Divine inspiration

While I’m on the subject of books and respect, maybe it’s time I wrote about the Literature God.

I’ve spent two months or so writing under his shadow, making the traditional sacrifice of blood sweat and tears (actually the blood is usually from a cock’s comb, and stuck with chicken feathers) and the result, I think – I hope – is good. Part two of a novel finished; part three begun and clearly outlined in my head.

In China since the earliest times, progress and success and the keys to the kingdom have depended on a firm grasp of literature. In the palaces of the rulers, flowery poetry and calligraphy written by the Emperor himself – not his weapons, his armed might – took pride of place hanging over the thrones and in pavilions as proof of fitness to rule.

And in distant valleys in Yunnan, a province to which officials who displeased the emperor were exiled, temples were built by village sons who successfully passed the imperial exams and became civil servants. The upper rooms of those temples contain shrines to the God of Literature, pen in hand, foot on a dragon’s head, challenging gaze looking forward to ambitious futures, to flights of fancy.

There’s something  surreal about this. China’s relationship with creativity and inspiration is far from straightforward. For further reading, I recommend ‘Five Letters from a Eastern Empire’ in Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

This is a country that has always had a double-edged respect for Literature, because it has always equated it with Power.


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