Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Count von Keyserling & Ku Hung-ming



Count Hermann von Keyserling (1880-1946), a Baltic German aristocrat, best known for his travel  writings and philosophical musings, left behind a detailed account of his meetings with Ku Hung-ming in his Travel Diary of a Philosopher, published in 1925.



I spend many hours each day with Ku Hung-Ming and his friends and supporters. He is a man of such wit and such a fiery temperament that I am sometimes reminded of a Latin. Today he was explaining at great length how wrong the Europeans, and especially the sinologists are, in considering the development of Chinese culture quite by itself, without comparison with that of the West: for both have evolved, according to him, within the frame of an identical formula. In both there has been an equivalent of antiquity and medievalism, renaissance and enlightenment, reformation and counter-reformation, Hebraism and Hellenism (to use the terms of Matthew Arnold), rationalism and mysticism; and the parallel is to be drawn even in detail: even in China, for instance, there has been a Bayard. I do not know Chinese history sufficiently in order to test the soundness of these comparisons, and I rather suspect Ku Hung-Ming, as I do the majority of his countrymen, of practising rather too cheap a form of intellectualism, such as flourishes, for instance, in Southern Italy. This much, however, is true: all historical conditions are special manifestations, brought about by particular circumstances, of the natural forms of human life, which are the same everywhere; and since all possible combinations of circumstances vacillate round a few types whose sequence appears to be subject to one rule, it cannot but be that all peoples of comparable temperament also pass through comparable stages. Now Western Europeans and Chinamen are singularly comparable; they belong essentially to an identical fundamental type, the type of the “men of expression,” to which the Indians and the Russians, for instance, do not belong.

It must be possible, therefore, to establish historical parallels. Nevertheless, my attitude towards the value of such comparisons is sceptical. Time may possess one single significance in itself — it certainly is not so in reference to men. The Chinese are men of long, and we of short, breath, for us mobility, for them quiescence is the normal condition. How, then, can one make valid comparisons? We boast of our rapid progress: thanks to it, we will probably always remain barbarians, since perfection is possible only within given limits and we are perpetually changing ours. Nor do I accept it as agreed that we will continue to advance for long at the same rate: every direction in life is limited inwardly; we too will one day reach the end, and probably earlier than we think. — I have often heard the following argument, especially in India: since all cultures we are aware of start at a relatively high level — and this is correct — this presupposes that there has been before an exceedingly long period of slow ascent. Most certainly not! Every idea contains within itself, not only in theory but de facto, the whole of its consequences; it strives for actuality; it becomes embodied wherever matter permits it to do so, so that, as soon as the mental processes are set in motion at all, they take place with great rapidity. For this reason, as long as consciousness is asleep, aeons may pass before anything new happens; this may occur either in the primordial state or, as in China, at a certain level of culture which has once been reached. But once it has been wakened, development takes place with extreme rapidity. How long was the span of time from the awakening of the Greek spirit to its perfection? A century. How long did it take from the discovery of the principle of aviation until it was applied perfectly in practice? Not ten years. In the same sense it may very well be that we too shall shortly come to an end, and stop progressing at a level of development which will be not nearly so far ahead of that of China as we suppose. For in the modern sense of the word we too are progressive people only for the last hundred years.

Ku Hung-Ming does not miss a single opportunity of having a dig at Laotse. His fundamental thesis is that Confucius is the infinitely greater of the two because he understood significance as profoundly as Laotse, but did not retire from the world, but expressed his profundity in his mastery of it. If Confucius really had been, and had achieved, what Ku asserts of him, then, of course, he would be incomparably greater. However, this is not so. It would appear to be contradictory to nature that the same man should live altogether in profundity and prove himself, at the same time, to be a mighty organiser of the surface; each one of these problems requires a special physiological organisation, and I know of no accredited case in which a man possessed both to a similar degree. Kung Fu Tse and Laotse represent the opposite poles of possible perfection; the one represents the perfection of appearance, the other perfection of significance; the former, perfection within the sphere of the materialised, the latter, within the non-materialised; therefore they cannot be measured with the same gauge. But Confucius must no doubt appear greater to the Chinese because they are practical to the extreme as a nation, and to this extent they have no direct relation to profundity as such. The more I see of the Chinese, the more I notice how uninteresting their thoughts are. Their thinking is not their essential quality: their existence is the expression of their depth. Thus Ku Hung-Ming is far more important as a man than as a writer and as a thinker.

