Author Archives: Zesheng Xiong


Cherry blossoms have just bloomed at Wuhan University, while snow was falling here in Boston.


Cherry blossoms at Wuhan University -

Photo shone on my laptop screen

Snow outside the window.

This week’s discussion is a big step that leads us into Japan’s modern era, with fascism lurking ahead. In the context of the Japanese’s realization of its place “in the world” of competing empires, Japan quickly turned to “learn from the barbarian” and allow the modern transcendental order, progress, to take charge, whereas the contemporaneous Chinese, despite some who came up with similar slogans, were much slower to react (Lecture 03/06, Inouye 110-113.) As I come to think of it, it may in fact be true that the “Japanese appreciation of change actually helped it embrace necessary reforms,” whereas the overall Chinese value seems to appreciate “middleness,” or inaction (Inouye 104.) Then, as Japan began to assert its place on the imperial food chain, several scholars, essentially “nostalgic” toward the “golden age” of Tokugawa Japan, each attempted to discover and re-establish an essence of the Japanese culture and people: thus came Bushidō, Sadō, and Iki (Inouye 120.) The tension that underlies all three theorizations, namely one “between Japan the unique and Japan the universal,” appears to be particularly noteworthy to me (Inouye 114.) It appears to me that, while all three scholars aimed at celebrating the traditional Japan, the impulse they feel to boast it as universal is essentially modern, in its assertion of unipolar correctness. This might be, again, a Japanese response to the imperial assertions from Western countries, once again more rapid than the Chinese’s because of the Japanese readiness for change, and the Chinese belief in “middleness” (as far as my limited knowledge is concerned, no work was done to boast about “the Chinese essence” during the period; this, however, could also be the result of a dragged modern development in the first place.)

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada, Week 7: Bushido and the Transcendental Order | Leave a comment

Light Out

I was practicing piano in a practice room at Granoff when the light somehow went out, and I enjoyed a few moments of unconstrained playing in the darkness.

Black and white keys

Light out -

Fingers set free.

This week’s discussion is our last on the order of here-and-now, and personally I find that I learned two things that are particularly noteworthy: one is a wrap-up of the structure itself, and the other is the proper way to write poems like Bashō did. Concerning the order of here-and-now, Professor Inouye’s matching of “isolation” with pre-modern, “similarity” with modern, and “diversity” with post-modern particularly strikes me as informative (Lecture 02/25.) I have previously learned from Japanese literature and film that the post-modern is indeed a return to the pre-modern, and now I see that this return also is a return to the world of samsara out of compassion, or “awakening to the high and returning to the low” (Inouye 80.) Secondly, this week is also a fruitful one for me concerning poem writing. Bashō’s poems flow from “the traditional impulse to identify with one’s surroundings,” generalizing and effacing the self (Inouye 76-77.) At the same time, the self, a modern concept, also reveals Bashō’s personal relationship with the outside world (Inouye 78.) The following poem best exemplifies these two tendencies of Bashō’s: “Even woodpeckers / Do not harm this little hut / Perched in summer trees” (Bashō 39.) This poem is apparently selfless; yet his unmistakably personal feelings for his teacher come effusing from the book once we learn the circumstances for the poem’s composition. As I think back on how I have been writing poems for this course, I realize that at times I tend to assert my thoughts and emotions unnecessarily, which may in fact prevent my readers from feeling the poem for themselves. I believe that from now on I will write better poems.

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

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

Sea Waves

I was walking downhill through President’s Lawn one day when I felt I saw glistening sea waves that turned out to be reflections from the melting ice that covered the lawn. 

