On Idleness 閒

In this essay on ideas related to and the celebration of ‘idleness’ 閒 in dynastic China, Duncan M. Campbell reflects on a heritage that, for long periods during China’s dark twentieth century, was beclouded by politics and social anomie.

閒 in the hand of Wen Zhengming 文徵明 of the Ming dynasty.
閒 in the hand of Wen Zhengming 文徵明 of the Ming dynasty.

From the late 1920s, a number of leading writers and cultural figures, including Zhou Zuoren 周作人 and Lin Yutang 林語堂, 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 traditions which Duncan discusses below. The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 竹林七賢, discussed elsewhere on this site, were also paragons.

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.

‘On Idleness 閒’ is the latest contribution to Heritage Glossary, itself a continuation of the China Heritage Glossary developed for China Heritage Quarterly in 2011-2012, an undertaking that was further added to with the creation in 2012 of The China Story Glossary. For more on the background of the Heritage Glossary, see here.

Geremie R. Barmé,
China Heritage
1 February 2017

On Idleness 閒

Duncan M. Campbell

How could I possibly enjoy this bounded life of mine were I not to spend it engaged in idle pursuits.

— Zhang Yanyuan 張彥遠 (ca.815-ca.877), ‘On the Connoisseurship, Collecting, Purchasing and Enjoyment of Paintings’ 論鑒識收藏購求閱玩, in A Record of Famous Painters Through the Ages 歷代名畫記

Say not that idle words be idle,
It is from idle words always that calamities arise.

— Wei Zhun 衛準, ‘Untitled’ 無題, The Complete Tang Poems 全唐詩

The single Chinese character that best encapsulates the range of meanings (and connotations) intended by the word ‘idleness’ in English (from Old English idel, meaning empty, void, or useless; from around 1652, spending or wasting time), 閑 xian in Standard Chinese, depicts a tree or a plank of wood 木 standing within a gate 門. The traditional etymological account of this character, as found in the Han-dynasty lexicographer Xu Shen’s 許慎 (58-ca.147) An Explanation of Characters Simple and Complex 說文解字, is that it represents a railing or sliding bar 闌 used to bolt the door of the gate shut. Originally, the character would thus had a series of related meanings: a horse stables, the norm or proper limits to behaviour, for instance.

'Gathering Crysanthemums' 采菊, by Chen Hongshou 陳洪綬 (1599-1652), from Scenes from the Life of Tao Yuanming 歸去來圖 (1650).
‘Gathering Crysanthemums’ 采菊, by Chen Hongshou 陳洪綬 (1599-1652), from Scenes from the Life of Tao Yuanming 歸去來圖 (1650).

Over time and by extension, in a manner characteristic of Chinese semantic development, the character 閑 acquired a range of verbal and adjectival meanings: to cut off, to become exhausted, to be familiar with, to prevent or to restrict, to be reckless, or to be late. Another character listed under the same 門 Gate Radical (#169), showing a moon 月 rather than a plank of wood inside the gate, thus 閒, is also often used in classical texts. When pronounced xian, it carried the same range of meanings; pronounced jian, however, it was inter-changeable with 間, a character depicting the sun 日 within the gate. Then, it had a range of entirely different and unrelated meanings.

The early Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi 莊子 made a pun using the visual difference between 閑 and 閒:

Great knowledge is idle, small knowledge is discriminative.

These two inter-changeable characters, 閑 and 閒, then, constitute a polysemy that reflects over time aspects of the traditional Chinese concept of ‘idleness’:

  • its worthlessness (a horse confined to the stable);
  • its seductive attractions;
  • its usages; and,
  • its pitfalls.

In ‘The Importance of Loafing’, Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895-1976), a writer who well understood idleness and its usages in Chinese, writes:

'Rousing the Dreaming Lover', 喚莊生, Summum Elegantium 風流絕唱 (1606).
‘Rousing the Dreaming Lover’, 喚莊生, Summum Elegantium 風流絕暢 (1606).

Culture, as I understand it, is essentially a product of idleness. The art of culture is therefore essentially the art of loafing. From the Chinese point of view, the man who is wisely idle is the most cultured man. For there seems to be a philosophic contradiction between being busy and being wise. Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise. The wisest man is therefore he who loafs most gracefully.

Lin goes on to cite Shu Paihsiang (Shu Menglan 舒夢蘭, 1796-1820), an obscure eighteenth-century author: ‘Idleness of time is like unoccupied floor space in a room’, before continuing: ‘It is that unoccupied space which makes a room habitable, as it is our idle hours which make life endurable.’ (From Lin’s The Importance of Living, 1938, p.163.)

