Thursday, April 30, 2015

'Kazuo Ohno’s World From Without and Within' Kazuo Ohno and Yoshito Ohno

This is a compilation of two pieces: Workshop Words by Kazuo (Ohno pere) (1997) and Food for the Soul by Yoshito (Ohno fils) (1999) both appearing in English for the first time. The book is richly supplemented with stunning black and white photographs of Kazuo in performance and in the studio, and both Ohnos dancing together, many appearing here for the first time in book form: an absolute feast for lovers of dance and butoh.

Food for the Soul is a comprehensive analysis of the various elements of Kazuo Ohno’s art. The first part covers the dancing body: the face, the mouth, the voice, the eye, the ear, the hand, the back. The second part covers various aspects of performance such as: falling, standing, makeup, photographic subjects, twosome and so on.

On watching him perform this feat (falling) one has the distinct impression that an indissoluble bond beckons him to the dimension that unfolds “below the knees”. One senses that a close affinity exists with the lateral space “down there” In falling, he makes the transition from his ordinary, everyday world, where he stands firmly on his feet, to another “limitless” dimension.

Yoshito is writing about his father in particular but one can also read his remarks as a kind of manifesto of what butoh is: for butoh itself may be said to take place in a ‘limitless dimension below the knees.’

Yoshito’s unique position as both the son of one of the founding creators of butoh, and as a founding creator himself, allows him to open up fort the interested reader unique perspectives onto several aspects of butoh practice. Here he is, for example, on the vexed question of the relationship between choreography and improvisation, which is one of the central issues of butoh:

A dance borne of the moment is never static, it doesn’t end at a particular point, for, in being true to its spontaneous nature, it always needs to explore a little further. A ready–made dance, on the other hand, leaves me feeling limited by its built-in constraints.

Against this, however, must be set the knowledge that both Hijikata and the Ohnos rehearsed obsessively, and that in the last decade or so of his own life, Hijikata did not dance himself, but focused more on choreography, creating several of Ohnos most famous pieces.

Yoshito also gives a biography of his father, and a memoir of his own childhood and adolescence as the third major force in the creation of butoh. We are given glimpses of Hijikata, Mishima, Shibusawa, and the photographer Eikoh Hosoe, and other luminaries of the Japanese post-war avant-garde, and we learn more about Kazuo as husband, father, and human being.

It’s somewhat disappointing then, in the second half of the book to read Kazuo’s own workshop words. There is no doubt that in performance, the power of Kazuo Ohno’s art is overwhelming. However, the 154 aphorisms which make up Workshop Words reveal Ohno’s rather strange world view, a world view that has much of the Japanese kawaii  in it, and less of the darker European influences that make Hijikata’s utterances in language more compelling. Yoshito himself comes across as a much more sophisticated thinker about butoh, and a much better articulator in language of what butoh is. Kazuo’s workshop words are disappointingly banal, cutesy, and somewhat silly, one feels. But then, maybe it’s more the case that butoh itself is an art form which expresses the inexpressible beyond the reach of language, and that Ohno pere is able to express himself better through gestures than through words.

Unlike everyday speech, dance has the potential to release us from the chains of language and its specific meanings.
Kazuo Ohno

Sunday, April 05, 2015

'Mr Selden’s Map of China' Timothy Brook

All Isles and Continents (which are indeed but greater Isles) are so seated, that there is none, but that, from some shore of it, another may be discovered.
John Selden
Historie of Tithes

In 2009 an ancient Chinese map came to light in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Timothy Brook, a well known authority on Ming China, was called in to investigate its provenance and history. Brook noticed that unlike other maps from Ming China, which usually focus on the land mass of China to the exclusion of the sea, this map depicted the South China Sea and the coast lines which surround it: the center of the map was not land, but the void of the empty sea. Brook also noticed the astonishing accuracy of the distribution and shape of the many islands in the area, and noticed also a fine tracery of lines connecting the islands to the mainland. Brook realized that what he was looking at was a map of trade routes connecting Ming China with the markets of Japan, the Dutch East Indies and the Spanish Philippines. The only thing known for sure about the map was that it had been bequeathed to the Bodleian by John Selden, who specifically mentioned the map in his will as having been given to him by an English commander who had obtained it ‘there’. The map was the only object in his vast bequest of documents to be named and described in detail in the will.

