An original edition of this famous collection of the miner poets of Southern Sung dynasty⑴ is one of the most valuable acquisitions the Library has recently made.
There are some points of controversy about the number of the poets included in this collection and the date and manner of its publication. But I think it would not be far out to say that the collection was made in the first half of the thirteenth century. As it seems a mere agglomerate of poetical works put together pell-mell and continued to include fresh title from time to time, its publication must have extended over many years. About Chen Ch’i(陳起), its editor in both the English and the French sense of the word, we know barely enough to whet our curiosity rather than to satisfy it. He owned a“book-shed”(書棚) in the Street of Friendly Relatives(睦親坊) in Hangchow, then the capital of the Chinese Empire. An architectus verborum to the full extent of this grandiose title, he composed poems as well as printed them. However, he seems to have been a printer who took up authorship rather than an author who turned to printing. The heirs of his invention are very mediocre — witness the thin volume of his poems(芸居乙稿) which he included in this very collection presumably with something like a combination of the pride of the author and the privilege of the publisher. Judging by some contemporary tributes to him, his bookshed was a sort of“Poetry Bookshop”where poetaster and poeticules met and mutually admired each other;⑵ in all probability, he became poetical out of sheer contagion with them just as cooks are said to get fat in the steam and smell of the kitchen. Only two or three of his seven-word stop-shorts(七絕) possess some faded Charm. From the disproportionately large number of poems on medicine and complaints in his work, we gather that he was a man of bad health which he seems to have enjoyed.
Charles Nodier used to say of himself that the librarian who read is lost. The publisher who writes is perhaps equally marked for Nemesis by the jealous gods. Chen Ch’i inadvertently included works containing satirical verses on the corruption and incompetence of the Powers that be, which are, then as always, notoriously easy to take offence. As a result, the wood-blocks of the whole collection were seized and destroyed, and poor Chen Ch’i was exiled together with the writers of the offending poems. What he did or suffered during his exile. We unfortunately have no means of knowing, for he left no Tristia and his contemporaries were far from informative. We only know the approximate date of his death.
The poets in this collection are“minors”not only artistically but also socially. As the Chinese title indicates, it consists of the works of“the good and wise men of the rivers and lakes,”i. e., persons who hold no government posts or whose posts are not worth mentioning. There are some exceptions, but on the whole, these“wise and good men”are idle singers of an empty day on an empty stomach like Buddhist priests, unsuccessful candidates, petty officials, etc. This preference of the little man to the“titled authors”has endeared him to all subsequent writers who nurse a social inferiority complex. When, for example, Chu Yi-tseng(朱彜尊), famous man of letters of the early Manchu regime, found his own poems omitted by a snobbish editor in a voluminous anthology of contemporary verse, he wrote a wistful stop-short to the effect that another Chen Ch’i might some day publish the humble and obscure poets like himself.⑶
The confiscation of the wood-blocks and the passage of seven mortal centuries conspired to make the original edition of the book extremely rare. Chen Ch’i published altogether sixty or sixty-four poets. Our book consists of sixty volumes, and is a mosaic of fifty-two poets in the edition printed at Chen Ch’i’s own book-shed and four poets not in the original edition but still of excellent Sung printing. In addition, Chen Ch’i’s two anthologies, also in the original edition, bring the total to fifty-eight titles. The collection, unique in its number of original editions, passed through the hands of several distinguished bibliophiles of the Manchu dynasty among whom I should mention Ts’ao Yin(曹寅), the scholarly grand-father of the co-author of that famous novel Red Chamber Dream.
The Library is already in possession of Ch’ien Ch’ien-i’s(錢謙益) unpublished work on the poets of the T’ang dynasty which formed the unacknowledged basis of the Imperial edition of Complete T’ang Poetry(全唐詩). To that monumental work, the present collection is a fitting pendant.
⑴ 南宋書棚本江湖群賢小集，Cf Mr Wu Hsiang’s article on the provenance of this Collection in our Bulletin (in Chinese) New Series, no. II, pp9-11.