Introducing Other People’s Thoughts

Other People’s Thoughts is a section in the Journal of the China Heritage site. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations put together by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors, during his reading life.

Pierre remarked that the resulting modest volume of quotations was ‘idiosyncratically complied for the amusement of idle readers’ (see Simon Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, 2007). Our aim is similar: to amuse our readers (idle or otherwise); as is our modus operandi: to build up an idiosyncratic compilation, one that reflects the interests of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology and its coterie.

In collecting this material, and by adding to it over time, we accord also with a Chinese literary practice in which quotations — sometimes called yǔlù 語錄, literally ‘recorded sayings’ — have a particular history, and a powerful resonance.

The character ‘record’ 記 in the hand of Mi Fei 米芾, or ‘Madman Mi’ 米癲 of the Song. Source: 好事家貼.

The most famous collection of recorded sayings is The Analects 論語, compiled by disciples of Confucius. Then there is the timeless 5000-words of Laozi’s The Tao and the Power 道德經, as well as the Chan/Zen 禪宗 tradition of what in English are known by the Japanese term kōan 公案, dating from the Tang dynasty. Modern imitations range from the political bon mots of Mao Zedong to excerpts from the prolix prose of Xi Jinping’s tireless speech writers, and published snippets from arm-chair philosophers and motivational speakers.

Other People’s Thoughts also finds inspiration in the ‘poetry talks’ 詩話, ‘casual jottings’ 筆記 and ‘marginalia’ 眉批 of China’s literary tradition.


Quotations suggested by members of the Academy and friends are acknowledged by providing their initials in square brackets at the end of the relevant quotation. Thus, Jamil Anderlini is marked as [JA]; Gloria Davies is [GD]; John Minford is [JM]; Richard Rigby [RR]; and, Jeffrey Wasserstrom [JW]. My selections are unmarked.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
14 February 2017


If one opens a book, one meets the men of old;
If one goes into the street, one meets the people of today.
The men of old! Their bones are turned to dust;
It can only be with their feelings that one makes friends.
The people of today are of one’s own kind,
But to hear their talk is like chewing a candle!
I had far rather live with sticks and stones
Than spend my time with ordinary people.
Fortunately one need not belong to one’s own time;
One’s real date is the date of the books one reads.

[Yuan Mei, ‘Chance Stanzas, seven of thirteen’, in Arthur Waley, Yuan Mei, 1956, p.85]



The Land of Illusion

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

(The Story of the Stone, Vol.I, p.55)



The past is not dead, it isn’t even past. (William Faulkner quoted by Simon Leys)


Tyranny does not begin with violence; it begins with the first gesture of collaboration. Its most enduring crime is drawing decent men and women into its siege of truth. (Evan Osnos, When Tyranny Takes Hold, The New Yorker, 19 December 2016)


I do not with to imply that conspiracies never happen. On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena. They become important, for example, whenever people who believe in the conspiracy theory get into power. And people who sincerely believe that they know how to make heaven on earth are most likely to adopt the conspiracy theory, and to get involved in a counter-conspiracy against non-exisiting conspirators. For the only explanation of their failure to produce their heaven is the evil intention of the Devil, who has a vested interest in hell. (Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1977) [RR]

The Noise of Time

What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves — the music of our being — which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. (Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, London: Jonathan Cape, 2016, p.125)


Learned books are published by the thousand, yet learning was never less trusted as something to be pursued for its own sake. Too often used for ill, it is now asked about its uses for good, and usually on the assumption that any goodwill be measured on a market, like a commodity. The idea that humanism has no immediate ascertainable use at all, and is invaluable for precisely that reason, is a hard sell in an age when the word ‘invaluable,’ simply by the way it looks, is begging to be construed as ‘valueless’ even by the sophisticated. In fact, especially by them. If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into this new century, it will need advocates. Those advocates will need a memory, and part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive. (Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, pp.xvii-xviii)

The Dao

The Tao Teh Ching is a series of insights into life and nature; it is suggestion rather than statement… . It was written in the morning of the human race, and still bears the freshness of the morning upon it. It exhibits a rush of language, a boldness and exuberance of expression, for which paradox is the only adequate form… . For the Taoists, reality was beyond measurement, but not beyond apprehension by a mind that is still. The Book’s greatest gift, in my view, is its mind-stretching quality; it challenges us at every turn to expand our view of life’s possibilities… . It proclaims those ‘Waldens of the mind’ that Dialectical Man needs to restore his sense of wonder and repose.

Only the free, unfettered Taoist mind, bent on enjoying nature as well as conquering her, was able to engender in China a pure landscape art… .

