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February 13, 2009


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Perhaps I will continue this conversation with Beijing in Beijing in March...
In the meantime, here is a question that I posed somewhere along the way in this discussion (I think at Manyul's place): what would a Confucian-derived perspective have to say about sexuality in our own age? I am imagining that the more open and public expressions of sex (movies, prostitution, etc.) that are so common in the US and Japan and elsewhere would be understood by a latter-day Confucian (and remember: I do not consider myself a Confucian) as crossing some moral line. And perhaps that line is precisely what you and Manyul are talking about when translating "se". Sex has become commodified and "cheap" (we can even think of this in economic terms: the oversupply of sexual imagery cheapen it...). There is a "surface" and distracting quality about it: too often sex is pursued outside of the continuing maintenance of social relationships. Whatever 9.18/15.13 might have meant in Confucius's own time, in our age it might well translate as: "It is rare to find a man who pursues Integrity over mere sex."
And, finally, as to what Confucius might say to I-Sensi, 7.16 comes immediately to mind:
The Master said: "Poor food and water for dinner, a bent arm for a pillow - that is where joy resides. For me, wealth and renown without honor are nothing but drifting clouds.
Didn't Yen Hui get by on thin gruel? No intestines there....

Don't laugh Sam, but I consider myself a kind of Confucian lady--with an existentialist bent of course! So I shall take a stab at your question (though, really, I think you will get a more interesting response chatting to Beijing in Beijing).

First, I am not at all convinced that sex is more open or more commodified in our age that it has been in the past. That sex is used to sell other products (like everything) is probably new, I am not convinced, however, that sex as commodity is new-- nor am I convinced that there is a cheapening of sex in our age. Actually, I think maybe that nothing much has changed.

Remember the Ally McBeal scene when she has sex with a man in a carwash that she doesn't know? Is that kind of behavior new to our age? I doubt it... And maybe you will have a different answer to this, but every single time I have ever told a man that sex without love holds absolutely no interest to me (not because of any moral reason but just that it is quite simply something that doesn't appeal to me), every single man has told me I am "dead wrong"-- that sex without love is *very interesting* One friend recently said, quoting Woody Allen, "as far as experiences without meaning go, it doesn't get better than that"... Because no man has ever agreed with me, I just cannot help but wonder if what you call "cheap" sex is just not as old as time.

And quite honestly, I am not even sure Confucius would have much to say about it as I do not think he saw sex as a distraction in the way you are suggesting.

When we look around and perhaps see people overly concerned with material possessions or the unending parade of amusements (an over-concern with having fun); coupled with a lack of commitment to their *extended* families (not to their spouse but to parents) or to communities (volunteering, being active members of *their* neighborhood) no matter how I look at this, I do not see sex as being even the slightest factor in contributing to this.

But, of course, this is not to say that Confucius is advocating "mere sex" just that, like Manyul, I no longer see this passage as making any sense the way it is being translated unless it is the way I approached it at the very, very beginning (which Chris quite strongly disagreed with)....

....drifting clouds

Peony, your episode with the intestines turned into some food for thought for me ...

I have long wondered how two neighboring countries, India and China (East Asia in general), can have such astonishing differences in their approach to animals. I think it is due in good measure to the different conception of humans in the two realms. The ancient Indians saw humans not as a unique creation but as part of an integrated web of being. This was reflected in their myths and the idea of reincarnation, where humans were seen as just one type, albeit a coveted type, of creature that a soul may come to inhabit as it migrated from life to life. Such a conception of the living world naturally promoted respect for all life and the idea of non-violence and vegetarianism (particularly for Jains and some Buddhists and Hindus), making the ancient Indians perhaps the first people to extend a de facto right to life to animals.

On the other hand, the moral compass of the Confucian canon is humanistic -- centered on human cultivation and social relationships -- and it didn't really care for animal welfare (not that it was actively against it). While Mencius advocated kindness toward them, animals were categorically distinct from humans and decidedly subservient to human interests and desires. This I think helps explain the lack in the Confucian tradition of notable moral injunctions against treating animals as means to human ends -- paving the way for the eager consumption of their guts over polite conversation.

