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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Japanese Koan (公案)


A koan is an accepted word in the English language. From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is defined as,

"a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden enlightenment."

This note is the result of a series of conversation in the comment box of Toshi on his piece, "Ginger Tea".

After my commentary, I stumbled onto this gem. Another example of how I learn things from correcting English essays of others.

For more information about what a koan is,

For more koan examples,

The following koan is taken from the second link. I find it of great interest because it is so succinctly well put and suddenly a ray of enlightenment came upon me. I would like to share it with those studying Chinese. I have been doing all this while without realization. It is entitled, "How To Write A Chinese Poem".

How To Write a Chinese Poem

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

"The usual Chinese poem is four lines," he explained. "The first line contains the initial phrase; the second line, the continuation of that phrase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword,
But these girls slay men with their eyes."

Here is my translation into Chinese. Welcome to correct my mistakes and your suggestions are most appreciated,


1. I didn't literally translate sword into 劍 because I would need another character as adjective to fulfill the word count requirement. E.g. 利劍, etc. Weaponry seemed most appropriate.

2. I didn't think the Chinese character for men, 男 is suitable. So I used the character that can either mean a "male" or "hero". It has a better sound than either 男 or 士 (member of the senior ministerial class (old) / scholar (old) / bachelor / honorific / first class military rank / specialist worker). What do you this?

Monday, December 19, 2011



明月一夜明日來,  Bright moon of tonight, gone by the coming day,
今晨花開今宵謝.  Blossoms of this morn, withered by tonight's time.
流水速速東海去1, How quickly do the rivers emptying into the Eastern Sea,
古松默默對山青.  Only ancient pines facing the mountain green.

1.  All Chinese rives flow eastward into the ocean.

Merry Chistmas And Happy New Year - 2011

This was written as a note entry for my friends on Italki.  Might as well post it here as well.

I like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope all will have a blast and a great time for the remaining of this wonderful year of 2011. I, for one, will look forward to the coming year, although there are idiots out there believe that the world will end by then.

Long before the year 1000 A.D., there was the prediction that the world will come to an end on that first day. Even the Catholic Church indirectly became involved because the adherents of the doomsday prophecy claimed that the evidence was contained in the Bible. The fact that the Church did not clam down on the prediction proved that they believed in the prediction too. So people sold all their possessions and had a great time in 999 A.D. while others prayed fervently to get into heaven.

Hell literally broke loose when the day came and gone just like any other ordinary day. Riots broke out with angry mobs demanding their possessions back. The most obvious damage control was that the Pope was so pious that his piety so moved God to postpone the Armageddon till a later date! From that time onwards, the Church no longer was in the business of prophecy making.

Idiots of today are no different from those of a thousand and eleven years ago. They are still as gullible as ever. This is because they lack of a good education in science and logic. Where else but only in the US that you find this sort of thing happening. States trying to legislate the introduction of Creationism into school curriculum. The Chinese calendar has gone through the thousand year cycle five or six times. So is the Jewish calendar. It is just a number and nothing else. However this did not make the aversion of the number 13 in Westerners nor the Chinese and Japanese for the number 4!

The number of days in our lives is determined by the unseen hand of Fate. No one but those contemplating suicide, etc will know far in advance of their death. So I say, enjoy this only life you have. Whatever future lives, if you choose to believe their existence, worry about it when you are living in that future life. Right now, choose they way you want to live and not by the whims of others telling how you should live. You are an idiot if you let others run your life for you. You are just living a life of a lemming and nothing more. If you can go to sleep without your conscience gnawing at your dreams, then you are doing good. We all will grow old and die. I believe in retribution. It will come to haunt you in one way or another.

As for myself, I never have a Christmas tree in my home. Nor do you see any Christmassy decoration. First of all, I do not like any life killed for my pleasure. I am not a “bah humbug”. I have a morbid fear of the house catching fire as year after year I read such horror stories of the dried tree bursting into flames because of some electrical defect. Besides, I won’t be home most of the time. For example, starting from this coming Wednesday, I will be out partying with friends and not far from it will be feast after feast to be gorged away only to pay penance at the gym after the holidays! Not to mention that I will have to spend time to put up the decorations and then putting them down again. I rather be on Italki correcting someone’s English essay. It is more constructive and time well spent than to be up on a ladder inviting accidents to come.

Well, this is my way of celebrating my year end holidays. This coming Wednesday is also the start of the Winter Solstice. Not a big celebration here but I am sure it is a big one over in the Chinas of Asia. Still, it is as valid as any other reason to get friends together to have a great time. I hope you too have a good time to enjoy with friends and family.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

My Cats - The Bitch and the Tuxedo

This is in response to KaryLam's note in, to share our loves.
The Blue Kitty

She was there before the house was built. She was there when the house was built. She was there before we moved in. She was there at the main entrance to the house when we moved in! Yes, right smack in front of the entrance. She did not run away but looked at us and give us a pitiful meow as if telling us, “You may stay and live with me”. With that she ran off.

By now you know who I was referring to. It’s a bluish grey neighbourhood kitten. As we settled in the house, she was always around, giving us a meow as if asking if we find her domain accommodating. Soon we fed her and she began to come into the house as well. We do not know if she has another person to scrounge off since she seems to a master of herself. Finally she decided that it will be us that she shall choose to live with.

We do not know what to call her. Our next door neighbour told us they call her “Squeak” because her meowing sounded like a squeak. However we did not like the name. We were not sure if she is a Russian Blue. She looks like one. So we called her the “Blue Kitty”. Later from the internet, she is a Korat a very similar looking one but her eyes are not orange. We really did not care if she is a Russian Blue or a Korat but her name stuck. She would be indignant if you just call her “Blue”.

She is standoffish, aloof and regal. She does not come to you when you call her. She simply stares and looks at you as if you are an idiot. However when the sound of the can is opened even though she is far away outside of the house, she will come pounding in! She has an amazing sense of hearing. She is the queen of the jungle backyard we have. You see I like to have a tropical garden with over twenty different species of bamboo and broad leaf plants. She rules with iron fangs.

One morning upon, opening the door, one of us screamed! She brought a gift for us to show us that we are welcomed – mind you, just a bloody head of a half eaten mouse. Of course she was indignant. “What’s the matter with your? Don’t you like my gift?” From that time onwards, she no longer shares her dainty morsels with us unappreciative blokes! Such royal temper. For one thing, she does keep the rodent population down.

We loved her even though she is finicky and only comes to you she has the time and your attention is wanted. However one of us even spoils her by buying a blanket with cat paw pattern for her to sleep in his bed in the cold nights. Of course guess who has to let her out of the house when she feels that she needs to go out to survey her kingdom at 3am! Yes, moi! Why we tolerate her nonsense is beyond our feeble minds!

This is the Blue Kitty for you. I shall talk more of her when the arrival of the Tuxedo into our lives.

The Tuxedo

A year later, we discovered that the Blue Kitty was eating her food more than usual. This is because we have to fill her bowl with dry food all the time. Then one day, I noticed a skinny black and white kitten eating from her bowl. It ran away when I tried to approach it. It was skinny and scrawly. It had a lip defect that it made it looks like one of those old cartoon black and white cat characters with a sneering smile.

Each time, when I ran off to a distance, I would call “meow meow” and fill up the bowl. About a month later, it began to warm up to me. I guess it knows that I am feeding it and hung around the place more often. Sometimes when I see it lying on the garden furniture, I would approach it slowly with the dry cat food in my hand and calling my now familiar, “meow meow”. Soon it would approach me cautiously and ate from my hand. After a few times, it was complete at ease with me and allowed me to pat it.

Soon I was cuddling it and scrounge its ears. It loves to be scrounged in its years. Since it is a tuxedo cat, we called him Tuxedo. Soon it because a fixture of the house. I never believe my cats to be indoor cats. I have a big garden and with its tropical theme, the cats adored the garden. However a great change came over the Blue Kitty. She was no longer friendly, even more aloof. I guessed she felt hurt as if we were taking in a second wife or concubine into the house. She would only come in to eat and then leave. The Tuxedo on the other was adorable like any favoured concubine. It would come over to you when you call or even when you are not calling. It would come and knead you on your stomach if you are lying down on the couch. Whenever you feed it, it would give you a meow first as if to thank you. It will not eat the moment the food is poured into its bowl. It would wait for awhile as if in deep thought of a prayer before eating. To me it seems to show gratitude. Well, I guess cats are like human beings too. The Blue Kitty is acting like the first wife! She knew though she is the rightful owner of the place, she refuse to eat from the same bowl as the Tuxedo and so we have no choice but to fork over our hard earned cash to buy a different bowl for her. Whenever the Tuxedo approaches the Blue Kitty, she would angrily swipe at him for its usurpation of the throne. The Blue Kitty will no longer let you touch her at all. She just comes in, eats and then bounces off. What a bitch!

