The perils of literacy

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I see this on zdic (online dictionary of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese) from time to time:

The inscription says:

Rénshēng shìzì yōuhuàn shǐ 人生識字憂患始
("misery / suffering / worry / hardship begins when one becomes literate").

The man who wrote this enigmatic line, Su Shi (1037-1101), has a towering reputation as a "writer, poet, painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist, gastronome, and a statesman".  He should know, better than anyone, the truth of his statement.  But what did he mean by it?  It seems particularly strange that an online dictionary of Literary Sinitic would choose this of all lines to put on their site.

I asked a colleague, Ronald Egan, who is a specialist on Su Shi, his opinion about the meaning of this line.  Here is his reply:

Yes, I'm familiar with the Su Shi poem and very fond of the opening lines. I think rénshēng 人生 refers to people in general, but of course Su Shi's own experience as a celebrated man of letters who ran into all sorts of trouble because of that celebrity also lies behind those words. As the poem moves on, it becomes one of Su Shi's most important statements about calligraphy (and he has many of them!).

I think that only someone who is deeply immersed in the life and literature of Su Shi can understand this line.  I know a fair amount about Su Shi, but I do not consider myself qualified to pronounce on the ultimate meaning of these words.  What I can say is that the title of the poem in which it occurs is "Shí Cāngshū zuìmò táng 石蒼舒醉墨堂" ("Shi Cangshu's hall of inebriant ink") and that, as Ron Egan says, the poem is about calligraphy.  Calligraphy — in practice and in appreciation — can bring joy and it can bring sorrow.  Only one who truly identifies with calligraphy (his own or that of others) can experience the emotions that Su Shi describes in this poem.

Note that the first two characters of the line we are studying already pose a problem:  rénshēng 人生 could mean "human life" or "life" in general, "philosophy of life" or "outlook (on life)", "life itself", "span of life", "an individual's life", "activity of a life", "relations with people (in life)", and so forth.

Daan Pan, who is a historian and connoisseur of Chinese calligraphy as well as the author of The Lyrical Resonance Between Chinese Poets and Painters: The Tradition and Poetics of Tihuashi* (Cambria, 2011), observes:

This poem, like some comparable pieces by Su Shi, airs Su's frustrations with his career setback. So this line bears sarcastic overtones. The term you1huan4 忧患 comes from Mengzi's / Mencius's  expression 《 shēng yú yōuhuàn, sǐ yú ānlè 生于忧患,死于安乐 ["to be born in sorrow, to die in joy"]》(《 Mèngzǐ Gàozi xià 孟子  告子  下 [Mencius, "Gao Zi" B]》), which, in Su's line, means a person's awareness / sense of worrying about things happening around him / her, in a way comparable with the notion of angst. This line as a whole means something like: I started to worry about things the moment I acquired literacy. Its subtextual meaning is something like: I don't want to blame other people (i.e., his political enemies and unappreciative superiors) for causing my frustrations. Rather, I blame myself for having (too much) scholarly learning. What he really meant to say is exactly the opposite, which reminds me of Du Fu's poem Lǚ yè shū huái 旅夜书怀 ("Thoughts while travelling at night"), in which he writes:  míng qǐ wénzhāng zhù? guān yīng lǎobìng xiū 名岂文章著,官应老病休 ("Can reputation come from written works?  When old and sick, an official should retire.")

*VHM:  tíhuàshī 題畫詩 ("poetry about painting")

It's interesting that Lu Xun (1881-1936), who is generally considered to be the greatest Chinese writer of the twentieth century, wrote an essay entitled "Rénshēng shìzì hútú shǐ 人生识字糊涂始" ("fatuity begins when one becomes literate").  Lu Xun's most famous story is about an illiterate peasant named Ah Q, and it was Lu Xun who is reported to have said shortly before his death, "Hànzì bùmiè, Zhōngguó bì wáng" 漢字不滅, 中國必亡 ("If Chinese characters are not eradicated, China will perish!").

See "Lu Xun and the Zhao family " (1/5/16) and "New radicals in an old writing system " (8/29/12).

What does "rénshēng shìzì yōuhuàn shǐ 人生識字憂患始" ("misery / suffering / worry / hardship begins when one becomes literate") mean?

Many things to many people, but most of all it means many thing to Su Shi himself.

