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Everyone has their own interests and hobbies, holding curiosity and enthusiasm for the world, which is the joy of living. However, if someone’s hobby exceeds the accepted range and degree of the general public, it becomes a “quirk.”
Having quirks is not a harmful habit, as long as these quirks do not violate moral principles and societal norms. Instead, they often reveal the person’s true nature and interesting qualities. As Zhang Dai said, “A person without quirks is not fit for companionship, as they lack deep emotions. A person without flaws is not fit for companionship, as they lack true vitality.” (from “Tao’an Dream Recollections”)
Many literati and artists have quirks that set them apart from others. Below are some quirks of historical literati and celebrities in China, adding an interesting touch to their lives.
Eccentric Preferences of Literati in China
Sima Guang and His Ink
Sima Guang was an ink enthusiast. He loved collecting ink cakes and accumulated hundreds of them throughout his life. He stored ink not for personal enjoyment but to educate future generations, saying, “Do my descendants know the purpose of this item I used?”
Zhang Ruoxu as A Sleep Enthusiast
Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ruoxu was a sleep enthusiast. Before writing, he would take a deep nap with his head covered. Upon waking, he would find inspiration flowing and effortlessly compose his poetry.
Ouyang Xiu vs the Four Treasures of the Study
Ouyang Xiu had a particular preference for the Four Treasures of the Study. He used ivory and rhinoceros horn for pen holders, fox fur for brush tips, wrapped in autumn rabbit hair. His ink included pine soot mixed with musk, and he insisted on using “white, firm, thin, and smooth” Xuan paper for writing.
Xue Tao Jian
Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao had a penchant for writing short poems, but she found the available paper too large. Since paper production was challenging and expensive in ancient times, she used the bark of the hibiscus tree to create small, exquisite, deep red-colored sheets called “Xue Tao Jian,” which became popular.
It is worth mentioning that her life was also very legendary. Xue Tao began writing poetry at the age of nine, became a courtesan at sixteen, escaped from the humiliating life at twenty, lived in seclusion, and was nominated for a prestigious position as a calligrapher at the age of thirty-eight due to her talent. However, due to the low status of women, she did not ultimately take up the position. She also had a romantic affair with the famous poet Yuan Zhen in her middle age.
Tang Dynasty poet Zhang Ji was obsessed with flowers, earning him the nickname “Flower Pervert.” Upon hearing about an exceptionally large camellia in someone’s home, he exchanged it for his beloved concubine, Liu Ye.
Tang Dynasty poet Meng Jiao developed a habit of agonizing over his poetry, scrutinizing each word until he was satisfied. He became known as the “Poetry Prisoner.”
Donkey Lover & Killer
Wang Can, one of the “Seven Scholars of Jian’an,” enjoyed the sound of donkey braying. After his death, Emperor Cao Pi suggested that everyone imitate donkey calls to bid him farewell.
Fan Tingzhao, a general in the early Northern Song Dynasty, detested birds and donkeys. Wherever he went, birds and donkeys were shot and killed.
Yuan Shansong and Mourning Songs
Yuan Shansong, when traveling, liked to listen to mourning songs. People commented, “Zhang Zhan loves planting pine and cypress in front of his studio. When Yuan Shansong travels, he always enjoys having his attendants sing mourning songs. People say: ‘Under Zhang’s house, a corpse is laid out, and under Yuan’s, a funeral procession passes.'”
Ruan Fu, the son of Ruan Xian, had a collection of clogs. He had a peculiar hobby of collecting wooden clogs and would personally clean and wax them.
Zhang Zhidong had a penchant for observing drunkenness. Although he himself did not enjoy drinking, he found pleasure in watching others become intoxicated and stagger around, expressing joy at their state.
Chen Shidao, a minister and literary figure from the early Northern Song Dynasty, was one of the “Six Gentlemen of the Su School.” He had a habit of carefully choosing his words when writing poetry and required a quiet environment. Chen Shidao would clear his home of family members, even cats and dogs, when contemplating and meditating on his poetry. This contrasted sharply with Qin Guan’s ability to compose poetry even in noisy surroundings, as described in Huang Tingjian’s poem “Poetry Written on Rising from Bed in the Jingjiang Pavilion.”
No Hair Wash
Bai Juyi disliked bathing. He stated, “Even the hair on my head is washed once a year. Rarely bathing, my hair falls out, and another bath leads to partial baldness.” He believed that infrequent washing preserved his hair better.
The Thief Prime Minister
Zutong, Prime Minister of the Northern Qi Dynasty during the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, had a stealing habit. When visiting others, he would steal dishes from their homes. Even when serving as Minister of Imperial Sacrifices, he stole walnut oil. People were aware of his penchant for stealing, and Gao Yang, the Emperor, would directly call him “Thief.”
Zheng Banqiao had a fascination with “cut sleeves,” referring to same-sex relationships. He openly admitted his preference for male companionship but insisted that these relationships did not interfere with his duties. He would expel any male lovers who disrupted his government affairs. Zheng Banqiao’s honesty and straightforwardness about his same-sex preferences are evident.
During his time as the county magistrate in Weixian, Shandong, Zheng Banqiao once witnessed a beautiful young man being publicly caned for gambling. Upon seeing the youth’s well-shaped buttocks being punished, Zheng Banqiao couldn’t help but shed tears.
