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Sū Dōngpō's Letter
Against Infanticide


The following letter was addressed by the famous Sòng dynasty [period 15] poet and essayist Sū Shì 苏轼, more widely known as Sū Dōngpō 苏东坡 (1037-1101), to his friend Zhū Kāngshū 朱康叔. Zhū was serving at the time as the magistrate of a place called Èzhōu 鄂州 in Húběi 湖北 province, then, as now, regarded as an impoverished and rather backward place.

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The letter urges Zhū to try to prevent the practice of infanticide: the killing of newborn children by parents who don't want them or can't afford to raise them. Sū's friend Wáng Tiānlín 王天麟 told him that practice was rife in Èzhōu.

Sū had served as a magistrate himself, and the tone of the letter, while respectful, is that of one member of the elite to another. (For example, he calls his old friend gōng , a term of address used for a superior, even while also addressing him by his name.) Sū was of course one of the greatest writers of his age —an age full of great writers— and his masterful control of tone is evident throughout the letter.

Aside from the use of language, several features make this letter interesting to us today, nine centuries later:

  1. Although infanticide was illegal, it was still practiced, and despite Sū's initial pretense of complete shock, it becomes evident in the course of the letter that it was even fairly common.
  2. Sū notes that the differential killing of female babies was resulting in a demographic distortion, producing an excess of adult men with no prospects for marriage, a situation that continues to characterize most of China today because of selective abortion.
  3. Sū does not advocate punishing those who kill their children. He represents infanticide as an aberration caused by ignorance and poverty. (Compare Charles Dickens' warning in A Christmas Carol that ignorance and want are what civilization must fear the most.) Sū proposes to solve the problem by a combination of charity toward the perpetrators and punishment for those who should know better and fail to intervene.
  4. Sū uses a range of different kinds of arguments to urge action: (1) It is the legal thing to do. (2) It is the Buddhist thing to do. (3) It accords with cosmic realities. (4) The children who are saved may become great men. And so on. (Interestingly, no explicit reference is made to Confucianism.) His rhetorical strategy is to introduce many different lines of logic that all point to the same course of needed action, and then to argue, using examples, that such action is in fact both possible and practical.
  5. Sū believes that those with the means to offer charity to help in expunging this custom actually have the desire to do so and lack only leadership. In other words, he sees the rich people in a district as being fundamentally moral people, and well-meaning toward the poor. The role of an official, then, is partly to mobilize public opinion and to use meager government resources catalytically. (Contrast the view of those who see officialdom as corrupt or riches as evil.)
  6. Sū's account of Chén Cūn's 陈遵 dream (lines 20-24) may be the first known historical reference to an analog of modern fetus ghosts or yīnglíng 婴灵, the spirits of aborted fetuses who haunt the living, as documented especially in the work of Marc L. Moskowitz in Taiwan. (See his The Haunting Fetus, U. of Hawai'i Press, 2001.) In Sū's case, the ghost is a dream apparition, and the child is already born. But the principle of the unwanted infant appearing as a distressed spirit to plead its case quite analogous.

The interpretations underlying my translation owe a great deal to a translation by Lín Yǔtáng 林语堂, the biographer of Sū and a XXth century literary giant in his own right, among whose writings the Chinese text of Sū's letter came to my attention (reference). Except for copyright constraints, it would be more sensible simply to reproduce Lín's more elegant translation than to publish my own much humbler effort here. (Permission is hereby granted to other teachers to use my translation for instruction in any way they please.)

As in other bilingual materials on this site, the simplified-character text is in red and the traditional-character text in blue.

