慢的美学 – The Aesthetics of slowness – English

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In 2007, I moved from Guangzhou to Guanxi, and lived in the small town of Guilin for almost 3 years.

When I think back about it today, although almost 6 years have passed, I still remember all the details of it, as if things had occurred yesterday. These years was really quiet, like a mountain hermit, going to and from work every day at the same time, with all leisure to read, buy and cook food, a laid-back experience, and when compared to that of a metropolitan city, closer to the origins of life.

On the shore of the Li river, there is a small bookstore called ‘blade’, seventy to eighty square meters in total, and in the window, a few tables where you can read books and drink tea. There are not many books, but they’re chosen with very good taste, and you can see the discerning eyesight of the owner from them. I went there almost every second day, to see what new books and magazines had arrived, and see who else was looking at the books: this was one of the main channels for me to connect to the outside world. Sometimes, you would get tired and turn around, the Lijiang river was just outside, and in the river were fish or water plants, and you could imagine how it came out of the Maoer Shan peak in South China, and drifted down towards the South to form the heavenly landscape around Guilin.

You can also imagine what this river used to look like in the past, you can imagine how many people through history have come to observe it and pay it homage, what they saw, and what have they left, how many people have seen this famous river, and in turn, how many different kinds of people this river has seen! With such a quiet environment, even if you live in a miniature scenic town, whether clouds cover the sky or the earth tremble, you will feel a sense of calm and ease, because you do not only live in the present, but also among the immemorial times that the river has flown through.

When the weather was nice, I would stroll to the vegetable market, 看到集市上物品琳琅,青菜是一把把从田间割出来的,桔子上面还带着树枝和叶子,你甚至可以感受得到菜农在田里的劳作状态,会想象得到他采摘桔子时候的力度,你自然会感觉出一种丰盛,心里也会生出一种富足和安定,虽然那东西并不属于我,而只是零零散散地摆在菜市场上,一份份被摆出来,又一份份被卖出去。

Sometimes, I also went to the small alleys around ‘Royal city’, 这座王城是明太祖朱元璋其侄孙朱守谦被封为靖江王时修造的王城,比故宫还早36年。The royal city is surrounded by several winding laneways, with people passing back and forth, dogs barking, sun shining, 有时光在石板路和灰砖墙上漫漶过的痕迹,有名字雅致实则平常的胡同,有炊烟和煎炒声,有煤气罐,有阿婆阿爷打纸牌的声音,市声隐隐,但是听着却很亲切。This Guilin away from the scenery I called ‘the second Guilin’: there was something hidden there that made you slow down.

I’ve always thought that, when you adopt a slower, less hurried pace, there’s very few things which are not beautiful, and very few things that do not ring true. But when you’re always faced with urgency, when you’re always faced with speed, profit, and material things, that beauty and that truth will often be confused, because there is no time to organise our emotions, and allow our minds to go to these things and back to itself.

In today’s urban society, among some of the people who get rich, many seem to want to escape the city, return to small towns and nature. Either they go to a long trip to the border areas of Yunnan, Tibet or Xinjiang, or they go and enjoy themselves in small towns and villages, but why? I think it’s a kind of awakening, a kind of awakening that follows the experience of speed and strength, because there is some sort of very stabilising power in small towns and nature, a very thick and slow kind of strength, that can fill the empty place in their hearts.

We often say that, when we lost ritual, we seek the wilderness; so what has our metropolitan society lost its rituals? It’s no more than a few things in the ground and air, that support life, a few things in the way people feel, a few things about the markets; but these things are actually very precious for our inner lives.

Japanese big cities, Taiwanese big cities, all actually possess this stable, grounded strength. 你看《入殓师》,作为一个大提琴演奏师,小林大悟不得不放弃在东京的演奏家之路,回到故乡,开始一段他本不愿接受的入殓师职业,他去观察各种各样的死亡,凝视围绕在逝者周围的充满爱意的人们。我无意述说入殓师的伟大和死亡哲学,而是觉得日本人有这种安定的、回归的力量,有回到慢的生活的勇气,而换到中国的都市人身上,基本上我们很难回头,经过一种都市生活后再安于故乡。

Taiwan is also like that, its modern society has not broken off with tradition, nor with nature. If you go to cosmopolitan cities like Taipei or Gaoxiong, you won’t feel that sense of metropolitan pressure and desolation in the least. 你到垦丁、美浓这样的小镇,一点也不会感觉到落后、蛮荒或者破败。而且,台湾人比较好的一点是,他们从都市回到乡野不会觉得不适应,饭衣蔬食仍可以捡拾起从前的习惯,他们从山村来到台北或者新北,也不会自惭形秽或者妄自菲薄,而能用从故乡带来的风土融合都市社会的生活方式,结合如一。

But when I ended up leaving Guilin to go first to Shanghai, then to Beijing, I found that both myself and the people around me all had a hurried expression on our face, everybody seemed somehow distracted. From what I experienced in my own mind and body, I realised that we were anxious, restless, pressed, always afraid of accidentally falling behind, not keeping up, fearing that we were not fashionable enough, that we weren’t keeping up with the latest lifestyle trend, not knowing that we could balance speed with slowness, and oddness with character.

This problem comes from the fact that urbanisation has cut us off from the strength of the countryside. We’re exposed to too much political and economic powers, but in the end, we all need to be responsible, and seek our own physical and spiritual sustenance.


In an increasingly fast-paced social life, slowing down requires courage and determination.

There’s a poem by Li Shanyin called “Night rain going North” 夜雨寄北 :“君问归期未有期,巴山夜雨涨秋池。何当共剪西窗烛,却话巴山夜雨时。” He wrote this to his distant wife in Chang’an on a rainy night in Bashu, and we generally interpret it as an expression of affection and longing for his distant wife, but something else in this poem is worth pondering on, and that is, what state of mind is it, that a person on the rainy Ba Mountain will listen to the sound of rain at night outside the window, and think of someone absent?

