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The Light of Civilization

Traditionally, Chinese scholars, men of letters, artists would give an inspiring name to their residences, hermitages, libraries and studios. Sometimes they did not actually possess residences, hermitages, libraries or studios—not even a roof over their heads—but the existence or non-existence of a material support for a name never appeared to them a very relevant issue. And I wonder if one of the deepest seductions of Chinese culture is not related to this conjuring power with which it vests the Written Word. I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality. Let me give you just one modest example, which hit me long ago, when I was an ignorant young student.

In Singapore, I often patronized a small movie theatre which showed old films of Peking operas. The theatre itself was a flimsy open-air structure planted in a paddock by the side of the road (at that time, Singapore still had a countryside): a wooden fence enclosed two dozen rows of seats—long planks resting on trestles. In the rainy season, towards the end of the afternoon, there was always a short heavy downpour, and when the show started, just after dark, the planks often had not yet had time to dry; thus, at the box-office, with our ticket, you received a thick old newspaper to cushion your posterior against the humidity. Everything in the theatre was shoddy and ramshackle—everything except the signpost with the theatre’s name hanging above the entrance: two characters written in a huge and generous calligraphy, Wen Guang—which could be translated as “Light of Civilization” or “Light of the Written-Word” (it is the same thing). However, later on in the show, sitting under the starry sky and watching on screen Ma Liangliang give his sublime interpretation of the part of the wisest minister of the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), you realized that—after all—this “Light of Civilization” was no hollow boast.—Simon Leys, Introduction to The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays