Sunday, 12 June 2011

"Interesting Times" and "oriental obliquity"

And surely we do! "A gift and a curse"
Some years ago I was considering taking on a short weekly human interest column at the invitation of the local paper, which I was going to call "Interesting Times".  The reference was to the alleged Chinese curse "may you live in interesting times".  Odd sort of curse, that.  Odder still that when I got to China in the seventies, studied Chinese there, I went looking for the original Chinese of that popular "curse", only to be met by puzzled looks from my Chinese interlocutors.

Over the years, I've continued to look for it -- it seems certain that the saying doesn't exist in Chinese.

The idea of the weekly short column, then, was that I would cover things that were interesting in themselves, but maybe didn't really exist. Take the vaunted Chinese "inscrutability", for example.  It doesn't exist -- Chinese are often open and direct, to the point of brutal frankness. As Dr Geremie Barmé  points out in this article from the Financial Times:
.... the widespread western view of an 'oriental obliquity' that thought far into the future and was somehow profound. Whereas in China, you mostly hear that the leadership is short-sighted, radically pragmatic and anything but subtle.
I decided against the column out of laziness.  I couldn't bring myself to commit to a weekly deadline, having just retired to the freedom of doing whatever took one's fancy.

This very article is one of those that would have featured in an "Interesting Times" column:

The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.” 
Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to a question in 1970 about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.
It turns out he was thinking of the 1968 students' riots in Paris, just the year before!  And the interpreters were too polite -- and too politically savvy -- to correct the misunderstanding.
I was half-way through the article when I came across a reference to the above-mentioned Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University.

Geremie and I were at the Peking Languages Institute together in 1976.  He was a brilliant linguist, easily the best in our class.  He used to spend all his spare time -- as when he sat on the bus during our regular jaunts to the country -- practicing his cursive Chinese characters, so that he came to write better than most Chinese. [here he is]

And it brought back to mind the "Interesting Times” concept.  Then I read through to the end of the article....
The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.
Oh dear, scooped again!