Strange Happenings in Yangzhou

Whilst doing research on my forthcoming book, A Book of Changes: Sixty-four Chance Pieces, I came across a curious little tale in The Dream Pool Essays (Mengxi Bitan / 夢溪筆談), written in the eleventh century by Shen Kuo (沈括). The tale was about the miraculous appearance of a celestial pearl, and is an entertaining and intriguing read.

My interest in the story was provoked when I was reflecting upon a curious encounter I had back in 2010 with a man in a coffee shop in the city of Baoji in China, a man who swore that he was an alien (you can read the story of this encounter here)… So, although I have zero confidence in the veracity of tales of extraterrestrial visitors, I thought I’d have a stab at translating the passage.
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Knowing, not knowing and teaching

I’ve just been sending off the edits for a paper that I’ve been writing for China Media Research, who are running a special issue on communication and Chinese philosophy. The paper is about education as a matter of communicating not just knowing, but also not-knowing, something that I’m arguing through a reading of the Laozi and the Zhuangzi.

In talking about not-knowing, I am not, I think, advocating anything particularly mysterious or mystical. Instead I am more interested in the fact that most of our lives are lived in what I am calling epistemological chaos, in which knowing and not-knowing exist alongside each other, and in which we don’t always know what we know, what we don’t know, or what the boundary is between the two (unlike Socrates, who always seems mightily—one might say ‘improbably‘—certain of his lack of knowledge). I’ll post here again when the paper is published, but here is a very short extract.

a rich educational context is one in which knowing and not-knowing, assurance and non-assurance swirl around each other chaotically; and teaching is as much about communicating not-knowing, tentativeness, uncertainty, flights of fancy, hypotheses, puzzles, conundrums, bafflements and confusions, as it is about communicating knowing, assurance, certainty, well-mapped paths, proofs, solutions, clarifications, illuminations and clarities.

Chinese and Bagpipe Music

As many who know me will be aware, I’ve spent a good deal of the last three or four years trying to make some inroads into the Chinese language. This is, in part, related to my various research interests, and in part related to the book I’ve been working on exploring the Yijing, or Chinese Book of Changes, as a kind of Calvino-style literature machine. And although progress has been perhaps a little slow, Chinese being—as China scholar David Moser once famously pointed out—damn hard, I’m fairly happy overall with how it has all been going. I’m terribly rusty on conversation, to be sure—living here in the UK, I don’t have as much practice as I would like—and my reading ability goes up and down, but I can pick my way through academic articles in Chinese, at least on a good day, or if I do it in the morning when my mind is fresh; and I’m finding the experience of getting to grips with Chinese immensely fruitful. And, more to the point, fun. Read more


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