The phrase “cut sleeves” refers to the story of Wei Linggong and the handsome man Mi Zixia during the Spring and Autumn period. Wei Linggong had a strong fondness for Mi Zixia, and the two often ate and slept together. Once, while visiting an orchard, Mi Zixia picked a fresh peach, took a bite, and found it delicious. Without hesitation, he handed the leftover peach to Wei Linggong. The attendants were shocked that Mi Zixia dared to offer the king a half-eaten peach, and some even wanted to punish him. However, Wei Linggong smiled and said, “He loves me so much that he forgot the taste, and wanted me to have a bite too.(爱我哉！忘其口味，以啖寡人。)” This story became a reference for male same-sex love.
Cleanliness Enthusiasts among Literati
Cleanliness preferences, a common quirk, were particularly prevalent among literati. Here are some interesting stories about historical literati who were obsessed with cleanliness.
Wang Wei and Many Brooms
Wang Wei, a prominent poet of the Tang Dynasty, could not tolerate any dust in his home. He had two servants dedicated to sweeping and cleaning, and they worked tirelessly throughout the day.
“Wang Wei lived in Wangchuan, where not a speck of dust was allowed. Ten or more brooms were used daily for sweeping. Two servants were assigned to handle the brooms, and they were not given any rest.”
Wiping the Chairs
The painter Zong Bing of the Southern Song Dynasty immediately started wiping the chairs after guests left his home.
“Zong Bing was clean by nature. Whenever guests left, he immediately instructed the servants to clean the seats and wash the bedding.”
Wang Siwei, a Southern Dynasty figure, would have white paper wrapped around his hands when servants helped him dress. If a dog urinated on a pillar in his house, he would instruct the servants to wash the pillar, and after cleaning, he would scrape it with a knife, considering it not clean enough. Eventually, he chopped down the pillar and replaced it with a new one.
“Wang Siwei was fond of cleanliness, and when dressing, he would use white paper to wrap his fingers. If a dog soiled the house, Wang Siwei would order his students to clean it. Unsatisfied, he would order scraping, insisting on complete cleanliness. If still not satisfied, he would replace it with a new pillar.”
Renowned calligrapher and scholar Mi Fu of the Song Dynasty washed his hands dozens of times a day, using a silver water vessel with a long handle. Servants poured water on his hands for washing, and he would let them air dry without using a towel. He particularly loved inkstones and once gave away a fine inkstone after a friend used it to grind ink with saliva.
“One of Mi Fu’s peculiar habits was cleanliness. He used a silver water vessel with a long handle for washing his hands, referred to as the ‘water dipper.’ The servants poured water on his hands, and he would clap them together until dry, without using a towel. When someone visited Mi Fu, he would immediately worry about the visitor’s lack of hygiene and had trouble sleeping. He secretly listened at the guest’s door several times during the night. Finally, he heard a cough, and that drove him crazy for the whole night. The next morning, he ordered his servants to search for traces of phlegm. Unable to find any, they had to make up a story about a leaf being the phlegm, and Mi Fu, disgusted, closed his eyes and held his nose while the servant took the ‘phlegm’ three miles away to dispose of it. His obsession with cleanliness was truly extreme.”
Excessive Cleaning of the Trees
Yuan Dynasty calligrapher Ni Zan’s cleanliness habits were incomprehensible. Despite being a wandering soul who squandered his wealth around Taihu Lake, his cleanliness habits reached the level of obsessive-compulsive disorder. He washed his hair every day, with the water changing over a dozen times. He changed his clothes over a dozen times a day, or else he found them dirty. His toilet was an extravagant structure, using fragrant wood for the framework, filling the space underneath with soil, and covering it with pure white goose feathers to prevent any odor. His Four Treasures of the Study were cared for by two servants, who kept them clean at all times. The wutong trees in the courtyard were meticulously cleaned twice a day, causing several of them to die due to excessive cleaning.
“One day, a guest stayed overnight at Ni Zan’s residence. In the middle of the night, Ni Zan, worried about the guest’s lack of cleanliness, repeatedly sneaked to the guest’s door to eavesdrop. Finally, he heard a cough, and this drove him crazy for the entire night. Early the next morning, he ordered his servants to search for traces of phlegm. Unable to find any, they reluctantly brought back a slightly dirty leaf, claiming it was the guest’s phlegm. Ni Zan, repulsed, immediately closed his eyes and held his nose, instructing the servants to take the ‘phlegm’ three miles away to dispose of it. Such an extreme obsession with cleanliness!”
Liu Cheng, the magistrate of Suian County during the Southern Song Dynasty, lost his official position due to his obsession with cleanliness. Liu Cheng, while serving as the county magistrate, initiated a widespread cleanliness campaign, enforcing strict rules such as prohibiting any weeds on the streets and maintaining regular cleaning of ponds to prevent the breeding of pests. Unable to tolerate this strict governance, the local people filed a joint complaint, resulting in Liu Cheng losing his official position.
“Suian magistrate Liu Cheng had a cleanliness obsession. He ordered the sweeping and cleaning of the county, ensuring no weeds grew on the streets and regularly cleaning ponds to prevent pests. The people could not bear this strict rule and filed a joint complaint.”