The Travel Diary of a Philosopher, Count Hermann Keyserling, 1925

Volume 1

Volume 2


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The People Elsewhere

Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar

Lucas Stewart

Shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize


In a five year journey all across Myanmar, Lucas Stewart travels from Yangon in the south to the northern limits of Kachin State in search of the literary luminaries of the country’s recent past. He bonds with censored and jailed writers, poets, publishers and booksellers, recording their stories of heritage and resilience. In his conversations with students at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally or sharing stories with a Kayah farmer in his village house, the long-suppressed literatures and languages of minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and others shine through. The People Elsewhere is a vivid tableau of time and place, and an ode to the ethnic richness of Myanmar.

Penguin Books/Viking


…This book isn’t a memoir but a weaving of two stories. On the one hand it is a simple journey through the writers of a country that is undergoing a transformation many thought would never come; this is a story set in the ‘now’, where change can be seen and touched. The other story is much more complicated: it tells of a country in which the ‘now’ is not as important as the ‘before’, where history and the lessons learnt from it, cannot be easily set aside or forgotten…

Lucas Stewart, The People Elsewhere, Viking, 2016


Available from Penguin/Viking and in digital formats from Amazon.


Praise for ‘The People Elsewhere’:


‘Lucas Stewart’s book is an exquisite map of the many literatures of Myanmar, of the human impulse to express oneself through story and song… In scenes alternately warming and harrowing, it braids travel, history and literary criticism in a most ingenious way to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country long forgotten by the world.’

Chandrahas Choudhury, Author of Clouds and editor of India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion


‘The People Elsewhere is a vigorous and compelling travel parable … In a vivid and tenacious tour through some of the country’s militarily-sealed borderlands, Lucas Stewart explores with great generosity and kinship how previously banned or censored languages are still being preserved in some of remotest and educationally-marginalised areas in the world.’

James Byrne, Co-editor of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets


‘Lucas Stewart’s journey across Myanmar offers a fascinating insight and a rare glimpse of life through its storytellers … Anyone wanting to discover Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage and how these endearing, diverse and remarkable peoples did more than just survive will find this an important and essential read.’

Nick Danziger, Photojournalist and Author of Danziger’s Travels.


More by Lucas Stewart:


Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds

Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018 Winner – ‘Bakhur’

The Act of Insanity – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Shadow Signatures: A Legacy of Burmese Pen Names – The Bamboo Sea

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK Writer and Editor Lucas Stewart’s Personal Website


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The Philosopher

IT was surprising to find so vast a city in a spot that seemed to me so remote. From its battlemented gate towards sunset you could see the snowy mountains of Tibet. It was so populous that you could walk at ease only on the walls and it took a rapid walker three hours to complete their circuit. There was no railway within a thousand miles and the river on which it stood was so shallow that only junks of light burden could safely navigate it. Five days in a sampan were needed to reach the Upper Yangtze. For an uneasy moment you asked yourself whether trains and steamships were as necessary to the conduct of life as we who use them every day consider; for here, a million persons throve, married, begat their kind, and died; here a million persons were busily occupied with commerce, art, and thought.

And here lived a philosopher of repute, the desire to see whom had been to me one of the incentives of a somewhat arduous journey. He was the greatest authority in China on the Confucian learning. He was said to speak English and German with facility. He had been for many years secretary to one of the Empress Dowager’s greatest viceroys, but he lived now in retirement. On certain days in the week, however, all through the year he opened his doors to such as sought after knowledge, and discoursed on the teaching of Confucius. He had a body of disciples, but it was small, since the students for the most part preferred to his modest dwelling and his severe exhortations the sumptuous buildings of the foreign university and the useful science of the barbarians: with him this was mentioned only to be scornfully dismissed. From all I heard of him I concluded that he was a man of character.

When I announced my wish to meet this distinguished person my host immediately offered to arrange a meeting; but the days passed and nothing happened. I made enquiries and my host shrugged his shoulders.

“I sent him a chit and told him to come along,” he said. “I don’t know why he hasn’t turned up. He’s a cross-grained old fellow.”

I did not think it was proper to approach a philosopher in so cavalier a fashion and I was hardly surprised that he had ignored a summons such as this. I caused a letter to be sent asking in the politest terms I could devise whether he would allow me to call upon him and within two hours received an answer making an appointment for the following morning at ten o’clock.

