31 October 2011

Vengeance, forgiveness, love, patriotism and care for the common people

Last night I finished the fan translation of Eagle-Shooting Hero 《射鵰英雄傳》 by Sir Louis Cha (better known by his nom de plume Jin Yong 金庸, taken from the character elements of his given name 查良), also on a recommendation from my significant other.

What a ride.

Never mind that the whole thing is only marginally shorter than War and Peace, and that I’ve been reading it on-and-off since July; this book is amazing, even in translation (however rough it may be). The elderly Hong Kong master of letters has a reputation both in China and among the overseas Chinese community that is apparently fully deserved. Not only is this an admirable work of historical fiction in its own right (taking place during the conquest of China by Jingghis Khan, and incorporating historical figures such as the great Khan and his Daoist advisor Qiu Chuji seamlessly with his fictional characters); it tackles philosophical and moral questions as well as an Edith Pargeter novel can.

The primary story follows two sons of renowned Song heroes: Guo Jing 郭靖, son of Guo Xiaotian, and Yang Kang 楊康, son of Yang Tiexin – named by Qiu Chuji after the Humiliation of Jingkang 靖康之恥 when Jurchen soldiers from the bordering kingdom of Jin looted and razed Kaifeng, and kidnapped the Song Emperor and his relatives. The two boys, though their fathers are close friends from the same village, grow up separately from each other and lead very different lives: Guo Jing is raised by his mother and by his martial-arts masters on the Mongolian steppe, whilst Yang Kang is adopted by a Prince of Jin, and changes his surname to Wanyan 完顏. Whilst Guo Jing is crude, unlettered, stubborn and slow-witted, and learns things only through sheer repetition and force of will, Yang Kang is erudite and clever. More importantly, though, Guo Jing, being raised by his mother and by six martial artists of lower-class upbringing (the Six Freaks of Jiangnan), is honest to a fault and brave bordering on foolhardy. Yang Kang, though, with his court upbringing, becomes something of a pathological liar.

Guo Jing is introduced to the world of ‘rivers and lakes’ (the martial-arts world) by his teachers, and sent on a quest by his mother to avenge the death of his father at the hands of the Jin. On this quest he not only has repeated run-ins with his sworn brother Yang Kang, but also meets his star-crossed lover Huang Rong, the overpoweringly-intelligent daughter of one of the most powerful (and cruel) martial artists in the world.

I won’t give away too much of the story here; suffice it to say that this epic explores a number of ethical questions in detail – and in ways which are surprising. Though the book as a whole upholds the virtues of filial piety and loyalty to one’s country, the reader is sometimes left to cheer when Guo Jing is aided by someone acting against the wishes of a parent or of a king – only to be left scratching his head (as Guo Jing eventually does) at the contradiction. Though Guo Jing himself is presented as the Confucian paragon and the ethical centre of the story’s universe (in a rather ironic way, given how he is also presented as half-barbarian on account of his Mongolian upbringing), Huang Rong is a much more accessible character, whose conscience is more readily conflicted by the tension between filiality, upright behaviour and her practically all-consuming love for Guo Jing.

War itself is an ever-present force which is often brought to the foreground – the Jin attack on Ox Village (separating Guo Jing from Yang Kang) and the bloody Mongolian conquests of Jin and the (supposedly Jin-aligned) eastern Iranian kingdom of Horezm bookend the novel. The suffering of common people in war, and at the hands of military leaders and bandits, is likewise emphasised, as is the duty (ever-present in wuxia novels of this kind) of the world of rivers and lakes to come to the defence and aid of the innocent.

Even across the combined language and cultural gaps of the translator and the reader, the book lost none of its emotional potency or its ability to engage. The demands of honour and virtue, pitted against the personal desires of the protagonists, were so well-balanced that one had to feel empathy for Guo Jing even as his sense of honour led him to repeatedly thwart his own and Huang Rong’s desire for a peaceful life together. Sir Louis Cha manages quite adroitly to keep his characters sympathetic without turning them into saints or martyrs… the one possible exception being Hong Qigong, one of the five best martial artists in the world, and the leader of the Beggar Clan.

It is certain, once my workload becomes a little more manageable, that I’ll pick up the two sequels in the trilogy: Divine Eagle, Gallant Knights 《神鵰俠侶》 and Heaven-Reliant and Dragon-Slayer 《倚天屠龍記》 (which are equal in length). But I have a sneaking suspicion that Eagle-Shooting Hero will continue to be my favourite in the trilogy.

29 October 2011

Highly recommended reading

It seems both John at Economics is for Donkeys and California Constantian have been in top form this past week.

