Sunday, November 24, 2013

Frank Ching's "Ancestors"

It is a curious thing to me that I am non-curious about my ancestors. I read to discover literary ancestors--predecessors and mentors--who can give me help. I cannot imagine spending years of my life, as Frank Ching did, researching actual ancestors, as if they have anything to do with me but for the accident of blood. Would I feel different if I discover how illustrious my ancestors are, like Ching's list of top court officials, brilliant scholars, famous poets, noted failures, and even a notorious traitor?

Though illustrious, their lives in dynastic China followed the same basic pattern, which makes for dull reading. These men (for only scholar-class men had their lives recorded in government, city or clan histories) studied throughout their teens and twenties, and sometimes thirties and forties, for the civil-service examinations. When they passed them, they were posted to various government positions throughout the empire to carry out their various duties and effect their various reforms. The pattern was so unremittingly set that when one ancestor spurned the examinations in favor of a life of poetic solitude, he became a hero in this reader's eyes.

The founder of the clan was a poet. Qin Guan was one of the famous four disciples of the Sung Dynasty poet Su Dongbo. The story of how they met is charming. Hearing that the master poet was passing through Yangzhou, Qin Guan was sure that he would travel to Daming Monastery and visit Pingshan Hall, erected by Su's late mentor. To arouse Su's curiosity, Qin Guan wrote a poem in Su's style on a wall of Pingshan Hall. The famous poet recognized the homage and subsequently asked to meet the writer. The rest, as they say, is history. I wish there were more stories like this one in Ching's book, stories that reveal a cunning mind and a spirit of self-promotion. Instead, the ancestors are dug up from the graves of history and embalmed again in reverence.

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