From this observation and slenderest of evidences, and undaunted by the lack of any other information about the map, Brook sets out to discover who made it, when, and how it came to be in Mr. Selden’s possession. Along the way he spins a tale that connects East to West and sheds light on the dawn of the modern global age. He unearths many interesting things, and gives to the reader a wealth of fascinating information concerning Mr. Selden, maps, and the interaction between Europe and China in the seventeenth century.


Mr Selden was the most important jurist of the age, at least in England. Bosom friend of Ben Jonson, student of James Ussher, Selden was also one of the most distinguished Orientalists of the age, able to read Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Syriac. We learn many other things about him. For example, it was Selden, in dialogue with the great Dutch jurist de Groot, who hammered out the first version of the international law of the sea. In 1609 de Groot published a book arguing that the sea was mare liberum, open to all, and that no nation could claim jurisdiction over it. Selden in 1635 published a riposte to de Groot, arguing that the sea was mare clausum and that nations could lay claim to it. The importance of this debate for the legality of trade (and the illegality of piracy) hardly needs emphasizing, and it was as important then as it is now.

Brook shows how both jurists’ positions were the result of specific economic and historical circumstances. De Groot was arguing for the Dutch East India company, who were trying to break into the market for spices and exotic woods in what later became the Dutch East Indies, a market that was exclusively claimed by the Portuguese. To argue that the seas were free was to argue that the Portuguese had no legal claim to their monopoly, and that the Dutch could therefore compete. Selden, on the other hand was arguing for the British government of Charles I, who was contesting lucrative fishing rights over the North Sea, rights which were also claimed by the Dutch. Selden, who had been in and out of prison on various political charges connected with the struggle between the Stuart dynasty and Parliament, was released from prison on condition that he could provide a legal argument for Charles’s claims. His book The Closed Sea was the result. Brook comments:

‘The Free Sea’ and ‘The Closed Sea’… were both lawyers briefs written for their clients… their difference had mostly to do with the interests they served rather than with the law each sought to uphold.

Although he shies away from coming to the conclusion that questions of legality are always determined by those who have the power to enforce it, that legality per se is simply a cloak to cover the exercise of power, he does quote de Groot’s famous maxim: Jurists who use their proficiency in the law to please those in power usually are deceived or themselves deceive. Given Selden’s interest in other cultures and his professional involvement in the law of the sea, it’s not surprising that a map from China which puts the sea at the center became one of the most valued items in his library.


Maps are at the center of this book. Brook gives a potted history of cartography, both European and Chinese. He is very good indeed on the problems of projecting a round surface onto a flat sheet of paper, and the various solutions to this problem that have been found throughout history; his technical descriptions are clear enough for the layperson to grasp without dumbing down the subject. Brook situates Mr. Selden’s map within the context of other maps from the period, including those published by Hondius in 1608, Purchas in 1625 and John Speed in 1627, some of the first writers and cartographers to depict China for Western eyes, and he draws out the associations between Selden and these other men. Brook gives detailed descriptions of these and other maps to highlight their similarities and differences and to arrive at conclusions about their origins; these descriptions are beautifully complemented by the lavish full-color illustrations and the diagrams included in the text. The book is beautifully produced, and for anyone who loves poring over old maps and documents, reading it is highly pleasurable.

We learn about rutters – pilot’s logbooks with compass directions and timings, used in the Medieval period in the absence of charts to help pilots navigate- and their relationships to maps. Rutters were used by the Dutch, the British, the Portuguese, and by the Chinese, and one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the space Brook gives to an important Chinese navigational guide compiled in 1617 by Zhang Xie from oral and other sources now lost. Zhang’s Study of the Eastern and Western Seas is an important addition to our understanding of early navigation techniques and trade routes in the South China Sea, and complements  the information found in an earlier Chinese rutter known as the Laud Rutter after Archbishop Laud – another associate of Selden’s – who donated it to the Bodleian. This Chinese rutter details the routes taken by the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the fifteenth century. Brook profitably draws out the connections between the Laud Rutter, Zhang Xie’s compendium, and the dim tracery of sea routes on the Selden map. A fortuitous discovery leads him to the conclusion that the cartographer of the map used these sea routes as a starting point for his drawing of the coastlines, not the other way round, and this in part accounts for the amazing accuracy of Mr. Selden’s map.


