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.
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:
Secondly, this old favorite has been coming to mind as I wander the world:
It’s like a medieval Chinese version of that riddle that the Sphinx posed to Oedipus: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening? A human being, of course. Or Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man.”
And I suppose it’s been on my mind because I can’t quite believe that I am at the stage of listening to raindrops in the boat.
And finally, the other day Bill Bishop, a respected American China-watcher, put up several photos of calligraphic scrolls on Twitter and asked whether anyone could decipher them for him. One I immediately knew, because every school child in China or Taiwan memorizes at an early age this text from 756 A.D.:
Bishop’s Twitter challenge reminded me of the longstanding paradox of my inherited learning. On the one hand, why is he the China expert if he can’t even read this scroll? For the longest time, Western institutions have preferred to hire the white man who studies China instead of those with native learning. On the other hand, knowledge — as Confucius taught — consists in knowing what it is that one doesn’t know. A man like Bishop indisputably knows the ins and outs of the workings of today’s Beijing government more than I do.
And as I set down these three poems side by side, it occurred to me that all three of them use the imagery of a river, the eternal flow of which symbolizes the passage of time. And two of these poems also find the poets in a boat, traveling. In the end, that is probably the real reason that these three have been on my mind.
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."