John has linked to a great article over at Naked Capitalism, which does an excellent job of cutting past the layers of mendacity surrounding Greece’s fiscal crisis as in, say, the Financial Times: hardly the outcome of an overactive welfare state, the problem in Greece is that a significant portion of its populace (the top earners, to be precise) pays next to nothing in taxes, and (long story short) the current institutional setup is such that the government is powerless to do anything about its own monetary policy.

California Constantian, on the other hand, has touched on matters somewhat closer to home geographically, and in a way which I highly appreciate. The former part, which reduces to absurdity Ron Paul’s claims to anti-corporatism by noting that the policies he favours all have a disturbing tendency in the pro-corporate direction, concludes that measuring one’s own public morality by adherence to the Constitution is ultimately unsatisfactory. He then makes the more radical (or reactionary) suggestion that a written Constitution under the hermeneutic control of a political elite is not going to guarantee for us a just society, and follows up said suggestion with an alternative: a public figure who is exempt not from public life, but rather from the political class itself – in other words, a monarch. I do very much agree with him thus far – indeed, his argument carries valuable echoes of a Metternichesque ‘socialisme conservateur’: constitutions are the work of generations, and have only the authority given to them by tradition and by the people under them – and the American Constitution does not have even the first advantage! However, his argument to this point rests upon the good behaviour and philanthropic spirit of the monarch herself – historically, as monarchs have generally been drawn from the warrior castes of their respective societies (even in such intellectually-inclined societies as China, the imperial families all started off as warlords), I’m not sure this assumption naturally holds. If I may take his argument further; what is needed is a non-political head of state, informed by a religious establishment which emphasises economic justice and the common good.

Actually, my third recommendation for the week is the civic republicanism of Jim Sleeper . This strikes me as a very tempting correction to the ills of a fragmented body politic, but it also seems to me that if it relies over-much on the way American political institutions are currently structured, into an over-reliance on the high interpretive powers of the Supreme Court or an over-reliance on top-down reforms vested in the executive apparatus under the Presidency, such a republicanism may be doomed to distort itself ultimately into the heresies of neoconservatism, ultra-liberalism or identity politics.

Currently reading 1587 by Ray Huang (黃仁宇), on a recommendation from Jessie Zong. So far, it looks to be a very interesting historical work on the beginning-of-the-end for the Ming Dynasty. Hope to do a post on it later.

28 October 2011


- 郭明正,2011年10月28号

25 October 2011

The real defenders of human rights (not who you’d think!)

Lin Zexu 林則徐

The Qing Dynasty – the last of China’s Imperial states – was founded by a Tungusic tribe descended from the Jurchens 女真 calling themselves ‘Manju’ 滿族. Their first king, Aisin Gioro hala-i Nurhaci 努爾哈赤, broke away from the ailing Ming Dynasty and proclaimed himself the king of the Later Jin 後金, claiming continuation with the mediaeval Jurchen Jin Dynasty headed by the Wanggiyan 完顏 family (and made infamous by the Condor trilogy by Jin Yong). It was not long, however, before the nobility of this kingdom, which came to rule all of China under Kangxi 康熙, adopted Chinese culture almost wholesale, as many foreigners who came to rule China had before them. A number of their leaders, nobles, intellectuals and civil servants carried on even more drastic reforms than those of the early Ming rulers: although they could be very the Yongzheng 雍正 and Qianlong 乾隆 Emperors were both highly talented administrators and implacable enemies of corruption, and even put into place a number of prohibitions on the sale and ownership of slaves, far more effective and wide-reaching than even the Ming-era reforms had been.

Particularly during their peak, the Qing emperors were masterful politicians who ruled over a cosmopolitan state rivalling that of the Xianbei Tang Dynasty, and used many different means to legitimate themselves. To the Tibetan government and to the Mongols, the Qing Emperors were devout Buddhists who derived their ruling legitimacy from their adherence to that religion. However, to the Chinese people, the Aisin Gioro kings showed a distinctly more Confucian face… though in the case of Yongzheng and Qianlong, this was more than just a façade. They depended on and rigorously upheld a Confucian standard of integrity for their civil servants. This rigour outlasted their reigns, however, among these officials. One particularly (and justly) famous civil servant, Commissioner Lin Zexu 林則徐, would become famous for upholding his nation’s honour and for advocating the same human dignity in China that people in the West enjoyed: particularly life, health, self-determination and freedom from the degradations of opiate addiction at the hands of the drug-pedlars of the British East India Company.