[Thanks to Bai Qianshen and Xiuyuan Mi]


For those who are curious about what the whole poem says, here is Michael Fuller's translation, from his book about Su Shi titled The Road to East Slope, pp. 122-125.

rénshēng shìzì yōuhuàn shǐ, xìngmíng cū jì kěyǐ xiū.
hé yòng cǎoshū kuā shénsù, kāijuàn tǎnghuǎng lìng rén chóu.
wǒ cháng hào zhī měi zì xiào, jūn yǒu cǐ bìng hé nián chōu!
zì yán qízhōng yǒu zhì lè, shìyì wú yì xiāoyáo yóu.
jìn zhě zuò táng míng zuì mò, rú yǐn měijiǔ xiāo bǎi yōu.
nǎi zhī Liǔ Zǐ yǔ bù wàng, bìng shì tǔ tàn rú zhēnxiū.
jūn yú cǐ yì yì yún zhì, tuī qiáng bàibǐ rúshān qiū.
xìng lái yīhuī bǎi zhǐ jǐn, jùnmǎ shūhū tà jiǔzhōu.
wǒ shū yì zào běn wúfǎ, diǎn huà xìnshǒu fán tuīqiú.
hú wèi yìlùn dú jiàn jiǎ, zhī zì piàn zhǐ jiē cáng shōu.
bù jiǎn Zhōng Zhāng jūn zìzú, xiàfāng Luó Zhào wǒ yì yōu.
bù xū línchí gèng kǔ xué, wán qǔ juàn sù chōng qīn chóu.


In life, acquaintance with writing is the beginning of calamity and grief.
Once one knows how to roughly record one’s name, one can stop.
Of what use is cursive script, boasting of one’s inspired swiftness,
When on opening a scroll it stupefies men, makes them suffer?
I always laugh at myself that I used to enjoy it.
You have this disease: how can we cure it?
You say that in [calligraphy] is the greatest joy,
That in according with your thoughts, it is no different from “carefree wandering.”
Recently you built a hall called “Drunk Ink.”
Like drinking fine wine, [calligraphy] can dispel a hundred sorrows.
Thus I know that Master Liu’s words were not amiss:
Sick, one eats dirt and charcoal as though they were delicacies.
It can be said that you are at the acme of this art:
Heaps of spent brushes are [high] as hills.
When the inspiration comes, in one sweep you exhaust a hundred sheets of paper:
A spirited horse in an instant treads the Nine Divisions.
My calligraphy I make up as I go, at bottom without any rules.
My dots and strokes follow howsoever my hand moves, and working at it bothers me.
Why in your discussion are you uniquely lenient with me?
Every solitary character and scrap of paper you collect and store away.
Not inferior to Zhong Yao and Zhang Zhi, you are worthy in your own right.
Below, compared to Luo and Zhao, I too am superior.
You need not again earnestly practice by the poolside.
And you can take all the silk for [its proper] use in coverlets and sheets.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 8:09 am

    Another artist who evinced a similar outlook is Zheng Banqiao 郑板桥 (1693-1765), whose real name was Zheng Xie 鄭燮, the Qing dynasty literati painter and calligrapher. His self-motto was "nándé hútú 難得糊塗" ("it's hard to attain a state of muddleheadedness"). Both Su Shi and Zheng Banqiao wrote about the paradox of knowledge and the dichotomy between knowledge and ignorance.

  2. Chris Cooper said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 9:18 am

    "Hall of inebriant ink" will be the name of my next home.

  3. Cervantes said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 9:19 am

    There are mutual differences, of course, but one is reminded of Pandora's jar, the Tree of Good and Evil, and so on.

  4. Anonymous Coward said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    There's one similar poem by Su Shi that has even got into the usual fortune(6) cookies:

    Families, when a child is born
    Want it to be intelligent.
    I, through intelligence,
    Having wrecked my whole life,
    Only hope the baby will prove
    Ignorant and stupid.
    Then he will crown a tranquil life
    By becoming a Cabinet Minister
    — Su Tung-p'o


  5. Amy Stoller said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:09 am

    Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.

    Whether or not ignorance is bliss under all circumstances is another matter.

  6. liuyao said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:17 am

    Shouldn't tíhuàshī 題畫詩 be "poems written on a piece of painting"? It's mostly about whatever subject is being depicted.

