蔣勳 Chiang Hsün on Covid-19 (Learning How to Be Alone in Togetherness with Oneself)

For Taiwanese writer 蔣勳 Chiang Hsün, covid-19 may just be a warning to get back in touch, not with each other as we are constantly doing, but with our neglected selves — 活得很豐富 | 跟自己對話, to live much more richly in dialogue with ourselves . . .

This video from 天下雜誌 in Taiwan is in Mandarin, so I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the transcription, but Chiang’s ideas, expressed eloquently and incisively, seemed very worthy of translation into English in the hope  of reaching a still wider audience.

Please scroll down for the transcription, English translation and notes. You can see the video here. And if you wish to check anything in the transcription or find the Cantonese pronunciation, please make use of the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.

You can find many videos featuring Chiang Hsün on the internet, and quite a few of them have English subtitles. I recommend this one entitled, 最簡單的生活,就是富足 Chiang Hsun: Being Rich is Having the Simplest Life.


真的人類文明有時好難講 | 就是一個大災難的來臨 | 也許是救贖 | 新冠肺炎發生的時候 | 我反而覺得 | 是不是這個東西在逼我們 | 重新回到一個很純粹的個人 | 就是你不得不保持距離了 | 不能群聚之後 | 你有沒有機會 | 還是活得很豐富 | 跟自己對話

● 群聚 = living in groups; gregarious; social

True human civilization is sometimes difficult to talk about. The arrival of a disaster on a huge scale may be a kind of redemption. When covid-19 [first] happened, I felt that perhaps this thing was trying to force us to return once more to a very pure individual self [個人]. Now you have no choice but to maintain a certain distance. After it is no longer possible to gather socially, might you not then have the opportunity to live much more richly in dialogue with yourself?

Caption: 蔣勳:學會孤獨和自己在一起 | Chiang Hsün: Learning How to Be Alone in Togetherness with Oneself

如果我們從小 | 在比較華人的社會長大 | 然後受到儒家比較強的影響 | 非常非常不容易有孤獨感 | 那麽在漢字當中 | 「獨」跟「獨」 | 都是非常負面的意義 | 可是孤獨這兩個字 | 如果我們從西方的文字的根源來看 | 它是 solitude | 它的字根是 s-o-l | 就「太陽」| 【1:00】我就感覺到 | 兩個文化的差異很大 | 那我覺得當然 | 各有利弊 | 所以我後來對這個孤獨的定義是說 | 跟自己在一起 | 那其實張愛玲也講過 | 因爲我想她也受到西方的教育 | 隱私是不存在的 | 在華人世界 | 她說如果早上起來 | 你不把門打開 | 好像就表示你在家裏做壞事 | 我們不太容易有 | 把自己躲起來 | 跟自己對話的那個部分 | 君君、臣臣、父父、子子 | 你在這個社會裏 | 都是相對的 | 可是有時候真的好希望自己一個人 | 然後覺得一個人的那種豐富 | 對向内探索 | 自己存在的意義 | 或者價值的東西 | 儒家從來沒有探討這個 | 就是我個人要去面對 | 所有生命裏的磨難 | 我怎麽去挑戰這些東西 | 孤獨地去面對它 | 而不是群體面對 | 這個病毒【2:00】是不是一個 | 非常神奇的預告?| 對於人類過度地接觸的頻繁 | 對於人類過度地物質消耗 | 對於人類過度地 | 所有的這種社交 | 或者應酬的一個 | 最大最大的一個警告

● 儒家 = the Confucianists; the Confucian school| ● 根源 = a source; an origin; a root | ● 字根 = literally “word root”, roughly “the root of the word; etymology”| ● 各有利弊 = each one has its advantages and disadvantages (or “its pros & cons””) | ● 隱私 = one’s secrets; private matters one wants to hide | ● 相對 = relative | ● 探討 = to inquire into; to probe into | ● 磨難 = a tribulation; a hardship; suffering | ● 群體 = colony (a biological term); a group | ● 預告 = advance notice; a herald | ● 頻繁 = frequently; often | ● 物質消耗 = roughly, “material consumption” | ● 社交 = social contact | ● 應酬 = to have social intercourse with | ● 警告 = to warn; to caution; to admonish

