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On the Birth of his Son -- Su Tung-p'o

Guest poem sent in by Raj Bandyopadhyay

A universal gem in sarcasm...
(Poem #1217) On the Birth of his Son
 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.
-- Su Tung-p'o
         [ CE)
         translated by Arthur Waley (1919)

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.

Raj

[Martin adds]

There's a wonderful takeoff on the examination system in Pratchett's
"Interesting Times", though that poked fun not at its fairness, but at its
utility in selecting capable people. I'm also reminded of the President in
Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator":

    It soon began to dawn on me
    He wasn't very bright
    Because when he was twenty-three
    He couldn't read or write

    'What shall we do?' his parents sob
    'The boy has got the vapors!
    He couldn't even get a job
    Delivering the papers!'

    'Ah-ha!' I said, 'this little clot
    Could be a politician.'
    'Nanny', he cried 'Oh, Nanny, what
    A super proposition!'

Any resemblance to actual presidents is strictly coincidence (and mighty
prophetic coincidence at that). Great book, for those of you who've never
encountered Dahl.

martin

44 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Alan Kornheiser said...

There are also, of course, G&S, and the "Ruler of the Queen's Navy" from
Pinafore. Oddly, I can't seem to find the lyrics on line; I have them in
text form, of course, but I'm lazy.

Martin DeMello said...

--- Alan Kornheiser wrote:
> There are also, of course, G&S, and the "Ruler of the Queen's Navy" from
> Pinafore. Oddly, I can't seem to find the lyrics on line; I have them in
> text form, of course, but I'm lazy.

I don't think that's quite the same - he may have "never thought of thinking
for himself at all", but the song was more about the landboundedness of his
career than about his stupidity or incompetence. Even the judge from "Trial by
Jury" wasn't portrayed as quite as inept as the targets of today's poem.

martin

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