China during the seventeenth century was, for Western eyes, a site of exotic  mystery. Westerners who went there had the impression that they were ‘opening up’ the country, ‘civilizing’ it, bringing it onto the world stage. Traditionally, Western historiography has confirmed this Eurocentric view. More accurate, however, is the view that puts China at the center of the world economy during this period. Ming Dynasty China drew in silver from Japan and from across the Pacific. This hunger for silver drove subsidiary trade among the Japanese, the Chinese diaspora among the archipelagos of the South China Sea, and early Europeans such as John Saris, who commanded the eighth voyage of the East India Company to the far east, and the man who is the most likely candidate for the ‘commander’ mentioned in Mr. Selden’s will. The increasing presence of Europeans in this theatre of operations had a huge impact on Europe and her culture, but less so on Chinese history and culture. China was the center, and Europe the periphery, in spite of Europeans’ assertions to the contrary. Whatever knowledge the Europeans possessed, the Chinese had it too; whatever technology the Europeans brought with them to China, they found Chinese versions of the same, often at a higher stage of development, including maps, rutters, compasses, atlases and compendia of knowledge.

It is Timothy Brook himself who has arguably done the most to correct our view of the relative importance of China and Europe during the early modern period, with four magisterial studies of the Ming. Brook as an academic historian combines detailed readings of source texts that owe much to the methods of the New Historicists, and the longue duree approach to economic history espoused by the Annales School: think Stephen Greenblatt meets Fernand Braudel and you get a fair idea of Brook’s approach to doing academic history. Here, in Mr Selden’s Map of China, he puts his unparalleled knowledge of Ming China to good use, focusing generally on the way China impacted Europe rather than on how Europe impacted China; and more especially on how new discoveries about China were changing European habits of thought.

As evidence of other ways of being and thinking came more insistently into view, some realized that the old ways were not the only ways and indeed might have to be revised or superseded. To be alive in John Selden’s day was to live through this shift in paradigms.

Two examples will suffice. Brook describes how James Ussher – Mr. Selden’s teacher of Hebrew – dated the creation of the world to 23rd October 4004 BC by delving into ancient Hebrew texts. The discovery by the next generation of scholars of the great age of Chinese culture would invalidate this exercise in pious futility. Brook comments: The Biblical account of the creation of the world was only one casualty of the global enlargement of knowledge that inspired some thinkers to pry up the theological floorboards of European thought.  

The second example is the fascinating story of Michael Shen Fuzong, the first Chinese to ever visit Europe, a convert to Catholicism, and a protégé of the Jesuit missionary Philippe Couplet. Shen was presented at the court of King Louis XIV in 1684, and then later at the court of King James II in 1685, had his portrait painted by Kneller and was for a while the wonder of Europe. While in England he worked with Thomas Hyde, the Keeper of the Bodleian Library, and the man who had entered Mr. Selden’s map into the Library catalogue. Hyde was something of an enthusiast for Oriental languages, and for six weeks in 1685, Shen was his teacher. Shen and Hyde studied Mr. Selden’s map together, annotating it: Shen’s Romanisations of Chinese place names followed by Hyde’s Latin translations are still visible in the margins of the map. Shen and Hyde poring over maps and Chinese books together in the Library at Oxford is an enduring image of a fleeting historical moment when the encounter between East and West was fruitful and non-invasive. As Brook notes:

The nations and peoples of the world differed, but not in essentials. Saris could go to them to trade without conquest, Selden to delve into their documents in search of the common wellsprings of enlightened humanity. It would be another century before this sense of equality gave way to condescension and the East India Company concentrated its efforts on stripping the world of its assets and other peoples of their dignity.

