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.  

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