The historical vagaries of a Shanghai temple and town name: Lu Ji and the "Wenfu" ("Rhapsody on literature")

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From Rostislav Berezkin, who teaches at Fudan University:

The place where I stay is called Qibao town, now Minhang district of Shanghai. The name means "Seven Treasures". It comes from the name of the Buddhist temple called Qibaosi. Legend says that the temple was built by the Lu family to commemorate Lu Ji* and Lu Yun, brothers of the 3rd cent. AD who were very famous poets and politicians.  Their tombs were located there. It became known as Lubaosi (Precious Temple of Lu). But 500 years later the king of Wuyue (907-978) during the Ten Kingdoms (907-979) period visited the place. When he asked the name of the temple, he misheard it as "Six Treasures Temple"; "six" is pronounced somewhat like "lok" in modern Shanghainese (it's "luc" in modern Vietnamese, also an equivalent of the "entering" tone). Apparently this is very close to the medieval pronunciation of the Lu surname ("[main]land"). The king was perplexed because there are seven treasures in Buddhism, not six. Therefore, he decided to donate the precious manuscript of the Lotus Sutra in gold letters he had made before, so that it would constitute the seventh treasure. Then the monastery became known as the Qibaosi.

Note on the absence of Sinographs (someone is sure to ask)

Although Rostislav is a consummate Sinologist and could have peppered his note with Chinese characters, he didn't include even a single one, despite the rather technical nature of his subject.  I was somewhat surprised and quite delighted that, even without the characters, I could understand every word of what he wrote.  That bodes well for people who do not have the time to learn Chinese characters but are interested in Chinese history, literature, etc.  Since Rostislav did not use Chinese characters in his essay, I respected him by following suit, except for two in the quotation below.

*Historical and literary note on Lu Ji

From Wikipedia:

Lu Ji (261–303), courtesy name Shiheng, was a Chinese essayist, military general, politician, and writer who lived during the late Three Kingdoms period and Jin dynasty of China.


Lu Ji wrote much lyric poetry but is better known for writing fu, a mixture of prose and poetry. He is best remembered for the Wen fu (文賦; On Literature), a piece of literary criticism that discourses on the principles of composition. Achilles Fang commented:

The Wen-fu is considered one of the most articulate treatises on Chinese poetics. The extent of its influence in Chinese literary history is equaled only by that of the sixth-century The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons of Liu Hsieh. In the original, the Wen-fu is rhymed, but does not employ regular rhythmic patterns: hence the term "rhymeprose."

English translations of the Wen fu were done by E.R. Hughes and Achilles Fang*. Chen Shixiang translated Wen fu into verse because, although the piece was rightly called the beginning of Chinese literary criticism, Lu Ji wrote it as poetry. Poets who have been influenced by Lu's Wen fu include Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Howard Nemirov, Eleanor Wilner, and Carolyn Kizer.

Lu Ji is also the writer of the oldest extant work of Chinese calligraphy, a short letter to his friends that has been named the Pingfutie (Consoling Letter).

*One of my most influential teachers, who warned me against "assinology" and all those "dirty books".


Selected readings



  1. Chris Button said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 2:24 pm

    That’s such a great story. Thanks for sharing. It’s worth adding that the surname 陸 is the alternative/financial spelling of 六 “six” anyway.

    On an entirely separate note about six and seven confusion, I would love it if someone could help me out with the following conundrum…

    The number “seven” in Tibeto-Burman appears to come from a quinary system of an unspecified morpheme for “five” plus the number “two”. The Chinese pronunciation of 七 “seven” beautifully reflects that origin as one fused morpheme.

    What baffles me though is why the earliest inscriptional Burmese forms use the number six for the first morpheme plus two for the second morpheme since 6+2=8. I’m wondering if it’s just scribal error since the number six in Burmese has a similar onset to what the unspecified morpheme representing 5 would have done (Jim Matisoff has proposed that the first morpheme might have meant “fist” and by extension “five”).

  2. Dario said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 5:12 pm

    I’m just passing by, I’m not a regular reader and I’m not an expert, but I wonder: couldn’t “six and two” be interpreted as “the second six”, as in “…five, six, second six, eight…” Even in Latin they had a “bis sexta dies” every four years, and it wasn’t the twelfth day… (I am definitely not suggesting any relation, it’s just an example of the fact that numbers needn’t be added nor multiplied when found together)

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 5:45 pm

    the higher numerals are first written by leveraging (close) homophones, and for 'six' it was this word, whatever exactly it meant… I guess not 'dry land' per se; probably a verb?

  4. Chris Button said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 6:29 pm

    @ Dario

    That's a really interesting idea.

    @Jonathan Smith

    The thing is that the word for "seven" clearly contains "two" in Chinese and even more explicitly in other Tibeto-Burman languages where there has been no fusion (e.g. Burmese). Regardless of the script, the etymology of the word for "seven" lies in something plus two.

  5. Chris Button said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 9:51 pm

    @ Dario

    The more I think about it, the more I think you might be on to something. The word family of 二 ᶮʝǝːjs "two" has a sense of "follow" running though it rather than "double" (among others, compare 次 scǝːjs "next, subsequent" in which the two dots to the left of 欠 are 二). So the idea of seven being "second six" rather than "six plus two" works very well.

  6. Chris Button said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 10:01 pm

    Or instead of "rather than double", I should say "rather than one more".

    The idea also goes some way to explaining away why we don't see any evidence for a quinary (5+) system of counting in the numerals 8 and 9. With the idea of following instead of adding, 8 as "second second six" would just be impractical, and the case would be even worse with 9. However, why 7 gets to be "second six" rather than 6 getting to be "second five" seems to still need an answer.

  7. Dario said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 7:05 am

    If you have a five-based counting system, you think in sets of five (whichever the chicken or the egg is). “Five” belongs to the first set, “six” to the next one, so there is no chance that six gets to be “second five”. OTOH, if “a six” is a “member of the second set” (a knight, an elephant, whatever your counting rhyme requires), it is rather natural that seven is “the second six”, or “the six that follows”. You are right that such a scheme becomes impractical beyond 7. I am happy that my idea has some plausibility.

  8. Chris Button said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 10:34 am

    @ Dario

    Brilliant! After making my post, I was wondering if it was something along those lines. The number 5 has a solid etymology as a sort of crossing point that marks it as the point at the end of that first set (much like 10 at the end of the second set as a marker of completion).

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