Occupied with Idleness

Readings in New Sinology


For my own part, I can never get enough Nothing to do.

G.K. Chesterton

xian: idleness, idly. A very much used word. Thus one’s ‘hands’ and ‘mind’ can both be ‘idle,’ or the hands may be idle while the mind is busy, or the mind may be idle while one’s hands are busy.

— Lin Yutang

In his introduction to Two Letters from The Stone (China Heritage, 19 March 2018) John Minford noted that:

As part of our recently completed Wairarapa Academy Symposium ‘Dreaming of the Manchus’ 八旗夢影, which took place at Longwood Estate near Featherston in late February this year, we held a number of informal Translation Salons 竹林譯苑. For these we prepared and distributed a series of Wairarapa Readings 白水札記.

The first Wairarapa Reading published by China Heritage featured two letters addressed to Jia Bao-yu 賈寶玉 in Chapter 37 of The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢 translated by David Hawkes. ‘Occupied with Idleness’, the second Wairarapa Reading in China Heritage, continues our mediation on the theme of Idleness by introducing works by Bo Yuchan 白玉蟾 of the Song dynasty, Li Mi’an 李密庵 of the Ming and Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆 of the Qing. They are all translated by Lin Yutang 林語堂 in The Importance of Living (1937).

As we noted in the introduction to Idleness 閒 in Heritage Glossary, from the late 1920s, a number of leading writers and cultural figures, including Zhou Zuoren 周作人 and Lin Yutang, through lectures, essays and edited works (books and journals) attempted to counter the narrow cultural nationalism and propagandist tenor both of elite and of mass culture that plagued radical and conservative politics alike. Instead of the mob mentality, or class conflict, they advocated ‘self-expression’ 性靈 and a ‘leisurely’ 閒適 style of intimate essay and prose writing, one in which the individual could find a voice. They identified cultural exemplars among international writers as well as in the Chinese tradition. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢, discussed elsewhere on this site, were also paragons. Lin Yutang in particular promoted a written language that embraced the belles lettres style of Ming and Qing prose and was able to express contemporary concerns. He called this yuluti 語錄體.

Partially preserved in post-1949 Taiwan-Chinese culture, the literature of leisure 閒適文學 and the pursuit of non-conformist self-expression eventually also found an outlet on Mainland China from the 1980s. The de-militarisation of society (but not politics) from that time, and the surge in mercantile pursuits meant that Other China — one not entirely beholden to the Communist party-state — could seek and find succour in a revival of long-forgotten literary tastes and personal styles.

Writers like Zhou Zuoren and Lin Yutang were derided for their escapism and frivolous, indulgent concern for what the artist and essayist Feng Zikai 豐子愷 called ‘protecting the heart’ 護心. Their work, once decried as ‘idle pursuits’ 閒情逸致 has outlived the furiously busy revolutionaries and the evanescent politics of their day. It resonates with readers still.


In ‘A Way of Living’ written in 1995, Simon Leys remarks:

From the earliest antiquity, leisure was always regarded as the condition of all civilised endeavours. Confucius said: ‘The leisure from learning should be devoted to politics and the leisure from politics should be devoted to learning.’ Government responsibility and scholarly wisdom were the twin prerogatives of a gentleman and both were rooted in leisure. The Greeks developed a similar concept — they called it scholê; this word literally means the state of a person who belongs to himself, who has free disposition of himself and therefore: rest, leisure; and therefore, also, the way in which leisure is used: study, learning; or the place where study and learning are conducted: study-room, school (actually scholê is the etymology of ‘school’). In ancient Greece, politics and wisdom were the exclusive province of the free men, who alone enjoyed leisure. Leisure was not only the indisputable attribute of ‘the good life’, it was also the defining mark of a free man. In one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates asks rhetorically: ‘Are we slaves, or do we have leisure?’ — for there was a well-known proverb that said: ‘Slaves have no leisure.’

From Greece, the notion passed to Rome; the very concept of artes liberales again embodies the association between cultural pursuits and the condition of a free man (liber), as opposed to that of a slave, whose skills pertain to the lower sphere of practical and technical activity. …

Now the ironical paradox of our age, of course, is that the wretched lumpenproletariat is cursed with the enforced leisure of demoralising and permanent unemployment, whereas the educated elite, whose liberal professions have been turned into senseless money-making machines, are condemning themselves to the slavery of endless working hours — till they collapse like overloaded beasts of burden.

