what does he have at home / a shelf full of nothing but books

From Red Pine’s translations of Cold Mountain (poem 31)

A mountain man lives under thatch
before his gate carts and horses are rare
the forest is quiet but partial to birds
the streams are wide and home to fish
with his son he picks wild fruit
with his wife he hoes between rocks
what does he have at home
a shelf full of nothing but books

With commentary:

The expression yi-ch’uang (a shelf) can also mean “a bed,” and some translators have preferred this interpretation.  I would think, though, that the presence of his family would encourage him to keep his bed clear of books.  In any case, the emphasis here is on both lack of possessions and the importance of books for someone who chooses, rather than is forced into, the simplicity of mountain living.

As someone who has just moved the day’s pile of books from the bed so his wife can sleep, I disagree with this argument.  And – though I admittedly know nothing of the import of the image in Chinese culture – I personally find the bed full of books a better depiction of a spirit freed from the dictates of etiquette and living in natural ease.

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