There are countless tales of European travellers to China and the wonders they found there, but the tale of a Chinese traveller to Europe and the work he did there to increase European understanding of China is surely just as fascinating, and Brook does well to give this space.


Mr Selden’s Map of China is Timothy Brook’s second go at writing popular history, after his earlier prize winning Vermeer’s Hat. Vermeer’s Hat had its academic longeurs as a work of popular history written for the layperson; Mr Selden’s Map has no such, and is arguably a better exemplar of the genre. This is partly due to  the emphasis Brook places on why such an old map of the South China Sea and all its islands is important to our present historical moment, when the nations around that sea bitterly contest possession of some of those islands. It is also partly due to Brook’s sensible decision to foreground himself in the text. He includes personal anecdotes about his experiences in China as a historian there, and peoples his texts with pen portraits of his colleagues and his mentor the great Sinologist Joseph Needham. The book is as much a detective story as a work of history; Brook describes his elation when he discovers new evidence,  recounts his confusion when new evidence doesn’t fit his emerging picture of the background to the map, and his consternation when a particular line of enquiry reaches a dead end. This has the effect of drawing the reader in, making us part of the process of doing history; he walks with us along the fine line between speculation, imaginative reconstruction, and what can be established as historical fact. We learn as much here about how historians do history and of the importance of that history for our own times as we learn about the actual history of the map itself. This is surely how popular history should be written.

We never do learn, though, who made the map, or when, or how it came into Mr. Selden’s possession, so at the center of this book, then, just as at the center of Mr. Selden’s map of China, is an empty space, a void. But this doesn’t matter, because, like Brook, we are richer in our knowledge at the end than when we started.

This piece first appeared in Kyoto Journal 80 and is reposted here with kind permission.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

'My Country and My People' Lin Yu Tang

China is the greatest mystifying and stupefying fact in the modern world.

Written in 1935, Lin’s was the first major work by a Chinese to introduce China and her culture to the West. Lin was born in China, but was educated in the West, in the US and Europe. He was a key figure in the New Culture Movement of the 1920s, but after 1935 spent most of his life in the US. He was the compiler of a Chinese - English dictionary which is still one of the most widely used today, and the inventor of the first Chinese language typewriter – a kind of Renaissance Man. He is ideally suited, then, as a kind of insider-outsider to write about his own culture.

The Chinese observer has a distinct advantage over the foreign observer, for he is a Chinese, and as a Chinese he not only sees with his mind but he also feels with his heart… he writes of his mission to observe and explain his birth culture to his adopted culture.

Lin’s book covers subjects as diverse as the role of women, the Chinese mind, the importance of calligraphy as a way to understand Chinese culture; he gives potted histories of Chinese literature and painting; he teases out patterns of circularity and repetition within and across the various Dynasties; he discusses the importance for the Chinese of their houses and gardens, tea culture and The Golden Mean. In fact, the topics he chooses to enlarge upon are an indication of what is important for an understanding of the Chinese, as it might not have occurred to a Western commentator to give such weight to calligraphy, for example.

Lin is very clear sighted about the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese culture, especially the great influence of Confucianism, of which he is rightly highly critical. In this, of course, he follows other writers of the New Culture Movement such as Lu Xun and Lao She.

Of the Confucian ideal of the gentleman ruler  (junzi 君子), ruling by example through correct morality, Lin notes: it is a queer irony of fate that the good old school teacher Confucius should ever be called a political thinker, and that his moral molly-coddle stuff should ever be honored with the name of a political theory. He notes the difference between form and substance, or appearance and reality, one of the key tensions in Chinese life, between a political theory that emphasizes virtue and morality, and yet which gives rise to the most consistently corrupt and incompetent governments the world has ever seen, in any and all periods of history.  

Of the five relationships as defined by Confucius - ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, friend to friend- Lin notes the omission of the relationship between stranger and stranger, and calls this a great and catastrophic omission, and one that partly accounts for the lack of a civic consciousness in Chinese life, the complete indifference to others outside ones own family circle, the lack of manners, the lack of what he calls a Samaritan spirit, and the all pervasive presence of nepotism and venality in public life. Another reason for the lack of public spirit is the Confucian emphasis on the family, of which he notes: family consciousness degenerates into a form of magnified selfishness at the cost of social integrity.

