Author Archives: Mengdi Xu

Cherry Blossom

Gently falling blossoms

Drifting like flakes of snow

Winter in the spring

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(I couldn’t get my scanner working, so in lieu of a sketch I’m posting this blurry picture I took from under the tree during hanami.)

I took this class as a full credit to round out my semester. I thought it would be an interesting experience, and hey, I hadn’t yet taken a small discussion-based “liberal arts” class at Tufts yet. When I came in to this course, I thought it would be easy, with some general discussion about how weird Japan is…I didn’t really know what to expect. However, the things that I’ve learned this semester have definitely come to shape my view of Japanese culture, but also my view of life in general. The theme of evanescence and form has really come to show me how life is easier when treated as restrained chaos; I know everything I do is impermanent, but also in its small way important in the tiny “form” of the period in which I am alive. While a lot of fatalism has been discussed in the class, I’ve never left Olin feeling defeatist after such a lecture, but rather more motivated to accomplish what I’ve set out to accomplish in the time that I have left (a weird thing to be saying at only 20). I’m very glad I’ve taken this course, and I’m looking forward to another semester with Inouye in the fall.

Posted in Week 14: Back to Monstrosity and Conclusions, Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | Leave a comment

Assimilation Nation

On Friday, I watched a square foot of snow slide off one of the eaves of West Hall and land on a student.

Shifting glacier

Pouring over black edges ―

A wet scream.

This week, we learned how the Japanese coped with the changing world. As we have learned over the past couple of weeks, Japanese culture is very different from western culture. There are rules, structures and formulas that don’t exactly line up with western values. One of the greatest examples of these inherently Japanese values is bushido, or the way of the samurai. Bushido was a strict code of honor that dictated how the noble warrior class of Japan behaved in all situations. The code was documented by Inazo Nitobe in his English-language text, Bushido: The Soul of Japan. In it, Nitobe makes a record of the ancient behavioral law with various examples and observations. In one instance, he describes the formalism of seppuku, in which a condemned samurai, after giving a speech, “stripped naked down to the waist…tucked his sleeves under his knees to prevent himself from falling backward…then stabbed himself deeply below the waist on the left-hand side…drew the dirk slowly across to his right side…never mov[ing] a muscle of his face” (Bushido 109-110). In another, he conveys a retainer’s loyalty when the sacrifice of the retainer’s own young son in the place of the son of his master causes the retainer to “rejoice…[for his] darling son has proved of service to his lord” (78). Both examples of bushido draw horrified reactions from Western readers, but are well-understood by even present-day Japanese, as the principles behind them are inherently Japanese (Inouye 87). However, as Japan moves towards the modern age, cultural forms like bushido begin to clash with the changing times. In the 18th century, new rules and regulations were set forth by the Tokugawa Shogunate in order to preserve a hard-earned peace (Inouye 3/6). However, these new laws (for example, the banning of freely-carried swords) conflicted with the ancient code of the samurai. The most striking example of this conflict is the struggle between the retainers of Asano Naganori and Kira Yoshinaka. The retainers followed the noble and ancient code of bushido by violently avenging the death of their master, thereby breaking the new rules set forth in a time of peace (Inouye 86-87). As a result, they are executed, but permitted to commit seppuku to die with honor, because they acted honorably according to the ancient laws. This schism between longstanding Japanese values and the changing world becomes more and more pronounced as Japan is bombarded by foreign powers, and the only way to to evade colonization is by adapting and integrating western culture with their own. As we enter the Meiji era, the old ways of Japan become form, while the country’s adaptive shifts become evanescence. However, Japan “respond[ed] positively to outside influence…as a result of its own well-established base” (Inouye 103). The Japan that most people in the West envision today is representative of the mixture that occurred with the flood of Western culture (Inouye 103), and the deeper, older undercurrent of ancient, formal Japanese culture is often overlooked by mass media. But that undercurrent still persisted through the Western influence. As previously noted, the Japanese once saw China as the source of culture and learning. However, while the Japanese and Chinese had similar cultural roots, the Western influence was completely different. Japan played subservience to foreigners for a long time, with the Japanese changing their manners and styles of dress, and accepted modernity as inevitable (Inouye 3/6). But despite continuous outside influences descending on Japan, the Japanese values of rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honor, loyalty and self-control (Bushido) remained constant. Japanese form persisted through the evanescent cultural changes caused by foreign invasions.

