Superfluous Words from a Nanking Salon

Wairarapa Readings


Wairarapa Readings celebrate the variety and vivacity of China’s literary heritage. They introduce literary texts and translations aimed at students of traditional Chinese letters who are interested in the rich cultural world that lies beyond the narrow confines and demands of contemporary institutional pedagogy. They also reflect the long-term interest of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology in ‘cultivation’ 修養.

The following translation by William Sima, a participant in the February 2018 Wairarapa Academy Symposium ‘Dreaming of the Manchus’ 八旗夢影, also appears in China Heritage Annual 2017: Nanking. Will is presently engaged in research on Chu Anping 儲安平 and the fate of China’s independent intelligentsia.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 April 2018



Duncan M. Campbell


Cities, always, are more than bricks and mortar, gates and walls, formal histories and grand historical narratives. They are also the smells and sounds of the marketplaces, the whispered confidences of the lanes and alleyways, the bustle and shouted confrontations of the high streets; the ‘rumours of the lanes and the gossip of the streets’ 巷議街談, as the Chinese puts it, are all too often forgotten to history.

As Italo Calvino reminds us:

With cities it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

— Invisible Cities

Only rarely is a city’s evanescent lifeblood as effectively captured as that of Nanking in Gu Qiyuan’s (顧起元, 1565-1628) ‘Informal’ or ‘Wild History’ 野史 Superfluous Words from My Salon 客座贅語. The ‘Preface’ to the text is dated 1617, the forty-fifth year of the long reign of the Wanli emperor (r. 1572-1620), and the work was published the following year.

Gu Qiyuan was born in Nanking and, following remarkable examination success in 1598 (he came third in the Palace Examination of that year, having topped the Provincial Examination the previous year), he was to spend most of his successful career serving in the city, rising to the position of Vice Minister on the Left in the Ministry of Personnel 吏部左侍郎 and, concurrently, Academician Reader-in-Waiting in the Hanlin Academy 翰林院侍讀學士.[1] It is at this point in his life, aged in his early fifties and seemingly destined for the highest office, that for our purposes his story becomes most interesting. Whether occasioned by the melancholy and ill-health spoken of in his Preface (see below) or by reason of his increasing obsession with his self-appointing task of lovingly recording of the details of his native place, Gu quit office and lived in retirement in his garden, styling himself the Layman of the Garden of Escape 遯園居士. A friend named one of the buildings in the garden the Pavilion of Seven Summons to Resume Office 七召亭, but Gu refused all approaches to return to government service and, for the following decade, inbetween bouts of entertaining, he devoted himself to writing. As a host, he appears to have been attentive, curious and ever welcoming; a frequent guest, for instance, was the Portuguese Jesuit João da Rocha (1565-1623), then recently arrived in the city (he introduced Gu to sago that was ‘whiter than snow’).

Gu would have his amanuensis record what his guests told him about the city and its history lest such ‘irrelevant superfluousness’ 贅語 be lost. As anecdotist he reworked the transcriptions evincing a fine and precise pen. He offers, for example, the following description of an earlier Jesuit visitor, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610):

His face was finely featured, his beard curly, the pupils of his deep-set eyes as yellow as those of a cat. 面皙虯鬚深目而睛黃如貓.

Of particular interest is the extent to which the conversations that animated Gu Qiyuan’s salon focussed on the physical traces of the city’s lost glories which dated from the Six Dynasties (220-589), or when it served as capital of the Southern Tang dynasty (937-976), both eras which feature elsewhere in China Heritage Annual 2017: Nanking (see, for example, David Hawkes, The Age of Exuberance). When, in the face of northern incursions, the court of the Song dynasty (1127-1279) established a new capital at what was then called Lin’an 臨安 or Temporary Peace (now Hangzhou), Nanking (then known as Jiankang 建康 or Prosperity Established) became the auxiliary capital, and the former Southern Tang palace buildings were restored. In Gu Qiyuan’s day, the city was once more a Secondary Capital 留都 (as noted in detail elsewhere), the Yongle emperor (r. 1402-1424) having had the capital moved north to Peking following his usurpation of the throne. Several decades after Gu’s death, the city was again to fall to northern and ‘barbarian’ invaders — the Manchu Qing army — and thereafter it remained a subsidiary city until the end of China’s dynastic history.


