賣柑者言 – Discourse with the Mandarin Vendor

The wordplay in the translation works only in English, sadly

Mmm, mandarins. Wonder what they’re like inside.

Honestly, I’ve been feeling rather down lately. Weltschmerz, perhaps – though fortunate indeed is the person who is comfortable enough to be worrying about the world, also!

Anyway, while being mopey and idiotic, I came across this essay which I studied a decade ago and have not read since, until today. Liu Ji 劉基, better known by his courtesy name as Liu Bowen 劉伯溫 (1311 – 1375), was a strategist, scholar, geomancer and one of the key founding members of the Ming Dynasty which would rule China for nearly three centuries. Well, if I’m going to start translating prose pieces, this is as good a place as any.

Born in the late Yuan Dynasty as a southern Chinese, which was the lowest social rank under Mongolian rule due to their protracted resistance to conquest, it is perhaps no surprise that Liu Bowen would rouse himself to write this essay; besides being biased against the likes of him, Yuan rule by the time of his adulthood was already a shambles in general. Sometimes it’s scary how many parallels there are with our time.

We may be centuries ahead in so many things, but the ugly albatross around our neck that is idiocy – whether governmental, corporate, or personal – never gets dropped.

Okay, enough moping. Essay!

Essay

杭有卖果者,善藏柑,涉寒暑不溃。出之烨然,玉质而金色。置于市,贾十倍,人争鬻之。

In Hangzhou there was a fruit vendor who was skilled at storing mandarins, so that they would not rot in heat or cold. They were gorgeous and shiny, smooth as jade and gold in colour. In the market they cost ten times the normal price, but people fought to buy them.

 

予贸得其一,剖之,如有烟扑口鼻,视其中,则干若败絮。予怪而问之曰:“若所市于人者,将以实笾豆,奉祭祀,供宾客乎?将炫外以惑愚瞽也?甚矣哉,为欺也!”

So I bought one of them and cut it open, and a smell of smoke assailed my nostrils. Peering inside, I saw dried threads, like tattered cloth. Bemused, I asked the vendor: ‘These ‘mandarins’ you sell – are they for filling up vessels to be offered to deities and to impress guests? Or are they just for show, to deceive fools and blind people? How could you do such a dishonest thing?’

卖者笑曰:“吾业是有年矣,吾赖是以食吾躯。吾售之,人取之,未尝有言,而独不足子所乎?世之为欺者不寡矣,而独我也乎?吾子未之思也。

The vendor smiled and replied, ‘I’ve been doing this for years, and this is how I make my living. I sell them, people buy them, and I’ve never heard anyone complain. Are they good enough for everyone except you? And am I the only person in the world running a con? Think about it.

 

今夫佩虎符、坐皋比者,洸洸乎干城之具也,果能授孙、吴之略耶? 峨大冠、拖长绅者,昂昂乎庙堂之器也,果能建伊、皋之业耶?

‘These days there are officers bearing tiger-badges and seated in the general’s tent. They look so impressive, like they can defend the country from anything, but do you really think they can do what Sun and Wu [1] did? Then consider the mandarins of state, with great tall hats and long sashes. They look so imposing as the great leaders of the state, but do you reckon they can match Yi and Gao’s [2] achievements?

盗起而不知御,民困而不知救,吏奸而不知禁,法斁而不知理,坐糜廪粟而不知耻。

‘These days bandits run amok and they have no defence; the people are trapped in poverty and they bring no remedy. The officials are corrupt, and no one restrains them; the legal system is broken, and no one is fixing it; all they do is sit and waste the country’s resources without any shame.

观其坐高堂,骑大马,醉醇醴而饫肥鲜者,孰不巍巍乎可畏,赫赫乎可象也?又何往而不金玉其外,败絮其中也哉?今子是之不察,而以察吾柑!”

‘So take a good look at those people in their great estates and on their sturdy steeds, drinking the finest vintage and feasting on delicacies. Look at how well-fed, and tall, and imposing, and respectable they look! Are they also not golden on the outside, and tattered cloth within? And instead of complaining about them, you come after my mandarins instead!’

 

予默默无以应。退而思其言,类东方生滑稽之流。岂其愤世疾邪者耶?而托于柑以讽耶?

Stuck without a reply, I went home in silence. Thinking about it now, that man was quite the satirist in the mould of Mr. Dongfang [3]. Was he not also a person enraged by the failings of the world around him? And were the mandarins not his satirical tool of choice?

[1] – Sun and Wu are respectively Sun Wu 孫武, better known in English as Sun Tzu, and Wu Qi 吳起, who is less known in the West but was also a great strategist who served the state of Chu and made it a superpower of its time.

[2] – Yi and Gao go back even farther in Chinese history. Gao Yao 皋陶 was a minister for the legendary rulers Shun 舜 and Yu the Great 大禹, and venerated as the founder of Chinese jurisprudence. Yi Yin 伊尹 was a key minister during the founding of the Shang Dynasty – the same position Liu Bowen would occupy later on.

[3] – Mr. Dongfang refers to Dongfang Shuo 東方朔, a satirist, comedian and official during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han 漢武帝 (r. 141 – 87 BC).

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