Letter to Zheng Guanying

Epistolarium (13)

Aurelio Porfiri

Dear Sir,

Very recently I visited one of the historical places of Macau, the Mandarin’s house. And the Mandarin was you, a wealthy businessman living in the late Qing era, with interests in education and western learning and whose motto was “Saving the nation by enriching the nation”. It is said that your theories and books have influenced people ranging from Emperor Guanxu to Kiang Youwei, from Sun Yat Sen to Mao Tse Tung. Now, I am not going to consider your theories and books but just want to say few things about your house, “the house of the Zheng family” as Chinese are used to call it.

In your house that now is just a touristic attraction I have seen that you have tried to establish harmony. The entire house is inspired from order and balance. As you know these are classical characteristics for beauty, since medieval time.  Vitruvius, the great roman Roman scholar of architecture has described the characteristic of a nice building: firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis (stability, usefulness and beauty). These three characteristics have to go together because, if they go individually, they can be terribly affected. How can a building be useful if it falls apart or beautiful if it is not stable?

When I walk through the corridors and rooms, I can imagine you going around with your family and servants and taking a rest from your busy intellectual life just measuring your steps and losing yourself at the sound of their innocuous noise. Sometimes we need to rest ourselves from the ugliness of the world and take baths in beauty, wherever we can find it. You have tried to make your use your personal beauty object. Beauty is resting but is also scary. In the introit for the dedication of a church, Catholics used to sing “Terribilis est locus iste”; that word, terribilis is difficult to translate but the whole phrase can be something like “this place is frightful”. It seems scary? But it just means that it is full of the manifestation of God, that it is splendid and frightening, because of what He is and what we are. Certainly a private building does not need to be “terribilis”, but it has to be a place that interrogates us at the same time that it relaxes us. I think your house is like this. I may quote one verse from a novel of the popular Italian novelist Antonio Fogazzaro that says: “all was new for me, but nothing appeared to me unfamiliar” (Il mistero del poeta). Yes, when beauty is in place we are all inhabitants of a world that is familiar even if we have never seen it.

Immediately outside your house is Lilau Square, a charming square in Portuguese style that creates with your house a very strange, but refreshing, continuum. I imagine myself walking with you in Lilau Square, maybe in the late afternoon but before night, when Macau is painted with a sort of blue that gives us the lost hope that the sky will never oblige itself into the black of the night.

Aurelius scripsit

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