The Art of Chinese Living

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She who holds my hand

Kris Yao 姚仁喜

August 2020

For many years, my wife Xiang has been troubled by the fact that the exquisite art of Chinese living has been widely mistaken by many foreigners as no more than what one sees in Chinatowns around the world – exotic, colourful and lively, perhaps, but also vulgar, cheap and chaotic. It seems that an elegant Chinese culture exists only in the past and in museums, and not in everyday lives of people today. Xiang is not a cultural scholar, but she has taken up the task of rectifying this misconception as her personal mission. From my own training in arts and aesthetics, I cannot bear the gaudiness of what is on show, but the difference between us is that Xiang turned her disappointment into a strong motivation; deep in her heart, there was a weighty and imminent sense of a quest brewing.

Xiang has always been an absolute genius at creating a wonderful atmosphere, and she is even better at shaping a sense of family unity, designing many programmes and activities when we all get together. We all like making things with our hands, so when our children were young, on weekends or holidays each of us would be busy creating our own ‘things’, whether it was painting, handicrafts, calligraphy or design. One of the main reasons for this was that Xiang always prepared the proper settings and made materials available for everyone in advance, so we could turn our hands effortlessly to our chosen activities. During traditional holidays, she would also arrange three-generation family parties, celebrating the value of the core family, and ensuring cohesion, interaction and joy for all its members.

Since our marriage, 36 years ago, making gifts for every festival has been a big deal for Xiang. Every year, she will devote her energies to designing gifts for Chinese New Year, the Lantern Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival, and even making Christmas cards. Festival after festival, she never misses one. Then, in between these festivals, she makes her own jewellery, ceramics, party decorations and all kinds of knick-knacks (some of which can be quite sizeable). She also makes many other gifts, too – for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, baby showers, and parties for relatives and friends. She is happy diving into making anything as long as it will satisfy others.

Handicrafts are Xiang’s favourite activity of all. If it was possible to see into her mind, you would witness ideas for handicrafts forming, one after another. Xiang is not one of those women who yearn for brand-name fashions or exclusive jewellery (perhaps she knows that I can’t afford them anyway). I remember one year, when her birthday was approaching, she asked me for a punch lathe as a gift. And if I asked her what kind of car she would like, her answer would be, ‘a truck’. Her workshop is an absolute wonder. To describe it as a ‘basement factory’ is not an overstatement. There, apart from all kinds of raw materials, alongside both finished and half-finished items, new materials are constantly appearing, not to mention photographic equipment, a welder, a stamping machine, a laser cutter...and the list goes on. As this set of books evolved, this basement factory also slowly but surely expanded to fill our whole house. Furthermore, when she decided to write about eggs, she went ahead with a plan to raise hens in our backyard, complete with a companion rooster that woke me up every morning at 4:30 am for my meditation session. When she wanted to write about mushrooms, various types of tree trunks appeared in our garden, each growing different kinds of fungi. When writing about vegetables, the serene patio outside my meditation room was suddenly alive with all kinds of green plants. When writing about fermented tofu, Xiang began grinding soybeans and cultivating bacteria. I do worry that when she decides to write about milk, I might one day come home to find a cow in our yard.

I’m an architect, and although I’m not a so-called minimalist, I adhere to the principle of ‘Less is more’. Xiang, on the other hand, is an ‘abundantist’. She will present everything, no matter what it is, in the fullest possible way. For instance, in flower arrangements, I prefer a simple bouquet of flowers in one colour; Xiang, however, will decorate our little living room with an ever-growing centrepiece that eventually resembles something that you’d find in a hotel lobby. We both enjoy cooking; we even fight over who gets to be the chef when we invite friends for meals. When Xiang gets to cook, though, she will prepare at least three times as many dishes as I would. After many years, I finally came to understand that, behind her unwavering pursuit of abundance, is in fact a big and generous heart – from which come strong, heartfelt wishes for everything to be perfect and nothing left lacking.

My father-in-law, Ren Xianqun – whom I respected very much but never had the opportunity to meet – spent time in prison due to a well-known miscarriage of justice. During that time, he compiled a Chinese dictionary, and in his dictionary, the word ‘difficulty’ was deliberately omitted. Xiang inherited this unique character trait from her father, and has manifested it throughout the making of this book. For instance, when she introduces rice, flour, vegetables and meat, she writes all-encompassingly, covering every kind of ingredient, every cooking method and all kinds of other variations. As long as the subject is within her grasp, she includes it. In these books, you will find all kinds of ice desserts, preserved fruits, noodles, publications, idioms, details of etiquette, herbal medicines and more. If there had been no limits on the number of pages available, it would have become a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese living – all presented with love and care, and in a spirit of ‘no difficulty’.

