愛蓮說- On the Love of the Lotus

The previous post mentioned 周敦頤 Zhou Dunyi, who was perhaps one of the greatest Chinese philosophers, if slightly cheated of fame.

A little bit of background is perhaps necessary here. I think it’s quite common knowledge that Confucianism has been an important ideology (or religion, though it’s not much like religion to be honest) for the Chinese. The ‘Confucianism’ of more recent centuries, however, is really Neo-Confucianism, or what in Chinese is called 理學 li3 xue2 ‘study of principles’. This was a revamped creed that arose during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), one of China’s cultural golden ages.

The prominent pioneers of this philosophy include 朱熹 Zhu1 Xi1, and the two brothers 程頤 Cheng2 Yi2 and 程顥 Cheng2 Hao4, which is why Neo-Confucianism is also known as the Cheng-Zhu school or Cheng-Zhu orthodoxy. Both the Cheng brothers, however, spent their formative years as students of Zhou Dunyi, who borrowed extensively from Taoist precepts in teaching Confucian ideas, which is why Zhou is nowadays also credited as a pioneering thinker.

The following prose piece is a short essay, what would be called 散文 san3 wen2 or ‘scattered writing’, where Zhou talks about… yeah, liking lotuses. Incidentally, it is perhaps not a coincidence with him that Tao Yuanming is often seen as espousing the Taoist ideal of retreat from the world and of not-doing, while the lotus is of course a favourite flower of the Buddhists, another prominent Chinese (well, not originally) philosophy and religion.

Well, take it away!

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On Surnames, Part 2

Right, about time I finally got around to this.

Previously, we talked about the Hundred Family Surnames, and the character for ‘surname’ itself. In this post, what we will discuss are the different appellations and terms which are traditionally attached to surnames – such things as prominent prefectures (郡望) and hall names (堂號). Also, we’ll look at my own surname, Zhou 周 as an example of all these lovely things, because my surname is all very illustrious and grand and awesome!

Anyway.

Introduction

The Chinese have this saying to illustrate a tough, upright man:

行不改名,坐不改姓

‘Travels without changing name, sits without changing surname’

Of course, this isn’t strictly true – surnames do change, and new surnames do pop up all the time (while old surnames fade into extinction). Whereas the Hundred Family Surnames recorded 600 or so, it is estimated that there are about 3,000 or so surnames in use these days. Considering there are about a billion Chinese, that’s really not very many, and yet people still manage to identify each other not just as being of the same surname, but also of the same clan.

How is that done? That’s where traditional tools like clan prefectures come in.

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饮酒其五 - ‘Drinking’, 5th Poem

As you may well know, the Chinese imperial examination system is the first ever standardised testing system in the world. (And people wonder why we’re good at rote learning. Genetic memory, dudes.) Besides being a great triumph for meritocracy etc., this linking of writing ability to social and economic progression also meant that literature was inextricably tied to public service.

As such, Chinese poets were rarely ever ‘outsiders’ to the society’s elite. Even when they were literally outside the circles of power, sometimes literally far outside, they remained within the circles of the literati, where learning replaced to some extent the social function of an aristocracy. Within this society, public service was a crucial goal underlying many ambitions; yet its existence had become quite independent of the government, and the opposing impulse – bugger the corrupt government, run for the hills – remained strong as well.

If there was a poet who really, consistently, decided to bugger the government and make for the hills, it would be Tao Qian, also known as Tao Yuanming (365 – 427 AD). The great-grandson of a famous general in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 – 420 AD), he looked like a sure candidate for public service; yet, after a few minor posts, he decided that he had had enough of the corruption and incompetence and retired to farm and drink. Ever since then, even at the cosmopolitan height of the Tang and Song Dynasties, his poems – of which around 130 survive – have become one pole in that continuum between poetry leaning towards public ideals, and poetry leaning towards personal peace, where much of China’s literary history lies.

Okay, enough theorising. POETRY!

Poem

结庐在人境,而无车马喧。

My home is built where people live and thrive, and yet is free of vexing traffic noise.

问君何能尔?心远地自偏。

You ask, how did you make such an abode? A distant heart makes any land remote.

采菊东篱下,悠然见南山。

Picking chrysanthemums under the eastern fence, the southern mountains come leisurely in view.

山气日夕佳,飞鸟相与还。

Glorious are the mountain views at dusk, when birds flit in pairs back to their roosts.

此中有真意,欲辨已忘言。

All this, of course, means something quite profound, but I’m lost for words attempting to expound.