CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


A Note to the Second Chapter of <i>Mr Decadent</i> | China Heritage Quarterly

A Note to the Second Chapter of Mr Decadent

C. S. Ch'ien (錢鍾書 Qian Zhongshu)

The relations between the foreign-educated men and women of letters of the Republican China are a study in themselves. Mutual regard and respect for each other's learning was enlivened also by sometimes rather baroque displays of erudition, a welter of quotations and carefully crafted turns of phrase often concealing (and not too subtly) hauteur.

Qian Zhongshu (錢鐘書, 1910-1998) is widely acknowledged as one of China's late-blooming and most remarkable literrateurs. Through an introduction from Yang Xianyi I became friendly with both Zhongshu and his wife, the playwright, translator and novelist Yang Jiang 楊絳 in the early 1980s, and saw much of them during that decade. The fiercely humorous and scholastically judgemental Qian was welcoming not only as a result of Xianyi's introduction but because my mentor was the much-admired and outspoken Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (李克曼, Simon Leys), and due to the fact that I had studied Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and classical Tibetan as an undergraduate. (Both he and Yang Jiang were also much amused by my familiarity with Maoist diction, acquired through years of exposure to the Cultural Revolution, and intrigued by my training under an old acquaintance, Liu Ts'un-yan 柳存仁, in literary Chinese.)

The following article is a learned, if impishly pedantic, comment by Zhongshu on a translation by Xianyi. While the Civil War raged throughout China, in a last-minute volley of learning published in a delightfully obscure magazine in the soon-to-fall Nationalist capital, Zhongshu was enjoying the form of combat at which he excelled. And he launches his volleys of words, word games and references, high and low, with force majeure. As for Xianyi's art as translator, Zhongshu immediately offers an opinion:

I have adopted Professor Yang's translation of the name Lao-ts'an as "Mr Decadent", but I am not really happy about it. There is a definite suggestion of the mad, bad and sad fin de siècle about the English word "decadent" which would be here quite misleading….

In my mind's eye I can see Xianyi's Cheshire-Cat grin in response. It was because of his loquacious nature that Qian Zhongshu's father had given him the courtesy name Mocun 默存, 'remain quiet'.

This article originally appeared in the September 1948 issue of Philobiblon, a periodical published by the Chinese National Central Library in the Nationalist capital of Nanjing between 1946 and 1948. As Qian Zhongshu notes, Yang Xianyi also contributed to its pages.—The Editor

Liu Ê’s (劉鶚) delightful "autobiographiction" Lao-ts'an yu-chi (老殘遊記) (1905) promises to be the spoiled child of translators. The English versions called Tramp Doctor's Travelogue and A Nun of Taishan were published before the war by the Commercial Press. Mr Harold E. Shadick, now of Cornell University, told me some time ago that he had made a new translation of the novel; but, for all I know, it has not yet emerged from his portfolio. In last October, Professor Yang Hsien-yi, whose learned and acute articles have appeared in these pages, gave us an admirable translation under the title Mr Decadent [1] which, I understand, is changed into Mr Derelict in the London edition. Liu Ê’s novel is of perennial interest to students of Chinese literature, history and social manners alike, and other translators will no doubt try their skill on it too. Unless human nature has much changed, we should be treated before long to the usual spectacle which Sir Richard Burton, speaking of the numerous English translators of Camoens, likens to that of the Simoniacal Popes in a Malebolge-pit, each one struggling to trample down his elder brother.[2]

I have adopted Professor Yang's translation of the name Lao-ts'an as "Mr Decadent", but I am not really happy about it. There is a definite suggestion of the mad, bad and sad fin de siècle about the English word "decadent" which would be here quite misleading. True, Liu's book is, as Professor Yang said in his preface, "the expression of a deep pessimism ... and sadness at the decadence of China".[3] He is not therefore "decadent", is he? — except perhaps on the principle that who drives fat oxen should himself be fat. The word "decadent", with its fringe of peculiar associations for Western readers, creates an utterly wrong impression of the character of Lao-ts’an as if he, in witnessing the death-agony of the Sick Man of the East,[4] had also experienced the blend of mystic participation and masochistic rapture that finds expression in the line.—

Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la décadence!
Fig.1 Window, Surging Waves Pavilion (Canglang Ting 滄浪亭), Suzhou. (Photograph: GRB)