Of course, the dominant Western (including Greek, Christian, Modern) conception of animals is hardly better, and not the least because some elemental but flawed strands of the Greek worldview are still with us today.

Hi Namit,

Those mountains are so tall and they divide such really different approaches to life, don't they? You have so much more experience in both cultures so I probably couldn't add very much to the conversation, I'm afraid. But like you said, as incredibly philosophically abstract as the ancient Indians were (and maybe current day Bengali intellectuals still are?), the Chinese have been just as intensely rational→ practical. Even the ancient Chinese concept of the divine (tian) was not really like a god like you would find in India (or Greece), but rather it was a non-anthropomorphic "heaven," which was believed to have certain powers. But even these powers, or divine will 天意, were tempered by the powers of humans 民意 (that is influence worked both ways). So that the concept of 革命 (revolution) was built right into the concept of 天命 (heavenly mandate) right from very ancient times (it's pretty unique if you think about it. In Europe, for example, dynasty changes often occured without reference to poular will 民意 but in China dynasty change = 革命).

So just as you said, their "philosophy" was very, very rational and humanistic (humancentric)-- and yes, practical. And this probably had everything to do with food their practices. Did you happen to listen to part 2 of the philosophers zone program I recommended when we were talking about human rights (the show with Martha Nussbaum)? She brought up some aspects of this: how Indian philosophy about animals has influences legality and human/animal rights in India. Nussbaum, by the way, has thought very deeply about these issues (animal rights) and is herself a vegetarian. Though she does eat fish. She gave her reasons for eating fish and then said she was still open to thinking about even this decision.

The elegant food that the elegant I-Sensei was offering, by the way, was the intestine of a sea cucumber see "konowata"

I just don't like intestine-- internal organs, tongue, etc.

When I was in India, I think I could eat everything, but well, I don't don't really remember anything that I couldn't tolerate since I love vegetables and curries so much.... and, of coures, I love so many Indian sweets-- and coffee and tea was so delicious there too.

Writing this kind of made me hungry :) We're having ramen noodles and gyoza (god only knows what is ground up in the gyoza too!)

And I'm sick so am having korean yuzu tea.
How 'bout a cuppa tea?

Athena sends an email remarking on the color of the temple:

"Yushima Seido: STARK BLACK.
The picture of it was lovely, lively,thrilling in color to me. It looked like a really WONDERFUL INK STICK! ...with all the nature elements that go into those sticks, the secret/prized recipes for them, the tradition of grinding ink, the calligraphy, the poetry & the meanings that come from writing... Mrs. Lee would not let her students use anything but ink and brush for the lst 2 years of study. "If you cannot paint with skill or power in black and white, then adding any touch of color will certainly be nothing of gain." And as the artists say: "Black is the Queen of Colors."

Exactly. In fact, because Beijing and I had been talking about traditional colors the day before after both being impressed by the gorgeous shade of a purple kimono while watching kabuki, I wanted to ask him how he would describe the shade of black of the temple. I was drawn between 墨 (charcoal, or really the color of black ink as ink sticks are called in japanese o-sumi; or sumi-e for ink drawings) or was it 玄?

I have writtn about the elusive color 玄  in this post to which Bill bravely tried to help me with my translation: how to differentiate 玄 from black? While his translation was quite awful, he had a lot of interesting things to say about the color (as everything he says is always worth reading).

In any event, I wanted to ask Beijing about the different shades of black in China to try and figure out which shade best described the temple. Well, with Athena's email, the puzzle has been solved. She is never wrong and so it must be charcoal-- or the color of an ink painting.

See this post to find out how the court painter responded to this topic: painting horse hooves fragrant on returning from trampling flowers,’ in black ink??

Finally, Namit, I embedded the tea wallah video in the post...you've been down in chennai haven't you? I have not been south of Delhi-- maybe someday...