During the Qing Dynasty, there was a man named Shao Sengmi who, every day, diligently cleaned his hat, shoes, and inkstone. Despite the complaints from his servants and scolding from his wife, he paid no attention.
“Shao Sengmi, with a calm and neat disposition, meticulously cleaned his hat, shoes, and inkstone. These tasks, considered unnecessary by others, were his daily routine. Despite the suffering of his servants and the rebukes from his wife, he remained unchanged throughout his life.”
Wash Face All Day
In the Qing Dynasty, there was a man named Hong Runsun who, every day, could wash his face from morning until noon. People would specifically visit his home to witness him washing his face, but he paid no attention and continued washing as if no one was around.
“Hong Runsun, renowned for his erudition, had a penchant for cleanliness. He would wash his face continuously from dawn until noon. When Lu Lijing and Xuan Hu visited to observe, Hong remained indifferent, washing his face as if he were alone.”
Never Allowed Others to Prepare Meals
During the Yuan Dynasty, there was a scholar named Chang Chunfu who, when drinking with others, insisted on drinking until the cup was completely empty. He would use a towel to wipe the cup clean before passing it to the other person.
“In his daily life, Chang Chunfu never allowed others to prepare his meals, and he only drank water from the first bucket. He meticulously cut firewood into one-foot lengths, and even the onions he ate had to be precisely one inch long. One day, while hosting guests Liu Shizhong and Wen Zifang, Chang Chunfu, in the middle of washing his feet, greeted them with the announcement, ‘I have something delightful to offer you!’ He then presented four large peaches, washed two in the footwashing water, and handed them to the guests. Liu Shizhong and Wen Zifang exchanged glances and said, ‘You wash what you eat; don’t use two peaches to soil three gentlemen.’ With that, they went to the bedroom, each taking a peach, and left with laughter.”
Refuse Dirty Examination Halls
During the Yongzheng period, there was a scholar named Wang Jishan, highly skilled in literature and poetry. However, due to his aversion to dirty examination halls, he refused to participate in exams.
Refuse Dirty Clothes
In the Qing Dynasty, there was a man named Ma Kui who had a severe obsession with cleanliness. During the summer, he would change his clothes frequently, detesting any sweat on them. Although he enjoyed eating melons, he would refuse them if the seller’s clothes or the basket were not clean. Everything he owned was off-limits to others, and any contact would result in disposal.
“One day, while going out, Ma Kui suddenly experienced stomach pain. However, he refused to use an outdoor restroom due to its uncleanliness. Instead, he found a low wall nearby, squatted down, and relieved himself. Unfortunately, an old man tending to his beans below was drenched when Ma Kui released himself. Enraged, the old man raised a sickle and stabbed him in the buttocks, saying, ‘Let the sickle punctuate his arrogance.'”
Ma Kui’s extreme cleanliness habits led to significant expenses, eventually causing him to lose his wealth and enlist in the military. However, his aversion to military life led to a swift discharge.
Alone and facing financial difficulties, Ma Kui struggled. Despite the neighbor’s sympathy, offering him food, he refused to eat, finding it dirty. In the end, unable to bear the hardships, he contemplated suicide. Approaching the river to jump in, he hesitated, finding the water dirty. After searching for a long time, he found a clean spot with lush green grass, hung himself from a tree, and ended his life.
Wang Anshi’s Lack of Cleanliness
While many individuals had a penchant for cleanliness, some had an extreme aversion to it. Wang Anshi, a prominent figure in the Northern Song Dynasty, known for his contributions to philosophy, politics, and literature, had a peculiar habit – a lack of personal hygiene.
Wang Anshi’s disregard for cleanliness extended to various aspects of personal care. He refrained from bathing, washing his hair, hands, feet, or even his beard. This wasn’t a brief lapse; rather, he would go for months or even a year or two without washing. The historical records in the “History of the Song Dynasty – Biography of Wang Anshi” noted, “Wang Anshi had a dislike for luxury, maintained a frugal lifestyle, and would sometimes wear dirty clothes and have a dirty face.”
According to the book “Dreams by the Creek” by Shen Kuo, it was mentioned that Wang Anshi’s face accumulated a thick layer of dirt due to his long-term neglect of personal hygiene. When his disciples sought medical advice for his condition, the physician diagnosed it as accumulated dirt, not an illness. An attempt to cleanse his face with beans was met with Wang Anshi’s indifference, stating, “I was born with a dark complexion; how will the beans help me?”
Wang Anshi’s facial appearance and unkempt beard were notoriously dirty, often retaining remnants of past meals, including rice grains, vegetable scraps, and soup stains. His reluctance to change clothes meant that the garments he wore were often covered in dust, grease spots, soup marks, and sweat stains. The pungent odor emanating from him was unmistakable, prompting whispers among his colleagues, but he remained unfazed.
Despite his lack of cleanliness, Wang Anshi’s exceptional talent and contributions in various fields made him a figure of great admiration. There are anecdotes that his friends, Zhongqing and Han Wei, both deeply appreciative of Wang’s intellect, would invite him to discuss literature and philosophy at a temple every month. Seizing the opportunity when Wang Anshi was not paying attention, they would discreetly replace his dirty clothes with a new set after communal bathing sessions. Over time, this subtly contributed to the improvement of Wang Anshi’s cleanliness habits.