Lin is very good indeed on the special features of the language, and how these features restrict the ability of the Chinese to express themselves clearly and indeed to think clearly: one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language. This is absolutely right, in my view. In a language that has no word for ‘no’, how do you refuse, or disagree with someone?

Mind is determined by language, and of the Chinese mind Lin notes the absence of real logic as Westerners understand it, and its replacement by, on the one hand, ‘common sense’, which he lauds, and on the other, a kind of Taoist epistemology which holds truth to be something above words, and impossible to be expressed by them. (Consider the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching: The Way that can be spoken of/ Is not the constant Way/The name that can be named/Is not the constant name.)  Lin writes: Anything like cogent reasoning is unknown in Chinese literature for the Chinese inherently disbelieve in it. Consequently, no dialectic has been evolved and the scientific treatise as literary form is unknown.

Lin is a wonderful guide to Chinese literature, and he presents a wealth of poems, excerpts from the histories, essayists and novelists from all dynasties. Among my favourites is this example of  the Chinese method of classification and naming, Lin is talking about the names given to the different styles of writing in Classical criticism:

the method of watching a fire across the river (detachment of style)
the method of dragon-flies skimming the water surface (lightness of touch)
the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes (bringing out the salient points)
the method of releasing a captive before capturing him (playing about a subject)
the method of showing the dragons head without its tail (freedom of movement and waywardness of thought)
the method of a sharp precipice overhanging a ten-thousand-feet ravine (abruptness of ending) (our cliff-hanger, I suppose)
the method of letting blood by one needle prick (direct epigrammatic jibe)
the method of going straight into the fray with one knife (direct opening)
the method of announcing a campaign on the east and marching to the west (surprise attack)
the method of side-stabs and flanking attacks (light raillery)
the method of light mist hanging over a grey lake (mellow and toned down style)
the method of layers of clouds and hilltops (accumulation)
the method of throwing lighted firecrackers at a horse's buttocks (final stab towards conclusion)

Much of what Lin writes is extraordinarily perceptive and confirms my own experience. He is at his best when he is explaining facts and teasing out their ramifications, for example the dialectic between Confucianism and the legalism of Han Feizi; or the importance of Face in the interactions that go to make up a culture and a society, or the special characteristics of the language. He is at his worst, however, when he is lauding those aspects of Chinese culture that he considers virtues, for example the emphasis he places on reasonableness and common sense. ("I have lived here for nigh on 20 years, and I’ve seen precious little evidence of common sense anywhere during that time", mutters the Old China Hand.) Lin seems to be unaware that common sense is as much a relative cultural construct as anything, and that it is completely incompatible with the notion of Face. When he is in this mode, Lin is no more than your usual Chinese chauvinist, although a highly articulate and learned one.

Lin’s book is dated; it contains many references to race, and the purity of Han blood or the necessity for its reinvigoration; and in this Lin shows how he is bounded by the limitations of the time of writing. ‘Race’ and ‘blood’ are common tropes of the sociology of the 1930s, and Lin spent much of the 30s in Germany, where this kind of writing was infected with notions of racial purity. He is also backward in his discussion of the role and nature of women in Chinese life. His solution for China’s ills is to shoot the officials, and he ends the book with an image of the Great Executioner cleansing out the stables of government. Well, Chiang Kai Shek, and the Japanese, and Mao, and Deng Xiao Ping tried that in one form or another; today’s leaders are also showing great enthusiasm for shooting officials, yet the fundamental problems Lin highlights in his book still persist. Perhaps Lin is merely being ironic, and rather too sanguine. Perhaps only when Confucianism has been eradicated and the Chinese language has evolved subject/object pronoun differences and created a word for ‘No’ will her problems – and her unique culture – be eliminated.

