Monday, August 03, 2015

Coffins and All That

Sought out another of Lilian Lee's (or Li Bi Hua, Li Pik Wah) books at the library. Found something about a coffin. Or rather of the Chinese custom of placing an order for a coffin made to the individual's satisfaction before his death. Anyway, it was a book comprising 16 short stories. Nice. 李碧華的散文集《喜材》,共十六篇。 

I like them all. They're morality tales. Perhaps morbid. Many are based on urban superstitions, but that's life. I'm beginning to understand why Lilian Lee is such a revered author in Hong Kong and China. Her writing is real, concise and chilling. In these tales of the supernatural, she has deftly inserted arguments of how love in all forms bind us to obligations, how greed and guilt corrupt the naive, and how of the fights and ugliness of the political system haven't changed since the ancient times. Let's pick two stories to quote here.

The first eponymous story 第一篇《喜材》described protagonist retired Teacher Mi (米永祥老師) who lived in the Qing Dynasty as a man of integrity; served as a tutor/governor to the children of the rich and the elite. Still, he couldn't escape the 'greed' that he taught his charges not to acquire. In accordance with ancient Chinese customs, he scrimped and saved only to have a high quality wood coffin tailored at the age of 60 in preparation for death. It was called a 'happy coffin'. 所謂‘喜材’,而不是人死後的‘壽材’。

But there was a curious turn of events that saw him live till 70. He loaned out his coffin to those who needed it first, and in the process, he only asked for payment-in-lieu to have an additional inch of wood added to his coffin. People seemed to like their coffin wood to be thick and sturdy. It resulted in the original three-inches-thick coffin gradually become nine-inches thick. As luck would have it, there was a fire, and his coffin was seared. The shop rescued it by sanding away the burnt wood, and Teacher Mi was back to square one with a coffin three-inches thick.



The other story that stuck, mused and clarified the origins of a Cantonese phrase. If you speak Cantonese, do you recall a phrase that goes, 「陸雲廷睇相— 唔衰攞嚟衰」? More or less telling us 'don't look for trouble' or 'create unnecessary angst for ourselves'. In《陸榮廷睇相》, the writer explains that the name 陸雲廷 has been mispronounced since the Cantonese words sound similiar. The third character of the name went from the original 'weng/wing' to the-frequently-uttered 'wuen/wun'. The original name would have been 陸榮廷 or 原名為'陸亞宋' (1856-1927).

The story illustration for this story was quite pretty. Peonies I think. So this man 陸榮廷 was an actual warlord who lived in the early nineteenth century in Canton. One day he discarded the warlord finery and uniform, disguised in rags and went to see a fortune-teller who was reputed to be good. I guess history didn't name him, but the writer nicknamed him as Jin Diao Tong (金吊桶).

But the fortune-teller said (or foretold) two phrases that the warlord didn't like. Fearing his wrath, the fortune-teller had to flee Canton the very next day. As history would have it (May Fourth Movement 1919, KMT vs CPC and all that), the warlord's fortunes (along with many others) indeed declined. As the story passed around, the pronunciation of the middle character of kinda changed as it was perhaps misunderstood. So that was that.

中國人其實有智慧之言:「窮算命,富燒香」— 若各項順遂如意,亦有所得,這個「好運」就不要動它分毫,根本不必轉運,誠心上香還神積德積福,順之而行便是。只有命途多舛,際遇坎坷的人,一窮二白,處處碰壁,才去占卜算命,希望江湖術士提點迷津,逃過一些災劫,另覓新生,「終須有日龍穿鳳,唔通日日褲穿窿」?為得鼓勵,打破悶局,斬斷窮根。 
陸榮廷的故事,其實在教誨了很多貴人賤人好人衰人明人暗人善人惡人...... 一句話,擲地有聲,金石良言。

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