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!



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.



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?’


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?


‘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.


‘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!’



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).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s