The enduring appeal of the classics of world literature can be attributed to a number of factors.
Whatever the original language and cultural setting, there is typically a cast of characters with diverse traits and motivations which are easily recognisable in other places and across the generations.
There may also be ingenious plot twists which still manage to intrigue even when the main outlines of the story have already become part of the collective heritage.
And there is, of course, the form and structure of the work, the style of writing, the imagery and devices, which reel in the reader and do so much to create the whole.
However, for scholars with a more academic approach, there is often a further element. That is the study of half-hidden meanings, historical references and clever allusions within the text, which can open up a deeper level of interpretation and lead to contrasting views about the key figures, their relationships, and what the writer intended to convey to the wider audience.
Just how much intricate details may be woven into a well-known tale became clear in the most recent talk in Lingnan University’s Distinguished Professor Webinar Series.
The invited speaker was Wai-yee Li, Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilization at Harvard University. And for her topic she chose “The Taste of Water and the Sensorium of The Story of the Stone”, focusing on the ancient Chinese classic which has lost none of its power to enthrall over the centuries.
In particular, she explained how descriptions relating to the senses could or should be understood and how certain motifs can be taken as pointers to or explanations of the behaviour, attitudes and schemes of the key protagonists.
“I’m interested in the sensual conduits of truth,” said Li, noting that throughout Chinese literature there is a tradition whereby mentions of local customs and specific food are used as metaphors to illuminate individuals and their relative merits or failings.
For instance, in The Dream of the Red Chamber, a reference to ham and cabbage soup is taken as clear evidence of one character’s ignorance of Southern Chinese cuisine and, therefore, establishes his overall standing.
In the major works, Li said, there is a “hierarchy of the senses”, which helps to separate the self and other and to determine what is right.
This can be linked to the ancient Greek tradition, where the vison metaphor mattered most when searching for the truth. It also has clear parallels in the Jewish tradition where the hearing metaphor is generally viewed as most important.
Among Chinese writers, there has long been an inherent acceptance that the sages and virtuous rulers had superior sensory discrimination. So, if the human body plays a role in understanding higher truths. the more one is attuned to sensory stimuli and what they communicate, the more discerning and upstanding one is taken to be.
“With sensory metaphors, we often think of excesses, for example Lao Zi’s five colours making the eyes blind, and the five musical notes making one’s ears deaf,” Li said. “But the metaphor of the taste of water resists accusations of excess. Water may be bland, but it becomes the ultimate taste test [and therefore the measure of true discernment and moral judgement].”
Li went on to explain how various scenes in The Story of the Stone - and elsewhere - use characters’ differing perception of the taste of water – and tea - to reveal unexpected insights and give the reader a new range of perspectives.
Such methods have their roots in Confucian thought, but in each case the essential simplicity of the act and image also captures an immediacy that raises questions and helps to push the storyline forward.
“The taste metaphor becomes a potent way to think about self-cultivation,” said Li, who has long been a good friend and supporter of Lingnan University. “In the book, of course, it is also something to do with aesthetic and moral restraint and all kinds of values.”
Expanding on this, Li noted that the vocabulary and imagery used to describe the tastes of water in different works can be extremely complex and rather unexpected. In this respect, it perhaps bears comparison with the choice and type of words used by today’s wine connoisseurs.
For instance, in Dream Memories of Tao’an, Zhang Dai referred to water’s trenchant brilliance and shimmering purity, which “one may compare to light mist emerging from peaks or rocks obscured by entwining pines.”
“Undoubtedly, there is a rich literature in describing the taste of water,” Li said. “The metaphors contained there can be about understanding the truth, crossing over boundaries and achieving exalted goals. But more usually it is about distinctions and class differences, desire, enlightenment, and who can understand the ‘flavour within’.”