It is lunchtime on the first day of the Third Annual World Yijing Summit Forum in Wuxi, China and I am in the dining hall surrounded by a bustle of other delegates: scholars, Daoist priests, diviners, geomancers, inventors, poets, financial speculators, management theorists and other mystics. I have come to the conference to talk about my book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a collection of stories, each one drawn from one chapter, or hexagram, of what is one of the most ancient and obscure of all Chinese texts.
It is my second time at the conference. I was here two years ago and it feels good to be back. I’m due to give a paper about the Yijing as a tool for invention. My somewhat minority view for a while has been that the Yijing is more or less hopeless as a wisdom text. It doesn’t really contain anything in the way of wisdom. And yet, for all that, as a tool, if it is used judiciously, it is curiously, fascinatingly, compellingly good at engaging the human mind in interesting ways, and thereby opening up new thoughts, possibilities and ideas.
When I got the invite, I wondered for a while how to talk about this. At the last conference in Wuxi, my paper was rather technical and I didn’t want to repeat this. I decided in the end that one of the best ways to get a sense of what a tool is all about is to show how it can be used. So my paper, duly submitted before the publication date and translated into Chinese for the conference booklet, was simply made up of some prefatory philosophical remarks followed by a story.
The story I decided to talk about is one of my favourites from the collection. It comes from the forty-ninth hexagram – ge 革, which can mean ‘leather’, ‘to skin’, ‘revolution’ or ‘change’ (how’s that for a nice semantic range?) – and is about the culture hero Fuxi 伏羲, who was the first inventor of mythological China. Fuxi, according to legend, fashioned fishing nets, hunting tools, clothing, the fundamental elements of the Yijing and, depending on who you talk to, many other things besides. My own story more or less reinvents the ancient inventor; and this seemed a neat approach: to talk about the inventiveness of the Yijing by sharing a story invented by means of the Yijing, a story about the great mythical inventor Fuxi, but one in which he is himself reinvented as the inventor of – amongst other things – erection pills, atomic bombs, and the Duracell Bunny.
This was an experiment also in breaking with some of the bonds of academic respectability, and seeing how much I could get away with. I remembered the previous conference as being hugely friendly and open: given that it was a primarily Chinese-language conference, a small group of us foreigners presented our papers in a seminar room, in an atmosphere of genuine interest and enthusiastic discussion. So I thought it would be a good chance to try something new.
Anyway, there I am at lunchtime, filling my plate with good things, when one of the conference translators sidles up to me. “Will,” she says, “you will be presenting your paper this afternoon.”
“Oh, okay,” I say. Then I have a little think. “In which room?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says, “In the large hall.”
“Ah,” I say. This is not what I imagined. I thought I would be presenting informally, seminar-style, to an audience made up mainly of my fellow foreigners. The large hall is a whole other matter.
I try to picture it. I am standing in front of five hundred scholars, Daoist priests, diviners, geomancers, inventors, poets, financial speculators, management theorists etc. On the stage by my side are the VIP guests of honour: they include a couple of university deans, the Deputy Commander of the Air Force, the Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department and the Deputy Political Commissar of the Armed Police General Armament Department. And they are all listening to me talking about erection pills. Erection pills and the Duracell Bunny.
The translator smiles at me. “Also,” she says, “it would be much better if you spoke in Chinese.”
At that moment, the plate beings to tremble a little in my hand. For whom? I think. It will be much better for whom? There is no good answer to this question. It is a couple of years since I’ve spoken much Chinese, and even two years ago, my knowledge was patchy. The translator speaks excellent English, but she has a certain reluctance. I suspect that she has read the paper already.
I pause. Then, for some reason, I say “Okay, I can do most of it in Chinese.” I have absolutely no idea why I say this.
The translator smiles. “Thank you,” she says, and she gives me a thumbs-up. I finish my lunch and hurry back to my room. The afternoon session starts in less than an hour. I sit on my hotel bed and stare out of the window across the smoggy skyline of Wuxi, wondering at the strangeness of life. How could it have come to pass that in an hour’s time, I will be talking in broken Chinese about the Duracell Bunny and erection pills, in front of five hundred people including the Deputy Political Commissar of the Armed Police General Armament Department of the People’s Republic of China? How could such a thing even happen?
The time for the afternoon session arrives. I head back downstairs and take my seat in the lecture hall.
I fiddle with my English-Chinese dictionary on my phone, as if I might by this means suddenly absorb all the vocabulary I’ve been too lazy to properly memorise over the last however-many-years of slightly half-arsed self-study in Chinese. The dictionary does nothing for my confidence. It just reminds me of how little I know, so in the end, I put it down. The afternoon session creaks into life with another couple of papers. I sit through them in a state of rising panic.