Some years ago, I had the great pleasure of spending long and fruitful hours with Will Sima as we engaged in the close reading of this remarkable text, one that is about a city that he too had learned to love. The extracts below offer eloquent testimony to his labours, his linguistic skills, and his developing talents as a translator. It struck me then, powerfully, that the opportunity afforded both to student and teacher by such intensive and often individual summer reading courses to explore and to discover represented an instance of the best Sinological education that The Australian National University could then provide.[2]



[1] For a short biography of Gu Qiyuan by Lienche Tu Fang, see L. Carrington Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368-1644, New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1976, Vol.1, pp.734-736.

[2] See also William Sima, China & ANU: diplomats, adventurers, scholars, Canberra: ANU Press, 2015 (as a downloadable PDF)

Superfluous Words from a
Nanking Salon

Gu Qiyuan 顧起元

 Translated by William P. Sima



In recent times although I have been bedevilled by melancholy and ill-health, I often entertain in my salon. Knowing my life-long interest in the affairs of this city of ours, my visitors take great pleasure vying with each other in the recounting of tales of its past and indulging my curiosity with the latest news. There are always one or two matters in our conversation that prove so surprising and absurd that we are reduced to gales of laughter. It is also frequently the case that my guests raise matters that could well help correct our local archives and supplement the accounts of the record-keepers. 余頃年多愁多病,客之常在座者,熟余生平好訪求桑梓間故事,則爭語往蹟近聞以相娛,間出一二驚奇誕怪者以助驩笑,至可裨益地方與夫考訂載籍者,亦往往有之。

As I sit and listen I fret that I may forget some details, so I have an amanuensis take it all down, although what has been record is but a fraction of the total. Now I have ordered the material into a volume and, and in light of their content and their provenance, I call it Superfluous Words from My Salon. 余歸置於耳,不忍遽忘於心,時命侍者筆諸赫蹄,然什不能一二也。既成帙,因命之曰客座贅語。

The work is ‘superfluous’ 贅 since its contents reflect the casual and irrelevant nature of our exchanges—conversations superfluous and irrelevant in their very irrelevant superfluousness. Still, it would be a shame if gossip was forgotten to posterity, so I thought it only proper to collect them here. 贅之為言屬也,又會也,屬而會之,俾勿遺佚,余之於此義若有合焉。

‘But in the time of the Qin and the Han’, I hear one of my more disparaging visitors protest, ‘the expression zhui xu 贅婿 described a despicable lowlife; now it’s a term that means ‘a son-in-law who lives with his wife’s parents’: quite literally a superfluous son. ‘Moreover’, he continued, ‘Laozi described things despised by all beings as “scraps of food” 餘食 and “growths on the body” 贅行. And Zhuangzi spoke of “swelling tumours and protruding wens” 附贅縣疣 as being akin to a boil that needed bursting. Yet you go on about such things!’ 或曰:「秦漢間語人之所賤簡者曰『贅婿』,老子語物之或惡者曰『餘食贅行』,莊周氏語疾之當決去者曰『附贅縣疣』,子之為此語也,又多乎哉!」

Despondent and slumping at my writing desk I am at a loss as to how to respond. Although I have tentatively recorded these Superfluous Words from My Salon, I am now sure that the following pages will only be good for papering over the mouths of sauce jars. 余隱几嗒然,無以應也。姑籍而存之,以供覆瓿。

Recorded during the spring of the fifth month of the Dingsi year of the reign of the Wanli emperor [1617] by the Layman of the Garden of Escape. 萬曆丁巳夏五遯園居士書。


Of the aphorisms often heard in the lanes and alleyways of Nanking, many delight with a certain crude enjoyment. I have recorded a number of them down in random fashion: 南都閭巷中常諺,往往有粗俚而可味者,漫記數則。

