Tuesday, August 15, 2023


One of the characters in written Chinese which has always had a more than usual appeal to me is the word for a candle or oil lamp. It shows up in a number of poems and essays, and has through my reading acquired a connotation of late nights bent over books, as well as the companionship of someone similarly engaged. In Chinese culture that almost always means long hours, years even, of preparing for the exams which opened the door to future success and a respectable position in the administration of the realm, as well as possibly estimation in the eyes of one's fellow citizens as a man of letters and cultural pursuits. Or, in the case of a few eccentrics, gracefully retirement from public life after a few years of doing one's duty, living in a rustic cottage just beyond the urban hurly burly, and firmly shutting the gate.


For many families, a succesful degree holder was the car key for the ride out of poverty and a brutal existence. The hopes of everyone rested on the shoulders of the scholar. Passing the exams was fulfilment of filial piety, all the requirements of propriety, personal responsibilities, and the duties of a civilized man.

Of course the first task upon appointment to office as a licentiate was to make sure that others in the family acquired the education necessary. One man alone cannot drag the clan out of the mud.

The second task was to keep one's nose clean. A scholar's disgrace could wreck the family's present, and their future.

Chinese history is littered with the splendid achievements of scholars who at some point failed in their ascent, and became artists, hermits, recluses, and great poets and men of literature. Sometimes it was even imperial policy to sidetrack scholarly families with certain tendencies, by gainful employment suitable for their kind, in order that they not be able to upset the applecart. Or become dangerous dissidents and free-thinkers instituting "undesirable" reforms in government departments.

That, basically, describes the scholarly milieu of Central China during most of the Manchu dynasty. Libraries, book depositories, literati painters, and philologists.
Harmless, but glorious.

In part because of their efforts I can break apart the seal-script character I drew as being composed of a meaning indicator (火 'fo') on one side with a phonetic element on the other, which itself is compounded of a creepy crawly thingy inside a cocoon with eyes (蜀 'suk), primitively a silkworm, but also later (but still since millenia) the one syllable referent to Sichuan (anciently known for bronze, jade, and silk).

I wish to mention that the Chinese term for 'computer' could be interpreted as "sparky brain". Which is precisely how this entire essay and the illustration came about: sparky brain.
Caused by caffeine since lunch.

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