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Friday, February 10, 2006

My Flowery Junk

Posted by on February 10 at 10:16 AM

Not too long ago, while visiting my favorite bookstore in this city, Magus, I found and bought a used hardback copy of Dickens’ London. Once owned by a woman named Betty L. Kubersmith, the book is a collection of Dickens’ writings on what he saw and experienced during his long walks through famous and neglected sections of the world’s first industrialized metropolis, whose everyday life “was inexhaustible food” for his literary imagination. The chapter “Chinese Junk” stands above the rest. It’s a copy of a letter Charles Dickens wrote to his friend and biographer John Foster in 1848, concerning a junk called Keying that was docked in London at the time. “Drive down to the blackwall railway,” writes Dickens, “and for the matter of eighteen pence you are at the Chinese Empire in no time…How the flowery region ever came into this latitude and longitude is the first thing one asks.”
In this district where London’s “chimney-pots, backs of squalid houses, narrow courts and streets, swamps, ditches, masts of ships, gardens of duckweed, and unwholesome little bowers of scarlet beans, whirl away in a flying dream, and nothing is left but China,” Dickens comes across the junk. This is what he sees:

“…Gaudy dragons and sea monsters disporting themselves from stem to stern, and on the stern a gigantic cock of impossible aspect defying the world…it would look more at home at the top of a public building, or at the top of a mountain…than afloat on the water…But by Jove! Even this is nothing to your surprise when you go down into the cabin. There you get into a torture of perplexity. As what became of all those lanterns hanging to the roof when the junk was out at sea? Whether they dangled there, banging and beating against each other…Whether the idol Chin Tee, of the eighteen arms, enshrined in a celestial Punch’s Show, in the place of honor, ever tumbled out in heavy weather. Whether incense and the joss stick still burnt before her, with faint perfume and a little thread of smoke, while the mighty waves were raging all around. Whether that preposterous tissue-paper umbrella in the corner was always spread, as being a convenient maritime instrument for walking about the decks with in a storm? Whether anybody on the voyage ever read those books printed in characters like bird-cages and fire-traps?”

Dickens is amazed at how “the crew of Chinamen aboard” this junk, which was rescued from a storm by a sturdy and practical British ship, ever imagined “their good ship would turn up quite safe, at the desired port.” But what he finds to be preposterous, I find to be the very attitude one should take towards life, which is itself a vast, often troubled, often stormy sea. It is in accordance with this impractical junk that I decorate my little apartment. I want it to be full of inconveniences, full of the tissue-paper thin things that are in the Keying’s cabin, so that as I sleep, dream, read, these impractical perfumes, lamps, lanterns and other frail fancies are “banging and beating against each other” as the “mighty waves” of human existence are “raging all around” my apartment.

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What Dickens found preposterous also smacks of Victorian British egotism. Little did he know at the time that some four hundred years earlier, China ruled trade on the Indian Ocean with massive 400 foot junks, unbelievably sizable armadas and nautical expertise that put European explorers to shame.

Sad too, that the sailors on that Chinese Junk he speaks of probably knew as little as he did about such things, thanks to the hard work of subsequent emperors to erase all tracks of the great voyages.

Because of 20th century scholarship, however, we can speak the name Zheng He, the greatest mariner of all time, and recollect the facts that nobody during Dicken's era would have dared to think: that much of the technology on the British Navy's impressive fleet was derived from Chinese boat makers, sailors, and technicians. They cut from whole cloth the technologies that the British navy bought readymade.

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