Fu on the idle life

In the grand procession of idlers, to which I have always aspired, P’an Yüeh is a worthy exemplar, from the vicinity of the magnificent capital of Lo-yang, in the Three Kingdoms period of the third century — a little before it was sacked by the Hun.

While idleness is a universal, or “catholic” activity, it admits of several specializations; P’an Yüeh’s particular calling was “ineptness,” for which reason, after an undistinguished career as a government official in which he scored many failures, he retired to his family estate. He is quite amusing on the subject of his various professional catastrophes.

The fu is a kind of memoir-essay, which was ancient even in 300 AD; followed by a shih, or descriptive poem, longish by Far Asiatic standards. In a delightful fu-shih (translated by Burton Watson), P’an Yüeh describes the excellent trees he has planted, fishponds he has dug, rooms he has constructed around that family retreat (and the mill he owns to finance it all). He lives an idle life with his aged and delicate mother and various siblings, but no longer his wife. For in another poem I learnt that he was one of “a pair of birds nesting in the wood,” but woke one morning to find himself alone.

His expertise in fruit and vegetable gardening I cannot judge, after 1,800 years, but his mention of pears from Lord Chang’s valley orchard, persimmons of Marquis Liang’s wu-pi strain, King Wen of Chou’s supple-limbed jujubes, and Chu Chung’s plums, suggests a formidable practice of silviculture, or a diligent thief. His inventory of legumes and herbs reveals a passionate foodie. He has retreated in contentment, yet still has pleasing distant views of the Yellow Riverside capital, whose temples he visits sometimes. He has made “ineptness” work for him.

Chou Jen is quoted in the Analects of Confucius: “He who can exert his strength steps into the ranks; he who cannot stays behind.”

Aware of this adage, and despite his perspicacity, P’an Yüeh accepted recall to official service. He was falsely accused of treason, by a powerful rival in the bureaucracy; then executed, together with his mother and all members of his family, in the tradition of oriental tyranny.

Moral: It is very dangerous for an inept person to fall into competent hands.