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11. The humble hut November 26, 2007

Posted by kentneo in Art.

Lou Shi Ming is the name of a simple essay, Ji Yi Sen Yuan means “but the meaning behind it is deep”. It is also the name of a grass hut, deep in the mountains where a scholar lived. The simple hut with deep meaning.


In the classic, “Guwen Guanzhi” (Collected Ancient Prose), there is an essay called “Lou Shi Ming”, it is a very short essay and is roughly translated below:-


Know the mountain not by its height; its spirit gives the peak its name.

A river is not known by its depth but by the dragon’s life within.

My house is just a humble place, yet it exudes a noble air.

The growing moss perfumes the steps through my window screen.

Chatting pleasantly with a grand scholar, I have no dealings with the vulgar herd.

Here is where we pluck the fine zither and read the classic tomes.

Never are our ears attacked by wailing flute.

Our eyes are never dulled by the official’s scrawl.

Nearby is found the home of Zhuge as well as the dwelling place of Ziyun.

Confucius said it best : “How humble is this place”.

This short essay was written by Liu Yuxi (772 – 842 CE) in the Tang dynasty (618-907).


“Lou Shi” was Liu Yuxi’s place of refuge in his younger days, it is located in Anhui province (middle northern China), an area called “Gu”, from the essay we can tell that it is surrounded by mountains. He thought that the importance of a mountain is not in how high it is but is well known if a famous person lives there presently or lived there in the past. Also around “Lou Shi” there is water and if the mythical figure of a “dragon” lives there, the spirit or the embodiments of a dragon will be there. His visitors are people of high moral standing and scholarly (in those days, scholars that may not want to serve a bad ruler will escape into the mountains), the atmosphere and surroundings are not what one would encounter in daily monotonous life. The moss has overgrown his staircase (signifying low activity) and the surrounding area is very lush and green. His friends that visit to laugh and chat are all well educated. When he is in his “Lou Shi” he sometimes plays the zither (qing), reads philosophy and researches sutras. There are no unnatural sounds to pollute one’s hearing, nor are there unnecessary chatter nor junk mail to deal with. This simple hut is incomparable to the studio’s of Nanyang Ju Ge and Si Ju. Confucious once said, “this simple hut, how is it simple?”.


Where one lives says a lot about one’s character, living in a high rise or prestigious place doesn’t rub off on your character, there are many people who live in nice places. It can be said that living in “Lou Shi” or simplicity, the important thing is the energy or spirituality that you gain. A person’s happiness is not in money and prosperity, nor power, but in spirituality and the cultivation of spirituality. A refuge or personal space is where one can discover this meaning.


For those young people who want to learn Chinese, “Guwen Guanzhi” is a really good foundation book. It has 12 sections, from Zhou dynasty (1100 – 256 BCE), Qin (221 – 206 BCE), through the 7 following dynasties, all are classics, rich in detail. All the chosen represented essays are the best from the different periods. This book is like very rich milk. If you can absorb its nutrients, which is “wen yan” the classical way of writing, it can serve you for life.


[wen yan, literally means “literary language”, it is a style of writing Chinese language that uses alternate sets of characters and grammar which resembles Chinese as it was written historically. In contrast to bai hua which is a writing style that uses characters used in modern spoken Chinese. Even with knowledge of grammar and vocabulary, wen yan can be extremely difficult to decipher, even for native Chinese speakers because of its heavy use of literature references and allusions. Wen yan is distinguished from bai hua by the use of different characters and a style which is extremely concise and pacted. A sentence that takes 20 words in bai hua can be done in 4 or 5 in wen yan.]


When I was young, my father gave me this book as a core book to study. When I was a young man in the 1930’s, I was able to use this skill, “wen yan”, when I was a journalist, covering speeches. Basically “wen yan” is a style used in classics that simplifies language to a cleaner, crisp form, like a type of shorthand. It is not at all long winded, which is why I highly recommend “wen yan”. I hope those studying Chinese will not forget this book. I painted “Lou Shi Ming” and wrote this piece is so to highlight this point.


