One hand clapping – lesson 1

“Tell me now, what should a man want

But to sit alone, sipping his cup of wine?

I should like to have visitors come and discuss philosophy;

And not to have the tax collector coming to collect taxes;

My three sons married into good families

And my five daughters wedded to steady husbands.

Then I could jog through a happy five-score years

And, at the end, need no Paradise.”

(Wang Chi – 7th century)

I love this poem.

I want. I don’t want.

I see a comfortably–off learned man, early fifties, sitting alone by a window in mid Summer, laying out his life’s ideal pattern in a slightly alcohol-tinted set of images in his mind’s eye as he speaks to me, a guest. His visitors are perhaps his colleagues at his work, a school or university perhaps, and are equally as well educated as he, not coming to noisily discuss football over a lager six-pack but philosophy as they quietly and moderately sip wine. And having thus implied his intelligence without seeming to, so: a modest man, he then reveals a wry sense of humour – the Beatles weren’t the first to dislike the taxman, and he gently and ironically crosses his fingers at his prayer for an absence yet to come, even though he knows and we know it’s as unlikely as immortality. Death and taxes. Ha! A little more wine.

Offhandedly and obliquely making clear to us his great fertility and thus his success as a male and husband via his eight children, his only other wishes are as a father – for his family’s good honour through the marriage social successes of his sons; and, being a bit of a softy, for contented marriages for all his daughters. No problems with the many inlaws for any of the octet and thus none for him. All exits covered. Good. Another sip.

It’s what’s NOT here that intrigues. Where’s his wife? Why is he alone? Discussing philosophy – does it have to be that particular science perhaps to try to explain his wife’s death in her eighth confinement? Or has this delight in solitude sprung from the constant shrewing of his worn-down wife, all passion spent and wouldn’t you be after eight kids?

And the majority of people will always express a wish for even just a leetle more money – he doesn’t. Not a hint of any need of physical possessions. Nor a wish for good health, our other great neurosis. Philosophy indeed, a man of the mind, not the body.

And the tongue-in-cheek hyperbole of the hundred-year longevity. Don’t we all wish to live so long?  Yet he makes it sound almost inevitable as a result of everything almost banally good that gone before – a little wine, a little conversation, happy families, and the rest of his life passes uneventfully. For ages. Those fingers crossed again. A slight wink. Perhaps after all his wife’s in the next room, preparing the lunch, quietly singing to herself….

So far so simple, so prosaic, so lighthearted. Twinkle-eyed.


And then suddenly there’s the silent bomb of the last line. “I was not jesting, listener. All I want in life is Life. Small prosaic happinesses for me and mine will provide all I need. There is no more.” Such a grave yet tranquil and accepting rounding-off, with a slight accepting shrug of the shoulders and a small smile of honesty straight into my eyes.