I hope it's not a verbose way of telling me to go home.
February 1, 2007 12:15 PM   Subscribe

What does this Chinese scroll say?

This scroll was given to me by a family I stayed with in China ten years ago. I've had it hanging in someplace prominent ever since, but (embarrassingly) I have no idea what it says.

Here's a medium-sized version and a very big version.
posted by 10ch to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Looks more like a Japanese scroll... There's a few of these syllabary characters on it which, as far as I know, aren't used in Chinese.

As for what it says, I have no idea. Can't read Japanese... yet.
posted by CKmtl at 2:47 PM on February 1, 2007

Er, most certainly Chinese -- there are no Japanese characters in the scroll.
posted by suedehead at 3:14 PM on February 1, 2007

I gave my parents (they were born in China and grew up in Taiwan, moved to the US in their mid twenties for school)a quick call and a link and what they tell me is that the calligraphy is quite beautiful but many of those characters are a form of the language that isn't currently used.

(As an aside, as written Chinese is so old, there are many characters that have fallen out of use or mean different things and while many people have had at least a little schooling in the old language forms via learning classic texts, it is hard to read things written in the long ago without familiarity with the old styles.)

My mom's best guess is that it is a formally polite letter thanking someone for their hospitality and that there is something that will be returned in the future. Keep in mind, she's not too sure that that's what it is...

Get thee to a classic Chinese scholar!
posted by oreonax at 3:24 PM on February 1, 2007

ok, my bad then, thought that the z-like ones where 'e's, and 5th column third down was a 'nu'.
posted by CKmtl at 3:41 PM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster: oreonax - thank you for the effort and please thank your folks for me.

I am about 95% sure that the father of the family I was staying with wrote the scroll. I remember calligraphy being a hobby/practice of his.

Get thee to a classic Chinese scholar!
Will do!
posted by 10ch at 3:48 PM on February 1, 2007

Hi, scholar of Classical Chinese here :p

It appears to be a copy of the scroll 《韩马帖》 by the Song dynasty calligrapher 米芾 (Mi Fu, ca. 1050 - 1107), which is in the collection of the Imperial Palace Museum here in Beijing.

Here are the characters in modern simplified form, so other Chinese readers can offer a translation, or critique mine, which will follow in a few hours if no-one beats me as I have a deadline for paid work to meet first:

posted by Abiezer at 4:50 PM on February 1, 2007

NB: That's missing the last three columns of text.
posted by Abiezer at 4:52 PM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster: Abiezer -- thank you, I look forward to further clarification!
posted by 10ch at 4:54 PM on February 1, 2007

Best answer: The last three columns is a short poem: '砂步漫皆合,松门若掩桴,悠悠摇艇子,真似剡溪图'. It's from another scroll 《砂步诗帖》 by the same calligrapher. (According to this page, it's representative of 米芾's early works.) (It's interesting to compare your piece with another copy of this scroll by some other modern Chinese calligrapher.)

Such Chinese poems are like haikus - long on imagery and short on syntax. However, that's not an excuse for the lameness of my translation. 'Ambling on sandy ground / Pine door obscures the little raft / leisurely rowing the boat / Much like a famous painting of 剡溪 creek.'

The first part of the scroll is indeed a very polite letter.
posted by of strange foe at 6:53 PM on February 1, 2007

*this page*
posted by of strange foe at 6:54 PM on February 1, 2007

Turns out wiki has a long article on Mi Fu. Ignorant me had never heard of him, so thank you for the pointer. I love my Song eccentrics. Another lovely piece by him here.
I pinched the text I pasted above from here, where there's also a photo of what I presume is Mi's original scroll.

And now to my (rather tentative) translation, in which I will be found out for my presumption in pretending to scholarship in classical Chinese. It is, as of strange foe says, a very polite letter:

I, Mi Fu, bow my head [to express my respect for you]: A few days hence, I was fortunate enough to meet with you, and in the days since my life has been filled with a fresh vigour. What say you: would you, Han Ma, perhaps take a few days of your time and during the coming festive period accompany me to visit and dine [with our friends], that we may all enjoy the pleasure of one another's company? It is only that you have yourself honoured me in agreeing to such an idea that I dare to raise the matter. Let us meet during the festival! Having humbly offered this, I shall say no more. I, Mi Fu, [fearfully await] the response of Your Most Kind-hearted Excellency, the Overseer of Temples [Han Ma].
I'm presuming it's a letter to a man called Han Ma because of the title of the piece, but in my dictionaries that's usually a shorthand for the two literary greats han Yu and Sima Qian, so I may have thi scompletely round my neck, but can't see how this latter version would fit. Similarly with the last bit which I've made an adress to han ma by his official title, but it's quite a stab in the dark tbh. I cast my potsherd that other may cast their jade! After the beautiful job osf did with the poem that follows, you may be best waiting for her take.
posted by Abiezer at 9:25 PM on February 1, 2007

Abiezer, thank you for the link to that calligraphy site.

