The Art of Chinese Living

/ / En


Xiang Yao’s inheritance of wisdom and merit

Jiang Xun 蔣勳

12 January 2010, by the Tamsui River

On New Year’s Eve 2009, a friend invited me to watch the Taipei 101 fireworks. There I had the opportunity to meet Kris and Xiang Yao. Xiang wore an elegant silver necklace intricately designed with small grey stones. The necklace was beautifully organic, as if embedded in her skin. Knowing that she was a craftsperson, I asked if she’d made it herself. She tole me proudly that she had.

The delicate silver chain and stones reminded me of the Taj Mahal. This thought came from nowhere, and yet not: the colourful, intricately cut mosaic tiles of the Taj Mahal are so skilfully curved that at sunrise they take on the appearance of endlessly rolling silk. I thought of the phrase rao zhi rou – ‘once-hard metal, softly wound around fingers’; three words that encapsulate the softness and humility that can impel a person to surrender all irrational antagonism and bow their head, palms together.

Indian aesthetics has a kind of softness, so the coldest thing can be soft: an arrogant body can be soft, or the hardest heart. I looked at Xiang’s necklace – the jewellery now part of her flesh – while everyone waited for the fireworks. The scene looked just like a carving at India’s Ajanta Caves. I said, ‘Xiang, your last incarnation must have been in India.’ Her husband, Kris, a Buddhist, heard me. Looking at me with his smiling bodhisattva eyes, he pointed to Xiang and said, ‘Her last incarnation was not too far from mine’.

Time was passing as the new year began; we were waiting for our time to pass, and to pass from our own flesh. Chinese Buddhists speak of su hui – the wisdom accumulated through endless incarnations. I always think of su hui as a kind of gene within the body, but one that is unidentifiable by modern science.

Each mosaic was applied to the walls of the Taj Mahal with a human hand. A human hand, too, had cut the stone so that it would resemble silk. Memory and action are preserved in the body, then experienced in different times and places. Sometimes memory is like the quiet evening sky, in which nothing can be seen. Sometimes, fireworks erupt in this quiet evening sky: like a dream or mirage, it appears like a riot of brilliant colours, as if you’re witnessing your previous incarnation. Then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in tears.

I greatly respected Xiang’s mother, Gu Zhengqiu. Madame Gu’s voice was an example of su hui; her performance in the Peking opera The Jewellery Purse transmitted to me a profound understanding of both the wealth and desolation of several generations in a single evening. Su hui can grant people that kind of split-second understanding. The moment is like fireworks, but like fireworks it’s also a mirage – it can be hard to distinguish whether the moment is one of happiness or sadness, or both.

When I was in Bodh Gaya, I saw the Bodhi Tree by the banks of the Niranjan River, and realised that trees can possess su hui too. There is a phoebe tree in Xiang’s garden. The trunk is big and strong, the branches stretch out, and the leaves are dense. You immediately want to sit under it. This tree is an earthly blessing, providing shade for people on hot days, while the branches and leaves provide shelter for birds, and a place for bugs, worms, ants and mushrooms to reproduce.

Xiang herself brings su hui to this life, enlightening those around her. I enjoy listening to her talk with intensity about her dog Jia Baoyu. I relish the intense focus that she applies to her metalwork, or to the search for matching pottery and chair cushions for a friend’s new home. Xiang applies this su hui diligently to all aspects of daily life: food, clothing, housing, transport, painstakingly composing every last detail.

Su hui is the accumulation of infinite memory from past lives. It may be acquired through tremendous suffering or sadness, but if su hui is present in one’s daily routine, the wisdom it brings is natural and simple. It is fu hui – wisdom with merit.

When I first saw a copy of this book, it brought to mind the gifts Xiang sends every year, thereby distributing fu hui. Once it was a candle inscribed with a line from a Tang-Dynasty poem; when friends visited me, we would sit by it in a corner of the room, drawn by its welcoming glow. On another occasion it was handmade soap with the invigorating fragrance of lemongrass and tea tree – the touch and smell of the soap while bathing lingers with me still. Yet another gift consisted of a name seal made from yellow crystal and tied with a delicate Chinese knot. I hung it from my belt in the ancient Chinese fashion, and wore it to school to show my students.

I remember another occasion, too, when a group of friends had got together – Xiang suddenly appeared with 30 boxes of fried noodles. We were surprised and delighted. They were beautiful boxes, handwoven from fine bamboo and tied with indigo-blue fabric. And of course after the noodles had been consumed, we all took these treasures home to keep.

To produce the pages that follow, Xiang devoted her time to gathering su hui drop by drop – a cup of tea, a bowl of glutinous rice balls, a plate of fried rice, a piece of traditional floral fabric. They all constitute su hui, applied to modern daily life and thereby passed on. This set of books was first published in the spring of 2010, and I believe it possesses the collective prayers and blessings of the previous New Year’s Eve. May these blessings extend to all who read them, and share in this inheritance of wisdom with merit.