If "Mr Decadent" sounds like a New Hedonist of the 'nineties, "Mr Derelict" is equally wide of the mark and suggests a lachrymose "lone lorn creetur": We have, straight from the author's mouth, an explanation of the name Lao-ts'an at the very outset of the story. The tramp-doctor took the fancy-name Ts’an (殘) after the Buddhist priest Lan-ts'an (懶殘) which becomes "Lazy and Decadent" in Professor Yang's translation.[5] Now Lan-ts'an is the nickname of the bonze Ming-tsan (明瓚) of the mid-Tang dynasty. A biographical sketch of Ming-tsan is included in Book XIX of the third series of The Lives of Eminent Buddhist Priests (宋高僧傳) by Tsan-ning (贊寧), a monk of encyclopaedic knowledge of the Sung dynasty. According to it, Ming-tsan won that nickname as a result of two rather endearingly contemptible traits in his character: "He took his ease while his fellow bonzes were busy at work and, even when scolded, was not the least bit ashamed of his laziness (lan). Besides, he was fond of eating the left-over food (ts’an) of his fellow bonzes. Hence the nickname."[6] This passage is really the amplification of a very short sentence in an earlier book entitled Sweet-rain Rhapsodies (甘澤謠) [7] from which the whole sketch is derived. Ts’an does not, therefore, mean "decadence" or "derelict", but denotes the sort of broken meats which the Parisian restaurateurs dub as arlequin or bijou and the Oxford scouts claim as "perquisites".[8] The bonzes live and even get sleek on a vegetarian diet; otherwise the nickname lan-ts’an might be translated into something like "Lazybones and Gnaw-bones" . "Taking rest and eating the resles" is also its exact rendering but for two objections: it is too much of a dribbling mouthful for a name, and it is "writ in no language" or rather in a bastard kind of language. Besides, a stickler to the original sense of ts'an as the debris of a repast would come to grief in rendering the name Pu-ts’an (補殘) which Professor Yang neatly translates as "Patcher of Decadence". Thus I feel rather like a tinker. — a "patcher of decadence" indeed, though only in pots and kettles — who stops one hole and makes two. Quite unable to suggest anything better, I content myself with a mild demurrer to "Mr Decadent" and "Mr Derelict".

Liu Ê, with all his skill in vivid description and vivacious dialogue, shows but little inventive power; the novel is a roman à clef of the most bare-faced kind, and many who start reading it as literature end with studying it as history. Without scruple, he put real characters into the book in thin disguises, often indecently or cruelly thin. On one or two occasions, he even dispensed with cloaks and masks altogether and showed no qualms in leaving his acquaintances to die of exposure. The identity of some of the characters has been recognised long ago.[9] In this article, I wish to make another identification as a good example of Liu Ê’s abject adherence to the actual or unnecessary matter-of-factness in fiction.

The passage in question occurs near the end of the famous second chapter which contains the marvellous description of Miss Little Jade's singing. I shall transcribe from Professor Yang's version:

After a while the tumult began to die down and a young man less than thirty years old in the front seat under the stage started to speak with a Hunan accent, saying, "When I studied in the past and read descriptions of good singers, it was said that the echoes of their songs would linger about the roof for three days; but I would not believe it ... But since I heard Miss Wang singing I realise how well the ancient scholars expressed it … Indeed I felt the even three days was rather inadequate, and would rather use Confucius' words: 'For three months I cannot taste the flavour of meat.' Three months would be more correct." All the people beside him said: "His criticism is quite right, and expresses our own feeling."[10]

Now in the original, the first half of the last sentence is: 夢湘先生論得透闢極了: to wit, "Mr Mêng-hsiang's criticism is quite right", or "Mr Mêng-hsiang has put it very sensitively". So this young man (who is never to appear again in the story) has a local habitation, viz., Hunan, as well as a name, viz., Mêng-hsiang. But the fact is so unimportant that Professor Yang has some justification in omitting the name from his version. To other writers on Liu Ê's novel, the name has also meant nothing; for all they care, it might be Tom, Dick or Harry, or, as we say in Chinese, Chang the third brother or Li the fourth. After all, there is nothing original or profound in the opinion Mr Mêng-hsiang expressed: it bears no stamp of personality and is only a platitude which might be uttered by any Chinese schoolboy in those days when the Confucian Analects were the sine qua non of his satchel and quoting Confucius was no intellectual feat.

