Of all questions in the world, those debated on night boats are the hardest to handle. Before village scholars, one should prepare his questions in advance, like the eighteen scholars of Yingzhou, or the twenty eight generals of Yuntai, for missing but one name or surname will cause them to grin and laugh. For that person who does not know the eighteen scholars or the twenty eight generals, having forgotten a name or a surname is not harmful to his knowledge or culture, yet he will be called dissipated, to his very shame. Therefore, to make speeches along the roads, one just has to keep in mind and in mouth a score of names, and he will be held as a scholar and a talent.
This reminds me of my Eight Yue, and the traditions in Yutao. Since their youngest age, all little children will learn the classics. Should they not succeed at twenty, they will be taught a craft. And so, any worker or merchant will know its Treatise of Emotions, or its Mirror of Na by heart, and if asked about them, on some occasion, they will enumerate names of people and positions and ranks and dates and place, without any mistake. But the wealth of their knowledge is that of a bookcase on legs, it was not enriched by studying the classics, and they are not really different from those people who cannot even spell.
Now some will say: “If we go by your words, the names of ancient people should not be remembered.” I would reply : “Not so. Some names have no relation to culture, and not remembering them does no harm, like the Eight Great Scholars, the Eight Triumphant, the Cases, the Talents, the Watchers, and the Accomplished. Other are related to culture, like the Four Peaks, the Three Ancients, the Hidden Valley, or Dame Xu.
There once was a monk, who shared with a scholar a bed on a night boat. The scholar talked big and spoke wide, the monk was intimidated, and slept with his feet curled up. But the monk noticed a few mistakes in his speech, and asked : “may I ask your highness, is Tantai Mieming one, or two persons?” The scholar said : “They are two persons”. “And this Yaoshun, one or two person?” “One person, of course!” The monk laughed and said : “Having said that, please let this novice extend his feet.” I have recorded those things, all very obvious and superficial. Had my colleague known some of them, the little monk never could have extended his feet. So I have called this book “Night Boat”
澹台灭明 Tantai Mieming, is a disciple of Confucius, styled Ziyu. He was said to be very ugly, and misjudged by Confucius because of that (the Master would apologise for his lack of judgement later) Tantai is his surname, and Mieming his given name, so it is one of those rare instances of those four character chinese names.
尧舜 Yao and Shun, the two last of the Five Sovereigns, and traditional Confucianist patrons, which makes the scholar's error all the more embarassing...
四岳, 三老, 臧谷 and 徐夫人 are cultural "gotchas", which do not mean what they seem...
四岳 the "four peaks", although it is sometimes used to designate four sacred mountains in China (although people would rather speak of the five mountains...), it is mostly the designation for the ministers of Yao and Shun. The four peaks are not peaks, but people, and they are not even four.
三老 the « council of elder », instituted during the western Han (it is described in the Han Shu, Gaozu chapter). Each village or district would designate one or several old and wise men, who would represent it. The three old men are not necessarily three.
臧谷 Looks like a place, but is nowhere to be found. I believe it refers to a famous passage in Zhuangzi (chapter 8), Zang and Gu are two herdsmen, who lost their sheep, one because he was studying the classics, the other one because he was gambling...
徐夫人 Is not Dame Xu, but a man. Xu is his surname, Furen his given name... He was the person who provided Jing Ke with the dagger with which he would attempt to stab the first emperor.
八元 and 八恺 are 16 ministers of Gaoxin, one of the five sovereigns.
厨、俊、顾、及 are the names of four factions which existed during the eastern Han, in the time of the rebellion of the leagues (党锢之祸 , second half of the 2nd century AD)