Chin P’ing Mei

Chin P’ing Mei is an incredibly rich and detailed account of all the details of life in historical China, from food to clothes to architecture, and all the goings on between people, the ways they fill the passing time. It must be a great source book for many kinds of scholars. Whether it describes more accurately the Ming period when it was written, or the earlier Song Dynasty when the story takes place, I do not know, but it’s definitely compendious. One Chinese intellectual of my acquaintance says that if there’s any meaning or moral to be extracted it’s by accident, but then that would be a remarkable aesthetic achievement. Chinese today have been too long badgered by tendentious communism – a moral is widely believed to be an absolute necessity for any art – but enlightening perspectives are not so easily reduced and encapsulated, nor should they be. I think it’s more cunningly constructed than it seems, and I wonder if the Scoffing Scholar of Lan-ling, whoever he or she was, was reincarnated as Marcel Proust. I find it puts my mind in some new places, and one thought it gives me is that as far as material culture is concerned, human society hit its peak a long time ago, in fact a long, LONG time ago. Every new thing we’ve invented over the last hundred or so years is just a response to and effect of increased population. There is no sense in which we lead a better life today than the Chinese of five hundred years ago. The much vaunted advances that have increased life expectancy, decreased infant mortality and, more recently, multiplied food production, are nothing but the causes of the current disaster of overpopulation, the root of every crisis today. If more children died in infancy, and if more people died from disease and accident, the entire planet would be better off – and I say that knowing that I certainly would have been an early casualty. But sadly, science and medicine have been long enslaved by dubious Christian pieties about the sanctity of life, meaning human life only. It’s also clear that as a species we’ve lived off the fat of the land for a long time; nature has been mild and beneficent. But a few thousand years of beneficence is nothing but pure luck. These might seem like pretty elevated reflections to get off a work of literature, but there is no limit to how perspectival any perspective might be. I’ll come to ground with Chin P’ing Mei in a later post. 

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One Response to Chin P’ing Mei

  1. Naomi Schlinke says:

    “There is no sense in which we lead a better life today than the Chinese of five hundred years ago.” Really? No penicillin for you sir! :-) And yet in another post you’ve also said ” I don’t know how you can venture to say anything if you don’t believe that this moment is unique.” There is an interesting dichotomy between the two positions. Among a jillion other issues, you are not acknowledging the vast improvements in the life of women. Only a few generations ago, many women died in childbirth, had ineffectual birth control, couldn’t vote, etc. How can a moment be unique for an individual but not the sum of individuals?

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