‘Those who neglect to offer incense when times are easy will grovel at the Buddha’s feet when the going gets tough.’ 如曰「閑時不燒香,忙時抱佛腳」。

‘Rekindle burnt-out stoves, just as you would warm yourself by blazing ovens.’ 曰「熱灶一把,冷灶一把」。

‘Setting the table is easier than entertaining the guests; playing the host is easier than making people really feel at home.’ 曰「辦酒容易請客難,請客容易款客難」。

‘Forgive a man his blunders and you will later be forgiven in kind.’ 曰「饒人不是痴,過后得便宜」。

‘Man proposes, heaven disposes.’ 曰「人算不如天算」。

‘Catching a thief is not as good as being able to let one go.’ 曰「捉賊不如放賊」。

‘A respectful groom never returns to dine in his parent’s home; filial brides do not ask after the clothes of their maiden years.’ 曰「好男不吃分時飯,好女不穿嫁時衣」。

‘Naturally fragrant is the musk-deer’s scent; need he face the wind so it can carry further?’ 曰「有麝自然香,何必當風立」。

‘With three square meals a day and a good night’s sleep, one will live like Amitābha [the Buddha of Longevity].’ 曰「日食三餐,夜眠一覺,無量壽佛」。

‘Heed not the monk; face the Buddha.’ 曰「不看僧面看佛面」。

‘Husbands and wives are the firewood and rice that keeps the home together; fair-weathered friends are the fine meats and wine of a merry banquet; family and relatives are life’s beautifully wrapped gifts that make it all worthwhile.’ 曰「柴米夫妻,酒肉朋友,盒兒親戚」。

‘Lofty dragons are powerless in dealing with lowly snakes [local tyrants].’ 曰「強龍不壓地頭蛇」。

‘A lamp shone on others leaves its holder in the dark.’ 曰「燈台照人不照己」。

‘Not for the wine upon his lip, but from man’s mind do his blunders slip.’ 曰「酒在口頭,事在心頭」。

‘To help others is to help oneself.’ 曰「與人方便,自己方便」。

‘Keep you head low and you will be regarded highly.’ 曰「若要好,大做小」。

‘The man who toils reaps mounds of spoils.’ 曰「吃得虧,做一堆」。

‘Frustrations make the body wane; laughter makes it young again.’ 曰「惱一惱,老一老﹔笑一笑,少一少」。

‘Even the most vibrant peony flower needs its plain green leaves for sustenance.’ 曰「牡丹雖好,綠葉扶持」。

‘Well-cooked food is delicious to eat, but over-cooked words are a nuisance.’ 曰「鍋頭飯好吃,過頭話難說」。

‘Domestic chooks can weather repeated battering; wild ones fly off at the first sign of a scrap.’ 曰「家雞打的團團轉,野雞打的貼天飛」。

‘A fence-post set in muddy earth will only sink deeper if shaken.’ 曰「爛泥搖樁,越搖越深」。

Such sayings lack sophistication, but they contain kernels of wisdom about mankind and human affairs; words which appear shallow deserve consideration. 此言雖俚,然於人情世事有至理存焉,邇言所以當察也。

The Imperial Palace of the Southern Tang 南唐宫阙

The old Southern Tang imperial palace stood just to the north of the place where the Inner Bridge is today; an area which now houses the magistrate’s garrison of the Shangyuan district, in Concubine Lu’s Lane. It is said that the Inner Bridge used to run straight to the main gate of the palace, and that when a temporary residence or the Emperor was built here during the Southern Song, its name was changed to Heaven’s Ford Bridge. 南唐故宮在今內橋北,上元縣中兵馬司盧妃巷是其地。相傳內橋為宮之正門所直,南宋行宮亦在此地,改內橋為天津橋。

