The Fine Art of Reviling (Ma ren di yi shu)

translated from the Chinese by William B. Pettus


The Chinese essay was first published anonymously, but it is now known that the author is Mr. Liang Shih-ch'iu, writer of many essays. China is rich in her many forms of literature. Her poems are numbered by the thousands, but few of the so-called translations in English are better than similar poems on related subjects. The poetic forms of the two languages differ greatly and the many allusions in Chinese poetry add to the difficulty. China has had many hundreds of novels which antedate English novels by centuries. The novels, short stories and essays, as well as Chinese history, offer the material best suited for translations which enable us the better to know the Chinese mind. Fortunately, many of the Chinese novels are now available in good English translations. Many short stories and essays are sure to follow.The old things are good and today's Chinese writers are producing in all the forms.

W. B. Pettus
California College in China
1700 Spruce Street
Berkeley, California

Fine Art of Reviling

From ancient times to the present, whether in China or abroad, there has been no man who has not reviled. Reviling is based on ideas of morality. This is because when reviling the very least that is required is to know whether a person should or should not be reviled. The determination of this is our guide. Therefore, reviling is a highly moral affair, as it is rooted and grounded in that which is necessary. Reviling is also a means of giving vent to emotions. When they originate in feelings of resentment or anger, it is even more necessary. Having a desire to revile, should you persistently restrain it you will sooner or later develop some malady or infirmity. Therefore, having this desire it is right to give it vent, and there is no harm in so doing. Nevertheless, reviling requires a high grade of mental ability or intellectuality, and it is not every one who should indulge it to the full. There is danger of having the mouth slapped, and there are those who have thus brought on law-suits; others have reviled and in turn have been reviled. This proves their technique was lacking. I will explain the plan on which on must proceed;--then all persons will be like myself: namely, one who enjoys reviling and meets with no rebuff.What are the aids to reviling?

(1) You must know yourself and know your man.

Reviling is very similar to striking a person. If you wish to strike a blow, you should first take account of your own capacity. Are you able to withstand a blow from your antagonist? In reviling the same rule holds good. If you predict an untimely death for your antagonist, are you sure that such will not fall to your fate? Therefore, such imprecations should be avoided. If you revile a person as a profligate you should first consider whether you yourself are not a glutton, an inebriate, a frequenter of brothels, or a gambler. If you are addicted to any of these your antagonist may with one or two words give you an unpleasant sensation; indeed, he may make you feel desperately uncomfortable. Therefore, if another person has shortcomings, and you yourself are guilty of the same, in reviling him it is well to avoid mention of these.

(2) Do not revile those who are your inferiors.

If you desire to revile you should select a person at least slightly superior to yourself: a person who is a little more chaste, or one who may be ten thousand times baser but has great prestige. In selecting a person of high moral character there is danger that he will pay no heed to your words; but so soon as he replies, then you can consider that you have reviled him. When he has reviled you, this brings you on a parity with him, as one pays no heed to inferiors. Should you revile a person who is inferior to you in some respects, this is an attempt to instruct him on his weak points. If he retorts, the bystanders are aware that you were the aggressor and will pay but slight heed to your words. If, on the contrary, you revile a person of no reputation, the more you revile the more pleased he is. The rule is that by reviling a man of no reputation you create on for him. Is this not a distressing sequence?

(3) In reviling enough is enough, and there one should stop.

When you are reviling a man of standing and he has replied, this is the place to stop. Should you continue you cannot carry the bystanders with you. They will regard you as the one who has no consideration. Should you attempt to revile a small individual, you must continue until he is unable to reply; but if you go beyond that point you will not carry the bystanders with you, for they will regard it as oppressing the weak.

(4) Use the method of indirect attack.

If a person has stolen and you address him as a thief, or if he has plundered and you revile him as a highway robber, this is stupid. In dealing with this class of cases the "appearing and disappearing" method, or the implication method, or the method of indirect attack, should be employed. When you get to the important point it is finished with one thrust. This is called, in the words of the executioner, the "slash across the throat." The more severely you wish to revile one, the more important is it to begin with expressions of pity and appreciation and even of respect and regret. This in no way detracts from the ultimate effect, for emphasis is added to your words, and the listeners feel that you are only speaking the truth and regard you as a person of poise and dignity.

(5) Preserve a placid exterior.

In reviling it is of great importance to avoid excitement. One improper word, or a red face, or twitching muscles, or a fierce thundering voice, will ruin your cause. These are characteristic of Kuan Fu and are on a level with a termagant "reviling the street." Such action is really not worthy to be termed reviling. The experienced reviler preserves a calm bearing. He appears as if engaged in a matter of no consequence.In ordinary street reviling the crowd regards the one whose voice is the louder and demeanor the fiercer as being in the right. But one who can truly revile is able to conceal his weapon until his antagonist is wearied, then with a very calm word, he sets him off again in a spasm of abuse, while he calmly laughs at the frantic efforts that do him no harm: he is not exhausting his strength in wild rage. When all energy is expended, he can retort in a few words, every one of which will draw blood.