He who views with distrust excessive organization and mechanization, will find in the Tao Teh Ching man’s first articulate protest against them. If he has misgivings about the notion of ‘inevitable progress’ he is reminded by Lao Tzu that ‘all things come back to their roots’, that ‘to go far is to return’. The heavy blow, says Taoism, often fails where the light touch succeeds. The world has a place for humility, yielding, gentleness, and serenity. But to enjoy these benefits one must ‘Learn to unlearn one’s learning’. (Arthur W. Hummel Sr [1884-1975] in his 1962 Foreword to the translation of the Tao Teh Ching by John C. Wu 吳經熊 [1899-1986].) [JM]

The Self

A person can go on living fairly well, seem to be a human being, be occupied with temporal matters, marry, have children, be honoured and esteemed — and it may not be detected that in a deeper sense this person lacks a self. Such things do not create much of a stir in the world, for a self is the last thing the world cares about and the most dangerous thing of all for a person to show signs of having. The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss occurs so quietly, any other loss — an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. — is bound to be noticed. (Søren Kierkegaard, translation in Arnold B. Come, Kierkegaard as Humanist: Discovering My Self, a modified version of Alastair Hannay’s in The Sickness Unto Death) [GD]

On the Road

To reread On the Road now is to be struck, first of all, by how well it has lasted: its prose sprightly, leaner and less prolix than expected, its intense vision still bright. It’s a celebration of the open road, and of the open frontier as well. To cross into another language, another way of being, is a step towards beatitude, the worldly blessedness to which all dharma bums aspire. (Salman Rushdie, Step Across This Line: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 2002)

On Idleness

Only those who take idly what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take idly. 能閒世人之所忙者方能忙世人之所閒。

Of all things, one enjoys idleness most, but not because one does nothing. Idleness confers upon one the freedom to read, to travel, to make friends, to drink, and to write. Where is there a greater pleasure than this? 人莫樂於閒,非為所事事之謂也。閒則能讀書。閒則能遊名勝。閒則能交益友。閒則能飲酒。閒則能著書。天下之樂孰大於是。(Zhang Chao 張潮, Shadows of Secluded Dreams 幽夢影, quoted in Duncan Campbell, On Idleness)

Telling Stories

Difficile est proprie communia dicere (Horace)

’Tis hard to venture where our betters fail, / Or lend fresh interest to a twice-told tale
(as translated by Byron, who used the Latin original in the dedication to Don Juan, 1818) [JA]


Stories are not mere flights of fantasy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it. Primo Levi once said, ‘I write in order to rejoin the community of mankind.’ Reading is a private act, but it joins us across continents and time. (Azar Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination: A Case for Fiction, London: Windmill Books, 2014, p.5)

I object to the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more ‘useful’ fields. In fact, imaginative knowledge is pragmatic: it helps shape our attitude to the world and our place in it and influences our capacity to make decisions. Politicians, educators, businessmen — we are all affected by this vision or its lack. If it is true that in a democracy, imagination and ideas are secondary, a sort of luxury, then what is the purpose of life in such a society? (Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination, pp.11-12)

The Story

Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third. As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to the question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times. We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically, or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who possessed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tell it in any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state or a traitor to the faith. You have no rights. Woe betide you! We will come after you and teach you the meaning of your refusal. (Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012, pp.360-361)


‘Just remember,’ I told them [the students], ‘the word “civilization” is transformed on the very first page by Huck into “sivilization”. That is a clue to the whole book — that slight change in spelling subverts the word’s meaning and implications. …

… One day a student brought in the Persian translation of Huck Finn and showed me how the well-meaning translator had simplified matters for his readers by rendering “sivilization” in its correct Farsi spelling. This had led to a long discussion in class about the issue of integrity and the fact that in every novel, including this one — indeed, perhaps especially in this one — words were flesh, blood and bones, as well as soul and spirit. You have a right to interpret them however you wish, but no right — no right — to mutilate them or to perform plastic surgery on the text for your own comfort and pleasure. (Nafisi, The Republic of Imagination, pp.67-68)


I met Andy Warhol only once, and I wasn’t sure it was happening even then. Theoretically he was still alive at the time, but he had the handshake of a ghost. It was beyond limp – just a cellophane sack full of liquid, like the water bombs we made in school. But the hand was a miracle of vitality compared to his face. Transparent of skin and with the eyes of a salmon on a marble slab, he would have made Lazarus, emerging from the family vault, look more animated than Billy Crystal. Our encounter happened in London, not Palestine, but there was something biblical about the features thinly painted on the front of that balsa skull, under the canopy of stark white fibre-optic hair. There was a post mortem solemnity there, an intimate knowledge of the world beyond the tomb. Perhaps, after he had been shot a few years earlier by one of his bedraggled platoon of untalented actresses, he had journeyed through the netherworld while on life support. His smile — a computer-generated rearrangement of crumbling tissue — seemed to suggest that he had met me down there, and was as glad as a zombie could be to see me again. It was kind of him, because he had no idea who I was. And of course I wasn’t anybody. Everybody Warhol knew was a celebrity. Therefore he did not know me.