Later we found that the Tuxedo is a tom cat. It would come and sleep in my room with me and purring away just to keep me awake. What can I do? I am just a sucker. There are many nicknames for the Tuxedo, he is known as the “Moo-Moo”, “Momo”, “Mochi” and “Mucho-mucho”. I adored the “Mochi” while the Blue Kitty seemed like an ingrate. Later I conjectured that he was from a family of tuxedo cats who lived in the upper hillock of our neighbour’s house. He must have wandered down from the slope and got lost. Whenever I had a broom in my hand the Blue Kitty would run away as if in fear. I suppose she must been abused as a kitten. However the Tuxedo showed no such thing. I guessed he must have a different life. An innocent one and not streetwise like the Blue Kitty. Sometimes naivety breeds pleasure. Once I used a giant broom to brush his body. He became addicted to it. He loves to be brushed. So each time he sees a broom in my hands, he would come over to me and plop down, expecting to have a body massage! Eventually I have to put him inside the house before I do any outdoor cleaning. What a mochi he is.

Whatever the case may be, he must be my previous life debtor. First of all I have to spend extra money on taking him to be neutered. The Blue Kitty on the other hand did not cost us a single penny at all even to this day. Even her neutering, someone did for us. One day she disappeared for a day and the next time we knew, someone had done a kind deed for us. Most probably because of his naivety, he was always being bullied by other neighbour cats getting into fights and received wounds. Each time we have to take him to the vet. So often that he became the Money God to the vet! We tried to keep him the house in the night but still incidents happened.

Then one day, after a particularly nasty wound, the vet told us that the Tuxedo has developed some kind of kidney problem because feline form of AIDs most probably caught from wounds of raccoons in the neighbourhood. This is totally different from the human type. We did not have the heart to put it to misery even though I was for it because he looks very healthy. To cut the sad story short of seeing him wasting away with injections or whatever not, in the end we have no choice but to put it to sleep. Of course everyone in the household was sad except for one. You guessed it! Her Royal Highness – the Blue Kitty.

Whether you believe it or not, the moment the Queen found out that the Tuxedo is no longer around, her character changed once more. She is now more friendly and reverted partially to her former self. At least she no longer runs away when she sees you now. It is like the first wife had forgiven the husband. Now once in a while, when she feels like it, she would come to you, starts purring and knead your stomach too. Perhaps she learnt a trick or two from the Tuxedo. However she is imperious as ever and this morning she is scratching on the staircase carpet to let you know that she is tired of staying inside the house and is out on an inspection tour of her realm.

As I am loading the picture of the Tuxedo Mochi, I can still feel a tear welling in my eyes.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Reply

My Facebook friend sent me a poem of his the other day. I guess this is our way of grinding our minds as a pastime. I do not know long did it take him to compose but I am sure it must be in a short period as his Chinese is excellent. This was what he sent.  I have included the translation and annotated some of the not so apparent references as footnotes for your understanding and enjoyment.

蘭花氣質比天仙, Orchid fragrance better than those of a fairy,
天生註定世人賞. Only destined to be enjoyed by others.
幾度花落紅庭院, How often have the flowers fallen,
花謝花飛飛滿庭. All over the red1 courtyard, withering and in flight.
春風艷色未挽留, But alas, no spring wind can bring them back2.
色消香斷奈何天. Alas, colors faded, fragrance stopped.
往日風流朱顏改, Merriment in days of yore; no longer rosy are these cheeks of mine,
紅樓玉壁依然在. But cinnabar buildings with walls of jade still remain.
低聲嘆氣我自憐, In whispers and sighs, I pity myself.
自古紅顏多薄命. From time immemorial, such are the pitiful lives of beauties.

For days, I cracked my mind for a suitable reply. I have to have a similar theme and yet something different. To cut my story short, the following poem was the result of an image formed during my jog up the hill. Two once upon a time lovers met again after many years. It describes the scene of this chance meeting. I never like my women characters to be weak and fragile.

一滴珠淚千古恨, One tear drop, a thousand regrets.
秋波隱忍萬世愁. Hidden in the eyes, a myriad sorrows.
揮扇遮隔身外塵, Waving my fan, I seek refuge and distance myself from the outer dust3,
釵搖回首不望後. Swishing of my hairpin4, I turned and looked not back.

Anyway I came up with a second version. I did not know which is better. Most grateful for any pointer or comment. Thanks all.

一滴珠淚一滴恨, One tear drop, one drop of regret,
是否淚盡恨不留. Tears gone, no regret left?
揮扇遮隔眼前塵, Waving my fan, I seek refuge and distance myself from this dust before me.
釵搖回首不多聞. Swishing my hairpin, I turned and listened no more.

1. In the original poem, there are mention of “red buildings/mansions/towers” and red courtyards. These are residence of the nobility. By imperial law of those times, no common people are allowed to have red colored walls. Special dispensation must be granted by the emperor. Yellow is reserved for imperial use and therefore no nobility can use that color either. The rich may adorned their homes with other colors.

2. Actually the translation should be, “No spring wind can retain their fading beauty.” I find this is too explicit in English. In this way, it makes readers have a more vivid imagination.

3. The red dust means the vulgar world with all its gory comings and goings.

4. Ancient Chinese women adorned their hair with elaborate hairpins unlike those of today. The more elaborate ones are like tassels and can hang to their shoulders. These metallic accoutrements can be used as a weapon either to stab the attacker or to use as means of committing suicide.  These tassels are also known as 步搖 literally, "step swayers".  I prefer to translate them as "step danglers".  Here’s a photo for easier reference.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

From Kismet, "A Stranger In Paradise"

This was an original post written in ITALKI.

This is a response for someone who posted his favourite lyrics of a current popular song. I could not help myself from smirking when I read the lyrics. Mostly are repeated as thus,

“I wanna to hold your hand. I wanna to kiss you etc.”

Crude and banal in my opinion. There is much wonder in the world and he chose that as his favourite. How sad. So in this essay, I am going to introduce to some of the gems in the music world and an English lesson.

Kismet is a Turkish word, from Arabic, “qisma” meaning fate or destiny. It is now an accepted English word because of a very famous American Musical of the same title. For those interested in this musical, here’s the Wikipedia link.

The setting of the musical is in some fabled land of the Middle East where the Caliph rules supreme. A delightful and uncomplicated story told in the simple times of the old. One of the more outstanding songs is “Stranger In Paradise”. For those interested seriously in the English language, here is how the language of love is expressed so wondrously and implicitly. The hauntingly beautifully melody is based on a classical music piece. For more info see,

Take my hand
I'm a stranger in paradise
All lost in a wonderland
A stranger in paradise
If I stand starry-eyed
That's the danger in paradise
For mortals who stand beside an angel like you
I saw your face and I ascended
Out of the commonplace into the rare
Somewhere in space I hang suspended
Until I know there's a chance that you care
Won't you answer this fervent prayer
Of a stranger in paradise?
Don't send me in dark despair
From all that I hunger for
But open your angel's arms
To this stranger in paradise
And tell him that he need be
A stranger no more…

As I am writing, I am listening to it. How miraculous the ink flows so easily from one’s pen (or in this modern case, keystrokes spewing out like a bubbling spring) when there is a background music to inspire. For those interested in the melody, here are some links for you convenience and enjoyment. The first one is from the original musical sung by Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. The second one is a standard sung by Johnny Mathis and the third one, a more modern interpretation by Sarah Brightman who has a more ethereal quality and a tad less expressive than the older versions. The older ones have an introduction as in accordance to the musical. The main song starts from, “Take my hand…” For those in the Mainland, I am so sorry that you cannot access Youtube. Oh what fools those are in the top, denying wonders of the world to its people. Alas, you just have to do more work and google for them.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

White Haired Dweller of the Palace of the Supreme Sun

I came across this poem by Po Chu-I (白居易) while correcting水烟輕澹's ( translation of the poem.

However it was not complete. Hence this is a translation for the complete poem. Now I understand why. Too many details and allusions to be explained and footnoted!

The poem was written as a ballad; lamenting a girl brought into the imperial harem. To prevent the emperor from espying any potential rival, all pretty ones were banished by the current favourite to imperial palaces such as the Shang Yang Palace far away from the regular residence of the emperor. The first line is literal translation and the second, the polished version of it.

For those interested, there is another translation that can be found at page 25 of

上陽人White Haired Dweller of the Palace of the Supreme Sun1

上陽人, Shang Yang person, O Dweller of Shang Yang Palace,

紅顏暗老白髮新. Red face darkened, old white hair new. Rosiness seeps away from the face, your hair newly white.
綠衣監使守宮門, Green clothed eunuch officials guard palace door. Green robed eunuchs guard the palace gates,

一閉上陽多少春. One lock Shang Yang, how many spring. Locking away the many beauties of youth.

玄宗末歲初選入, Hsuan Tsung, last years begin selected in. Selected during the last years of Emperor Hsuan Tsung2,

入時十六今六十. On entering, sixteen, now sixty. Time I was then sixteen but now sixty3.

同時采擇百餘人, Same time selection a hundred more, Together, a hundred or so that we were chosen,

零落年深殘此身. Alone drop, years deep crippled this body. Years deepened, only this frailty remained.

憶昔吞悲別親族, Remember past, swallow sorrow part family clan, Swallowed my sorrows as I part from my beloved ones,

扶入車中不教哭. Carried into carriage, not teach cry. Carried into the carriage I was told not to cry.

皆云入內便承恩, All said entering inside would receive favour, Upon my entry, imperial favours I wouldst gain, so they said,

臉似芙蓉胸似玉. Face like hibiscus, breast like jade. For my beauty is like the hibiscus, my breasts pure as jade.