— The Angel & the Octopus, 1999, pp.276-278


Readings in New Sinology celebrate the variety and vivacity of China’s literary heritage while engaging with aspects of contemporary China. The readings introduces literary texts and translations that are aimed at students of traditional Chinese letters as well as modern China who are interested in the rich cultural world that lies beyond the narrow confines and demands of contemporary institutional pedagogy and media punditry. They also reflect our long-term interest in ‘cultivation’ 修養.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
23 March 2018


  • Standard Chinese Hanyu pinyin romanisation is used throughout. — Ed.

The Hall of Idleness

Bo Yuchan 白玉蟾


The translator Lin Yutang says this inscription is ‘a rather extravagant example of the praise for idleness’, but he writes that:

The idle life, so far from being the prerogative of the rich and powerful and successful …, was in China an achievement of high-mindedness, a high-mindedness very near to the Western conception of the dignity of the tramp who is too proud to ask favours, too independent to go to work, and too wise to take the world’s successes too seriously. This high-mindedness came from, and was inevitably associated with, a certain sense of detachment toward the drama of life; it came from the quality of being able to see through life’s ambitions and follies and the temptations of fame and wealth.

— The Importance of Living, p.158

The Hall of Idleness

I’m too lazy to read the Taoist classics,
for Tao doesn’t reside in the books;

Too lazy to look over the sutras,
for they go no deeper in Tao than its looks.

The essence of Tao consists in
a void, clear and cool,

But what is this voice except being
the whole day like a fool?

Too lazy am I to read poetry,
for when I stop, the poetry will be gone;

Too lazy to play on the ch’in,
for music dies on the string where it’s born;

Too lazy to drink wine, for beyond
the drunkard’s dream there are rivers and lakes;

Too lazy to play chess,
for besides the pawns there are other stakes;

Too lazy to look at the hills and streams,
for there is a painting within my heart’s portals;

Too lazy to face the wind and the moon,
for within me is the Isle of the Immortals;

Too lazy to attend to worldly affairs,
for inside me are my hut and possessions;

Too lazy to watch the chaining of the seasons,
for within there are heavenly processions.

Pine trees may decay and rocks may rot;
but I shall always remain what I am.

Is it not fitting that I call this
The Hall of Idleness?
















— translated by Lin Yutang


The Half-and-Half Song

Li Mi’an 李密庵


‘The Half-and-Half Song’ by the Qing-era writer Li Mi’an was, like the poem by Bo Yuchan above, celebrated and translated by Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living. The Chinese version of Lin’s book has introduced contemporary readers to these, and other, long-forgotten works. As Lin observes when introducing Li’s poem:

We have here, then, a compounding of Taoistic cynicism with the Confucian positive outlook into a philosophy of the half-and-half. And because man is born between the real earth and the unreal heaven, I believe that, however unsatisfactory it may seem on the first look to a Westerner, with his incredibly forward-looking point of view, it is still the best philosophy, because it is the most human.

— The Importance of Living, pp.117-118

Li Mi’an’s ‘Half-and-Half Song’ in the hand of Lin Yutang

The Half-and-Half Song

By far the greater half have I seen through
This floating life — ah, there’s the magic word —
This ‘half’ — so rich in implications.
It bids us taste the joy of more than we
Can ever own. Halfway in life is man’s
Best state, when slackened pace allows him ease.
A wide world lies halfway ‘twixt heaven and earth;
To live halfway between the town and land,
Have farms halfway between the streams and hills;
Be half-a-scholar, and half-a-squire, and half
In business; half as gentry live,
And half related to the common folk;
And have a house that’s half genteel, half plain,
Half elegantly furnished and half bare;
Dresses and gowns that are half old, half new,
And food half epicure’s, half simple fare;
Have servants not too clever, nor too dull;
A wife who is not too ugly, nor too fair.
— So then, at heart, I feel I’m half a Buddha,
And almost half a Taoist fairy blest.
One half myself to Father Heaven I
Return; the other half to children leave —
Half thinking how for my posterity
To plan and provide, and yet minding how
To answer God when the body’s laid at rest.
He is most wisely drunk who is half drunk;
And flowers in half-bloom look their prettiest;
As boats at half-sail sail the steadiest,
And horses held at half-slack reins trot best.
Who half too much has, adds anxiety,
But half too little, adds possession’s zest.
Since life’s of sweet and bitter compounded,
Who tastes but half is wise and cleverest.



translated by Lin Yutang


Thirty-three Happy Moments

Jin Shengtan 金聖嘆


Jin Shengtan, that great impressionistic critic of the seventeenth century, has given us, between his commentaries on the play Western Chamber 西廂記, an enumeration of the happy moments which he once counted together with his friend when they were shut up in a temple for ten days on account of rainy weather. These, then, are what he considers the truly happy moments of human life, moments in which the spirit is inextricably tied up with the senses:

1. It is a hot day in June when the sun hangs still in the sky and there is not a whiff of wind in the air, nor a trace of clouds; the front and back yards are hot like an oven and not a single bird dares to fly about. Perspiration flows down my whole body in little rivulets. There is the noonday meal before me, but I cannot take it for the sheer heat. I ask for a mat to spread on the ground and lie down, but the mat is wet with moisture and flies swarm about to rest on my nose and refuse to be driven away. Just at this moment when I am completely helpless, suddenly there is a rumbling of thunder and big sheets of black clouds overcast the sky and come majestically on like a great army advancing to battle. Rain-water begins to pour down from the eaves like a cataract. The perspiration stops. The clamminess of the ground is gone. All flies disappear to hide themselves and I can eat my rice. Ah, is this not happiness?

