whereas the profit and loss to be gained from all things in this world tends to be in equal measure, the book alone represents complete profit without the slightest loss. Of nobleman and commoner, rich and poor, old and young alike it may be said that to read a fascicle is to derive a fascicle of profit, to read a book for a day is to derive a day of profit. Thus may it be truly claimed for the book that it represents complete profit without the slightest possible loss.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.

倪文節公云松聲澗聲山禽聲夜蟲聲鶴聲琴聲棋子落聲雨滴階聲雪灑窗 聲煎茶聲皆聲之至清者也而讀書聲為最聞他人讀書聲已極喜更聞子弟讀書聲則喜不可勝言者矣又云天下之 事利害常相半有全利而無少害者惟書不問貴賤貧富老少觀書一卷則有一卷之益觀書一日則有一日之益 故有全利無少害也讀書者當作此觀

Contemplation the Third: After Fan Zhi 范質 [911-964] took office he was forever to be seen with a book in hand, declaring to all who would listen: ‘A strange man once said of me that I would one day become a grand official. In order that I may fulfil the requirements of the tasks foretold me, if the words of this fortune teller should in fact prove true, how could I possibly neglect my reading?’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Fourth: Late in his life, Shen Youzhi 沈攸之 [d.478] became addicted to tomes of one sort or another, and was forever to be heard saying: ‘If only I had known that success or failure in this life are entirely predestined, I would not now find myself regretting not having spent the last ten years of my life reading!’ The Song dynasty poet Ye Mengde 葉夢德 [1077-1148] once said: ‘All one can really hope for is that ones descendants too are born readers and prove to be good men of the village. Such is enough—their success or otherwise in life is entirely a matter that is at the disposal of Heaven.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Fifth: For many generations, Sun Wei’s 孫蔚 family had collected books. From far and near and without cease came readers, totalling more than a hundred in number. Sun Wei clothed and fed every one of them. And such should be the view of all true readers.


Fig. 2 Chen Jiru, detail from ‘Venerable Friends’.

Contemplation the Sixth: In a ‘Letter to Wang Lang’, Su Shi 蘇軾 [1037-1101] wrote: ‘A young man intent upon his studies should always seek to finish a book in several sittings. Books are as wide and capacious as the oceans themselves and contain within them every possible sort of treasure, such that the energies of a single reader can never fully comprehend in all its aspects. All that one can hope to derive from a book being that which one was searching for in the first place. I hope therefore that each time scholars take up a book they read in search of a particular thing. That is, if you are seeking to discover the underlying causes for the waxing and waning of empire, the alternating phases of order and chaos, the efforts of the wise and sagely, then this is precisely what you should search for in your reading, without giving the slightest thought to any other issues. The same is true if you are searching for the events of the past or the ritual usages of ancient times. In this manner, once your scholarship has come to fruition you will become all-conquering, and not at all like the man who simply browses his way through books.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Seventh: Dong Yu 董遇 of the Han dynasty would always have a book clasped under his arm and whenever he had an idle moment he would begin to intone it. Once someone asked to be taken on as his student but he refused, saying: ‘I’ve always found that by the time you have read a book a hundred times its meaning will have become obvious.’ Su Che 蘇轍 [1039-1112] was also quoted as saying: ‘Reading books is a bit like taking medicine; the more you take the more efficacious it becomes.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Eighth: Whenever Jiang Lu 江祿 was reading and happened to be interrupted before he had finished the book, however urgent the interruption, he would always ensure that the book at hand was neatly stacked away before rising from his seat, thus ensuring that none of his books ever suffered damage. Because of this, nobody ever refused him a request to borrow a book. Whenever Sima You 司馬攸 [248-83], the King of Qi, found an error in a book that he had borrowed he would always make an emendation to the text before returning it. And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Ninth: Liu Xian 劉顯 [481-543] was labelled a veritable scholarly institution by all his peers, and whenever he would discourse with Kong Huan 孔奐 [514-83], the two men would invariably be impressed by each other’s abilities. On one occasion, Liu Xian took Kong Huan by the hand and said to him: ‘Cai Yong 蔡邕 [132-92] once gave his entire collection of the Canon to Wang Can 王粲. I, for my part, have decided to imitate Cai Yong and you are certainly the equal of Wang Can. I will give you all my books.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Fig. 3 Li Rihua, detail from ‘Venerable Friends’.

