I set out below my translation of a short essay by the Chinese writer Xu Dishan (许地山). Xu Dishan was born in 1893 and was a well known Chinese writer and academic. During the 1920s he studied philosophy at Columbia University in New York and religious history at Oxford. After returning to China he taught at a number of Chinese universities and became a Professor at the University of Hong Kong. He died in 1941 at the early age of 48. According to the outline of his life on Baidu Baike (the Chinese version of Wikipedia), the cause of his death was ‘fatigue caused by overwork’.
Xu Dishan’s essay ‘The Peanut’ was written in 1922 and has long been famous in China.
By Xu Dishan (written in 1922, translated from Chinese by Michael Ingle in 2022)
Our family’s back garden is a space of around 300 square metres. Our mother said to us one day: “It’s a pity to leave the garden unused, you all love to eat peanuts, why not use it to plant some?” My siblings and I were happy to do this; we bought seeds, turned the soil, sowed the seeds, watered and fertilised them. After just a few months, we had a harvest of peanuts.
Mother said to us: “Tonight we will have a harvest festival, we’ll ask your father to come and taste your peanuts, would you like to do that?” Mother then used the peanuts to make various kinds of dishes and said we would have our festival in the thatched pavilion in the garden.
The weather that evening was not too good, but father still came along. That was a rare event.
Father said: “You like to eat peanuts?”
We all rushed to answer: “Yes we love them!”
He then said: “Who can tell us about the good points of peanuts?”
My older sister said: “Peanuts taste delicious.”
My older brother said: “You can press peanuts for their oil.”
I said: “Peanuts are very inexpensive. Everybody can afford to buy them and everybody likes to eat them. Those are their good points.”
Father then said: “Peanuts have many advantages, but the most valuable is the fact that the pods are buried in the soil. They are not like peaches, pomegranates, apples and the like that display their bright red and green fruits high up on branches, so that anyone who sees them wants to eat them. You see peanuts growing low on the ground until they are ripe, and you cannot easily tell if there are pods underground. You have to dig them up to find out.”
We all agreed father was right and mother nodded her head.
Father continued: “So you should all be like peanuts, they may not be good to look at, but they are useful.”
I said: “That means we all need to be useful. We should not be solely concerned with ourselves and be of no use to other people.”
Father said: “That is right. That is my hope for all of you.”
We talked late into the night before we went in. We had finished off the peanut dishes, but father’s words to us were deeply imprinted in our hearts.”
Michael Ingle – firstname.lastname@example.org