Posted in Week 7: Bushido and the Transcendental Order | Leave a comment

Nature in a box.

I’m from Arizona, I don’t understand this weird half-rain half-snow thing New England seems to like to do.

Drops of ice

Shapeless in the light

Still wet.

(No image was demarcated in the slides this week.)

When I think of the “order of the here-and-now”, I think of the first slide in our PowerPoint this week: watermelons in boxes. The idea that the Japanese try to formalize even nature itself resonates deeply with the concept of evanescence and form. Nature, in this case, is the evanescent – it is wild, it does whatever it wants. But to give nature form, which is done not only in forcing fruit into clean-cut shapes, but also in the re-creation of natural Japanese landscapes in manicured Japanese gardens, is a very “Japanese” trait. On one of the next slides in the PowerPoint is a picture of a pile of sand, carefully shaped into a semi-conical structure.  We were asked, “If you had to rake this thing every day, would you have chosen this shape?” (Inouye 2/25). The answer was, certainly not. Sand is not a medium that likes to stay put. It’ll be moved by almost any minuscule force. To maintain its aesthetic shape, with angular, sloping sides and a perfectly flat top, would be an incredible amount of work. However, that work is one of the things that “orders” the “here and now”. The work one would put into structuring such a fickle element as nature is an expression of how the Japanese see the interaction between evanescence and form, or, as Basho termed them, fueki ryuko (Inouye 74). Basho observed that even though nature was never changing, it was also always changing. Even though the mountains may not move, the wind is always shifting the leaves on the trees and the cycle of nature is always ongoing. This juxtaposition could only be perceived and accepted by the true heart, makoto. With this, Basho created a work that was “well-grounded in the sensible, concrete, and humble context of…the here-and-now” (Inouye 80), but is also transcendental in how it evokes a “lasting sentiment or aesthetic quality that can be discerned throughout time, no matter the era” (Inouye 76). Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the specific work in question. The prose is supposed to be taken as Basho’s travel diary, as he made an epic journey across Japan in the 17th century. As read, it seems to naturally flow between his observations of his surroundings, and lyric poems inspired by those observations. However, it is noted that “much artifice went into the writing of this work that seems to flow as naturally as a series of lyrical encounters” (Inouye 74). Therefore, even as Basho and his true heart took in the scenes and experiences around him, the travel diary he kept and the version of The Narrow Road to the Deep North he published were still two different things. While the diary he kept during his travels was probably the truest expression of the nature he perceived, the form of the Japanese travel diary, or haibun, had to be imposed on the work. In this, we continue to note, as in weeks before, the importance of Japanese formalism. It is incredibly dominant in all aspects of Japanese culture, whether it be an immaculately kept garden reminiscent of the wilderness of nature, or a work of Japanese literature reminiscent of a live account of a journey. The goal of Japanese formalism keep things in place. It is a way to allow evanescence and form to coexist in Japanese culture.

Posted in Week 6: The Order of Here and Now | Leave a comment

Guilty pleasures.

No lyrical experience this week.

So far in class we’ve been talking pretty extensively about evanescence as an inherent and inescapable part of life, and about a very specific reaction to it. In the past two weeks, we’ve seen characters metaphorically “go to the ‘self-help’ section of their neighbourhood bookstore” (Inouye 69), and dedicate themselves to self-improvement or the attainment of goals. However, a question was posed to us this week: “If you knew you were going to die in a couple of years, would you stay in school?” (Inouye 2/20). That was an interesting question. The reason we are in school is to attain some future goal — I think I can say at the very least for myself that, in my fourteenth year of continuous education, school is becoming strenuous and exhausting, and oftentimes the only thing that propels me forward is the idea of what I would attain from them. However, if I had only a few years left, would I spend it trying to complete my education, when I will never have the chance to being my career or do the things I want with the work I’ve put in for the last fourteen years? I said no. And thus, we dove into the transition to hedonism.

