Note: This post is part of a series where I reproduce random sources that I find interesting, with minimal annotation and commentary. Punctuation and translation (if given) are done by me unless otherwise stated. Corrections and comments are greatly appreciated.
I was recently looking through the literary collection of Wu Guolun 吳國倫 (1524-93; jinshi 1550), an official and prolific writer who came to be known as one of the “later seven masters” of the Ming. Among the many poems included in his collection is a curious one titled “Mourning for Burned Books.” As Wu explains in his preface to the poem, his entire library of books had been burned by a “violent guest” who apparently started a fire because he did not like the books in Wu’s collection. It seems that Wu was not even at home when this happened, since he writes that he had “heard” of the news recently. Wu was from Xingguo Subprefecture (興國州) located in Wuchang Prefecture, Huguang Province. Although the poem does not make explicit the location of this library, it was likely located in his native place in Xingguo.
I find this piece interesting mostly because of what it tells about access to private libraries: apparently a guest whom Wu may or may not have known was able to enter his (or his extended family’s?) library in his absence. Several lines of the poem (妻孥存鼠竄 城郭任鴟張; 却遂吾兒嬾 虚增過客傷) also seem to suggest that Wu was upset that his family members had let too many untrustworthy guests enter the library. (For more on the topic of library access, see Joseph McDermott, A Social History of the Chinese Book, pp. 134-47.)
The fact that Wu reacted to what must have been a devastating news about the loss of his treasured books by producing yet another literary text is somewhat incomprehensible to my modern senses, although it might have been perfectly reasonable for a literatus who used poems to express his feelings on a daily basis. I have not read the poems itself closely, and I have only translated Wu’s short preface below. The full text of the poem is included here for the curiosity of readers who can appreciate these texts much better than me.
Source: Wu Guolun 吳國倫, Danzhui dong gao 甔甀洞稿 (Siku cunmu congshu edition), 18.17b-19a. (The text below was taken from Airusheng’s 愛如生 Database of Chinese Classic Ancient Books 中國基本古籍庫 and checked against the Siku cunmu congshu edition.)
悼焚書 Mourning for Burned Books
In my twenty years of travel as an official, the books that I purchased have numbered nearly ten thousand volumes. Building a library to store them, I have treasured them greatly. Every time I returned home, I would quickly decline the guests and sit down on top of the library, feeling at ease and forgetting that I was poor. And so, very few of the youths in our village even knew that I was poor. Recently, I heard that there was a violent guest who came up to the library. When he searched through my boxes of books and saw nothing that satisfied his intentions, he started a fire, burned the books, and left. Quietly mourning my books, I have composed forty rhymed couplets to console myself.