未容君王得見面, Not yet, let emperor can see my face, My face not yet beholden by milord,

已被楊妃遙側目. Already let Yang imperial concubine, far side eyed. Already I fall prey to Lady Yang's4 far off slanting glances5.

妒令潛配上陽宮, Jealousy cause deep match/join Shang Yang Palace, In her jealousy, I am married off to the far away Palace of Shang Yang ,

一生遂向空房宿. One life finally face empty room abode. All my life, an empty room to face.

秋夜長, Autumn night long, Long are my autumn nights,

夜長無寐天不明. Night long no sleep, day not bright. Eternal are the sleepless nights with no brightening dawn.

耿耿殘燈背壁影, Brightly, remnant candle behind wall shadow, Strong is the shadows cast against the wall by the dying candlelight.

蕭蕭暗雨打窗聲. Misery/desolate/sound of rain darkened rain beat window sound. Plip plip plop plop goes the unseen rain6, beating its sound against the window.
春日遲, Spring day late, Spring is late,

日遲獨坐天難暮. Day late alone sit, day difficult evening. Days are reluctant in passing as I sit alone to welcome the tardy evenings.

宮鶯百囀愁厭聞, Palace orioles hundred chirping sorrow hate listen, Chirping sounds of palace orioles are hard to bear,

梁燕雙棲老休妒. Beams, swallow, pair live old stop jealousy. Envy not the two swallows growing old together in the eaves,

鶯歸燕去長悄然, orioles, return swallows go, long quietly/sorrowfully, Gone are the orioles, the swallows flown, quiet sorrow merely returns.

春往秋來不記年. Spring went, autumn came, not remember year. Spring is gone, here is autumn but remembering no longer what this year is,

唯向深宮望明月, Only toward deep palace view bright moon. All I can do is to stare at the moon from this deep palace recess.

東西四五百回圓. East west four five hundred return rounds. Rising from the east and setting in the west; four five hundred times it had turned round.

今日宮中年最老, Today, inside the palace oldest, Today the oldest in the palace I had become,

大家遙賜尚書號. Big family/We far bestow, Shang Shu (a rank), From the far away Emperor, I’m bestowed with this noble title7.

小頭鞋履窄衣裳, small head shoes soles narrow clothing, Pointy shoes and tightly clothes I wear,

青黛點眉眉細長. Green black dot eye brows dainty small and long, In green black mascara I paint my brows daintily in long slender strokes.

外人不見見應笑, Outside people not see, laugh once see. Outsiders see not me, but surely they will laugh upon seeing me,

天寶末年時世妝. Heaven precious last years time fashion make up. Donned in the chic makeup of bygone years8.

上陽人, Shang Yang person, O dweller of Shang Yang Palace,

苦最多. Sorrows most plenty. Sorrows most plentiful.

少亦苦, Young also sorrowful, Sorrows of youth,

老亦苦. Old also sorrowful. Sorrows of the aged.

少苦老苦兩如何? Youth sorrow, old sorrow, two like how? Sorrows of the young and the old, so what’s the difference?

君不見昔時呂向美人賦, Lord not see the long ago Lu Shang offer the Beauty Ballard
Milord, see not “Lu Shang offering the Beauty Ballad9of the past,

又不見今日上陽白髮歌! Also not see today’s white hair dweller of Shang Yang Song! Alas, hear not today’s song of the “White Haired Dweller of Shang Yang10”.

1.  The Shang Yang (Supreme Sun) Palace was the secondary palace in Luoyang, far away from the main palace in Chang An. A place of banishment for those who lost the imperial favour. Even the mighty Empress Wu was placed under house arrest there after her son’s coup until her death soon afterwards from old age. Hence the palace is no place for revelry. In later years this palace fell into neglect. Technically, the translation as “sun” is wrong. Here “yang” is that of the ying-yang duality of Chinese philosophy.

2.  The 8th Tang Emperor whose reign saw the empire reaching its zenith and also the beginning of the fall of the empire.

3.  Sixteen in Chinese is ten six while sixty is six ten.

4.  Yang Guifei – One of the four most celebrated beauty in Chinese history. When she died, an empire collapsed around her skirts.

5.  Here her side glances denote Lady Yang’s jealousy. Not because the emperor fall prey to her bewitching glances.

6. Rain that is hardly discernable but still can hear its effects and sounds is known as 暗雨 – Hidden/darkened rain.

7.   Shang Hsu – a ministerial rank. “Big family” (大家) is Tang period euphemism for the reigning emperor.

8.  The era of Heavenly Treasure (天寶)A.D. 742 – 756

9.  Lu Shang (呂向) was a Tang Dynasty scholar whose literary prowess and calligraphy are well known. “The Beauty Ballad” is a work of praise of all the beautiful women in history. He uses it as an allegorical sarcasm against the corruption of the then current regime.

10.  Here this line is used to contrast the romanticism of the “Beauty Ballad” with harsh realities of life.

White Haired Dweller of the Palace of the Supreme Sun

O dweller of Shang Yang Palace,
Rosiness seeps away from the face, your hair newly white.
Green robed eunuchs guard the palace gates,
Locking away the many beauties of youth.
Selected during the last years of Emperor Hsuan Tsung,
Time I was then sixteen but now sixty.
Together, a hundred or so that we were chosen,
Years deepened, only this frailty remained.
Swallowed my sorrows as I part from my beloved ones,
Carried into the carriage I was told not to cry.
Upon my entry, imperial favours I wouldst gain, so they said,
For my beauty is like the hibiscus, my breasts pure as jade.
My face not yet beholden by milord,
Already I fall prey to Lady Yang's far off slanting glances.
In her jealousy, I am married off to the far away Palace of Shang Yang ,
All my life, an empty room to face.
Long are my autumn nights,
Eternal are the sleepless nights with no brightening dawn.
Strong is the shadows cast against the wall by the dying candlelight.
Plip plip, plop plop goes the unseen rain, beating its sound against the window.

Spring is late,
Days reluctant in passing as I sit alone to welcome the tardy evenings.
Chirping sounds of palace orioles are hard to bear,
Envy not the two swallows growing old together in the eaves,
Gone are the orioles, the swallows have flown, quiet sorrow merely returns.
Spring is gone; here comes autumn but remembering no longer what this year is,
All I can do is to stare at the moon from this deep palace recess.
Rising from the east and setting in the west; four five hundred times it had turned round.
Today as the highest ranking in the palace,
From the far away Emperor, I’m bestowed with this noble title.
Pointy shoes and tightly clothes I wear,
In green black mascara I paint my brows daintily in long slender strokes.
Outsiders see not me, but surely they will laugh upon seeing me,
Donned in the chic makeup of bygone years.
O, Dweller of Shang Yang Palace,
Sorrows most plentiful.
Sorrows of youth,
Sorrows of the aged.
Sorrows of the young and the old, so what’s the difference?
Milord, see not “Lu Shang offering the Beauty Ballad” of the past,
Alas, hear not today’s song of the “White Haired Dweller of Shang Yang”.

14 Nov 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Chinese Riddle Poem


I was planning to write some essays on my recent trip to Asia. However for the past two days, I lost track of time watching non stop this Taiwanese drama on YouTube. Yes, I am still on vacation, recuperating from jetlag. A friend had sent me a link on Facebook to this movie, "The Invincible Swordsman 傲笑江湖 - 東方不敗). It was interesting and so watched all the three movies following different links. However on finishing the last one, I noticed there was another link to one called, "Empire Devastating Beauty - 傾國皇妃." It was intriguing and soon I was hooked. So I had a marathon serial watching! One good thing resulted was that my biological clock was reset back to the local time.

There was one scene where the heroine wandered into a secluded palace. Inscribed on a post was cryptic poem written with strange forms. It was a riddle. In the story, anyone decrypting it would be rewarded handsomely by the emperor. I find it literally challenging, unique and elegant. Only in the languages based on the Chinese script can such a puzzle be constructed. Hence this note entry is mainly for the benefit of Chinese readers who did not watch the serial.

At first I thought how talented the screenwriter was. However, on further research, this was not the case at all. He had stolen the idea from history and modified it to fit his story. The original poem was written by Su Dong Pu, a Sung dynasty poet. Since the story took place before his time during the Five Dynasty and Ten States Era, it was a good ploy in the movie. Otherwise any literati worth his salt will able to figure it out easily.

Here are some hints...

月字傾斜,             The character for the moon is slanted
枕字倒寫,             The pillow (character) is written upside down.
門字少半邊          Only half the door character is written.
夜字加長漏变短 The character for night is lengthen while the one for leak is shortened.
望字中間折斷      The middle part of the character for "to see" is separated,
肝字加長.             The character for live is lengthened
信字少一點          There's a dot missing from the character of "to believe"
三個更字重疊      Three character of "to change/hour" is heaped on each other.
首字反寫              The character of "head" is written in reverse
釵字金邊折斷      The character for hairpin whose metal radical is broken.

Brown is literal, blue is figurative version and red is the polished version in the target language.

斜月到枕門半開, Slanting moon, comes pillow door half opened,
The light of the low hanging moon reaches my pillow and the door is still half opened.

夜長漏短無人來. Night long, water clock/time/leak short no one comes.
The night is long, time is short but still no one comes.

望斷肝腸無點信, see broken liver intestines, no dot news.
Waiting eagerly until my liver and intestines break, still no sign of him.