Wang Anshi’s marriage to his wife, Wu Shi, was intriguing given his unclean habits. Wu Shi was described as a beautiful woman with a strong aversion to dirt, even bordering on obsessive cleanliness. There were conflicts in their marriage due to Wang Anshi’s lack of hygiene, leading to frequent quarrels.
While Wang Anshi’s uncleanliness was a notable aspect of his personality, his intellectual prowess and contributions to society remained undeniable, making him a complex and fascinating historical figure.
Zeng Guofan: the Eulogy Writer for the Living
Zeng Guofan, one of the ‘Four Great Ministers of the Late Qing Dynasty,’ was a figure who combined knowledge and strategy. He founded the Xiang Army, suppressed the Taiping Rebellion, and promoted Westernization… Such a prominent figure, who held various official positions in the capital, had an unusual hobby: he enjoyed writing eulogies for the living.
What is a eulogy? It is a set of couplets used specifically to mourn the dead and conduct funeral rites.
There are strict rules for writing eulogies. They must accurately reflect the deceased’s status, identity, sentiments, deeds, and achievements. In just two sentences, the eulogy must summarize and evaluate the life of the departed, all while maintaining artistic qualities, paying attention to parallelism, rhythm, and conciseness. It should be expressive and memorable. Therefore, composing eulogies is a highly challenging task. Zeng Guofan understood this and, surprisingly, immersed himself in it, unable to extricate himself.
Zeng Guofan enjoyed writing eulogies so much that he did it every day, feeling uneasy if he skipped a day. Whenever there was a funeral around, he eagerly helped write eulogies for the grieving families. However, since people don’t die every day, what did he do? He came up with a shocking idea: secretly writing eulogies for the living. Consequently, his relatives and friends were unknowingly subjected to Zeng Guofan’s eulogies.
Zeng Guofan coined a special term for writing eulogies for the living, calling it “shengwan” (生挽). This was quite an unscrupulous practice – wasn’t this cursing people to die? Hence, it had to be kept secret, and Zeng Guofan always hid in his room to write clandestinely.
One New Year’s Day, early in the morning, Zeng Guofan, unable to resist the urge, succumbed to his addiction again. He pondered over whom to write for that day. Eventually, he decided on Tang Peng, a well-known figure.
After finishing the eulogy, unexpectedly, Tang Peng arrived for a visit. Tang Peng, also known as Haiqiu, held high positions in the military and was known for his straightforward and stubborn personality. After some casual conversation with Zeng Guofan, he noticed Zeng’s handwriting near the desk. Curious, he wanted to take a look, but Zeng Guofan hurriedly shielded it from view. However, Tang Peng reached out, snatched it away, and read the words “Haiqiu, Brother for Eternity.” Enraged, Tang Peng threw down the eulogy, left in a huff, and the two severed their friendship.
Tang Peng’s temper and stubbornness were well-known, and ultimately, this led to his demise. One scorching day, a few friends gathered at Tang Peng’s home for a chat. Someone casually mentioned the potent nature of rhubarb and cautioned against using it casually. Tang Peng scoffed, saying, “What’s the big deal? I frequently use it.” Everyone was astonished, expressing disbelief. Tang Peng, furious, ordered a servant to immediately buy some from the pharmacy, brewed it, and drank half. Concerned for his well-being, friends gathered to advise him, but the more they advised, the more determined he became, refusing to listen to anyone. Tang Peng grabbed the jar of rhubarb and consumed the entire contents in one go. He died that day.
Upon hearing the news of Tang Peng’s tragic end, Zeng Guofan promptly wrote a eulogy titled ‘Memorial for Tang Haiqiu’ to commemorate his old friend. In the memorial, he mournfully stated, ‘With a sip of medicine, he served our heavenly citizens,’ referring to Tang Peng’s sudden death from drinking the rhubarb concoction.
With a heavy heart, Zeng Guofan also wrote a couplet for Tang Peng:
“Having written twenty thousand words, yet my talent is not exhausted;
Criticism resounds throughout the land, and fame follows suit.”
Through years of dedication and diligent study, Zeng Guofan’s skills in writing couplets stood unrivaled, earning him the title of “Master of Couplet Writing.” His later eulogies for friends reached a state of extraordinary proficiency.
For instance, the eulogy he wrote for Peng Yulin is a representative piece:
Upper couplet: “Two plums in eternity, the husband with multiple romantic deaths;
Lower couplet: Three protectors of West Lake, he alone achieved fame through merit.”
At first glance, this eulogy may seem ordinary, but it possesses unique craftsmanship and profound connotations. In just two simple sentences, it incorporates several historical allusions.
Peng Yulin, a prominent political, military, and artistic figure in the late Qing Dynasty, was known as the “Snow General.” Peng Yulin, Zeng Guofan, and Zuo Zongtang were collectively known as the “Three Heroes of the Qing Dynasty,” along with Hu Linyi. Some also referred to them as the “Four Great Ministers of the Restoration.”
Throughout his life, Peng Yulin did not accumulate personal wealth, did not take concubines, did not seek favor from the powerful, and did not crave fame or fortune. Although he resigned from high official positions six times during his lifetime, when the country faced danger, he, with his aged and ailing body, willingly accepted responsibilities and defended against external threats.
