China corresponds to some sort of antipodes of humanity for me. In a way, this must be true, I presume, for more than just me. Chinese culture became strangely vulgar before we could achieve any degree of familiarity with it. It seems omnipresent in cheap Chinese products, some of them culturally marked, but even so, transmitting only the most superficial of all cultural meanings: luck-bringing dragons or rats of the Chinese horoscope. Certainly, we eat Chinese food, occasionally see a Chinese film with some sort of fight going on most of the time, but did we ever read a Chinese book?
I have a vague recollection of having read a Chinese book as a teenager. I think it was a biography of a Zen patriarch, when I was practising Zen myself. I must have been 17 years old or so at the time. Later on, I tried to read a Chinese book when I was interested in eroticism; that was Plum flowers in a golden vase, and I found it singularly anti-arousing (which is only natural, since the book, as I learned later on, was designed as a social satire; the omnipresence of sexual intercourse on every single one among several hundreds of its pages – I could read perhaps the first fifty before it became intolerable – was merely a symbol of generalised chaos that the author pretended to depict and criticise). Finally, the first real Chinese book I read was The Change by Mo Yan, the Nobel Prize winner in 2012. Soon after, I started reading One Man's Bible by Gao Xingjian, yet another Chinese Noble Prize winner. I never finished this book, but progressively I started to notice the gap, the white territory on my world map, the void corresponding to China, that for a long time was for me the most inhuman among human cultures, the most oppressive, also the most aggressive, the most bloody, the most uncivilized among civilizations. I suppose that such a negative stereotype of China is not entirely of my own making.
There is also a linguistic aspect of the problem. Just like a vast majority of people, I don't speak Chinese. But for me it means something that it does not for the majority: it is the only global language I ignore so totally and absolutely. I might not speak Hindi, but at least I have some lights of it, I might be able to read the letters (if I happen to remember); I tried to learn it on several occasions along my life. I must know tens, if not hundreds, of Indian cultural keywords, such as avatar, advaita, artha, purana, puja. Nothing of that is valid for China. When I was in France, I found an abandoned Chinese grammar and a book of exercises in Chinese writing; but I never went as far as the Lesson 1. In contrast, my familiarity with Japanese culture, history, and even language is incomparably greater. Why is Japan so perfectly integrated in my intellectual and spiritual horizon, while China remains so desperately out of it?
I'm seeing one of those martial arts movies that seem to be a frequented gate leading into Chinese culture. The one I had since many years at home, without ever caring to actually see it, is The Hero directed by Zhang Yimou. Nearly all of it is in the visual beauty: large quantities of silk, swords, flying drops of water, also large armies contrasted with the solitary encounters between single couples of warriors, that often happen to be – again, to increase the beauty of the picture – male and female. The story narrated is very simple, or it may be lost in the translation I could access. It is a story of remote beginnings, even before the construction of the Chinese Wall; it is a myth suspended in illo tempore. Only two kinds of art, closely related, seem to occupy the minds: calligraphy and fighting with swords, that seem as ductile as pens. The sequence is not truly that of events, but rather that of colours; love and death fill the background.
But what does this film tell me about China? I suppose it does transmit a narrow selection of central cultural concepts: the search for mastery, the sense of hierarchy and power, a particular relation to time, culminating in condensed, crucial, decisive moments that overweight flat periods of sheer duration. I suppose these key concepts are interrelated; the emperor is worth the life of millions, just as the decisive moments are worth the countless moments contained in unfulfilling duration. There is love in all this, but only as a sort of counter-value, destined to destruction. Just as man is destined to destruction in one of those culminating moments. And a lot of it sounds strangely Japanese. As if some sort of reverse cultural transfer took place.