I was carried in a chair. The way seemed interminable. I went through crowded streets and through streets deserted till I came at last to one, silent and empty, in which at a small door in a long white wall my bearers set down my chair. One of them knocked, and after a considerable time a judas was opened; dark eyes looked through; there was a brief colloquy; and finally I was admitted. A youth, pallid of face, wizened, and poorly dressed, motioned me to follow him. I did not know if he was a servant or a pupil of the great man. I passed through a shabby yard and was led into a long low room sparsely furnished with an American roll-top desk, a couple of blackwood chairs and two little Chinese tables. Against the walls were shelves on which were a great number of books: most of them, of course, were Chinese, but there were many, philosophical and scientific works, in English, French and German; and there were hundreds of unbound copies of learned reviews. Where books did not take up the wall space hung scrolls on which in various calligraphies were written, I suppose, Confucian quotations. There was no carpet on the floor. It was a cold, bare, and comfortless chamber. Its sombreness was relieved only by a yellow chrysanthemum which stood by itself on the desk in a long vase.

I waited for some time and the youth who had shown me in brought a pot of tea, two cups, and a tin of Virginian cigarettes. As he went out the philosopher entered. I hastened to express my sense of the honour he did me in allowing me to visit him. He waved me to a chair and poured out the tea.

“I am flattered that you wished to see me,” he returned. “Your countrymen deal only with coolies and with compradores; they think every Chinese must be one or the other.”

I ventured to protest. But I had not caught his point. He leaned back in his chair and looked at me with an expression of mockery.

“They think they have but to beckon and we must come.”

I saw then that my friend’s unfortunate communication still rankled. I did not quite know how to reply. I murmured something complimentary.

He was an old man, tall, with a thin grey queue, and bright large eyes under which were heavy bags. His teeth were broken and discoloured. He was exceedingly thin, and his hands, fine and small, were withered and claw-like. I had been told that he was an opium-smoker. He was very shabbily dressed in a black gown, a little black cap, both much the worse for wear, and dark grey trousers gartered at the ankle. He was watching. He did not quite know what attitude to take up, and he had the manner of a man who was on his guard. Of course the philosopher occupies a royal place among those who concern themselves with the things of the spirit and we have the authority of Benjamin Disraeli that royalty must be treated with abundant flattery. I seized my trowel. Presently I was conscious of a certain relaxation in his demeanour. He was like a man who was all set and rigid to have his photograph taken, but hearing the shutter click lets himself go and eases into his natural self. He showed me his books.

“I took the Ph. D. in Berlin, you know,” he said. “And afterwards I studied for some time in Oxford. But the English, if you will allow me to say so, have no great aptitude for philosophy.”

Though he put the remark apologetically it was evident that he was not displeased to say a slightly disagreeable thing.

“We have had philosophers who have not been without influence in the world of thought,” I suggested.

“Hume and Berkeley? The philosophers who taught at Oxford when I was there were anxious not to offend their theological colleagues. They would not follow their thought to its logical consequences in case they should jeopardise their position in university society.”

“Have you studied the modern developments of philosophy in America?” I asked.

“Are you speaking of Pragmatism? It is the last refuge of those who want to believe the incredible. I have more use for American petroleum than for American philosophy.”

His judgments were tart. We sat down once more and drank another cup of tea. He began to talk with fluency. He spoke a somewhat formal but an idiomatic English. Now and then he helped himself out with a German phrase. So far as it was possible for a man of that stubborn character to be influenced he had been influenced by Germany. The method and the industry of the Germans had deeply impressed him and their philosophical acumen was patent to him when a laborious professor published in a learned magazine an essay on one of his own writings.

“I have written twenty books,” he said. “And that is the only notice that has ever been taken of me in a European publication.”

But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon. He accepted its philosophy with conviction. It answered the needs of his spirit with a completeness which made all foreign learning seem vain. I was interested in this because it bore out an opinion of mine that philosophy is an affair of character rather than of logic: the philosopher believes not according to evidence, but according to his own temperament; and his thinking merely serves to make reasonable what his instinct regards as true. If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do.

My host lit a cigarette. His voice at first had been thin and tired, but as he grew interested in what he said it gained volume. He talked vehemently. There was in him none of the repose of the sage. He was a polemist and a fighter. He loathed the modern cry for individualism. For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society. He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius. He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students, fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilisation in the world.

“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilisation been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenceless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

But at that moment we were interrupted. A little girl came softly in and nestled close up to the old gentleman. She stared at me with curious eyes. He told me that she was his youngest child. He put his arms round her and with a murmur of caressing words kissed her fondly. She wore a black coat and trousers that barely reached her ankles, and she had a long pig-tail hanging down her back. She was born on the day the revolution was brought to a successful issue by the abdication of the emperor.