三更回首折金釵. Third hour return head, deconstruct, golden hairpin.
At the third hour, I turn my head and take away the golden hair pin.

Late is the hour, the door still half opened,
Long is the night, the hours short but still no one comes.
My heart breaks in vain, nary a sign of him.
Till the third hour cometh, one last lingering look before removing my golden hairpin.

A few notes for non Chinese readers. This is a love poem written from the view point of the lady longing for her lover’s return. Chinese love the sublime and the implicit but the vagueness. It makes the reader wonder what is not said explicitly. The missing lover could be her husband who is away on some journey, not necessary the illicit tryst like Romeo and Juliet.

漏 means leaky. It is the dripping of the water in a water clock of the old days. Hence the measurement of time.

心肝 means heart and liver. In Chinese, it means "my darling". Calling my heart and liver in English not only is meaningless but gross in imagery. Guts would be better but still not elegant enough in English. This is cultural bias. Broken liver and intestines mean great wrenching sorrows.

A Chinese hour is equivalent to 2 modern hours. The 3rd watch or the 3rd hour means very late. This denotes the period from midnight to 2am. Removing hairpins means preparation for bed.

Now we know that this lady is from a rich family; otherwise, she would not have such luxurious hair ornaments. In Old China, rich and noble ladies do apply makeup and dressing their hair upon waking up; usually with the help of the maids. If there is a loving husband around, he would paint her eyebrows in this morning ritual. This act itself means a pair of love birds newly married.

For more information see

The following is my translation of the article from the above link.

Let us first look at Su Dong Pu’s strange looking poem,

You may be taken aback for awhile. What’s this? The characters do not look as they should be and neither a painting that should look like one. This wondrous form of poem is that “thoughts are expressed in their visual forms and are self explanatory” 1. It is a poem whereby one can read out the implicit words just by its form. Thus, it is read out as,

長亭短景無人畫,   Long is the pavilion, short is the scenery but no one to paint,
老大橫拖瘦竹筇2. Along comes an old man walking with a slender bamboo staff.
回首斷雲斜日暮,  Turning his head, the dying sunlight shafting through the clouds,
曲江倒蘸側山峰.  The winding river, mountain peaks dipping in its waters.

1. In another words, a rebus.
2. A kind of bamboo for making staves etc.

The general meaning is a marvelous evening scene of slanting rays of the sun but it is a pity that no one is here to paint it. Right then an elderly person comes walking slowly with his bamboo staff. Now and then he would turn back his head to see the sun setting continuously; darkening the scene with pieces of clouds dancing slowly. Mountain peaks reflected in the waters of the meandering river. How lovely it is, a landscape begging to be painted!

(When I first read the poem, the imagery appeared in front of my eyes was a river, meandering into the distant mountains, as if the river is dipping into them!)

There is another story connected to this poem. During the reign of Sung Shen Tsung, of the Hei Ning (Splendid Tranquility) era, the ambassador from the Northern Dynasty (most probably the Liao Dynasty) who use poetry to stump the literati officials of the Hanlin Academy. Any unsatisfactory in their response, he would deride them to no end. Then one year, this ambassador came once more and the Sung emperor ordered Su Dong Pu to entertain him. Once more the ambassador used his customary tactics to humiliate his Chinese host. However he never dreamt that this time, he would meet his nemesis.

Su Dong Po sarcastically told the ambassador that writing poems is easy. What is more difficult is to be able to read it aloud. With that said, he took out his brush and began to write the above poem. The ambassador was stunned and looked stupidly with his mouth a gaped and tongue tied. He was thoroughly humiliated. From that time onwards, no longer would he dare to show off his poetic prowess when he come calling to the Imperial Sung court.

Now let us enjoy another one written as a folk song.

According to its form, it can be read as

夜長枕橫意心歪,The night is long, across my pillow I have no noble thoughts,
斜月三更門半開。At the third watch, the moon is low and the door still half opened.
短命到今無口信,Life is short and still nary a sign from him.
肝腸望斷沒人來。Till my guts are wrenched, yet no one comes.

Please note that are two homophones in the poem. They are “倒” (upside down) vs 到” (to arrive) and “長” (long) vs “腸” (intestines). The meaning of the poem is not difficult to grasp. One lonely lady deep in the heart of the night longing for her lover. She is antsy, waiting with impatience and the door still half opened. She waited till midnight and not a sign of that short live bastard. Till her guts are spilt, yet no one is here.

Another important note: The poem uses traditional characters. Those who do not know these characters will not appreciate this kind of poems. They cannot be constructed when using simplified forms.

Source: 300 Historical Strange and Intriguing Poems.












Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two Bagfuls

October 21, 2011

In the beginning, when man was set forth into the world, God gave him two bags. One large one containing all his faults and the smaller one containing the faults of his neighbours. Man then set forth into the world with the larger bag swung behind his bag while the smaller one in front of him. Thus, Man is quick to spot the faults of others but none of his own. 

As my Pan Pacific flight is over twelve hours, I had way too much time to kill. Instead of twiddling my fingers in utter boredom, I decided to watch the complimentary on demand movies that Cathay Pacific Airlines provide. I was pleasantly surprised that there were many movies that I had not seen before. For example, “The Green Lantern”. When I flipped the channel to the Asian Channels, there were two versions of “A Chinese Ghost Story”. One made in 2011 and another one in 1987 by Tsui Hark. This story came from a Ch’ing Dynasty book on horror and fantasy – “Stories From A Chinese Studio” (聊齋). This is the standard translation given by Herbert Giles, the eminent sinologist who co-developed the Wade-Giles system of Chinese transliteration into English. A literal translation of this book can be “Causal Mutterings In A Chinese Studio”.

The literal title of this movie is “The Ethereal Spirit of A Beauty” (倩女幽魂) but for marketing purposes, “A Chinese Ghost Story” is to lure in the non-Chinese audience. However, there’s even an older version also produced in Hong Kong by the Shaw Brothers in 1960. Here the English title is “The Enchanting Shadow”. Since I had seen it on Youtube including the animation version which I own on a DVD, I decided to watch them as well. The main plot remained the same but of course under different directors, different sort of excitement and action packed scenes can be expected. The oldest version was part musical with less action scenes. Whatever the entertainment value was vogue for the particular period, what interested me most is the commonality in all these life action versions - the same recurring theme of this painting scroll depicting two mandarin ducks nestling under some lotus leaves.

Mandarin ducks are symbols of romantic love in Chinese culture. This painting though beautifully painted by the heroine before she died, it was incomplete for there was no accompanying poem. After becoming a ghost and having met the hero, they fell in love. The painting was then completed by having an appropriate poem written by the hero, who still did not realize her true nature. This is how Classical Chinese alludes tastefully to the aftermath of some carnal action. Nowadays no one would blink their eyes in shock if the actual scene was blaring from the screen describing every moan and groan! Anyway without giving the plot of the movie too much, the poem of the 1960 movie version is,

十里平湖绿满天, Ten miles, a calm lake and greenery everywhere.
玉簪暗暗惜华年. The jade clasp secretly in love with the youth.
若得雨盖能相护, Only if under the cover of rain, they can care for each other,
只羡鸳鸯不羡仙. Envy not those from the fairy realm but for these mandarin ducks.

Some explanation, the jade clasp represents the lady and the last line alludes that in heaven, there is a law forbidding all its denizens to have carnal love. In flouting this law, they may be banished to the earth to live out a mortal’s life to self realize that how fleeting and how futile romantic love is. But as one in love, such one would think otherwise.
In the 1987 Tsui Hark’s version, it was changed to,

十里平湖霜满天,Ten miles, a calm lake and snow flurries fill the sky.
寸寸青丝愁華年。Every inch of her locks forlorn for his youth.
对月形单望相顧,In loneliness, I look caringly at the moon,
只羡鴛鴦不羡仙。Envy not those from the fairy realm but for these mandarin ducks.
Correcting and criticizing work of others are so much easier than composing on your own. So with my smaller bag that I am carrying in front of me, I shall attempt one with my feeble hand with the movie theme and the painting in mind.

十里芳亭烟雨霧, Ten miles away, the Fragrant Pavilion is enshrouded in misty rain.
三宵玉簪戲年華. For three nights the jade clasp toyed with youth.
葉下鴛鴦不知怕, Under the leaves, the mandarin ducks knew no fear,
相擁傲笑天上霞. Nestled in togetherness, laughing at Heaven’s colored clouds.

Line one: I changed the scenery from a frosty day in winter or the greenery day in spring to a non-descript misty day. In the movie, the hero and the female ghost had romantic trysts for a few days. The phrase, “rain and mist” is a euphemism for such interludes. For those who well versed in Classical Chinese erotic novels such as the “The Golden Plum Vase” will know what a fragrant pavilion is being referred to.

Line two: Following the movie plot, they were together for a few nights and the ghost was “toying” with him to ascertain whether he was of good character or not.

Line three: In accordance to the theme of the painting, it is appropriate to add “knew no fear” as the two mandarin ducks nestled together in the perceived safety under the lotus leaves. At first, I thought of using “風不怕”, “fearing not the wind” but I thought it would be too specific and the tone of the wind doesn’t seem to be quite right at the place where it appears in the poem.

Line four: It is conceivable that when those are in love, they are confident in overcoming all obstacles and at the same time smugly knowing how lucky that they are. Here I used colored clouds to allude to immortals. When they travel, auspicious looking colored clouds appear under their feet.