In his early years, when the Taiping Rebellion approached Leiyang County, Peng Yulin, who was managing a pawnshop, offered a strategy to the county magistrate. He suggested using the funds from the pawnshop as military expenses to recruit soldiers and defend the city. The Taiping rebels, hearing that Leiyang was prepared, chose not to attack, and the city was saved. After the crisis passed, Peng Yulin insisted on repaying the funds borrowed for military expenses, establishing his reputation.
In 1853, Zeng Guofan invited Peng Yulin to join the Xiang Army, where they collaborated on establishing the Xiang Army’s naval forces in Hengzhou. They purchased Western cannons, built large ships, and formulated regulations. The naval forces they developed played a significant role in the Xiang Army’s capture of Tianjing.
After suppressing the Taiping Rebellion, Peng Yulin dedicated himself to the construction of the Yangtze River Navy, putting in great effort and devotion. Later, the Yangtze River Navy was fully incorporated by Li Hongzhang, becoming the main force of the Beiyang Navy. Peng Yulin is thus considered the founder of modern Chinese navy.
For such an outstanding friend who made immense contributions, how could Zeng Guofan summarize his life in just two sentences? After much contemplation, he finally wrote what he deemed an appropriate eulogy.
Starting with the upper couplet: “Two plums in eternity, the husband with multiple romantic deaths.”
It is said that Peng Yulin had an early arrangement of marriage with a maidservant named Meigu, but due to family opposition and various twists of fate, the two lovers could not be together. Ultimately, Peng Yulin married another woman, and Meigu married someone else, only to die of illness shortly afterward.
Peng Yulin regretted and mourned this throughout his life. After his wife’s death, he never remarried. In front of Meigu’s grave, he made a vow to paint plum blossoms for the rest of his life as a way of commemorating her. True to his word, he spent forty years painting thousands of plum blossoms, each accompanied by a self-written poem. In the end, Peng Yulin became a master of plum blossom painting, and his plum blossoms, along with Zheng Banqiao’s bamboo, are known as the “Twin Peaks of Qing Dynasty Painting and Calligraphy.”
A military commander on the battlefield, Peng Yulin remained faithful throughout his life, a touching story.
Now, the lower couplet: “Three protectors of West Lake, he alone achieved fame through merit.”
In the Southern Song Dynasty, the renowned general Yue Fei, after meeting a tragic end at Fengbo Pavilion, was buried near West Lake. Another Ming Dynasty hero, Yu Qian, known for successfully defending the capital against the invasion of the Tatars, was originally from Hangzhou and was also buried near West Lake. These two eternal protectors were both granted the title of “Lesser Protector of the Prince.” In this trio, Peng Yulin, in his later years, held the position of “Lesser Protector of the Crown Prince” and retired near West Lake, giving rise to the term “Three Protectors of West Lake.”
Among these three figures, Yue Fei suffered unjustly at Fengbo Pavilion, and Yu Qian was framed, both meeting unfortunate ends. Only Peng Yulin lived to a ripe old age without mishap, making him the ‘sole achiever of fame through merit,’ a fitting description.
By comparing Peng Yulin with Yue Fei and Yu Qian, Zeng Guofan not only acknowledged his contributions and fame but also affirmed his historical status. The wording was both thoughtful and apt, earning admiration.
The Lover of Bound Feet: Gu Hongming
Gu Hongming, also known as Tang Sheng, styled Hongming, and nicknamed Licheng, was a figure from the late Qing Dynasty and early Republican era. Knowledgeable and well-versed in both Eastern and Western cultures, he was hailed as a “strange genius of the late Qing.” Fluent in nine languages, including English, French, German, Latin, Malay, etc., he earned thirteen doctoral degrees, making him the foremost Chinese scholar with expertise in Western science and Eastern studies during the late Qing era.
Gu Hongming made significant contributions to promoting Chinese culture in the West. He translated Confucian classics like the Analects, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning, widely disseminating them in Europe and America. His English books, such as ‘The Oxford Movement in China’ and ‘The Spirit of the Chinese,’ had a profound impact. A saying circulated in the West: ‘When in China, one may skip the Three Great Halls, but one must not skip Gu Hongming.’
Gu Hongming, despite his broad exposure to Western culture, had an eccentric hobby: he liked women with bound feet, and he could only concentrate on his work when smelling his wife’s bound feet cloth.
(Bound feet, also known as ‘Three-Inch Golden Lotus.’)
When reflecting on his life, Gu Hongming once said, ‘The sole reason for my achievements in life is that I have stimulants and sleeping pills accompanying me all the time.’ He referred to his original wife, Shugu, and his Japanese concubine, Yoshida Sadako, as his ‘stimulants’ and ‘sleeping pills.’ According to Gu Hongming, he could hardly get through the day without these two women by his side during the day and night.
Gu Hongming’s ancestors were early Chinese immigrants who settled in Nanyang. Born in Malaysia, he was adopted by a British couple, the Browns, during his childhood. He went to England for education, earning dual degrees in English literature and civil engineering. After successful academic pursuits, he returned to China with a British exploration team.
