Other People’s Thoughts, IV

Other People’s Thoughts is a section of the China Heritage site featured in our Journal. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations made by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors.

Pierre remarked that the modest volume of quotations recorded over his reading life 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 compendium, 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 (this is the fourth instalment in the series), 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.


For more Other People’s Thoughts see here.

— Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage
6 August 2017

Repeating History

We used to solemnly say that unless you study history you’re destined to repeat it; I reckon people study it now in order to repeat it. (Rob Sitch’s Dystopia, ABC Late Night Live, 25 July 2017)


The dead are invisible, not absent. (Saint Augustine of Hippo, 354-430CE)

The study of history is a revolutionary study: if things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future; they could even be better. (Hilary Mantel, Q&A session, The Iron Maiden, The BBC Reith Lectures, 20 June 2017)

Appointments with the Past

If I am walking through [Paris] and look into one of those quiet courtyards where nothing has changed for decades, I feel, almost physically, the current of time slowing down in the gravitational field of oblivion. It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time. And might it not be, continued Austerlitz, that we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and we must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time, so to speak? (W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz)


What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious. (Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia)

On Civilisation

The true wellspring of civilization isn’t writing; it is editing. (Nathan Heller, Mark as Read)

Individualism and Evil

… the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated, something even a seasoned impost couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin; not even by a minority. Evil is a sucker for solidity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets. Its proclivity for such things has to do with its innate insecurity, but his realisation, again, is of small comfort when Evil Triumphs. (Joseph Brodsky, A Commencement Address)


I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. (Oliver Sacks, My Own Life, 19 February 2015)

Democracy in Hong Kong

Of course we believe in ‘one man, one vote’. And the one man with the one vote lives in Beijing. (Hong Kong joke)

Eating Chinese

Our vaunted Chinese civilisation is only a feast of human flesh prepared for the rich and mighty. And China is only the kitchen where these feasts are prepared. Those who praise China because they do not know this are excusable, but the rest deserve to be condemned forever! 所謂中國的文明者,其實不過是安排給闊人享用的人肉的筵宴。所謂中國者,其實不過是安排這人肉的筵宴的廚房。不知道而讚頌者是可恕的,否則,此輩當得永遠的詛咒!

Those foreigners who praise us, not knowing this, are excusable. And so are those whose high position and pampered life have made them dull-witted and blind. But there are two other types. Once considers the Chinese and inferior race which deserves to be no better off than it is, and therefore deliberately commend all that is old in China. The other likes every country to look different in order to make travelling more interesting… . Both these types are detestable… . 外國人中,不知道而讚頌者,是可恕的;佔了高位,養尊處優,因此受了蠱惑,昧卻靈性而讚歎者,也還可恕的。可是還有兩種,其一是以中國人為劣種,只配悉照原來模樣,因而故意稱讚中國的舊物。其一是願世間人各不相同以增自己旅行的興趣… .

Foreigners are not the only ones to be intoxicated by this civilisation: every Chinese too is smiling in intoxication. Because the hierarchy handed down since ancient times has estranged them from each other, they cannot feel each other’s pain; and because each can hope to enslave and eat other men, he forgets that he may be enslaved and eaten himself. Thus since the dawn of civilisation countless feasts — large and small ‚ of human flesh have been spread, and those at these feasts eat others and are eaten themselves; by the anguished cries of the weak, to say nothing of the women and the children, are drowned in the senseless clamour of the murderers. 這文明,不但使外國人陶醉,也早使中國一切人們無不陶醉而且至於含笑。因為古代傳來而至今還在的許多差別,使人們各各分離,遂不能再感到別人的痛苦;並且因為自己各有奴使別人,吃掉別人的希望,便也就忘卻自己同有被奴使被吃掉的將來。於是大小無數的人肉的筵宴,即從有文明以來一直排到現在,人們就在這會場中吃人,被吃,以凶人的愚妄的歡呼,將悲慘的弱者的呼號遮掩,更不消說女人和小兒。

Feasts of human flesh are still being spread, even now, and many people want them to continue. To sweep away these man-eaters, overturn these feasts and destroy this kitchen is the task of the young folk today! 這人肉的筵宴現在還排著,有許多人還想一直排下去。掃蕩這些食人者,掀掉這筵席,毀坏這廚房,則是現在的青年的使命!(Lu Xun, ‘Some Notions Jotted Down by Lamplight’ 燈下漫筆, 29 April 1925, trans. Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, Lu Xun Selected Works, Volume Two, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1989, pp.156-157.)

The Impossibility of Writing

The more luck I have, that is to say, the more gifted I am in making my unhappiness felt by description, embellishments, and images, the more the bad luck this misfortune reports is respected. It is as if the possibility that my writing represents essentially exists to express its own impossibility – the impossibility of writing that constitutes my sadness. Not only can it not be put in parentheses, or accommodate it without destroying it or being destroyed by it, but it really is possible only because of its impossibility.

…[Literature] objectifies pain by forming it into an object. It does not express it, it makes it exist on another level, it gives it a materiality which is no longer that of the body but the materiality of words which represent the upheaval of the world that suffering claims to be. (Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire) [GD]

The Fourth of July 1852

Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. ‘What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?’ Douglass asked:

I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. (David Remnick, American Dignity on the Fourth of July)

On Women and Power

If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. (Debbie Walsh, Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University)

Ai Weiwei on Liu Xiaobo

‘To me, it is disgusting. For any Chinese [who] looks at that – I mean, my God, just for the money,’ he said. ‘There are so many people, lawyers, or human rights defenders or activists, in jail, and many of them in secret detention without trial for years – and they are all being mistreated.’ …

‘Each of those deals sacrifices someone like Xiaobo. So don’t pretend, when Liu Xiaobo is dying, or Liu Xiaobo [is in] such difficult circumstances, don’t pretend anybody is innocent.’ (Ai Weiwei on Liu Xiaobo, The Guardian, 10 July 2017)

The Liar

How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind! After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence. If a man is sufficiently unimaginative to produce evidence in support of a lie, he might just as well speak the truth at once. (Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’)

Learning Another Language

The decision to learn a foreign language is to me an act of friendship. It is indeed a holding out of the hand. It’s not just a route to negotiation. It’s also to get to know you better, to draw closer to you and your culture, your social manners and your way of thinking. And the decision to teach a foreign language is an act of commitment, generosity and mediation. (John le Carré, Why we should learn German)


An acronym from the expression ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’, originally used in Irish politics.

A Poem by Red Inkstone 

Why waste this floating life in fret and toil?
The happiest revellers must finally say goodbye.

Today and yesterday are but one dream,
Sorrow and joy mere shreds of vanity.

Mock not the anguish of love’s folly,
Mock not these silly girlish tears.

Each word you read was penned in blood,
Bitter fruit of ten most painful years.





(甲戌本《脂硯齋重評石頭記》, trans. John Minford)