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The Man Who Got It Right

People in the Chinese cultural sphere, and perhaps beyond, did not traditionally share the common Western defiance of mortality. The idea of erecting monumental buildings meant to last forever would have seemed a naive illusion. Everything is destined to perish, so why not build impermanence into our sense of beauty? The Japanese took this aesthetic notion even further than their Chinese masters: the cult of cherry blossoms, for example, fleetingness being the essence of their unique splendor. Chinese capital cities in the past were frequently abandoned, and new ones established elsewhere. What is considered to be historic in China is the site, not the buildings that happen to be there at any given time. Buddhist temples and Taoist halls, built a few years ago in concrete, on the same site where older buildings once stood, are still called “ancient” in the tourist guides.

But if even the strongest works of man cannot in the end withstand the erosion of time, what can? Leys’s answer: “Life-after-life was not to be found in a supernature, nor could it rely upon artefacts: man only survives in man—which means, in practical terms, in the memory of posterity, through the medium of the written word.” As long as the word remains, Chinese civilization will continue. Sometimes memories replace great works of art. Leys mentions the legendary fourth-century calligraphy of a prose poem whose extraordinary beauty was celebrated by generation after generation of Chinese, centuries after the original work was lost. Indeed, it may never even have existed.

With a civilization built on such an adaptable, supple, constantly self-replenishing, and indeed beautiful basis, who needs big city walls? But I would not wish to end my tribute to a writer I much admire on such a note of sacrilege. Better to end with a line from a poem by Victor Ségalen, deploring the barbaric Western habit of building monuments for eternity, which might equally apply to the modern Chinese habit of building dreadful kitsch on the ruins of their past:

You, sons of Han, whose wisdom reaches ten thousand years, no tens of tens of thousands of years, beware of such contempt.
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