Most definitely sumi ink stick… When I was in art school, I always preferred ink stick to the usual India ink one could purchase in bottles. (Of course being a bit on the lazy side I would always use bottle ink for larger projects.) Aside from the calming effect of grinding the ink, there is the amazing aroma of japanese ink sticks . India ink always had a somewhat unpleasant, slightly acrid smell while the sticks always reminded me a bit of resinous incense. (Of course, since I haven't used an ink stone in thirty years, that could be an imagined memory…)

The black building is indeed striking however I'm not quite sure why the red color would remind people of a fire & the charcoal color not evoke the aftermath of a blaze…

I don't do intestines either.

Hi MW!

I also loved to grind the ink (in calligraphy practice not painting). Like you said, the preparation is very calming and the fragrance of the ink stone comes in waves as you prepare the ink and the whole process is incredibly pleasant, isn't it? In Japan, students also used liquid ink that comes in bottles but it is all Japan-produced and I would say it lacks any smell whatsoever.

When Athena mentioned all the natural elements in the ink, I recalled a translation I did about 6 months ago on Chinese sumi ink sticks and went back to check but I think I must have cut all the details out of the english version because I felt it was just too much detailed/technical information in English. I seem to remember, though, that the Chinese ink was made of very few ingredients and that sumi-e painters worked with only a small variety of different inks. Just pine-resin, tung oil-- what else?

Have you read John Cage's Color and Culture? I have beeb wanting to read it for quite sometime (recommended by our Conrad). I wonder what he has to say about black-- do you know? Conrad did track down the book on the myth of Helen of Troy, by the way, and it just arrived. I am looking forward to reading it.

Hope all is well there. I have caught a terrible cold, have a fever which is causing all sorts of "peonica bad moods".... :)

Agreed about the smoke too-- that is why I was curious about Cage's take on black.

I'm intrigued by the Gage "Color & Culture". No, I haven't read it. I tend to miss books like that since I inevitably gravitate to art monographs with lots of pictures…I always seem fixated, at least initially, with the 'how' (appearance/process) rather than the 'why' (meaning/cultural context). Naturally one can't separate the two & begin to fully understand the object but often (We have established that I am a bit lazy & disorganized…) I never manage to follow up on the 'why' part. The fortuitous thing about working in a museum is that one sort of picks things up by osmosis; the information is all around you & since most curators love to talk about their collections, eventually it just gets imprinted…

Hope you're feeling better.

Hi MW,

Thank you for the moon! And, I really think one of these days we should read Gage's book. Have you ever read, Elaine Scarry's book, On Beauty Beijing recommended it, and so I picked up a copy and read it yesterday (it's very short) collapsed in my futon miserably sipping plum wine all day.

I wonder if Conrad's read it? He seems to have his hands rather full thees days-- do you have any idea what is being discussed? It's like a foreign language...

Anyway, I would be so curious to hear what you think of Sacrry's book. I may try and write a Post on it, or may just think about it and email you later. It is definitely worthwhile reading-- very beautifully written. More soon!

That tea video was great. That's exactly how tea should be had by all civilized peoples of the world. (Brits: take note.)

Thanks for the Nussbaum reference. I found it, though it would have been easier if you had a "Search" feature on your otherwise awesome blog. Hope you're feeling better.

Thanks Namit! I agree about tea in India. Mark my words: starbucks is the end of civilization (and it there where I have drawn the line!) You know, I think tea in Kashmir was actually most wonderful.

And, I know, I know... but those instructions for the google search box were really complicated. You practically would need an advanced degree in computer science (which I believe you have) to even decipher your instructions, you know!

After you listen to the program, tell me what you think, ok? I am actually really interested in reading Nussbaum's Poetic Justice . Have you read it?

OK, I have this other India-related video that our pal Bill sent back in December to cheer me up out of another gloomy mood-- I will upload it to my next post. You will love it, Namit. I can just hear your complaints aready too! :)

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