In 783 CE, a mutiny erupted in the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and forced the Dezong Emperor (742-805) into exile. When the rebels declared a new dynasty and elected a new emperor, a high-ranking Tang general by the name of Zhang Guangsheng defected to join them. Within a year, however, as the rebels kept failing to capture the Dezong Emperor and expand their territories, Zhang began to have second thoughts. He secretly contacted an old army friend who stayed loyal to the Tang and agreed to help the Dezong Emperor chase the rebels out and restore the capital. Zhang then tricked the rebels into retreating from the capital, upon which he immediately declared his loyalty back to the Tang and welcomed the return of the Dezong Emperor to the capital.
Zhang thought he would be rewarded as a hero, but he could not be more mistaken. Pressured by public outcry, the army friend Zhang contacted put him in jail and asked the Dezong Emperor to decide on his fate. The latter ruled that even though Zhang did help put an end to the rebellion, he nonetheless joined it in the first place. On the day of Zhang’s decapitation, as the executioner asked whether he had any final words, Zhang, on his knees, uttered the following words:
“Tell our descendants: either don’t do it, or just carry it through.”
Typical both for an epithet and for Classical Chinese prose, we have no idea what exactly was Zhang referring to when uttering this phrase that would end up being a classic Chinese proverb encouraging people to carry through what they have begun. Was he speaking specifically in context of the world of political intrigues, where, perhaps just like in the world of marital affairs, “once a cheater, always a cheater,” and thus once you start cheating never dream of going back? Or was he speaking of the need of perseverance for any undertaking, from something as grand as military tactics and political reforms to something as small as reading a dull novel and, well, starting a blog?
As an academic writer, I have always been told that it takes me way, way, way to long to get to the point. And there you have it, my wandering reader: some three-hundred words later and I am finally declaring that <fanfare> I AM STARTING A BLOG </fanfare> and I WISH I COULD ACTUALLY CARRY IT THROUGH.
As a Chinese person who has lived in the United States for almost a decade, I have had little problem staying fed, sheltered, semi-employed (since being a grad student doesn’t necessary count as “working”), and blissfully partnered while only relying on English. And I can even proudly say that the last time someone complimented my English before knowing that I didn’t grow up in the USA was at least eight years ago! Still, almost every day I find myself in situations where I wish, wish, wish I could just say something in Chinese so that the other person would understand exactly how I see the world and feel about it. These occasions include, for example, when Ivanka Trump finally suggested a few weeks ago that his father’s children-separation policy on the southern borders was rather heartless, I immediately exclaimed a classic Chinese proverb: “hah, trying to capture the pawn with a cannon when the opponent’s already moved the knight” (in Mandarin Chinese: 馬後炮 ma hou pao) — but of course no one would understand this perfect, perfect, perfect illustration of how utterly feckless our special advisor to the president was without not only understanding Chinese but also knowing how Chinese chess works. By the time one could have explained that, however, one’s partner will have certainly moved on to more interesting things, for example why the cat has sat in the couch for the entire day without moving.
And thus the idea for Chinese Logic. I want to be able to write—just write, without all the self-doubt, fear, trepidation, self-judgement, procrastination, anxiety, etc etc associated with academic writing—about these little moments of life which the Chinese language and the Chinese ways of thinking have provided perfect ways to capture. I particularly want to write about Chinese proverbs, since very often they describe situations in life English simply doesn’t give an easy way to verbalize — or at least not as interesting or, I guess, scatological a way of doing so. And thus, rather than an academic survey of classic Chinese proverbs or sayings, I want to focus on those expressions and phrases that have lightened up parts of my mundane life as a semi-soul-crushed Chinese writer, grad student, and millennial that would have otherwise slipped away from the webs of English.
You see, each language/dialect has its own web for capturing these little moments of life, but sometimes, or even very often, these webs slightly differ from one another. And that’s why I hope Chinese Logic: How the Chinese see the World — and Talk About It may help you notice some of those moments in your life that you might have otherwise missed while thinking in another language.
And of course if you want to know how “a Chinese person thinks” and sell them more products — there are 1.4 billion of us, after all — that works too.