Soon after returning to China, he settled in Xiamen, Fujian, and married Shugu. Shugu, a typical traditional Chinese woman, had bound feet – the ‘Three-Inch Golden Lotus.’ To Gu Hongming, her bound feet were elegant and charming, like a slender willow swaying in the wind, possessing a unique beauty. Therefore, he developed a strong interest in bound feet. From the day they married, Gu Hongming considered Shugu’s bound feet as a treasure. Whenever he had free time, he would walk to his wife’s side, pick up her bound feet, caress and play with them. Over time, it became a habit. Whenever he felt lonely or puzzled, he sought comfort and inspiration from his wife’s bound feet.
Especially when writing, he would have Shugu sit beside him. She would take off her shoes, place her legs on a prepared stool, and extend her feet to Gu Hongming’s left hand. Gu Hongming would hold the pen with his right hand and grip Shugu’s bound toes with his left, touching and playing with them like handling a piece of art. Sometimes, he would unwrap the cloth binding Shugu’s feet layer by layer, bringing his nose close to her feet, muttering words of praise. Initially, Shugu felt uncomfortable, but over time, she got used to it, allowing him to manipulate her.
When Gu Hongming faced writer’s block, he would unwrap the foot bindings, bring her feet close to his nose for a sniff, and suddenly find inspiration flowing. With the brush in hand, the words would effortlessly flow onto the paper. Gu Hongming once said during a conversation with friends, ‘A woman’s bound feet are particularly mysterious and wonderful, emphasizing the thinness, smallness, pointedness, curvature, elegance, softness, and straightness in seven words… The foot-binding practices of the past were not cruel policies; Shugu’s bound feet are my stimulants.’
Therefore, people gave him the title of ‘Old Monster.’
Gu Hongming often expressed peculiar and controversial views. He advocated that men could have concubines but opposed women having multiple husbands. To support his viewpoint, he even found theoretical justifications from the structure of Chinese characters. He interpreted the character ‘妾’ (concubine) as ‘a standing woman.’ According to him, when a man was tired, having a woman standing by his side could serve as a support. Therefore, he believed men should not be without women and staunchly argued for men taking concubines.
As for women having multiple husbands, he also had a unique explanation. He likened husbands and wives to teapots and teacups, stating that one teapot could be paired with multiple teacups, which was reasonable. However, one teacup could not be matched with multiple teapots, indicating that women could not have multiple husbands. Therefore, according to Gu Hongming, women could not have multiple husbands.
Gu Hongming’s arguments for men having concubines and women not having multiple husbands were well-known and ran counter to the prevailing trend of gender equality at that time, leading to considerable debate.
Once, a German lady asked Gu Hongming, ‘You argue that men can have concubines, so can women have multiple husbands?’ Gu Hongming shook his head and said, ‘It goes against both reason and sentiment and contradicts the law.’ Before the German lady could speak, Gu Hongming gestured to stop her and then asked, ‘May I ask what you use for transportation?’ The lady said, ‘A car.’ Gu Hongming continued, ‘A car has four wheels. How many tire pumps does your home have?’ As soon as he finished asking, Gu Hongming burst into laughter.
Although Gu Hongming’s peculiarities and some of his views were criticized by many, his contributions to the dissemination of traditional Chinese culture were indelible.
Lin Yutang once commented on him, ‘His command of the English language surpasses anyone in the past two hundred years. In terms of coining words and using language, he excels. In summary, it is with Mr. Gu’s transcendent thinking that we see such extraordinary literary elegance. Hongming can also be regarded as an outstanding and eccentric figure.’
During the late Qing Dynasty and early Republican era, a period of significant ideological changes and cultural collisions, Gu Hongming was not only an importer of Western culture but also a defender of traditional Chinese culture. He was deeply influenced by Western culture while being infatuated with traditional Chinese culture. He displayed both enlightened and stubborn, conservative facets, making him a unique figure shaped by the special period of cultural intersection between China and the West.
“Eternal Talented Woman” Li Qingzhao: Penchant for Alcohol and Gambling
When it comes to Li Qingzhao, people’s first impression is often of her as a gentle and talented beauty. However, in reality, Li Qingzhao also had a side that enjoyed gambling and drinking. When she was still a young girl, she became fascinated with a gambling chess game called “打马” (literally, “hitting the horse”). Li Qingzhao was deeply engrossed in this game, often inviting three to five friends to play together whenever she had the time. Moreover, she had good luck in gambling and would frequently win money. In order to promote this game, Li Qingzhao even wrote a piece titled “打马图序” (“Introduction to Hitting the Horse”), detailing more than 20 ways to play the game and sharing her experiences with the world.
In addition to gambling, Li Qingzhao also had a strong liking for alcohol, as often mentioned in her poems. Sometimes, she would drink to the point of not finding her way home, or she would get so drunk that she forgot to remove her gold hairpins and jewelry, falling into a deep sleep on her bed.
In ancient times, the combination of a woman being fond of gambling and alcohol might seem unconventional, but during the Song Dynasty, the societal atmosphere was relatively open-minded, and Li Qingzhao’s behavior did not attract significant criticism. Despite the delicate and elegant style of her poetry, Li Qingzhao was a person with a free spirit, straightforward and magnanimous, and her penchant for gambling and drinking revealed a lovable aspect of her true nature.
