William Dolby

Classical Chinese Translations and Research

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Preface to Ghost Register by Zhong Sicheng

Introduced and Translated by William Dolby

  • Originally published in 'Renditions' the Chinese-English Translation Magazine of the Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
  • Date of original publication unknown: perhaps around early 1960's when Bill worked in Hong Kong.


We would know very little indeed about the early period of one of China’s three main genre of poetry, the qu曲, or about China’s first period of full-fledged theatre, the Variety Play (zaju 雜劇) of the Yuan dynasty (1234/1280-1368), were it not for Zhong Sicheng and his book Ghost Register, a manual of the playwrights and their plays, and the poets of non-drama qu – the sanqu. He completed the first version of it in 1330, revising it after 1334 and again after 1345. Zhong never attained success in a government career. When he was thirty or so he wrote a long qu – one of the finest examples of the genre – about himself, expressing his disillusionment with career and his own unprepossessing looks, but as this preface shows, he was determined that other men of brilliance should be accorded their due by posterity.

In this unprecedented book, Zhong perpetuates authors of popular songs and plays, who otherwise would assuredly have been neglected and sunk into oblivion because of conventional lack of respect among orthodox literati for their spheres of activity. Popular entertainment was through the ages looked down upon or openly attacked. Zhong’s preface is primarily pre-emptive defence against the narrow-mindedly orthodox who might object to reverence for the songsters and dramatists. In an era other than that of Mongol rule, under Chinese or sinicized government and with civil service examination system in full operation, many of these men of genius would no doubt have achieved the heights in government service. Whether their activities were less worthy in the entertainment world is open to debate, but in as much as surviving in posterity is to be valued, Zhong proved a good friend to them, and certainly served prosperity by preserving glimpses of cultural splendours that would otherwise have seemed almost as if they’d never been.



Preface by Zhong Sicheng of Old Bianliang written on 6th August 1330

Human beings’ relative intelligence, their life-span, life and death, good and ill fortune, - any mention of the underlying principles determining such things is sure to involve the matter of fate, as has always been the conclusion of the sages and wise men in their discourses. For the interplay between the dual forces of existence is what determines death and life – whether one is a live human or a ghost. Once one realises this fundamental rationale governing life and death and accepts it as a law of nature, one is sure not to suffer the ill-destiny of living in the shadow of towering walls or finding oneself in fetters.

All the same, humans born and living in this world restrict their view of ghosts to those who have actually died. They fail to realize that some of the not-yet-dead are already ghosts! - When people are “wine-bottles and rice sacks”, - fatuous idle tipplers and gluttons - now drunk, now in dream, as insensate as clods of earth, they may be alive, but in what way are they any different from the ghosts of the dead?

But we’ve no time to waste discussing the likes of such! Others may possess some slight acquaintance with philosophy and may mouth virtuous precepts, but, as far as the basic principles and purposes of learning are concerned, they are quite happy to let them go hang. And when they come to their end, they are no longer heard of, are cared about by no one, making them worse-off than the clod-ghosts.

I’ve seen ghosts of the not-yet-dead mourning ghosts of the dead, and not having given the matter full thought. I didn’t know there was very little separating the two. What I failed to realise was that ever since Heaven and Earth began, down all the ages there have been undying ghosts present in our world. How so? The sage rulers and wise ministers, loyal subjects and filial children have, for their small acts of virtue and their great achievements alike, been recorded in history, and shine forth as effulgently as the moon, as resplendently as the sun, flow on like the rivers, tower forth like the mountains …. and will do so unendingly, unto ten million kalpas, …. thus, although ghosts, not being ghosts.

Having some days of leisure, I cast my mind back with longing to old friends, who, of humble background, attained no great rank in government service, but were of considerable ability and wide learning and had about them matter worthy of recording, yet who, with the long passage of time, have been submerged or consigned to oblivion. I accordingly proceeded to set down for posterity their curricula vitae, mourning them with a song, recording in addition their predecessors, and listing their surnames and personal names and setting forth their works, in the hope that gentleman yet to embark on the sedulous study of fine literature may make “ice more coldly pure than water” and “blue surpass the colour of the blue-dye indigo plant”, the pupils excelling their masters, should which occur I would count myself most blessed by fortune! And I entitled this record Ghost Register.

I alas, am also a living ghost. But could I turn those ghosts of the dead and the not-yet-dead into undying ghosts, by this means informing even distant posterity of them, again how happy and fortunate that would make me! As for the lofty and esteemed scholars with their doctrines of “nature” and “laws”, should they consider this an insult to the school of sage Confucius, then let me and my fellow-companions just carry on with our own pursuits, addressing ourselves instead to connoisseurs who share true taste.