I spent a better part of the afternoon last night learning about the irreversible nature of time. I was at an exhibition of Qing curio boxes -- an interesting show both on account of the technical mastery required to produce them; and on account of their kinship with the contemporaneous western Wunderkammer collections -- kinship with a difference: instead of collecting, like any other normal people, objects the Chinese curio collectors collected... their miniature effigies.
One could wax philosophical here on the Huntington themes, but a much simpler message forced itself upon me: I discovered that I was too old for the show. The objects were small, behind glass and the light was dim. I squinted at them glasslessly, then through my reading glasses, then in my prescription glasses, finally with the help of a small magnifying glass; yet, from more than half of the displays I had to walk away unsatisfied: I would never catch the details. It was all nothing but blur to me. I have missed, it would seem, the chance to admire them.
I suppose this is what happened to my Taiwanese friends, too. Encouraged -- compelled! -- by their families, teachers, and friends, they went out and were productive: they worked 12-hour a day jobs, saved and economized, and gave birth to numerous children. Now, thirty years of hard work has born its fruit: their children are healthy and tall, intelligent and well educated, and soon they will be loosed upon the world to make their mark upon it. And they have amassed a great deal of property which they will pass on to their children: several apartments in the city, acres of land and houses in the countryside. (Being traditional Chinese they believe in only one store of value: land). But they have grown old and frail; their bodies have acquired the usual long list of chronic complaints; not debilitating, by any means, but enough to make simple comfort a matter of considerable rarity and difficulty. They have lived this otherwise successful life frugally and selflessly, devoid of luxuries and pleasures, without the smallest measure of self-indulgence (except, of course, for food, which was always simple, economic fare). Now, knowing them as closely as I do (as a non-Chinese outsider I am on occasion able to pierce the veil of pretense imposed by the society) I know what few do: how intensely unhappy they have been all these years; how much they have had to sacrifice; how much pleasure and gratification they have delayed, thinking sometimes no doubt that it was temporarily delayed, while it fact it was, as they now well know, like my ability to appreciate Qing curios, foregone; lost never to come back.
Today, their happiness consists in this: at their parents' farm, over the Chinese New Year, four generations of Lims sat down to eat a sumptuous feast: 78 people: 2 parents, 12 children, 62 grandchildren, and -- a sign of things to come, the first shoots of the next generation -- 2 great-grand-children. This was their success. It sounds Biblical. The earth has been populated. The Lim tribe has become an economic power to reckon with. The Lim ancestors have been assured of progeny to sustain them into infinity by their worship1.
Yet, for me, it is hard to tell what my friends have gained through this personally. Millionairies, they still economize. He insists on wearing plastic shoes to work. She will still not send laundry out to wash.
Yet, sitting with their relatives at the jam-packed six tables, eating and talking, they say they are content. This is the warmth of the family, they say; this is their reward. Anyone who knows the Taiwanese knows that being in their company can be nothing but pure pleasure; not only for us, foreigners, I am sure, but, surely, for the Taiwanese themselves. If you didn't know them as I do, you would never know what I do -- and what they seem not to remember on most days -- the cost in self-sacrifice and denial paid for this family warmth.
On the fourth day of the New Year, six nephews and nieces -- all between 18 and 22 -- drop in for a day on my friend, Mr Lim. He spends the morning cooking for them, and the afternoon feeding them, with an expression of absolute delight on his face. "You are their favorite uncle", I say to him, and he beams. He is the traditional ideal male: he lives to feed people. He likes it. If you ask him he will say, and he believes it firmly, that personal happiness is irrelevant.
My grandfather came from a similar background to his: a hard working, farming family of modest means. And he lived his life in a similar manner: relentlessly making a living in order to feed countless mouths; he paid for the project the way Mr Lim is still paying for his: by denying himself simple comforts and pleasures, by never resting and sleeping very little, by putting up with an unhappy marriage, cheap clothes, uncomfortable furniture; in short, by taking nothing for himself out of his life. Men like my grandfather, and Mr Lim, think themselves virtuous; and think virtue to consist in constantly giving and taking nothing in return. Virtue to them is a kind of perpetuum mobile, an economic engine which never stops and runs on empty. It is hard not to admire these wonderful traditional men. But it is also difficult not to feel sad for them.
But perhaps one should not. Their life protects them against one pain at least, the pain of the Chinese curio box. They'll never know what they are missing there; and -- they won't miss it.
Footnote: On the origin of the surname Lin (Lim)
1 During the reign of Shang Zhou, 1154 BC to 1122 BC, the last king of the Shang dynasty (1783 BC to 1122 BC) had 3 of his uncles advising him and his administration. The king's uncles were Bi Gan (also spelled Pi Kan), Qi Zi and Wei Zi. Together the 3 men were known as "The Three Kindhearted Men of Shang" in the kingdom.
Bi Gan was the son of Prince Ding, son of Emperor Shang and, thus, was King Zhou's uncle.
Unfortunately, Zhou was a cruel king and the state's citizens suffered tremendously. His 3 uncles could not persuade him to change his ways. Failing in their duty to advise the king, Wei Zi resigned. Qi Zi faked insanity and was relieved of his post. Only Bi Gan stayed on to continue advising the king to change his ways. “Servants who are afraid of being killed and refrain from telling the truth are not righteous,” he said. This put him in danger of incurring the king's wrath. Bi Gan stayed at the palace for three days and nights to try to persuade the bloodthirsty and immoral king to mend his ways.
The stubborn king would not relent and had his uncle, Bi Gan, arrested for treason. Upon hearing this, his pregnant wife (surname Chen) escaped into the forest to protect her unborn child from death. She knew, in time, the king would execute Bi Gan and his entire family. In the forest the baby was born. Alone with no one to help, she grabbed hold of two trees and gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jian. When she reached the nearest town, she gave her child the surname Lin (Chinese character depicted by two trees).
Thanks to the efforts of my friends, the spirits of Bi Gan and his son are well taken care of for decades to come.