A Guide to Reading Pu Songling

Pu Songling

In vernacular Chinese, the Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢) by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is regarded as the supreme novel. In classical Chinese, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Pu Songling (蒲松齡) has the equivalent status. Mao Zedong claimed to have read the Red Chamber five times. I say you need to read Strange Tales two times.

Read it in English the first time. I discover Pu Songling through Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. Experience how Kafka and Borges read Pu, and recognize their voice and practices in Pu’s work. The three together grasp the absurdity and weirdness of the civilized world and human conditions.

Read it in classical Chinese the second time. Appreciate Pu’s humour, playing and twisting with the classical text that he was obliged to memorize and digest as a member of the Chinese literati. This is at heart a revolutionary work.

The works of Pu, Kafka and Borges are dark and understated. Some advice from 19th century commentator Feng Zhenluan (馮鎮巒) on how to read Strange Tales would apply to all three authors: Read these tales properly, and they will make you strong and brave; read them in the wrong way, and they will possess you.

From Tolstoy, Kafka, to Taleb

Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we are always in a state of ignorance. The moment we decided to escape, we sank into the faint light of fake knowledge. The good news is that, from Leo Tolstoy, Franz Kafka, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, we are slowly finding our way back.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy expressed frustration at mankind’s inability to know all connections and causality. Like mathematical integration, he thought we could arrive at the laws of history by summing up the infinitesimal contributions of all individuals. Isaiah Berlin criticized him as a fox, who knows many things, wanting to be a hedgehog, who knows one big thing. Kafka’s more superior The Castle is a quiet acceptance of the puzzles and perplexities of life. He told us to fully immerse ourselves in our suffering. Our contemporary Taleb takes one step further. How do we thrive in ignorance and uncertainty, and comprehend what is deliberately beyond our comprehension? He calls it the philosophy of antifragility.

My Notes from the Underground

Come, gentle night
I run away from the Crystal Palace,
and aspire to be a sick man, a spiteful man, an unattractive man.
Greedily storing up impressions,
one day I, too, will emerge from the underground,
and master the path to chaos.

underground

A Historical Theory of Tea and Opium

The mysterious way in which seemingly disparate historical events are connected with each other fills me with awe. The human intellect simply cannot grasp the infinite permutations and the sheer complexity of the laws of history. In 1773, the Boston Tea Party threw 342 chests of Chinese tea into the Boston Harbor, leading to the independence of America. In 1839, Qing dynasty official Lin Zexu dumped 20,000 chests of British opium into the Canton Harbor, marking the onset of China’s century of humiliation. The two events are separated by over 60 years and happened on opposite sides of the world, but both can be traced to the seizing of Bengal by the British East India Company in 1757.

A series of mismanagement by the British led to the Great Bengal Famine of 1770 which killed up to 10 million Indians (one of the many holocausts in India which the UK remains silent to this date). The destruction of food crops by the East India Company to make way for opium cultivation reduced food availability and contributed significantly to the famine. The company suffered financially as a result of the famine, and influenced Parliament to pass the 1773 Tea Act to allow direct shipment of tea to the American colonies. The undercutting by the East India Company infuriated American colonists who were tea smugglers, many of whom went on to become founding fathers of the United States of America.

In fact, all the East India Company tea which the Boston Tea Party dumped in 1773 were produced in China. Year after year, the East India Company bought large quantities of tea from China, draining silver out of England. The British were desperate to search for a counterpart commodity to trade for tea. They found it in opium, which they planted in large quantities thanks to the taking of Bengal. By 1839, the drug trade became such a serious social problem in China that the Daoguang Emperor sent viceroy Lin Zexu to confiscate all the British opium.

This is how the throwing of tea in 1773 and the dumping of opium in 1839 into the sea were connected with each other.

On the Spread of Untruth

In Richard Dawkins’ conception, human being is the medium through which information and ideas, or memes, spread. However, we constitute a poor medium which favors the spread of untruth rather than truth. As pointed out by Curtis Yarvin, human beings find nonsense as a more effective organizing tool than truth. To believe in truth is easy, but to believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. History is full of examples of this phenomenon in action: all organized religions (such as Christianity), Soviet Union, China’s Cultural Revolution, and today’s mainstream media and academia (what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called the Intellectual Yet Idiots).

We can also reinterpret the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. For kids, the moral is honesty and courage in speaking the truth. For adults, it is that the best proof of a cadre’s loyalty is her dedication to the absurdity and stupidity of the leader.

An Anthology on Juxtaposition

  1. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. — Zhuangzi (莊子)
  2. Did he appear, because I fell asleep thinking of him? If only I’d known I was dreaming I’d never have wakened. — Ono no Komachi (小野小町)
  3. When you watch the scenery from the bridge, the sightseer watches you from the balcony. The bright moon adorns your window, while you adorn another’s dream. — Bian Zhilin (卞之琳)
  4. God moves the player, and he, the piece. Which god behind God begets the plot of dust and time and dream and agonies? — Jorge Louis Borges
  5. The original is unfaithful to the translation. — Jorge Louis Borges
  6. God is a product of the human imagination, but human imagination in turn is the product of biochemical algorithms. — Yuval Noah Harari

Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow

I like people who are clever and arrogant. I like it best when Nassim Nicholas Taleb displays a dose of Nietzschean arrogance.

Taleb on why today’s readers can be ignored, in Incerto:

As an essayist, I am not judged by other writers, book editors, and book reviewers, but by readers. Readers? maybe, but wait a minute… not today’s readers. Only those of tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. So, my only real judge being time, hence future readers.

Nietzsche on extraordinary philosophers, in Beyond Good and Evil:

Because the philosopher is necessarily a man of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, he has always been and has had to be in conflict with his Today: in every instance, Today’s ideal was his enemy.