In his famous 1839 letter to Queen Victoria (which the much-esteemed monarch never herself read), the good Confucian Commissioner Lin expressed himself with outrage and eloquence at his people’s ill-treatment at the hands of British traders:

The kings of your honourable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read your successive tributary memorials saying, ‘In general our countrymen who go to trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor's gracious treatment and equal justice’, and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for this Heavenly grace. For this reason the Heavenly Court in soothing those from afar has redoubled its polite and kind treatment. The profit from trade has been enjoyed by them continuously for two hundred years. This is the source from which your country has become known for its wealth.

But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of Heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Guangdong, and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.


Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries -- how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries?


As for the barbarian merchants who come to China, their food and drink and habitation, are all received by the gracious favor of our Heavenly Court. Their accumulated wealth is all benefit given with pleasure by our Heavenly Court. They spend rather few days in their own country but more time in Guangzhou. To digest clearly the legal penalties as an aid to instruction has been a valid principle in all ages. Suppose a man of another country comes to England to trade, he still has to obey the English laws; how much more should he obey in China the laws of the Heavenly Dynasty?

This communication, and the destruction of Indian opium with which the courageous Commissioner Lin followed it up, was met with gunships, which opened fire on civilian ports and looted all livestock from townspeople and villagers who could not pay for ‘protection’. China was subjected, ultimately, to a humiliating defeat and the cession of Xianggang to placate the British East India Company’s desire for ‘free trade’ (meaning, naturally, ‘free trade’ in a dangerous and often-deadly drug).

It is an oft-repeated Big Lie on the part of liberals and neoliberals that human rights and free trade go hand-in-hand; but this Big Lie requires, in China’s case, not only the acceptance of a blatant insult to their experience and cultural history, but also the acceptance on the part of everyone else an incredibly gruesome fiction. The defenders of human rights, in China, were neither the ‘free trade’-supporting Western nations who greeted the British victory against China with their own gunship delegations demanding extraterritoriality and other concessions from China, nor the nations which made blatant use of low-skilled, low-paid labour when the Qing Dynasty was in such a weakened state. Rather, in China’s case, the defenders of a transcendental ideal of human dignity were the very same Confucian officials and ideology that all later Western and Western-influenced thinkers would make the focus of their sustained attacks.

23 October 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ by Teräsbetoni

This band was introduced to me by Andreas - an old friend of mine from grade school days - and his family, who recently visited the United States. Teräsbetoni (lit. reinforced concrete), a recent Finnish power metal act, entered this song, ‘Missä Miehet Ratsastaa’ (‘Where the Men Ride’) in the Eurovision contest in 2008. Their style has been frequently compared with Manowar, but thankfully they do not take themselves too seriously (as the video very clearly shows!). They’ve managed to get a great deal of attention in Finland, and I can see quite clearly why; it sucks, though, that their albums are so difficult to locate in the United States… Anyway, my gentle readers, please enjoy the reinforced concrete (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d see myself typing)!

22 October 2011

One country, many nations?

Colin Woodard, via Dave Brockington. I’m pretty much in full agreement with Mr Brockington on this one; this is an immensely interesting map and a thesis which looks, on its face, to be intuitively convincing. I share Mr Brockington’s concerns, however, that the division of the United States into its cultural regions rather discounts the impact of successive waves of immigrants, and furthermore appears slightly deterministic (which seems to be somewhat the wrong attitude to take, particularly when speaking of phenomena like the Tea Party).

Being fully cognisant of the fact that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’, my own family’s cultural affiliation appears notoriously difficult to pin down. The Coopers were originally Pennsylvania Quakers (authentic Midlanders), before the War of American Independence forced my own branch of the family to migrate into the Deep South, where they stayed until two generations ago, when my grandfather relocated first to Providence, Rhode Island (deepest, darkest Yankeedom) and then to Arlington, Virginia (Tidewater), where my aunt and my father were born and raised. The Doanes, on the other hand, are Yankees through and through – but they don’t fit Mr Woodard’s Weberian ‘ideal type’ at all. Rather than being patrician, Puritan social engineers, they have been and are much more similar in temperament to the Midland ideal type: Methodist and broad-church to a fault with a very strong sense of family and place, my grandfather is a dairy farmer who distrusts big government and big religion as much as he distrusts big business. Somewhat oddly, my own ‘red Tory’ political, religious and cultural attitudes appear vaguely to be those of a High-Church or Catholic Tidewaterman (though I was raised in Madison, Wisconsin – which, according to Mr Woodard’s reckoning, is a Yankee stronghold).

