Le promeneur d’oiseaux (The man who walked birds) is a movie that plays in Beijing and Guilin, China. Philip Muyl, a French director, wrote the play and directed a fully Chinese cast. The story has many elements recalling the character of Heidi, the Swiss girl who changes the world around her. Yet, the story is, in many subtle ways, typically Chinese – at least the way I read it. A cross-cultural comparison is worthwhile – even if my reading is probably no more a stammering.
The pre-adolescent daughter of wildly successful parents, Renxin has been brought up with everything but much parental attention. It is not that they are indifferent toward their only child: they are just way too busy.
As the story unfolds, Zinghen, her grandfather, is taking her to his home village. He is carrying with him a sort of mynah bird in a cage (hence the film’s title). His wife, long since deceased, had given it him to remember her by, as he left for Beijing to work and provide his son with educational opportunities. The bird, now old, should sing one last time on her grave and, in this way, testify to the fact that they have fulfilled their parental duties.
Renxin is more than reluctant to take the trip, and in the beginning takes revenge in petty ways on the long suffering grandfather. Zinghen’s attitude is neither one of resignation to the grand-daughter’s antics, nor one of anger and reprimand. His infinite, good-humored patience signals a Confucian attitude – we can all learn, but that learning can take a long, long time. He is practicing wu-wei, I think: “Wu-wei translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing,’ but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. (…) It is probably best rendered as something like ‘effortless action’ or ‘spontaneous action.’” When in wu-wei people have a seemingly magical effect on those around them, changing them.
The way of Heaven
Excels in overcoming, though it does not contend;
In responding, though it does not speak;
In spontaneously attracting, though it does not summon;
In planning for the future, though it is always relaxed.
With the help of circumstances – grandfather and Renxin get lost in the forest and have to sleep in a cave – the two grow close. Renxin begins to view the world with curious eyes. Host in a village after the long vagrancy, she plays with children, helps in the harvest, and possibly for the first time, feels life carrying her in its flow, rather than trying to master and use it. Subtly, Renxin is changing with the season and amidst friends.
The home village is full of small surprises for Renxin: it is both traditional and modern. She tries to barter with a five-year old, only to see her iPhone rejected as “fossil” – not the latest version. A young man is about to leave for Bordeaux, where he’ll circumnavigate the world in a sailing boat, together with a Frenchman. He already savors the challenge of the “extreme.” Not so Zinghen, who sees the “extreme” as a threat to his inner harmony.
The village becomes the place where Renxin can put into practice the unspoken lessons she has learned from her grandfather. The father arrives unexpectedly, wanting his daughter back. Thanks to her, father and son, who had been estranged, talk to each other and say sorry for past grudges. Renxin does it again in Beijing: cleverly, she arranges for a new lease on the life of the parents’ marriage, which was about to founder.
Heidi in the Spyri novels, like Renxin, changes the world around her: the grumpy grandfather, the visitors from the lowlands…all take a “turn for the better.” Swiss mountain idyll ensues. There is a fundamental difference between the two girls, however. Heidi changes the world, so that she need not change herself. She has set core values, and with them she makes her world safe, yet unchanging. Renxin’s great discovery is that life changes her. She begins to savor her discovery of values, friendships, gifting, and this acceptance of silent transformations gives her opportunities subtly to influence her world in turn. Only by changing herself, can she change others.
Johanna SPYRI (2006):Heidi. Sterling Juvenile, London.
Edward SLINGERHAND (2014): Trying not to try. The art and science of spontaneity. Crown Publishers, New York. Pg. 7 – 8.
One is fascinated by this contrasting worldview. I experienced it recently is reading: Aki SHIMAZAKI (2014): Yamabuki. Actes Sud, Arles. This short Japanese novel is an elegiac take on the life of two ordinary people, who fall in love as they cross each other on a long distance train, marry, and experience the end of their life together. Nothing more, and yet much more than the tribulations of dysfunctional people, who seem to attract the prurient interest of Western readers nowadays.