Master Li's Mountain Hut Collection
Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101)
Translated by Duncan M. Campbell The Australian National University
As a reading of the essay translated below reminds us, anxieties about the deleterious impact on reading habits of easy access to ever-increasing amounts of reading matter are hardly new. In this essay Su Shi bemoans the effects both of commercial publishing and of the imperial examination system. Responding in part to what Su Shi had to say, the great Neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) was later famously to complain about such 'faults' as skim reading and jumping from one section of a book to another and so on. 'Yet when he [Su Shi] wrote', Zhu Xi observed, 'books were still very difficult to get hold of!'
In her recent treatment of the techniques developed by scholars in early modern Europe for storing, sorting, selecting and summarizing information, Ann Blair argues that: 'We complain about overload on almost every field, from hardware-store stocking to library holdings to Internet searches. A Google search for "information overload" itself generates more than 1.5 million hits, with the promise of solutions from office supply stores, management consultants, and stress relief services, among many others. But the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period. Ancient, medieval, and early modern authors and authors working in non-Western contexts articulated similar concerns, notably about the overabundance of books and the frailty of human resources for mastering them (such as memory and time).'
This translation is intended to pick up on earlier discussions in this journal of issues to do with collecting generally (see for instance 'Passages from Ouyang Xiu: A Record of Collected Antiquity', China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 24 [December, 2010]), and the collecting of books particularly (see 'The Heritage of Books, Collecting, and Libraries', China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 20 [December, 2009]). Professor Richard Rigby of the China Institute of the ANU reminded me of Su Shi's essay some years ago and my translation is a token of my gratitude for his interest in my work; as always, I am grateful for the extent to which Professor Geremie Barmé's emendations to an earlier draft of this translation have served to greatly improve it.—The Translator
Ivory tusks and rhinoceros horns, pearls and jade, and all such strange and wondrous objects, may well serve to delight the eye and please the ear, but they do not lend themselves to practical use. Metal and stone, plants and trees, silk and hemp, the Five Grains and the Six Timbers, on the other hand, are to be sure all useful objects. Yet in the course of their use they are soon depleted. Books, however, both delight the eye and thrill the ear while also being of practical application. Moreover, by being used they are neither diminished nor destroyed. Books can be acquired by the worthy and the unworthy alike, and each finds benefit therein according to their needs. The humanity and wisdom derived thereof differs according only to one's station. Books may well vary in quality, but they fail none who would seek benefit therein.
From the time of the sage Confucius, learning has begun always with reading. At that time, only Lao Dan, Keeper of the Pillars of Zhou, had many books. Thus, it was only after Han Xuanzi 韓宣子 had arrived in the state of Lu that he saw the Changes 易 and the Images 象, along with the Spring and Autumn Annals of the State of Lu 魯春秋; only when Jizha 季札 was employed by the upper states did he hear of the 'Airs' 風, the 'Odes' 雅 and the 'Hymns' 頌 of The Book of Poetry 詩. And in the kingdom of Chu, only the Historian of the Left and the Prime Minister were able to read the Three Great Kings 三墳, the Five Emperors 五典, the Eight Laws 八索, and the Nine Regions 九丘. Not many scholars born in those times so much as caught sight of the Six Classics, and their learning was acquired only with the greatest of difficulty. Nonetheless, in their mastery of the rites and music, their profound understanding of the Way and morality, they remain unequalled by the learned men of latter ages.
Fig.1 Fig.1 A building at the Temple of the Meeting of the Seas (
Ever since the Qin and Han dynasties, the number of writers has increased greatly, and paper has become more readily available whilst written characters have become simpler and more convenient to use; books are now so plentiful that it may be said that there is a volume available on every topic. But at the same time scholars have become ever more careless and superficial. Why is this? I myself am old enough to have met elderly scholars who claimed that when they were young they found it all but impossible to get hold of copies of the Records of the Grand Historian 史記 and the History of the Han 漢書. When, by luck, they were able to do so, they would immediately copy the text out by hand without break day or night. They recited it as they did so, fearful least they would not have time to finish the book. In recent years, however, book merchants can have ten thousand pages of the texts of the masters of old circulated and printed in the course of a single day, thus making it easy for scholars to enjoy an easy supply of books. By rights, this should mean that the number of scholarly writings in the present age should be many times greater than that of the ancients; but today scholars in pursuit of success in the examinations, leave their books unread, losing themselves instead in fatuous rhetoric. Why, I ask, is this so?In his youth my friend Li Chang 李常 [1027-90] studied in a monk's cell at White Stone Monastery beneath the Peaks of the Five Elders at Hermitage Mountain 廬山五老峰下白石庵之僧舍.[Fig.1] After he had left, people on the mountain would point out his cell to visitors and say that it was 'Master Li's Mountain Hut.' The hut contains a collection of over 9000 fascicles. Li had familiarised himself with the gist of these works, he had examined their sources, so much so that he had absorbed their essence and savoured their flavour, thus truly making the books his own. In his own writing he would give voice to their meaning and in his behaviour he would embody their significance. And thus he became renowned in his own time. The books at Master Li's Mountain Hut are still in excellent condition, and show not the slightest sign of wear or tear. Now they are available to whomsoever should turn up, be it to satisfy a tireless pursuit of learning or to seek out knowledge in keeping with their differing needs. It is a gesture of his humanity that Li did not take his book collection and store it at home but rather left it in the cell where he had once lived.
I am now feeble and sick, of no further use to the age. If I am granted but a few more years of idleness, I will spend my time reading the books that I have been unable to read before. Long have I wished to visit Hermitage Mountain, but I have failed in my quest, and now I am too old. What great benefit it would be for me to use his collection; to improve myself from that which he has left behind.
Li Chang has asked me to write a note about his collection, and this is what I have penned. I have done so in the hope that it may remind readers of the hardships that the ancients experienced in their search for books to read and my present regret that scholars of subsequent ages read not the books that they possess in such ready abundance.
Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:
 Ann Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2010, p. 3).
 These works, which are listed in the Zuo zhuan 左傳 (Duke Zhao 12th year 昭公十二年), are no longer extant but they are traditionally understood to be the earliest Chinese texts.