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Monday, November 23, 2015


Earlier today I was reading in a book I've had at least thirty years by 12th century Chinese Poet, Lu Yu. It is mostly his poems with a selection from his Diary of a Trip to Shu, in the book titled, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases. The diary is kept along the ride with his family by commercial sailboat in the Grand Canal that connects Beijing with Nanking, then connects to the Yangtze river for a long ride inland. In the diary, which I'd not read until now, he describes sunrises, mountains, bridges, people, other boats. They stop at inns beside the river for the night. In this reading, I noticed that I am able to visualize the people, their clothes, the boat, the river, the inns, the pagodas, the landscape from years of seeing Chinese films, reading contemporary Chinese fiction and histories of China. There was a time I read a lot of Chinese poetry over several centuries, but I missed all subtleties. All I had to go by was words in translation. Therein lies the beauty of Chinese poetry, that just the words themselves, completely out of context can read as freshly as from inside the culture.

The first time around with Lu Yu, I had not seen the films or read the histories. It was poets like Lu Yu that inspired me to investigate Chinese writing, and through the writing, the culture, how people lived in the old days and how they live now. Reading Lu Yu brought up memory of a movie I almost took out of the drawer to watch before sitting down to write, The King of Masks, one of my favorites.  I've seen it so many times it's memorized, but still love to see the story unfold. A beautiful story and SO Chinese. I feel like I am in China seeing these people all around. I may watch it next time without subtitles to enjoy the music of the language without mental overlay. I saw another Chinese film, Ju Dou, without subtitles the first time. The film had such beauty as I've not seen since with subtitles. The only thing I missed without knowing the words was names and relationships, like uncle or aunt, mother, son, cousin. I found the story was told visually and the talk was an overlay.
Without understanding the language, I get the story, which, in films, is told visually. I will watch The King of Masks again soon without subtitles, and enjoy hearing the Chinese language spoken. I was reading in Lu Yu's Diary on the Trip to Shu and realized I was seeing him, his clothes, family's clothes, the boat, the people working the boat, the river, the landscapes, like I'd not seen in my Chinese readings before I had the help of films to give me visuals from the old ways in China and the new ways. I'd been waiting for China to open up and let us see what is happening there in the visual arts, in writing, film making. The film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, signaled to me there is something going on with Chinese film making worth investigating. I found some treasures. Director Zhang Yimou takes my breath in every film of his I've seen. He is one of many directors in mainland China who make extraordinary films. I find refreshing in mainland Chinese films that guns don't solve problems.
It surprised me to be seeing the scene while reading in Lu Yu's account of having tea with someone he knew, whose tea was not up to standard because of something to do with weather, something in the flavor that is so subtle only someone from China would notice. He is well thought of every stop along the way, known for his poetry. He has conversations about poetry with people in restaurants and inns along the river. I could see the people, like in a movie. I saw the buildings, the rooms, due to familiarity through seeing so many films from China, historical as well as contemporary. I read through several of the poems and noticed they had come to life for me. I could see the visuals. Before, they were words and the images associated with the words. Now I can see the visuals as in a slide-show in my head with a Chinese context I'm somewhat familiar with. I don't pay attention to present politics in China. I don't understand it at all. I prefer the history, before, during and after the Revolution, then after Mao. Writer Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in 2012, and writer Gao Xingjian won the Nobel Prize in 2000.  

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