Even those do not know Chinese literature, may have a good guess at what is happening under the surface from the way the English translation is hinting at. After much research, I found that even these versions are derived from an even earlier source,

白衣卿相《别思》Officials In White (On Parting)

十里長亭霜满天,Ten miles, a calm lake and snow flurries fill the sky.
青絲白髮度何年?Black is my hair, will they be white when you return?
今生無悔今生錯,Regret not of this life for all its wrong,
來世有缘来世遷。Continue on in the next life if we have the chance.
笑靨如花堪繢綣,Once our laugh lines are like flowers of the colored banners.
容颜似水怎緾綿?How can our faces now be flowing waters with no endearment?
情濃渺恰相思淡,Deep affections vague and our thoughts indifferent,
自在蓬山舞復躚。But let us return to the Immortals for a leisure walk or dance.

White clothed means clothing of commoners. Officials in white is a euphemism for high officials coming from humble backgrounds. In the Sung period, it also meant that those who are talented but did not attain official status. Just because their poetry became the rage of their time, they are invited to parties of officials as honoured guests, something akin to today’s invitation of Lady Gaga to your party!

Now I don’t feel too guilty in stealing someone’s poetry. I am in good company! As they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mid Autumn Parting - 中秋辭別


Thursday, September 15, 2011, 2am – 5:30am

Mid Autumn Parting – 中秋辭別

Mid Autumn Festival was only three days ago. There we were on that night when the moon was brightest, seven long time friends ate dessert after a splendid dinner. One was parting way with the gang - back to Hong Kong he must return. His long road in getting the US green card had been cut short. His work visa was rejected by Immigration. We were sad but could do nothing; only to enjoy this idle night of these seven musketeers being together. Bottles of good wine were opened but only Coke for me. Not a sip do I partake in life. This is good since driving under influence is illegal in here. Hence I am always the designated driver for my drinking buddies. To lighten the mood, our host suggested that we should imitate the past with a poetry composition while having a drinking bout. Indeed a very appropriate for the occasion. Since I am sober and the weakest in Chinese, I was given the honour to set the theme. They claimed better thinking when drunk! A scholar I am not and so I decided on the rules – common theme and an opening line. Since there were only seven of us, it would be cumbersome to come up with a different line one after another (Classical Chinese poetry demands a stanza of four lines). In the end, I suggested “明月照池塘” - Brightly the moon shines over the pond. On hindsight, it would be better to have a seven character format instead of five to represent each one of us.

My friends laughed at my humour and imagination. You see, there was no pond anywhere in sight but a modern swimming pool! I retorted that in their drunken stupor they can transform the pool into a pond and the heavy smell of chlorine into lotus fragrance! With this, an idea stepped into my mind. After a few more drinks were exchanged I began,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
蓮香八里長. Lotus fragrance wafting eight miles long.
酒盡人未醉, Gone is the wine but sober still we are,
離別太匆匆! Alas, too hurriedly we part!

My host gave out a hearty laugh, complaining that it was always easy for the starter! A few more glasses later, he began reciting,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
花影踏漣渏. Flower shadows tiptoeing over ripples.
只知今夜醉, Getting drunk tonight is what we know,
不曉明日離. Nary a care for tomorrow’s parting!

Once more, I was outshone by his superiority in the Chinese language and wonderful rhyming tones in Cantonese. Not too long, another chimed in with his more upbeat version,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
螢火點花心, Fireflies lighting up flowers like little bulbs.
今宵吐別情, Tonight we exchange goodbyes,
明朝談重逢! Tomorrow we’ll talk of reunion!

“花心" flower heart can also mean the heart of the fire burning in a candle etc. This is because of wicks bursting out like a flower caused by the flame and heat. I never cease to be amazed by the literary cleverness of my friends. Not to be outshone, another already had one on his lips,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
荷葉接水天, Lotus leaves receiving the watery sky.
交杯說真言, Exchanging our cups we speak of truths,
不知何日回. Not knowing when you will return.

I was enjoying the literary exchange immensely. Though our poetry talents were not of great caliber, still it was great delight to us all in this mid autumn night of revelry. I felt lucky to friends to be these drinking buddies even though I am the sober one. Soon another chimed in his version,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
沉魚別天顏, The fish descending to bid Heaven adieu,
歌舞酒未滿. Song and dance, our cups not yet full,
恍然夢一談. Suddenly our conversation is like a dream.

How appropriate the sentiments were expressed. I have much to learn from my friends in their rapidity in coming up with such vivid imagery and rhyming lines. After another short lull as glasses clinked and praises floated around, uttered next were the lines,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
落葉點天庭. Falling leaves touching the celestial courtyard.
宴席須會散, All banquets must come to an end,
友誼永不殘! Friendship will never wither!

Finally we all looked at our soon to be departing friend. As if for a dramatic pause, he lifted up his glass, had a sip and looked at us mournfully for awhile. We saw genuine sullenness on his face. Given the circumstances, there was nothing out of the ordinary. To lighten his mood, we jabbed at him for some ribaldry as his Chinese is by far better than the rest of us combined. He was a fine arts major, able to write a mean hand of Chinese calligraphy and of course a talented artist in Chinese traditional painting; skilled in western oils and an appraiser of art. However, his skills were deemed not crucial by Immigration like certified public tax accountants, lawyers, researchers or software engineers. Finally after much hewing and hawing, he finally came up with this,

明月照池塘, Brightly the moon shines over the pond,
微風送梅香. Plum blossoms perfuming the breeze.
瓊酒金杯合, Exquisite wine matches the golden goblets,
裙飛玉環響! Skirts in dance, tintinnabulation go the jade bracelets!

We all ribbed at him as his poem did not match the theme of the occasion. It is still now mid autumn and not winter yet (plum blossoms signify winter). Why didn’t he use the word ” 花" (flower) or even "秋" (autumn) instead? It would be better in rhyming and be in the correct season too. We chided that he was too drunk to be in charge of his faculties. Not only this, they were no dancing girls around and neither was there any golden goblet to drink from! For these flaws, he was ordered to drink more wine!

I have to work the next day, this party of seven ended too soon for my taste. As I drove the drunken revelers home, my friend was quiet; staring out into the sky as if in contemplation. A thousand words hung in his heart but none uttered. I dismissed his pensive mood for having to leave Los Angeles soon; his home of ten years. However my mind gave me no rest. I sensed something was not quite right and yet I could not put a finger on it.

Tonight as I was sleeping, I had a sudden realization. I got up; wrote his poem on paper and there was the clue winking at me. Crouched in the poem were hidden allusions that were not apparent at the first glance. It was from his last line! So obvious on paper!

“Yu Huan” (“玉環”, jade bracelet) was also the name for Yang Gui Fei of the T’ang Dynasty. For those who are not familiar with Chinese history, she was the beautiful imperial concubine that brought down the Dynasty with her petticoat! For more information, google her name.

With this key, I was able to unlock the poem quickly. Despite being prided myself as the witty one of the group, what an idiot I was not to detect such a gem that he had craftily hidden! “明月照池塘“ (Brightly the moon shines over the pond), translated character by character is “bright/illustrious moon shines pond pool”. The T’ang Emperor, Hsuan Tsung was also known as the Illustrious Emperor (明皇). Before being brought into the imperial harem, Lady Yang, his daughter-in-law was made a nun for proprietary reasons. Her Buddhist title was “Grand Reality” (太真), a euphemism for the moon. Thus the first line may be interpreted as “Emperor Ming and Yang Gui Fei were at their peak of their power shining all over the empire”. How intriguing!

For history buffs, the clue in the next line, “微風送梅香”(Gentle breeze send/receive plum-blossom fragrance) is now clear to me. The Emperor’s earlier favourite was the slender “梅妃, Mei Fei” (Plum Blossom Concubine, so entitled by the Emperor for her love of plum blossoms). The character “送” has two meanings, “send away respectfully” (送去) or “presented” (送來). When the Emperor found his new toy, the displaced concubine was sent to the “Cold Palace” (冷宮) from the eyes of the new lovers. Hence I can infer that the gentle breeze meant some low ranking eunuch.

In the third line, I am projecting into some ribaldry. The rigid golden goblet stood for the Emperor while the wine represented his new delight. My reasoning is that “合“(match, combine) is short for “合歡” or “pleasure in union”. So I guessed my friend’s mastery in ribaldry had escaped us that night. Pity! We all could have a good laugh.

Finally for the last line, “skirt flying jade bracelet ring (make a sound)”, instead of more ribaldry, I opted for a tamer version of Yang Gui Fei dancing to the tune of the “Feathered Rainbow Skirt” (霓裳羽衣曲).

We had underestimated the genius of our friend! He was trying to tell us that his relationship with his girl friend had ended. No wonder he insisted on spending the festive night with us instead. In the end, his poem was of parting too, though not of the same kind; losing his love not of his own doing.