To the north of the bridge there is a grand avenue that runs from east to west for several hundred metres, and two bridges, East Rainbow Arch and West Rainbow Arch. The East Arch begins on the eastern side of Shangyuan district, and running north, meets Children’s Bridge, where there are remains of the ancient Flatstone waterway. The West Arch runs north from the western end of Concubine Lu’s Lane and, after passing by resident’s houses, reaches a garden, where there are also remnants of the historic Flatstone waterway. The locals say that this was called Dragon’s Guard Moat during the Southern Tang. 而橋北大街,東西相距數百步,有東虹、西虹二橋,東虹自上元縣左,北達娃娃橋,有石嵌古河遺跡;西虹在盧妃巷大西,穿人家屋而北達園地,亦有石嵌河跡。土人言:此南唐護龍河者是也。

Heading north for about one li from Concubine Lu’s Lane lies yet another bridge, also called Rainbow Arch, and the water moving through the East and West Arches, along with the main arteries of traffic and communication, flowed through here. 自盧妃巷北, 直走里許,又有一橋,亦名虹橋,而東虹、西虹兩橋北達之水,環絡交帶,俱綰轂於此。

Because one can discern their course even now, it is easy to imagine the [network of] canals and waterways inside the grounds of the palace in the Southern Tang. Over time they have silted up never to flow again. 想當日宮內小河四周相通,形跡顯明,第近多堙塞,不復流貫耳。

The Southern Tang Capital 南唐都城

The capital of the Southern Tang was bordered to the south by Changgan Bridge, and by North Gate Bridge to the north. Viewed from the south, the city’s features were defined by Rain-flower Terrace in the foreground, and to the rear, the northern reaches of the city rest against the slopes of Mount Chicken-coop. To the east lies Bell Mountain; to the west, the old Blacksmith’s Citadel and Stone Hill. There are ranges of dense, closely-set mountains in every direction, with open space in the middle. 南唐都城,南止於長干橋,北止於北門橋。蓋其形局,前倚雨花台,後枕雞籠山,東望鐘山,而西帶冶城、石頭。四顧山巒,無不攢簇,中間最為方幅。

Following South Avenue down from the Inner Bridge, one reaches the Placid River Bridge and the southern gates of the city, where government officials and treasurers of all kinds huddle on both sides of the narrow street, beneath the eves of administrative buildings which stretch to the sky like the wings of great birds. When one considers this orientation and planning of the city after the establishment of the Southern Tang, it seems clear that it was well considered. 而內橋以南大衢直達鎮淮橋與南門,諸司庶府,拱夾左右,垣局翼然。當時建國規摹,其經畫亦不苟矣。

We might recall the words of Chen Tongfu: ‘Taicheng — an important administrative area in the north-east of the city, formerly home to the imperial palace during the Eastern Jin and Southern Dynasties — is surrounded by Tabletop Ridge on the eastern side, which provides security; Stone Hill to the west of the city is an important strategic point; Xuanwu Lake defines its border; and Qinhuai River and Mossy Creek rivers restrict access for strategic purposes.’ 因思陳同甫言:台城東環平岡以為安,西城石頭以為重,帶玄武湖以為險,擁秦淮、青溪以為阻。

The area to the northeast of the Southern Tang imperial palace (what is today the Shangyuan district) houses the Imperial Barracks and Huapai Pagoda, among other notable buildings. Chen Lunan’s Jinling Topography provides evidence that the War Minister’s Gate, at the time of the Six Dynasties, was at Zhongzheng Road. The Six Dynasties Capital stretched as far east as Baixia Bridge, which is called Dazhong Bridge these days; but given that Zhongzheng Road runs very close to Dazhong Bridge, I have doubts as to whether Taicheng could have been located in area. 而地當南唐宮之東北,在今上元縣東北府軍倉、花牌樓等地。陳魯南金陵圖考證六朝大司馬門在中正街。案六朝都城東阻於白下橋,即今 之大中橋也,中正街距大中橋甚近,台城偏倚一隅,恐難立止。

