It’s hard for most people to remember the last time they’ve even read a poem, much less wrote one!
Tick-tock turn the hands of the clock
Coated are the walls
With the dark ink of night
A solitary candle now casts its glow
As we sit and stare
Admiring the other’s sight
These few brief lines not only clearly illustrate the blackout the author experienced after a typhoon hit Taiwan but also adhered to the formal structure of classical Chinese poem. His poems aroused our curiosity. What motivated him to learn Chinese literature and philosophy and move to Taiwan? The trigger was something we could have never imagined.
From a Christian to an atheist: the pathway to the pursuit of East-Asian philosophy
Carlo JaMelle was raised in a Christian family. He majored in philosophy in college, aiming for advanced study in theology after graduation. However, as he studied more deeply and broadly, he started to have doubts about his religious beliefs. He eventually concluded that theological studies would be unable to solve the fundamental questions about life that had always consumed his mind. One of these questions pertained to self-identity.
What Carlo talked about was not about historical trivia you might learn from movies about the American Civil War. He hit home the fact that even after 150 years after the end of slavery, those original seeds of racial discrimination and hatred are still bearing fruit in the 21st century.
“Racial discrimination is still very deeply-rooted in American culture, so that if you are black, you are essentially a second-class citizen, not ‘American’ in the full sense of the word. In urban areas in the U.S., due to the social and economic realities, black people have historically be excluded from living with or near with white people. This ghettoization of black people is also one of the major causes of crime and violence in our communities.”
During college, Carlo became an atheist. In the southern states of America, Christians account for almost 90% of the population. The courage of pursuing his own way also isolated himself from people around him. “My religious black university classmates started to distance themselves from me. I was the only black person in the philosophy department, so I found myself socializing a lot with white philosophy majors, who tended to be atheist or hold very liberal views on religion. At that time I also began exploring Eastern philosophies and in the process I began meeting more Indian and East Asian friends.”
As he started to learn about East-Asian philosophies, among which Laozi particularly aroused his interest. Laozi sought to grasp the “Way” of the universe and its relation to the individual, state and society. Carlo was impressed by the profundity of Laozi’s thought as well as the fact of it being free of racist assumptions, which he feels to be ubiquitous in Western “Enlightenment” era philosophical literature he was accustomed to reading. After graduating from university, Carlo began training to be a teacher. Then almost as if by chance, he learned about teaching in Taiwan while still in the US. “At the time, the only thing I knew about Taiwan was the severe 921 Earthquake, and I could not have imagined at the time that I would be here the very next year. Originally I planned to stay here for only a year, but I soon fell in love with Taiwan.”
After studying Chinese for a few years, he went on obtain his Master’s Degree in Philosophy at the National Chengchi University, and afterwards he enrolled in a PhD program to study classical Chinese literature at National Taiwan Normal University, where he currently he studies. Over the past 15 years, he not only learned to speak fluent Chinese but also practiced qigong as well as the guzheng (Chinese zither).
He further developed his language skills in order to read Chinese classical literature. His book collection ranges from the Tao Te Ching, Buddhist scriptures such as the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, to Chinese classical novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber and Water Margin. They are all in the original texts, which is often difficult even for native readers.
Poet Zhuang Ziyi: “We all have a longing for transcendence.”
Two years ago, he spent a month learning the forms of traditional Chinese poetry online, and even attended poetry courses. However, he found that the strict traditional rules were too impractical for writing poems in modern Mandarin. Take the “tone pattern” as an example. The formal tonal constraints the teacher taught were based on ancient pronunciations of Chinese. “Since we are modern poets, we should give it a modern touch.”
As a great fan of Tang Dynasty poetry, he decided to dedicate himself to writing poetry, and created his own Facebook page using his Chinese name, Zhuang Ziyi (莊子義), to share his poems online. Let’s read one of his works, “A Tribute to Li Bai and Du Fu”:
Tai Bai was an immortal
Banished to this dusty land
Zi Mei’s poetry indeed
Flowed from God’s own hand
The world recites the works
Of the Immortal and the Sage
How could my meager verses
Ever share the very same stage
This poem praises the literary talents of Li Bai and Du Fu, the two most prominent figures in the flourishing of Chinese poetry in the Tang Dynasty. It also reflects his own idea of the qualities a poet should possess. “I really admire Li Bai. His poems perfectly reflect my own inner longings and ideals. He is romantic and chivalrous. And though Li Bai’s sense of justice was more evidenced in his daily life than his poetry, the fanciful flights of imagination reflected in his poetry yearn for something beyond the mundane world. I think we all in fact have that same sort of transcendental longing inside us.”
In keeping with his ideals, Carlo’s passion for poetry also touches on political and social issues. For example, during Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement of 2014, he wrote the poem, “Voice of the People,” to show his support for the young people whom courageously took action to air their grievances with the government.
From the people
Power is derived
The law being
For the common good
Not for reasons
Selfish or contrived
The shadows of officialdom
Have of late
Been brought to light
And in the anger
Of the youth we find
What is reasonable
Just and right
With a mere 20 Chinese characters, and without delving into his own political affiliations, he distilled the essence of the movement from the aspect of democratic politics.
He also writes poems that are related to his African American heritage. In “The Juneteenth Celebration,” for instance, talks about the roots of the day that Americans of African descent have set aside to celebrate their freedom, culture and achievements.
In the midst of the Civil War, the slaves were set free
But the Lone Star State, all alone, refused to let it be
Then a general landed his troops to re-proclaim this fact
When the bondsmen caught wind, they never looked back
“The first great thing is to find yourself and for that you need solitude and contemplation – at least sometimes,” said Fridtjof Nansen, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Carlo’s philosophical journey of self-understanding brought him to Taiwan and his exploration still continues. Whether he is able to find all the answers he seeks of course remains to be seen, but the literary works he is creating in the process will for certain leave us with lasting inspiration.
About Carlo JaMelle
Carlo was born in Arkansas, USA. He received his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy from the University North Texas. He moved to Taiwan in 2007 and obtained his Master’s Degree in Philosophy at the National Chengchi University. Now he is studying PhD in classical Chinese literature at National Taiwan Normal University. Having been a lifelong admire of art, Carlo hopes to one day become adept at eight of the Chinese arts: zither playing, chess, calligraphy, ink painting, poetry, tea ceremony, tai chi, and qigong.
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