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SHA's speech at welcoming reception and creative works recital of The Visiting Writers 2006, International Writers Workshop (English only)

    The following is a speech by the Secretary for Home Affairs, Dr Patrick Ho, at the Welcoming Reception and Creative Works Recital of The Visiting Writers 2006, International Writers Workshop today (October 19): (English only)

     Writers and poets, in any language, are more adept than anyone else at expressing abstract concepts such as our "Oneness with Mother Nature".  I am sure therefore that this International Writers Workshop of 2006, convened under the auspices of the Hong Kong Baptist University, will produce a rich diversity of topics that touch upon this broad and ever-fascinating subject, which has engaged the human intellect from the time of the Shi Jing, or Chinese Book of Odes, dating back three millennia.

     The Greek poetess Sappho, sometimes referred to as "The Tenth Muse", wrote in the sixth century BC:

Here roses leave shadows on the ground
and cold springs bubble through apple branches
where shuddering leaves pour down profound sleep.

In our meadow where horses graze
and wild flowers of spring blossom,
anise shoots fill the air with aroma.

     Through my own love of music I am reminded of the fact that composers too have been inspired through the ages by man's unity with nature, as in the case of Gustav Mahler, whose Third Symphony commences with the awakening of Pan, the god of nature, who brings "summer marching in".

     The remaining five movements of this prodigious work íV among the longest in the symphonic repertoire íV are titled "What the Flowers of the Meadow Tell Me", "What the Creatures of the Forest Tell Me", "What Man Tells Me", "What the Angels Tell Me" and "What Love Tells Me".  So clearly Mahler believed very firmly in our "Oneness with Nature".

     Sometimes we encounter unexpected cross-pollinations between music and poetry, as was the case when Mahler came across a volume of ancient Chinese poetry translated into German by Hans Bethge and titled, Die Chinesische Fl?te, or "The Chinese Flute".  We learn that this in turn was based on a French translation of the original material.

     Mahler was so taken by that early Chinese poetic vision of earthly beauty and transience that he chose seven verses íV two of which are used in the finale íV to set to music.  The result was a song-symphony, a hybrid of the two forms that had occupied most of his creative life.

     The finale ends in a kind of mantra composed by Mahler himself:

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring, and grows green anew.
Everywhere and forever, forever
Blue lights the horizon.
Forever ... forever ...

     So we see that the Chinese view of nature has left a long and deep flowing inheritance, like a river running below our common perception of nature and all it means to us.  We have an old saying in China, which is that Heaven and Man are One.

     Long before the pervasive "Green Movement" which influences our policy decision making today, our forebears understood íV perhaps even better than we do íV the integrity of our species with other species and with the general environment.

     Handed down to them by their own predecessors, since the dawn of time, was the absolute imperative of our coexistence in harmony with nature.  They knew, as we know, the cost of neglecting that essential balance.

     Which is why pagan tribes, all over the world, offered sacrifice for the renewal of the seasons, and why the emperors of China personally conducted ceremonies to secure and maintain that symbiotic relationship of man and nature.  Indeed their very title could be translated as "Emperor through the Mandate of Heaven and in accordance with the movements of the Five Powers."

     Those five powers were water, wood, fire, earth and metal, which in themselves were the five elements of nature.  In China's ancient Book of Rites we find the following:

     "In the first month of spring the east wind resolves the cold.  Creatures that have been torpid during the winter begin to move.  All plants bud and grow.  The sovereign charges his assistants to disseminate lessons of virtue and harmonise governmental order.  Prohibitions are given against cutting down trees [because wood is the symbol of spring].  In this month no warlike operations should be undertaken; such an undertaking is sure to be followed by calamities of heaven (i.e. natural disasters)."

     When we look back through the long volumes of our collective history, and remind ourselves how much we valued nature then íV and went to such pains to preserve our harmonious relationship with it íV it is tempting to speculate "Where did we go wrong?"  When did we first begin to risk losing that balance?

     Humans' love for nature comes after we tamed it and spoiled it.  That's not only true to the English romantic poets after the Industrial Revolution but also applies to the poets in ancient China.

     Early poets in China in the Han dynasty and before were not in favour of the wilderness such as the swamps and jungles in the south, which was seen as a dwelling place for desperate ghosts and harmful beasts.  Nature undiscovered and untamed was no place for pastoral romance, which was mainly restricted to the cultivated gardens and parks.

     With migration to the south and its consequent opening up of the wilderness, swamps were drained and crocodiles and rhinoceros were extinguished and went into the list of mythical animals.  Chinese poets began to write on their yearning for the unspoiled, pristine nature and took that as inspiration for humaneness and contact with hermits and Taoist deities.

     Let's move from outer nature to inner nature.  In the modern time, after we tamed and over-regulated our body, we begin to respect the body and listen to it for inspiration, as if it spoke.

     Can we get away from these cynical or hypocritical approaches to nature in our time, both outer and inner?  That remains a major challenge to re building our relation with nature.

     And when we examine that relationship further, we begin to recognise that heaven is not so remote as we might first have assumed, for as the Buddhists and others have long known, it lies within us, at the core of our spiritual being.

     To be one with heaven, with nature and with all things, is to be one with ourselves, to acknowledge that we are the microcosm of the greater cosmos.  The ultimate nature is human nature, the nature within every one of us.  The final, profound lesson then is to be at peace with ourselves, before we can be at peace with others, and at peace with our external environment, or mother nature.

     It falls to me, in conclusion, to welcome all of you distinguished writers who honour us with your presence here today, and to wish you many wise and productive explorations of this universal theme in the three days spanned by this workshop.  I look forward with keen anticipation to the outcome.

     Let us all hope that this world of ours can be preserved in perpetuity, as Mahler envisaged it when he wrote:

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring, and grows green anew.
Everywhere and forever, forever ...

     Thank you.

Ends/Thursday, October 19, 2006
Issued at HKT 17:38