1. Written to Zhū [Kāngshú 朱康叔, magistrate at] Èzhōu 鄂州 与朱鄂州书
yǔ Zhū Èzhōu shū
2. [Sū] Shì 苏轼 writes: 轼纹,
shì wén,
3. … Yesterday I saw the duty attendant [diànzhí 殿直] Wáng Tiānlín 王天麟, now living in Wǔchāng 武昌. … 昨日武昌寄居王殿直天麟见过。
… Zuórì Wǔchāng jìjū Wáng diànzhí Tiānlín jiàn guò.
… 昨日武昌寄居王殿直天麟見過。
4. In the course of things he told me about a matter so sad that afterwards I couldn't even eat. 偶说一事,闻之酸辛,为食不下。
Ǒu shuō yīshì, wén zhī suānxīn, wéi shí bùxià.
5. I can think of none to tell save a person as worthy as you are, my Kāngshū, so I am sending on this letter to you. 念非吾康叔之贤,莫足告语,故专遣此人。
Niàn fēi wú Kāngshū zhī xián, mò zú gàoyǔ, gù zhuān qiǎn cǐ rén.
6. Ordinary people, occupied with their own business, have no time for this, which is quite a separate concern. 俗人区区了眼前事救过不暇,岂有余力及此度外事乎。
Súrén qūqū le yǎnqián shì jiù guò bù xiá, qǐyǒu yúlì jí cǐ dù wàishì hū.
7. Tiānlín said that in Èzhǔ 鄂渚 [= Èzhōu], [where you are now serving,] small farmers generally raise only two sons and one daughter, and if they have more, they kill them. 天麟言,鄂渚闻田野小人,例只养二男一女,过此辄杀之。
Tiānlín yán, Èzhǔ wén tiányě xiǎorén, lì zhǐ yǎng èr nán yī nǚ, guò cǐ zhé shā zhī.
8. They especially avoid raising daughters. And so there are few women but many unmarried men among them. 尤讳养女,以故民间少女,多鳏夫。
Yóu huì yǎng nǚ, yǐgù mínjiān shào nǚ, duō guānfū.
9. Often a newborn is killed by being drowned in cold water. 初生,辄以冷水浸杀。
Chūshēng, zhé yǐ lěngshuǐ jìnshā.
10. Its parents can't bear this, and they always close their eyes and look away as they push the baby down in the water, where it struggles for a long time before dying. 其父母亦不忍,率常闭目背面以手按之水盆中,咿嘤良久乃死。
Qí fùmǔ yì bùrěn, shuàicháng bìmù bèimiàn yǐ shǒu àn zhī shuǐpén zhōng, yī yīng liángjiǔ nǎi sǐ.
11. Among the people of the Shénshān 神山 district there is a man named Shí Kuí 石揆, who killed two children, one after the other. 有神山乡百姓石揆者,连杀两子。
Yǒu Shénshān xiāng bǎixìng Shí Kuí zhě, lián shā liǎng zi.
12. Then last summer his wife bore four children at once. 去岁夏中,其妻一产四子。
Qùsuì xià zhōng, qí qī yī chǎn sì zi.
13. It's too painful to endure: The mother and children all died. 楚毒不可堪忍,母子皆死。
Chǔ dú bùkě kān rěn, mǔzǐ jiē sǐ.
14. That was cosmic retribution. But simple people don't know to take this as a warning. 报应如此,而愚人不知创艾。
Bàoyìng rúcǐ; ér yúrén bùzhī chuàng'ài.
15. When [Wáng] Tiānlín hears tell of such cases, he usually hurries to save them, providing clothing and food. 天麟每闻其侧近有此,辄驰救之,量与衣服饮食。
Tiānlín měi wén qí cè jìn yǒu cǐ, zhé chí jiù zhī, liáng yǔ yīfú yǐnshí.
16. Not a single one has been killed when he has done this. 全活者非一。
Quánhuó zhě fēi yī.
17. After a few days, if someone without a child comes to adopt the baby, the parents are unwilling [to give it up]. 既旬日,有无子息人欲乞其子者,辄亦不肯。
Jì xúnrì, yǒu wú zǐxī rén yù qǐ qí zi zhě, zhé yì bùkěn.
18. From this we can see that the love of a parent for a child is a natural thing, always present, but subverted by customary practice. 以此知其父子之爱,天性故在,特牵于习俗耳。
Yǐcǐ zhī qí fùzǐ zhī ài, tiānxìng gù zài, tè qiān yú xísú ěr.
19. I have heard that a certain Qín Guānghēng秦光亨, who hails from Èzhōu [where you are], passed his examinations and is now serving as a legal administrator in Ānzhōu [in Zhèjiāng 浙江 province]. 闻鄂人有秦光亨者,今已及第,为安州司法。
Wén È rén yǒu qín guāng hēng zhě, jīn yǐ jídì, wéi Ānzhōu sīfǎ.
20. When he was still in the womb, his mother's brother, Chén Cūn, dreamt of a little child pulling at his clothing, as though it had something to say. 方其在母也,其舅陈遵,梦一小儿挽其衣,若有所诉。
Fāng qí zài mǔ yě, qí jiù Chén Zūn, mèng yī xiǎoěr wǎn qí yī, ruò yǒu suǒ sù.
21. It happened two nights running, and the shade seemed quite agitated. 比两夕,辄见之,其状甚急。
Bǐ liǎng xī, zhé jiàn zhī, qí zhuàng shèn jí.
22. It occurred to him that his older sister was pregnant and about to give birth, and that she really didn't want any more children. Could this be what it was about? 遵独念其姊有娠将产,而意不乐多子,岂其应是乎。
Zūn dú niàn qí zǐ yǒushēn jiāng chǎn, ér yì bù lè duō zi, qǐ qí yìng shì hū.
23. He hurried to visit her, and there he found that the baby was already in the basin. So he was able to save it and avoid its being killed [so it could grow up to become a distinguished judge]. 驰往省之,则儿已在水盆中矣,救之得免。
Chí wǎng shěng zhī, zé ér yǐ zài shuǐpén zhōng yǐ, jiù zhī dé miǎn.
24. The people of Èzhōu all know this history. 鄂人户知之。
È rénhù zhī zhī.

