On the Birth of his Son

Su Shi [Su Tung-p'o] (1036-1101 CE):

The Confucian examination system for recruiting officials into the bureaucracy may have been far more egalitarian than anything comparable in its heyday; yet it had its limits. Wealthy men were able to hire tutors to ensure their success, and poor but intelligent men seldom rose to the top. Su Tung-p'o, usually considered the greatest poet of the Sung Dynasty, often commented cynically on the system he considered corrupt and was dismissed from various positions for his pains. His sarcasm in the following poem sounds a strikingly contemporary note in this age of cynicism about politicians. The poet's revenge lies in the fact that his poems are still read and memorized when all those who persecuted him have been forgotten.

Families, when a child is born
Want it to be intelligent.
I, through intelligence,
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he will crown a tranquil life
By becoming a Cabinet Minister.

Tr. Arthur Waley (1919)

Su Shi Page