Saturday, July 4, 2015

"Puja" in India; "Cultivation" in China

from Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion
In 1996 I attended an exhibition in Washington, DC, at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery -- the Asian Art museum within the Smithsonian Institution -- called "Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion."

The exhibition was an illumination of the Indian spiritual practice of puja, which is a ritual calling forth of one or another god. Puja is about coming into communion with the divine.

Part of the Sackler exhibition was a 12-minute video. I thought the video (also entitled Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion and available online) was a marvelous crystallization of Indian culture for someone like me, who perhaps had awareness of several threads from Indian music, art, religion, and other aspects of popular culture, but had never had a way to synthesize them.

I bought a copy of the Puja: Expressions of Hindu Devotion video and brought it back to Chicago with me and watched it over and over.

So what about China?

This video -- this wonderful 12-minute crystallization of culture -- and the larger exhibition associated with it started me wondering: what would the analogous concept for China be?

Having spent years studying Chinese language and culture, living surrounded by hundreds of books about China, and having traveled back and forth across China doing business for the previous decade, I felt the strange sensation of being surrounded by trees and not being able to perceive the forest. I felt like I understood something clearly about India -- a place I'd never been and a culture I'd barely experienced. Could I point to some analogous concepts and practices that I felt characterized the Chinese approach to being in the world?

I rolled the idea around in my mind for a while, and then landed on the word "cultivation."

Seven ways of knowledge, seven kinds of "cultivation"

It seemed to me that if, indeed, "cultivation" was the right concept for summing up diverse aspects of how Chinese culture encourages people to be in the world, there should multiple expressions of it. At the time, I was very interested in Howard Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences, and so it occurred to me to wonder if there were multiple notions of "cultivation" in Chinese culture that might touch on multiple intelligences.

And so my system for understanding began to unspool itself . . .

Students practice calligraphy (Source: Temasek Secondary School, Singapore )

Linguistic - Clearly, it seemed to me, the place to start was "linguistic intelligence" - using words effectively. In China, the hallmark of a scholar is a cultivated knowledge of Chinese language, and a love of Chinese characters, especially including skill at poetry, knowledge of classic works, and adoring creation of artistic calligraphy.

Tai Chi practitioners on the waterfront in Shanghai -
a frequent early morning sight during my travels there.
Bodily-kinesthetic - China has a highly developed tradition of achieving cultivation through bodily-kinesthetic activity - e.g. Tai Chi and other martial arts practices.

But in this category I would also count certain sensory pursuits.  For instance, the cultivation of tea connoisseurship -- and for that matter, many forms of gastronomy -- are highly valued in China.

Interpersonal - China has a particular approach to interpersonal intelligence, known as guanxi (often translated as "connections").

I was deeply impressed by the Chinese sociologist, Fei Xiaotong, who said that Chinese people conceptualize themselves as located within a "web" of relationships.  He contrasted this with the Western conception of concentric circles of relationships, which may incline Western people more frequently to make assumptions about interpersonal matters based on relative "relationship distance."

The "cultivation of relationships" is a concept known in every culture; in China, cultivating guanxi is raised to the status of art.

Intrapersonal - "Intrapersonal intelligence" involves knowledge of self. A selection from the Great Learning, on of the Four Books (Confucian classics), comes to mind:

"Heart" - Chinese calligraphy
The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the world, first ordered well their own States.
Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.
Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.
Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.
Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.
Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge.
Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.
Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.
Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.
From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

Could there be a more all-encompassing statement of the importance of self-cultivation?

A painting from a series of brush paintings by Qing Dynasty artist 
Sun Wen, depicting the garden from the novel Dream of the Red Chamber.

Visual-Spatial - To me, the love of gardens -- including flowers, landscaping, and architecture -- is where "cultivation" meets "visual-spatial intelligence" particularly strongly in Chinese culture.

For anyone who doubts this, perusing Maggie Keswick's book, The Chinese Garden: History, Art and Architecture, will clear the matter up.

A friend recently reminded me that, for several years, I was quite insistent that the City of Chicago should install a huge Chinese garden -- one designed to painstakingly replicate the garden that figures centrally in China's most famous novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, in the Chinatown area.

Musical - I am tempted to relate this discussion to learning classical Chinese instrumental music - the zither or lute, for instance - or to the cultivation of knowledge of Chinese opera.

But I think what is much more central is the way people enormous numbers of people cultivate their "musical intelligence" via the expressive use of spoken Chinese language, including all the possibilities provided by the musicality of the tones featured in Chinese speech.

Logical-Mathematical - I will reserve comment on this subject for another day. I feel, perhaps along with Joseph Needham, the need to immerse myself in more of the facts of the scientific and technological history of China before I can assess the centrality of any form of "logical-mathematical cultivation" to Chinese culture at large.


Back at that time, I couldn't resist sharing my insights. I wrote a letter to the director of the Sackler, Milo C. Beach, telling him how inspiring I had found the Puja exhibit, and explaining my thinking about a parallel China exhibit. I was very gratified to receive from him a warm response to my suggestion, and an invitation to come discuss it further with him and his colleagues in Washington, DC. (Which I did, soon afterward.)

Closer to home, I took the opportunity to do a series of children's events at the Chicago Public Library during Asian Cultural Month - a session on calligraphy, one on tea, etc.

I wonder if others will find "cultivation" a helpful unifying theme for understanding Chinese culture?

Related posts

The fourth thing Cloud Gate had going for them was that they operated a dance school. (This seemed marvelous to me at the time -- babe in the woods that I was -- though now I guess I understand that that's de rigeur for a dance company.) Invited/challenged by some of my (female) classmates to come check it out, I rode the bus up to the Cloud Gate studio northeast corner of Taipei, and thus began my short-lived career as a student of modern dance.

(See Taiwan Kinaesthetics: Cloud Gate Dance Theater )

"Zhang’s performances always involve his body in one way or another, usually naked, occasionally involving masochistic actions. For example, an exhibited photography showed him as "a naked man, his head half-shaved, sitting in a prisonlike space. His skin was wet and covered with flies. His face looked blank but tough, as if he were trying to meditate his way through pain."

(See The New Face of Social Protest In Hong Kong )

"Cigarettes" . . . "Liquor" . . . "Tea" . . . "Candy" . . . in the film Still Life also all contain the promise of connectedness. They are the social lubricants that enable people who find each other across the vast space of China -- and dwarfed by the gargantuan Three Gorges environment -- to grope toward some small bit of connection. They are small things, to be sure, but they are accessible to anyone and can be deployed in order to gain establish a lifeline, no matter how foreign the circumstances.

(See Long Life, Connected Lives)