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This report is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.

Catchwords (9) Iain Bamforth

Chad Hansen’s book A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation draws out the implications of an entire civilisation being founded on the assumption that culture grows not in the individual mind, with its striving for truth, as in Western metaphysics, but in the communality of language, which itself provides the guiding ethics. Mandarin Chinese makes no distinction between descriptive and prescriptive forms, with the result that translations of Chinese phrases into English sometimes emerge in the declarative mode and sometimes in the imperative.

A language such as Mandarin which is already wholly persuasive as a tool for binding the community doesn’t need the imperative, resentment of which is perhaps even the basic element of our individualistic democratic traditions in which all commands need to be defused through prior negotiation and acceptance.


Mottainai is a Japanese term deriving from Buddhism terminology (‘mottai’ refers to the intrinsic dignity or sacredness of a material entity and ‘nai’ denotes lack) which conveys ‘a sense of regret about waste when the intrinsic value of an object or resource is not properly utilised’. It can be uttered as an exclamation when something useful goes to waste such as food or time. Japan’s agricultural ministry estimates that 23 million tons of food was discarded in the country in 2007 – about ¥11 trillion in monetary terms, the equivalent of Japan’s entire annual agricultural output. It cost an additional ¥2 trillion ($21 billion) to process, render and incinerate that waste.


The late ‘father of the Turkmen’, president Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov, used his dictatorial powers to develop a cult not only around his own person as the ‘sun king’ whose gold-plated figure atop the highest structure in the capital Ashgabat rotates 360° every day so as to reflect the light of the sun on his people, but also around his mother, Gurbansoltan: her name has replaced the Turkic words for ‘April’ and ‘bread’. Source of his inspiration was his own work Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul): knowledge of this compilation of Sufi poems, autobiographic scraps and revisionist history is basic learning material for the national educational system as well as an element in the driving test examination.


Mulutmu adalah harimaumu. ‘Your mouth is your tiger’ – an Indonesian saying. It would have appealed to Jorge Luis Borges, who thought it a pity not to have been born a tiger. It was his emblematic beast. He met a pet one on an estanciero a few months before his death, and was pleased when it laid its paw on his shoulders. Borges was disturbed only by the rank fleshy stench of its breath. ‘I had forgotten that tigers are carnivorous,’ he said.


‘The only writer in the Western world who is essentially Chinese is Kafka,’ asserts Elias Canetti in his study of Franz Kafka’s relationship with his fiancée Felice, Kafka’s Other Trial. In support of his claim, he instances his own conversations, during his long exile in London, with Arthur Waley, who ‘was as familiar with his work as with that of Po Chu-i and the Buddhist novel Monkey, both of which he had translated’. Kafka’s Chinese qualities inhere in the particular ritualism of his stories, particularly ‘The Refusal’ and ‘The Great Wall of China’, and his ‘natural’ Daoism: his feeling for the slight, unobtrusive and unnoticed workings of things. Many other European writers have taken up Chinese themes, but only Kafka grasped the functional reality which Dao describes: ‘the softest thing in the world [i.e. water] overcomes the hardest’.

In fact, ‘Chinese’ traits can be found in many writers of Kafka’s generation. Martin Buber’s selection of some of the first texts from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi had a great impact in the German-speaking world in the years immediately before the First World War, a fad which became a veritable enthusiasm thereafter, as suggested by the essay ‘Hör es Deutschland!’ (1919) by the young poet Klabund, in which he counselled his countrymen to live according to the ‘holy spirit of the Tao’. (That was two years after he had treasonably suggested in a Swiss newspaper that the Kaiser abdicate.) Richard Wilhelm, who was responsible for popularising the Daodejing in the 1920s, thought much of the philosophy from the East owed its popularity to a fundamental misunderstanding – ironically, at that time ‘total Westernisation’ was being advocated in China. Hesse, Döblin and Bertolt Brecht all wrote works inspired by their encounters with the Chinese classics, the latter recalling in exile in Denmark a philosophy of survival for difficult times in one of his greatest ballads ‘Legend About the Origin of the Book “Taoteking” during Laotse’s Way into Emigration’ (1938).

An even more influential German writer had his Chinese moments in the Weimar period: some of Heidegger’s concepts suggest a more than a glancing acquaintance with the Daodejing (analysed in depth by Reinhard May in Ex oriente lux, Heideggers Werk unter ostasiatischem Einfluss (1989)). Kurt Jaspers and Ernst Bloch also devoted time to unpicking Daoist notions. Most notably of all, by following a plainly Western mode of investigation in his Tractatus, Wittgenstein ended up approaching a philosophical silence that is all too Zen (Zen is an offshoot of Daoism). Witness his remark about the Tractatus in a letter of 1919 to Ludwig Ficker, influential editor of the periodical Der Brenner, in which he says: ‘My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one.’ The source of the ethical notions which many were ‘babbling about’ had been defined in his book by his remaining silent about it. It would not be long before Wittgenstein was accused of heavy- handed irony or what has been called ‘per-formative contradiction’.

