“A properly civilizing task is to revisit old commonplace things.”
In the story Stealing a Peach Pu Songling tells of witnessing an incredible conjurer trick which, were it known from only this account, would surely be discounted as fruit of his rich imagination. The trick, as told by the old master, consists of a conjurer throwing a cord into the sky, which immediately snaps tout and extends as far up as the eyes can see. The conjurer’s assistant then climbs the cord on some pretext (in the story it is to steal a peach from the heavenly garden), and disappears from view. First, a peach falls from the sky to be followed by severed limbs falling one by one, followed by the severed head and torso of the assistant. The conjurer then gathers the scattered body parts, puts them in a bag, and then suddenly the assistant jumps out alive and well out of the bag. All of this happens in front of the eyes of thousands of onlookers. Unbelievable. However, virtually the same trick is narrated in the chronicles of that greatest traveler of all – Ibn Battuta – who saw it during his visit to the imperial court in Beijing around the year 1348, more than 300 years earlier than Pu Songling. Thankfully, wikisource saves me from typing the entire story as narrated by Pu Songling and Ibn Battuta by providing the relevant section in a footnote to the Travels of Marco Polo here:
“That same night a juggler, who was one of the Kan’s slaves, made his appearance, and the Amir said to him, ‘Come and show us some of your marvels.’ Upon this he took a wooden ball, with several holes in it, through which long thongs were passed, and, laying hold of one of these, slung it into the air. It went so high that we lost sight of it altogether. (It was the hottest season of the year, and we were outside in the middle of the palace court.) There now remained only a little of the end of a thong in the conjuror’s hand, and he desired one of the boys who assisted him to lay hold of it and mount. He did so, climbing by the thong, and we lost sight of him also! The conjuror then called to him three times, but getting no answer, he snatched up a knife as if in a great rage, laid hold of the thong, and disappeared also! By and bye he threw down one of the boy’s hands, then a foot, then the other hand, and then the other foot, then the trunk, and last of all the head! Then he came down himself, all puffing and panting, and with his clothes all bloody, kissed the ground before the Amir, and said something to him in Chinese. The Amir gave some order in reply, and our friend then took the lad’s limbs, laid them together in their places, and gave a kick, when, presto! there was the boy, who got up and stood before us! All this astonished me beyond measure, and I had an attack of palpitation like that which overcame me once before in the presence of the Sultan of India, when he showed me something of the same kind. They gave me a cordial, however, which cured the attack. The Kazi Afkharuddin was next to me, and quoth he, ‘Wallah! ’tis my opinion there has been neither going up nor coming down, neither marring nor mending; ’tis all hocus pocus!'”
If that story is not enough, there is the eyewitness account of a Western traveler – one Edward Melton – who witnessed the trick in a performance by a Chinese troupe of conjurers while visiting Batavia (Jakarta) in 1670 – more or less the same time Pu Songling saw it in his native Shandong. Melton’s story goes as follows:
“But now I am going to relate a thing which surpasses all belief, and which I should scarcely venture to insert here had it not been witnessed by thousands before my own eyes. One of the same gang took a ball of cord, and grasping one end of the cord in his hand slung the other up into the air with such force that its extremity was beyond reach of our sight. He then immediately climbed up the cord with indescribable swiftness, and got so high that we could no longer see him. I stood full of astonishment, not conceiving what was to come of this; when lo! a leg came tumbling down out of the air. One of the conjuring company instantly snatched it up and threw it into the basket whereof I have formerly spoken. A moment later a hand came down, and immediately on that another leg. And in short all the members of the body came thus successively tumbling from the air and were cast together into the basket. The last fragment of all that we saw tumble down was the head, and no sooner had that touched the ground than he who had snatched up all the limbs and put them in the basket turned them all out again topsy-turvy. Then straightway we saw with these eyes all those limbs creep together again, and in short, form a whole man, who at once could stand and go just as before, without showing the least damage! Never in my life was I so astonished as when I beheld this wonderful performance, and I doubted now no longer that these misguided men did it by the help of the Devil. For it seems to me totally impossible that such things should be accomplished by natural means.”
I am reading Pu Songling‘s Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio with 19th century Chinese lithograph illustrations for each story, and they are simply exquisite pieces of wonder. A master storyteller narrating a world of ghosts, fox-spirits, Taoist wizards, Buddhist holy men, macabre murders, surreal love, wall paintings serving as gateways to alternate realities, and an everyday life thoroughly blended with magic. As Pu Songling introduces the stories:
With every story I read I keep returning more and more to my recent trek through China. Here is an excerpt from The Taoist Priest of Mount Lao:
The recent action in Kyrgyzstan prompted a lot of speculation on spheres of influence, hands under the table belonging to the usual suspects, the great game, etc. Tom Barnett has some very insightful comments on China’s role in this and the wider neighborhood. This relates in a way to the earlier post on complexity – the Chinese do not engage as much with the ‘center’ of adjacent systems, but instead try to interconnect economically with the local ‘peripheries’. A low-radar high-impact strategy. Key bit from Barnett for me:
“If anything, China’s rise and the growing organized resistance it generates means its diplomacy is arguably the biggest change-agent on the planet right now–even bigger than our own, because everybody is simultaneously adjusting to and preparing against China’s trajectory.”
Interesting perspectives on China, Pettis is a professor and Beijing University, and Roach is the Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia.
China is misread by bulls and bears alike, by Michael Pettis, FT.com
“Will China collapse? No. It may have a painful financial contraction, but this will not necessarily lead to a collapse in growth. Instead it will grind away at its overinvestment and excess capacity, which, with a reversal of the favourable demographics enjoyed since the mid-1970s, will slow growth sharply, but this will coincide with three more favourable circumstances.
Blaming China will not solve America’s problem, by Stephen Roach, FT.com
“The US would be far better served if it faced up to why it is confronted with a massive multilateral trade deficit. America’s core economic problem is saving, not China. In 2009, the broadest measure of domestic US saving – the net national saving rate – fell to a record low of -2.5 per cent of national income. That means America must import surplus saving from abroad to fund its future growth – and run current account and trade deficits to attract the foreign capital. Thus, for a savings-short economy, there is no escaping large multilateral trade imbalances.”