In ‘A Chinese Critical Vocabulary’ [one of the inspirations of this Heritage Glossary — Ed.] under the heading ‘Types of Beauty Characteristic of Autumn’, Lin considers the word from an aesthetic angle:

hsien: 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. (The Importance of Living, pp.483-484.)

In ‘Human Life’ 人生, part of Zhang Chao’s 張潮 (b.1650) Shadows of Secluded Dreams 幽夢影, the author writes, in Lin Yutang’s translation:

Only those who take idly what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take idly. 能閒世人之所忙者方能忙世人之所閒。

Of all things, one enjoys idleness most, but not because one does nothing. Idleness confers upon one the freedom to read, to travel, to make friends, to drink, and to write. Where is there a greater pleasure than this? 人莫樂於閒,非為所事事之謂也。閒則能讀書。閒則能遊名勝。閒則能交益友。閒則能飲酒。閒則能著書。天下之樂孰大於是。

The vast store of what is regarded as the abiding material heritage of Chinese culture and civilisation — the works of calligraphy, landscape paintings, poetry — are the products of ‘idleness’, understood as both a reality (enforced upon one by the death of one’s parents — something that required a three-year period of mourning — exile from court or dismissal from office), but also as being a particular and cultivated state of mind.

Here is Zong Bing 宗炳 (375-443), the Southern Dynasties artist and theoretician of painting, writing about the art of ‘reading/ interpreting/ appreciating’ 讀 a painting in his famous ‘Preface to the Painting of Landscape’ 畫山水序:

Thereupon, dwelling in idleness I control my breathing, wipe clean my wine cup and strum my lute. All alone, I unroll a painting and sit facing it, my mind then reaching to the four quarters of the earth, not once leaving the bustling concentrations of human habitation, and I roam at will the deserted wilds where fine peaks soar aloft and cloud-locked forests extend as far as the eye can see. 於是閒居理氣,拂觴鳴琴,披圖幽對,坐究四荒,不違天勵之藂,獨應無人之野。峰岫嶢嶷,雲林森渺。

Perhaps the late-imperial figure who best embodied the spirit of idleness was the playwright, essayist, sometime publisher and occasional garden designer Li Yu 李漁 (李笠翁, 1610-1680), whose book, Where My Idle Feelings Occasionally Find their Lodging 閑情偶寄, engages idiosyncratically with various aspects of the art of life (preforming opera, writing lyrics, decorating one’s house, cooking, gardening, plants). Here is Li Yu, for instance, as he seeks to excuse his interest in such ‘minor arts’ 末技:

As I have had occasion to say before, there are two supreme arts 絕技 in life which, if one is incapable of them oneself, cannot it seems be mastered by others either, a matter for very considerable regret. ‘What are these two arts,’ my interlocutor asked on one occasion? ‘The first is a discriminating ear for music,’ I reply. ‘The other is the talent to build a garden’. 予嘗謂人曰:生平有兩絕技,自不能用,而人亦不能用之,殊可惜也。人問:絕技維何?予曰:一則辨審音樂,一則置造園亭。

I am congenitally addicted to the writing of lyrics and have produced quite a volume of work, as is well known throughout the realm. Were I to be given free rein, then I would pick my own troupe of actors and have them sing lyrics that I had myself written, training them myself and myself rehearsing their moves with them. In this way, I would transform the singing styles of the age. And not just with new lyrics, but I would also bring new worth to old plays by cutting from them all the old clichés and giving them a new shape, giving a whole set of authors a new lease of life. I have a particular knack for this. 性嗜填詞,每多撰著,海內共見之矣。設處得為之地,自選優伶,使歌自撰之詞曲,口授而躬試之,無論新裁之曲,可使迥異時腔,即舊日傳奇,一概刪其腐習而益以新格,為往時作者別開生面,此一技也。

'Scholar Visiting a Friend', Shao Mi 邵彌 (ca.1595-ca.1642).
‘Scholar Visiting a Friend’, Shao Mi 邵彌 (ca.1595-ca.1642).