2. A friend, one I have not seen for ten years, suddenly arrives at sunset. I open the door to receive him, and without asking whether he came by boat or by land, and without bidding him to sit on the bed or the couch, I go to the inner chamber and ask my wife: ‘Have you got a gallon of wine like Su Tungp’o’s wife?’ My wife gladly takes out her gold hairpin to sell it. I calculate it will last us three days. Ah, is this not happiness?

3. I am sitting alone in an empty room and I am just getting annoyed at a little mouse at the head of my bed, and wondering what that little rustling sound signifies – what article of mine he is biting or what volume of my books he is eating up. While I am in this state of mind and don’t know what to do, I suddenly see a ferocious-looking cat, wagging its tail and staring with its wide-open eyes, as if it were looking at something. I hold my breath and wait a moment, keeping perfectly still, and suddenly with a little sound the mouse disappears like a whiff of wind. Ah, is this not happiness?

4. I have pulled out the haitang [crab-apple] and zijing [Chinese redbud] (flowering trees) in front of my studio, and have just planted ten or twenty green banana trees there. Ah, is this not happiness?

5. I am drinking with some romantic friends on a spring night and am just half intoxicated, finding it difficult to stop drinking and equally difficult to go on. An understanding boy servant at the side suddenly brings in a package of big fire-crackers, about a dozen in number, and I rise from the table and go and fire them off. The smell of sulphur assails my nostrils and enters my brain and I feel comfortable all over my body. Ah, is this not happiness?

6. I am walking in the street and see two poor rascals engaged in a hot argument of words with their faces flushed and their eyes staring with anger as if they were mortal enemies, and yet they still pretend to be ceremonious to each other, raising their arms and bending their waists in salute, and still using the most polished language of thou and thee and wherefore and is it not so? The flow of words is interminable. Suddenly there appears a big husky fellow swinging his arms and coming up to them, and with a shout tells them to disperse. Ah, is this not happiness?

7. To hear our children recite the classics so fluently, like the sound of water pouring from a vase. Ah, is this not happiness?

8. Having nothing to do after a meal I go to the shops and take a fancy to a little thing. After bargaining for some time, we still haggle about a small difference, but the shop-boy still refuses to sell it. Then I take out a little thing from my sleeve, which is worth about the same thing as the difference and throw it at the boy. The boy suddenly smiles and bows courteously saying, ‘Oh, you are too generous!’ Ah, is this not happiness?

9. I have nothing to do after a meal and try to go through the things in some old trunks. I see there are dozens of IOUs from people who owe my family money. Some of them are dead and some still living, but in any case there is no hope of their returning the money. Behind people’s backs I put them together in a pile and make a bonfire of them, and I look up to the sky and see the last trace of smoke disappear. Ah, is this not happiness?

10. It is a summer’s day. I go bareheaded and barefooted, holding a parasol, to watch young people singing Soochow folksongs while treading the water-wheel. The water comes up over the wheel in a gushing torrent like molten silver or melting snow. Ah, is this not happiness?

11. I wake up in the morning and seem to hear someone in the house sighing and saying that last night someone died. I immediately ask to find out who it is, and learn that it is the sharpest, most calculating fellow in town. Ah, is this not happiness? 其十一:朝眠初覺,似聞家人嘆息之聲,言某人夜來已死。急呼而訊之,正是一城中第一絕有心計人。不亦快哉。

12. I get up early on a summer morning and see people sawing a large bamboo pole under a mat-shed, to be used as a water-pipe. Ah, is this not happiness? 其十二:夏月早起,看人於松棚下,鋸大竹作筩用。不亦快哉。

13. It has been raining for a whole month and I lie in bed in the morning like one drunk or ill, refusing to get up. Suddenly I hear a chorus of birds announcing a clear day. Quickly I pull aside the curtain, push open a window and see the beautiful sun shining and glistening and the forest looks like it’s having a bath. Ah, is this not happiness?