Sea waves

Glistening -

On President’s Lawn

This week our discussion starts off with a new type of reaction to evanescence, namely hedonism, that thrived in the Edo period (Lecture 2/20.) Ihara Saikaku’s Woman Who Loved Love no doubt captures the sorrowful pleasure of such a society; further, as Professor Inouye points out, the work also pinpoints the prostitutes of the time as prominently modern, whose become acutely aware of the issue of their identity as they are set against the traditional expectations of women (Inouye 71.) I read this work last semester, but even as I revisit it, the unnamed lady’s ironical discovery at the temple strikes me nonetheless: the sadness of her hedonistic life begins with her innate beauty, develops with her involuntary involvement with the pleasure quarters, and culminates here with this failure of finding salvation even in the Buddha (Ihara 213-217.) The next point of discussion is mono no aware, which can help explain the Edo period hedonism. This “national consciousness” of “the sadness of things” fledges in the Edo period despite its much earlier origin, because during the political oppression and economic prosperity of the Tokugawa era, the masses developed “a sense of fated acceptance” (Momokawa 2; Inouye 81.) To me the situation seems totally imaginable, although it also makes me think what mentality the contemporary Chinese developed during a similar “close-the-country” policy imposed by the Qing government. It is also intriguing to know in advance that mono no aware would establish itself as the Japanese “national consciousness” and live till this day; I cannot wait to see how this comes by. The third point of discussion is the “shifting point of view” of the Japanese (Lecture 2/21.) This lack of perspective comes as no surprise to me, for in the Japanese film class I took last semester, I have seen numerous examples of early Japanese films that refuse to use visual depth to signify perspective, and rather create flat shots where every element within is treated equally and with intense attention.

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

Posted in Week 5: Hedonism, Mono no Aware, Monstrosity | Leave a comment

Best Food, Best Look

I was having dinner at Dewick one day, and the vivid colors of my particular choice of food that day drove me to take a photo of it before eating.

Food in plate,

Untouched -

A picture taken.

This week the focus of our discussion seems to be nothingness, but I personally find the idea of “the order of here and now” to be even more important. Following last week’s start on the Japanese form, we now arrive at a formal theorization of why the Japanese resort to form: “the formal structuring of present space… provides the possibility of propriety, which is a fundamental form of the sacred and of meaningfulness” (Inouye, 57.) This practice of “[moving] through space properly,” practiced largely without consciousness of its religious origins, continues to establish meaning in the ever changing world for the Japanese, and this really comes to me as a key solution with which an important part of the Japanese form gets explained. There is, of course, also the Buddhist “transcendental order” that coexists with the former, yet as Professor Inouye has stressed over time, even Buddhism is treated non-textually under the influence of the order of here and now, as we can see on Pages 57-60. Now let us look at Noh theater and nothingness. Reading the script of Atsumori is hardly sufficient for envisioning the full pulse of the play, yet I find that consigning the other components of the play to our imagination is in its own right a good experience with nothingness: as Atsumori exclaims “No, Rensei is not my enemy. Pray for me again, oh pray for me again,” we can be freed from the already minimal acting, and clear room for the former enemies’ reconciliation (Zeami, 73.) One perceptual difficulty that I have lies in understanding how the two topics, the here-and-now order and nothingness, relate to each other. It seems reasonable to say, though, that the former generates form that culminates in arts like Noh, which exemplifies the latter.

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

Posted in Week 4: Nothingness | 1 Comment

Sunshine – by George

On Saturday morning, while snow was still falling, I looked outside my dorm window and saw a glaring world of snow, which almost matches the piles of snow of the winter of 2011 that took several months to accumulate – they would nevertheless melt and fall again the following winter.

A Saturday morning’s sunshine

Renders the world glaring -

A winter’s snow in a day.



This week our discussion continues to focus on Buddhism, and in particular, the notion of “a burning house” as an analogy for this world of illusions (Inouye 39.) As a matter of fact, I reviewed the slides before Monday’s lecture, but had not imagined that the burning house image and the lyrics would have become a choir plus Professor Inouye himself presenting a rap. Back to this conceptualization itself, the one condition that I find indispensable in its reasoning is that those trapped in the house are “small children” that would not take notice of the danger by themselves. This unmistakably points to the people fooled by the false promises of this ever-changing world, and stands in contrast to those who take the notice, leave the world, and even come back to help the still-trapped. “Leave the world” refers, of course, to the idea of shukke, which we see in detail through Chōmei’s Hōjōki. That he would toward the end re-examine his life at the shabby abode and wonder if he is again indulging in the illusionary world indeed exemplifies how we are prone to fall for it: “Buddha taught we must not be attached. Yet the way I love this hut is itself attachment” (Chōmei 76.) And finally, the Japanese perception of success and failure, as exemplified in The Tale of the Heike. Two different ideas come across: firstly, defying formality leads to despicable failures; secondly, doing everything righteously promises nothing, and only evanescence guarantees to bestow failure fairly upon everyone (Inouye 48, 49.) The consequent third idea confuses me a little at first: “… if it is the case that failure follows success, then the converse of this statement must also be true. Success follows failure” (Inouye 50.) To me it sounded like a classic example of affirming the consequence. Then, of course, I come to realize that it is evanescence that sponsors both ideas. This (pseudo-)glitch aside, the three ideas seem to explain pretty well the Japanese exactness and the successes that it has led to.

