Chinese civilisation: an idiot’s guide

And, in a shocking development for this blog, the headline on this post is…not quite the full story. You see, normally “an idiot’s guide” implies a well-read expert giving simply-written guidance on the subject of their expertise to the idiot in question. However, the lunatics have long taken over this asylum. I am the idiot, here to misdirect you on the subject of Chinese culture. Think of it as a case of “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, given that the vast majority of people who aren’t Chinese, probably know even less about China than I do.

The sources of my expertise on Chinese civilisation can be briefly set out:-

  1. Well, I did once read Journey to the West. You can’t take that away from me. More to the point, I’ve just read The Dream of the Red Chamber, which sounds quite impressive before I tell you that I read the “Penguin 60s Classics” version, which is basically an 82-page extract from the first volume of that novel (the full version is over 2,300 pages long).
  2. Bizarrely, I also once read Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (my parents had some odd stuff on their bookshelves). So far as “books by mass-murdering tyrants” go, I’d say it was better written than Mein Kampf.
  3. Furthermore, I once read a book on the Boxer Rebellion, but can’t remember its name.
  4.  I really like Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas. (Shut up).

As for what I have learned from these about the subject:

  1. You can’t go far wrong in classical Chinese culture with fruit, particularly the blossom thereof. Plum-blossom, cherry-blossom, pomegranates. What does it all mean? I dunno, but you can just assume everyone lived in an orchard, because they write as if they did. Also, don’t forget to throw in some jade.
  2. More or less everybody who played a major role in the Boxer Rebellion was an awful human being, and the only fair ending would have been for both sides to lose.
  3. You will never understand Taoism. The Tao Te Ching is about the only book I’ve ever read where, at the end, I said to myself – “Well, I have no idea what the hell that was all about.” If you want to look wise about your incomprehension, you can just say, “Ah, but the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
  4. It’s really weird reading some of the respected highbrow literature and realising that some of the scenarios presented are actually distinctly akin to what you might get in the less well-thought of popular culture. Bao-yu, the main protagonist in The Dream of the Red Chamber is surrounded by a squad of important female characters in much the same way as a young male anime protagonist might be. He gets into wacky schoolroom high-jinx around another pupil calling him gay. The whole plot gets kicked off by him meeting a magical female being. Again, all pretty animesque. And, of course, anime is Japanese, not even Chinese. It’s almost as if my first reaction to reading Chaucer or Shakespeare had been “Hey, this is very like what used to happen in Thundercats” (it wasn’t).
  5.  The Dream of the Red Chamber rivals War and Peace for having a lot of characters with vaguely similar names, so that you can never quite remember who’s who, even over 82 pages. How people manage over 2,000, I have no idea.
  6. Imperialism and all reactionaries are paper tigers.
  7. When the Big Boss turns up, the correct response is “let’s get it on!” This isn’t at all homoerotic, at least not when you fight with expert timing.
  8. Buddha is, basically, the supreme god (at least as far as Journey to the West is concerned), regardless of what the actual historical Buddha might have thought about being seen that way. Consequently, earthly happiness is just an illusion (filled with sadness and confusion), and don’t you forget it. The Dream of the Red Chamber loves to hammer that point home with doomed love affairs a-plenty.
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