This is the modern swimming pool I was talking about.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mid Autumn Festival 2011 - 中秋節


The Mid Autumn Festival is coming soon (12 Sep 2011). I have a dessert party to go. Not only everyone is expected to bring a dessert, not necessary moon cakes, all must bring a poem along for later recitation at the poolside - whether it is a dirty limerick or not, it must be of your own composition. It matters not if it’s in English or not. Yes, it is also a pool party. Southern Californian weather permits such activities at this time of the year! Anyway, here’s what I had composed,

月到中秋分外明, Brighter still is the moon when it is in mid autumn,
漫舞歌樂池邊庭. In song, in music, unrestrained dancing by the courtyard pool,
玉液瓊酒雖真貴, Exquisite and rare are the elixir of liquor,
不勝身傍良友情. Rarer still are the friendships beside me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Canton's #1 Scholar - Chapter 6 - Heaven's Gate - Flung Wide Open For All To See!

Copyright © 2011 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved

Ah Chui continued,

“Why should I lie? When the Governor General heard my answer, not only did he praise me, he also said that upon returning to the Yamen, he would send for his soldiers for your arrest!”

The monks thought that the words were true and exclaimed,

“Waa! This time you have done us the most harm. Good words you don’t say but bad ones you spill. You have thrown a doozy at us!”

Ah Chui retorted,

“Who asked you baldies to bully me all the time? Today is the day for revenge.”

With those words, Ah Chui quickly left for home with the fifty taels of silver in hand. Let the truth be known - along the front of West Zen temple are households and orchards from which some of the monks steal pigs, dogs and vegetables. No wonder they trembled in fright upon hearing these words.

Now Mrs. Lun had never seen so much money in her life and her eyes immediately looked at her son for explanation. As she heard his story being unfurled, her smiles were so big with glee that only her teeth and not her eyes could be seen. A slight tremor was felt as she jumped up and down with joy! This ruckus alerted the gossipy women in the neighbourhood. These so-called ‘Three Ladies and Six Hags”1 came to see what was happening. In one voice from different mouths, they cried out at once,

“We are so glad and happy for you.  Such an intelligent son!”

Eighth Aunt (Ah Chui’s mother) was very proud of her son but at the same time she lamented that ever since Ah Chui’s father had passed away they did not have any chicken for dinner. So she decided to cook one that night to give thanks to the ancestors. Of course everyone was invited to the evening feast and drinks. After the celebration, Eighth Aunt began thinking about Ah Chui’s future. It would not be good for her son to be without any formal education. With all this money she could now talk to a certain Mr. Ho to see if this experienced teacher would take Ah Chui as his student. This Mr. Ho was a learned man but not a scholar. Due to adverse fate and circumstances, he was unable to attain a green collar2 even though he spent all his time in study and his hairs had turned white. He became disheartened and no longer wished to seek glory through the imperial exams. He would rather fulfill the human desire to become a teacher3. He settled in Blessed Earth Lane and opened a school4. Neighbours knew of his great learning and because he was a stern teacher many sent their sons to be under his tutelage. Soon Mr. Ho unwittingly became a baboon troupe leader, able to sit on a tiger’s skin chair5 and be a south-facing monarch6 even though teaching them was not an easy job.

Ever since Ah Chui entered his school, Teacher Ho had observed that the boy was very intelligent though very mischievous. However the teacher was more than happy to teach his pupil and on his part, Ah Chui studied hard. Within half a year’s time, he made such great progress that he was almost as good as the teacher himself. One day, being his usual self, Ah Chui hopped, skipped and jumped his way back home from school for lunch and headed straight into his mother’s room to greet her. Unexpectedly, right at this moment, Eighth Aunt was changing into her trousers7 and was about to tell him not to enter… Too late! Ah Chui had already barged in to hug his mother. In her haste to return the hug from her son, she forgot to hold onto her trousers… Down they came, tumbling to her ankles. Even the hole whence Ah Chui came from was clearly seen by all!

Though they are mother and son and he was only seven years old, Eighth Aunt was still a woman at heart and gasped a loud “choy”8. Unexpectedly, still at a tender age, Ah Chui understood such inappropriate situations. To leave some dignity for his mother, he actually began reciting a poem right then and there! Do you know what sort of poem did he recite? Well, he hummed aloud to her,

Teacher let school out, back to home: Here I come.
Only to see Heaven’s gate flung wide open.
From time immemorial, whence Emperors came,
So too will the Number One Scholar, Two and Three!

The moment Eight Aunt heard his words, her shame immediately turned to joy. Even though she was no poet, she could still understand a word here and a word there. Such sweet and yet funny were the words that she could not help herself but burst out a hearty laugh. Although she could not directly praise her son, joy was brimming out from her heart. Alas, this poem that made a mother so happy, was also the cause that a life was almost lost.


1. 三姑 : 尼姑 (Buddhist nun), 道姑(Taoist Nun) and 卦姑 (a female fortune teller)


牙婆 (tooth hag, a go-between for handling transactions),
媒婆 (match maker)
師婆(female shaman, dispensing charms, amulets etc),
虔婆 (mama san, a procuress)
药婆 (female herbal dispenser) and
稳婆 (midwife).

Since these women were from all walks of life and had daily dealings with the general populace, they knew every bit of minutia and tended to be gossipy.

2. A green collar, a distinguishing mark of being a scholar, i.e. having passed the imperial exams.

3. This phrase came from Mencius. See Note 6 of the Cantonese section.

4. The original text used was “Confucius Sayings Place”

5. 皋比 is a chair covered with tiger’s skin. A chair of importance where generals sat.

6. Chinese emperors sit facing south because that direction is considered auspicious. This may be due to the geography of China where the south has a milder climate, more fertile plains etc.

7. More like pantaloons. Remember they are poor folks and so women do not wear skirts as they are too cumbersome for daily chores.

8. An exclamation to something inappropriate, or an expletive not quite unlike the ‘Egad’, “gracious me” etc. This exclamation was usually used by uneducated women in the old days.

Original Text



“呃你乎? 巡撫大人聞得我呢句對之後, 除佐讚我好野之外, 重話返到衙門, 必定派兵拉你地添!” 眾和尚信以為真, 個個曰:

“嘩, 今回俾你害得慘矣! 乜你好嗡唔嗡, 撚1單敢(咁)野”


“鬼叫你班禿奴, 週時欺負我, 今日報仇咁報也”

說完, 一向関(班)人, 捧住五十両銀, 飛跑回家, 原來西禪寺前, 有幾間民房, 亦有菓圃幾個, 西禪寺不肖僧人, 果然有偷猪偷狗偷芥菜行為, 早已坊人側耳, 今被倫文敘一語道破, 無怪眾和尚皆為之發茅也, 亞敘捧住五十両銀,回家, 話俾八嫂知, 八嫂成世人, 未見過大拿拿五十両銀咁多, 當堂雙眼為之發擒青2, 問亞敘去邊處得來, 亞敍乃將經過情形, 一五一十說與八嫂知, 笑到八嫂有牙冇眼, 跳起三丈幾高, 地都震埋, 早已驚動隔鄰一班三姑六婆安人大娘, 齊來觀看, 異口同聲, 都說:

“八嫂, 今回戥3你安樂咯! 生得個咁叻4嘅仔!”

八嫂亦歡天喜地, 話自從亞敘老豆過身到如今, 未曾(層)食過一件雞肉, 今晚都要劏雞拜吓祖先, 請大眾飲番杯矣, 一番高興之後, 八嫂既有錢, 認為無正式老師, 終非辦法, 乃帶阿敍去一位姓何的老師宿儒入學, 呢位何老師, 是個不第秀才, 文學甚好, 只因時乖命蹇, 屢困塲屋, 讀書讀到乜野毛都白晒, 無非撈個青一衿5因此心灰意冷, 不求進取, 就在福地巷附近, 開間子曰館, 做起人之患來6, 附近的人, 知道何老師好文才, 管教又嚴, 紛紛送其子來就讀, 所以何老師這個猢猻王, 倒能坐擁皋比, 真個南面王之不易, 自從阿敘入學後, 何老師見阿敘雖頑皮, 却聰明伶俐, 於是特別用心教之, 阿敍亦努力學習, 讀得半年, 文思更加大進, 幾乎有青出於藍之勢矣, 一日, 阿敍放宴(晏) 7晝學, 回家食飯, 阿敘行路照例連跳帶跑的, 返到家中, 两步跳入八嫂房中, 想叫聲阿媽! 不料此時八嫂正在房中換緊褲, 想嗌阿敘咪入來住! 但阿敘經已入左嚟, 攬到八嫂抽褲唔切, 當堂連生阿敘出來個處都俾阿敘睇見, 雖然八嫂同阿敘係兩仔乸, 而且阿敍年紀只七歲大, 但女人即係女人, 照例未免釆(啋)8 一聲, 不料阿敍人仔細細, 早已懂得好多野, 為要留回阿媽的面子, 居然就地吟起一首詩來, 你估個首詩點話去? 佢話


八嫂聞言不覺化羞為喜, 八嫂雖然唔識吟詩, 但亦曉聽幾句, 聽見阿敍呢首詩咁好, 亦為之大笑起來, 雖然唔敢當面誇讚個仔, 但個心則歡喜之極矣, 不料因為阿敍吟呢首詩引起八嫂歡喜, 幾乎弄出一條命案.

