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Sources of memorable words - quotes, sayings and parts from writings and poetry from well-known Chinese individuals, with a short biography of each.

  1. 公孙龙Gongsun Long( 325 - 250 BC )

    战国时代名家Warring State Era Logician. He was from the state of 赵国Zhao.

    Gongsun Long very well-known during his life time and enjoyed the popular support of his rulers. So he had plenty of time to work on his dialogues. 「白马非马」"White horses are not horses" is probably his most well-known creation. It is one of the dialogues in the book bearing his name, 《公孙龙子》Master Gongsun Long. During the 汉朝Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD), the book contains 14 chapters, today only 6 remain.

    His White Horse Dialogue can be explained by this variation of a story:1


    At the time there is a contagious disease in the state of Zhao, when it comes in contact with horses it would kill them. The Qin State has many battle horses, so to prevent the disease from spreading into their territory it issues a notice on its pass which states: "All horses from Zhao cannot enter". That day, Gongsun Long comes by the pass with a white horse. "You may enter, but the horse may not" the guard tells him. This prompts Gongsun Long to ask, "White horses are not horses, why isn't this horse allow to pass?" "A white horses is a horse" said the guard. "Now I, Gongsun Long ( "Long" is the word for dragon ), must be a dragon then, is it?" The guard looks a little blank but did not sway: "Whether the horse is white or black, if it is from Zhao, then it cannot enter." Now Gongsun Long is well-known as a debater, so he continues his arguments: "'Horse' points at its name, 'White' points at its color; its name and its color cannot be one concept. The composite, 'White Horse', can be split into 'White' and 'Horse' or 'Horse' and 'White', but these two are not the same thing. So if someone wants a horse, a yellow horse or black horse will do. However, if the person wants a white horse and is given a black horse or a yellow horse, then it will not do. This proves that 'White Horse' and 'Horse' are not the same. Thus, White horses are not horses." The guard got confused the more he listen, and at a loss for words, he allows Gongsun Long and his white horse to pass the gate.

  2. 班超Ban Chao( 32 - 102 )

    东汉名将.Han general. Native of 陕西Shaanxi.

    The Ban clan was full of great individuals. Ban Chao's father 班彪Ban Biao, brother 班固Ban Gu and sister 班昭Ban Zhao were all great historians. But unlike his family members who were engaged in literary deeds, Ban Chao got impatient, exclaiming:


    Although a man may have little ambition, he still ought to follow the example of Fu Jiezi and Zhang Qian to go into frontiers and accomplish something, so to be awarded a Marquess, and not idle with a brush all his life.

    So he joined the army. In his long career, he was responsible for the Chinese control of the entire 塔里木盆Tarim Basin area, the area that is today Xinjiang, where he spent 31 years circling the basin, reconquering some areas again and again. His advances got him across the Pamirs and into Parthian territory, where he made an alliance with the Parthian king. His fort was only a few days away from the Roman Empire. He captured most of the areas with very small armies, sometimes with only a few dozen soldiers. He understood the local psychology and the characters that were involved in his schemes, so he was able to manipulate his way through without much battle. From his insights he was able to take calculated risks and dare to go into the unknown. Because of his bravery and tactics, he achieved almost impossible feats. His much quoted phrase: 「不入虎穴焉得虎子」"If you don't enter the tiger's den, how can you get the tiger's club" was quoted to his men during his first venture into the foreign states. It was at a time when he and his 36 men were trapped and Ban Chao came up with a plan that if it fails, they would all be dead. Needless to say he succeeded and went on to take control of all the kingdoms that dotted the desert rim. The great general finally returned home in 101. He was made a marquess and was loaded with gifts. He died the following year.

  3. 诸葛亮Zhuge Liang( 181 - 234 )

    三国蜀汉丞相,政治家,军事家,谋略家,战略家,外交家,发明家. Three Kingdoms Shu Han prime minister, politician, military stragetist, diplomat and inventor. He was also known to have painted, wrote calligraphy and played music. Also widely known as 孔明Kong Ming. Native of 山东Shandong.

