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May 27, 2023

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Ulterior motives:The drinker’s heart is not in the cup

OUYANG Xiu (1007-1072) was a famous historian, calligrapher, essayist, poet and politician of the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127).

He came from a relatively poor family, and his mother was responsible for most of his early education. The family could not afford brush pens and paper, so his mother taught young Ouyang to write in dirt with a reed stalk.

But Ouyang was a very diligent student with a strong memory, and he went on to become a self-taught scholar.

At the age of 22, he passed the jinshi degree exam. Jinshi, or the “presented scholar,” was the highest degree in the imperial examination — a feat which paved the way for him to pursue a career in officialdom.

He served in several government offices, but he also spent a lot of time writing.

He was an ardent advocate of the Classic Prose Movement, promoting clarity and precision rather than florid writing and rigid structure.

One of Ouyang’s most famous prose works is zuiwengting ji, or “An Account of the Old Drinker’s Pavilion.”

Deemed by many as one of the best pieces of Chinese travel writings, the work describes the author’s joyful but relaxed feelings while drinking in a pavilion, which still stands near the city of Chuzhou in east China’s Anhui Province.

In the text, he says zuiweng zhiyi buzaijiu, zaihu shanshui zhijian ye, which means “the old drinker’s interest is not in the cup, but in the surrounding mountains and rivers.”

Later, the first half of the sentence — zuiweng zhiyi buzaijiu — was turned into a popular Chinese idiom. It’s often quoted to describe someone with an ulterior motive. It may also be seen as a warning not to take people or anything at face value.

This Chinese saying is akin to the Danish proverb: “Many kiss the baby for the nurse’s sake.”


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