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Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life , translated, introduced and commented by Burton Watson

Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life - Burton Watson, Stephen Addiss


Yoshishige no Yasutane by Yosai Kikuchi



The excellent scholar/translator Burton Watson brings together four short texts on a topic much discussed, if not actually lived, by the educated classes of China and Japan - withdrawing from the "world" to live in simplicity in order to concentrate on the "important things" in life. Watson could have provided hundreds of such texts, and these are excellent choices, but one should beware trying to make generalizations about the entire genre on the basis of these four examples. Two of the texts were translated from the Chinese and two from the Japanese; three of the four authors were Japanese. The texts were written over a span of more than 7 centuries.

The great T'ang dynasty poet Po Chu-i (772–846), whose name has been romanized in a half-dozen other ways, opens with "Record of the Thatched Hall on Mount Lu", written in 817. It was composed in a very widespread prose form the Chinese call chi (report). As so often, the withdrawal from the world in Po's case was the result of a demotion (another common cause was withdrawal in protest of some injustice/bad policy/bad behavior, etc. of the central government), and it was a rather short-lived semi-withdrawal. In this charming text Po describes his little "hut" and its immediate surroundings. Though the region was a hotbed of Buddhist and Taoist activity and Po himself was a practicing Ch'an (Zen) Buddhist, there is little sign of Buddhist thought in this text, aside from a short list of names of Buddhist monks who had lived and died in the region. So, really, it appeared to me to be more a delightful place for a vacation or retirement than the somewhat more meaningful ideal usually expressed by "withdrawing from the world" in Asia. After two years, he was given another assignment and had to move on... Watson appends two poems of Po also set at the Thatched Hall (an allusion to a similar retreat of Tu Fu) which nicely complement the chi

Yoshishige no Yasutane (c.930-997) wrote Chitei no Ki (translated by Watson as "Record of the Pond Pavilion") in 982. In Heian Japan, Chinese culture was particularly influential. Though Japanese scholars of later ages wrote in Chinese for a number of reasons, in Heian Japan writing in Japanese was somewhat analogous to writing in Italian, as opposed to Latin, in Florence in the 15th century - the importance and quality of your work was discounted. This piece was composed in Chinese but in the form called zuihitsu by the Japanese (a kind of essay in which the author "follows the brush", follows his thoughts where they lead). Yasutane signals Po's influence on him through explicit mention of his name, but Yasutane's "retreat" is an extensive mansion in the middle of Kyoto(!), albeit in a rather desolate portion of the capital.

In the first section of Chitei no Ki Yasutane recounts social and economic problems in Kyoto; compared with the problems described in the following piece,Hojoki, these are rather mild. Then Yasutane lovingly describes his mansion and the grounds, "like a louse happy in the seam of a garment". Then he moralizes in a Confucian and (Amida) Buddhist vein. But at the end he expresses concern and embarrassment that his comfortable life in his little mansion might be too extravagant, so he ends with a much more solemn paragraph of moralizing; here an excerpt:

Ah, when a wise man builds a house, he causes no expense to the people, no trouble to the spirits. He uses benevolence and righteousness for his ridgepole and beam, ritual and law for his pillar and base stone, truth and virtue for a gate and door, mercy and love for a wall and hedge.

Next we find Hojoki (translated here as "Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut") written by Kamo no Chomei (1153/5–1216) in 1212. I can now see that he was much influenced by Yasutane's piece. He followed the general structure of Chitei no Ki but outdid it in every conceivable respect. Hojoki is a central text in Japanese culture, written in a poetically dense prose which Watson also renders in prose, as did Donald Keene in his pioneering Anthology of Japanese Literature. I review an excellent translation into free verse by Michael Hofmann here:


and refer you there for a brief discussion of Hojoki. I have to say that I prefer Hofmann's version, but Keene's and Watson's are very fine, too.

Watson's selection concludes with Genjuan no Ki (Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling) written by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) in 1690. It is composed in the haibun style, a poetic prose style. Unlike Chomei, Basho lived in a time of peace and stability. He wrote this piece in a little hut outside Kyoto not far from the site of Chomei's hut. He suppresses all of the social and philosophical concerns of the preceding two pieces and returns to the genial personal notes of Po's piece. He even draws in Chinese sites he had never witnessed and mentions Po by name. Genjuan no Ki is quiet, modest, reserved.

This book is enhanced by ink drawings and calligraphy by Stephen Addiss. And Watson's introductions and notes are very useful.