“I thought she heralded the Spring of a new era,” he said. “She was but the last flower of this great nation’s Fall.”

From a drawer in his roll-top desk he took a few cash, and handing them to her, sent her away.

“You see that I wear a queue,” he said, taking it in his hands. “It is a symbol. I am the last representative of the old China.”

He talked to me, more gently now, of how philosophers in long past days wandered from state to state with their disciples, teaching all who were worthy to learn. Kings called them to their councils and made them rulers of cities. His erudition was great and his eloquent phrases gave a multicoloured vitality to the incidents he related to me of the history of his country. I could not help thinking him a somewhat pathetic figure. He felt in himself the capacity to administer the state, but there was no king to entrust him with office; he had vast stores of learning which he was eager to impart to the great band of students that his soul hankered after, and there came to listen but a few, wretched, half-starved, and obtuse provincials.

Once or twice discretion had made me suggest that I should take my leave, but he had been unwilling to let me go. Now at last I was obliged to. I rose. He held my hand.

“I should like to give you something as a recollection of your visit to the last philosopher in China, but I am a poor man and I do not know what I can give you that would be worthy of your acceptance.”

I protested that the recollection of my visit was in itself a priceless gift. He smiled.

“Men have short memories in these degenerate days, and I should like to give you something more substantial. I would give you one of my books, but you cannot read Chinese.”

He looked at me with an amicable perplexity. I had an inspiration.

“Give me a sample of your calligraphy,” I said.

“Would you like that?” He smiled. “In my youth I was considered to wield the brush in a manner that was not entirely despicable.”

He sat down at his desk, took a fair sheet of paper, and placed it before him. He poured a few drops of water on a stone, rubbed the ink stick in it, and took his brush. With a free movement of the arm he began to write. And as I watched him I remembered with not a little amusement something else which had been told me of him. It appeared that the old gentleman, whenever he could scrape a little money together, spent it wantonly in the streets inhabited by ladies to describe whom a euphemism is generally used. His eldest son, a person of standing in the city, was vexed and humiliated by the scandal of this behaviour; and only his strong sense of filial duty prevented him from reproaching the libertine with severity. I daresay that to a son such looseness would be disconcerting, but the student of human nature could look upon it with equanimity. Philosophers are apt to elaborate their theories in the study, forming conclusions upon life which they know only at second hand, and it has seemed to me often that their works would have a more definite significance if they had exposed themselves to the vicissitudes which befall the common run of men. I was prepared to regard the old gentleman’s dalliance in hidden places with leniency. Perhaps he sought but to elucidate the most inscrutable of human illusions.

He finished. To dry the ink he scattered a little ash on the paper and rising handed it to me.

“What have you written?” I asked.

I thought there was a slightly malicious gleam in his eyes.

“I have ventured to offer you two little poems of my own.”

“I did not know you were a poet.”

“When China was still an uncivilised country,” he retorted with sarcasm, “all educated men could write verse at least with elegance.”

I took the paper and looked at the Chinese characters. They made an agreeable pattern upon it.

“Won’t you also give me a translation?”

Tradutore—tradittore,” he answered. “You cannot expect me to betray myself. Ask one of your English friends. Those who know most about China know nothing, but you will at least find one who is competent to give you a rendering of a few rough and simple lines.”

I bade him farewell, and with great politeness he showed me to my chair. When I had the opportunity I gave the poems to a sinologue of my acquaintance, and here is the version he made. I confess that, doubtless unreasonably, I was somewhat taken aback when I read it.

You loved me not: your voice was sweet;

Your eyes were full of laughter; your hands were tender.

And then you loved me: your voice was bitter;

Your eyes were full of tears; your hands were cruel.

Sad, sad that love should make you


I craved the years would quickly pass

That you might lose

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the cruel splendour of your youth.

Then I alone would love you

And you at last would care.

The envious years have passed full soon

And you have lost

The brightness of your eyes, the peach-bloom of your skin,

And all the charming splendour of your youth.

Alas, I do not love you

And I care not if you care.

W. Somerset Maugham: On A Chinese Screen, 1922

Note:  The character of the ‘Philosopher’ is based on the Chinese writer and diplomat, Ku Hung-ming, [Gū Hóngmíng 辜鴻銘] (1857-1928).