If, from an early age, you grow up in a fairly Chinese kind of society, and are then subject to a fairly strong influence from Confucian culture, then it is extremely difficult to have a feeling of aloneness [孤獨感]. The two characters 獨 and 獨 that make up the word for “alone” in Chinese both carry an extremely negative meaning. But the word for 孤獨, if we look at it in terms of the etymology of Western writing, is “solitude”, the root of which is “sol”, the Latin word for “sun” [1:00]. In my view, the differences between the two cultures are considerable [很大], and I think that, of course, each one has its own strengths and weaknesses, so later my definition of this [word] “solitude” was “a being together with oneself”. In actual fact, [the writer] Eileen Chang has also spoken about this. The reason being, I think, that she received a Western-style education. Secrets do not exist in the Chinese world. She said that if you get up in the morning and do not open your door, people would get the idea [好像就表示] that you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing inside. To hide ourselves away and to hold a dialogue with ourselves — that part is not so easy for us [as Chinese people]. Rulers, ministers, fathers, sons — in this society your [position] is relative [to those of others]. Sometimes, however, we long to be on your own, and then to feel that richness in being alone. Exploring your inner world, the meaning of your own existence or things like values — these are things that Confucianism has never inquired into. That is, I have to face all these tribulations of human existence on my own. How do I challenge [挑戰] such things, face to face with them on my own and not as part of a group? Is this virus [2:00] an extremely mysterious [kind of] advance notice about the excessive frequency of contact between human beings [接觸的頻繁]? About the excessive material consumption of human beings? Or the greatest possible warning [最大最大的一個警告] about the excessiveness of all types of social contact or social interaction between human beings

Caption: 從倫敦囘台隔離中找到安靜 | The Tranquillity I Found in Quarantine after Coming back to Taiwan from London?

三月十號 | 大概從倫敦逃回來的 | 因爲其實一大堆的計劃 | 倫敦這樣一個城市 | 我住在那個 London Bridge 倫敦橋旁邊 | 門口全部每天聽到 | 意大利遊客講話 | 西班牙遊客講話 | 那個時候那兩個國家 | 已經非常嚴重 | 可是我所有的英國朋友 | 都覺得沒有問題 | 然後我偶然戴口罩 | 就會被他們笑 | 我説三月十號 | 我覺得不對了 | 有點像逃回來一樣 | 那些英國朋友 | 最後跟我吃飯都在笑我說 | 大驚小怪 | 現在他們有時候寫信給你就說 |你真是先知 | 可是我就想說【3:00】| 這個病毒是不是來 | 警告所有人的自大

● 逃 = to run away; to escape; to flee | ● 大驚小怪 = be surprised or alarmed at sth. perfectly normal; make a fuss | ● 先知 = ① a person of foresight ② a prophet | ● 自大 = self-important; arrogant

On the tenth of March, [I] practically [大概] fled back [逃回來] [here] from London. Because actually I had a whole heap of plans. London is such a city. I lived near London Bridge, and everyday all [the voices that I] heard were of tourists speaking Italian or Spanish. At that time, [the covid-19 situation] in those two countries was already extremely serious. However, none of my English friends felt that there was any problem. Afterwards, I would occasionally wear a face-mask and they would laugh at me. As I said [我説] on the tenth of March I thought that things weren’t right — it was a bit like I was escaping. Towards the end [最後], when eating with those English friends of mine, they’d laugh at me and saying I was making an unnecessary fuss. Now, sometimes they write to me and say: Wow! You really are a person of foresight. But the thing I want to say is [3:00]: Has this virus come along to warn all human beings against being [too] self-important?