With regards to the creation of a garden, this is a matter of suiting the design to the lie of the land, never working to fixed ideas. Each rafter and every strut needs to be considered anew, so that for anyone passing through the garden or entering its structures it will be as if they are reading one of my essays: I may lack sublime talent, but at least I offer readers a modicum of novelty, and so may, therefore, I trust, be considered an adornment even of an age of enlightenment and an empire of prosperity such as ours? Alas, I am grown old, no longer fit for purpose. Permit me, however, to put down on paper a general outline of my ideas, for those aficionados who may appreciate them. For me, were my ideas to prove at all useful, it would be as if my books have benefited from divine intervention. 一則創造園亭,因地制宜,不拘成見,一榱一桷,必令出自己裁,使經其地、入其室者,如讀湖上笠翁之書,雖乏高才,頗饒別致,豈非聖明之世,文物之邦,一點綴太平之具哉?噫,吾老矣,不足用也。請以崖略付之簡篇,供嗜痂者要擇。收其一得,如對笠翁,則斯編實為神交之助爾。

An object that encapsulates the complex resonances of the word ‘idle’ is the term used for an important device for self-identification: the book collectors’ seal, the xianzhang 閑章 (literally, ‘Idle Seal’), a moniker that can best be rendered as ‘Playful Seal’ in English. Whereas the legends carried by the other types of carved seal tended simply to provide information (the name or official post of the owner, name of the library in which the book was housed, aspects of the editorial process applied to the book etc.), the legend carved into a ‘Playful Seal’ could reflect any aspect of sentiment from the minatory to the edifying, to the aphoristic or the amusing.

The longest known such legend is that carved on the seal of the book collector Yang Jizhen 楊繼振 (1832-1893), a nineteenth-century Chinese bannerman 在旗漢人. It consists of 252 characters which, when pressed into a book, took up a full page.[1] That of the earlier Shaoxing collector Qi Chenghan 祁承熯 (also Kuangweng 曠翁, 1563-1628), illustrated here, reads:

'Collector's Seal, Qi Chenghan 祁承漢 (1563-1628).
Collector’s Seal, Qi Chenghan.

Tranquility Hall houses books. These volumes, the master collates and edits himself, by night and day. When reading them, he becomes so engrossed that he neglects to eat or sleep. Forever pawning his robes to acquire more books, his means can never supply his desires. Later generations will remember only his obsessions; his sons and grandsons, however, must add to this collection and never lose a volume. This is the motto of Kuangweng, the Old Man of Carefree Garden. 澹生堂中儲經籍,主人手校無朝夕。讀之欣然忘飲食,典衣市書恆不給。後人但念阿翁癖,子孫益之守弗失。曠翁銘。

Idleness, then, in this connection, as in others, is understood to require all the earnestness that only play can assume. It is a serious business/ busyness. In late-imperial China such business and busyness more often than not was conducted in a garden. I will conclude, therefore, this essay on being idle with one of the great Qing-dynasty encapsulations of the pleasures of idleness:

A Record of The Garden of My Mind 意園記

Dai Mingshi 戴名世 (1653-1713)

No such garden as the Garden of My Mind exists; it is simply the manifestation of an ideal. Doubtless, however, this garden would contain a couple of peaks, several qing 傾 of arable land, a single brook, a waterfall some ten zhang in height, a thousand trees and ten thousand bamboo plants. The master of this garden would be accompanied, always, by a thousand books, by a single serving boy, by his Qin zither and a pot of wine. 意園者,無是園也,意之如此雲耳。山數峰,田數傾,水一溪,瀑十丈,樹千章,竹萬個。主人攜書千卷,童子一人,琴一張,酒一甕。

This garden would have no paths within it and just as the master of the garden does not know the way out, neither would any other person know the way in. The garden’s plants would be both the Spring and the Summer varieties of the orchid, and the Chinese sweetflag; its flowers, the lotus, the chrysanthemum, the hibiscus and the white peony; its birds, the crane, the egret, the silver pheasant, the tern and the oriole. As to trees, it would contain pine, fir, flowering apricot, paulownia, peach and crab-apple. The music of the brook would be that of the Qin, the bell and the chime. Its rocks would be green or reddish brown; they would lie in repose or sour upward like a sheer cliff a hundred ren 仭 high. Its fields would be suitable for the cultivation of paddy or of glutinous millet, in its vegetable plots would grow celery, on its hillsides would be found turtle foot bracken, thorn-ferns, and bamboo shoots, and its pond would be full of duckweed. 其園無境,主人不知出,人不知入。其草若蘭,若蕙,若菖蒲,若薛荔。其花若荷,若菊,若芙蓉,若芍藥。其鳥若鶴,若鷺,若鷗,若黃鸝。樹則有松,有杉,有梅,有梧桐,有桃,有海棠。溪則為聲,如絲桐,如鐘,如磐。其石或青,或赭,或偃,或仰,或峭立百仭。其田宜稻,宜秫。其圃宜芹,其山有蕨,有薇,有筍。其池有荇。