‘China is teeming with people, but nobody vexes anyone; the Chinese are versed in everything social as the most important thing in existence,’ imagined Robert Walser, the German-language writer who at times was quite as inscrutable and withdrawn as his admirer, Franz Kafka. China was his Schlarrafenland: he imagined it ‘to be a country of love and peace, where the laws are as soft as the breeze that wafts across regions where gracious behaviour is everything’. His little dream appeared in the journal Schweitzerland, in 1920.


Erarityarityake is an archaic expression from the Arunta language, one of the most spoken of the two hundred Aboriginal languages of Australia: it means ‘full of desire for something which has been lost’.

Elias Canetti mentions it in his collection of aphorisms and sayings The Human Province. Writers ever since Mary Shelley like to dwell on the pathos of the last man – of describing the situation of a person who is the last to speak his language, as in the poem by John Burnside The Last Man to Speak Ubykh, where Ubykh could have been replaced by Livonian (eastern Baltic), Yahgan (Navarino Island), Wintu-Nomlaki (western Sacramento Valley) or Kaixna (Brazil). UNESCO asserts that 2500 languages are ‘under threat’ across the world. (In his epigraph to the poem, published in The London Review of Books, Burnside provided the name of the linguist Ole Stig Andersen who in 1992 sought out the last speaker of Ubykh, a West Caucasian language, but omitted the name of the man himself; and a reader duly wrote in to supply it – Tevfik Esenç.)

Nothing he said was remembered; nothing he did
was fact or legend
in the village square,

yet later they would memorise the word
he spoke that morning, just before he died:
the word for death, perhaps, or meadow grass,

or swimming to the surface of his mind,
that other word they used, when he was young,

for all they knew that nobody remembered.

But these lines could stand equally well as the elegy for a life lived; and the brutal truth is that Ubykh had ceased to be a language long before the last man was left mumbling it to himself in the village square. Languages actually pass away as tools of communication when the penultimate speaker dies and bids farewell to the ultimate, on the model of Brecht’s anti-individualist quip that the basic unit of society is not one but two; and in any case, a language is moribund well before its speakers have been reduced to two. But in what sense can a language actually ‘die’? What does it mean to say a language is ‘ailing’? And can languages be ‘endangered’ in the same way as species? Jewish scholars would never have thought of describing Hebrew in such terms: for them it was ‘the holy tongue’ and therefore incorruptible.

The poem is an expressive distortion of the communal reality of language matters, which Bernard Williams addressed very pithily, in his expansion of Socrates’ famous question: ‘“How should one live?” The generality of one already stakes a claim.’


Reports from Jesuits filtering back to Europe convinced Leibniz, despite the little information he had, that the notational development of Mandarin as an ideographic symbol system rather than a phonetic script had been crucial for the development of the central administrative command system of Chinese civilisation. Ideograms did not give prominence to any spoken dialect and therefore prevented any one ethnic group from dominating the kingdom. Leibniz’s logico-mathematical Characteristica Universalis was one response to this dilemma. He recognised, even in the seventeenth century, that this lack of a common script was one of the main obstacles to the further development of Europe as a true République des Lettres.


What is a gonomony? You can find out in the book Ounce, Dice, Trice, a marvel of invention and wit written for children and word-adorers by Alasdair Reid, the Scottish writer who was one of the earliest translators of Borges, worked as an editor for the New Yorker and settled in the Dominican Republic; it is illustrated by the painter Ben Shahn. ‘A gonomony is any strange object that is difficult to name, that is curiously unlike anything else, and that serves no useful purpose. Gonomonies abound in the houses of glots.’ Words, he instructs his junior readers, have a sound and a shape, in addition to their meanings. ‘Sometimes the sound is the meaning.’


Like Jesus, Confucius had little time for those who vaunted their superior moral status. He despised the ‘village worthy’ (xianggyüan) who had no feeling for the Way but who adopted Confucianist manners in order to gain social approval. The Master said: ‘Those who make virtue their profession are the ruin of virtue.’ The Confucian idea of the ‘thief of virtue’ finds a ready parallel in what contemporary virtue ethicists call ‘counterfeiting the virtues’. A new emphasis is laid on sincerity of feeling, and avoiding hypocrisy. Again like Jesus and the religion founded on his name as the Messiah, it is difficult not to feel that the formal structure erected around Confucius is irreconcilably at odds with what we know of his actual person.

Simon Leys, the great contemporary authority on Chinese culture, comments in his translation of the Analects (1997) that it was only at the end of his life, when Confucius realised that he was not going to be accorded political recognition based on his merit (and to achieve fame was a moral imperative in a culture where the only kind of immortality was historical) ‘that he began to contemplate the mystery of failure and the possibility – as it must have then appeared to him – that virtue may ultimately meet with the absurd scandal of its own defeat’.

This report is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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