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Reading to Write

During the Covid years, I was offered a collection of art magazines and catalogues. When going through the bags, I discovered that the collector who was downsizing his library also included this ceramic disk. It now sits on my writing desk as a reminder that reading and researching have real rewards. And the disk is attractive too.

读书破万卷,下笔如有神。Dúshū pò wàn juǎn, xiàbǐ rú yǒu shén.

I have read ten thousand volumes, and my brush writes as if touched by the divine.

This line is part of the second stanza of a poem by Chinese poet, Du Fu (712-770 CE), "A Gift of Twenty-Two Rhymes to Minister Wei." Du Fu, and his contemporary Li Bai, are considered the two most eminent poets of China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), if not of all Chinese history.

Du Fu Statue in Chengdu, China (

A translation of the entire poem from the Learn Ancient Chinese Poetry website:

Rich playboys never experience serious hunger Children wearing adulthood hats make many lifetime mistakes. The Honorable Mr. Wei calmly listens to me Coming from humble beginnings, I ask for an opportunity to clearly explain myself.

In my former days and years Early on I was given some honor and recognition. I have read thousands of well-worn books and scrolls My writing skills like a gift from above.

I compare favorably with Yang Xiong in the writing of essays My poetry holds up well next to that of Zi Jian. Li Yong asked to meet me Wang Han wanted to move to be my nearby neighbor.

Naturally I say these biased things With these qualities, I should move up and ferry across imposing rivers. If sent, I will be able to help the likes of model monarchs Yao and Shun Again we could have the morals and customs of their age.

My well-designed plans so far have come to desolate twigs My poems not hidden or avoiding the rigors of work and traveling to government positions. For thirteen years I have been riding a donkey As a capital city transient I watched their atmosphere of radiant spring festivals.

Knocking at dawn on the doors of the rich and young At sunset, on my animal I follow the clouds of their dust. Drink leftover wine and their cold meat dishes Everywhere hide the lack of good fortune sadnesses.

Imperial decree asks for new people to step forward Hope that he really wants to renew the country. Trying to soar up with wings hanging down Without fresh fish scales, too easy to experience setbacks.

Most of us petitioning you Mr. Wei are honest Most of us Mr. Wei want what is true and real. Out of every one hundred job seekers Only I can chant my newly created poems.

Perhaps I can share a little good fortune and joy with you Too difficult for me to copy the poverty of Yuan Xian. Hard to hold back my disgruntled heart-mind Should I just go for a solitary walk?

Now I hope to enter the eastern sea Or go into the western lands of Chu. Sympathy always for the southern mountains Recollect the clear Wei River banks.

Often plan to stay somewhere to have one meal (a chance to repay you) Still hope to get the attention of the higher officials. White seagulls disappear into the vast and mighty crowds Who else can help me to train for traveling the thousands of li?

The full poem in Chinese can be read here.


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