Monday, January 16, 2012

Watching the Tree by Adeline Yen Mah

Synopsis from

The Chinese-American author of the poignant memoir Falling Leaves now reflects on "happiness, spiritual beliefs and universal wisdom". Like Libby Purves in Holy Smoke (1998) Yen Mah is not only exploring contrasting ways of thinking. She is also working out precisely what her own beliefs now are. The result is an exceptionally readable, thoughtful and informative book.

She starts with ancient Chinese texts. In the I Ching and Tao Te Ching her spiritual journey uncovers (among some superstitions which she dismisses) many correlations between centuries-old Chinese teaching and modern science. The 64 hexagrams upon which the I Ching is based, for example, are a version of binary mathematics, such as Gottfried von Leibniz used in 17th-century Germany to develop the calculus and which eventually formed the basis of computer science. Leibniz described the I Ching, as "the oldest monument of scholarship".

Explaining that Confucian thought--family unity, parental respect and emphasis on education--arches over every faith and philosophy extant among Chinese people wherever they are in the world, Yen Mah draws examples from her own troubled past. When disinherited by her stepmother and conspired against by her siblings, it was deep conditioning with Confucian thought that made detaching herself so difficult. She goes on to write interestingly of a wide range of aspects of Chinese thought and culture. The cultural role of Chinese food, for instance. She quotes the old saying Yi Shi Wei Liao, which means "let food be medicine". Traditionally a Chinese doctor didn't prescribe pills or powders. He ordered that health-restoring ingredients be cooked into a healing broth and fed to the patient. As a retired, British-trained doctor who practised in anaesthesia for 30 years in California, she is well placed to discuss the health-giving properties of tofu, green tea and Chinese vegetables. The scope of the book is such that she also considers the grammar of the Chinese language--so different from European notions of grammar that Chinese can seem grammar-free to Westerners. The "shape" of the language colours speakers' thinking because, as Yen Mah's beloved grandfather taught her: "Ours is a pictorial language and every word is a picture of an image or an idea expressed on paper". Each symbol carries its own logic, history, meaning and several contrasting or complementary ideas. Not for the Chinese any single answer to anything. --Susan Elkin

My Comments:

Bought this book not long ago. Many have praised this book but after reading about first 10-20 pages, I feel that this book is not for me. 

Reason is that it feels too much like a reference book to me. Too much lenghty discussion. Am unable to process what the book is about. 

Feel free to give it a try if you are interested in things related to Chinese culture and traditions.

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