Cantonese Notes:

1. To handle. Here it is means to “play a trick” or 撚化 means “to trick”

2. Hurriedly. 趕不及的样子.

3. 戥 means “for you” as in, 戥你歡喜 – (We are) happy for you. For a more traditional meaning see

4. Clever, smart

5. 未青一衿〞就是說連個秀才都没有中過。還是普通百姓的身份。

6. 人之患則是出於孟子。孟子說: 「人之患,在好為人師」,意思即是指人最大的弊病是喜歡當别人的老師、以“人師”的傲態自居。 所以〝人之患〞便是說人最大的弊病或問題的意思。所以撈個青一衿便是想求得一官半職的意思!

7. Lunch

8. See general Note 8 above

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Canton's Number 1 Scholar: Chapter 5 - A Couplet That Shook The Hall

Copyright © 2011 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved

The Inspector General then asked,

“If you have studied, do you know how to match couplets?”

Ah Chui replied,

“I know a thing or two about them.”

The Inspector General continued,

“Well then This Official shall now pose ye a head couplet… match it well and your crime shall be pardoned else ye shall be brought before the yamen1 for further interrogation!”

Ah Chui proudly answered,

“How can I refuse His Excellency’s command? Please go ahead.”

What a smarty pants this little brat was! The bystanders thought. Obviously this kid is going to get shit on himself. Anyway the Inspector General began,

“Three August Buddhas2, one sitting on a dragon fish3, one sitting on an elephant and one sitting on a lotus blossom.”

Even as the words were spoken, the Inspector General was concerned that Ah Chui may not understand what was recited and almost had ordered a nearby secretary to write out the words for Ah Chui to see. However Ah Chui was not abashful4 at all and he quickly answered without hesitation,

“One poor scholar soon-no-longer-shall-he-be when he hitches5 the dragon, hitches the phoenix and hitches the vermillion Osmanthus Hall6

Everyone was startled into momentary silence when the words were uttered. Then a great roar of hurrah rose. Not only the rules of couplet composition matched in perfect unison, the meaning of Ah Chui’s reply was lofty and ambitious. The Inspector General, Wu Sum clapped his hands furiously in applause and asked,

“Wonderful, wonderful! Who’s your teacher?”

“This little one had lost his father, our family is poor and my mother eked out a living by sewing. We have no money for formal education; just relying upon the kindness of the abbot of the West Zen Temple; teaching me whenever he is available.”

The Inspector General commented,

“Ah so, such a tender age and so diligent in your studies... Today this Official shall bestow a special award on you. Fifty taels of silver for any fright you may have suffered. From now on you must even study harder. As for any expense needed for your studies, go to the accounts department and just ask for it.”

Lun Mun Chui was elated, thanking his Lordship profusely. At the same time the Inspector General heaped praises upon praises to “Universal Illumination” for being such a great teacher. Needless to say, much donation was signed for incense and oils7. With that, the Inspector General returned to his yamen. Need no more elaboration on how the old abbot and Ah Chui respectfully saw the Inspector General off but turning to Ah Chui carrying his fifty taels of silver. Smiling away as he hopped skipped and jumped out of the temple.

Already there was a group of monks gathered blocking his path. These monks bore hated for Ah Chui and were gleeful when they saw Ah Chui was tied up by the guardsmen and dragged to his Lordship. This time Ah Chui will surely become a termite on the beach - even if he survives, shit will be on his face8. But To their horror when they saw Ah Chui was released on the orders of the Inspector General and a couplet match began. They were very curious at the events being unfurled and wanted to go nearer to see what was happening. However, being afraid of the guardsmen, all they could do was to stand at a distance and stare. Finally when the Inspector General praised Ah Chui and awarded him fifty taels of silver, contradiction filled their hearts as envy and admiration mingled and raged against each other. They simply had to stop Ah Chui from walking out of the temple gates and get to the bottom of things. Pulling him aside, they interrogated,

“Warty Lun, just then, why did his Lordship, the Inspector General award you fifty taels of silver?”

Ah Chui sneeringly replied,

“That’s because I matched his couplet. Bad ain’t it? You salivating baldies9!”

The monks asked what kind of couplet it was. Ah Chui replied,

“Three August Buddhas, one sitting on a dragon fish, one sitting on an elephant and one sitting on a lotus blossom.”

The monks continued their questioning,

“How did you match it?”

Ah Chui thought to himself,

“Ought-to-die10-baldies, always bully me at every chance you get. A trick I shall now play on you all!”

“My couplet has a lot to do with you all. If I say it out, every on of you will shit in your pants!”

The monks were greatly startled and asked quickly what it has to do with them. Ah Chui replied,

“Listen carefully! My reply to his Lordship was, ‘Some shaven baldies, steal pigs, steal dogs, steal mustard greens.11

Fear crept into them as they heard the words; so frightened as if their souls had dissipated into thin air. With a great urgency, they continued interrogating,

“Hey Warty Lun, did you really match the couplet like that?”

Thursday, May 10, 2011, 31 May 2011


1. Yamen is the courthouse where people appear before a magistrate. This is where the similarity ends. See

2. Sakyamuni , Manjusri (文殊, Wenshu) and Kuanyin. Others opined that the three Buddhas are manifestations of past present and future.

3. Or a dragon turtle. Purported to be one of the nine sons of the Dragon King.

4. In Chinese custom, one should hesitate for awhile so as not to show one’s haughtiness or pride when showing one’s skills and talents.

5. The original Chinese word means “to climb up the social ladder with help from the powerful etc”. To use the words, “ascend” or “mount” or “to ride” or to “attain” will be considered as treasonous words - aspiring to become the emperor himself since the dragon and phoenix are imperial symbols.

6. An Osmanthus Hall can mean a grand hall, the lunar palace and the homes of the scholarly elite. In this context, the 3rd meaning applies. The line means is that with one’s great scholarship, there will be rich and powerful people help to lift him from obscurity.

7. For convenience, no one carries large sums of money (remember in those days, they carry ingots of silver!). The donor signs for the amount and the monks will go at a later date to collect the money.

8. A Cantonese saying, “Termites on the beach, even if they survived, their entire bodies will be so badly battered [by the waves]”. Termites cannot survive out of their temperature controlled environment. Therefore in the harsh climatic conditions of the beach, the termites will surely die. Even if they survived, they will be in real bad conditions.

9. The original text used was “bald slaves”.

10. Dead is a taboo word for the Cantonese and hence they love to use it as an expletive or an adjective for cussing etc. For example, “死仔!” does not to mean a dead boy but a boy who should have died; almost equivalent to the English slang for “you’re a dead duck now!”

11. Brassica juncea, a Chinese vegetable.

Original Text



“你極努力讀書, 會對對否?”




“本官今日出一句俾你對, 如果對得通, 則恕你無罪, 如果對不通, 必定拿回衙門重辦!”


“大人有命, 敢不依從, 請大人出之.”

門在旁各人, 見亞敘居然咁牙擦1, 心話你兒細路, 攞2嚟賤矣, 巡撫便出一句上聯曰:

“三尊佛, 坐鰲坐象坐蓮花.”

話完, 重慌亞敍唔識, 正想命一個長隨寫起, 以便俾亞敘睇, 不料亞敘不假思索, 立即隨口應曰:

“一介寒儒, 攀龍攀鳳攀丹桂”

語出, 四座皆驚, 大嘆好野, 話不特對得快捷工整, 而且小小年紀, 居然有此豪壯語氣, 咪話唔架勢堂矣. 巡撫大人吳琛, 亦當堂為之拍爛手掌, 大讚好野好野, 即問亞敘老師, 究竟何人? 亞敍曰:

“小子因為自小失怙, 家道貧窮, 母親以女紅度日, 無錢正式供讀, 只靠西禪寺老和尚普照, 閒時教我而已.”


“原來如此, 睇唔出你小小年紀, 竟然如此苦心攻讀, 本官今日特別嘉獎五十兩銀俾你, 以助膏火, 此後該加緊努力, 如有所需, 可去衙門同賬房支取應用也.”

倫文敍歡天喜地, 千多謝萬多謝, 巡撫又嘉樊普照老和尚一番, 謂其授徒有方, 唔再講, 簽其香油亦淋的筆矣. 巡撫大人遂命駕回衙, 普照老和尚及倫文敍恭送而出不提. 且說亞敘拈住五十両銀, 笑口吟吟, 行出西禪寺門口, 早有一班和尚截住, 呢班和尚, 向來都憎亞敘的, 初是見亞敘被眾衛士綁去見巡撫, 遂以為亞敘今次定必白蟮上沙灘, 唔死一身潺, 心涼之至. 但其後忽又見巡撫命觧其縛, 居然同對起對來, 不禁大以為奇, 欲上前觀看究竟, 但又恐怕被巡撫的衛士阻止, 唯有離遠而觀. 最後竟見巡撫大讚亞敘, 又賞以五十両銀, 眾和尚一時妒羨交併, 亞敘出到寺門口, 乃攔住亞敘問曰:

“癩倫, 頃間巡撫大人, 為乜事打賞五十両銀俾你乎?”


“皆因為我對通佢一句對, 你班禿奴, 唔恨(痕)得咁多矣!”

眾和尚問, 究竟乜野對? 阿敘曰:

“三尊寶佛, 坐鰲坐象坐蓮花”



阿敘心想, 你班死禿, 平日時常欺負我, 好! 撚吓你至得! 乃曰:

“我呢句對, 與你地大有關係, 講出便嚇壞你地矣!”

眾和尚愕然, 急問點樣関係法, 阿敍曰:

“聽住! 我對曰:’ 幾個禿奴, 偷猪偷狗偷芥菜.’”

