July 14, 2006

"Mind like parachute - only function when open!"

Responding to our recent series of posts on the fashion for invented "Chinese proverbs", Stefano Taschini has written to remind us of another historical source of "oriental wisdom", namely the sayings of Charlie Chan. As evidence of on-going influence, Stefano points us to the collection of "Chan Bytes" (in .wav format) at charliechan.net, and to an online compendium of "The Complete Sayings of Charlie Chan", which offers "in alphabetical order, ... every aphorism, or saying, totaling nearly five hundred, as stated by Charlie Chan in all of his forty-four movies in the film series proper. Also included are two maxims uttered during Mr. Chan's speech to movie audiences in favor of the passage of a 1935 Pennsylvania referendum measure." And finally, Stefano cites Howard Berlin's book, "Charlie Chan's Words of Wisdom", which bills itself as "A collection of 600 proverbs spoken by the cinema's inscrutable Oriental detective".

In the case of Charlie Chan, much of the fun arises from combining intrinsically contemporary references into the form of traditional sayings: "Mind like parachute - only function when open!" But Stefano is right to suggest that the currrent fashion for appeal to the wisdom of the east is nothing new. In fact, references to the authority of (often fictional) exotic ancients has been a theme of western culture since Plato.

In other news, I've selected my own pearl of ancient Chinese administrative wisdom (though mine of course is genuine, issues of translation and interpretation aside). To the extent that life presents me with executive challenges, I aspire to the model of Dao De Jing 37: 道常無為, 而無不為。 (dào cháng wú wéi, ér wú bù wéi.) -- "The Way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone."

[David Eddyshaw wrote in to register a vote in favor of Confucius, Analects 2.12, 子曰、君子不器。, "The accomplished scholar is not a utensil" (though David prefers the punchier but sexist translation "A gentleman is not a pot"). This is certainly an excellent pearl of wisdom for teachers, but I doubt it will have much appeal among the executive classes. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 14, 2006 08:51 AM