The Art of Chinese Living

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Of all the words that I know, the one I am drawn to most is jia, which means ‘home’ in Chinese. For me, this word not only embodies the shelter that enables our growth and upbringing, but it also represents the cornerstone of wisdom and culture. When jia is combined with another word, chuan, to create chuan jia, a new notion arises. Chuan jia means the inheritance of tradition – the very significant concept that lies at the heart of these books.

Emperor Kang (1005–978 BCE) often used the phrase ‘lovingly used by sons and grandchildren’ in his writings. He later ordered this inscription to be carved onto bronze ornaments around the kingdom in the hope that future generations would remember and cherish their ancestors’ accomplishments. Although this was thousands of years ago, the concept remains relevant today – we still place great importance on our relationship with our elders, and with our cultural history.

Returning to the concept of chuan jia, the legacy that I decided to leave for my children was this set of books – The Art of Chinese Living: An Inheritance of Tradition. In these volumes, I describe my lived experiences and the discoveries I’ve made when exploring this theme in detail. I also wanted to present them with practical tips drawn from my own experience, to act as ‘roadmaps’ as they navigate modern life. Although I dedicate these books to my children, I’m also delighted to share them with you. My compilation is based on Chinese culture, but I strongly believe that readers of other countries will be able to adapt these lessons to their own cultural viewpoints to create an inheritance that belongs to them. Through this exchange, I hope to establish an understanding that transcends language and culture – one that is rooted in love, legacy, beauty and education.

The impetus for compiling these books was an overwhelming sense of urgency. In the summer of 2006, I flew from Taipei to San Francisco and drove my eldest child, Joyce, to Houston so that she could begin her new life at college. For four days and three nights we were confined to the small interior of our car, but we had an endless store of things to talk about. Joyce talked mostly about her expectations for the future, while I spent my time endlessly reminding her not to forget her roots. I talked at length about her upbringing – the discipline, ethics and humility that she had been taught from a young age. I stressed that we wanted her to get a college education in the United States in order to learn the best of what Western culture has to offer – to let her develop a sense of freedom and confidence – but we didn’t want her to pick up any bad habits!

But throughout the journey, no matter how much I tried, my explanations were never quite clear or complete enough. It left me feeling uneasy. This uneasiness followed me back to Taipei, together with the sense that I needed to do something about it.

Joyce and her two younger brothers studied at Taipei American School, from primary to high school. Throughout their time there, I collected and catalogued lots of teaching materials so that I could strengthen their understanding of traditional Chinese culture alongside the education they were receiving at school. They became my starting point. I decided to unearth those materials and expland them into a set of books that my children would have by their side, wherever they went, to remind them of their roots in my stead.

After returning from that US trip, I worked day and night to organise, write, photograph and edit the material I’d need. I was determined to publish the books in 2010 – the year that Joyce graduated from college, Julian turned 20 and Adrian was preparing to go to college. I was thrilled when I managed to make my deadline, and I felt a great sense of relief and pride when I finally placed a set in each of my children’s suitcases. It was a major milestone for our family. The response I received from general readers after publication was just as rewarding. I discovered that this concept of the inheritance of tradition resonated with many others who had been looking for ways to explore these values with their families.

My appreciation of Chinese culture is the result of my own upbringing. In the mid-20th century, my parents and many other Chinese mainlanders migrated to the Taiwan region. The people who settled there came from different provinces, spoke different dialects and had different lifestyles. Yet they shared common aspects of Chinese culture, especially when it came to food, clothing and theatre. Most of them served in the military or worked in schools or government agencies. Some also opened businesses, such as bookshops, restaurants, stores selling jewellery and fabric, and even noodle stands on the street. Many younger migrants married locals and had children. The arrival of all these traditions enabled my hometown to become a multifaceted and vibrant home for Chinese culture, against the backdrop of stable economic growth.

I was lucky to have been born into a family that adhered strictly to traditional Chinese culture. And growing up in a place as culturally rich and diverse as Taipei, my memories are full of the tastes, sights, aesthetics and philosophies of our rich inheritance. But although my memories are vivid, whenever I encountered historical details or areas beyond my expertise when preparing these books, I relied on the help of experts to ensure accuracy. There were also many new topics for me to learn about, whether it was categories of food, the details of my parents’ stories, or traditional arts and crafts.

To make the books more appealing for younger generations, I decided to take a ‘21st century’ approach by commissioning graphics and setting up photoshoots to aid my explanations. I also enjoyed the process of designing aesthetically appealing charts and gifts for family and friends that connected with traditional customs. My aim was a set of books that would be eye-catching, and with clear themes that readers could relate to.

The last step was to align each of the four books with a season, and to divide the contents of each into five chapters: Festivals and the Traditional Chinese Calendar, Food as a Way of Life, Arts and Crafts, Reflections on Culture, and Notes from Everyday Life.

After 2010, these books found a wider audience. A simplified-Chinese version was published in 2012, and received an enthusiastic response from readers on the Chinese mainland. Many readers reached out to me, echoing the need for the preservation of culture. The books also attracted the attention of overseas Chinese readers in places such as Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States. As a result, I attempted to commission several companies to publish an English version. The process was long and arduous, as language and cultural barriers made the translation very difficult. I also fell ill during this period, and was only able to accomplish a fraction of what I’d hoped to achieve. I realised that a sprinkling of fate was needed to complete the task. I prayed every day that a version in English – and other languages – would be published in my lifetime.

This desire to communicate also increased in urgency as I realised how rapidly our world was changing. While beneficial in some ways, globalisation has led to the disappearance of many precious local traditions. People are increasingly drawn to mainstream popular culture, and are losing their value systems along the way. This can’t be allowed to happen. Once again, then, I was compelled by a sense of urgency to finish my books, but this time with a different, and broader, motive: the preservation of culture and tradition everywhere.

I was born in 1959. To publish these books at this stage in my life, and to have finally completed an English version is something that I am deeply grateful for. In April 2018, I had the good fortune to be introduced by New Star Press to Lucy Vanderbilt of HarperCollins in the UK. At that first meeting I was so anxious to show her every detail of my books that I spoke nonstop! But Lucy was very gracious and listened attentively, with understanding and warmth.

Lucy was raised in Boston and had worked in New York. She later married a Scotsman, moved to the UK, and has travelled between Europe and America ever since. She blends the elegant disposition of her family’s Dutch roots with a British sense of humour, and I could immediately sense the importance of her own cultural background. Lucy grasped my intentions right away, and I knew that she was someone I could entrust my books to.

I also feel honoured to have met the team that has worked on this English edition, and I thank them for standing tirelessly by my side and overcoming countless obstacles to present this set of books to the reader.

Culture and the lessons of life are things to be passed on, and I earnestly appeal to other parents to record their own inheritance, using whatever methods come naturally to them. I hope that by doing so, we can jointly preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and create a sense of belonging for our children and others.