14. At night I seem to hear someone thinking of me in the distance. The next day I go to call on him. I enter his door and look about his room and see that this person is sitting at his desk, facing south, reading a document. He sees me, nods quietly and pulls me by the sleeve to make me sit down, saying, ‘Since you are here, come and look at this.’ And we laugh and enjoy ourselves until the shadows on the walls have disappeared. He is feeling hungry himself and slowly asks me, ‘Are you hungry, too?’ Ah, is this not happiness?

15. Without any serious intention of building a house of my own, I happened, nevertheless, to start building one because a little sum had unexpectedly come my way. From that day on, every morning and every night, I was told that I needed to buy timber and stone and tiles and bricks and mortar and nails. And I explored and exhausted every avenue of getting some money, all on account of this house, until I got sort of resigned to this state of things. One day, finally, the house is completed, the walls have been whitewashed and the floors swept clean; the paper windows have been pasted and scrolls and paintings are hung up on the walls. All the workmen have left, and my friends have arrived, sitting on different couches in order. Ah, is this not happiness?

16. I am drinking on a winter’s night, and suddenly note that the night has turned extremely cold. I push open the window and see that snowflakes come down the size of a palm and there are already three or four inches of snow on the ground. Ah, is this not happiness?

17. To cut with a sharp knife a bright green water-melon on a big scarlet plate of a summer afternoon. Ah, is this not happiness?

18. I have long wanted to become a monk, but was worried because I would not be permitted to eat meat. If, then, I could be permitted to eat meat publicly, why, then I could heat a basin of hot water, and with the help of a sharper razor, shave my head clean in a summer month! Ah, is this not happiness?

19. To keep three or four spots of eczema in a private part of my body and now and then to scald or bathe it with hot water behind closed doors. Ah, is this not happiness?

20. To find accidentally a handwritten letter of some old friend in a trunk. Ah, is this not happiness?

21. A poor scholar comes to borrow money from me, but is shy about mentioning the topic, and so he allows the conversation to drift along on other topics. I see his uncomfortable situation, pull him aside to a place where we are alone and ask him how much he needs. Then I go inside and give him the sum and after having done this, I ask him: ‘Must you go immediately to settle this matter or can you stay awhile and have a drink with me?’ Ah, is this not happiness?

22. I am sitting in a small boat. There is a beautiful wind in our favour, but our boat has no sails. Suddenly there appears a big lorcha, coming along as fast as the wind. I try to hook on to the lorcha in the hope of catching on to it, and unexpectedly the hook does catch. Then I throw over a rope and we are towed along and I begin to sing the lines of Tu Fu: ‘The green makes me feel tender towards the peaks, and the red tells me there are oranges.’ And we break out in joyous laughter. Ah, is this not happiness?

23. I have long been looking for a house to share with a friend but have not been able to find a suitable one. Suddenly, someone brings news that there is a house somewhere, not too big, but with only about a dozen rooms, and that it faces a big river with beautiful green trees around. I ask this man to stay for supper, and after the supper we go over together to have a look, having no idea what the house is like. Entering the gate, I see that there is a large vacant lot, and I say to myself, ‘I shall not have to worry about the supply of vegetables and melons henceforth.’ Ah, is this not happiness?

24. A traveller returns home after a long journey, and he sees the old city gate and hears the women and children on both banks of the river talking in his own dialect. Ah, is this not happiness?

25. When a good piece of old porcelain is broken, you know there is no hope of repairing it. The more you turn it about and look at it, the more you are exasperated. I then hand it to the cook, and give orders that he shall never let that broken porcelain bowl come within my sight again. Ah, is this not happiness?

26. I am not a saint, and am therefore not without sin. In the night I did something wrong and I get up in the morning and feel extremely ill at ease about it. Suddenly I remember what is taught by Buddhism, that not to cover one’s sins is the same as repentance. So then I begin to tell my sin to the entire company around, whether they are strangers or my old friends. Ah, is this not happiness?

27. To watch someone writing big characters a foot high. Ah, is this not happiness?

28. To open the window and let a wasp out from the room. Ah, is this not happiness?

29. A magistrate orders the beating of the drum and calls it a day. Ah, is this not happiness?

30. To see someone’s kite-line broken. Ah, is this not happiness?

31. To see a wild prairie fire. Ah, is this not happiness?

32. To have just finished repaying all one’s debts. Ah, is this not happiness?

33. To read the Story of Curly-Beard (who gave up his house to a pair of eloping lovers then disappeared). Ah, is this not happiness?

Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living, pp.135-140

‘Pride worn down by constant bowing, ambition washed away in endless drinking’, a couplet in the hand of Jin Shengtan, Fourth Day of the Second Month of the Wuzi Year of the Shunzhi Reign (1648)