China

Note: I don’t know anything about Communism, Socialism, China, or Russia. Seriously.

Certainly I fell in love at once with the poetry of Li Po and of Tu Fu, but aside from that very little has struck me in Chinese history as memorable, just the endless succession of names and dynasties, it struck me quite the same ten years ago as it does now. Durant expresses precisely this, at an ideal moment commenting that ‘it is part of the bathos of distance that our long removal from alien scenes obscures variety in places and men, and submerges the most diverse personalities in a dull uniformity of appearance and character’ (Our Oriental Heritage, 724).

I was once told that Russia fell into the hands of Communism so easily not because it was weak, but because it had been communist all along, that historically Russia was a communist land. I don’t know if this is true. So I’ve had my eye out for indications that something in the Chinese character is similar, that there’s some governing philosophy that’s held sway the Chinese mind for thousands of years. Confucianism seems to be the philosophy they continually fall into. And I don’t feel like looking into the parallels, if there are any, right now, because that’s not why I began writing this.

“Above all, Chinese architecture suffered from the absence of three institutions present in almost every other great nation of antiquity: an hereditary aristocracy, a powerful priesthood, and a strong and wealthy central government. These are the forces that in the past have paid for the larger works of art–for the temples and palaces, the masses and operas, the great frescoes and sculptured tombs. And China was fortunate and unique: she had none of these institutions” (741).

“The general impression left by Chinese architecture upon the foreign and untechnical observer is one of charming frailty. Color dominates form, and beauty here has to do without the aid of sublimity. The Chinese temple or palace seeks not to dominate nature, but to cooperate with it in that perfect harmony of the whole which depends upon the modesty of the parts. Those qualities that give a structure strength, security and permanence are absent here, as if the builders feared that earthquakes would stultify their pains. Those buildings hardly belong to the same art as that which raised its monuments at Karnak and Persepolis, and on the Acropolis; they are not architecture as we of the Occident have known it, but rather the carving of wood, the glazing of pottery and the sculpture of stone; they harmonize better with porcelain and jade than with the ponderous edifices that a mixture of engineering and architecture gave to India, Mesopotamia or Rome. If we do not ask of them the grandeur and the solidity which their makers may never have cared to give them, if we accept them willingly as architectural cameos expressing the most delicate of tastes in the most fragile of structural forms, then they take their place as a natural and appropriate variety of Chinese art, and among the most gracious shapes ever fashioned by men” (744).

This, of course, leads me to think of Spengler’s chapter on mathematics in early civilizations, of Kenneth Clark’s discussion of viking shipbuilding, and Will Durant’s own on prehistoric Greek dwellings–because I think a Western notion of confidence as an overarching thesis may fail here–however, Durant was writing before those banners of Chairman Mao were hung, before the tanks in my memory, of the stadiums and the smog and the mass-production (the slavery that shocks us now has yet always been a component of Chinese civilization), nothing about modern China, not the convents and epidemics of The Painted Veil, and not the drug dens and orgies of The Good Earth, is what I am trying to think of now…I won’t pretend to understand the Chinese character–as much time as I’ve spent trying to understand the British or the French, I still haven’t come to terms with either, they make absolutely no sense to me, I feel as if I’m rolling dice; so much more so, the Chinese.

Concerning its poetry: “we may tire, at times, of a certain sentimentality in [Chinese poetry], a vainly wistful mood of regret that time will not stop in its flight and let men and states be young forever” (713). And concerning its architecture: “drawings . . . show that  through its long history of over twenty-three centuries Chinese architecture has been content with the same designs, and the same modest proportions” (741). And, on poetry, again,

“what we do see is, above all, brevity. . . . But the Chinese believe that all poetry must be brief; that a long poem is a contradiction in terms–since poetry, to them, is a moment’s ecstasy, and dies when dragged out in epic reams. Its mission is to see and paint a picture with a stroke, and write a philosophy in a dozen lines; its ideal is infinite meaning in a little rhythm. Since pictures are of the essence of poetry, and the essence of Chinese writing is pictography, the written language of China is spontaneously poetic; it lends itself to writing in pictures, and shuns abstractions that cannot be phrased as things seen. Since abstractions multiply with civilization, the Chinese language, in its written form, has become a secret code of subtle suggestions; and in like manner, and perhaps for a like reason, Chinese poetry combines suggestion with concentration, and aims to reveal, through the picture it draws, some deeper thing invisible. It does not discuss, it intimates; it leaves out more than it says; and only an Oriental can fill it in. . . . Like Chinese manners and art, Chinese poetry is a matter of infinite grace concealed in a placid simplicity. It foregoes metaphor, comparison and allusion, but relies on showing the thing itself, with a hint of its implications. It avoids exaggeration and passion [I immediately recall that hotel orgy that lasted for days and involved hundreds upon hundreds of people in a major Chinese city a few years ago…], but appeals to the mature mind by understatement and restraint; it is seldom romantically excited in form, but knows how to express intense feeling in its own quietly classic way” (712).

Compare, then, to the poetry of Tagore, whose every word I think is so laden with poetic ambiguity that at times I think his work suffers–in the same way that Vedic architecture so discomforts and sometimes horrifies me.

Not that I live a simple life, not for one heartbeat. But, the whole point is that there is a thread I see running through Chinese history, through its art and philosophy, which is one of simplicity, but when attached to my opinions on Confidence, I think it does have a role, which is that until recently, confidence in China was related to restraint, restraint and nuance performed the role of grandeur and obtuseness we’ve so come to adore. And where is the necessity of living forever? Perhaps as in Judaism, placing the emphasis on living during life rather than on fame and posterity and eternity etc. is what has produced so little in terms of Western greatness. Hm, yes, I do believe in subtlety above all. So I live a life of subtlety when I can, this is true.

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