Fig.2 Bamboo, Surging Waves Pavilion. (Photograph: GRB)

Liu Ê, however, is here referring to a real person by his real name. Mêng-hsiang is the courtesy-name of Wang I-min (王以敏), native of Wu-ling (武陵), Hunan, graduate in the third or doctor's degree (進士) in the year 1890. A poet of genuine talent, well-known rather than famous among his contemporaries, he is now completely forgotten — a phenomenon not uncommon in the natural history of reputations. He got married in Shantung in 1875 and largely lived there till 1890. In the autumn of 1886, he received an appointment in the Yellow River Conservancy (cf. his poetical works Vol. II, chuan vi, leaves 18, 20, 24) under that very governor of Shantung who was to appear in Mr Decadent (Vol. III, chuan ix, 26 verso). His poetical works contain an ecstatic tribute to Miss Little Jade in the form of a long ode of seven-word lines.[11] The ode, an obvious attempt to combine the mellifluous narrative of Po Chu-i and the ornate diction of Li Ho, was written in 1887 after repeated attendances to Little Jade's "concerts". Wang I-min numbered himself among the few and select to whom Little Jade's singing appealed; the vulgar majority, on the other hand, gave their suffrage to a certain Kuo Wa or "Kuo the cute baby", little Jade's senior rival who, alas! like most of their profession, died in distress [sic]. With the Cute Baby's sad end in mind, our poet was tenderly solicitous about Little Jade's future and advised her in a commendably avuncular tone to retire from public entertainment into — he did not specify into what, but a private harem is certainly implied. Now Kuo the Cute Baby is elsewhere known as Kuo the Big Hussy (郭大妮) , and an enthusiastic account of her beauty and skill can be found in that guide to the gay life of Tsinan in those days, Sun Tien's (孫點) A Traveller's Notes on Tsinan (歷下志遊), Pt II. The all-inclusive Geographical Miscellanies (小方壺齊與地叢鈔)give copious extracts from Sun Tien's work,[12] but, being concerned with a kind of geography other than that mapped in the carte du Tendre, omits its luscious panorama of singers and prostitutes. Sun Tien visited Tsinan before Liu Ê and Wang I-min and saw Little Jade when she was about fifteen or sixteen: "a pretty but shy girl, sitting in a corner and hanging her head (低頭隅坐) ,but dropping her shyness when she warmed up to her singing (歌至與酣, 不少羞澀)".[13] To Mr Decadent, Little Jade seemed a girl of eighteen or nineteen; Wang I-min who apparently knew her better, said her to be well past twenty; yet Wang had met her almost four years before Liu Ê who came to Tsinan in connexion with the Yellow River Conservancy in 1890. Of course, a woman is only as old as she looks and, as Beau Brummel was anxious to fix five-and-forty as l’âge de tout le monde, Chinese convention almost fixed eighteen or nineteen as l’âge de tout le demi-monde. Liu extended this chivalrous "short measure" even to Wang's age: we gather from Wang's poetical works that he was born in 1855;[14] so he was "a young man over thirty" and not one "less than thirty" when he first heard Little Jade in 1886. Sun, Wang and Liu were all agreed about Little Jade's modesty and quietness; the habit of hanging her head was also noticed by Mr Decadent. She apparently could weather success and flattery, those hard tests of character which few of us can pass.

Thus in the reference to Mr Mêng-hsiang, Liu Ê is recording an actual event. As I said, Mr Mêng-hsiang's remark is not one which, if we met it howling in the wilderness, would make us curious about its author. It is a commonplace that can pass muster with a vague on dit. The problem of a writer of vie romancée is: What's the most he can say without actually telling a lie? while that of a writer of "autobiographiction" is: What's the most he can say without actually telling the truth? Yet Liu Ê refused to practise here a little economy of truth and, with a tenacious clinging to facts quite unnecessary in a work ostensibly fictitious, supplied us with all the tabs of identity about a character who, like the shadow of a bird in its flight, is no sooner seen than lost and forgotten. What other name for this than "lying-on-the-belly before insignificant facts"?[15] Little did he know that despite his conscientiousness, oblivion has used its snuffers so efficiently that "Mr Meng-hsiang" might as well be "Billy Anon" to the modern readers!

Liu Ê wrote Mr Decadent nearly sixteen years later than Wang I-min composed his ode. We may safely assume that Liu had the poem in mind when he wrote that famous description of Little Jade's singing. [16] A comparison of the two is very rewarding, but I shall confine myself to one general observation.

