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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 12, 2003
* I picked up Vivien Sung's FIVE-FOLD HAPPINESS out of curiosity,
not knowing exactly what to make of it. It was clearly a
book about Chinese culture but it was hard to figure out what
Ms. Sung's angle on it was.
The angle, as it turned out, is a little oblique -- which, if
you've ever worked closely with Chinese people, actually fits
in a way since Chinese ways of thinking are somewhat at right
angles to Western ways of thinking. Ms. Sung takes as her
starting point five Chinese characters and their associated
concepts -- luck, prosperity, longevity, happiness, and wealth
-- and elaborates on these concepts through sets of related
characters and concepts, illustrated by tales from Chinese
folklore. Ms. Sung is an Australian who wanted to get in
touch with her cultural roots and put together this book as
a way of exploring it.
The approach is informal and easily digested, if not always
easily retained because it covers (in a fashion somewhat
reminiscent of the characters of CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN
DRAGON leaping effortlessly from rooftop to rooftop) so
much ground of an alien culture. It backs up the text with
an interesting format, featuring the same text in both
English and Chinese, and loaded down with classical Chinese
woodcuts on multicolored paper and somewhat "artsy" pictures
of Chinese cultural artifacts. It looks a bit like something
you might find in an Asian import market.
There's a goldmine of fascinating information in this
little book (it looks a bit on the thick side but it's mostly
pictures). Double use of the Chinese "happiness" character
means "marital bliss", as do Mandarin ducks, which are
apparently a solidly monogamous species. The image of two
fat smiling children is a lucky image, and Chinese houses
may have the images of two warriors on the front door, the
"door gods" who protect the home.
I've been tinkering with trying to learn Japanese and the
Chinese characters were an interesting angle. I was also
interested in learning that the "greeting cat" statue
found in Japanese shops is a Chinese invention, and in
borrowing the Chinese characters the Japanese also borrowed
the superstition that "4" is an unlucky number. This
is because the word "si" in Chinese means both "4" and
"death", and the Japanese acquired both terms as "shi".
In contrast, "6" is a lucky number -- "666" would get a
positive reaction from a Chinese person but not from
someone in a Christian culture.
Even after finishing this book, it's a bit hard to
categorize it. It's not a formal survey, it's just a bit
of this and that, and someone who was after something
substantial might not like this book at all. Me, I
found it surprisingly entertaining. After I was done I
felt that it might be fun to send a copy to Genndy
Tarkovsky, the cartoonist behind the artful SAMURAI
JACK series, a copy of this book and see what he could
do with the collection of stories it contains. The
stories cry out for animation and his style would do
them perfect justice.
Oh, and one little last thing -- fortune cookies are
to no great surprise not really Chinese, they are a
Chinese-American invention from the 1920s. Apparently
originally they contained sayings from the teachings
of Confucius.
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