“Pray tell me who the Chinese are,
Reveal to me, how memories to embrace;
Pray tell me about this Nation’s grandeur,
Tell me softly, without any fuss.”
THOSE oft-quoted lines from “Prayers”, penned by the late poet Wen I-to in his youth, well voiced the perplexity that seized him as a modern Chinese man. The bewilderment, so intuitively sensed by the artist-poet, was thus laid bare from the depth of his heart: -- bewildered at how his compatriots in modern China, doubly shocked by the unrest and revolutions raging from within the country and by the powerful Western civilisations looming large from without, were feeling themselves torn off the culture wherein they had been born and brought up, and feeling estranged from their own traditions.
Who, then, are the Chinese after all? Does the blood flowing down from their forefathers suffice to make them Chinese, or can they remain Chinese after losing memory of their cultural heritage? Then, can they build up their Chinese identity by raising a big fuss about it, brandishing swords and spears? Or, even if they can, are they then worthy of the name, neither humbly nor haughtily? How are the Chinese to recollect the forgotten culture, to embrace memories of the nation’s bygone greatness and grandeur? How are they to draw upon their glorious past to create a bright future?
We have launched a series of courses in Chinese civilisation. We don’t mean to raise a big fuss; we just want to tell you softly:
That the wealth of China’s heritage does record a splendid past –
Moonlight in the reign of Qin’s monarchs
Shines on mountain passes in ages of Han;
Flying banners amidst the Tang Emperor’s armies
Then lead the mighty horsemen of Genghis Khan;
That, also, this heritage cherishes contemplation of Nature’s beauty –
Green grass sprouts about the pond;
Fish surface to greet the falling drizzle;
A solitary swan soars high in the evening glow
Against a clear sky melting into the waters below;
Down the timeworn road, a frail nag trudges in the chill wind;
In the jolly Southland, almond blossoms bathe in vernal rain.
That the Chinese mind gains deep insights into human affairs and situations, understanding –
The highest good is like that of water;
Out of the depth of woe peeps the tip of weal;
As the Moon is full, then crescent, then dark
So Men rejoice, then grieve, then depart;
He who’s lost a mare sees it may turn out a bliss;
None too late to mend the sheepfold, though lambs are gone.
And that the Chinese heart echoes to delicate sensibilities, appreciating –
Not till death does a silkworm stop lovesickness spinning;
A candle’s tears dry out only when it’s burnt to ashes;
Fallen petals died, yet not dead to feelings;
Turned to soil, they’ll care for blooms of new springs.
How can we embrace such memories, and internalise them into resources and impetus for the creation of a fresh future? It takes efforts of us together to chew them over and digest them, and treasure the nourishment thus absorbed to aid our character-building. As Confucius says, “Better be fond of something than merely knowing it, and even better to find joy in it than merely being fond of it.” Once learning turns into a joy, our cultural tradition will become part of our being, inseparable ever after.
Then we shall have no worry about the validity of that ancient adage in today’s modern world –
“Truth becomes known to us, early or late;
Each excels in his field, career or trade.
And then also, we shall be happy to tell poet Wen I-to now in heaven that we are worthy of our history and civilisation, that we are brave to face the challenges ahead, and that we ARE Chinese – with pride and confidence.
(Translated by Allen Zhuang)