Back to the Notebook

Meanwhile, back at the big blue notebook… I made the mistake of dusting my “coffee” table yesterday and opening the notebook. Damn. I found more pages that made sense so I decided when I have nothing of any particular import happening in my small life, I’ll continue to share the continuing saga of Pearl Buck and the Chinese Literary Tradition. Who knows? You might find yourself on Jeopardy sometime and end up winning thousands of dollars from something you happen to remember at random from this VERY blog post!!!

China’s Twentieth Century Literary Revolution

During most of her adult years in China, Pearl Buck lived in Nanjing, the capital of Nationalist China. From time to time it was also home to many of the early great writers of modern China — Chinese writers of Pearl Buck’s generation, some of whom were her friends. These writers were engaged in a revolution as earth-shaking as the concurrent political revolution. Led by Hu Shih (historian and literary critic, one-time ambassador of the Republic of china to the United States) Chinese writers were changing the premises of Chinese literature. Fiction, as short stories, novels and theater, became important tools in the social and political revolution.

Hu Shih happened to love fiction:

When I was nine [years old], one day I was playing in the small east wing of Fourth Uncle’s house… I spotted a tattered book among the trash in a…kerosene crate. By chance I picked up this book, both ends of which had been badly chewed by rates, the cover in tatters. But this damaged book suddenly exposed a new world fo my youthful life! This damaged book had been one. volume of a small-print woodblock edition of ‘The Fifth Master’ [Shui Hu Chuan] and I remember very clearly that it began with the line, ‘Li Kuei beats Yin T’ien-hsi to death.’ I recognized Li Kuei as a character in the popular theater. Standing beside that broken crate I at once devoured that tattered volume of Shui Hu Chuan in its entirety. It would have been all right if I had not read it. Upon finishing that fragment, I felt very frustrated. I just had to read the rest of it… (Hu Shih)

Perhaps the most significant thing about Chinese fiction (in contrast to what was officially considered literature, that is, the ancient Confucian Classics) is that after the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) it was written in Pai-Hua, the colloquial language of the people. “True literature” was written in Wen-yi, an archaic language used colloquially several centuries earlier during the Warring States Period. A rough parallel would be if all literature in English were written in Old English (the language of Beowulf) while newspapers, novels and street signs were written in modern English.

Beowulf (Old English version)

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum, 
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, 
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. 
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, 
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, 
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð 
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, 
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, 
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra 
ofer hronrade hyran scolde, 
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning. 

Hu Shih saw that language is the primary tool of literature and saw that the tool itself must express the times. He contended that Wen-yi, a half-dead language, had “usurped the place of the living literature.”

Words are not new or old, but they may be dead or alive. Where the ancients used “yu” (wish, want) the moderns use “yao.” The ancient men rode in carriages; the modern men ride in sedan chairs; the ancient men wore turbans tied with a sash; the modern men simply wear hats; these simply did not exist in the past, but are later creations. If a hat must be called a turban, or a sedan chair must be called a carriage, won’t everyone become confused and mistake a tiger for a panther? 

(Hu Shih)

It may only seem reasonable to “call a spade a shovel,” but what Hu Shih was advocating would eliminate a whole social and political class in China; the scholar elite. Along with it the civil service exams, Confucian education, language and literature. This was the first step toward universal literacy in China. 

9 thoughts on “Back to the Notebook

    • for me, this is the most interesting part of this whole project, how China gave nearly universal literacy to a population that was maybe 10% literate in such a short time. It all started with the idea of linguistic relevance.

  1. This is fascinating to read. Though, my understanding of Old English is quite deficit. It was a surprise to see how little of “English” there is in Old English. It read more like German if anything.

    I can vaguely recall reading Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth in high school. At the time, I was strictly a light-fiction reader. I confess, mostly I read unredeemable dreck. It was one of the first stories with a darker theme I was exposed to, and a much sadder story line than I was familiar with. (From the perspective of a teenager who devoured Barbara Cartland novels by the armful, Pearl S. Buck was tragedy in prose form.) I should probably reread it to get the nuances I no doubt missed when first introduced to The Good Earth.

    And that’s what I love about reading your personal history and experience, it is so far removed from my own that you are the exotic flower in my otherwise dull garden!

    • Oh Kiri! Old English is a foreign language, much closer to German than the English we speak. I heartily recommend Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. It’s so engrossing and readable that I fucked up a job interview for a job I really WANTED because I bought that damned book in an airport on my way to the interview and couldn’t put it down.

      Your comment makes me happy — all our lives are a lot cooler than we think, though. We just live them and then someone tells us, “Wow! You DID that?” I could say that to you!!! ❤

      • Oh good, I thought I was the only person with a reading addiction so severe that I nearly walked into traffic while crossing a street while reading a book.the things we will do for a good book!

        • No… I used to read while walking home from work back in the day. Hemingway’s biography was the best since it allowed for me to look out for cars from time to time. 😀

  2. If I’m ever booked for a Jeopardy gig, I will, indeed, come back to these posts and study them deeply…a total peruse. If not, I’ll remember enjoying them immensely.

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