The serving boy would spend his days chopping firewood, gathering the thorn-ferns and trapping fish. The master, for his part, would spend half his day reading and the remainder viewing the flowers, strumming his lute and drinking wine, listening to the bird song, the burble of the brook or the soughing of the pines, or observing the firmament above him, all with a delightful smile playing across his lips. Joyfully he would fall asleep, only to pass yet another day in this manner once he had awakened. 其童子伐薪,採薇,捕魚,主人以半日讀書,以半日看花,彈琴飲酒,聽鳥聲,松聲,水聲,觀太空,粲然而笑,怡然而睡,明日亦如之。

The years would slip by, the generations would come and go, but of such things he would be utterly unconscious. He would know neither the need to escape from his age nor the need to flee his home. The surname of the master of this garden would have been lost long ago, as too would his personal name have since fallen into obscurity. What age would it have been that he was a man of? Perhaps he would have lived during the time of the legendary Wuhuai. 歲幾更歟,代幾變歟,不知也。避世者歟,避地者歟,不知也。主人失其姓,晦其名。何氏之民,曰無懷氏之民也。

What would have been the name of his garden? It would have been called The Garden of My Mind. 其園為何,曰意園也。

'Venerable Friends', Xiang Shengmo 項聖謨 (1597-1658).
‘Venerable Friends’, Xiang Shengmo 項聖謨 (1597-1658).

Well might Dai Mingshi have sought — vainly, as it turned out — to find a refuge in the mists of most distant antiquity, beyond the time and space of dynastic China; in his case, we are fortunate to have even this account of his quest.

In one of the most infamous cases of literary persecution during the Qing dynasty and as a result of his interest in the history of the courts that survived the fall of the capital of Peking to the Manchus in 1644, a period now called the Southern Ming, in 1711, the emperor ordered that Dai Mingshi and all his associates, and their entire families, were to be executed: Dai, it turns out, had continued using Ming-dynasty reign titles to date his history, rather than adopting those of the new masters of the Qing.

In this case, fortunately, the emperor, the great Kangxi (1654-1722; r.1661-1722), then entering the last troubled decade of his rule, relented. In the end, only Dai was executed, and a long-dead associate was disinterred so his body could be dismembered in punishment. Their sons and families were banished to the northern wastelands. An interdiction on Dai’s writings imposed at that time remained in force until the mid-nineteenth century, when they finally appeared under a false name.


[1] The legend on Yang Jizhen’s Collector’s Seal reads:

予席先世之澤,有田可耕,有書可讀,自少及長,嗜之彌篤,積歲所得,益以青箱舊蓄,插架充棟,無慮數十萬卷。Resting upon the beneficence of my ancestors, I have had fields to plough and books to read. For as long as I can remember, it is the latter for which I have had a particular obsession, adding to my collection with every year, placing my new acquisitions between blue-covered cardboard boxes alongside earlier holdings, crowding already groaning shelves, with no fear now that my collection does not number in excess of several hundreds of thousands of volumes.

暇日靜念,差足自豪,顧書難聚易散,即偶聚於所好,越一二傳,其不散佚殆盡者,亦鮮矣。Reflecting quietly during leisurely days, I cannot help but be suffused by a sense of pride at my efforts, for if books are hard to acquire, all too easily do they disperse, and if they happen to come together in the hands of someone who is addicted to them, few are the collections that manage to avoid being entirely scattered once they have passed through one or two changes of ownership.

昔趙文敏有雲:Long ago [the Yuan dynasty painter and calligrapher] Zhao Mengfu [1254-1322] claimed that:

聚書藏書,良非易事,善觀書者,澄神端慮,淨幾焚香,勿倦腦,勿折角,勿以爪侵字,勿以唾揭幅,勿以作枕,勿以夾刺。‘Acquiring books and collecting books is surely no easy matter and those adept at reading books must do so only once they have cleansed their minds of all other extraneous concerns, wiped clean their desk and lit up some incense. Do not bend your books back along their spines, do not turn down the corners of their pages, do not try to scratch out characters with your fingernail, do not blow open the pages, do not use them as a pillow, do not insert bamboo bookmarks.’

予謂吳興數語,愛惜臻至,可雲篤矣,而未能推而計之於其終,清更言曰:These few words of Zhao’s show the extent to which he loved books and cherished them, yet even he could not ensure that his collection remained intact after his death. I have thus revised his argument, to read:

勿以鬻錢,勿以借人,勿以貽不肖子孫。 ‘Do not sell these books for money, do not lend them to others, and do not pass them on to unfilial sons and grandsons.’

星鳳堂主人楊繼振手識,並以告後之得是書而不能愛而守之者。I, the Master of the Hall of the Phoenix of the Stars, have written this injunction in my own hand, as a warning to whosoever may later acquire this book and fail to cherish and protect it.