  7. WSM said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Yeah this is a standard Daoist trope: also reminds me of Pan Yue's idea of 養拙 (cultivating ineptness) as described in the "Rhapsody on the Easy Life" (閒居賦). Mightn't "醉墨" be better translated as "getting drunk on ink" i.e. "losing oneself in calligraphy"?

  8. WSM said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:23 am

    And yes @liuyao 题画诗 is indeed poetry written (physically) on painting

  9. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 11:03 am

    My original understanding of tíhuàshī 題畫詩 is that it mean "poems inscribed on paintings", and that's what I had in the first drafts of this post. But Daan Pan wrote a 436 page book on this very subject which greatly enlarges the scope of the genre. I linked to a description of his book in the o.p.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 5:09 am

    If you'd asked Su Shi to read his poem aloud 900+ years ago, would he have recited "Rensheng shizi" etc? Or is that a Modern Standard Mandarin translation of what he wrote in some regional (and/or stylized literary) variety of Middle Chinese — a translation that he himself would not have understood if you'd spoken it to him, MSM being a variety of Sinitic that did not exist in his lifetime? We do not encourage students of Latin to pronounce Latin texts as if each word sounded like its modern French descendant. What justification can there be for giving Western (or other "outsider") readers a romanization of Middle Chinese poetry that does not attempt to romanize the specific Sinitic language in which the poem was written?

  11. Adam F said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 7:04 am

    "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 8:45 am

    @J.W. Brewer

    Excellent questions!

    I will try to get some historical phonologists and philologists to respond to the vital issues you have raised.

  13. J. M. Unger said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 9:53 am

    @J.W. Brewer. Actually, when I took literary Chinese from Hugh Stimson at Yale, he took pains to use three versions of the text: the original characters; their Middle Chinese phonemicization; and the modern pronunciations. The characters are what come down to us, and the modern pronunciations are convenient to use when talking about the text apart from its linguistic form. When wants to discuss that, a theory of MCh phonemics is indispensable. Incidentally, the return to approximating classical Latin pronunciation in schools started, at in England, only in the early 20th century, as memorably depicted by James Hilton in _Goodbye, Mr. Chips_. Chips, showing his age, complains that his colleagues have decided no longer to teach Cicero and Caesar as /sisəro/ and /si:zər/ but instead /kikero/ and /kaisar/.

  14. J. M. Unger said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    Apologies: "When wants" > When one wants

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    From Michael Fuller:

    I concur that it is worse than pointless to give the pinyin reading; it give the readers who know nothing about China the illusion that what they are reading reflects the sound values of the original, which of course it does not. It also feeds into the complex cultural politics in the PRC. If one must give a modern reading—I see no need for it—then Cantonese or, more provocatively, Minnan would be better. They at least preserve the entering tone and the final –m.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

    J.M. Unger. Interesting point re Prof. Stimson's practice. I think the difference in the pre-20th-century West was that although Latin pronunciation had evolved and diverged significantly from what it had been in ancient times (and had significant regional variations within Europe), English schoolboys still learned how to pronounce Latin words entirely differently from how they learned to pronounce the French words descended from them (or the Spanish words etc). And likewise in Romance-speaking countries. An Italian schoolboy reading Latin poetry aloud would, afaik, read it as if it were in a different language than a poem by Dante or Petrarch, regardless of how much subsequent changes in Italian phonology had affected the local evolved pronunciation of Latin texts.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 4:04 pm

    From Bob Ramsey:

    I'm glad Jim [Unger] talked a bit about how Hugh Stimson taught his Literary Sinitic courses using reconstructed forms. Those courses were wonderful, and ever since the oddness of teaching ancient Chinese poetry using modern Mandarin readings of the characters has stuck in my mind. But for their part, Chinese around Yale always just found them [the reconstructed forms] quirky and unreadable. The same mindset is also why a distinguished colleague of mine in the sciences once pontificated at a university banquet about how he knew that Chinese didn't change like other languages–he speaks the same language as Confucius, he told us, and he could see that by the fact that he could read Confucius's writings easily!

