The Art of Chinese Living

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A sesame seed, an era

Lung Ying-Tai 龍應台

September 2010

On the surface, Xiang Yao writes about flowers, fruits, vegetables, chickens and ducks, insects, fish, and even the right temperatures to use when preparing eggs in different ways. Below the surface, however, what she is really writing about is the art of living.

On the surface, Xiang emphasises the importance of knowledge. In order to better understand eggs, for example, she began raising chickens of two different breeds in her postmodern courtyard on Yangmingshan. The point was to compare the quality of the eggs of each in a scientific fashion. She also believes that Chinese children should learn about important poets such as Qu Yuan, Tao Yuanming, Wang Wei and Li Bai.

Yet, on a deeper level, Xiang draws attention to the way we are cultured by our everyday habits as naturally as boats float on water. This collective cultivation of culture is as organic as the way water droplets condense on lotus flowers every morning. She writes about an ordinary afternoon, sitting listening to her children recite the Three-Character Classic; interrupted by the phone, she returns to find her elderly and illiterate nanny has taken over and is reciting the text off by heart.

She records the details of life – cooking congee in the kitchen, family dynamics at dinnertime – things seemingly as trivial as sesame seeds and garlic skins left on the kitchen bench.

She describes old Mr Zhang, the cook of a friend, who made steamed buns so expertly that they were ‘as white as snow’. She writes of those who left Shanghai and headed to the Taiwan region, later meeting up to eat crabs together every autumn. She explains how precious sesame seeds once were, with customers in cafes banging their tables to retrieve stray seeds from between their planks.

If you read carefully, you will realise that old Mr Zhang was in fact the son of a noble family prior to leaving his home. You will understand that those who left Shanghai ate their crabs every year with such elaborate ritual because they were homesick. You will hear, beyond the sounds of customers searching for a few sesame seeds, the sound of a generation trudging through poverty with unswerving dignity. And in the end, you will learn that there are two levels of truth in Xiang’s books. One that vividly portrays the everyday lives of the Chinese – how people live, eat, dress, teach their children and celebrate their heritage in each of the seasons. And a deeper one that shares the Chinese perspective: the way this culture has transformed over time, impacting these everyday habits and manifesting in the sounds, smells and faces of each generation. Through a sesame seed, Xiang recalls an era. It is a love and reverance for history that moves me deeply.