Old Tales Retold

Old Tales Retold 世故新語 is inspired by A New Account of Tales of the World 世說新語, a collection of anecdotes and bon mots featuring some of the remarkable free-wheeling personalities of the Eastern Jin 東晉 period, 317-420CE, an era of political division when the Confucian pall of the Han dynasty faded and Taoist and Buddhist thinking florished.

In the 1980s, the pro-Party writer He Xin 何新 warned that China was facing another age of anomie and social collapse reminiscent of the Wei-Jin period in which the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (a constant source of inspiration for our own endeavours) were prominent. He Xin’s critique featured in the 1992 collection New Ghosts, Old Dreams, Chinese Voices of Protest by Geremie R Barmé and Linda Jaivin, a continuation of John Minford and Geremie Barmé’s 1986 Seeds of Fire: Chinese Rebel Voices, at the height of China’s post-Cultural Revolution thaw.

In New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Voices of Protest we identified writers and individuals excoriated by He Xin and his right-thinking brethren in the Party’s propaganda apparat as ‘liberated feet’ 解放腳, a term that originally described women with crippling bound feet who gradually regained the ability to walk once the bindings were removed.

As early as the 1920s, Chinese writers, while concerned about the social and political disunity of Republican China nonetheless celebrated its cultural and intellectual diversity. In his lectures on the origins of modern Chinese literature, the essayist and translator Zhou Zuoren 周作人 in particular identified the freewheeling strain of Chinese letters.

In Old Tales Retold, the English title of which chimes with Lu Xun’s 魯迅 last collection of stories, 故事新編, we feature anecdotes and stories of hard-won wisdom, a loose translation of the expression shìgù 世故 from modern China.

Anecdote 1

A New Account of Tales of the World includes many stories of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, one of whom, Xi Kang, is featured in ‘On Heritage‘ on this site. One of their number is Liu Ling 劉伶, famous for his prodigious capacity for alcohol:

On many occasions, under the influence of wine, Liu Ling would be completely free and unrestrained, sometimes even removing his clothes and sitting stark naked in the middle of his room. Some people once saw him in this state and chided him for it. 劉伶恆縱酒放達,或脫衣裸形在屋中,人見譏之。

Ling retorted, ‘I take heaven and earth for my pillars and roof, and my house with its rooms as my pants and jacket. What are you gentlemen doing in my pants?’ 劉曰:’我以天地為棟宇,屋室為褌衣,諸君何為入我褌中。’ [Source: ]

I met Yang Hsien-yi 楊憲益 and his wife Gladys shortly after Mao’s death in September 1976, on the introduction of Patricia Wilson. Gaoled in the early years of the Cultural Revolution, this famous husband-and-wife translation team had only been free for a few years. Over the following months and years they were generous hosts to many friends who were gradually released from imprisonment, labour reform or exile. They were also welcomed a young Australian student of China into their home where I would stay during trips to Beijing until the early 1990s. It was in their apartment at Baiwan Zhuang 百萬莊, that I took part in the first gathering of the Louts’ Lodge 二流堂 for two decades (more about this in a future entry). But on that first night, over cheap whiskey and cigarettes Hsien-yi regailed us with the story of the half-bottle of Maotai.

in the early months of the Cultural revolution, now marking its fiftieth anniversary, among other things Hsien-yi was accused of corrupting the young by encouraging them to drink when they visited him at night to discuss translation or their work. It was one of the informal charges that would see him gaoled. Indeed, he claimed, on the night they took him away he had been drinking Maotai. He, Gladys and their guests had finished off half the bottle when their accusers led the away.

Hsien-yi claimed that, upon returning home after spending some four years incarcerated in Banbu Qiao prison, south Beijing, the first thing he asked was ‘Where’s the rest of that Maotai I was drinking?’.

In doggerel poems exchanged with friends like the calligrapher Huang Miaozi, alcohol was frequently mentioned.

Anecdote 2