    At the chaotic end of the 汉朝Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD), a huge power vaccum was resulted, mobilizing various warlords to battle for supremacy. In the north was Wei kingdom under the powerful regent 曹操Cao Cao; in the Yangzi area was Wu kingdom under 孙权Sun Quan; and in the Sichuan basin was 蜀汉Shu Han kingdom under the Han descendent,刘备Liu Bei. Together the territories of these three made up 三国San Guo ( Three Kingdoms ). Of the three, Liu Bei was the weakest. Before the establishment of the Three Kingdoms, Liu Bei was on the run from Cao Cao's army. His small army moved south to 四川Sichuan area. Here his advisor suggested that he seek the help of Zhuge Liang, who lived nearby in a farm. This farm is generally accepted today as 古隆中Gulongzhong. Legend has it that Liu Bei made three long trips to Gulongzhong to meet Zhuge Liang, also known as 孔明Kong Ming. On the third trip, Kong Ming was home. Kong Ming layout the political situation for Liu Bei. In his plan, the central plains will be split into thirds. Sun Quan's part will be used to counter Cao Cao's powerful north. Liu Bei himself must take control of two strategic areas, 荆州Jingzhou and 益州Yizhou to secure his position. This discourse became known as 古隆对Gulong Discourse. Liu Bei was satisfied and pleaded Kong Ming to join him. Zhuge Liang saw in Liu Bei a worthy character and decided to give up his reclusive life and help him. Kong Ming was then 27 years old. The first move by the new advisor was to persuade Sun Quan to join forces with Liu Bei to counter Cao Cao's advancing army, which was said to a million strong. Kong Ming argued that Cao Cao is bound to fail for these reasons: his army is overextended and exhausted; the northerners are not used to battle at sea; and the people here do not support him. As predicted, Cao Cao's army was annihilated, and he himself barely escaped. Known in history as 赤壁战Battle of Chibi, this most famous battle raised the confidence of the southern kingdoms and caused the Cao Cao's Wei kingdom to withhold any further attacks until much later on.

    After the Battle of Chibi, Liu Bei took control of Jingzhou and Yizhou and claimed ruler of the Shu Han kingdom. Zhuge Liang became the prime minister. After the death of Liu Bei, his incompetent son succeeded, and Kong Ming became the new ruler's guardian father. When the time was riped Zhuge Liang decided to fulfill Liu Bei's wish to unite the central plains. First he pacified the southern areas of the kingdom, then he prepared his army to go north and attack Wei. Before he set out on his expedition, he wrote his 《出师表》"Chushibiao", a statement he presented to the ruler outlining the goals of his expedition. In it is his well-known 「臣鞠躬尽力,死而后已」"Literally, Your minister I will bow and bent (humbly serve) to do my utmost (to exert and exhaust my capacity), til death I stop". Later the words had been modified to 「鞠躬尽瘁,死而后已」, leaving out the word minister and deepen the fourth word, so that it can be applied to those (usually officials) who sacrifices (through overwork) their lives for the well-being of others (usually the people).

    From 227 - 234 Zhuge Liang made 5 expeditions north to conquer Wei. In all but one he failed to gain new grounds. But it was little fault of his own: He was either called back by his incompetent ruler; or retreated due to lack of food supply; or failed due to an untimely joint force. He did everything he can: For his army he made use of the wheelbarrow concept to design his food supply vehicles that can move quickly and efficiently through rough terrains, and to increase his army's military strength he invented or redesigned a semi-automatic bow gun. Yet he was in foreign territory with a long and limited food supply, fighting a much larger and more powerfull enemy that has time and enough good generals on their end. After the failed attempt to combine forces with Sun Quan failed, he decided stay on his position for long term while he resupply his food on site. But the prime minister overworked and died in military camp. Zhuge Liang was 54.

  4. 石涛Shi Tao( 1630 - 1724 )

    清朝画家,书法家,理论家Qing painter, calligrapher and art theorist. Native of 广西Guangxi.

