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Books from July 2020

Current Reading – July 2020

At the moment I’m reading:

Books from July 2020
Books from July 2020

Professor D.K. Jordan’s web pages on Chinese culture. Specifically I was looking at his section on Mourning Grades. The reason why, is because in the TV series Qiao’s Grand Courtyard, the main character is shown performing a mourning ritual for his wife’s dead father. Apparently you should do this, but the exact degree and type of such mourning is not spelled out. I will have more to say about Qiao’s Grand Courtyard in a future post.

Confucian Ritual Music of Korea by Song Hye-jin. If you spend time in the Joseon History Museum in Seoul, you will find the room devoted to the traditional instruments, played for centuries at the yearly events. This book gives a detailed description of what the music is trying to do. I mentioned this music (briefly) mid-way through my novel, The Fire Sword.

Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen Platt. I haven’t done much reading in this time period of Chinese history (1810 to 1870) until now. But the plotline for the TV series, Qiao’s Grand Courtyard is heavily involved in the Tai Ping Rebellion, so I needed to understand it better to make sense of the show.

A New Account of Tales of the World by Liu Iching (translated by Richard Mather). This is a very difficult book to read. It is broken into tiny fragments of larger stories about people. Some of the stories are curious, many make very little sense, even to me. It was written about 1,600 years ago in China about the important men (and a few women) who lived from 120 to 400 A.D. Still, this is as close as we can get to the real history of some of these people.

The last chapters (from pages 476 to 532) are the most interesting. Here the author lays out examples of bad or evil behavior and the stories are presented with a degree of neutrality which is quite unexpected. I nearly stopped reading the book half way through and so nearly didn’t read these final chapters; that would have been a mistake.

Here is one of the stories from the chapter titled ExtravaganceWhen the very wealthy man Shih Chung held a banquet, he had beautiful girls serving the wine. If any guest failed to drain their bowl of wine, the serving girl would be immediately killed. One time, Chancellor Wang Tao, and his cousin the general Wang Tun, went to one of Shi Chung’s banquets. Each time it was General Wang’s turn to drink, he refused, and the girl serving him was killed. This happened three times during the party, and yet each time a girl was killed, General Tun’s expression remained the same. Later, his cousin chided him for his behavior and General Tun replied, “If Shih Chung kills someone of his own household, what business is it of yours?” (pg. 493). Note how the author of this story makes almost no effort to criticize Shih Chung’s behavior and the author gives General Tun the last word. My question is: did the Chinese think this behavior by Shih Chung was wrong, or just an extravagant waste of money?

Here is the single most shocking story from this book, which is presented in the chapter Virtuous Conduct – When Teng Yu abandoned the north, he took his wife, his son, and his brother’s son with him. Because of the length of the journey, he started with an ox and a cart to carry them. Bandits later stole their ox and cart. Teng Yu then said to his wife, “My brother died early and there is only his son to carry on his name. Now that we must travel by foot, to carry both boys and have us all die would not be as good as abandoning our own son and carrying my brother’s son in our arms. Afterwards, we may still have another son.” Teng Yu’s wife consented. He abandoned his son in the grass, but the small boy followed, sobbing, and calling after them, finally catching up to them at nightfall. The next morning, Teng Yu tied his son to a tree and departed, and so they crossed the Yangtze River. (page 14-15).

I asked a couple of Chinese women I know about this story and they both said, “That was the right thing to do.” I profoundly disagree. While I understand hard situations make for hard choices, this willful killing of his own son to save the life of his brother’s son struck me as deeply wrong. My moral judgment is: you must save yourself, you must save your wife, you should save your child, and lastly, if you can, you should save your brother’s child. If you wish to put your wife’s life ahead of yours, fine. If you wish to put your son’s life ahead of yours, that is your choice. But to leave your son to die while saving the life of your brother’s son? That is immoral.

Back to the book, while Cao Cao appears in a number of stories, his opponent, Liu Bei appears in only one, and Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei appear not at all. As this book was written only 200 years after the main events of the epic conflict between Cao Cao, Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and the others, it is remarkable to me how unimportant these figures are to the writer of this collection of stories about people. Instead we have the nearly forgotten man, Hsieh An (Xie An) who shows up in more than 100 stories in this book.

The Ring of Truth by Roger Scruton. The late Sir Scruton was a remarkable polymath and one of his later books is this one, an attempt to explain why Wagner’s The Ring Cycle is a great work of art and philosophy. I found the book challenging and I largely disagree with Sir Scruton’s assessment. However, I do admit that thousands of the greatest minds of the late 1800s and early 1900s considered the Ring Cycle to be a great work of art, so I think one must deal with the Ring Cycle, and treat it as a serious work of art. My fiancĂ©e and I watched all four of the Operas which the Met Opera put on nearly a decade ago, so I know something about the cycle now. I might write more later on this. Maybe.

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