我反而是三月十號以後 | 回到台灣 | 忽然沉靜下來 | 那,過,過了幾天 | 區公所就打電話來說 | 因為要追溯隔離 | 那,所以那兩個禮拜當中 | 我也覺得很棒就是 | 你被强迫 | 你就是在家裏 | 然後你會發現 | 好久沒有翻的書又翻出來 | 好久沒有聽的音樂又拿出來聽 | 然後好久沒有自己 | 好好去把黃瓜切成細細的絲 | 欸,我就覺得,欸,好有趣 | 好久沒有做這些事了 | 可是 | 為什麽不可以回來 | 回來跟自己在一起 | 我也很想問很多朋友說 | 你有多久沒有跟自己在一起 | 甚至到最後 | 會不會害怕跟自己在一起

● 區公所 = district office | ● 追溯 = to trace back; to date from | ● 隔離 = to keep apart; to isolate; to segregate | ● 强迫 = to force; to compel; to coerce | ● 翻 = ? cf. 翻閲 = to leaf through | ● 絲 = a threadlike thing; a sliver

However, after 10 March, I returned to Taiwan and suddenly clamed right down. Then, after a few days, the district office rang, because they needed to track me down about staying in quarantine [要追溯隔離]. Now during those two weeks, what I thought was really wonderful was that you were forced to stay at home. Suddenly, you discovered books you hadn’t looked at for ages you read through again, and music you hadn’t listened to for a long time, you got out and listened to. Then [然後], you went and cut up a cucumber yourself into very fine slices, something you hadn’t done for a long time. Hey, I thought, this is interesting. It’s been ages since I have done any of these things. But why is it that we can’t go back, go back to being with ourselves? I would really like to go and ask a lot of my friends the question: How long have you been away from yourself? And even perhaps: Could it be that you are afraid to be with yourself?

Caption: 爲什麽要這麽快 | 能不能慢下來反省 How Do Things Have To be So Fast? | Can [We] Slow Down and Reflect?

你就可以有彈性地去思考說 | 我們的文明其實好脆弱 【4:00】| 一切東西 | 是不是應該要 | 踩一下刹車 | 就是什麽要這麽快 | 可不可以更慢一點 | 為什麽是一定跟人的接觸 | 而不能夠自己孤獨地去| 處理自己的這個空間 | 所以那十四天對我好重要 | 好久沒有整理的東西 | 我去整理了 | 然後忽然發現抽屜裏便 | 其實有那種 | 堆了好久的老照片 | 好珍貴 | 我父親二十五歲的一張照片 | 我發現它後面好工整地小字 | 講哪一年他在做什麽做什麽 | 而我在想 | 欸,我都沒有對照片做這樣的注記 | 可是因爲他們東西很少 | 可是你知道 | 現在手機裏的照片 | 簡直不知道怎麽辦 | 我的學生跟我說 | 嘩,簡直濫 | 因為你隨時都在拍 | 本來以爲是記更多的東西 | 記錄更多東西 | 最後很可能是 | 反而變成零 | 我覺得人類 | 在這一次的事件當中 | 其實可以做好多好多的反省 | 好有趣喔 【5:00】| 你如果從料理來講 | 好多東西的消失 | 大概是我們不自覺 | 比如説我們去小火慢慢 | 燉一個菜的燉 | 還有我曾經交了學費 | 去跟天香樓的保師傅學的叫做 | 蔥開煟麵的煟 | 最小最小的火 | 去把所有的湯底煮四十八個小時 | 用這個湯底 | 來下麵的麵叫做煟麵 | 將來當然不會存在 | 因爲誰要去花怎麽多的時間 | 而且你能夠吃得出 | 煟麵跟泡麵不同嗎?| 如果吃不出來 | 它當然就不存在 | 大家都不愿意做 | 比較長久的耐煩的事 |  可是很有趣 | 新冠肺炎 | 我好多朋友跟我 mail | 跟我隔離的時候 | 然後跟我 What’s App | 我才發現 | 欸,他們就開始做菜了 | 而且開始做時間很長的菜 | 我忽然覺得好有趣喔 | 因爲他多久都在外食 | 他根本已經很久沒有在厨房裏【6:00】| 他又開始做 | 自己又重新做這個東西

