Ten Thousand Things, By John Spurling: Book Review

Wang Meng_Forest_Grotto_Part2
Forest Grotto, Part 2.  The painting is by Wang Meng.  It was painted in the fourteenth century.

Many hundreds of years ago, Genghis Khan swept across Asia and conquered northern China. He laid the foundation for Mongol rule of the empire. His grandson, Kublai Khan, cemented this victory by crushing Song Dynasty forces in the South and uniting the vast empire. Kublai Khan’s success marked the beginning of almost a hundred years of Mongol domination of China. It is during this period that the events described in John Spurling’s book, “Ten Thousand Things” take place.

Spurling’s book is historical fiction. The narrative follows the life of an artist, Wang Meng, whose work is on display today in museums across the world. By using Wang’s life as a focus, Spurling gives readers insight into the zeitgeist of Mongol China, which is known as the Yuan Dynasty. Art is as much a character in this book as any person. And art, as described by Spurling, is indistinguishable from the philosophical and religious traditions that inspired it in Yuan China. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism–each is discussed as living templates for artists, common folk and rulers.

Wang Meng is one of four artists who came to be known as the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. These artists shared not only a philosophy but also an aesthetic that was manifest particularly in landscape painting.

The life story of each Master is woven into a narrative that follows Wang through his marriage, love affairs, tragedies and, finally, imprisonment. The story also describes the disintegration of Mongol rule in China, as bandit leaders vie for control of the empire. Eventually, one of these bandits, Zhu Yuanzhang, prevails and establishes the Ming Dynasty.

It is difficult to sort the fictional elements of this story from the true record. Skillful blending of story with history is a reflection of Mr. Spurling’s ability as a writer and researcher.

“Ten Thousand Things” is an engaging book and also highly informative. Upon finishing it, I immediately turned to the Internet to learn about the Yuan Dynasty and the Four Masters. After perusing the Internet, I searched the public library catalog for books on Mongol China. I wanted to know more about this distant and exotic time in China’s history. A less well-written book would not have prompted me to do this.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy historic fiction, to lovers of art, and to those who appreciate a well-told story.

 

By A. G. Moore

The Duality Code: Book Review

By
W. K. Choy

yin-and-yang
This image was captured from Google Translate.  The concept is represented in traditional Chinese characters.

 

The title of this book, The Duality Code, will lead some readers to expect a spy mystery. In a way, that expectation is correct. There is a mystery, one that involves an obscure code. And there is intrigue, even murder. The startling aspect of the murders is that these are occasioned by disagreements over language.

W. K. Choy guides us through the sometimes gruesome history of China’s language wars. As he does so, he deciphers the mystery of China’s ancient language. Choy provides detailed analyses of relationships between Chinese written characters and he explains the difference between traditional and simplified Chinese characters.

According to Choy, the Duality Code has its roots in pre-modern China, in a warrior class called the shi. The “code” is secret in the sense that mastery of it, even today, is reserved for the highly educated. It is partly because Chinese characters were historically complex, according to Choy, that the literacy rate in China remained low, until recent times. Attempts toward simplification in the twentieth century included the suggestion that Chinese characters be eliminated altogether in favor of an alphabet-based system. Such a reform, it was believed, would make the language more accessible to ordinary people. However, the reform was never instituted.

Choy writes about how language has been a cultural football in China, and how the rules of this game have been brutal at times. For example, the Emperor Qin Shihuang ordered (in 212 BCE) that four hundred and sixty Confucian scholars be buried alive. He wanted to control scholarship and the use of language in his empire. Mao Tse-tung, centuries later, also wanted to control scholarship and the use of language. In furtherance of that end, Mao boasted, “We are a hundred times worse (than Qin Shihuang)…We have buried forty-six thousand Confucian scholars”.

I learned a great deal about the Chinese language from reading The Duality Code. I know now, for example, that Chinese characters are logographic. Each character represents a concept. This is distinct from alphabet-based languages, in which letters are combined to represent speech sounds. Sounds, in Chinese, are not associated with the characters. Therefore, Chinese characters may also be used by people who speak other languages.

Chinese characters can be combined (described and diagrammed in detail by Choy). Some characters are pictographic–their shape approximately resembles the idea they are intended to convey.

