紫毫笔歌 Song of the Purple Writing Brush
白居易 (Author: Bai Juyi, 8th century)
紫毫笔， purple writing brush
尖如锥兮利如刀。sharp like awl connection word sharp like knife
江南石上有老兔，river south stone on have old rabbit
吃竹饮泉生紫毫。eat bamboo drink spring water grow purple fur
宣城之人采为笔，Xuan city connection word people pick make into brush
千万毛中拣一毫。thousand ten thousand fur among choose one brush
毫虽轻, 功甚重。 hair though light work very heavy
管勒工名充岁贡，tube handle neatly name use as year tribute
君兮臣兮勿轻用。emperor connection word official connection word not easily use
勿轻用，将何如？not easily use shall how?
愿赐东西府御史，wish give east west official residence enquiry censors
愿颁左右台起居。wish issue left right terrace rise reside
搦管趋入黄金阙, take hold brush walk into golden imperial city
抽毫立在白玉除。take out brush stand at white jade stairs
臣有奸邪正衙奏，court official have evil heretical upright administrative center report
君有动言直笔书。emperor have move word straightforward brush write
起居郎, 侍御史， Imperial Secretaries enquiry censors
尔知紫毫不易致。you know purple hair not easy make
每岁宣城进笔时，Every year Xuan city pay tribute brush time
紫毫之价如金贵。purple hair connection word price like gold precious
慎勿空将弹失仪，carefully not in vain use accuse (others) of lose manner
慎勿空将录制词。carefully not in vain record the emperor’s word
These purple calligrapher’s brushes
Sharp as an awl, sharp as a knife
In the south, an old rabbit sits on a stone
Eating bamboo and drinking spring water
The people of Xuan city harvest its purple-tipped fur.
From 10,000 hairs they find one that’s worthy.
They do heavy labor with these light hairs,
And finely carve the handles to use it as yearly tribute.
Oh, emperors and high officials, do not use them carelessly,
I can tell you a better way.
Give them to enquiry censors at the eastern and western imperial houses
Give them to Imperial Secretaries of the left and right terraces.
Take hold of the brush and enter the golden, imperial city.
Hold it aloft and stand before the white jade stairs.
Use it to report to the emperor during court meetings any official who does evil.
Use it to write clearly the edicts of the emperor.
Imperial Secretaries and enquiry censors,
You know these purple brushes are not easy to make.
Every year Xuan city pays tribute with these brushes
These brushes are as costly as gold.
When you use them, be careful not to make false accusations.
Be careful not to mistake the emperor’s words.
This poem gives us some interesting insight into scholarly and imperial customs. The “four treasures of the study,” that is the paper, block of ink, whetstone for the ink, and the brush, were highly revered, and rabbit fur brushes made in Xuan city were considered so valuable that they were sent to the palace every year in tribute. This purple-tipped rabbit hair brush was used only by the emperor and palace officials. It was so highly associated with the court that when an aristocrat was found to be in possession of such a brush, he and his whole family were put to death. The reason for such a harsh punishment was the belief that the brush could be used to forge imperial decrees and thereby allow its owner to usurp the throne.
The enquiry censors of the eastern and western imperial houses and the imperial secretaries of the right and left terraces were court officials who transcribed the emperor’s words, recorded the functioning of the court, and monitored the behavior of court officials during morning assembles. They were tasked with the important responsibility of ensuring that the court was an example for the rest of the country of upright behavior in accordance with Confucian principles and royal tradition.
The line 搦管趋入黄金阙 (Take hold brush hurry enter golden capital) and the following line 抽毫立在白玉除 (take out brush stand at white jade stairs) can be read both as ordinary lines that advance the overall meaning of the poem, and as an elegant literary tour de force that deserve attention in themselves. In a technique known as parallelism that was commonly employed by classical writers, each word of the first line parallels the corresponding word of the next line by having either a related or opposite meaning. “Take hold” matches “take out.” “Hurry” matches “stand.” “Enter” matches with “at.” “Yellow” matches “white.” “Gold” matches “jade,” and “imperial city” matches “stairs.” We could not replicate this parallelism in English, but we thought that the elevated language of the original at least merited the grandiose word “aloft.”