The Conception of Soul

One more thing, recently I have been reading Emily Dickinson. I know her poems are not easy to read. Something I read about her piqued my interest in her poems. I felt I share her attitude about life and art. She was an obssessively private person. Writing poems was totally a personal thing to her. I believe in what Robert Forst said about poems. He said poems should be read metaphorically. Poets talk about one, but suggest something else. In other words, we each can read our own meaning into poems based on our experiences.

In the collection The Single Hound, there are several poems in which she mentions soul. For instance,

The soul that hath a guest

Doth seldom go abroad -

Diviner crowd at home

Obliterate the need,

And courtesy forbid

A host's departure, when

Upon Himself be visiting

The Emperor of Men!

I have to say the English word soul often puzzles me.  It could approximately be equevalent to the Chinese word "灵魂”。

Remember I pondered the meaning of the word for the first time was when I was reading Chinese writer Lu Xun's novelette Benediction. The protagonist, a two-timed widow, who feared her two deceased husbands would fight over her in the next life, asked everyone she met whether human soul would still exist after death. At that time I understood soul as something spiritual that would survive our physical existence. To me, it was, in fact, a simple conception of "conscience". If I read meaning into Dickinson's poem, Isn't conscience the guest that keeps the soul home?

Later when China opened its doors to the outside world and I began to have some contact with American literature. Remember when we were discussing Sherwood Anerson's Grotesques of Winesburg, Ohio, my American professor suddenly asked us, "Do Chinese believe in soul?" I began to sense that there must be something different in Western conception of soul, compared with Chinese. It seemed to be more than just "conscience". It appeared to encompass the power that controls the way of thinking and doint things. Later on, I realized Western interpretation of soul had a lot to do with religious belief. Talking about soul is a kind of self-reflection.

Then I read Yale scholar Francis Hsu's Passage to Differences. Hsu observes that there is a difference between Chinese and Westerners in terms of attitude about religion. According to his analysis, traaditionally Chinese don't have as much religious passion as Westerners because of Confucian ideology. He mentioned that even though China is traditonally an pantheist society and that if there is a kind of thing which functions like a religion, it is Confucianism. However, Confucianism is, at most, a quasi-religion. Cofucius was never interested in things supernatural. He once said, "Just focus on this world and never mind about the world of the ghosts or deities/gods. He promoted ancestor worship instead of any supernatural powers. Does that explain it?

Recently, I sort of had another round of the experiences. My friend Ben Harris, who is interested in China and things related to China, asked me one day, "What is the soul of the Chinese?" I am not sure if I gave him a satisfactory answer. Considering all my experiences with the term "soul", I really feel, like Dickinson's poem, everyone can read his/her own meaning into it. As far as religion is concerned, I believe my personal experiences are illustrative of at least a part of Chinese American community. In a pantheist society like China, my Buddhist parents, who lived in the French settlement of Shanghai, sent all their children to an American Baptist school across the street in the British Settlement. (I guess you need to strain your brains to visualize the situation.) Then, when communitsts came to power, of course, everyone became an atheist, willingly or not. Since I came to this country, I tried to rekindle my religious passion, but was soon turned off by evangelists' corruption and their attitude about science. I still respect religious believers and have many friends among them, but I stopped going to church. No matter what, I still have the original conscience with me in soul.



When I browsed the paintings I recently did, I was surprised to notice that there are quite a number of paintings which have bridges in them. Then I came to think that prbably I have been doing a bridging job I myself am not consciously aware of. I am trying to bridge art and life, Chinese and American culture, individual and society, etc. One thing always puzzles me is the fact that sometimes, human beings are so much similar with each other but in other times we are so different. For instance, tolerance is generally considered to be a virtue in this country. However, in reality, what is happening in the world has enabled us to see many different sides of the concept. How would we call this when someone made a film you consider offensive, you just pick up your gun and mow down other inncent people because they share the same nationality, culture, religion, ethnicity, etc with the film maker? Of course, Florida doesn't lack fanatics like that, either. It reminds me of a quote form Bertrand Russell:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts."

Today I came across a very good article which shows kind of Chinese side of tolerance. I can never trust Google translating software to do the job. Maybe it works well in translating within the linguistically Germanic family or even between Germanic and Latin languages families. However, I don't think technology has developed to such a sophisticated level as to be able to translate Chinese into English without causing errors which would make you laugh till you hold your sides. One of my friends once shared with me what he got from Google translation. Believe me, those errors are good raw material for late night talk show. So I took the time to translate the article. I include its original version, too. This is part of my bridging work.

Easy to Stoop down but Difficult to Stand up

By Hong Huang*

Several days ago I was asked by Group M Advertisement, Inc. to give a speech on “Embracing Changes”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go, so I made a video of the speech and sent it to them. Group M President Li Qianling is my good friend. She asked me more than half a dozen questions – all about how to face changes in our lives.