(6) In reviling use chaste and elegant language.

In reviling use subtle expressions with hidden meaning. Prevent your antagonist from perceiving, at first, that he is being reviled. Cause him first to wear a smile. His color is white, normal; then red; from red it turns purple; and finally assumes an ashen hue. This is the highest grade of reviling. If you desire to arrive at this stage of proficiency it requires thought and study. Under no circumstances descend to vile or obscene language -- such as reflections on the female relatives of your antagonist --, and never refer to any possible physical infirmity. If you do this you have used your last weapon, and you should say no more, regardless of the provocation. As already suggested, never refer to the wife or daughters of your antagonist, for in so doing you only use a set form of empty words, which he can in turn hurl against you. And do not revile one as though he were deaf. Do not address with belittling terms, but use terms consistent with propriety. No harm is done in addressing one as "Hsien-sheng." The more polite your expressions the sharper will be the sting. It is a good rule in reviling to incorporate in your retorts favorite expressions of your antagonist. This not only is very uncomfortable for him, it also diminishes the force of the epithets he has heaped upon you. Use but little ordinary language, because one on hearing it comprehends fully; it is not like polished expressions which may have a hidden meaning.

(7) Conquer by retreating.

When about to revile and you remember that you yourself have shortcomings it is wise at the start boldly to acknowledge these in a thorough manner. This will in no wise injure your case. It should be done modestly and openly. By so doing you have covered your iniquities, and afterwards you are prepared to press steadily every defect of your opponent in a vigorous manner.Under no circumstances assume a self-satisfied demeanor, but be modest and without agitation. You must bring yourself down to the humblest position. This prevents your opponent's bringing you down to a lower level. When you have assumed this level you are ready to commence reviling, and your attitude will be considered just and intelligent. If you are short of assuming this attitude, after you have uttered a few words your antagonist may turn and expose you to ridicule; and the reviling will degenerate into a contest as to whose tongue is the sharper. It is imperative to use a mild voice and assume a modest demeanor. This is what is known as "conquering by retreating."

(8) Lay a trap for your adversary.

When reviling you should study the nature of the retorts that are thrown at you. One experienced in reviling carefully notes his antagonist's every expression for those which can be returned with telling effect. Observe if his words have wandered from the mark; if so in replying point this out. If you decide to set a trap for him, it is by noting his replies that the kind of trap is determined. This once determined, by dropping an insignificant expression he will grasp at it and shoot his arrow, expecting it to find its mark. Then show him that it has lodged in a sandbank and that no injury results.

(9) Make much of little.

If a person deserves reviling, but the offense is of minor significance and scarcely worthy of reprimand, or if you have not learned fully of some suspected obliquity, the following is the correct procedure: Approach your opponent in a spirit of sincerity and assume that you put no credence in what you have heard, and thus lead him into deeper water. Point by point use correct logic and endeavor to lead him to make illogical statements, or induce him to make logical remarks which are manifestly untrue. When this is accomplished you can turn and severely revile him. Under these circumstances you can revile until there is no whole skin on his body. Here you started with little and gradually enlarged into huge proportions.

(10) Make war on that which is near and cultivate friendship for that which is remote.

At one time revile only one person, or, if need be, only one class of men, or you will have too many adversaries. Attack your opponent, but do not involve the listener. If it is absolutely necessary to include a large number of persons, under these circumstances you should declare that in so doing you have the interest of all at heart. If you fail in this you will have an avalanche of reviling descend upon you which will be troublesome to withstand.

The art of reviling consists in keeping in mind the preceding ten rules. These rules have to be used as needed; there is no order in their selection. My idea in writing this essay is to help those who wish to revile, and explain how a person can develop ability in this direction. All who love to revile should examine it. Those who are reviled should also read it, as it enables them to understand the psychology of reviling and, to a certain extent, removes the curtain and allows a glimpse behind the scenes.


The colophon very properly is the place where the printer should make known, not only the bookish particulars of the edition, but likewise the secret purpose, if any, behind it. Due to the kindness of Dr. William Pettus, owner of the original pamphlet and the translator thereof, I am able to reproduce for the amusement of my friends a delightful bit of Chinese literature. While I deplore the fact that I did not come upon this bit of Oriental wisdom when much younger, I feel I might still benefit by the advice of the author. For those fastidious persons who insist upon such details, this booklet is composed in Linotype Estienne, a bookface designed by the late George W. Jones of London. The format and general details were accomplished only after many lunches with Dr. Pettus and Wallace Kibbee, both delightful companions and able critics of matters typographical.

Harry W. Porte

One hundred copies printed for William B. Pettus for distribution among his friends.


Pettus, William B. The Fine Art of Reviling (San Francisco : Wallace Kibbee and Son, 1949) English translation of Shiqiu Liang's Ma ren di yi shu.

This item is in the public domain. The publication date is 1949 with the copyright notice lacking. Library of Congress copyright database indicates no current copyright claims on this title or by either author. Should any current copyright holder of this item protest the placement of this work, please go to E2 Copyright Violations.

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