Read more about Ku Hung-ming

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HE was an Irish sailor. He deserted his ship at Hong-Kong and took it into his head to walk across China. He spent three years wandering about the country, and soon acquired a very good knowledge of Chinese. He learned it, as is common among men of his class, with greater ease than do the more highly educated. He lived on his wits. He made a point of avoiding the British Consul, but went to the magistrate of each town he came to and represented himself as having been robbed on the way of all his money. His story was not improbable and it was told with a wealth of convincing detail which would have excited the admiration of so great a master as Captain Costigan. The magistrate, after the Chinese fashion, was anxious to get rid of him and was glad to do so at the cost of ten or fifteen dollars. If he could get no money he could generally count on a place to sleep in and a good meal. He had a certain rough humour which appealed to the Chinese. So he continued very successfully till he hit by misfortune on a magistrate of a different stamp. This man when he told his story said to him:

“You are nothing but a beggar and a vagabond. You must be beaten.”

He gave an order and the fellow was promptly taken out, thrown on the ground, and soundly thrashed. He was not only very much hurt, but exceedingly surprised, and what is more strangely mortified. It ruined his nerve. There and then he gave up his vagrant life and making his way to one of the out-ports applied to the commissioner of customs for a place as tide-waiter. It is not easy to find white men to take such posts and few questions are asked of those who seek them. He was given a job and you may see him now, a sun-burned, clean-shaven man of forty-five, florid and rather stout, in a neat blue uniform, boarding the steamers and the junks at a little riverside town, where the deputy-commissioner, the postmaster, a missionary, and he are the only Europeans. His knowledge of the Chinese and their ways makes him an invaluable servant. He has a little yellow wife and four children. He has no shame about his past and over a good stiff whisky he will tell you the whole story of his adventurous travels. But the beating is what he can never get over. It surprises him yet and he cannot, he simply cannot understand it. He has no ill-feeling towards the magistrate who ordered it; on the contrary it appeals to his sense of humour.

“He was a great old sportsman, the old blackguard,” he says. “Nerve, eh?”

W. Somerset Maugham: On A Chinese Screen, 1922

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Sacred Places in China


Carl F. Kupfer, A. M., Ph. D.

Press of the Western Methodist Book Concern


“The places described in this little volume represent the centers of religious life among the three religions of the great Imperial Kingdom. The time spent in visiting these places gives one an entirely new view of the relation of the religious systems of China to each other, and the hold they have upon the people. Strange as it may be, we find them opposing each other, and yet closely interlocked in silent partnership, of which even the Government is not excluded. Of course, in an Imperial Kingdom which numbers its inhabitants by hundreds of millions, with dialects, temperament, endeavors, and beliefs so different and varied, it is expected to find the greatest possible religious tolerance. And this is here true in-as-far as the principles of the different religious systems are in harmony with the statutes of the Government.” (from the Conclusion)

“Wherever in China this mountain is mentioned, whether in Kiang-si or in the most distant province, every one knows what it stands for. Just as much as Rome is known to all Catholics to be the home of the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, so all Chinese know that the Pope of the Taoist Religion has his residence here. It was to this mountain retreat that Chang Taoling, the first Pope of the Taoist Religion, was directed in the first century of the Christian era. He had retired into seclusion in the mountains of Western China, devoting himself wholly to meditation and the study of alchemy. From the hands of Laotze, the founder of the Taoist Religion, who had lived six hundred years before him, he supernaturally received a mystic treatise by which he was enabled to compound the elixir of life.

The latter years of the mystic earthly experience of Chang Taoling were spent on the Dragon-Tiger Mountains, and it was there, where at the age of 123 years, after having compounded and swallowed the grand elixir, that he had gained power to ascend to heaven to enjoy, the bliss of immortality.”

(Above: A bamboo grove near Chang Taoling’s temple. Below: Lung-Hu Shan, the Dragon-Tiger Mountain.)

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Camps & Trails In China

A Narrative of Exploration, Adventure, and Sport in little-known China,

“We rode toward Ta-li with the beautiful lake on our right hand and on the other the Ts’ang Shan mountains which rise to a height of fourteen thousand feet. As we approached the city we could see dimly outlined against the foothills the slender shafts of three ancient pagodas. They were erected to the feng-shui, the spirits of the “earth, wind, and water,” and for fifteen hundred years have stood guard over the stone graves which, in countless thousands, are spread along the foot of the mountains like a vast gray blanket. In the late afternoon sunlight the walls of the city seemed to recede before us and the picturesque gate loomed shadowy and unreal even when we passed through its gloomy arch and clattered up the stone-paved street.”

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(via Project Gutenberg)

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