Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
One must be terribly grateful in these times to be able to do any traveling at all.
A couple of months ago, I returned to the land of my birth, Taiwan. Being still a citizen here, I had the right to return regardless of Covid-19 border restrictions. And I must be doubly grateful that here and my other country, New Zealand, just happen right now to be the two safest places on earth as far as Covid is concerned.
And recently I got out of the capital city of Taipei to visit the south and the offshore island of Kinmen. All of which—against the backdrop of the pandemic as well as events in Washington—makes me reflect upon what it means to be a remnant, to be an heir to lost causes
I’ll explain. But let’s start in Kinmen and the 17th century.
I had to learn how to play “chess” twice: once from my grandfather, and once from my aunt.
And the reason I had to learn it twice is that I was learning two kinds of chess: Chinese chess and Western chess. The two share a common origin, and in considering them side by side, one can glean a hint of a history of the world.
(I’ve barely started writing and have already tied myself in linguistic knots. In Eurocentric English, “Western” chess is simply “chess,” while Chinese chess must be distinguished by that ethnic descriptor. In Chinese, “Chinese chess” is called xiang qi, which can be translated as either “elephant chess” or something like “symbolic chess.” The elephant connection will become important below. Chess of the European variety is instead called “xiyang qi,” meaning “Western chess,” or “guo ji xiang qi”: “international elephant/symbolic chess.”)
Will Westerners, not generally well-informed about Chinese cities and provinces to begin with, now forever associate Wuhan and Hubei with the novel coronavirus of 2019?
The thought pains me, as I know it pains many others, not least because my family’s ancestral seat is located in Hubei, just a couple of hours outside Wuhan. Family lore says that in the third year of the reign of the Hongwu Emperor, i.e., 1371, a general of the Ming Dynasty surnamed Han was sent to take up command of a garrison in what is now Hubei. There he put down roots. Over 600 years later, a small town in the area is still named after my family, and it remains substantially populated by people related to me to one degree or another, people who called me “cousin” and “uncle” and “brother” when I visited in 2015.
Thus I would prefer that the outside world think of Hubei and Wuhan not as some diseased hovel (the image that they are rapidly gaining in the Western imagination) but as the storied and fascinating places that they really are. Here are a few things you may wish to know about the province of Hubei and its capital.
There is nothing new under the sun. Even so, one reels with the shock of recognition when finding clear shadows of today in the pages of ancient history.
I’ve been fairly immersed lately in the Warring States period (475—221 BC) of Chinese history lately. That period and the Spring and Autumn era immediately preceding it (771—476 BC) were times of division for China. First there were five kingdoms vying for supremacy, and then one of the five split into three, leaving seven powers to fight as “Warring States.”
According to many historians, precisely because of division, these were also times of great intellectual ferment, so that these should really be considered China’s golden age. (This is a serious if surprising theory in Chinese historiography, that essentially this civilization has been in inexorable decline since 221 BC in a kind of long twilight.)
I was recently reminded of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe it was because Game of Thrones ended, and somehow I started comparing the two. And frankly, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t hold a candle to the level of intrigue and the vast and vivid cast of characters in Three Kingdoms.
Since its composition in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms has always been counted among “the Four Astonishing Books,” the most significant works of prose fiction ever produced in the language. The others are the Proustian Dream of the Red Chamber; the picaresque Journey to the West; and The Water Margins, a kind of Western featuring outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only there are 108 desperadoes, not two.
The Western work that has always struck me the most direct parallel of Three Kingdoms, however, is not A Song of Ice and Fire. It is Homer’s Iliad.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
In the past couple of weeks, I saw two of the most popular films in the world released this year. The first one you have all heard of. The second you probably haven’t.
The first film I am referring to is obviously Avengers: Endgame, which has set all manners of records at the box office. Critics have been describing the not-so-secret secret of its success with phrases like “satisfying” and “full circle,” while fans talk about “callbacks” and “Easter eggs.” Both seem to me to be really referring to the French-Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov called “the grammar of narrative.” (Minor spoiler follows.)
Using examples from the Italian classic Decameron, Todorov famously proposed that for a story to be satisfying, it must conform to a certain structure. A sentence must conform to certain grammar to make sense. So it is that without the correct structure, a story feels incoherent, or indeed not much of a story at all but only a series of events.
Somehow I never got around to reading Shen Congwen until just recently.
Unless you’re Chinese/Taiwanese, you have probably never heard of him. And yet in 1988 he almost won the Nobel Prize in literature. The Nobel Committee had essentially agreed to give him the prize when its members made an inquiry to the Chinese government: Where was Mr. Shen, they wanted to know. And more to the point, was he still alive? The Nobel Prize, you see, could only be award to living persons.
The Chinese government responded that they knew of no one by that name. And yet he was one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century. Further investigation revealed that Shen had died of a heart attack a short time earlier. Committee member and famed Swedish Sinologist Göran Malmqvist pleaded with his fellow members that an exception be made for an exceptional figure, but to no avail.
For different reasons — or are they so different? — three medieval Chinese poems have been on my mind.
(All translations, such as they are, are mine.)
A couple of months ago, reflecting on the present predicament of the United States, my father sent me this poem that I had learned in school, written in the tenth century by a deposed king now living under house arrest by the man who conquered his country:
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."