This book has much to offer besides an analysis of Chinese language. There’s history, political theory and philosophy. There’s commentary on the role of language in culture. W. K. Choy has a broad command of a variety of subjects. Readers of this book may not understand everything that is offered, because there is so much here. Choy’s analysis of language morphology is very clear and logical. For those with the ambition and time, it can serve as a veritable course on the Chinese language.

I found a wealth of information in The Duality Code, and not all of it specific to China. The book is unlike any I’ve read. It is challenging and entertaining. It is a cultural history and technical analysis. For Western readers, this will likely be an eye-opener. It was for me.

I highly recommend W. K. Choy’s Duality Code.

A. G. Moore  2/3/2017

The Tightrope of the Absurd: A rational Spirituality for the 21st Century and On being Human

sisyphus-tiziano_-_sisifo
Sisyphus, by Titian, 1548-1549. Copyright Expired

By Sybe Starkenburg

The Tightrope of the Absurd is not light reading. I actually began to write about the book before I had finished reading because I wanted to lodge a disagreement with the author. That’s a good thing. A great book is not one that I agree with. It’s one that makes me think, that expands my universe of observation and consideration. The Tightrope of the Absurd does that.

An example of my philosophical falling out with the author follows: Mr. Starkenburg states that “Good is everything that benefits mankind…” and that “the main value of life is life itself”. I took exception to this proposition because I found the two parts of this statement to be in conflict. It struck me, as I read, that the human race is essentially parasitic on earth, that humans are inimical to earth’s existence. It can be argued that, as humans evolve, we consume and destroy the planet that sustains us. Our predatory relationship with the host planet is so extreme that many scientists believe space travel is an imperative. We look forward to leaving this dying orb and colonizing others, so we can feed off them, and move on again. Just a thought I had. Mr. Starkenburg’s book does that to me–makes me think.

Mr. Starkenburg is a well-read man. He brings together ideas from some of the most profound thinkers through the ages. A few to whom Mr. Starkenburg gives deference, I consider to be lightweights, or even disreputable. One of these is Ayn Rand. Mr. Starkenburg and I can disagree about that. What matters is that I care to disagree, that I’m moved enough by his suggestions to take exception to them.

The essence of Mr. Starkenburg’s argument, as I understand it, is this: The only path to humanness, to being truly human, is through rational, conscious and deliberate thought. Religion, in his view, is not rational but is based on belief and custom. Religion, he suggests, is an obstacle to achieving humanness.

Mr. Starkenburg evaluates the need that religion seems to fill in people’s lives. One need, or hunger, that it satisfies is the search for meaning. Can life have meaning without religion? In response to this question, Mr. Starkenburg cites the philosophies of, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre and Viktor Frankl. Sartre asserts that life has no essential meaning, but is merely improvised. According to him, none of us has a script. We merely respond to circumstances as they arise. Frankl, who survived a Nazi concentration camp, suggests that meaning can be found in life but only if it is lived in a way that is true to each person’s intrinsic nature: Be True to Thyself

Weighing the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Viktor Frankl is an interesting exercise, no matter the outcome. That’s the value I found in The Tightrope of the Absurd. It wasn’t in the strength of Mr. Starkenburg’s arguments, although he solidly supports every position he holds. The value was in the way he built those arguments, the wide array of material he brought into the discussion, and the place he left for me to agree or disagree.

It would be impossible in the space of a short review to do justice to Mr. Starkenburg’s book. To sum up, anemically: Sybe Starkenburg offers a moral and philosophical thesis about how to have a full, thoughtful and positive life. He suggests that empathy is a critical component to this life, empathy not only toward people, but toward other species.

Not everyone will enjoy this book, but readers who are open to new perspectives probably will. And if they are, like most of us, beset at times by a vague uneasiness about existence and religion, this book may suit them. It will not answer every question, but it will address the urge to find answers. It will offer ideas about how to think and where to search for answers to questions that are pushed to the back of the mind. Mr. Starkenburg would surely recommend that these questions be welcomed, because they won’t go away. They’ll lurk in the background and influence every other area of life until they are confronted rationally, consciously, and deliberately.