memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

My Father Learns Chinese

My father was a man of many interests and enthusiasms (and indeed obsessions) one of which was a study of the Chinese language. He laboriously and lovingly painted each of the 214 Chinese cardinals on square white cards. He used a special broad-nib pen and black ink such as calligraphists use. Imagine the creative pleasure he must have felt in forming such beautiful and ancient symbols. Here are six of them:

(Notice how elaborate, to our eyes, YES seems to be).

6 of his cards

He would dot the cards, dozens at a time, around the various rooms of our house in France so that his eyes might fall on them and his mind might absorb their meaning.

On his death we were amazed to discover (among the myriad writings, translations, architectural drawings, pen-and-ink sketches of his beloved French village churches, water-colour washed landscapes, extensive and deep genealogical researches into his ancestry) a large loose-bound journal on the first page of which he had written:

4. 4. 56 

I seem to have a great desire to return to my earlier practice of keeping a general journal or commonplace book, for all purposes. So let this be it. Notes of all kinds, reflections, sketches, embroidery designs, rough copies of translations, let all come here.

Naturally there was competition among us for this pearl so the sister to whom it was assigned promised the rest of us that she would have copies bound for us.

I won’t attempt to describe this rather remarkable journal further; instead I shall illustrate (with a few woefully inadequate photos) his interest in:

ANCIENT GREEK

IN GERMAN, LATIN AND CHINESE

CHINESE AND FROGS

TRANSLATION OF DANTE OUT OF ITALIAN

MORE LATIN

He was delighted to acquire a Portuguese daughter-in-law and paid her the ultimate compliment of setting about learning Portuguese, not for oral/phonetic use but in order to enjoy the rich literature of that nation. One Christmas we sent him a copy of As Lusiadas, the epic poem celebrating Portugal’s nationhood by Luis de Camões. In January he wrote to thank us for the present:

…. I started to read it on Christmas Day after lunch … by New Year’s Day I was rounding the Cape of Storms.

In the introduction to another work of his (a genealogical study of all the ancestry, both in the male and female line going back to the end of the 16th century, of his great grand-father John Crosland Milner of Thurlstone) he wrote:

The reverence for ancestors (and filial piety to elders) is one of the most endearing qualities of the Chinese tradition. They call it hsiao and for them it is one of the cardinal virtues.

HSIAO - FILIAL PIETY  by THOMAS MILNER

HSIAO - FILIAL PIETY by THOMAS MILNER

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