“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

Huxley on Shanghai, 1926

Posted: March 26th, 2016 | No Comments »
Apologies for a few days break in service on China Rhyming – I’m in Ireland for the centenary of the Easter Uprising and decided to go internet free for a few days. If you’re in Athenry, I’ll see you around – otherwise, here’s Aldous Huxley on Shanghai….
In 1926 Aldous Huxley summed up Shanghai’s secret (after a very brief stay on a voyage from Manila to Kobe) as, “Life itself…dense, rank, richly clotted life…nothing more intensely living can be imagined”. But his diary does have a bit more on the city…
An excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s diary, 1926 (published as Jesting Pilate, 1926)
I have seen places that were, no doubt, as busy and as thickly populous as the Chinese city in Shanghai, but none that so overwhelmingly impressed me with its business and populousness. In no city, West or East, have I ever had such an impression of dense, rank richly clotted life. Old Shanghai is Bergson’s elan vital in the raw, so to speak, and with the lid off. It is Life itself. Each individual Chinaman has more vitality, you feel, than each individual Indian or European, and the social organism composed of these individuals is therefore more intensely alive than the social organism in India or the West. Or perhaps it is the vitality of the social organism – a vitality accumulated and economised through centuries by ancient habit and tradition. So much life, so carefully canalised, so rapidly and strongly flowing – the spectacle of it inspires something like terror. All this was going on when we were cannibalistic savages. It will still be going on, a little modified, perhaps by Western science, but not much-long after we in Europe have simply died of fatigue. A thousand years from now the seal cutters will still be engraving their seals, the ivory workers still sawing and polishing, the tailors will be singing the merits of their cut and cloth, even as they do to-day, the spectacled astrologers will still be conjuring silver out of the pockets of bumpkins and amorous courtesans, there will be a bird market, and eating houses perfumed with delicious cooking, and chemists shops with bottles full of dried lizards, tigers’ whiskers, rhinoceros horns and pickled salamanders, there will be patient jewellers and embroiderers of faultless taste, shops full of marvellous crockery, and furriers who can make elaborate patterns and pictures out of variously coloured fox-skins, and the great black ideographs will still be as perfectly written as they are to-day, or were a thousand years ago, will be thrown on to the red paper with the same apparent recklessness, the same real and assured skill, by a long fine hand as deeply learned in the hieratic gestures of its art as the hand of the man who is writing now. Yes, it will all be there, just as intensely and tenaciously alive as ever-all there a thousand years hence, five thousand, ten. You have only to stroll through old Shanghai to be certain of it. London and Paris offer no such certainty. And even India seems by comparison provisional and precarious.
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