The Art of Chinese Living

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An encyclopedia of beauty

Pai Hsen-Yung 白先勇

May 2010

Xiang Yao is a person with high aspirations and determination, and she has a great desire: she wants the myriad beautiful aspects of Chinese culture that have ever been part of our lives to never vanish from our memory. She therefore put her skills and effort into compiling and writing The Art of Chinese Living. This beautiful encyclopedia presents the grace and beauty of our traditional culture as it’s expressed in everyday life, captured and preserved through her writing and illustrations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a group of people working at Hansheng magazine in Taipei – cultural workers with ideals and aspirations – went to every province of China to learn about folk arts and customs. They then published vivid descriptions and wonderful photography and illustrations to record quintessential aspects of our culture. Hansheng also published unimaginably beautiful books that influenced an entire generation, including educational children’s books that had a particularly profound and long-lasting effect. Their series of Chinese fairy tales and their children’s encyclopedia were essential items in many homes, and Hansheng made a significant contribution to the passing on of our culture. In recent years, such work seems to have halted. But Xiang spared no effort or expense to publish these books. She essentially wants to continue what Hansheng did in those years – the work of passing on our culture to subsequent generations.

I don’t know when Chinese people’s aesthetic sensibilities first started to seem problematic. There are clearly many beautiful things in our traditional culture, but we seem to lack an understanding of how to appreciate them. Yet we value things from other cultures – some not at all beautiful – and drape ourselves in them from head to foot. This scrambling of our aesthetic taste can be seen in our clothing, food, housing and transport. Aesthetically they’re rather chaotic: we lack cultural aesthetic standards.

In this current chaotic situation, Xiang’s books give us models we can draw on. Few people would be willing to put so much painstaking and meticulous care and work into a project like this. She collected endless material on every topic, made careful selections and organised them into categories, drew up highly detailed charts, wrote explanations and comments and, finally, added exquisite visuals.

The four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter – are treated separately. The visuals alone provide a feast for the eye. Xiang even gives us countless stories about the rice we eat every day, and the grains of rice in the wonderful photographic images look like precious pearls.

Flipping through the pages, I was startled to realise just how much of China’s traditional culture is maintained by people in the Taiwan region. Historical events caused a break in the transmission of traditional culture on the mainland. But so many aspects had been brought to Taiwan and experienced a new lease of life. Buddhism, for example, had been brought to the island by several senior Buddhist monks, and then flourished.

Different regional mainland cuisines also found a separate home in Taiwan. The international Din Tai Fung restaurant franchise began as a small shop in Taipei selling xiao long bao (pork-filled dumplings), and now has a popular branch in Shanghai, the place where the dumplings originated. From a long-term historical perspective, this new flourishing of traditional Chinese culture could be one of Taiwan’s great contributions to the Chinese people. Intentionally and unintentionally, many of the tiny details in The Art of Chinese Living comment on and explain this phenomenon.

Xiang is particularly sensitive to the beauty of our traditional culture, and for good reason. Her mother was Gu Zhengqiu, a highly renowned Peking opera singer whose performances epitomised the profound beauty of our culture. I had the good fortune to see her perform in The Jewellery Purse – one of her celebrated roles – at Taipei’s Yongle Theatre as a young man. I remember the ‘Flowing Water’ section to this day: her singing was just extraordinary, and extraordinarily moving.

Xiang experienced and absorbed such beauty from her earliest years, so it’s not surprising that she was able to produce such a magnificent set of books. The Art of Chinese Living is a tribute to the passing on of traditions in her own family.