An older family friend once praised Xiang, saying that she embodies ‘the original quality of the old East’. Having the financial and economic maestro Ren Xianqun as her father, and the Peking opera star Gu Zhengqiu as her mother, Xiang grew up in an environment imbued with traditional Chinese culture. As a child, she encountered many celebrities and heard the stories of their generation. That experience, combined with her acute sensitivity when it comes to people and things, enhanced the living wisdom that she inherited from her family.

Our three children all attended international schools in order to receive a Western education, and I’m more of a liberal rebel, so Xiang took on the task of providing them with a traditional cultural education by herself. From when they were little, she seized any opportunity to teach them how to act, and why, according to the correct Chinese ways. But in this day and age, traditional values and modern habits are not always compatible, so this was a difficult process. I watched her inner struggle, but throughout she held steadfastly to her role as a pillar in their lives, preserving our precious traditional values, and passing them on to our children.

On a family trip through Europe, we one day found ourselves on a six-hour train ride. We’d just put away our luggage, settled into our cabin, and were ready to relax and enjoy the scenery, when Xiang suddenly pulled a large scroll from her bag – a timeline cross-referencing Western and Chinese history. She wanted the children to connect the ancient sites that they’d visited and the historical tales they’d heard to this handmade map of world history! The four of us were stunned, then burst out laughing. We still laugh today when we remember her elaborate plan. Nevertheless, our daughter Joyce went on to obtain her history degree in just three years.

We are a very close-knit family, and whatever any one of us does, the rest of the family gets involved. When Joyce left home for college, her mother drove with her on a four-day trip from the West Coast of the United States to Houston. On that journey, Xiang gave Joyce a mother’s last reminders before letting her set out on her own. Then, after returning to Taipei, Xiang made the decision to publish this set of books with the Chinese title Chuan Jia, which means ‘passing down through the family’, or ‘inheritance’. She wanted to pass on to the next generation all the wisdom contained in the Chinese way of life. And, to entice a younger generation to the books, she decided that they would be full of beautiful illustrations, photographs and graphics.

Our three children were the very first readers of the books. They are incredibly lucky that their mother has given them such a valuable family treasure. But I know that this is yet another gift that Xiang has made for others, too – for the many people who treasure the heritage of our unique cultural wisdom. The sales of the first edition of the books were surprising to everyone: within two years, they raised approximately US$2,500,000 for a charity. Subsequently, with all 300,000 copies that have sold, with editions in both traditional and simplified Chinese text, Xiang has waived her royalties. As she explains, ‘This belongs to everyone anyway’.

After the books were published, it seemed as if many people were suddenly reminded of the treasures inherent in their own families. Emotional responses were received by Xiang from readers everywhere: a father who read a paragraph to his children every day, people who sent handicrafts inspired by the book, a father who changed his mind and decided to have a child so that he could pass on the family tradition, several mothers in Shanghai who used the books as textbooks for joint homeschooling, and many more. Once, on a business trip to Wuhan, I was in a bookshop and I found a copy of the books, torn and barely holding their shape – they had clearly been read by many. Even in this age of rampant consumerism and materialism, there are still so many parents who share Xiang’s sense of urgency, eagerly trying to make deposits of culture inheritance into their children’s accounts.

This set of books is the culmination of many years of hard work. Xiang started out desperately wanting to show the world that Chinese culture is not as superficial as one might think, and slowly it became a mother’s soft whispers to her children, telling them to celebrate and treasure their culture. The making of the books evolved into a journey of transformation for her, too.

Xiang and I both enjoy having guests, so we often invite friends for meals. Apart from offering them fine food and wines, Xiang will always present gifts as well. I was quite puzzled by this peculiar habit when we first got married, but I came to realise how much she loves giving all kinds of homemade handicrafts as gifts. You could say that gift giving is her hobby!

The Art of Chinese Living is exactly that. Xiang’s desire was to take something that she adores, something that she has put much endeavour into, and present it to all those who treasure Chinese culture as much as she does. It gives me great happiness that, with this English edition, her gift will reach more people around the globe.