Contemplation the Tenth: Whenever Su Shunqin 蘇舜钦 [1008-48] stayed with his father-in-law Du Yan 杜衍 he would sit up all night long reading, accompanied always by a jug of wine. Once his father-in-law spied on him and found him reading the ‘Biography of Zhang Liang’ from the History of the Han Dynasty (Hanshu 漢書). When he reached that point in the story where Zhang Liang 張良 and his hired assassin attacked the First Emperor with an iron bludgeon, he rubbed his palms together and exclaimed: ‘What a very great pity they missed!,’ whereupon he downed a full cup of wine. Reading on, he reached the part where Zhang Liang says to Liu Bang, the emperor of the Han dynasty: ‘When I first rose in rebellion in Xiapei 下邳, I meet with you Your Majesty at Liu 留. It was as if Heaven had sent me to you to be of service’, at which point he struck his desk and exclaimed: ‘How difficult a thing—the meeting up of emperor and minister’, downing another cup of wine as he did so. His father-in-law was heard to remark with a guffaw: ‘With such company, surely a jug of wine will be nowhere enough!’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Eleventh: The poet and calligrapher Huang Tingjian 黄庭堅 [1045-1105] once said: ‘Everyone bemoans it when a book is ripped apart to cover sauce jars or paper over windows, but when a scholar finds himself in straitened circumstances or cast into a slough of despond, those who hear of his fate are not moved to pity, those who encounter him turn their backs on him, caring not if he lives or dies. Such is the extent to which people revere the word on the page but despise the word in the stomach. How very tragic.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.

黃涪翁云擘書覆瓿裂史粘窗誰不 惜之士厄窮途陷落冤阱聞者不憐遇者不顧聽其死生是賢紙上之字耳讎腹中之文哀哉讀書者當作此觀

Contemplation the Twelfth: Cai Junmo 蔡襄 [1012-67] once wrote a short note in which he stated: ‘Once, whilst serving as prefect in Hangzhou, Li Ji 李及 bought a copy of the Collected Works of Bai Juyi 白集 and then regretted what he had done for the rest of his life. Lang Ji 郎基 was incorruptible and always extremely circumspect in his expenditure, once saying: ‘Whilst holding office one should not even acquire a new wooden pillow, let alone anything larger and more expensive.’ And yet, he was also forever having books copied. Fan Zongmeng 樊宗孟 sent him a letter, saying: ‘Writing books whilst in office is also something of an offense, however elegant.’ In his reply, Lang Ji responded: ‘As the Master said: “Your faults define you. From your very faults on can know your quality”.’[4] And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Thirteenth: The great Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹[1130-1200] once said: ‘Wu Hui 吳恢 of the Han dynasty himself prepared the bamboo strips upon which he proceeded to copy out the History of the Han Dynasty. Chao Yidao 晁以道 once needed to get hold of copies of the Gongyang 公羊 and Guliang 轂梁 commentaries to the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu 春秋) but was unable to do so, regardless of where he sought them. Later on, once he had managed to get hold of copies, he himself made copies of them. To people of our present age copying a book is a hateful process, and this results in their careless and simplistic manner of reading.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Fourteenth: Chen Liu 陳鎏 of the Ming dynasty once said: ‘Reading the biographies of Dou Ying 竇嬰, Guan Fu 灌夫 and Tian Fen 田蚡 in the History of the Han Dynasty it was almost as if I could see the three men sitting there drinking on that occasion [in 132 BCE] of Tian Fen’s wedding feast and hear every word of Guan Fu’s insults, for which Dou Ying and Guan Fu were to pay for with their lives. It is almost as if that meeting of heroes upon Soul Mountain was still going on!’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Fifteenth: The Southern Song dynasty scholar Zhao Jiren 趙季仁 once turned to his friend Luo Jinglun 羅景綸 to say: ‘I have only three desires in life. The first is to get to know all the finest men of this age. The second is to read all the finest books in the world. And the third is to see all the finest scenery in the world.’ ‘How could you possibly achieve all three of these desires’, responded Luo Jinglun, ‘All you should hope for is that when you do encounter any one of these fine things you do not let go of it!’ And such should be the view of all true readers.