● 刹車 = to brake | ● 工整 = carefully & neatly done | ● 注記 = (?) to annotate; to add a note| ● 泛濫 = literally “to spread unchecked”; perhaps sth. like “to be out of control” | ● 料理 = ① to cook ② cuisine| ● 不自覺 = unconscious; unaware | ● 燉 = to stew | ● 蔥開煟麵 = (?) slow-stewed noodles with scallions and dried shrimps | ● 煟 = to cook over a slow fire; to stew; to simmer| ● 泡麵 = (?) instant noodles | ● 湯底 = (?) soup base| ● 耐煩 = patient

You can reflect on things flexibly and say that our civilization is actually very fragile [4:00]. Shouldn’t we perhaps put on the brakes as far as everything is concerned. I mean, why does everything have to be so fast? Could things be a little bit slower? Why is it that our contact has to be with other people, and that we can’t go and deal with this space called the self on our own? And so, those fourteen days [I spent in quarantine] were very important to me. Things that I hadn’t put in order for ages I went and put in order. Later, out of the blue [忽然], I discovered all these old photographs stacked away in a draw, very precious [photographs]. There was one of my father at the age of twenty-five and, on the back — in very neat, small handwriting — he had written [講] the year [in which it was taken] and the things he was doing then. I have never made any notes [注記] on the photographs [I have taken]. Perhaps it was because they had so few material possessions [東西很少], but you know, [we] have so many images on our mobile phones that [we] simply wouldn’t know where to start. [One of] my students said: “It’s completely out of control” [簡直泛濫], because you’re always taking snaps”. [We] tend think of it as making a record of more things, of recording more things, but in the end maybe all we wind up with is zero, however. My sense is that, [faced with] the event [of covid-19], [we] human beings can do a whole lot of soul-searching. It’s very interesting [5:00].  Take cooking, for instance [你如果從料理來講]. Many things are disappearing that we aren’t even aware of. For example, to cook food slowly, to dun it, the dun used in “to dun a meal”. I once paid to learn how to wei food, the wei used in the dish called “slow-stewed noodles with scallions and dried shrimps”, with Master Bao, a chef at the Tien Hsiang Lo Restaurant [in Taipei]. Using the lowest possible heat, you cook all [the ingredients] in the soup base [湯底] for forty-eight hours. When you cook the noodles [下麵] in this soup base, this is called wei mian or “slow-stewed noodles”. This [way of cooking] will no longer exist in the future, because who is going to spend that much time? What’s more, could you taste the difference [能夠吃得出] between slow-stewed noodles and instant noodles? If you can’t taste the difference, then naturally it will not survive. No one is willing to do things that a rather time-consuming [比較長久的] and [require] patience. But what is interesting is that [with] covid-19, when friends emailed me or, during quarantine, or later when they got in touch through What’s App, I discovered that they have begun to cook again, making things that require a lot of time. All of sudden I realized how very interesting this was. Because for ages they had eaten takeaways; they hadn’t gone near their own kitchens for a very long time [6:00]. They had begun to do this, they had started over again.

Caption: 做孤獨的自己與自己對話 | A Lone Self in Dialogue with Itself

這一次的流行病 | 也許是一個方法吧 | 就是逼迫你靜下來 | 而且沒完沒了 | 你現在根本不知道什麽時候結束 | 它也許是 | 重新去救人類回來 | 重新去開始發現說 | 我幹嘛要真麽急 | 我在想説 | 每個人回來做孤獨的自己 | 也許是一個起點 | 重新再去建立 | 自己跟這個地球的對話 | 或者跟自己的對話 | 跟時間的對話 | 或者跟 . . . 歷史的對話

● 流行病 = epidemic disease | ● 逼迫 = to force; to compel; to coerce

Perhaps this epidemic is a means: it is forcing you to calm down. What’s more, it goes on and on, now we have no way of knowing of when it will end. Perhaps it will save humanity once again, helping us to start to realize just why we are in such a hurry. What I’d like to say is: let us go back [每個人回來] to being alone with ourselves. This may be a starting point to go an re-establish a dialogue between ourselves and the Planet, or with ourselves, or with time, or history.