語出, 嚇得眾和尚魂飛魄散, 急曰:

“喂! 癩倫, 你真係噉對法?”

Cantonese Notes

1. Brushing one’s teeth – to brag. The word “to brush” can also mean to polish as in polishing off one’s plate. Therefore “to be able polish” - 擦得” means to be able to eat heartily with great gusto and relish.

2. Cantonese for “to take or to grab”, 給, 拿 etc.

3. 潺 means weak, frail in Cantonese.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What If I Have 3 Days Left In My Life?

This is from sipatai whose piece I had corrected. It was such a beautiful piece that I have to appropriate for all my friends to see. This is an example of creative writing not quite yet to a poem level. The original link is

The Prophet, Muhammad, may blessings and Peace be upon him (sallallah alayhi wassalam) sayeth:

"When the morning comes unto thee, expect not the evening. And when the night cometh, expect not the morning!"

If I have but only 3 days in my life... Yes, only 3 days... The first day is yesterday that had forsaken me. The second day is tomorrow that is the time yet to come. The last day is today that I have. The only day that I have with me is today that is right beside me. I will do my best for today as there is no such thing as tomorrow. Yesterday is like but dust from burnt paper. It means nothing.

Grieve not for things we lost yesterday. Better to appreciate whatever we have for today. Sadness gnawing at our faces, like worms eating at an apple. Sadness age us day by day while smiles in our faces are more beautiful than any flower blooming in the morning dew.

Let light be in thy faces and smiles to light our lives.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Canton Number 1 Scholar - Chapter 4 - Mistaken For An Assassin

Copyright © 2011 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved

Canton’s Number One Scholar

Chapter 4 – A Kid Mistaken For An Assassin

A few of the monks shouted,

“Hey Warty Lun, His Lord Inspector General is coming for prayers. Why are you still here? Be wary of being caught by soldiers. When this happens don’t blame us for not warning you!”

Ah Chui retorted,

“What’s this called Inspector General? Is it edible? He’s a human, I’m a human so why the need to avoid him? ”

The monks on seeing his recalcitrant ways did not have the energy to spar with him and went on with their own work. Whoa! Suddenly bang bang came the beating of ten gongs or so. With that the Inspector General arrived. Along with his toadies, counselors and advisors, the sedan chair surfed to the very doors of the temple. “Universal Illumination” and all the rest of the monks and priests all came out respectfully to welcome his Lordship with a few moments of observed silence1. All the imps fled hurriedly except for Ah Chui who had no time to do so. Barely did he hide himself under the altar just as the Inspector General came waltzing into the Mahavira Hall. The old abbot and a few on duty priests bade obeisance to his Lordship. His Lordship Wu earnestly clasped some joss sticks and offered incense to Buddha. Soon smoke began to waft and gongs went a beating in unison. His Lordship Wu knelt on the bulrush mat and like an onion head began bobbing up and down in prayers. Nothing more than just a prayer for harmonious rain2, peace in the country, general welfare for the people and such. During his bobbing of up and down, from the corner of his eye he suddenly espied a dark shadow squirming under the altar…

His lordship gave out a cry of “Ai yah” and a shudder came over him. He quickly got up and ran. Those in attendance and the guards were puzzled for a second and when they recovered they quickly surrounded the Inspector General in protection asking what the matter was. The Inspector General pointed at the foot of the altar and stammered,

“Quick, quick, quickly get… get the assassin…”

Everyone was shocked when they heard there was an assassin under the altar and exclaimed,

“Outrageous! Absolutely disgraceful!”

The guardsman quickly drew out their swords and congregated around the table and shouted,

“Don’t move, you brazen robber!”

With that one sword flipped up the covering of the altar and there it was -- there was someone lying in there. One brave guardsman tunneled himself under the altar and with his hand and made a grab for the person and pulled him out. People were aghast when what they saw was a little boy of eight or nine years of age. Whatever the case may be, tie him up first! One ferocious looking guardsman began tying up Ah Chui like a crab and shouted,

“You little thief with such a gall made of sand, daring to assassinate his Inspector General Lordship. I think you have lived too long!”

Poor Ah Chui, injustice with nowhere to complain and under the shoveling of the guard, he was brought before the Inspector General to await further orders. In the meantime, the General Inspector went ballistic and chided till the face of “Universal Illumination” looked like shit. Knowing how he had been wrong, he dared not utter a single word in his defence. All he could do was to offer profuse apologies. When the guardsman came up with Ah Chui, the General Inspector asked where the assassin was. The guardsmen pointed at Ah Chui and replied,

“This is the one!”

When the General Inspector took a look at Chui, there it was puny and small like dice, a big-headed strange looking creature. At once his Lordship was stunned and like his station, all he could do was to shout,

“You little thing, what’s your name? Where do you live? How dare you plan to assassinateme?”

Ah Chui showed no fear and told his name and explained,

“I was playing at the temple when his Lordship came for prayers. This nothingness was not able to avoid his Lordship and therefore was forced to hide under the altar. I dare not lie and I beg his Lordship for forgiveness.”

The Inspector General saw how young Ah Chui was and knew he was no assassin. At the same time after listening to his polite reply, much of his anger had dissipated into thin air and he asked,

“You little imp, have you an education before?”

Ah Chui replied,

“Although my family is poor, I studied hard.”


1. A few moments of absolute silence is observed whenever a dignitary comes a calling.

2. Gentle rain for the crops is utmost importance in an agricultural society of China.

3. There are many ways of crab tying to prevent the crab from crawling and preventing a nip from the claws. However I could not find a photo of the way I see using a bulrush straw to tie up the pincers and legs and with a handle to carry at the same time.


Original Text



“癩倫, 巡撫大人來拜神, 你重2唔走乎? 顧住被的兵捉住你, 到個陣咪話唔通知也.”


“乜野3叫做巡撫, 食唔食得的? 佢又係人, 我有係人, 駛4乜避佢乎?”

和尚見佢唔聽話, 亦冇佢咁好氣, 自己做自己的事, 俄5, 忽然聞砰砰聲十下頭鑼鼓响, 巡撫大人在一班師爺長隨簇擁之下, 已乘轎來到西禪寺, 寺中普照老和尚及各僧, 一齊敬謹迎接, 一時肅靜迥避, 與亞敍同來之細路, 早已走夾唔抖6, 亞敘走避不及, 惟有匿在神枱底下, 亞敍甫在神枱下藏身, 而巡撫吳大人已步入大雄寳殿, 當由老和尚普照及一班職事僧人, 為之贊禮, 吳大人十分虔誠, 親手向三寶佛爺座前上香, 一時香烟繚繞, 鐘鼓齊鳴, 吳大人就跪在蒲團之上, 叩如搗蒜, 口中如祈願, 無非風調雨順, 國泰民安之類, 不期正在叩頭之際, 眼光無意一觸神枱底, 突見有一黑影一團, 蠕蠕而動, 咤呀一聲, 當堂發茅一樣, 起身便跑, 在傍各僚屬長隨衛士之流, 一時莫明其妙, 連忙團團圍住巡撫大人, 問是何事, 巡撫大人指指神枱底, 口震震曰:

“快快快! 拿拿刺客….”

眾人一聞枱底有刺客, 大吃一驚, 曰:


眾衛士立即拔刀在手, 一擁至神枱底前, 大喝:


一刀挑開顧綉枱圍布, 向內一望, 果然有人匿伏在此, 一個衛士奮勇鑽入枱底, 一隻手就將此人執了出來, 眾人一睇, 我挑! 原來係一兒年約八九歲的細路仔, 但冇理佢, 紥起佢先, 個班衛士, 如狼似虎, 便將亞敍扮蟹, 大駡曰:

“你個小賊, 亦算沙胆, 居然敢行刺巡撫大人, 嫌命長都唔定矣!”

亞敘有寃無路訴, 就在眾衛士拉拉扯扯之下, 押到會客廳巡撫大人面前發落, 此時巡撫大人正在大燒枱砲, 駡得普照滿面屁, 普照明知冤枉, 但哪敢分辯, 只有連聲認錯, 旣然押到倫文敘來, 巡撫便問刺客何在? 眾衛士指指倫文敍曰:


巡撫睇睇倫文敍,蝦, 原來係個一粒色咁大的細路, 頭大如斗, 形容古怪, 當堂為之愕然, 照例喝問曰:

“你這小子, 何姓何名, 何方人氏, 胆敢企圖行刺本官?”

亞敍從容不廹, 便將自己姓名禀上, 并謂頃間在西禪寺玩耍因大人來參神, 小子廻避不及, 迫得匿在神枱底, 實不敢妄作胡為, 請求大人原量. 巡撫見亞敍小小年紀, 早知不是歹人, 又見佢應對得體, 不禁將頃間怒氣, 消去大半, 又問曰:

“你這小子, 讀過書未?”


“小子雖然家窮, 却努力讀書之至.”

Cantonese Notes

1. A rascal; something insignificant.

2. Same as 總, still, yet.

3. See Chapter 1 Cantonese Notes #6.

4. The actual meaning is to “to drive” but here its function is like 使 to cause.

5. Just a sound effect like “Wah!”

6. 走夾唔抖–flee/run away so fast that there is no time to rest i.e. Hurriedly. The more common word used is 唞 (to rest)