The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death. So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I must think well of my death.
– the Zhuangzi, Ch. 6, transl. Burton Watson*
On Beauty, Tragedy, and Inspired Irresponsibility
Zhuangzi, Daoism’s second sage, dreams he’s a butterfly. Or is the butterfly dreaming it’s Zhuangzi? Zhuangzi isn’t sure.
One of the beauties of teaching Chinese history, for me, is that I make my living doing something I passionately love to do. Not only would I do this job for free — I would even pay to do it.**
But this beauty has a tragic side too: the demands of the teaching profession allows precious little extra time to write regularly about the daily riches of the mind flowing through the hours in the classroom. My beloved John Keats, that sublime, gorgeous, tragic English Romantic poet who died so young — only 24! – expresses this tragedy well in his sonnet, “When I Have Fears” [emphasis added]:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
That “teeming brain” is the real pay of teaching Chinese history and thought. That “fear” of “ceas[ing] to be” before being able to write out the thoughts flowing from the daily work is the tragedy.
So, stack of papers to mark and lesson-planning template currently demanding my time? For the moment, be damned. Because I have just fallen in love with the mind of a man named Chad Hansen, after reading the first five pages of his ground-breaking 1992 study, A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Continue reading →
I asked for voice in the “Was Mao Really a Monster?” editorial assignment, and boy did I get it in this student’s opening:
The cool waves splashed against his chest, his glimmering green teeth glistened in the beautiful sun, his body moved majestically in the cool waters. This is not the image of a great brute, but of an excellent ruler. After seeing Mao’s adorable face, there is no way you can classify him as a monster.
I’m not making fun of the writer, by the way–the kid’s bright, and the sentences above, though obviously written in what David Sedaris might call a “kicky” (and academically heretical) mood, are pretty elegant for teen prose. (A webcam reflection he did this week made me recommend, in all sincerity, that he consider aiming to become the next-generation Pee Wee Herman.) And since he couldn’t resist going for the laugh–and succeeding in giving it to me, out loud, just now–I pass it on for your enjoyment.
(More on Mao’s historic swim below:)
And speaking of Pee Wee, here’s a blast from his amazing 1980s wonderland. It’s one of few children’s shows I watched religiously as an adult:
In which this teacher sacrifices himself as “Sacrificial Poet” to warm up and launch the First Annual IASAS Forensics and Debate Poetry Slam. SAS, March 2012. (The “Sacrificial Poet,” I was told, is the teacher who is willing to submit himself to audience’s and judges’ knives before the students take the stage.)
You’ll note I stress “at 3.45″ to justify any lameness in the poem. I did write it in the two hours preceding the performance. Later, the Chinese History teacher-lover in me reflected that this comfort with writing-on-demand is very close to China’s traditional attitude toward poetry. Any educated Chinese wrote poetry, I gather, as frequently and nonchalantly as we tweet or post on Facebook today. One Song Dynasty poet produced over 10,000 poems, while the Qing emperor Qianlong has, I believe, several hundred poems, if not thousands, to his credit. (All Chinese emperors and politicians wrote poetry. You weren’t educated if you didn’t, and nor were you civilized.) That’s so worth thinking about.
Anyway, sharpen your knives and watch the performance below. Warts and all, I enjoyed the slam. I got to deliver a message I’ve wanted to send students for ages.
Jokes that educated people can make, and that uneducated people won’t get:
It’s interesting to compare this Indian-American guy’s perspective with that of Anglo-American Louie CK — a clearly smart (and NSFW) guy who somehow seemed not to learn about world history in his American education. Watch, and notice how narrow his definition of “the world” is when he imagines time-traveling as a white man:
If he’d gotten out of his time capsule anywhere but Europe (or America), odds are he would have been not deferred to, but laughed at. One reason the Portuguese and Spanish were so violent to other cultures during the Age of Exploration was that the people they encountered found them strikingly unimpressive. Da Gama and others complained in their reports that the goods they brought to impress foreign kings were laughed at for their low quality, as were the religious ideas with which they offered to “save” or otherwise improve their hosts. Indians, Muslims, and Chinese had advanced economies, smooth and respectful international trade relations, reasonably tolerant religious relations, and highly literate cultures. For most of their history, “white men” didn’t.
It’s funny how a guy as smart as Louis CK can’t know that the world laughed at white people until only a few centuries ago, when the industrialization of weapons made that laughter less easy to risk. His view of the world only seems to include Americans — black and white ones — and vague Romans who gave America Jesus.
Again, I love Louis CK’s work and imagination. He’s intelligent as all hell. And that’s sort of the point: intelligent people can still be stunted through a poor or provincial education system.
Imagine how much richer Louis CK’s work would be if he’d been taught about the rest of the planet.