“Foodie” Lu Xun
Among historical figures, if we think of someone deserving the title “foodie,” Su Dongpo might come to mind first. However, the stern and imposing Lu Xun, known for his lines like “横眉冷对千夫指” (facing the contemptuous gaze of thousands with a cold and stern expression), was also a genuine “foodie.”
Lu Xun had a strong preference for sweets, especially fond of eating rock candy. Once, a friend brought him two bags of persimmon rock candy. Lu Xun, considering it a precious treasure, immediately began eating it and couldn’t stop. Later, he learned that this candy was valuable and effective in treating mouth corner sores. He had to hide it away and save it for when he needed it. However, he couldn’t resist and ate it all in the middle of the night, justifying it by saying, “I suddenly thought that I don’t get mouth sores very often, so I might as well enjoy it now while it’s fresh.”
Lu Xun’s favorite sweet was “萨琪玛” (saqima), a traditional Beijing snack made with honey syrup. He also loved a Japanese dessert called “羊羹” (yōkan), made by steaming a mixture of small beans and wheat flour. Lu Xun developed a deep fondness for this treat during his time studying in Japan, and even after returning to China, he would often have it brought from Japan.
In restaurants, Lu Xun always enjoyed ordering a dessert called “三不粘” (sanbuzhan). This dish, neither a cake nor a pudding, had a unique texture that didn’t stick to the spoon, plate, or teeth—hence the name “三不粘” (three not sticking). Legend has it that this sweet treat was made with egg yolks, starch, sugar, and clear water, resulting in an extremely sweet and sticky delicacy.
Lu Xun’s lavish spending on food was supported by his high earnings from writing during the Republican era. He dined out over 30 times a month and visited 65 restaurants in Beijing. Even after experiencing toothache and visiting the dentist, he would return home with a bunch of biscuits. There was a type of sweet called “沙琪玛” (shaqima), and when his son wanted to try it, Lu Xun firmly refused, saying, “There’s only one; if you eat it, Dad won’t have any left, so don’t eat it.”
Lu Xun had a great affinity for snacks, not only mentioning them in his writings but also providing detailed explanations of the origin and history of snacks in his essays. In his essay “零食” (Snacks), he stated, “It is said that the benefits of snacks lie in leisure, providing health benefits and good taste.” This essay served as theoretical support for his love of snacks.
Eccentricities of Literary Figures during Ideation
With a long history and numerous literati, Chinese literary figures displayed various eccentricities when conceiving their poems and writings.
Extraordinary Surge of Literary Inspiration
At the end of the Tang Dynasty, literatus Shi Xubai, while intoxicated with alcohol, had an extraordinary surge of literary inspiration. He would instruct four or five apprentices to take pens and paper, and as he spoke freely, they would transcribe. In just a short time, several major works would be completed. It was said, “Shi Xubai, half drunk, would order his apprentices to transcribe as he spoke, and within moments, numerous masterpieces were produced, with the words flowing smoothly and impressing the onlookers.”
Jovial Atmosphere Enjoyer
Yang Yi, a literary figure of the Northern Song Dynasty and representative of the Western Kun style, engaged in activities like drinking, playing pitch-pot, chess, and gambling before writing. The jovial atmosphere, laughter, and noise did not hinder his ideation process. Once his thoughts were mature, he would write swiftly on small square papers without adding any punctuation. Every time a page was filled, someone would transcribe it, and the servants would be exhausted running around. In a short time, thousands of words would be written.
Mao Qiling, a Qing Dynasty scholar and poet, loved debating with people, and his debates did not interfere with his ideation. “When composing, his hand did not stop, and he could answer questions accurately while others sat by and asked. At home, his wife scolded him, and he would retort, showing that he could use all his senses.” In other words, he could use his brain for ideation, hands for writing, ears for listening to questions, and mouth for responding to both questions and scolding. He also used his eyes when his wife exposed him in front of students, organizing reference books while composing poetry, a practice called “獭祭鱼” (Ode to the Otter).
Melancholic Musings Led to a Woodland Whimsy
The Tang Dynasty poet Zhou Pu, who enjoyed composing bitter and melancholic poetry, experienced great joy whenever he thought of a poetic line. Once, seeing a man carrying firewood in the field, he suddenly grabbed the firewood, exclaiming loudly, “I got it, I got it!” The woodcutter, terrified, withdrew his arm, leaving the firewood behind, and fled. Coincidentally, patrol officers suspected the woodcutter of being a thief and arrested him for questioning. Zhou Pu explained to the officers, “I just saw him carrying a bundle of firewood, and I thought of two lines of poetry.” The officers then released the woodcutter. The two lines Zhou Pu thought of were, “Where do descendants leisurely become guests, the sound of the river flows towards the east.”
Once, a scholar wanted to play a prank on Zhou Pu due to his penchant for bitter poetry. Riding a donkey, the scholar met Zhou Pu on the road and recited one of Zhou Pu’s lines, “禹力不到处，河声流向东” (“Yu’s power doesn’t reach everywhere, the sound of the river flows east”). Zhou Pu, feeling annoyed, followed the scholar all the way. The scholar, focused on riding his donkey without looking back, continued for several miles until Zhou Pu caught up. Zhou Pu said to him, “My poem says ‘河声流向西’ (the sound of the river flows west), so why did you say it flows east?” The scholar nodded with a smile, offering no explanation.