    石涛Shi Tao is one of the four great monks of the late Ming (1368-1644) and early Qing dynasty (1644-1911). An unmatched painter of great versatility and prolificness; his inventive and experimental application of ink combined with his close observation of nature freed him to paint in his unique methods whatever he sees. He created my styles ( probably the most in Chinese painting, and one of the most outside ) to express what he perceived, and he reached a high level at each style. He loathed those who rotely copied the past styles and subjects, and eager to critize them in his theoretical writings and paintings, where he also advocates 「借古以开今」"borrow the past to renew the present". and 「师法自然」"learn from nature". Among his writings are also these words below:


    The ancient's beard and brows cannot be imposed on my face; the ancient's lungs and bowels cannot be transplanted in my abdomen. I always follow my own method.

    Shi Tao's father was a descendent of the Ming royal family. After the tragic end of the dynasty, he was executed in 福州Fuzhou by another royal member. At the time Shi Tao was only three. An eunuch took the infant to a monastery where Shi Tao became a monk at age ten or so. But throughout his adult life monkhood was purely political. He was too wildly free and active to live the normal life of a meditative monk. He travelled actively throughtout the empire and had two audience with the Qing emperor 康熙Kangxi. Although he felt the pain of the end of Ming, he did not let the contradition of associating with the foreign dynasty bother him. Instead he channelled it through his works and actively promoted his paintings to influencial figures in the court and outside, with the aim of getting an official position. But unfortunately all his efforts and favors gain him no positions. He was looked at merely as a monk painter, not someone with administrative skills. And most importantly he was a royal descendent of the past Ming, and this totally eliminated him politically. People mocked him for bowing to the foreigners. "I am a bitter melon" was what he reminded himself for his vain efforts. As a painter he was far advance of his times. He actively advocated his theories in writings and promoted his works to influential figures, yet his radical ideas was little understood. Shi Tao's recognization was well below his contemporaries. Only in 扬州Yangzhou was he well-recognized by the art circles. But Shi Tao was confident of his philosophical and aesthetic views. He remarked:


    I am a nobody now, but the future will understand me.

    The prediction was as true as his confidence. In each generations afterward, Shi Tao's works were widely collected and known, and his influence grew exponentially.

  5. 唐寅Tang Yin( 1470 - 1524 )

    明朝画家,诗人,书法家,文学家Ming painter, poet, calligrapher, writer and scholar. Also widely known as 唐伯虎Tang Bohu. Native of 江苏Jiangsu.

    唐寅Tang Yin came from a small merchant family, whose ancestors originated from 山西Shanxi, a region known for people who knows how to do business. So his early life was not too bad, and he had a good education. Tang Yin was a prodigy; as a child he mastered the classics. At age 16 he stunned 苏州市Suzhou city by passing first place in the city exam. He became a celebrity and he loved the attention. But tragedy soon eclipsed his good fortune. At twenty-four his father passed. Then followed by his wife, his sister and mother. Only his little brother was spared. His normal freewheeling and wine-drinkings days waned.

    After years of mourning, his friends persuaded him to continue his studies for the exams, and he himself finally realized that all hopes lied in that path, an officialhood that his father wished. So in 1498, at twenty-nine, he took off to 南京Nanjing for the Provincial exam and triumphed ahead of everyone. His high talent was then well recognized. This is the first of three steps in the official ladder. The next year he left for Beijing for the National exam. On the way he met another exam candidate and together they paraded through the capital introducing their talents to the exam officials. This got them into a scandal: Tang's fellow candidate was accused of using bribery to get the examination questions in advance, and Tang was framed as an accomplice. The two and the high official were promptly put to jail. Many had written about the scandal, but the incident is still not clear. It is believed that they were victims of a power struggle in the court to remove the high official. Whatever happened, the outcome had a profound effect on Tang Yin. He was stripped of all qualifications and given a small post in Suzhou. Too ashamed of the insignificant post and accepting it would be an admission of crime, he refused the offer.

    He went home and spent his days wine-drinking and going about women's quarters. In one his poems he wrote:


    The wealth before one's eyes is a piece of wood, my career now just half a paper. The ancients lived the longest, 800 years but so what? Let us dance and sing -- life and death whether old or young, so let it be.

    But he soon realized the unproductive situation, and decided to better advance his art through travel. After 9 months of soaking up the landscapes, visiting all the famous mountains and historic sites, he returned home with his heart set on making a living out of his paintings. He expressed them in these lines:


    Will not make immortal pills nor meditate, will not trade nor farm. At my leisure I will write and paint for a honest sale, not by immoral means to gain money.

