Book: Watching the Tree

Watching the Tree

Charming, delightful, concise reflections on Chinese life and culture.
248 pages, ★★★★★

Adline Yen Mah is one of my favourite Chinese authors. Her websites http://www.adelineyenmah.com/ and http://chinesecharacteraday.com/ focus on increasing the awareness of Chinese culture to “anyone who is willing to learn”! She’s even created free children’s books and an iPad app to help spread knowledge of Chinese culture worldwide.

Watching the Tree is a collection of charming reflections about the author’s grandfather and the stories he told. Her grandfather tends to connect Chinese and western ideas: he wants to believe in Confucianism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Taoism at the same time, for example, and couldn’t understand why religious pluralism displeased westerners. The author highlights the similarities between all of them in this book.

The author’s grandfather also describes how Escher’s art, Bach’s music and Zhuangzi’s Daodejing (a text) all tackle the same philosophical conundrums of circular logic and apparent paradoxes. Interconnectedness is a recurring theme throughout this book.

Another example of interconnectedness is when we learn that Hinduism evolved into Buddhism, which evolved into Daoism and also Japanese Buddhism, for example. We learn that China’s lack of scientific progress in recent centuries was attributed to a long-standing tradition of revering philosophers and neglecting mathematics—at least, not adopting a digit-based system of counting, which would have greatly assisted the advancement of maths and science, until the early 19th century. The author also makes connections between the Yi Ching (易经) and Carl Jung, and between hexagrams and binary computing. I love the connections the author (via her grandfather’s stories) makes in this book—it makes this book inclusive, beautiful, and unmistakably Chinese.

I also love how Watching the Tree‘s chapters are named after Chinese famous idioms. Each chapter tells a story that describes both the idiom and an aspect of Chinese life. The tone of these stories is beautiful, charming and uplifting. All the Chinese words are written in Wade-Giles, pinyin and Chinese characters—which makes is accessible for all Chinese learners from all backgrounds.

I recommend this book for anyone who has an interest in Chinese culture. It doesn’t matter how much you already know—this book is beautiful enough to bring pleasure even to those who are already familiar with the ideas it contains. ★★★★★

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