Struggling with Words
Tang Dynasty poets Jia Dao and Li He were known for composing on the back of donkeys. When Jia Dao first arrived in the capital, he came up with a line while on a donkey: “鸟宿池边树，僧推月下门” (“Birds roost by the pondside trees, monks push open the gate under the moonlight”). After a while, he wanted to change the character “推” (push) to “敲” (knock) but couldn’t decide. He acted out the movements of both “推” and “敲” on the donkey, accidentally bumping into Han Yu, the magistrate of Jingzhao, who was brought to him by the crowd. Han Yu decided in favor of “敲.” Another time, while riding in the street, he composed the line “落叶满长安” (“Fallen leaves cover the entire Chang’an”). Trying to turn it into a couplet, he couldn’t get it right. Again, he bumped into the magistrate Liu Qichu and was detained overnight before being released.
No Donkey, No Poetry
Li He, too, couldn’t do without a donkey for poetry. Every day, he rode out on a donkey in search of inspiration, followed by a servant carrying luggage. When inspiration struck, he would write it on paper and put it in his bag.
Writing From the Belly
Wang Bo, one of the Four Masters of the Early Tang Dynasty, would grind ink for several hours before composing a monument inscription. He then covered his head and slept deeply. Once his ideation was complete, he would throw off the covers and, in one go, write the inscription without adding any punctuation. People referred to this as “腹稿” (writing from the belly).
Empty the House for Writing
Song Dynasty poet Chen Shidao insisted on having everyone leave the house when he composed poetry. Even cats and dogs had to be driven away. Infants were also sent to stay elsewhere. Afterward, he would climb onto the bed, “embrace the covers, lie down, groan for several days, and only then could he complete a piece.”
Xue Daoheng, a famous poet in the Sui Dynasty, enjoyed lying down when composing poetry, and he demanded absolute quiet. If he heard someone talking, he would become angry.
Lying Down to Ideate
Yang Pu, a commoner poet of the Northern Song Dynasty, even in the suburbs, would lie down to ideate if inspiration struck. Once, while riding a donkey on the road, he had a moment of inspiration. He immediately lay down in the grass to contemplate quietly. When he captured a poetic line, he would leap up, startling passersby, who thought they had encountered a highway robber. His behavior bordered on madness.
Entering Women’s bedrooms
Ming Dynasty scholar Li Hualong was known for his love of bitter poetry. Once, while wandering and reciting poems, he entered the bedroom of a young woman. He lay on her bed, lost in thought, and eventually fell asleep, snoring loudly. Fortunately, the young woman knew him and didn’t find it strange. She even prepared tea for him, and he continued to lie there until the woman’s husband and in-laws returned home. Li Hualong, still absorbed in contemplation, got up only after waking up and wrote with a pen. Everyone laughed, thinking it was a joke.
He was also known as a “吟痴” (poetry enthusiast).
Ouyang Xiu claimed that he wrote most of his articles in three places: on horseback, in bed, and in the toilet. He learned to write while on horseback from Li He, imitated Wang Bo in bed, and followed Qian Weiyuan’s example in the toilet. Qian Weiyuan was a poet of the early Northern Song Dynasty who once said that he loved reading books throughout his life. He would read classics while sitting, novels while lying down, and short poems while on the toilet.
Similarly, Song Shou, styled Gongchui, always carried a book with him when he went to the toilet. He recited aloud, and the sound could be heard far and wide.
Writing at the Top of Trees
Luo Fan, during the Ming Dynasty, had a peculiar and bizarre style in his articles. When ideating, he had to climb to the top of tall trees and perch there, contemplating or daydreaming. Alternatively, he would lock himself in a room alone. If someone peered through the door, they would see him with a withered complexion, exuding a deathly aura. Luo Fan was asked to compose a eulogy for the tombstone of Du Mu. After finishing, he told Du Mu, “I wrote this epitaph, and I’ve died four times since.”
Chewing on Stone Lotus Seeds
When Wang Anshi wrote articles, he chewed on stone lotus seeds, as their hardness required prolonged chewing, providing time for contemplation.
Fascination with Gourds
Qing Dynasty scholar Wang Jun had a fascination with gourds. Each time he composed a poem, he would pour water into a gourd, empty it, and refill it. If he threw the gourd to the ground, the poem was considered complete.
Apart from these peculiarities of historical figures mentioned above, many famous individuals throughout history, both in China and abroad, had their own idiosyncrasies. For example, during the Tang Dynasty, Prime Minister Wei Zheng had a liking for celery; Emperor Xianfeng was a fan of liangfen (a type of cold noodle dish); Li Hongzhang enjoyed pickles; Shakespeare preferred older women and reveled in joy when he saw jesters; Lord Byron kept a pistol by his side when sleeping; Balzac had to have a candle lit while writing; Alexandre Dumas liked writing on colored paper; Stevenson often drew inspiration from the violin’s tones; Hemingway preferred writing while standing, with one foot on the ground and the other raised.
As Zhang Dai said, a person without quirks isn’t worth befriending because they lack curiosity and passion for the world and life. Such individuals often lack enthusiasm and have a loveless and ungrateful heart. Having quirks as companions is not a problem; instead, it shows a deep love for life, making it one of the great pleasures of life.