Hedonism was the complete opposite-spectrum response to evanescence. Instead of conforming to the strict rules and formalities that attempt to structure the floating world, people began moving instead. Upon realization that death is inevitable, some no longer saw the point in “wasting precious time in the pursuit of anything else” (Inouye 70). The most interesting example of this change in Japanese perspective is the reading this week, Saikaku’s The Woman Who Loved Love. The heroine’s pursuit of pleasure, as well as her rather arrogant disposition, caused her to fall lower and lower in the rungs of society. She began as a beautiful, charming, well-born court lady, set up for a perfect marriage, but “yielded her body” to a young samurai and was indiscreet about her affair (Saikaku 159). As a result, she is sent home to her parents. For the next few seasons of her youth, she is continuously pulled up because of her natural virtues, and ruins these opportunities with her inability to rationalize her actions. She loses favor repeatedly until her family’s only option is to sell her to the pleasure district (Saikaku 172). Even there, as a high-ranking courtesan or tayu, her arrogance and her indiscretion cause her constant demotion, until she is an old crone living in a shack in a cave.

The excerpts from Saikaku made the position of hedonism in Japanese culture very clear. In his account, the heroine wanted it both ways — she wanted to enjoy the pleasures of life, but she also wanted the structures of society to keep her in high station while she did as she pleased and treated people as disrespectfully as she wanted. While hedonism became a widely accepted part of Japanese culture (Inouye 2/20), one cannot completely escape its structured nature. Even hedonism has its  specifications (Saikaku 166), and even the pleasure districts and the courtesans and prostitutes had their specific codes and rules (Saikaku 173, 177, etc.). Even though it is possible to live a life of pleasure, Japanese society retained its formalism in all matters. Even as hedonism became a way of escape, nobody could escape society and its standards and expectations. This constant, almost thematic mix between evanescence (the pursuit of pleasure) and form (the restrictions on even that) is a defining and inescapable characteristic of Japanese culture.

Posted in Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | 1 Comment

Maybe I should get out more.

by Mandy Xu

On Friday night, in the crescendo of the blizzard, I took a deep breath and trekked downhill to a party my team was throwing to celebrate a recent win.

Stark white bullet sleet plunging —
Struggling towards victory,
Feeling like defeat.

When asked in class on Wednesday, “How many of you feel like failures?”, I instinctively raised my hand. I was raised by parents who overcame incredible obstacles to be where they are. s a result, I’ve always felt like nothing I do is ever quite enough — I’m never really quite smart enough, or well-mannered enough, I’m never trying hard enough, there is always more I can do. Though my parents have never pressed unreachable goals upon me, I’ve always felt a certain invisible bar of expectations hovering somewhere above a height I can reach. I spend a lot of time trying to meet imagined expectations. In Chomei’s Hokoji, the author narrates the impermanence of everything and the struggle of people to maintain their position and their power (represented symbolically by their homes) from the natural flow of life (represented by the natural disasters that repeatedly strike). The resistance against the ebb and flow of success and failure is clearly futile. To cope with this, Chomei lets go of expectations — without a family or a wife to support (Chomei 60), he builds a small, simple house (Chomei 61). In this place, with “no one…to hinder [him], no one in whose eyes to feel ashamed” (Chomei 61), he becomes content. This demonstrated that the best way to live is in a way that makes oneself happy — working to fulfill other people’s needs or meet other people’s expectations is needlessly exhausting and ultimately achieves very little. In the Tale of the Heike, the story of the Taira’s fall from incredible power is outlined in excruciating detail, the story blanketed by the idea that their decline was inevitable because it is impossible to be successful, especially so successful, forever. In addition, the text reading concluded that if failure always follows success, then success must follow failure (Inouye 49). These concepts resonated deeply with me this week. If success follows failure and failure follows success, then we are trapped in an endless roller coaster of victory and defeat. I am terrified of failure and as a result, I am not courageous. I avoid doing things if I suspect I may not do them well. But if both success and failure are inevitable, then there is no reason not to push myself and try things that I cannot predict an outcome in. At the conclusion of this week, I feel like I may have stepped towards the door of my burning house.

Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | Leave a comment