“Guwen Guanzhi” was compiled during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE), around the time of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722 CE). The person who compiled this was Wu Dazhi, his study was called “Cher Mu Tang” (or a foot of wood studio, a humble name), in the introduction of this book, this part is priceless, “when a child learns something, once he learns it, it will not be forgotten. But in exams, if a child does badly, he will get a scolding, how can he not be careful/nervous/anxious?”. This is similar to today’s situation, just to pass exams, there are “evil tuition” classes, where the child is forced to memorize and are force fed like ducks, material stuffed into their heads, all useless this way. Why not place the “Guwen Guanzhi” on the table and read it periodically, just like drinking nutritious milk everyday, for a child to grow, they will need good food and drink.


In history, we can see many examples of harsh learning, one of them is “Chen Men Li Xue”. Good teachers in the past were described like “sitting and enjoying the spring breeze”, students always feel obligated to teachers like this and have another saying, “like the rains during a dry season”. Today there are many good teachers and also many good students, but “enjoying the spring breeze” is more like the slight wind one feels before the cane hits ones skin! And other distractions such as drug and disco (now techno?) that destroys the child’s natural curiosity. This is quite painful to talk about.


Taking exams in the past and present are very similar, though in the past the nick names for taking exams include, “my swimming/traveling buddy” (as to not drown? Or studying is such a constant companion?), “to pluck wild fauna” (were they doing mushrooms then? Or was this a caffeine type plant to keep awake?), (??), “upgrade one’s clothing” (from the common brown harsh material one) are just pleasant names to lure scholars into the exam trap, as if you pass the exams, heaps of praise will be bestowed upon the scholar.


In the past the top scholar was bestowed a lot of glory and they had a lot of pride, the really gifted ones however, left for “Lou Shi” or simple living in straw huts (??). The smartest/wisest man from the three kingdoms (220 – 265 CE), Zhuge Kongming (181 – 234 CE, politician and strategist), had to leave his straw hut “Guo Long Hang” (as he had to fulfill the promise to his friend, the Emperor who was dying, to guide the young prince when he became emperor), in the end, his days were hard as “food was scarce and society was in a mess, how does one have peaceful days?” On the other hand, Tao Yuenming was poor but happy, as in life there are gains and there will be losses, everyone has to make their own judgment as nothing can be forced.


One of the wisest scholars, Zhang Zifang after being informed by the leader of Jishang (place), read “Su Shu” and “San Lue”, and was able to guide Liu Pang to bring peace to the land and be instated as Emperor, in the end Zhang Zifang left with Che Songji on trips around the kingdom (and foregoing the life of an official). Liu Yuxi was of a similar type of character.


In the past, the scholar that came in the best in exams was exalted as being as “unique as the mythical Chinese turtle”, the scholar that came in second best was praised as “to have ability like the mighty tiger”. The Emperor will hold a royal banquet as a further lure to these young people to perpetuate the scholars in his bureaucracy. The Tang emperor Taizong (ascended to the throne in 626 CE), put it well when he said these scholars were as “ru wu ke zhong” or in the west, “the spider says, welcome into my web….”


Liu Yuxi’s Lou Shi is more precious than “Guo Hu Hang” (it was Guo Long Hang above… which is it?), the straw hut (that Zhuge Kongming had seeked his refuge in when he lived 10 years as a recluse), as the beautiful thing about Lou Shi is that it can create another atmosphere for the scholars, at least they are able to escape greed and the endless pursuit of titles (fame) and money. If you have the means, why not build a small hut in your garden, grow some bamboo nearby, maybe a coconut tree, the flowers you like, the birds will come, why would you need to sell your soul, running around like a headless chicken. As humans we are here only for a hundred years or so, there are many heroes in the past that have come and gone without a trace in the end (why seek glory?), it is sad to see their lives in pursuit of material over spiritual. What do my readers think after reading this essay and seeing the painting of the simple hut?



Notes: – refer to 3000 years of Chinese paintings, page 251 for Qing dynasty and the Kangxi emperor.



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