16 January, 2006

On the antiquity of fortune-cookies

This morning I offer conclusive proof that fortune-cookies were not, as some believe, invented in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. I had never paid great attention to the trite messages found in these confections, despite enjoying a Cantonese dinner as much as the next man. But last night I found three fortune-cookies on my kitchen-table, left over from a takeout we ordered a week ago, and I decided to read my fortunes: it was then that I began to make my earth-shattering discoveries! The first which I opened, a semi-sweet, lemony sort of affair, provided the following message:
Kindness is the only investment that never fails
I had read that before, and from a greater pen! Or, almost that, for Thoreau's Walden (1854) contains this statement:
Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant's truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.
Thoreau has been called the 'most Chinese of all American authors in his entire view of life'; I must confess a total ignorance concerning classical Chinese literature, but the present instance I think good evidence for Thoreau's thorough familiarity with the wisdom of fortune-cookies. The next cookie I opened, a more tasteless creation, offered this:
A person who studies revenge keeps their own wounds open
My eyes widened in astonishment. Here, clearly, was proof of an even more venerable lineage for fortune-cookie wisdom; for does not our founding-father of scientific method, Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, express his Thoughts in this self-same Manner? Thus, in his essay 'On Revenge', from the 1597 Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral:
This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.
This was a period of growing interest in Chinese culture; having absorbed from that great civilization the printing-press, the compass and gunpowder, three inventions much admired by Bacon, the scientists of the day were busy interrogating the bizarre characters of the Chinese alphabet reported by Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci. Kircher would later produce his lavish China Illustrata, the first Western book on the culture, in 1667. I'd had no idea, however, that men like Bacon were interested in the secrets of fortune-cookie sagesse. My greatest surprise was yet to come. The third cookie, pungent, with a hint of vanilla, contained this insight:
Love only what fate has spun for you
I might have fallen off my chair, dear reader! I cast my mind back. . . where was it? And at last I remembered that it was the famous Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Chapter 7, Paragraph 58:
Μόνως φιλεϊν το εαυτώ συμβαϊνον και συγκλωθόμενον
I must beg my reader's indulgence, as the diacritics will not reproduce perfectly. For those illiterate few without Greek, I offer Long's rather florid translation: "Love that only which happens to thee and is spun with the thread of thy destiny." There, then, is conclusive proof of the antiquity of fortune-cookies; the great Roman composed his work in the 170s, after his embassy to China in 166. That clinches it. These cookies and their messages have been circulating in Western culture at least since the middle of the second century AD, and I suspect longer. Perhaps they even originated in Rome, brought to China by that very embassy of Marcus Aurelius!

The moral of the story is: banal sentiment is as old as civilization itself.

1 comment:

Sir G said...

How learned, how learned. A similarily learned essay could be produced regarding the tradition (and many uses) of hiding written messages in food items. And not just in China. I seem to recall a rather important instance in Roman history... Though my favorite would be the sign of the cross on Benvenuto Cellini's prison bread, whose message was "tonight is the night". I will see if I can get to it later this year. :)