    Tang Yin's early teacher was 周臣Zhou Chen, who taught in the 南宋Southern Song style. Later, with the recommendation of the father of his life-long friend 文徵明Wen Zhengming, he became a pupil of 沈周Shen Zhou. Shen Zhou was the originator of the 吴门派Wu School, whose style of painting followed the Yuan era. Together, Shen Zhou, Wen Zhengming, Tang Yin and 仇英Chou Ying, they were known as the Wu Four. But unlike the other three, Tang Yin was a great synthesizer. And with his extensive travels seeing the natural landscapes, his works are much more wild and raw. This characteristic, however, would later work against him in the theoretical classifications of 董其昌Dong Qichang, who advocated the non-literalness of the literati tradition. However, Tang Yin was a true member of the literati, but he had to made his living like a craftsman. He did not have the security of an official job to paint at leisure the reflections of his mind. He painted subjects that would not be considered approbiate by a scholar, such as figures as the central theme, especially courtesians. He was one of the few great figure painters in Chinese art. His landscapes, flowers and birds, rocks and pots, and painting of women all have a drama that only comes with close associations with the subjects, and comes from someone whose passion for living made him conscious of the life and death of things. Tang Yin belonged to a rare group of individuals whose painting, poetry and calligraphy reached a high level of excellence. One of his important contributions to later artists was his conscious efforts to combine these three into a single piece of work. This concept became a standard later on. It increases the dimensions of the visual by the associations of thoughts, past or present, and magnified the ambiguity of space by the addition of calligraphy.

  6. 谭嗣同Tan Sitong( 1865 - 1898 )

    晚清维新人物,思想家Late Qing reformist, revolutionist, thinker and writer. Native of 湖南Hunan.

    谭嗣同Tan Sitong had an early interest in the natural sciences and literature. As a young man he traveled extensively throughtout the country, especially to the western regions, and made important friends along the way. He was open to new ideas, and after humiliating treaties, he set up study groups to promote new thinkings that were both foreign and in Chinese literature. At the same time he wrote his important book, 《仁学》“RenXue" (Study of Humanity). In the book he proposes that the existence and progress of the world and all things is dependent and originated in "Ren". The word "Ren" is difficult to translate. In general, it means the moral humanity.

    Due to his activities, Tan became very well-known. The 光绪Guangxu emperor was in favor of changes and he asked for his support. During the Hundred Day's Reform in 1898, he became one of four liberals to be appointed to the Grand Council. The emperor and the liberals secretly planned on political changes, but the plan failed. Tan secretly asked for the military support of 袁世凯Yuan Shikai, but Yuan betrayed him and reported the plan that got to the Empress Dowager 慈禧Cixi. Cixi sent out orders arrests. Although Tan had plenty of chances to escape he refused. He told the Japanese who came to help him:


    In each nation, political changes do not come without the flow of blood, today blood has yet to flow in China due to political changes, thus the country is not prosperous. If there is one, then allow me to be the first (to shed blood).

    Tan was sooon arrested. In prison he wrote several lines that some said had been modified, but there was no consensus. Whatever the case, these words are forever attached to him. The lines are difficult to translate as the last 7 characters are ambiguous. It depends on which angle you look at it. Tan was an adventuous character and he carried a sword during his travels throughout the 10 provinces. He especially admired the far western regions where the 昆仑山Kunlun Mountains are located. He was a student of natural sciences and admired the awesome spirit of the natural world. Later, he met 大刀王五Wang Wu8, a patriot swordsman (he used a big heavy knife), and they became close friends through common spirit. Tan was a high-spirited person. He was unlikely a person who would endulge in indulge in self-pity, nor would he blame and point at anyone. Against this background the lines below can be translated as follow:


    I carry my sword about laughing the world, like the spirit of the Kunlun Mountains I come and go.

    On September 28, 1898, Tan and 5 other revolutionists were taken to the market and executed. They were known as the 戊戌六君子"Six Gentlemen of Wushu (the year 1898)". Before his execution, Tan exclaimed to the crowd his lasting last words:


    I have my heart toward killing the thiefts, failed -- I am now returning to heaven. But all is worth to die for. Good! Good!