 - George (Zesheng Xiong)

Posted in Week 3: Failure, Success, and Leaving the World | 1 Comment

Clouds that Passed

I was walking one day to Hill Hall, my freshmen year dorm, to collect a package from mail services, when I saw the clear blue sky and clouds scattered on it that remind me of the beautiful view which I used to enjoy from my dorm room and take photos of, and which has never visited upon me since I became a sophomore.


Clouds resting in sky,

Cell phone in pocket -

No picture is taken.



This week our discussion on evanescence and form continues, and we have seen that, as we come to Nara and Heian periods, building upon the animistic understanding of impermanence, Buddhism now enters the psyches of the Japanese on its way to formalizing the notion into mujō. It is rather interesting to ponder on this historical interaction in Japan of these two beliefs that are simultaneously harmonic and inharmonic. As Professor Inouye points out, the “broader” cicada-shell view of the world now transforms into hakanasa, or “the unreliability of Heian-period human relations,” before being further coded into the Buddhist view of “all things are impermanent” (Inouye 30-31.) In a sense, this Buddhist tradition resonates well with the native Japanese “awareness of change” that “preceded Buddhism”, so it is not surprising that Buddhism is much welcomed as it was introduced to the Japanese (Inouye 31.) In fact, Buddhism symbolized mujō as the representation of impermanence, and as we have discussed in lecture, the Japanese practiced Buddhism through markedly graphical means (Inouye 36; Lecture.) As we can see, this interestingly comes at odds with the “nonsymbolic understanding of symbols” that is characteristic of the native animism, which is the very source for the native understanding of impermanence (Inouye 31.) This week we also continued to discuss the significance of impermanence to oneself; unlike the animistic view of all things as awesome, Buddhist teachings encourage people to see through the impermanence of this world and find peace of mind through resignation from its false promises; in other words, “a focus on emptiness teaches us the dangers of a false sense of permanence” (Inouye 39.) This view makes sense to me; yet personally I find it hard to perceive this apparently inconsistent understanding of the world by the Japanese as both awesome and illusive, although both ideas derive from the same notion of “impermanence.” It will surely be very interesting next week to learn how the Japanese balances this world view to live their lives, and how form also comes into play.

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

Posted in Week 2: From Hakanasa to Mujo | Leave a comment


I was walking to Olin from downhill one day, traversing through the grass field of President’s Lawn; seeing the bare tree branches and the dried leaves that fell last fall still scattering around reminds me of my mother.

Bare branches above

Leaves beside foot-

A mother’s love



Our semester’s discussion on evanescence and form kicks off last week with the notion of the impermanence of the very self and how we are to accept it. As Professor Inouye puts in his book, “nothing teaches us the truth of change as effectively as our bodies” (Inouye 36.) Interestingly, when asked about attitudes toward this personal level evanescence, what comes to my mind is, although slightly impertinent, a Chinese proverb quoted from Romance of the Three Kingdoms: “it is up to men to project schemes, yet it is up to the heavens to grant them success” (“謀事在人成事在天.”) Although it focuses more on scheming rather than living itself, my spontaneous reaction to “life’s impermanence” seems to be rooted in this proverb: that similar to scheming, living could be dealt with by working out the best of what is held in control, and consigning the rest, including my very life and the condition of my body, to the heavens to determine. In a sense, this resonates nicely with the Japanese notion of form, examples of which include the ring in a sumō game, that is meant to answer the same question of evanescence (Lecture 1/16.) Further, as a side note, the Chinese character for “to scheme” (“謀”) also finds its way into representing the Japanese word hakaru, or “to plan,” which in turn gives birth to hakanasa, or evanescence (Inouye 26.) This is, of course, representing two different approaches to evanescence by the Chinese and the Japanese, and I will leave further discussion on hakanasa to my next post, where it should belong. For this week, the focus is utsusemi, or “empty cicada,” which presents evanescence before “continental” influences such as Buddhism came to Japan (Inouye 19.) What I find to be most surprising is the quote from Orikuchi Shinobu suggesting that utsusemi in fact comes from utsushiki mi, or “mortal body,” not only because it is my first time learning this, but also because it reaffirms how the body plays a deciding role in men’s understanding of impermanence (Inouye 23.)

- Zesheng Xiong (George)

Posted in Week 1: Shell of the Cicada | Leave a comment