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Monday, April 18, 2011

Preface to Canton's Number One Scholar

Copyright © 2011 - Jeff Loh. All rights reserved


Lun Mun Chui (Lun Wenxu, 倫文敍)

Born during the 3rd year of Ming Emperor Cheng Hua 成化(1467) and died in the 8th year of Emperor Cheng Te 正德(1513), Lun Mun Chui was Canton’s first imperial Number One Scholar. In those days, the South where Canton is situated was considered a barbaric region even though they were brought into the fold of China proper during the Tang period several hundred years earlier. It was also a place to which disgraced officials were exiled. During the 12th year of Ming Emperor Hung Chi 弘治(1499), not only did Lun Mun Chui became first in the imperial exams, he was also selected as the Number One Scholar by the Emperor himself. The story goes that the results of the exams were so hotly contested that the chief examiner had to report the matter to the Emperor for a tie-breaker. Emperor Hung Chi personally witnessed a couplet-forming contest to decide who was to be the top dog.

When chief examiner Liang Chu (梁儲) heard a crow cawing in the nearby imperial gardens, he posed the following head couplet:

“A crow pounces on a twig, the twig snaps, the crow flew away and the twig dropped down.”1

There is no significance in English but just a picturesque setting. However, in the original language this becomes a different creature. In Chinese the crow is pronounced as “ah”, which has the same pronunciation as the word for twig. So the couplet heading becomes,

“An Ah pounces on an ah, the ah snaps, the ah flew away and the ah fell down”.

The other candidate, Lau Sin Hoi whose name means ‘the willow blooms first’ pounced quickly and completed the couplet first,

“The panther passes by a cannon’s mouth, the cannon roars, the panther fled and the cannon roared into the sky”2

The homophones are the words for panther and cannon. The pattern then is,

“The pao passes by a pao’s mouth, the pao roared, the pao fled and the pao roared into the sky”.

Our Number One Scholar-to-be then calmly replied,

“A goose stomps on chrysanthemum’s leaves, the chrysanthemum blossoms sway, the goose flew away and the chrysanthemum blossoms faced the Heaven3".

Similarly the play is on the words for crane and chrysanthemum. On the surface it looked like it was a tie again. The replies from both candidates met the stringent rules of couplet forming. Liu Sin Hoi was bragging to everyone present that no matter how good Lun Mun Chui was, “I, Liu Sin Hoi am the better candidate. My roar will cower him and he will slink away in shame. My fame as the Number One Scholar shall rocket without obstruction into the sky.” A very ambitious and haughty boast indeed. However on closer analysis, his answer was a bit artificial and contrived because the presence of a passing panther suggests wildness. This makes one wonder why a cannon would be guarding in a remote area? Also ludicrous is the notion that panthers would pass close by the cannons when there are human beings so near.

The scenario painted by Lun Mun Chui is more plausible and its hidden meaning nobler without resorting to personal attacks.  Corrupt officials are represented by the goose stomping on the people in this picture. Once they are removed (only the emperor can remove them), people then can rise and pay their love and respect truly to their sovereign. In another words, kissing the Emperor’s ass! The founder of the Ming Dynasty had great distrust and disdain for scholar officials since he had the humble beginnings of a peasant. The post of the prime minister was abolished and the emperor held that position personally. This was because of historical precedents of regicide happened in earlier dynasties.
Lun Mun Chui was an irascible rascal in his youth. Many a story was told time and again about his sassiness and trouble making. He was also a child prodigy and quick-witted as a demon. Though born from a poor family, as another story goes, he was able to secure money for his journey to the capital for the imperial examinations from his admirers. Never had the province of Canton ever produced a Number One Scholar and village elders were eager to help him in his enterprise. You see hometown compatriots of the Number One Scholar have bragging rights to build an imperial memorial arch to commemorate the prestigious event. In those days, these arches could only be built with imperial permission for such a special occasion and for commemorating great acts of virtuous widowhood, etc.

The full title of the book is “A Cantonese Story Demon Witted Lun Mun Chui”, a 1949 publication containing a set of 5 thin books. Unfortunately book 4 is missing from my collection. With luck perhaps I can obtain the contents of the missing book before this translation is finished. The book was written in a three style manner with semi-classical, standard vernacular and Cantonese colloquial style known as三及. Other variations of the title include, “The Complete Tales of Lun Mun Chui” 倫文敍全傳/集.

Lastly a note on the pseudonym of the author, Uncle Chen (襯叔). Uncle is an euphemism for an elderly gentleman hence 'Old Chen'. For astute Cantonese readers, 'old Chen’ (老襯) is Cantonese slang for 'sucker'. For those interested in reading the original text, I have included in the Notes section a set of explanations of the Cantonese terms used in the chapter. I hope this story, then, will also serve as a Cantonese lesson. Since I could not find anelectronic version on the internet, and character recognition software is as good as automatic translation, I decided to transcribe the original text manually. That way I was able to detect errors and make corrections easily. These corrections will appear in parenthesis in a different color or font, alongside the original text that I concluded was erroneous. Enclosed in square parenthesis i.e. [] is my translation not included in the original text to make things clearer without disrupting the flow of reading. This is a translation project for the entertainment of my non-Cantonese friends. It is greatly appreciated if any error found is brought to my attention.

Jeff Loh

Edited by the Jimbo
Thursday, April 07, 2011, Los Angeles, California, USA


The surname Lun () means “normal human relationships” between the sovereign and subject, father and son etc.  Mun () means language, culture, civilization etc, and Chui () means “to narrate” or “discourse”.  Lun is also a homophone for meaning “to discuss”, “to debate”.  So his name can mean “discussion on literary and human relationships”.  The Five Bonds are, “Sovereign and Subject”, “Father and Son”, “Older and Younger Brothers ”, “Husband and Wife” and “Among Friends”.

1. 鴉撲丫枝, 丫折鴉飛丫落地

2. 豹經砲口, 炮響豹走炮沖天

3. 鵠立菊葉, 菊垂鵠去菊朝天. Other variations include 鵠掠穀穗,谷垂秸去谷朝天 – A goose plunders millet sprays, the valley swayed under the weight of grass, when the grasses are gone the valley faces heaven. The homophones are for the words ‘goose’, ‘millet’ (grains), ‘valley’ and ‘grass’. However I don’t think this version is correct because it violates couplet-forming rules because the head couplet plays only on the sounds of two different characters. A 鵠 can also mean a crane or a swan. I chose to translate it in this context as ‘goose’ because chrysanthemums and wild birds did not usually appear together in a natural setting of farming communes in ancient China.

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