Of scents and incense, haraam and harrumph, and 钱锺书 Qian Zhongshu

Made this comment…but really, 钱锺书 Qian Zhongshu deserves a post of his own and much much more.

Your afternoon spent at Lin Yutang’s house must had been an enjoyable one – he was the modern master of enjoyment and 逍遥游 (unbridled natural enjoyment) after all.
Yes, wood scents would be very keeping in character with Lin Yutang. I remember in his book, The Importance of Living, he had a fascinating section on scents and incense, and the integral part it plays for the refined enjoyment of life. If I remember correctly, he talked about how incense had been fashionable lifestyle accoutrements for genteel chinese since ancient times; I distinctly remember he also mentioned how the Song dynasty poetess Li Qingzhao and her husband had partaken of this indulgence as well, while enjoying their favourite pastime of collecting and reading etchings of old epigraphs.

Actually, writers like Lin Yutang and Xu Zhi Mo were haraam/forbidden in the house in the early years: Father would frown and go harrumph! if he caught me with their books, as well as others he considered equally frivolous and indolent. But I had inside help who would connive with me to smuggle and hide my stash of contraband readings…after all, Mum had her own list of ‘liberal’ writers she enjoyed reading as well, like the amazing but ‘salacious’ 张爱玲 Zhang Ailing.

On a separate note, my most admired modern 20th century Chinese writer is someone who made the decision to stay behind on the mainland after the tumultuous 政变-regime change of 1949, even though he certainly had the means and wherewithal to leave and cross over to HK or TW, like so many other chinese writers, scholars, intellectuals, artists did during that period.

I believe 钱锺书 Qian Zhongshu is the most underrated Chinese writer, thinker and scholar of the last century, with a natural talent and genius not below that of Hu Shih and Lu Xun. We would never know what heights he could had attained in his mature creative years had he not been under the yoke and restraint of official socialist ideology and boundary markers, and the persecution he suffered and survived during the cultural revolution; but his work from his younger pre-1949 days was simply brilliant, and even the work he produced on comparative literature and semiotics during the socialist period was notable as well.

While I was heartened with Mo Yan’s Nobel win and sincerely feel his achievement is laudable and well-deserved, a part of me is a little sad that the first Chinese to win the Nobel Literature Prize, will not be 钱锺书 Qian Zhongshu and what I think is one of the best chinese novel written in the 20th century, his 围城/Fortress Besieged (1947).


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