It seems that the identity of the recipient of the letter, i.e. 寺丞, isn't really clear to the scholars, but the guess on that pdf file linked is a member of the royal family.

'韩马' may refer to some famous painting of horses by '韩干', a Tang dynasty painter. The line '韩马预借三五日,... 赏玩如何?' makes sense in this light, and can be translated as
'Could I borrow the Han Gan horse painting in your collection for a couple of days, so that a gathering of noble friends can appreciate it together during the holiday banquet?'

(It seems like a very typical activity for cultured men of his status/circle.)
posted by of strange foe at 12:18 PM on February 2, 2007

This has been a fascinating and enjoyable read. Great question, great answers. I truly hope that the Overseer of Temples did indeed accompany Mi Fu during the festive period.
posted by joecacti at 2:19 PM on February 2, 2007

Best answer: Of course! of strange foe's reading of Han Ma as a painting makes perfect sense, and I'm sure that's it. Talking to a friend yesterday, they thought he was trying to borrow an actual horse, and I said that just seemed odd. Reading a little about Mi Fu, one of the ways he earned his reputation for eccentricity was apparently by borrowing friend's paintings and returning them covered in notes of his own or ink-stains. That makes 过节面纳也, which I cheerfully glossed away, more likely to mean something like, "I'll return it in person after the festival," which also fits much better.
I was reading 预借 as cognate with modern 抽空, which I knew was a bit of a stretch, to make this imaginary Han Ma I'd invented a person taking time away from looking after the temples.
Another bit where I was really guessing was 冲胜(沖勝), and still not sure what that really means. Here's a revised version:
I, Mi Fu, make respectful obeisance
Having had the blessed fortune of meeting with you these few days since, I have since been flush with excitement,
Could I have loan of your Han Ma painting for a few days,? A number of noble friends will be touring the banquets and gatherings during the festival and I would like to offer it for their appreciation and enjoyment.
It is only that you have yourself honoured me with your agreement [to such an idea] that I dare ask this, and after the festival I will return it to you myself.
Having made this request in all due deference, I shall speak no more of it, and I tremblingly [await your reply].
To His Most Kind-hearted Excellency the Overseer of Temples
I could well be getting 仁親閣下 quite wrong too, and it really mean something along the lines of, "be so good and kind to visit in person."
One of the scholars in the PDF osf linked to suggests 趙叔盎 (Zhao Shu'ang) as a possibility for the identity of the 寺丞. He was a member of the imperial household and a good friend of Mi Fu, and was known for his paintings of horses, so that all fits. You imagine Mi Fu visiting, seeing the new painting, and spending a few days thinking excitedly about it before picking up his brush and penning this request.
posted by Abiezer at 5:42 PM on February 2, 2007

Yeah, '冲胜' gives me trouble too, and Mi Fu seems to be quite fond of the phrase - he used it in some other letter as well.

Abiezer, kudos. You capture the tone of the letter very well.
posted by of strange foe at 9:07 AM on February 3, 2007

Response by poster: All - this is so fascinating, thank you for the history and the translations. You've added another level of value to something that's already quite meaningful to me.

A couple of clarifications:

1) There are two parts to this scroll, correct? The letter from Mi Fu to the Overseer of Temples that precedes the poem of strang foe translated (in those last three lines).

2) Were additions of short poems like this common at the end of letters/requests? Or was the poem added by the artist and not Mi Fu?
posted by 10ch at 12:37 PM on February 3, 2007

That's right 10ch. The scroll you have is by a modern artist who has chosen to combine two originally separate pieces into a single scroll of their own, executed after the style of a Song dynasty great.
It was quite common for a poem to be added to a painting, but I would think it was less usual to tack one on after the end of a letter. They're together here more as classic examples of the finest calligraphy than for the specific content, I should imagine.
posted by Abiezer at 8:06 PM on February 3, 2007

1) Yes.

2) It was the artist who combined the writings of two well-known Mi Fu scrolls. The combination might be chosen for two things: the total number of characters that fit on the piece of paper at hand, and the stylistic similarity between the two original scrolls - both are early works in '行书' or 'Running Script'. (As it happens, the wiki page on calligraphy links to another Mi Fu piece, and the style there is just a touch more cursive.)

Interesting tidbit about 韩干 the painter: he was criticized for making horses look fat in his paintings, but his retort was that the horses in the royal stable really were that fat.)
posted by of strange foe at 8:17 PM on February 3, 2007

On preview: I concur with Abiezer.
posted by of strange foe at 8:18 PM on February 3, 2007

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