  18. J. M. Unger said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 4:32 pm

    @J.W. Brewer This is getting a bit far removed from Chinese, but I think your account of British pronunciation practice is somewhat off the mark. Already by the 18th century, British pronunciation of Latin was far removed from even Church Latin because of changes in English (not a continuous Latin tradition) such as the Great Vowel Shift. See Swift's hilarious letter to Sheridan, which begins, "Ill us try sigh may Do my nay, In vain I vye am new pear am descry bend a late in night a tea" (i.e. Illustrissime Domine, Inveni viam nuperam de scribenda Latinitate). Note also such common borrowings as alumni (American /əlumnay/), etc. As for Italian, your theory seems to be contradicted by jokes with punchlines like "I vitelli dei romani sono belli," which is grammatical in both Italian and Latin but with completely different parsings/meanings: there would be no joke if the modern pronunciations weren't customarily the same.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 8:36 pm

    I think my Latin-pronunciation examples in the earlier comment may have been poorly explained and/or poorly constructed because I am jet-lagged, but rather than try to explain them better let me make two other points.

    1. Certainly *one* important and legitimate aspect of the study of classical Chinese texts by Western scholars and students ought to be understanding how those texts are read/understood by modern speakers of living Sinitic languages, and if one thinks reading the poems with the MSM pronunciations associated with the characters is odd or counterintuitive, one ought to strive to understand the cultural context within which doing so seems natural. But that's not the same as assuming that the way of approaching those texts which is common for MSM speakers ought to be normative for students coming from a different linguistic/cultural background.

    2. One important factor for how Western learners may or may not fall into doing the same thing may be how high a percentage of Western students beginning to study Literary Chinese have prior exposure to Mandarin. I now realize I myself have a vague memory of seeing a no-prior-knowledge-of-Mandarin-or-Cantonese-required course in reading knowledge of Literary Chinese in the Yale undergraduate course catalog 30+ years ago, which sounded interesting at the time (although if I'd added yet another dead language to those I was already dabbling in it probably would have been Sanskrit, given my general interests at the time). I imagine that must have been a course taught by Prof. Stimson. But if intro courses to Literary Sinitic offered in other universities generally presuppose prior study of MSM, that will naturally affect the pedagogy. But I can easily imagine being a serious student of e.g. Japanese or Korean and wanting to learn to read Literary Chinese as part of understanding those languages' literary-and-linguistic histories while having no particular interest at all in gaining fluency in Mandarin.

  20. Richard VanNess Simmons said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

    Well, the rhyming works okay in this particular poem using Pǔtōnghuà readings and transcription. Though in Sū Shì’s 11th c. southwestern—likely Mandarin—language, a medial [i] may have been present in most or all of rhyming syllables that now have retroflex syllables, which means the rhyme scheme would have included the main vowel *and* the medial. Also of note, Sū Shì’s prosodic form for this poem has all rhyming syllables in the píng tone while syllables at the end of non-rhyming lines in each couplet are zè tones. This is all discernible in the Pǔtōnghuà reading for all syllables except in the last two couplets (11 and 12), in which zú and xué are in the modern 2nd tone and would seem to be píng; but they are derived from the rù tone, now lost in Pǔtōnghuà, and so they too are zè. Among other neat features of the prosody Sū Shì brought to this poem, in most couplets the second syllable of each line is in an opposite píng/zè category (exceptions are lines 1, 5 , and 7); and several couplets manage to do that for the last three syllable of their respective lines as well (3, 4, 6, 10, and 12). Again, all this is visible in the Pǔtōnghuà readings except for line 12 (for the same reason already noted for xué).

  21. David Branner said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 12:44 am

    I am responding to J.W. Brewer's comment in this thread, "If you'd asked Su Shi to read his poem aloud 900+ years ago…":

    We do have a reasonable idea of the sound of mainstream spoken language in Su Shyh's time, although in poetry he and most other poets did not normally respect spoken phonetics — it's quite easy to see that they observed rules of phonology special to poetry, and for that reason the phonetics are something of a question mark. For earlier periods, our knowledge of Chinese phonology is highly abstract and does not equate directly to a simple reading phonetic system at all.

    So we have to make one up, and indeed the so-called _wendwu_ 文讀 traditions have served this function (and others), at least as attested in the early modern era. But even _wendwu_ normally can't be used "as is" — it often has to be tuned to the literature it's going to be used with. (That has been going on in China since early medieval times.) Doing it today requires non-trivial training, which now occurs mainly in Chinese-speaking societies and there, too, it has become a boutique specialization. It seems the West has simply given up on thinking about this matter.