There are other records which claim the old Six Dynasties capital stretched as far as far north as Mount Chicken-coop and Capsized Boat Hill, and other mountains in that area. I am afraid this, too, could be incorrect: the four tombs of the first Emperor of Jin, the Ming, Cheng, and Ai Emperors, all rest at the foot of Mount Chicken-coop, and so if it really were the case that the city was surrounded by mountains, it follows that the tombs could not have been situated at the city’s border, as custom dictates. 記又言:六朝都城,北據雞籠、覆舟等山。亦恐誤。晉元帝、明帝、成帝、哀帝四陵並在雞籠山下, 若城帶諸山,恐無倚城起陵之理。

I assume that the capital of the Six Dynasties would have been like that of the Southern Tang, with the south end of North Gate Bridge marking its northern border. And given that Faerie’s Patch, Opulent Grove and Joyous Wandering gardens were most likely part of the Emperor’s summer palace outside the city walls, they would surely not have been enclosed within the city walls. 余臆斷六朝都城亦當如南唐,北止於北門橋之南岸;玄圃、華林、樂游諸苑,或是城外離宮,未必盡括城內也。

Delicacies 珍物

The delights of Jinling fruit:

The dates that grow at Yao Mill Gate can reach a size of about two inches and have scarlet skin the colour of blood, while some are a greenish-yellow with reddish gild, and it is truly a treat for the eyes when these dates of varying hues are mixed together. With a snow-white pulp which glistens like white jade and honey-sweet fragrance, these dates so crisp and soft that they would split apart should they fall to the ground. Lüjia Mountain, an area of more than 10 mu which encompasses Yao Mill Gate, is the only place suitable for growing dates of this quality; vines that have been transplanted to other areas always yield fruit of inferior quality. 姚坊門棗,長可二寸許,膚赤如血,或青黃與朱錯,駁犖可愛,瓤白踰珂雪,味甘於蜜,實脆而鬆,墮地輒碎。惟呂家山方幅十餘畝為然,它地即不爾, 移本它地種亦不爾。

The lotus root that grows in the Lake Ponds can grow to be as thick as a sturdy man’s arm, and retain their sweet, crisp flavour until you chew them to a pulp. No other lotus roots grown in Jiangnan can rival the quality of what grows here. 湖池藕,巨如壯夫之臂而甘脆亡查滓,即江南所出,形味盡居其下。

The renowned red water chestnuts of Daban district settle on the tongue like falling snowflakes, and seem to melt before you even get the chance to sink your teeth into them. 大板紅菱,入口如冰雪,不待咀唼而化。

The cherries grown at Spirit Valley Temple are unique for their size, and have a texture that shines like ruby. Their fragrance is sweet and their seed small, and they have a beautiful shape similar to ‘hook-nose’ peaches. ‘Now these are real cherries!’, visitors to the cheery orchards often remark. 靈谷寺所產櫻桃獨大,色爛若紅靺鞨,味甘美,小核,其形如勾鼻桃。園客曰:「此乃真櫻桃也。」

The ‘duck’s pear’ grown here is also larger than the produce of other areas. When these are stewed slowly its colour turns to the green of smelted glass. Their flavour is far superior to the gingko of anywhere else, and in the deep of autumn the locals use the gingko leaves to spice their tea, turning it into a delicious drink. 又鴨梨子亦巨於它產,實糯而甘,以火煨之,色青碧如玻璃,香味冠絕。秋深都人點茶,以此為勝。

The local fish are also a delight:

Herring come out in April at about the time the cuckoo birds start to call; local fisherman take their call as a sign that fishing can begin. Most prized for their scales, herring paddle the lowest depths of the river, and the best method of catching them is to cast a net and allow the currents to bring it to the surface, allowing the fish to die after they after being retrieved from the water. Like delicate, glittering shards of silver, herring scales are used by local craftswomen to make facial makeup. 鰣魚,四月出,時郭公鳥鳴,捕魚者以此候之。魚游江底,最惜其鱗,財挂網,即隨水而上,甫出水死矣。鱗如銀,纖明可愛,女工以為花靨。