Fig.3 Canal outside the Surging Waves Pavilion. (Photograph: Daniel Sanderson)

That description is the one gleaming purple patch on the ground-fabric of clean homespun prose in which the story is written. A piece of fine writing which would make Mr Tony Weller query "Tain't in poetry, is it?" it has naturally caught the eye of all critics, lecturers, schoolmasters and compilers of anthologies. These estimable gentlemen have made it a show piece of pei-hua or vernacular literature as well as a set piece in high schools. The thing has been killed with kindness to be probably revived by means of artificial respiration in classrooms whose walls, unfortunately, too often witness scenes of the dead exhuming their dead. Considering the fact that pei-hua was still a despised and neglected literary medium in Liu Ê’s time, the whole description is a triumphant proof of its resources and possibilities for artistic prose. On the other hand, Wang I-min's poem, fine as it is in its way, would not have attracted much notice among readers of old Chinese poetry. Yet both, Liu in his novel and Wang in the first half of his ode, in spite of the difference of medium, were bent upon one and the same purpose, i.e., to embody the mass of impressions made by music in a luxuriance of images, as varied an assortment as the ingenuity of the Demon of Analogy could suggest, so

Qu'on le lit de l'oreille.
Et qu’on l'écoute des yeux.

To paint musical sounds in odes of seven-word lines has been a venerable convention among old Chinese poets; Po Chu-i's famous ode on the playing of p'i p'a is an example familiar to most Western readers.[17] Wang I-min, therefore, was simply writing in a time-hallowed and even stereotyped mould. Whether his poem is good. bad or indifferent, it is in a form that was then taken for granted. Liu Ê, on the contrary, had no precedent for his tour de force in pei-hua; what models he could think of are all in verse. That he did think of those conventional odes is betrayed by his quoting from Po Chu-i's p’i p'a ode: "One of Po Chu-i’s poems has the words: ‘Like big pearls and small pearls falling upon a jade disc’; and these lines would apply to the excellency of this song." [18] In other words, this description of music which, with a modern Chinese writer disinherited of our literary tradition, would be an attempt to raise prose to poetry, is, with a man of Liu Ê's education and cultural background, clearly an experiment to acclimatise poetry in prose. He made pei-hua prose do the work that had hitherto from Po Chu-i to Wang I-min, been reserved for wen-li poetry, and succeeded wonderfully. It is not merely a case of reddiderit junctura, making an old thing new by transposing it into a new setting, but a veritable contest of media as well as a transformation of genres.

Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:


[1] Mr Decadent (bilingual text), pp. 319. Nanking: Tu-li ch'u-pan-she (獨立出版社), 1947.

[2] Cf. Inferno, canto xix.

[3] p. 5. Two sentences telescoped; Italics mine.

[4] Towards the end of the Manchu dynasty, Chinese journalists appropriated this jewel six-word-long as an elegant designation of the ramshackle Chinese Empire. As the Republican regime has been also "a long disease", the cliché remains in the style sheet of many newspapers.

[5] p. 8.

[6] The Tripitaka in Chinese, ed. by J. Takakusu and K. Watanabe, vol. L, p. 834: 眾僧營作, 我則晏如; 縱被詆訶, 殊無愧恥. 時目之懶瓚 … 一云:好食僧之殘食. 故殘也.

[7] The story is preserved in T’ai-p’ing kuang-chi (太平廣記), chuan xcvi. The sentence is: 性懶而食殘

[8] The locus classicus is in Mr Verdant Green, ch. vi “Put away these bits o’ things as is left, sir!” quoth Mr Filcher of Brazenface College, “you see, you’s fresh to the place,” etc.

[9] Cf. Professor Yang’s preface, p. 6.

[10] p. 52.

[11] The reproduction of the text here is unclear.

[12] 1st series, 6th case, vol. iii, leaves 225-237.

[13] Vol. II, chuan iii, leaves 6-7 in the Shun-pao reprint. Sun Tien’s notice of Little Jade is rather perfunctory; he reserved his hearty admiration for some of her riper and more piquant contemporaries.

[14] Vol. 1, chuan i, 15 verso (我生之辰惟乙卯) ;Vol. III. chuan viii, 8 recto (生年三十五); Vol. IV chuan xi, 2 recto (四十初度).

[15] "Auf-dem-Bauch-liegen vor petits fais"; cf. Nietzsches Werke (Alfred Kroener: Taschen-Ausgabe), Bd XI, S. 363.

[16] pp. 14-53 in Professor Yang's translation.

[17] E.g. the prose translation under the title “The Lute-Girl’s Lament” in H. A. Giles’s Gems of Chinese Literature, I, pp. 149-161 (2nd ed.). All the translations I have seen, from Giles’s to Mr Witter Bynner’s “A Song of the Guitar”, made the same mistake of rendering an otherwise beautiful line from the corrupted, though commonly accepted, reading of it. But that is another story.

[18] p.54 in Professor Yang’s translation.