Swirling Incense and Sword Dancing – The Scholars, Part 3

Starting around chapter 8 through at least chapter 13, The Scholars begins to center on Prefect Chu’s grandson, Hsien-fu Chu, and his circle of family and friends, including Prefect Chu’s nephews, Chan Lou and Feng Lou. The Chu family is no longer as affluent as earlier generations, and in this regard, it’s easy to consider Hsien-fu Chu to be a stand-in for author Jingzi Wu, whose family also had declined over generations. This section continues with parties and long lists of sumptuous food, lots of tea and at times alcohol. This circle of scholars seems to spend more time visiting and having fun than studying, and it makes for some fine literary moments with lush descriptions of the silly and sensuous, such as their enjoyment of burning incense at one gathering (note that the novel uses the tradition of last name first for characters):

When they had taken their seats, Lou Feng ordered incense to be burnt. At the word of command, a small boy with long hair took an ancient bronze incense-burner in both hands and carried it out, while two servants let down curtains round the room. An hour or two later, when they had drunk three cups apiece and the two servants returned to draw back the curtains, and the guests saw incense smoke wreathing the panels of the wall, filling the room with a delicious scent. Mr. Lu felt that he was in paradise.
“Incense must be burnt this way,” Lou Feng told the compiler, “if you don’t want to be troubled by the smoke.” (The Scholars, Ch. 10)

Another highlight in that same chapter includes an uproarious chain of events at Hsien-fu Chu’s wedding, which turns into a disaster culminating in a chain of mishaps with soup. The Scholars is full of these small, delightful details.

At another party given by the Lou brothers in chapter 12, they encourage the shady Iron-armed Chang to entertain them with a sword dance:

Delighted, the Lou brothers ordered servants to bring Iron-armed Chang a fine old sword which gleamed brightly when he unsheathed it beneath the lamp. He took off his jerkin, tightened his belt, picked up the sword and stepped out into the courtyard….a dozen young servants came out, each with a candlestick, and candles were lit on each side of the courtyard.

Iron-armed Chang’s sword whirled up and down, right and left, moving faster and faster through many figures till nothing but a brilliant glitter could be seen, with no man inside, and silvery serpents seemed to be darting in all directions. At the same time an icy wind made the onlookers shiver. Chuan took a copper basin from a stand and told a servant to fill it with water and spatter it over Iron-armed Chang; but not a drop reached him. Presently, however, he uttered a great cry, the brilliant glitter vanished, and there he stood with the sword in his hand, not in the least flushed or winded. (The Scholars,Ch 12)

Since this series has been focusing on banned books, this time we will look at another interesting local law on the books during the Qing Dynasty (slight correction from my previous post that the Ming laws only take up a few pages of each chapter while the rest of each chapter is Qing law) from 王利器的«元明清三代禁毁小说戏曲史料» (Translation: Historical Data on the Yuan, Ming and Qing’s Forbidden and Destroyed Novels and Chinese Operas, compiled by Liqi Wang [1911-1998]). Certainly there are many laws against “obscene” books that include long lists of books, but the negative influence of the arts in general on the community was expressed in many laws as well:

Prohibition on Women Watching Plays and Burning Incense (Qing Dynasty)

So that strict behavior will instruct a prohibition and people may restrain themselves and shape custom: seeing that gaudy women roam around stirring up lust and covetousness, are inattentive to the women’s quarters, and forget custom to imitate fashion, therefore etiquette should be strict inside and out to guard against it, showing that an outing in the country is forbidden, to nip it in the bud and lay down a very strong meaning.

Here in Chengxiang District [of Putian City, Fujian] people were recently investigated, and indeed there are gaudily adorned women who congregate at stage plays to watch the shows. Furthermore, there is news that they tempt Buddhist nuns by entering the temple to burn incense, in defiance of regulations and contrary to the Confucian code of ethics. This county serves as the parents of the people in managing conduct and discipline, and if it doesn’t enforce the law by punishing infractions severely, it will certainly cause conduct to decline, and so it is important to immediately display this strict prohibition. For this reason we must rely upon the whole village’s scholarly class, common people, military and civilians, guards, and so on to be informed: hereafter in this matter each must discipline his wife or daughter to comply with etiquette within the women’s quarters and not permit them to wear gaudy adornment to go on outings or to watch plays together, and Buddhist nuns must not sincerely believe what they hear and be tempted when women arrive at the temple to look at the monastery and burn incense.

Supposing there is an instance of disobedience, upon determining the woman’s evil intention her father, brothers, husband or other male should discipline her; and if an undisciplined woman enters the temple to see its monks, nuns or Taoist priests, seize, investigate and punish her. The local bao-jia [group of houses forming an administrative unit] should expose publicly what is concealed and also should seize the women to investigate again. Every year in March in the area outside of the city gate beyond Mount Tai [one of China’s five sacred mountains], many people burn incense in the temple. The bao-jia should strictly inspected behavior and only permit men to burn incense at the temple. They should not allow women to enter the temple, and if anyone disobeys, they should immediately make a report and investigate.

This county intends to maintain public morals, and after displaying the prohibition, it will certainly severely punish violators. Everyone should strictly abide by it and not cause sorrow. A special revelation. (The Qing Dynasty Carries the Light, An old master passing down collected writings and rare treasured books, The Revealed Order Collected Records) [p. 159-60, my translation]

Here is an excellent article on the Singang Incense Artistic Culture Garden in Taiwan that outlines some of the incense industry and its use in Buddhism and Taoism:


The rest of this section of the novel through chapter 23 begins to get into the paku essay controversies and shows the way some scholars end up on a path of corruption. In chapter 16, we meet scholar-turned-fortune-teller Chao-jen Kuang who returns to his family in a nearby district to help his poor, ailing father. Like a good son, he lowers himself to become a butcher and merchant to support his family through hard times, and his virtuous and hard-working nature gets him the notice of Headman Pan; a magistrate also notices him and uses his pull to help him pass his exams. Learning he was falsely accused of a crime later on, he flees the area with instructions to go to Hangchow and contact Headman Pan’s relative, Pan the Third.

Once Chao-jen Kuang arrives in Hangchow, he meets up with a group of poet-scholars who are from the same school of thought and social circles as Hsien-fu Chu and the Lou brothers. This group of men challenges his notions of success as well as the value of paku essays as opposed to poetry and older exam requirements. However, when Chao-jen Kuang meets Pan the Third and sees his opulent, powerful lifestyle, he suddenly turns a blind eye to the shifty man’s involvement with the kidnapping and selling of women, forging of documents, and cheating on exams. Pan the Third looks down on the poet-scholar group, and Chao-jen Kuang serves him for two years, aiding in his fraud, until Pan the Third gets arrested and Chao-jen Kuang must flee again!

In chapters 20 through 23, we also meet aspiring scholar Pu Niu, who steals the name of a popular poet to begin his fraudulent activities and ultimately gets into enough trouble to be stripped and beaten by someone he double-crossed. While it seemed back in chapter 1 that Mian Wang was a bit impractical and otherworldly for running off to become a hermit in the mountains instead of chasing after an official position, the examples of both Chao-jen Kuang and Pu Niu show what sort of life Mian Wang and the ideal scholar were to reject. Mian Wang’s choice seems more rational in this context.

Part three of a five part series.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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