I grew up as an obedient child. I didn’t say anything when my parents sent me to a boarding school at the age of 9. I was put by mistake in a wrong class in which I was one year younger than my classmates. I didn’t complain. I was bullied in the dorm, but I didn’t tell. When I reached the age of 12, I was sent to America, away from home. I took it as an honor. In America I didn’t understand what people were talking about but I blame myself for lack of vocabulary. Therefore, I tried hard to memorize English words. I felt I was really a good child for being able to tolerate so much. As far as I remember, I never thought of making a fuss to my parents.

For that reason, my first answer to her question was: the Chinese attitude about changes is usually trying to resign ourselves to adversity – continue to live your own life as you can and never mind about other things. I felt that was our great strength. I had done the same thing myself in the past.

So that was how unconsciously I dug a hole for myself and even had the audacity to identify with the forces of “reactionary feudal” culture, asking other Chinese to go on with the kind of tolerance.

I did not realize my answer in the video was “reactionary feudal” till last night when I watched Meng Jinghui’s drama To Be Alive, which suddenly dawned on me about the nature of my answer. I like Meng’s dramas. His artistic expression is always trend-setting. He manipulates dramatic skills naturally like fish in water. Watching his drama work makes you feel familiar but refreshing, enjoyable but not superficial.

I watched the show at China Grand Theater, which I liked.

Before then I had read the story in book and watched it in movie but didn’t remember a lot of details. The story is about how a Chinese spendthrift resigned himself to adversity, a kind of Chinese version of Les Miserable story. Meng intertwines the tragic ups and downs of the story with modern-time singing and dancing, even mini episodes so that in the midst of the overwhelming sadness suddenly you get a chance to catch your breath and you temporarily forget the sadness. I thought of the videoed speech I sent to Group M when I was watching the show. Then I felt like wanting to slap myself on the face. How could I teach people to follow the teaching of meek submission to oppression like that? Am I crazy?

Probably that was the moment when this idea popped into my mind: the protagonist of the story was happy to realize that if he had not gambled away all the land and wealth he inherited, most probably the person who was executed as a landlord during the land reform movement would not be his gamble buddy Long Erye, but himself instead. It was at that moment it enlightened me: We are always ready to find a self-deceiving excuse for our sufferings and keep telling ourselves, “Tolerance of sufferings is a disguised blessing.” Anyway, we consider the attitude to be a virtue.

However, is meekly submitting to oppression always a virtue?

There is another fundamental reason why I cannot tolerate the vision of suffering in Chinese art. That is because all the sufferings are not to be sublimated into anything and we are just struggling in the deep water of sufferings to keep our heads out.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable is a sad story, too. However, because of the compassion and protection of Bishop Myriel, the protagonist Jean Valjean changes from a victim who submitted to adversity in the beginning to a man who controls his own destiny. His adopted daughter Cosette falls in love with young revolutionary Marius, whom Jean Valjean rescues when he is wounded in the uprising. In the end when Cosette’s voyage comes to a safe and sound ending, Jean Valjean redeems himself with love. His attitude tells us that the experience of sufferings leads to a sublimation into wisdom and value.

If you think Jean Valjean is too dramatized, then you may like John Steinbeck’s The Wrath of Grapes. In the story, Tom Joad is not an easily tolerant person in the first place. Otherwise he would not go to jail. He was forced to go to the West, looking for jobs during the Great Depression. In order to reject exploitation, he doesn’t mind being on the run a second time.

To be Alive, Les Miserable, and The Wrath of Grapes are all literary stories about human sufferings. And they all have screen versions (more than one) and stage versions. The greatest difference between them is that in To be Alive, there is no deliverance for sufferings, and that all the sufferings the protagonist has experienced do not bring about a little bit of rebellious spirit. When the historical turmoil turns his initial bad luck (the loss of 100 Chinese acres of land) into an inadvertent luck (evasion of being executed as landlord), he simply believes he gains something. He does not stand up and protest [against the injustice]; the only thing he does is putting up with anything coming his way. That is the difference between Chinese-style sufferings and French- or American-style sufferings. We have a higher level of tolerance of sufferings than any nations in the world!

Is it a good thing to tolerate like that? Isn’t it an encouragement to tyrants? Isn’t it true that this kind of submissiveness equals giving up life itself?

Did we get it from Buddhism? Or from Confucianism? What has made us to be so subservient, so easy to stoop down but so difficult to stand up, so meek to submit to oppression, so obedient, so yielding?

If such terrible sufferings fail to enable us to achieve sublimation like Jean Valjean’s or to rebel like Tom Joad, unless we are destined to be rich and powerful, we truly deserve what we suffer.

Source: Southern Capital Weekly

*Hong Huang is a well-known Chinese public figure. She is from a privileged family. Her mother was Mao’s English teacher and interpreter. Her stepfather was China’s foreign minister. They had a close relationship with first President Bush and his wife. After the 10-year-long havoc Cultural Revolution was over and Deng Xiaoping came to power, the couple was accused of being involved in the Gang of Four’s conspiracy and put in jail for some years.

Recently Hong Huang appeared and commented in the documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.

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