    As for J.W. Brewer's premise, "We do not encourage students of Latin to pronounce Latin texts as if each word sounded like its modern French descendant," using modern French would indeed be silly, but I suggest that French traditions of reading Latin are not. I see nothing wrong with using modern reading accents to render literature of the past. Reconstructions (tuned up or not) certainly have validity to this purpose, but so do received reading traditions — authenticity is not a boolean trait. There is a good book on historical educated and ecclesiastical Latin accents by Harold Copeman (1918–2003): _Singing in Latin_ ( (Obituary here:

    I think that Chinese reconstructions are in favor in the West because they don't seem to require much understanding of the sources of phonology or their intellectual history — these reconstructions appear to offer a simple representation of something that people usually assume to be actual historical pronunciation. But in Chinese, the longer before the Ming the target of a linguistic reconstruction dates to, the less likely it is to reflect actual historical pronunciation.

    As for reading ancient literature in colloquial Mandarin phonology, it has a validity not comparable to the Latin-in-French example: phrases of ancient origin persist in Mandarin and other colloquial forms of Chinese because of the medium of the written characters, which is not intrinsically bound to sound.

  22. David Branner said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 12:59 am

    My reply is to Brewer's comment at

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 4:26 pm

    From Richard Lynn:

    Latin is written with the Roman alphabet, Chinese is not. Latin can be and is pronounced in dozens of ways all over the world, with accents ranging from Hindu to Hungarian. To be offended by transcribing passages by Su Dongpo in standard modern Chinese pinyin romanization seems silly; this, after all, is the national standard for current Chinese language culture, and if we wish to help students of Chinese poetry to come to grips with such interesting and difficult material, adding romanization surely helps. Native Chinese speakers may not need such romanization, but the non-native neophyte surely does. Of course, specialized studies that focus on reconstructing the pronounciation of Su Dongpo's own day should use an appropriate transcription system to do so, but I see absolutely no benefit for general non-phonetic studies that focus on other aspects of Su's poetry to insist on MSM transcriptions (which may not be entirely accurate anyway). And, phonologists do not own exclusive rights to the study of Chinese poetry in the West or anywhere else, whatever they may think.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 6:23 pm

    It seems to me (although perhaps this is a culturally-conditioned attitude) that the primary distinction between poetry and other genres of literature is that "how it sounds" is much more important for poetry. An accurate prose paraphrase of a poem, even in the original language, is no longer the poem. Which makes me initially puzzled at Richard Lynn's suggestion that phonology is irrelevant to "studies that focus on other aspects of Su's poetry," because I'm initially unsure what those other aspects would be, or rather, what those other aspects would be that could not be equally well accomplished by reading Su's poetry in English translation. But RIchard Simmons' point that for this particular text the nature of the sound changes into MSM is such that most of the pattern of rhymes in the original (if not always their specific phonetic form) has been preserved is an important one, which does point to something beneficial that the Western student might gain from reading in "MSM translation" rather than English translation. And it's always difficult to draw parallels between different literary/linguistic traditions because the nature and pace of change (in pronunciation or in other aspects of the language) won't be the same. For English poetry, a modern Anglophone can generally read Shakespeare in (their own native version of) modern pronunciation without missing too much, but the same is not true with Chaucer. But the timescale at which something important is lost without understanding historical pronunciation will likely be different, perhaps dramatically so, for other literary traditions.

  25. 狄魯德 said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 9:57 am

    難得糊塗。。。 When ignorance is bliss, "tis foolish to be wise…

  26. David Branner said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    > 難得糊塗

    My teacher left me a copy of the famous Jenq Baanchyau scrivening of that, and it hangs in my house to remember him by.

    > 聰明難、糊塗難、由聰明而糊塗更難、放一著、退一步、當下心安、非圖後來福報也、板橋議
    > To be clever is hard, but to be foolish is hard, too, and it is even harder to become foolish when one is clever. When you let go of some advantage and take a step back, immediately you feel at peace. You do this because you decline to have your mind set on some future good fortune coming your way. The opinion of [Zhèng] Bǎnqiáo [(1693–1765)]

  27. Lee said,

    January 20, 2017 @ 11:25 am

    @Chris Cooper: "Hall of inebriant ink" will be the name of my next home.

    I'd like that too, but I'm afraid that visitors translating it on their Google devices will think that I've called my home Drunk Mexican Church.

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