When we think about it, among the people of today, who will listen to the sound of rain at night? And as the rain falls around them, would they think of someone far away?

The technological developments of our age have shattered our aesthetic enjoyment of dark clouds and moonlit landscapes, mountains and rivers, and the heavenly limits of nature have been lifted up. Transport and communications have reduced time and space so much that if you miss someone, you can just phone them, and a video call can make it seem as if they were right in front of you, we’ve lost the habit of lying down at night and listen to the rain on the banana leaf, and we have no time to appreciate the snow falling and melting, confronted with the speed of everything around us, slowness has become a luxury, something outdated, a kind of perversion, like ignoring the world.

The slowness of Li Shanyin seems further and further away from us. And his slowness was not just his alone, the excessive sense of leisure in his mind was also dictating by the slow spirit of his time. Not only was this a pastoral and agricultural slowness, but the period he lived in was the late Tang Dynasty, when the dynasty’s high point of prosperity had already passed, and the regime was slowly declining.

After the industrial revolution took place in 18th century Britain, spread through the whole European Continent, then swept through America, and spread to Asia, in just over two centuries, it has become the engine of the earth, and the whole world has transitioned from the agricultural age to the industrial and commercial age.

All humans are prisoners of this wide, quick and irresistible conquest, hardly anyone can evade it. Our ways of eating, dressing, living are all changing. Since humanity boarded the train of the industrial revolution, it’s been going faster and faster, and we suddenly realised we could no longer get off, we’ve been kidnapped by speed, sensuality, and stimulations. We may not like it, we might have thought of quitting already, but there’s no way, a certain atmosphere that extends over river and mountains and goes to the depths of our marrow already prevails.

The industrial civilisation pursues speed and efficiency. Franklin’s ‘time is life, time is money’ was once used as a motto for everyone. The worship of speed and quantity has already taken control of our consciences, and become the basis for our value judgements.

But oppositions to this train racing forward have been around for a long time now. In 1986, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini was strolling on Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and was shocked by the vision of dozens of students simultaneously munching on hamburgers. When he found out that a McDonald’s had opened on the square, he organised a demonstration where people came on the square to eat traditional Italian style pasta. Three years later, he founded the slow food association, encouraging people to slow down and enjoy food and life, and this opened the stage for the ‘slow living’ movement.

After Carlo Petrini’s slow food initiative movement, a whole ‘Slow Movemenet’ emerged in the early 1990s, and in just a few years, it gathered over 800,000 members in over ten countries. There are no headquarters or formal structure, just a simple concept: when people realise they’ve been attached to speed, they need to start eating slowly, breathing slowly, thinking slowly, making love slowly, and resting slowly.

At the same time, slow is not just a rejection of speed, but it’s about finding a balance, like this sentence on the ‘Slow Movement’ website: ‘Slow living is not about everything going at snail pace, but the hope to live in a better world. It’s a form of balance, fast if you need to, slow when you can, trying to adopt what musicians call ‘Tempo Giusto’ to life. It does not have a hard formula or universal code, it’s just about allowing everyone to choose their own pace of life. And if we agree to accommodate different speeds of life, this world will be the richer for it.’

After slow food and slow pace came the slow city, the slow city is the old Medieval city of Orvieto in Italy.

In October 1999, at a Slow Food movement in Orvieto, the mayors of Five Italian cities made the first clear definition of a ‘slow city’: applicants need to meet 55 strict criteria, including a population of no more than 50,000, the use and development of environmentally friendly technologies, they cannot used genetically modified seeds, crops or food, and they must protect local customs and culture. The goal of the slow city movement is to put forward the importance of slowness for the overall human environment,protect local characteristics, and resist the standardisation and homogenisation brought about by globalisation.

Milan Kundera wrote a novel called ‘Slowness’, and the novel only describes what happens over one night: a writer and his wife working on a project in some castle during their holidays; a French intellectual who joined the society of entomology; a lady and her lover in the 18th century. The gathering of intellectuals is part of the plot that the writer is working on, while the lady and her lover are characters from a book he read. At the end of the novel, the time and space structure of these three narratives twist, the intellectuals and the writer are staying in the same hotel, which also happens to be where the lady and her knight, and the intellectual and his lover are staying. And this writer seems to be Kundera himself.

Kundera’s Slowness spans only a very short time and space, as if to slow down history, and let more people enjoy the philosophy and aesthetics of slowness.

I have a feeling that, the quicker our lives, the weaker our memory, the slower our days, the more startingly profound they become. There is a proportional relationship between slowness and memory, and a proportional relationship between speed and forgetfulness. This might be what the Ancients meant when talking about the life of immortals, “one day on the mountain is like a thousand years in the world”. Not that the Gods can span time and space, but that the Gods experience all feelings very slowly. It’s like fishing, fishing is better than having a fish, what you want is not the pleasure of catching a fish, but the pleasure of fishing even without catching one. Or to take another example, gardening is not just about the pleasure of the days when flowers open, but the careful and meticulous attention to that little flower and that blade of grass. Fishing and gardening bring us these thousand year days.

A friend said to me that the poet Bai Hua (柏桦) called his son ‘Bai Man’ (Slow Bai, 柏慢). I was surprised and admirative. Because in this way, he was telling us, he wanted to confront speed with depth, confront strength with density, confront the machine with the person, and confront forgetting with feeling.

Article Revisions:

Sources :

source: Douban, 12 December 2012 (Part I)
source: Douban, 17 December 2012 (Part II)

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org