Then the Master of Ceremonies takes the podium and I hear my name. I grab my things, take a swig of water, and take to the stage. I faff around a bit organising everything on the podium. The translator comes to join me. We have a whispered conversation. I cut a deal with her. I say I can ad-lib all the context, background and setting in Chinese (I don’t know if this is true, but for all I know, it might be true). If she sees me getting into trouble, I say, then she should feel free to step in. But when it comes to the story, because it is literature and the words matter, I’ll read it paragraph by paragraph in English, and she can read the translated Chinese version from the conference book.
My translator agrees that this seems okay. I turn to face the microphone and look out over the crowd. I need to start big, I think. Big and loud. I need to look unafraid. I lean in, closer to the mic. Be confident and commanding, I tell myself. “Dajia hao!” I say, in what I hope are vigorous, ringing tones.
When I say this, there is a burst of warm applause. When confronted by foreigners, Chinese audiences are often both encouraging and forgiving. And if I could stop here, I would. It can’t imagine I’m going to improve on this moment. But I have no option other than to continue. I forge on. I have already decided on a strategy that will hopefully avoid me falling into any kinds of trouble. I will talk in both Chinese and English, but with a Chinese-first strategy. The idea is this: if I stick to things I know I can say in Chinese, then it’s relatively easy to re-say these things in English, and elaborate if necessary. But if I talk first in English, the likelihood is that I’ll get carried away, then when it comes to translating back into Chinese, I’ll find myself grinding to a halt thinking how on earth do I translate that?
So I introduce myself. I tell the audience that I’m not going to read my paper, because they all have a copy anyway. I get a little bit of audience participation going as I check that they do have a copy. I tell them that I’m just going to introduce myself and talk about my book, then I’ll read an extract. The delegates look happy enough with this. I say that when I started writing it, I didn’t speak Chinese. I attempt to crack a feeble joke: when I started writing the book, I say, I didn’t even know where China was. In fact, I add, I wasn’t sure if China even existed. It’s not really a very good joke, and it doesn’t really work, so I continue on regardless. I keep things light and personal and friendly. I talk about the Yijing as a creative tool. I say a little bit about my own idiosyncratic explorations of the book. Every so often, I back-translate myself into English for my fellow Anglophones. The audience is relatively engaged. Even the delegate who was sitting next to me all morning, and who for most of it was playing Candy Crush Saga, has put her phone down. This is, I think, a good sign.
When I’ve said all I need to say in Chinese, I tell the audience I’m going to read the story. The worst is over. For me at least, but not for the translator. I read paragraph by paragraph. My translator reads from the Chinese text, and occasionally softens parts of the story when she judges them inappropriate for such an august and solemn gathering. The Duracell Bunny more or less survives. I’m glad about this. But when it comes to the erection pills (勃起药 – literally ‘erectile dysfunction medicine’ – the translated text reads), my translator loses her nerve and resorts to euphemisms. I cannot blame her for this. Had I known I was going to read to this audience, to the Deputy Political Commissar and his like, I would have chosen a different story. Had I know I was going to read to this audience, I would have written the whole damn thing in Chinese months before, run it past Chinese friends, and practised for weeks in front of the mirror. But it is too late for such hypotheticals. Here we are, the translator and I, doing as best we can with the material, however wildly inappropriate.
I get to the end of the story. My translator improvises a final paragraph of her family-friendly version of the tale. Then we are done. I smile at the audience and thank them. There is a round of applause. I give the translator a grin. She looks more relieved than I am. Then I stride from the stage, my head down in what I hope is a look of moral seriousness and deep contemplation, even if it is really just an attempt to avoid meeting the eyes of the Deputy Political Commissar.
When I take my seat, the friendly Taiwanese professor sitting nearby thanks me and tells me it was a good presentation. Afterwards, a number of delegates queue up to have their photographs taken with me, or to get me to sign their conference booklets. People are friendly and appreciative. Only one man seems to be annoyed by my paper. He marches up to me and angrily tells me that I really know nothing at all about the Yijing. He might be right, but either way, this just turns out that to be a prelude to him trying to sell me his home-made photocopied booklet. I smile, shake his hand, wish him well with his booklet, and make my escape.
I make my way back to my room. As I am waiting for the lift, I realise I am relieved it is over. And I really have no idea how well my talk has really gone down. Over the next few days, I don’t get a chance to chat to the Deputy Political Commissar; and I realise that I’ll never know what he thinks. So, in the final analysis, it is hard to say whether this is the hour of my greatest triumph or of my greatest humiliation. As I step out of the lift and head to my room to lie down and recover, I come to the conclusion that it is probably both. And I realise that I can live with that.
(PS, the image is of a notebook I bought in Shanghai Hongqiao airport. The text on the notebook says 學霸真經, or “Scholar-Tyrant of the True Classics”, which seems apposite here).