60. Novelty And Romancement, Or, Less Bread, More Taxes!

60. Novelty and Romancement, or, Less Bread, More Taxes!

The first part of the above is the title of a short piece by Lewis Carroll which I recommend to those interested in wordplays and funny ambiguities. It will introduce this brief Reminiscence, which is about misread shop-signs.

It began when I was about to insert into my latest blog a kind of apology for continuing sometimes to use the old system of romanizing Chinese, the Wade-Giles system (named after two old sinologues who invented it) instead of the new P.R.C. system called pinyin, which is in general use today except in Taiwan, where Wade-Giles is still the official system. I was recalling the days in the early 1970s when we were faced with a real choice, before the Association for Asian Studies and other large organizations came out in favor of pinyin. The new system was much admired by linguists, but was the despair of many of us for its seemingly arbitrary (yes, I know the linguists' reasons and arguments) uses of q, c, and x as initial letters. Progressives among us, like Fred Wakeman at Berkeley, adopted pinyin immediately; others of us dragged our feet. I had to make a choice when I was beginning the first volume of my series on Yuan-Ming painting, Hills Beyond a River; when I realized that the first artist I would treat, familiar to us as Ch'ien Hsûan, would become Qian Xuan, I decided to spare my readers that sudden and severe shock, and stick with Wade-Giles. The apology in my blog was for slipping back into that old system when writing about things that happened way back in time, when we weren't faced with this choice. When I recall those days, Wade-Giles spellings come natural to me.

That admission, in turn, reminded me of an incident on my first trip to China, in 1973, with the "Archaeology" delegation led by Sherman Lee. In Shanghai we were bewildered (at least some of us were) by seeing shop signs along the street reading 'pixie." Were there really, in this stern Communist country, stores selling pixies? And what were they? At last someone explained: they were pi-xie, the Chinese for shoes.

Telling that story leads me to another, for which the Lewis Carroll reference is equally to the point. In Berkeley, on Bancroft Ave. at Dana St. across from the campus, is the YWCA, which in addition to its religious and social functions houses a popular restaurant. I walked by it most mornings on my way to work. Along Dana St. is an open veranda with a wall of glass, held up by wooden posts, facing the street; and pasted against the glass, one morning, was a sign reading HEAL THY HOMESTYLE! I read this and walked on puzzled and a bit disturbed: how did they know there was something wrong with my homestyle? Or was this a general admonition, based in an understanding that most families were having their problems and needed healing? The sign went on puzzling me until, walking by it again and looking closer, I realized that one of the wooden uprights ran through the first word, separating it into two, and that in intent this was an advertisement for the restaurant, claiming that its cooking was HEALTHY HOMESTYLE!

Relating those incidents gives away, of course, the point of the Lewis Carroll story, revealing in advance its crucial revelation. But read it anyway, if only because it might draw you back to The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, which I still have in my old, much-read Modern Library edition, and which is full of treasures. Who today, when everyone is familiar with Alice and Looking Glass, reads Sylvie and Bruno? So only a few, I'm afraid, can have caught the reference in my very first publication, a review of Mai-mai Sze's The Tao of Painting, when I wrote: "Less Tao, please, more painting!" Behind this was the memory of the opening scene in Sylvie and Bruno, in which the two children, in the palace, hear the crowd outside chanting (having got their instructions wrong): "Less bread, more taxes!" (So, finally, there is the explanation of the second part of my title, for which you were waiting.)

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