Next are the river puffer fish, which aren’t the nicest creatures to look at, and are easily agitated. Five-coloured thread—of the kind tied to children’s wrists and ankles during Dragon Boat Festival to ward away evil spirits—is the only thing the puffers seem to be attracted to, and so to catch them, fisherman attach a hook to a long measure of coloured thread, which is then lowered in to a depth of around one-hundred feet. When the puffers catch sight of the coloured twine they are inclined to swim rapidly towards it, flocking around it in a school. When the hook scrapes the puffer’s skin they become instantly agitated, their abdomen turns pale and becomes bloated with air, whereupon they float straight to the river surface. All the fisherman then need to do then is gather up the fish with their hands and toss them into their boats. 其次為河豚,形醜而性易怒,顧獨愛五色綵縷。漁者繫綵縷以鉤沉數十丈之下,豚見綵縷,輒趨之,鉤財豚皮,輒勃然怒,腹脹脝反白,上浮水面矣。捕者手拾而擲舷中。

There are two special varieties of this fish called the ‘Swallowtail’ and ‘One-eyed’ puffers, which, if not cooked properly, their roe not salted, or their blood not thoroughly washed away and the flesh then treated with ash, are fatal to eat. The risk of poisoning can be reduced if the puffer is eaten with asparagus, olives, sugarcane or raw duck egg. 燕尾者,獨眼者,胹而不熟,與其子未經鹽淹者,若血滌除未淨,屋上塵墮者,食之皆能殺人。解之用蘆筍或橄欖、甘蔗,或曰鴨卵生啗之良。

Gizzard shad are of the same genus as the herring described earlier, and like herring, they die instantly when taken from the water, and have two long barbels protruding from beneath their head. 刀鰶魚,出水而死,類鰣魚,頭有長鬣二。

Local fisherman say the shad’s barbels are sensitive, and they should be caught with the softest net possible. When a soft net is made to make slight contact with the barbels, the shad become docile, and can be easily taken to the surface with the net. 漁者言:鰶最愛鬣,捕用絲網最柔,稍觸其鬣,魚輒伏不動,隨網舉矣。

Also of note are the carp that inhabit the waters of Xuanwu lake. They are distinguishable by their broad, darkly-coloured backbones, and the particularly hard scales on their underbellies. The biggest of these fish can reach two or three jin. Raised in the restricted waters of Xuawu lake, these fish are creatures that common people normally don’t get the chance to see. 其次則玄武湖之鯽魚,其脊黑而厚,鱗之在腹下者尤堅,大者可二三觔。顧以禁地,人間不恒有也。

And of the delicious vegetables of Jinling:

Despite the old saying which praises ‘the radishes of Plank Bridge and the onions of Charity Bridge’, in reality people don’t see these vegetables as anything special. Only the celery that ripens in early spring, the water spinach of mid-summer, mid-autumn water oats and the cabbages which ripen during the first frosts of winter are worth bothering about. These cabbages, if salted, can be kept for a few months into the new year, and it was this kind of cabbage which Zhou Yong famously called ‘late autumn cabbage’. 舊稱「板橋蘿蔔善橋葱」 ,然人頗不貴之。惟水芹之出春初,罋菜之出夏半,茭白之出秋中,白菜之出冬初,為尤 美。白菜鹽菹之可度歲,周顒所謂秋末晚菘者,即此物也。

Past generations also praised the Moling pears of the Ai Family and Thousand-li Lake watershield, but I am afraid, these days, such wonders are not longer to be found. The Record of the Environs of the Southern Capital, also makes note of the ornamental stones once found on Assembled Treasures Mountain, but these too are no longer to be found. For stones akin in beauty to Su Dongpo’s renowned stones, these days suppliers struggle to find stones of like quality on Ghost Grotto Mountain at Liuhe, to Jinling’s north. 若昔人稱秣陵哀家梨與千里蓴,今絕無此種。南畿志又紀聚寶山之石子,今亦絕少,其足堪東坡怪石,供者兢尋於六合靈巖山矣。

Translator’s Note

I would like to thank Duncan Campbell for guiding me into the world of Gu Qiyuan with patience and erudition and the Editor of China Heritage for his extensive suggestions and revisions.