Gnomicon 263

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  263
Wednesday 30 January 2013
Read gnomica 1-250 here!

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Be like bamboo, bending from the prevailing wind without breaking.
Ping Fu (1958 –  )

The Economist 12 Jan 2013 p. 72
Review of Bend Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds

The imagery is no doubt original with Ping Fu, but it is, interestingly enough, a pervasive one in the Greek tragedies of Sophocles (c. 496-406 BCE). It’s the idea that the mighty oak gets uprooted and put down in the storm but the insignificant blade of grass survives for the simple reason that it bends with the blasts.  Fu’s comment caught my eye during a desultory read of the fine book reviews that the Economist features in its weekly, and it elicited distant memories of a long-since lost paper I once wrote for a class about this (very ‘Greek-tragedy’) idea that the bigger and more important you are the more catastrophic (as in fatal!) your fall will be.  That’s what happens when you won’t bend, won’t yield, won’t accept that there is a seriously huge difference between righteously standing on principle and foolishly sacrificing yourself to principle – in the bargain taking down everything and everybody associated with you.

Bamboo strikes me in this context as a wonderfully Chinese variant of the ancient Greek grass that bends:  defer or die!   Bend like bamboo or the blade of grass, or break like the branches of the oak.  Each in its own way is a readily comprehensible image from the natural world deployed to illuminate differing human repertoires for dealing with disaster.  Bamboo (Bambuseae), as it turns out, proves to be particularly apt here, for it is, botanically speaking, itself a member of the grass family (Poaceae).  I would be very surprised indeed if it did not turn out that other literatures and other cultures have not failed to use members of this plant world as analogues for talking about human behaviors.  I should note, too, that bamboo, in addition to its extreme flexibility, is also among the fastest growing plants in existence (see this intriguing video!), and hence suggests additionally that any such disintegration as it might experience in the worst of storms would quickly repair itself.

Ping Fu uses the analogy (as I infer from the review of her book that I have not read, but am tempted to!) as a way of discussing the appalling disasters that befell her and her family during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the massive failure of which in turn led to the hyper-paranoid Mao’s insane Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to eliminate ‘class enemies’, an historical monstrosity that even the Chinese today speak of – delicately, but not officially – in such ludicrously misdirecting and exculpatory terms as, “Yes, Mao did make a few mistakes!”

Yeeaah!  You think?  Sure — if “a few mistakes” are the deaths directly attributed to the consequences of implementation of his ‘policies’ in numbers of anywhere from forty to seventy million people (see here, here, here, here, and …).

My inference is that Ping Fu was the flexible bamboo that survived the political hurricane.  And it applies to a lot more than political madness and gambling – think about that!

I always liked the imagery in Sophocles, and Ping Fu’s availing herself of a very similar kind of thinking about the need to bend like bamboo merely reinforces my own strong belief in the validity of being able to – troping Kenny Rogers in ‘The Gambler’ – “know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run”.

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