Monday, November 27, 2023

Ha Jin on Li Po, the Shui Hu Chuan the benefits of travel as well as reading

 In The Banished Immortal: A life of Li Bai, Ha Jin on page 22 writes in regard to Li Bai’s (aka Li Po’s) education, “Traditionally, in one’s education, travel was regarded as equally important as the study of books.  An ancient adage says that one must read ten thousand books and travel ten thousand miles to become an educated man.  So in his late teens Li Bai began to roam the neighboring counties and towns.”

In my late teens I traveled by ship from San Francisco to Japan and from Japan to Korea.  I was stationed in Korea for thirteen months, and returned to San Francisco in the same fashion.  If I remember correctly, a boatload of we-Marines boarded the General Gordon on Treasure Island in San Francisco bay and sailed to Osaka Japan which took thirteen days.  As the crow flies, that is about 5400 miles.  We came back thirteen months later in the same fashion although I don’t recall the name of the ship.   

Li Bai did some of his traveling by sea (on the Fu River for example) as well, but I’ll concede that 10,800 miles on board a ship with a large number of seasick Marines probably wouldn’t seem very edifying to Chinese traditionalists.  However, I did do some traveling within Japan (on two R&R trips) and within Korea (from Kunsan to Cheju Do) which were a bit more educational.  One thinks while reading Ha of the American tradition of sending one’s children to Europe as part of their education.  I’m tempted to think my experiences in Japan and Korea were not as edifying as some teen-agers trips, say, from Boston to Europe for several months, but perhaps Ha Jin would disagree.  I did acquire a love for Chinese and Japanese literature from some place.

Li Bai was perhaps designedly interested in expanding his education by his travels for when he learned something of the Daoist Zhao Rui (659?-742?), Li Bai stopped traveling to become his student.  Zhao was renowned for having wild birds land on his arm and Li Bai was enabled to do that as well which, according to Ha Jin so impressed the Royal Court that both Bai and Jhao were invited to become part of the government.  They declined.  

Zhao taught Li Bai practical subjects too – military tactics, agriculture, medicine.  Together they practiced swordsmanship . . .”   I was trained in small unit military tactics as well as in the use of weaponry such small units used, e.g., rifles, grenades, machine guns. 

While I was never a student of Daoism I did have a memorable experience with it.   Like Li Bai, I found Taoism (as I understood – probably misunderstood it)  more interesting than Buddhism.  At one chaotic point on probably the DC-10 program I had a small group responsible for preparing engineering quotations.  The McDonnell Douglas  hired a large number of people, as they did at the start of any new program and one of the new hires allotted to me was a retired Navy Chief with a most insulting and rebellious attitude.  His work was not adequate, but he insisted that it was.  I was reading the Texts of Taoism, The Tao Te Chin, The Writings of Chuang-Tzu, The Thai-Shang, translated by James Legge at the time and decided to put one of its precepts in practice.  I did nothing intended as an opposing act.  I cleaned up the Chief’s work, rewrote it and did not report its (and his) inadequacies to my supervision.   Shortly thereafter I was asked to rate all the people working for me and I rated the Chief last.  When questioned about him, I made few and slightly evasive answers.  My boss, possibly doubting me – or more likely, believing me but needing to experience the Chief for himself, had him work directly for him for a time.  After a few weeks my boss called me into his office and asked me how I was able to tolerate this fellow.  I believe I told him it was easier to redo his work than make a fuss.  The chief was shortly thereafter laid off.  

I can’t recall whether I was influenced by Taoism on other occasions.  On the contrary I recall occasions where the application of Taoism would have been better than the acrimony I engaged in. 

I returned from Korea in 1953 and in perhaps 1957 took an upper division course in early Chinese History.  I was, to return to the concept of being educated by travel, impressed with some of what I’d learned from the Japanese.  And in reading about the Japanese learned to appreciate the Chinese as well.  Being more interested in literature than history, I chose as my term project the reading of the Shui Hu Chuan even though I was warned that it would be a grueling experience.  The translator was Pearl S. Buck who wrote, “I should like readers who do not know that language to have at least the illusion that they are reading an original work. . . I have attempted to preserve the original meaning and style even to the point of leaving unenlivened those parts which are less interesting in the Chinese also.  

In the December 7, 2023 issue of The New York Review of Books is a review of Ha Jin’s The Woman Back from Moscow: In Pursuit of Beauty.  The reviewer, Perry Link, writes, “The book will be denounced in Beijing.  Ha Jin’s The Woman Back from Moscow is a novel based on the life of Sun Weishi, an adopted daughter of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.”  I doubt I’ll read the novel.  Ha Jin who fled China during the Tiananmen Square era is here engaged in “truth telling.”  “Scandal is popular everywhere, of course, but in Communist China historical truth-telling carries special weight, because it questions the legitimacy of the regime.”  Commendable without doubt, but not something I want to read more of.  

I read quite a lot about China after the Korean war.  I recall reading a biography of Vinegar Joe Stilwell who was the American General whose task it was to support Chiang Kai Shek in the Chinese battles against the Japanese.  Stilwell was disgusted with Chiang who used American support to fight Mao.  Stilwell argued that since Mao and his forces were effectively fighting the Japanese, America’s money would be better spent supporting Mao.  The old-time China-hands in America were very influential and they liked Chiang.  Stilwell called him “Peanut.”  

