De Simon Leys. The Hall of Uselessness

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Simon Leys, The hall of uselessness  (By Way of a Foreword)

 Everyone knows the usefulness of what is useful,but few know the usefulness of what is useless. —ZHUANG ZI

TRADITIONALLY, Chinese scholars, men of letters, artists would give an inspiring name to their residences, hermitages, libraries and studios. Sometimes they did not actually possess residences, hermitages, libraries or studios—not even a roof over their heads—but the existence or non-existence of a material support for a Name never appeared to them a very relevant issue. And I wonder if one of the deepest seductions of Chinese culture is not related to this conjuring power with which it vests the Written Word. I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality. Let me give you just one modest example, which hit me long ago, when I was an ignorant young student.

In Singapore, I often patronised a small movie theatre which showed old films of Peking operas. The theatre itself was a flimsy open-air structure planted in a paddock by the side of the road (at that time, Singapore still had a countryside): a wooden fence enclosed two dozen rows of seats—long planks resting on trestles. In the rainy season, towards the end of the afternoon, there was always a short heavy downpour, and when the show started, just after dark, the planks often had not yet had time to dry; thus, at the box-office, with your ticket, you received a thick old newspaper to cushion your posterior against the humidity. Everything in the theatre was shoddy and ramshackle—everything except the signpost with the theatre’s name hanging above the entrance: two characters written in a huge and generous calligraphy, Wen Guang—which could be translated as “Light of Civilisation” or “Light of the Written-Word” (it is the same thing). However, later on in the show, sitting under the starry sky and watching on screen Ma Lianliang give his sublime interpretation of the part of the wisest minister of the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), you realised that—after all—this “Light of Civilisation” was no hollow boast.

Now, back to The Hall of Uselessness. It was a hut located in the heart of a refugee shantytown of Hong Kong (Kowloon side). To reach it at night, one needed an electric torch, for there were no lights and no roads—only a dark maze of meandering paths across a chaos of tin and plywood shacks; there were open drains by the side of the paths, and fat rats ran under the feet of passers-by. For two years I enjoyed there the fraternal hospitality of a former schoolmate, whom I knew from Taiwan—he was an artist (calligrapher and seal-carver) sharing a place with two postgraduate students, a philologist and a historian. We slept on bunks in a single common room. This room was naturally a complete mess—anywhere else it would have resembled a dismal slum, but here all was redeemed by the work of my friend: one superb calligraphy (in seal-script style) hanging on the wall—Wu Yong Tang, “The Hall of Uselessness.” If taken at face value, it had a touch of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation; in fact, it contained a very cheeky double-meaning. The words (chosen by our philologist companion, who was a fine scholar) alluded to a passage from The Book of Changes, the most ancient, most holy (and most obscure) of all the Chinese classics, which said that “in springtime the dragon is useless.” This, in turn, according to commentaries, meant that in their youth the talents of superior men (promised to a great future) must remain hidden.

I spent two years in The Hall of Uselessness; these were intense and joyful years—when learning and living were one and the same thing. The best description of this sort of experience was given by John Henry Newman. In his classic The Idea of a University, he made an amazingly bold statement: he said that if he had to choose between two types of universities, one in which eminent professors teach students who come to the university only to attend lectures and sit for examinations, and the other where there are no professors, no lectures, no examinations and no degrees, but where the students live together for two or three years, he would choose the second type. He concluded, “How is this to be explained? When a multitude of young men, keen, open-hearted, sympathetic and observant as young men are, come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn from one another, even if there be no one to teach them; the conversation of all is a series of lectures to each, and they gain for themselves new ideas and views, fresh matter of thought and distinct principles for judging and acting day by day.”

I hope I have remained faithful to the memory of The Hall of Uselessness—not in the meaning intended by my friends (for I am afraid I am not exactly of the dragon breed!), but at least in the more obvious meaning of Zhuang Zi, quoted above. Yet is this second aspiration more humble, or more ambitious? After all, this sort of “uselessness” is the very ground on which rest all the essential values of our common humanity. —S.L. Canberra, March 2011