And on the other hand...

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Attention, Patience and Tradition

I was making panir (or paneer) last night and realized it's been a year almost since I first talked about this meditative cheesemaking exercise -- bringing a gallon of chilled milk just to a full boil without scorching or boiling over requires considerable attention and patience. It took me a long time last night but I didn't want to rush because that's what will cause the scorching. Gently stirring the pot feels like qigong, and the warm smell and consistency of steaming milk is comforting on a cool rainy night. After almost an hour of tending the pot, I added the lemon juice, and voila, it curdled perfectly. No scorching. So, tomorrow I will probably do spinach and panir. Not tonight though, I have my traditional Chinese painting class, another exercise in attention and patience.

I am making some small progress in this technique: in each painting, I accomplish one brush stroke or a tinted leaf that is almost right. Practice is required and it is the only creative thing I have ever done where copying is expected. (It is after all, Chinese.) This is hard: very often my first attempts at something are the best because they are concentrated but spontaneous; it is the duplication that is hard. When I used to play the piano, the first sight reading of a piece was often the best I ever did; the practice and perfection part was harder (boring really), and I never was very good at memorizing anything. And spontaneous "modern" sort of dancing is fun as well, without the difficulties of the precise choreography and perfection that qigong or t'ai chi demand. I should learn to apply my editing mentality when I do all these things.

I think we don't spend enough time in quiet attentive acts anymore. I finished Carpenter's old book on China, which ends with a discussion about Port Arthur, the bloody site of Russian/Japanese hostilities in Manchuria. He concludes the book:

"To day [~1925] Port Arthur is only a symbol of the tragic outcome of the clash between two great forces of the Far East. Its downfall marked the end of a chapter in the history of the struggle for supremacy in eastern Asia, and the next one is still unwritten. For me it marks the end of these travels, and I must leave it to others to tell the story of what is to come."
This kind of writing and commentary comes out of patient attention, and it makes me a little sad to realize he died not long after. And reading the book requires a little patience; it has a slowness of pace (and an early-20th-century American point-of-view) that suggests cozy evenings by a fire, cuddled under a lap robe, no TV, less radio, a book to pick up after you put down the evening paper. It's a quiet leisure that we have to consciously create today, with so much competing for our attention. Reading it was like stirring hot milk.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Holding on to History

How rich and interesting is the history of literature and publishing. I am thinking of this because a friend has just received her new Kindle, while I am reading an 83-year-old slightly worm-ridden book published in 1925 and having just ordered a Quality Paperback volume of the complete novels of Jane Austen. Another pound or so for my shelves, (to say nothing of the curious hard-to-find volume from 1988, so new, on Chinese brush painting I found on (Philippines) that I am having shipped, for something like 30 times my winning (and only) bid. Still, the total cost is about what I would have paid, had I been able to get it retail, except it was sold out. Two kilos from the Philippines costs a bundle. Bear in mind, I'm talking about a book.

Over the weekend I was sorting through my vast accumulated library of books about China and came upon a couple of tarnished gems, a travelogue from 1925,  discussed below,  and another from 1940, Through China's Wall by Graham Peck. I really must catalogue, or at least arrange, all these books by my own system...when there is sufficient accumulation, then a filing system makes sense. (I call it file by pile. I apply this system in my office as well. And when you have enough piles, some of them conveniently just go into the trash.) For my library, I have piles-- classifications and sub-categories-- of fiction, history, literature, art, language, culture, religion, philosophy, journalism, photography, travelogues, (Americans traveling in China, Chinese traveling in China), memoirs (of the Qing dynasty, of the Republic, of the Long March, of Westerners infatuated with the communist developments, of Liberation, of the Great Leap Forward, and those holocaust-like memoirs of the Cultural Revolution -- read two or three of those and you've read them all, and yet they all rightly demand to be heard).

One of the gems of my travelogues is China, by Frank G. Carpenter, (at right), an American who did a whole series of books, "Carpenter's World Travels," for turn-of-the-century armchair travelers. I had never read this 1926 volume, published just after he died and inherited from the Wizard's grandfather. With a sturdy binding embossed in gold with a proud steamship on the cover, it has 102 very fine black and white photographs with tales in a leisurely style that recall his several trips to China, over 40 years, from the demise of the Qing to the establishment and degradation of the early Republic. It's more than a little racist in that way of 1925: describing a visit to the "Drug Hall of Propitious Munificence," Hangchow's "drugstore like none other on earth," he discusses, and vaguely dismisses, Chinese medicine, commenting that, "On the whole, the Chinese are a healthy is a fact that the Chinese are differently constituted physically from members of the white race, and are not nearly so sensitive to disease as we adapted to their environment that they can survive living conditions and even disease that would bring illness and death in an American community." He uses the same arguments in commending the hardworking coolies and "jinrickisha" drivers, labourers "as good as can be found anywhere in the world."

Included also is the typical forecasting of the time -- China as awakening sleeping giant and market for the world, with a population of "400 million in a country that could easily accommodate 50 percent, or even 100 percent more than that" -- but he never foresaw SARS and bird flu, to say nothing of one-child policies and Mao's purges and reform-through-labor camps. Or the giant Wal-Mart in Beijing.

And yet, for all its turn-of-the-century mindset, it is much more sympathetic, and less narcissistic, if quaintly naive, than the currently popular Lost in Planet China or Nathan Gray's tale of walking the Great Wall, the style of travelogue that is all about "me." Carpenter loved China, he was not writing about himself, (although he frequently compares China with America for purposes of conveying an understanding of magnitude, politics or sociology). I suppose at the time, writing about a trip to China was sufficient; it didn't have to be about MY experiences in a strange land.

"I have often been asked," he writes, "what country I found the most interesting in all my travels over the globe. To me they are all interesting, and each has its own appeal, but regard for the truth has compelled me to answer 'China.' I have visited this Far Eastern land no less than five times, yet its fascination increases rather than grows less. It is a country with a most amazing past, and destined, I believe, to an even more amazing future." And such nice writing. No cursing.

Reading this musty old book is holding in one's hand a tangible, if subjective, interpretation of history. Of course, all interpretations are subjective. As Taoist Deng Ming-Dao says, "Everything is relative because we are each condemned to our own particular vantage points. Our minds know the world by constructing conclusions from the data of our senses." How lovely to have this book preserved, a conclusion from the data of Mr. Carpenter's senses. I don't know if it, or the Graham Peck which I plan to read next (or Jane Austen for that matter) would have the same appeal on a Kindle.