In a short story by Pu Songling, the following sentence appears:


In the English translation I have available, the translation goes as follows:

They saw he was near death, like a candle burning out, but his heart was still beating slightly.

On a Chinese community, I also find another interpretation:


See this link if more context is needed.

Which one of these two interpretations is the better one? If the English translation is correct, I assume it to be based on a famous saying or the like. I am therefore leaning more towards the simpler alternative, that is, 燭 acting as a verb meaning "light up by candlelight".

  • 1
    Both are incorrect. The English translation misunderstands 燭之死; the Chinese interpretation misunderstands 死.
    – joehua
    Jul 14, 2022 at 19:43
  • Can't you find the story translated into modern Chinese? That would be easier to understand. I have a copy of 诗经, it has the old Chinese on the left, but modern Chinese on the right. Otherwise I would never understand it!
    – Pedroski
    Jul 14, 2022 at 22:44
  • I have quoted a translation into modern Chinese further below, which has been followed by further discussion.
    – timseb
    Jul 14, 2022 at 22:53

3 Answers 3


the character “燭” has a meaning “illuminate”





then, “死” should be interpreted as “inanimate” (不活動), or “unconscious” (毫無知覺,像死的樣子)


so, “燭之死” should be read as

illuminated [by a lantern, firebrand, or, torch , it’s an outdoor scenario; a candle is, . . . impossible 😼] (燭) [the guest lying on the ground] (之), [found that he’s] unconscious (死]

have fun :)

  • This is the answer that makes the most sense to me, and I will therefor mark it. My English is not great, I always thought a torch could be seen as a kind of candle but it was probably a poor choice of wording. 😶
    – timseb
    Jul 15, 2022 at 10:09

燭 is a verb, 以燭光映之, shine with candle light。
死 is not dead. It means 昏死, unconscious. This usage is found in 聊齋 many times.

  • Thank you. Are there any hints to when 死 means dead and when it means unconscious?
    – timseb
    Jul 14, 2022 at 19:49
  • 1
    I haven't found any. I can only tell if the supposed dead person later begins to move again.
    – joehua
    Jul 14, 2022 at 20:15


The story is about a guy who was passed out in front of a temple after being chased by a living dead. The monk who refused to help came out the locked gate afterward and saw the guy lying down on the ground without indication of life. The guy tended to be lifeless (no reaction) when the monk burned (燙) him with the candle (as a check), except his heart was still bouncing slowly.

燭之 死 - 用蠟燭燙他,他像是死了的.

  • Interesting, a third interpretation. I have found a bilingual version (Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese), where the modern version reads "他看見客人倒在地上,用燈燭一照,像是死了,但是心口還微微地有些熱氣。" Which is reminiscent of @joehua's answer.
    – timseb
    Jul 14, 2022 at 21:45
  • Yes, this is a valid interpretation too. The lessons here are 1) 燭之 is a phrase consisting of a dual function word 燭(acting as both noun and verb), and 之(adv), and 2) 死 is another phrase rather than a single word. So when you read, you shall insert a brief stop (小停頓) between 燭之 and 死. "簡潔" is really the beauty of "古文"
    – r13
    Jul 14, 2022 at 22:14
  • This I understand. What I don't understand is how both interpretations can be valid. Surely the priest is either burning the traveler with the candle or using it to cast light upon him. I will untick @joiehua's answer and await further clarification.
    – timseb
    Jul 14, 2022 at 22:28
  • You can stick to your first choice, which is not my focus. 燭之 meant using a candle to "do something", the only difference is I interpret it as "use the candle to burn/stimulate the person", and your source interprets it as "use the candle to light up to have a close look". Note that both can be valid actions, but neither was clearly indicated in the text, so both are "guesses" following the storyline. You can pretend you are the monk with a candle on a dark night and see a motionless person lying in the wild, then what you would do?
    – r13
    Jul 14, 2022 at 23:01

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