Given what we now know about Mao and his aftermath, I think Stilwell was wrong in not supporting Chiang more than he did.  But here I confess that I haven’t studied the history of Taiwan since Chiang and his army moved there.  But neither have I read much about South Korean history.  Shih Nai-an, the Chinese author of the Shui Hu Chuan wrote, “A man who lives until he is thirty years of age without marrying should not marry.  A man who has not been governor before the age of forty should not then seek for a governorship.  At fifty years he should not found a home, nor at sixty set out upon travels Why is this said?  Because the time for such things is passed and he will, if he undertake them, have little space left to him in which to enjoy them.”

But I am reading Ha Jin’s biography of Li Bai (Li Po) and do hope I have enough time to enjoy it.  Pearl Buck would no doubt sympathize with my inability to enjoy the English translations of Li Bai’s poetry that I’ve thus far read, but I accept that it is as beautiful as they say in the original Chinese.  I once upon a time acquired some texts that had I applied myself sufficiently would have enable me to learn Chinese, but Li Bai wrote in a script that has been abandoned in China and after a few months of struggling, I abandoned it as well.  

Wednesday, October 18, 2023


  A few years ago, I read most of Harold Bloom’s last book.  In it he wrote of having reached the age of 90.  I checked his dates and learned that he died well before the age of 90.  Perhaps he assumed he would be 90 by the time the book was published.  Perhaps he was counting his age as some in Israel do, counting the birthdate nine months prior to the date he appeared outside of his mother.  He also said that if he didn’t fall again, he ought to make it to – and I can’t recall what his goal was.  I decided to look for my copy of his book to find out, but I haven’t been able to find it.  I’ve done so much reorganization of my books that except for a few subjects, mostly Biblical, everything else is chaos.  

I thought especially of Bloom while doing some yard work a few minutes ago.  Squirrel have dug up my yard in various places and since my gardener mows in such a way as to make the grass that one sees even, it is impossible to see the low spots where the squirrels have dug.  I thought I was thinking clearly enough, but probably not and I stepped in one of those low spots and fell sharply on my tail bone.  I wondered if I had done the dreaded thing and broken my hip, but it didn’t feel like I’d broken anything and I was able to get up, after which I decided to give up the idea of doing yard work and go back into the house.  

Why didn’t I break something as Bloom and Susan did?  My regular workouts with free weights are purported to build bone strength, and perhaps they do.  Sitting here typing as I am, I feel a slight bit of discomfort in the tail-bone area, but nothing alarming.  

I have been reading the Jessica Anderson series of novels by D. L. Keur.  I’m currently reading novel number 6, Troubled Pursuit.  In it, Sheriff Landon Reid, probably the eventual love interest of the protagonist Jessica, but Dawn L. Keur is being coy about getting them that far – novel number six and they aren’t there yet.  She is very patient.   At present, Landon is still recovering from a head injury.  He had hitherto been quick-witted, but for a few months his thinking has been muddled.  I suspect he would have fallen in my backyard as well – well, maybe not.  Perhaps Jessica Anderson would have grabbed his arm before he went down.  I wondered as I put my yard tools away and walked back into the house whether I should perhaps look for my own Jessica, other than the one presently lying on her side a few feet from me on the floor.  We could take turns taking each other to doctors’ appointments.  After thinking that scenario over for a few moments, I think I’d rather get a second dog – a male, because my present Jessica is purported to take a dim view of dogs of the same sex being part of her household.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Duffy's Last Day

He nestled his nose in the 

Crook of my arm, breathing

Out one hot breath after the 

Other, trusting me as he

Always had, his whole life

Long. Then the vet lifted

Him onto the table.  I stood,

Petting him as his heart slowed

While the vet listened.  She

Looked up, nodding.  I looked

Down, not able to look up as

I left.  On hikes when he was 

Out of sight I used to call

“Duffy, I can’t see you.”

He always appeared.  I

Wanted to do that again.

Later on at home, I meant 

to call Jessica, but said “Duffy”

Instead. I corrected myself

But Jessica watched the

Hall a long time, waiting.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Prey II

If on the other hand

He walked with Jessica

Whose teeth and jaws 

Are wolf-like enough

To make the most perverted

Decide not to express his

Nature while she growled,

No shadow would

Crowd this pairing He

Wouldn’t mind her pulling,

And even if he stumbled

She would wait with strong

Shoulders braced while

He used them to stand,

And if some off-leash

Dog were to approach,

Her snarling ferocity

Would abash it,

And one twice its size.

Wherever his progeny

She would always be there.

Prey I

The old man’s attempts

To disguise his hobble

Are of no avail.  He

Eyes with weak eyes

Each shadow and tries

To make his stick

Pound the pavement

With more force than

He any longer has.

A keening sound hounds

Him from time to time.

Is someone out there 

Or is it an aberrant noise

From his hearing aid?

He shines a light

Beyond, fearful he’ll

Trip on a raised piece

Of concrete.  Would

He be able to get back up,

Or would the shadows

Get him before he did? 


Not all at once perhaps

But by fits and starts

Pervading the roadsides,

The dry shrubs and small

Trees, the air is full of it.

Breathing they say

Will kill the old

If they do it too much.

I don’t know how

Much that is,

Nor how to take

It.  Nothing

Is ever

That simple.

I look at all the leaves

Beneath the trees

Fearful they’ll catch.

Behind me my old dog

Coughs.  He has been

Breathing a long 

Long time.

Hot wind

He sucked in the air

Heavy with dread.

Looking out he saw

The flames and a 

Moment more 

The “inland forest”

Burning.  He 

Measured its

Bearing.  With the 

Wind behind, pushing

He needed no urging

And raced through the

Night with the fire

Snarling behnd.

Was this the final

Warning, or

A mere beast one

Sometimes sees

In the smoke

Before an angry

Wind leads it away.