There’s a scene in Chapter 4 of Zeng Pu‘s A Flower in a Sinful Sea 孽海花 where Gong Xiaoqi is editing the unpublished work of his late father and strikes the man’s funerary tablet whenever he corrects an error, in repayment for the blows he suffered in childhood.
Gong Xiaoqi is a fictionalized version of Gong Cheng, an eccentric scholar of the late Qing who apparently disliked his father (and who is infamous in popular history for allegedly suggesting to the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force that they torch Yuan Ming Yuan).
In his comment on the line in Gossip About a Flower in a Sinful Sea 孽海花闲话, Mao Heting 冒鹤亭 can’t confirm that Gong Cheng actually struck the tablet of his father Gong Zizhen, but does offer two anecdotes about editors taking out their frustrations with Zhu Xi 朱熹:
When Mao Qiling was writing Corrections to the Four Books, he carved a wooden figurine that he labeled “Zhu Xi,” and whenever he corrected an error, he would strike the figurine and say, “A-Xi, you’re wrong!”
When Dai Wang was at Jinling Press writing The Correct Meaning of the Analects, whenever he came up with a new meaning, he would go to the Confucian Academy and urinate on Zhu Xi’s tablet. Hong Rukui, the press supervisor, hated him and complained to Ma Xinyi, Viceroy of Liangjiang, and he was let go. Upon Ma’s assassination, Zeng Guofan returned as viceroy and inquired after Dai Wang, only to be told of Dai’s dismissal and its circumstances. He said, “That poor scholar,” and rehired him. (Hong Rukui was not at all pleased when Dai returned to the press. One day, looking over a new cut of Mencius that Dai had proofread, in which “As if a cup of water could put out the fire of a wagon-load of wood” was rendered “…put out the water of a wagon-load of wood,” he said he had salary (薪水) on the brain and docked him a month’s pay, leaving him strapped. When Zeng Guofan passed away, Dai prepared to go pay his respects, informing Hong, “Today you should treat me as a guest and see me off.” So Hong got up to see him off. When they reached the stairs, Dai said loudly, “Stop here. Wait while I go take a piss.” Out in public view, there was nothing Hong could do about it.)
It is unknown whether Gong Cheng struck his father’s tablet, but it is a fact that he wrote pointedly in a commemorative biography of his late mother: no mother was more loving than his, but no father was more evil. My maternal grandfather Zhou Jikuang saw this in person.
Mao’s Gossip mostly consists of notes on the historical figures and situations that the author fictionalized in the novel, but relates amusing stories only occasionally. Slightly earlier in the same chapter, the characters come across John Fryer, a foreigner who speaks excellent Chinese. Mao remarks, “The funny thing is that foreigners saw the great accomplishments of Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang, and Li Hongzhang, and noticed that they all came out of the imperial examination system, so many of them asked to read their examination papers. After a while, they’d say they couldn’t find anything militarily significant in them, not realizing that eight-legged essays were merely a way to get in the door.”
- A translation by Rafe de Crespigny and Liu Ts’un-yan of the first five chapters of that novel appears in the special issue of Renditions devoted to middlebrow fiction (Nos. 17 & 18, Spring & Autumn 1982).↩
- See Geremie Barmé’s essay, Gong Xiaogong and the Sacking of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, in China Heritage Quarterly, December 2006↩
- Perhaps Mao means Annotations to The Analects 论语注, since Correct Meaning 论语正义 is a work by Liu Baonan 刘宝楠?↩