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25. By law a person who kills a child or grandchild on purpose is punished by two years of hard labor. The local officials can use this law as a basis for action. 准律故杀子孙徒二年。此长吏所得按举。
Zhǔn lǜ gù shā zǐsūn tú èr nián. Cǐ cháng lì suǒdé àn jǔ.
26. I hope you will tell the officials [lìngzuǒ 令佐] of the various counties to assemble the heads of the villages [bǎo ] and tell them about the law. 愿公明以告诸邑令佐,使召诸保正,告以法律。
Yuàn gōng míng yǐ gào zhū yì lìngzuǒ, shǐ zhào zhū bǎo zhèng, gào yǐ fǎlǜ.
27. Describe [karmic] punishments and rewards, and say that the law must be enforced, and order them to go back to their villages and tell other people. 喻以祸福,约以必行,使归转以相语。
Yù yǐ huòfú, yuē yǐ bì xíng, shǐ guī zhuǎn yǐ xiāng yǔ.
28. You could paste up posters on walls, and institute rewards for those who report these things to the authorities. 仍录条粉壁晓示,且立赏召人告官。
Réng lù tiáo fěnbì xiǎoshì, qiě lì shǎng zhào rén gàoguān.
29. The money [for the rewards] could come from those who commit the crime and their neighbors in the same bǎo who do not report them, and in the case of tenant farmers, their landlords too. 赏钱以犯人及邻保家财充,若客户则及其地主。
Shǎngqián yǐ fànrén jí lín bǎojiā cái chōng, ruò kèhù zé jí qí dìzhǔ.
30. When a woman is pregnant, the pregnancy lasts for months, there is no way that the neighbors and the landlord don't know about it. 妇人怀孕,经涉岁月,邻保地主,无不知者。
Fùrén huáiyùn, jīng shè suìyuè, lín bǎo dìzhǔ, wúbù zhī zhě.
31. So if afterward she kills it, they have been in a position to report her. If they look on and do not make a report, it is appropriate to penalize them. 若后杀之,其势足相举觉,容而不告,使出赏固宜。
Ruò hòu shā zhī, qí shì zú xiāng jǔ jué; róng ér bù gào, shǐchū shǎng gùyí.
32. If you pursue a few people for this, the custom will stop as a result. 若依律行遣数人,此风便革。
Ruò yīlǜ xíngqiǎn shù rén, cǐ fēng biàn gé.
33. You might induce your local officials to persuade the wealthy landlord households 公更使令佐各以至意诱谕地主豪户,
Gōng gèng shǐlìng zuǒ gè yǐzhì yì yòu yù dìzhǔ háo hù,
34. that if some people are so poor that they cannot raise children, they must be given charity. 若实贫甚不能举子者,薄有以赒之。
ruò shí pín shèn bùnéng jǔzǐ zhě, báo yǒu yǐ zhōu zhī.
35. Humans are not mere wood or stone, and [the rich people] will happily follow [your lead]. 人非木石,亦必乐从。
Rén fēi mùshí, yì bì lècóng.
