Saturday, August 03, 2013

Write like a Tiger

I read Crisis and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century China mostly because I was interested in the world of Chinese author Li Yu. The historians Chun-shu Chang and Shelley Hsueh-lun Chang use the life of Li Yu as a lens to see the dynamism of the Ming-Qing period. They also show the reverse, how the social and cultural upheavals of the period shaped the course of this innovative playwright, author, intellectual and publisher. They argue:
His first intellectual and professional pursuit, before the demise of the Ming, was his preparation for a career as a scholar-official. After the Manchu conquest, Li Yu became a professional writer, but he was never interested in the study of Neo-Confucian philosophy. Thus, the priority Li Yu placed on his intellectual and professional pursuits coincided with the intellectual and professional trends of his native region. Here again Li Yu becomes a microcosm of the Lan-chi-Chin-hua cultural and intellectual traditions.

The theory under which the book's authors operate is explained in the next paragraph:
Culture shapes a person's personality and character because it provides ready-made and pretested solutions to many of life's important problems. Culture is a set of devices for meeting individual needs. In time, culture also becomes a way of life for a person. If that person is an intellectual, the local cultural and intellectual heritage as well as the prevailing trends play an even more significant role in the formation and growth of the intellectual's temperament and orientation. The case of Li Yu provides a telling illustration of such a process.

I am particularly interested in Li Yu's literary thought. The authors delineate four major principles that run through Li Yu's writings on literature. First, he believed in the primacy of originality, spontaneity and individuality, and decried imitation, plagiarism and conventionalism. Second, he repudiated the idea of orthodoxy in literature by arguing that each period of literature had its own prevailing style, so no one genre was necessarily better than another. Third, he promoted the use of easy and simple language that could be easily understood by the common reader or by the audience of a play. The fourth principle was that of realism, the demand that writers should write about what they had seen and heard around them.

The authors quote a wonderful passage from his preface to his collection of works Sayings of One School:
[I am] not imitating the ancients, not conforming to the generation of the present sage, nor expecting to be followed by future generations. I form my own style of writing, and I write only what I want to write--just like the seasonal insects and night watchdogs which sing or bark according to their natural instincts, with no intention of imitating anyone or expecting to gain anything for their singing and barking. . . . Imitation demands workmanship; expectation of success leads to all sorts of artificial designs for covering up shortcomings. I am afraid that if one places too much attention on skill and too little on character, then one shall lose his individuality (weiwo). Insects sing when they feel the approach of autumn and dogs bark when they are alarmed. At those critical moments they sing or bark instantly without paying attention to the tunes, for if they were required to choose a certain tune, they might as well not sing or bark at all.

In his lyric "Shih erh-pei (Instruction for My Children)," he condenses his wisdom about the art of writing.

When you start to write in your youthful earnestness,
     Do not feel intimidated [by anyone and any thing].
Model yourselves after [the fighting spirit of] the tiger,
     Even though you have a [mild] disposition like cattle and sheep.

Shun bashfulness, sons and daughters,
     For a frightened or hesitant shyness will only cloud
the clarity of your mind, hinder the flow of your ideas
     and make a mouse of yourself no matter how hard you try.

Do not say that you dare not use the axe
     before Lu Pan [the patron saint of carpentry]
If you want to test your drum, you should try to beat it
     in front of the very best at the Gate Lei.

A little shaman who aspires to learn from a great shaman
     should be able to endure hardship,
have the courage to dance before gods, and be able to accept
     ridicule and criticism in order to make great strides.

3 comments:

S.W.N.T said...

Thanks for this Yew Leong! Found it really inspirational.

S.W.N.T said...

*Jee

you must excuse me it is 3:47am and i am jetlagged and seeing ripples in the air that is not my keyboard.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Jetlag is confusing!