Nos. 41 & 42 (Spring & Autumn 1994) Classical Letters

Cao Pi: Two Letters to Wu Zhi, Magistrate of Zhaoge
Translated by Burton Watson

Fifth month, twenty-eighth day, Pi reporting:

Are you well, Jizhong? The distance that separates us is not great, but office imposes restrictions and I find I have no way to convey the thoughts I want to speak of. The place you are governing now is awkwardly situated and out of the way and our correspondence as a result is sketchy, a fact that increases my depression.

Each time I think back to those days when we amused ourselves at Nanpi, I find them more unforgettable than ever. After mulling over the secrets of the Six Classics and wandering at will through the Hundred Philosophers, we found time to squeeze in a little chess, ending up with a game of liubo. Lofty discourse delighted our minds, plaintive strings soothed the ear. We galloped in haste to the northern ground, feasted with the crowd in the southern hall, floating sweet melons in the clear fountain, dunking crimson plums in its cold waters. And when the bright sun had gone into hiding, we carried on by the glow of the moon. Sharing a single carriage or driving side by side, we were off to outings at the inner gardens, our carriage wheels turning slowly, attendants following without a sound. A fresh breeze sprang up with the night and melancholy flutes sounded their faint cry. Joy vanished and grief came in its place; sorrowful were the thoughts that visited us. I turned to you and said, "Such joys can never last!" and you and your companions all agreed. Now, as we foresaw, you and I are parted, each in a different corner of the land. Yuanyu has set off on his long journey, changed into a spiritual being. Each time I think of these things, I wonder when I will ever get to talk with you again!

Just now the fifth month pitch-pipe marks the season, and all things are fanned by the soft winds of summer. The breath of the sky is gentle and warm, and fruit of every kind fills the trees. From time to time I go out in my carriage, following north along the bend of the river, attendants piping flutes to clear the road before me, scholars accompanying me in carriages to the rear. The season is the same as it was then, but the times have changed; the things of nature are still here, but the men are gone. How can I describe to you the weariness I feel?

I am about to dispatch a rider to Ye and will have him make a detour so he can pass your way. Carry on, take care of yourself.

Pi reporting Second month, third day, Pi reporting:

Years and months are all too easy to come by, and it's now been four years since we parted. Three years without seeing his friends and already the poet of "Eastern Hill" was complaining of how long it had been. How much more, then, in my case, when the time has been even longer! How can I bear to think of it? Though we send letters back and forth, they're hardly enough to free me from this tangle of depression.

In the disease and contagion last year, so many of my kin and old friends met with misfortune — Xu, Chen, Ying, and Liu, all carried off at one time! What words can describe this sorrow? In the old days, whether on an outing or at home, we travelled in carriages following one after another, rested on mats ranged side by side — when were we ever parted even for a moment? And whenever the wine cup was passed around and strings and wood-winds joined to serenade us, at the height of the drinking, when ears began to burn and we tilted back our heads and intoned our poems — at such times, thoughtless as we were, did we even realize that we were happy? We supposed that each of us had been allotted a hundred years, that we would always be here to look out for one another. Who'd have guessed that in a few years almost all of us would have fallen by the way? It hurts just to speak of it.

Recently I have been gathering up the writings that these men left behind and putting them all together in one volume. Looking at the names, I know they're already logged in the ledgers of the dead, and yet, as I think back over the outings we used to have, I see these gentlemen still in my mind's eye. And now all have been transformed, changed into stinking dirt! How can I go on speaking of it?

If we look at the literary men of past and present, we find that as a whole they do not stick by the little niceties of conduct and seldom succeed in setting themselves up as models of virtue. Yet Weichang (Xu Gan), by way of exception, combined both refinement and solid natural ability. Simple and unassuming, he worked to lessen his desires, taking as his ideal the recluse of Mount Ji. He may be called a "well-rounded gentleman". He wrote the Zhonglun or Medial Discourses in twenty sections, setting forth his own school of thought. His words and ideas, marked by classical elegance, are well worth handing down to later ages. He has fashioned a work that will never grow old.

Delian (Ying Yang) was forever afire with thoughts of literary composition, and with his talent and learning was fully capable of writing books. But, sad as it is, he never lived to realize his high hopes.

Recently, as I have been working my way through the writings of these gentlemen, I find myself staring at them and brushing back the tears. And having grieved for the departed, I go on to ponder what may lie ahead for me.

Kongzhang's (Chen Lin's) memorials to the throne are unusually vigorous, if somewhat on the florid side. Gonggan's (Liu Zhen's) writings are exceptionally lively, though somewhat lacking in forcefulness; nevertheless, the best of his poems in five-character form are worlds beyond what his contemporaries were capable of. Yuanyu's (Ruan Yu's) letters possess the kind of brilliance that cannot fail to bring pleasure. After them comes Zhongxuan (Wang Can) who stands alone in his command of the fu or rhyme-prose form, though unfortunately the framework of his compositions is not sturdy enough to bear up beneath the weight of surface adornment. When it comes to his best work, however, even the men of ancient times are not far ahead of him.

Once in the past, Bo Ya severed the strings of his lute because of Zhong Qi and Confucius threw out the mincemeat because of Zilu, lamenting that a friend who can understand one's playing is so hard to find, and grieving that a disciple of such worth is so seldom equalled. The writers I've mentioned, though they did not quite come up to the ancients, were nevertheless the masters of their time, and those of us left alive today can assuredly never equal them. We do well "to stand in awe of our juniors", as Confucius said. We must never disparage those who come after us, though I'm afraid neither you nor I will be around to see just how they fare.

I'm already well on in years and have a thousand things weighing on my mind. Sometimes I worry so I spend the whole night without sleeping. I wonder if I will ever have dreams and ambitions like those I had in former days. I'm an old man already — it only remains for my hair to turn white. Guangwu once said, "Over thirty years in age, ten years a soldier in arms — I've seen more than one thing change!" In virtue I'm no match for Guangwu, but I find I'm now his equal in years. With no more competence than a dog or a ram, I deck myself in tiger and leopard stripes; with none of the brilliance of the crowded stars, I merely borrow light from the sun and moon. My every movement is subjected to scrutiny — when can I ever feel at ease? I'm afraid I will never again enjoy outings like those we once had!

Youth is the time to make the most of what we have. Once the years slip away, how can we drag them back again? When the men of old decided to take up the torch and go wandering in the night, they had their reasons!

What have you been doing these days for amusement? Have you written anything new? I face east with anxious thoughts and write this to tell you what's in my mind.

Pi reporting.

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