36. If they can hold things for a few days without the baby being killed, after that even if urged to do so a parent won't be willing to do the deed. 但得初生数日不杀,后虽劝之使杀,亦不肯矣。
Dàn dé chūshēng shùrì bù shā, hòu suī quàn zhī shǐ shā, yì bùkěn yǐ.
37. If you do this, you will save lives. How can this not be good? 自今以往,绿公而得活者,岂可胜计哉。
Zì jīn yǐwǎng, lǜ gōng ér dé huózhě, qǐkě shèng jì zāi.
38. The Buddhists say killing is sinful, and even killing animal embryos is a serious business. 佛家言杀生之罪,以杀胎卵为最重。
Fójiā yán shāshēng zhī zuì, yǐ shā tāiluǎn wéi zuì zhòng.
39. If that is true of animals, how much truer it is of humans! 六畜犹尔,而况于人。
Liùchù yóu ěr, érkuàng yú rén.
40. It is widely said when a child is sick that it is an "innocent victim"; but [killing it] is truly harming an "innocent victim." 俗谓小儿病为无辜,此真可谓无辜矣。
Súwèi xiǎo'érbìng wéi wúgū, cǐ zhēn kěwèi wúgū yǐ.
41. With a dotty old person, even if he murders someone, we don't impose a death penalty [because it would be killing someone who doesn't know what he is doing]; likewise we should not kill [a newborn]. 悼耄杀人犹不死,况无。罪而杀之乎。
Dào mào shārén yóu bù sǐ, kuàng wú. Zuì ér shā zhī hū.
42. If you can save some of these countless lives, your celestial merit will be tenfold that of pardoning people. … 公能生之于万死中,其阴德十倍于雪活壮夫也。…
Gōng néng shēng zhī yú wàn sǐ zhōng, qí yīndé shíbèi yú xuě huó zhuàng fū yě.?
43. When I was served at Mìzhōu 密州 [in Shāndōng 山东 province], there was a famine, and a lot of people abandoned their children. 轼向在密州、遇饥年、民多弃子。
Shì xiàng zài Mìzhōu、yù jī nián、mín duō qì zi.
44. By taking up a collection I managed to distribute many hundred bushels of rice. Every family that took in an abandoned child received six bushels a month. 因盘量劝诱米,得出剩数百石别储之,专以收养弃儿,月给六斗。
Yīn pán liáng quànyòu mǐ, déchū shèng shùbǎi shí bié chǔ zhī, zhuān yǐ shōuyǎng qì'ér, yuè gěi liù dǒu.
45. And after a year, those who had adopted the children were filled with parental love, so the children did not perish. 比朞年,养者与儿,皆有父母之爱,遂不失所。
Bǐki nián, yǎng zhě yǔ ér, jiē yǒu fùmǔ zhī ài, suì bù shīsuǒ.
46. So several thousand people were saved this way. 所活亦数千人。
Suǒ huó yì shùqiān rén.
47. Something comparable should be easy for you. 此等事在公如反手耳。
Cǐděng shì zài gōng rú fǎnshǒu ěr.
48. Relying upon our long acquaintance, I have brought this up. 恃深契故不自外。
Shì shēn qì gù bù zìwài.
49. Do not be annoyed. [A conventional closing for an official letter.] 不罪不罪。
Bù zuì bù zuì.

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