However, Lin has an engaging style, an energy and idiosyncrasy of vision (he is adept at the long sarcastic, rant) and can turn out pithy and memorable epigrams that extend beyond their immediate context:

Graft, or ‘squeeze’, may be a public vice, but it is always a family virtue
All Chinese are Confucianists when successful and Taoists when they are failures.
Buddhism is Taoism a little touched in its wits.
The Chinese are by nature greater Taoists than they are by culture Confucianists.
When people persist in talking of moral reforms as a solution for political evils, it is a sign of the puerility of their thinking and their inability to grasp the political problems as political problems.

Until everybody loses his face in this country, China will not become a truly democratic country.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fragment 21022015

There are two places in the Chu Ci where the interaction between Confucianism and Taoism becomes most acute and obvious. The first is the poem called Bu Ju (Divination) the second is the poem called Yu Fu, (The Fisherman). They appear side by side in the middle of the anthology, and are the only pieces in the anthology that contain prose and dialogue. They both are anecdotes about Qu Yuan, and therefore cannot have been written by him. Authorship is unknown, but there are similar parables concerning encounters with Confucians and Taoists in the Zhuang Zi.

Bu Ju is interesting because it concerns the I Jing. It is, as far as I know, one of the earliest depictions in Chinese literature of the I Jing in use, and it gives us a picture of how to use the Oracle, or rather how not to use it.

Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) consults a famous diviner (Taoist ideal). “I have an uncertainty in my mind which I should like you to resolve for me”, he says. The Diviner readies his yarrow stalks. “What are your instructions”, he says, when he is ready. Qu Yuen asks eight questions concerning his dilemma, seven of which are framed in the same way: ‘Is it better to X or to Y?’; and the eighth is a kind of summary of the previous seven: “Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened. Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?”
The Diviner’s reaction is to throw away his divining stalks and excuse himself, with a speech in which he says: “There are things to which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power. My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, (…) the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.”  

Why does the Diviner react in this way?

The answer lies in the way the questions are framed, and in the last sentence spoken by the Diviner.

Commentaries of the I Jing, repeatedly note the importance of the way the question is framed, and this is arguably the most important part of the process of consulting the oracle. The Diviner usually works with the person consulting the Oracle to make sure the question is framed in the correct way. John Blofeld writes: Above all, the either/or type of question is to be avoided. Other commentators stress the same thing and also that the same question cannot be asked more than once. (Some who consult the Oracle as a game ask the same question more than once to ‘test’ the Oracle to see if it will give the ‘same’ answer.) Qu Yuan makes both these mistakes, with his string of either/ or questions all on the same problem: is it better to remain unsullied, or is it better to go with the things of the world?

In the comment the Diviner makes to Qu Yuan: My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours, the divining stalks are really unable to be of help.” The Diviner notes from Qu Yuan’s questions that his mind is already made up about the best course to follow: resolution such as yours. The question has been answered before it has been put. 

This is not the way to approach the Oracle, which requires an openness of mind for its power to work. In the Da Chuan commentary to the I Jing, it is written:

First take up the words
Ponder their meaning
Then the fixed rules reveal themselves.
But if you are not the right man,
The meaning will not manifest itself to you.

Qu Yuan is not the right man because he is not in a position mentally to be able to ponder  anything. He is obsessed with his either/or choices. This is why the Diviner cuts short the consultation.

But there is another deeper level to this encounter between Confucianism and Taoism. After he has framed his questions, Qu Yuan breaks into poetry, describing the times as out of joint: ‘The world is turbulent and impure,’ he begins. Turbulence is another word for change. But the I Jing, or the Book of Changes does not see change as turbulent, or impure, as the Confucian does. The Taoist sees change as the basis of life the universe and everything. For the Confucian, change is negative; for the Taoist, who abhors catgegories, it is neither positive nor negative, it simply is.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

楚辭 'Chu Ci' 'The Songs of the South'

It has to be said, really, that considered as poetry, the Songs of the South  is exceptionally boring. An anthology of poems from the Warring States period, usually attributed to the poet Qu Yuan, or ‘school of’, it takes its tone from the first poem, Li Sao, the only poem in the collection that modern scholars can confidently attribute to Qu Yuan.