Contemplation the Sixteenth: Yan Zhitui 嚴之推 [531-591] once said: ‘I never read the books of the sages without first dressing correctly and sitting respectfully. And neither do I ever dare put to unclean use any waste paper upon which either the words of the canon or the names of the sages have been written or printed.’ Sima Guang 司馬光 [1019-86] addressed his sons in the following manner: ‘Whereas a merchant hoards his riches, a scholar has only such things as books to hoard and so must learn to treasure them. Even the Buddhists and the Daoists of this present age understand the need to treat their books with reverence—how could it be the case that only us Confucian scholars fall short of them in this respect!’ The painter and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 [1254-1322] was in the habit of writing the following colophon in all the books he owned: ‘Assembling a library and collecting books is no easy matter, and all who are good readers know that one must first purify one’s thoughts and empty one’s mind, sit at a clean desk and burn incense before opening up a book. One should never bend a book back along its spine, never turn down the corners of its pages, never try to scratch out characters with one’s fingernails, never blow its pages open, never use it as a pillow, and never place bamboo bookmarks within it, just as you should always repair a book as soon as it requires such, and always remember to close the book as soon as you are finished reading it. To whomsoever should have hold of this book in future I grant also this method of reading.’ And such should be the view of all true readers.

顏之推云吾每讀聖賢之書未嘗不肅衣對之其故紙有五經辭義及賢達姓名不敢穢用也溫公謂其子曰賈竪藏 貨貝儒家惟此計然當知寶惜今釋子老氏猶知尊敬其書豈以吾儒反不如乎趙子昂書跋云聚書藏書良匪易事善觀書者澄端虛淨幾焚香勿卷腦勿折角勿以爪侵字勿以唾揭幅勿以作枕勿以夾刺隨損隨修隨開隨掩後之得吾書者並奉贈法讀書者當作此觀


Having finished my ‘Contemplating Reading’, I put aside my brush and fell asleep, finding myself immediately in a dream in which an elderly man approached me and patted me on the back, saying as he did so: ‘Far better it is to have no books whatsoever than to believe everything that you read!’ To my mind, this constitutes a precise statement of the extent to which style tends to detract from diction, and diction detracts from meaning, and when I had fully understood what he had told me I asked him who he was. He told me that he was none other than the wheelwright of old 斲輪翁.[5] Upon awakening, I added this colophon to the end of the page upon which I had been writing, as an appropriate supplement to my ‘Contemplating Reading’.



[1] For a short English-language biography of whom, see L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), Vol.1, pp.826-30.

[2] For a short English language biography of this man, by Fang Chao-ying, see A.W. Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch’ing Period, 1644-1912 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1943), pp. 83-84. More recently, see Jamie Greenbaum, Chen Jiru (1558-1639): The Background to, Development and Subsequent Uses of Literary Personae, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007. As implied by the title of this latter work, Greenbaum’s book, based on the PhD thesis he completed at The Australian National University, is not so much a biographical study of Chen Jiru, but rather an examination of the nature and usages of fame and celebrity in the context of the social and economic changes of the late imperial period in China. A conversation with Geremie Barmé, followed by the gift of an edition of Chen’s text, reminded me of this unfinished but long neglected translation project; I thank him for both the gift and the reminder. This present translation is offered as continuation of the consideration given in recent issues of the China Heritage Quarterly to the heritage of books and book collecting in China.

[3] I am grateful for Scott Pacey’s help in negotiating my way through the Buddhist implications of Chen’s borrowed usage here.

[4] Simon Leys, trans., The Analects of Confucius (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 1997), p.16.

[5] See Burton Watson, trans., ‘The Way of Heaven’, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968), pp.152-53:

Duke Huan was in his hall reading a book. The wheelwright P’ien, who was in the yard below chiselling a wheel, laid down his mallet and chisel, stepped up into the hall, and said to Duke Huan, ‘This book Your Grace is reading—may I venture to ask whose words are in it?’ ‘The words of the sages,’ said the duke. ‘Are the sages still alive?’ ‘Dead long ago,’ said the duke. ‘In that case, what you are reading there is nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old!’ ‘Since when does a wheelwright have permission to comment on the books I read?’ said Duke Huan. ‘If you have some explanation, well and good. If not, it’s your life!’ Wheelwright P’ien said, ‘I look at it from the point of view of my own work. When I chisel a wheel, if the blows of the mallet are too gentle, the chisel slides and won’t take hold. But if they’re too hard, it bites in and won’t budge. Not too gentle, not too hard—you can get it in your hand and feel it in your mind. You can’t put it into words, and yet there’s a knack to it somehow. I can’t teach it to my son, and he can’t learn it from me. So I’ve gone along for seventy years and at my age I’m still chiselling wheels. When the men of old died, they took with them the things that couldn’t be handed down. So what you are reading there must be nothing but the chaff and dregs of the men of old.’