On Going Around – “THE CURVED CITY”-Anonymous
The central idea of this essay as”going around” as against a “frontal attack”’ embodying the principle of nonresistance. The modern phrase expresses it well: “ If you can’t lick ‘ em, join’ em”. It defends the curve against the straight line, being bent against being straight, the indirect method against the direct method, the hidden against the open, the recess against the exposed area, the secluded against the ostentatious, etc. All these ideas are expressed in the Chinese language by one and the same word, CHU, which occurs in the essay sixty three times, but has to be rendered differently as “going around”, ”round”, ”curve”, ”bent”, ”indirect”, “hidden”’ etc. Some of the play on the word is lost in the translation, but the main idea is quiet clear.
Someone asked me why I call it a “curved city”. “Because it follows the bends of the ground, as you see”, I answered.
“So you like the crooked instead of the straight. Why don’t you make it straight?”
“that I cannot do”, I said.” You know that straight means staright, but you do not know that being curved does not mean being crooked. Look at the universe and all its things and study its principles. The firmaments go around us, and the earth turns around. The four seasons follow one another in a cycle, and the seven constellations rotate in the skies. The important thing in a mountain is its undulating sweep, in water its meandering curves, in a dragon its spinning around, in a tiger its crouching gesture before the pounce, in a bird its circling the sky, in an old cypress its twists and bends. Therefore the Wuyi Mountain is famous for its ‘nine bends’, and a balcony for its ‘hexagonal corners’. The ‘four recesses’ of a pond control the outflow of water, and the ‘one graceful curve’ of the crescent moon adorns the skies. The spring becomes more beautiful in the Serpentine Park [Chukiang, famous park south of Tang capital, Chang-an], flowers seem all the more surprising on a curved path, and friends lined up to drink on the bends of a curving stream enjoy it the more. Objects have their hidden parts, the heart has its secret corners, affairs have their complicated turns, and men’s words have their intricate meanings and motives. That is why we say of a good artist that he has mastered the ‘secrets’ of the trade , and speak of good moral teachings as reaching the ‘inner depths’ of man, and we speak of a wise settling of affairs as a good ‘round’ compromise, and of helping to overcome difficulties as a ‘roundabout’ achievement . and, of course, there are 3,300 rules of the so-called ‘CHU etiquette’. So you see the meaning of being round and curved is comprehensive and all embracing”.
“Then you hate what is straight?”
“I did not say that. In all arts and industry, all human affairs and relations, the combination of the straight and the curved makes the best results. In archery, the bow is bent, but the arrow is straight. In a boat, the mast must be straight while the sails must bend. In fishing the line is straight while the hook is curved, and in carpentry and masonry, you a veto have both guiding line and the T-square, and the compasses. Sometimes it is better to give a sly hint than advice to a friend, and kings and rulers can be made to see your point by a covered , indirect analogy better that by straight forward counsel. There are time when an official must carry out the law rigidly even to the point of killing his own close relatives, and other times when the father covers up for [refuses to inform on] the son and vice versa. Confucius said, ‘ In times of peace, speak and act by stern principles, but in times of bad government, act by stern principles but speak very carefully’. Sometimes one must act straight, and sometimes one must not. By going around, one accomplishes what is a straight purpose ,and by being firm but polite, one gets at the heart of the matter”.
“If so., then why do you choose the curve?”
“Ah, indeed! I would like to lead the ruler by straight forward advice but the ruler would not follow, try to influence fiends by frank criticism but the friends would not listen. I tried to discipline the family by rigid rules but the family would not take it, and I tried to live by stern principles and society thought me lacking in tact. So in such a world, a man does not hold his head high against the sky, nor does he tread firmly on earth. He bows and kowtows and sits gingerly on a seat corner. He circles round the bank until he finds a place where he can ford the stream. He doubles up in his sleep for rest, bends his body or his rams when carrying things, and crooks his legs when sitting on the ground. Looking up at the sun, he tilts his head. So then we do everything indirectly; we try to circumscribe an obstacle, go around a difficulty, and answer by evasion. If a post does not pay enough, we ‘stoop’ to accept it, and when we find we cannot satisfy everybody, we have a compromise, or ‘round about’, solution. We ‘yield’ to violence, ‘suffer’ sickness and sorrow, ‘go around’ and avoid those who would hurt us, and ‘endure’ and ‘give ground’ in time of turmoil and chaos. If someone calls me a ‘cow’, I will ‘roundly’ admit that, too. There are so many applications of the principle of going around. Things which are curved are so useful, like the plowshare, the hollowed chisel, and the wicker basket”.
“You seem to have made out a good case for the curved”, my friend said. “Greta historians sometimes bent their heads and great generals sometimes bent their knees. The great poet Tao Yuanming sometimes bent his waist to make a bow. Confucius himself enjoyed sleeping head on a crooked arm. Well, well, you have made a good point there”.
There are two ways of carving roast, one by cutting it through with a chopper, and the better way by prying around the interstices of a joint.
All nature move sin curves. I do not think it is possible to find a single straight line in plants, animals, and minerals. The heavenly bodies are proverbially round and certainly clouds are never square. Canals are straight but not rivers. A bird’s leg is constructed like a spring suspension. In this is contained the esthetic principle of calligraphy. A good calligraphist never makes a straight line, but tries to suggest a sinuous paw or a curving vine. ” A horizontal line should contain three bends “, said Wang Shichih, the “Prince of calligraphists”. That is why I abhor the cubist paintings: they are the products of an engineer’s draft board, not of an artist. A cubist does not even begin to understand the aesthetics of natural forms. Functional architecture is all right for factory buildings. Definitely, art has sold out to commerce.
In morals, the combination of strength and grace is even more important in the development of human character. I think a wife can get very tired of a husband who says gracefully, “yes, my dear” all the time. All beauty and all character come from the combination of strength and grace. Someday I would like to write an essay on this as a general aesthetic principle.