In the Li Sao, the poet bemoans the fact that his loyalty, integrity, knowledge and generally exceptional character has not been recognised by his employer, the Prince of the State. The poet leaves his home (banished or not, it doesn’t matter, he cannot return) and goes on a journey which ends, usually, with the resolve to drown himself. Qu Yuan did in fact drown himself for this reason, and his death is celebrated to this day in the Qing Ming festival, or Dragon Boat festival, held all over South China on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month. Thus is born the figure of the lofty Confucian scholar, stubbornly resisting the necessity to taint his soul with the common things of the world, and choosing a lonely, watery martyrdom instead of compromise and socialisation.

The Li Sao spawned a whole genre of Sao poems, all based on the same theme, of the unregarded Confucian scholar (usually but not always Qu Yuan himself) choosing death over compromise. The problem is that the other Sao poets included in the anthology don’t have Qu Yuan’s imagination. Common tropes include flower imagery, the analogy of Prince and servant to lover and beloved, the use of a clearly delineated set of similes, the spirit journeys and real journeys, all are exactly the same. None of the other poets in the anthology are doing anything creative with the elements of the genre: it seems to be enough just to provide a checklist of elements for the reader to recognise. Jade and pebbles are mixed together (jade being the Confucian scholar the man of virtue, pebbles being the common riff raff of the court, his enemies), warlike steeds stabled with nags (ditto), orchids grown alongside millet (ditto) etc etc. One longs to shake the poet and tell him to get over himself.

The problem is not one of translation: David Hawkes miraculously manages to catch differences in tone and style in his translations – his introduction and notes are fascinating and indispensable for students of early Chinese history. But, as he puts it:

The conventions of …the symbolism of plant and flower and the parallels drawn from ancient history and mythology – seem in these poems to have become an end in themselves. The result is a long, almost unrelieved litany of complaint which progresses by mere accumulation and ends only when poet, reader and metaphor are all three exhausted.

An old man here once told me an old Chinese legend about a man on a journey who comes to a mountain he cannot traverse. Unwilling to give up his journey, he decides to remove the mountain stone by stone out of his way, and he spends his life doing so. The story was held up to me as an example of perseverance, patience, dedication to an ideal and the refusal to give up or stray from a path, the classic Confucian virtues, in short. My old man was sure I would regard it as a model to follow, but I was thinking only of the stupidity inherent in the enterprise. Surely it would be more sensible to walk around the mountain than to try to remove it? I get the same feeling from the Sao poems. There’s a point where commitment and dedication become mere boneheaded stubbornness and inflexibility; and the obverse of stubbornness is not flexibility but inertia. The Chu Ci provides fruitful ground for speculations as to the historical origin of the inertia found in the Confucian/Chinese character. 

Enough! There are no true men in the state: no one understands me.
Why should I cleave to the city of my birth?
Since none is worthy to work with me in making good government,
I shall go and join Peng Xian (Taoist immortal) in the place where he abides.

There’s something, dare I say it, pubescent in this. It reminds me of an adolescent who is bitter at the world for not recognising his genius, a sense of teenage entitlement. To kill yourself because the world doesn’t recognise your genius, in our culture this is a sign of great immaturity, illness even. (Sylvia Plath anyone?)

The Chu Ci does however, contain seeds of dissent, a hint of an ironic Taoist corrective to the Confucian ideal. The Li Sao itself contains a beautiful  description of a spirit journey made by a shaman, and the poem is interesting also for the use it makes of ancient Taoist tales and legends, some of which are now lost and which have only survived here in this anthology. In a poem called Yu Fu, Qu Yuan (Confucian ideal) encounters a fisherman (Taoist recluse). Qu Yuan is bellyaching in his usual manner: “How can I submit my spotless purity to the dirt of others? I would rather cast myself into the waters of the river… than hide my shining light in the dark and dust of the world”. The fisherman can put up with this no longer, smiles faintly, and sings as he paddles away:

When the Cang-Lang’s waters are clear
I can wash my hat-strings in them.
When the Cang-Lang’s waters are muddy
I can wash my feet in them.

The Taoist ideals of adaptability and non-interference in the flow of nature are contrasted beautifully with the Confucian ideals of steadfastness and loyalty.