For a fleeting moment I felt bad about that. I didn’t want it to be such a comedown for the man who had lunch with Jackie O to be having his hand squeezed by Clive Zero. Besides, I quite admired him. I didn’t think much of his paintings, which struck me as sheets of stamps designed by the semi-gifted daughter of a Third World despot. I couldn’t see why a silk-screen photograph of the electric chair should be more interesting than the actual electric chair, which at least transmits some kind of thrill, even if fatal. But I had been impressed by his much-quoted prediction that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes. The prediction was so obviously already coming true. And he had said it well, and saying something well is almost as good as doing something. Somewhere in what passed for my brain in those days, I was already struggling towards the conclusion that if somebody did something they had a right to be somebody, but merely being somebody meant nothing if being somebody was the only thing that somebody did. (Clive James, Save Us from Celebrity, A speech delivered at the Australian Commercial Radio Conference, 16 October 2004)


Hypocrisy is the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that any man can pursue; it needs an unceasing vigilance and a rare detachment of spirit. It cannot, like adultery or gluttony, be practised at spare moments; it is a whole-time job. (Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale, 1930) [RR]

A Writing Life

The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they abandon individual ambition — in many cases, indeed, they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong to this class. (George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’, 1946) [RR]

Zhuangzi’s Turtle

Once, when Chuang Tzu was fishing in the P’u River, the king of Ch’u sent two officials to go and announce to him: ‘I would like to trouble you with the administration of my realm.’ 莊子釣於濮水,楚王使大夫二人往先焉,曰:願以境內累矣!

Chuang Tzu held on to the fishing pole and, without turning his head, said, ‘I have heard that there is a sacred tortoise in Ch’u that has been dead for three thousand years. The king keeps it wrapped in cloth and boxed, and stores it in the ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its bones left behind and honored? Or would it rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?’ 莊子持竿不顧,曰:吾聞楚有神龜,死已三千歲矣,王巾笥而藏之廟堂之上。此龜者,寧其死為留骨而貴乎,寧其生而曳尾塗中乎?

‘It would rather be alive and dragging its tail in the mud,’ said the two officials. 二大夫曰:寧生而曳尾塗中。

Chuang Tzu said, ‘Go away! I’ll drag my tail in the mud!’ 莊子曰:往矣!吾將曳尾於塗中。 (From ‘Autumn Waters’, Zhuangzi 莊子秋水, translated by Burton Watson)

On Confucius

This must be none other than that crafty hypocrite Kung Ch’iu from the state of Lu! Well, tell him this for me. You make up your stories, invent your phrases, babbling absurd eulogies of kings Wen and Wu. Topped with a cap like a branching tree, wearing a girdle made from the ribs of a dead cow, you pour out your flood of words, your fallacious theories. You eat without ever plowing, clothe yourself without ever weaving. Wagging your lips, clacking your tongue, you invent any kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that suits you, leading astray the rulers of the world, keeping the scholars of the world from returning to the Source, capriciously setting up ideals of ‘filial piety’ and ‘brotherliness,’ all the time hoping to worm your way into favor with the lords of the fiefs or the rich and eminent! Your crimes are huge, your offenses grave. You had better run home as fast as you can, because if you don’t, I will take your liver and add it to this afternoon’s menu! 此夫魯國之巧偽人孔丘非邪?為我告之:爾作言造語,妄稱文武,冠枝木之冠,帶死牛之脅,多辭繆說,不耕而食,不織而衣,搖唇鼓舌,擅生是非,以迷天下之主,使天下學士不反其本,妄作孝弟而僥倖於封侯富貴者也。子之罪大極重,疾走歸!不然,我將以子肝益晝之膳!(From ‘Robber Zhi’, Zhuangzi 莊子盜跖, translated by Burton Watson)

Soul Destroying

He had also learnt about the destruction of the human soul. Well, life is not a walk across a field, as the saying goes. A soul could be destroyed in one of three ways: by what others did to you; by what others made you do to yourself; and by what you voluntarily chose to do to yourself. Any single method was sufficient; though if all three were present, the outcome was irresistible. (Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time, p.166)

On the People

In the forty-odd years from the start of the Cultural Revolution to the present, the expression ‘the people’ has been denuded of meaning by Chinese realities. To use a current buzzword, ‘the people’ has become nothing more than a shell company, utilized by different eras to position different products in the marketplace. 从文革开始到今天的四十多年,「人民」这个词汇在中国的现实里好像是空的。用现在中国流行的经济术语来说,「人民」只是一个壳资源,不同的时代以不同的内容用它借壳上市。(Yu Hua, China in Ten Words, 2011) [JW]

Traihson de clercs

But what is sinister…is that the conscious enemies of liberty are those to whom liberty ought to mean most. The big public do not care about the matter one way or the other. They are not in favour of persecuting the heretic, and they will not exert themselves to defend him. They are at once too sane and too stupid to acquire the totalitarian outlook. The direct, conscious attack on intellectual decency comes from the intellectuals themselves. (George Orwell, ‘The Prevention of Literature’, 1946) [RR]