Which brings me to another point. The religious culture of the Midwest is indeed heavily Protestant, but the Calvinist legacy, if it ever existed there, has long since faded to the faintest echo (except possibly in Western Michigan, but there it survived due to Dutch Reformed immigrants, not Puritans of Scotch or English extraction). The culture of the Great Lakes states has been far more closely shaped by immigrants from Central, Eastern and Northern Europe (note the preponderance of German, Swiss and Finnish culture still lingering around places like Stoughton, New Glarus and the mining towns of northern Wisconsin, or the Norwegian culture stretching all across Minnesota), who share in the anarchistic and egalitarian tendencies of their forebears, who fled from their home countries largely during the mid-1800’s (a tumultuous time in Europe). Also (applying Mr Woodard’s implicit assumptions regarding the formation and character of these cultural blocs), if Upper Canada resembles the Midlands at all, it is more likely than not an accidental resemblance, due to the constitutionally-moderate, anti-slavery and communitarian leanings of the United Empire Loyalists who settled there in the wake of the War of American Independence.

I’m not particularly sanguine, either, on a.) the intractability of the Tidewater region in its historical alliance with the Deep South, or on b.) the ease with which El Norte can be comfortably brought into the modern American progressive fold alongside, say, the New Netherlanders. During the Civil War, the High Church Episcopalians and the Catholics of the Coastal border states were heavily divided on the issue of slavery, which really was dying out, particularly in the large cities (which had begun to resemble the economy of the North). Maryland was home to one of the largest populations of freedmen in the entire country, although the vestiges of slavery lingered through the Civil War. Since then, in spite of occasional bouts of Confederate nostalgia, Northern Virginia and the Research Triangle in North Carolina have made them key swing states in recent elections (both having gone to President Obama in 2008). Since the party realignment in the wake of Civil Rights, also, both Delaware and Maryland have been Democratic strongholds.

Regarding El Norte, Catholicism runs very deep within the Hispanic and Southwest American Indian cultural template (although said Catholicism is also quite often very Low-Church, even Charismatic in flavour), and although Democratic candidates have found common ground with them on issues of immigration, they remain very culturally conservative, overwhelmingly pro-life and opposed to same-sex marriage. The faith of the average norteno is still a faith which is (in the words of Mr Lindsay) characterised by ‘compassion for the poor, disgust at wars of aggression, revulsion at the lying of countries into such wars and at gargantuan personal profiteering from them, hostility to drugs and to sexual promiscuity’.

Still, the central thesis is immensely thought-provoking, and I agree with Mr Brockington that the quibbles with Mr Woodard’s thesis do not overshadow his ability to tell an intuitively-convincing tale; and that what remains is to test his model empirically.

19 October 2011

Perverse (dis)incentives and theology in Guangdong hit-and-run

The news is already nearly a week old, but it is still extremely outrageous. A little toddler named Yueyue 月月 wanders down a narrow street of Foshan, Guangdong, alone, and is hit by an oncoming white van which showed no hint of slowing down, until it has already hit her; at which point it stops, goes into reverse and runs over her again before driving away. What is even worse is that eighteen people, one of whom in all likelihood saw the accident, passed by the poor little girl without lifting a finger, and a second van ran her over as she lay prone on the street. In the end, only an elderly scrap pedlar named Chen Xianmei 陳賢妹 bothered to move her out of harm’s way and inquire as to where the girl’s parents were. This story has been covered at Hidden Harmonies, Shanghai Scrap, chinaSMACK and Shanghaiist. The entire incident is intensely depressing.

I realise there is a very strong tendency to want to blame the society for this, particularly given the perverse disincentives currently in place because of the Peng Yu Case (彭宇案), in which a man who helped an elderly lady (who had suffered a fall after colliding with someone whilst waiting for a bus) was promptly sued by said person for having collided with her in the first place. The suit was (astoundingly) successful, and the ‘reasoning’ the judge used (insofar as I can understand it) was that, since he was the first one on the scene to help, he must have felt guilty about having injured her in the first place. On the one hand, I understand quite clearly that this case had a profound and negative impact on the society; seemingly reinforcing the idea that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’. I’m very unwilling to chalk it all up to that, however, since this happened in a broadly public setting and (as has been argued very broadly elsewhere) the ‘bystander effect’ is a very universal phenomenon. The only reason one can possibly have for trusting myself not to pass a young girl by on the side of the road is when one has actually done so (I say this as much of myself as of anyone else).

One thing I would like to comment briefly on (another kind of perverse disincentive at work) is the way in which Ms Chen was treated both while she was attempting to rescue the injured girl and in the aftermath when she ended up a heroine, both lauded and reviled out of proportion. Lauded because she did what no one else would; and reviled at first because she was seen as a busybody who couldn’t mind her own business (if she had been a young up-and-coming businesswoman rather than a working-class elderly pedlar and recycler, would she have met the same reception?), and later because of envious people suspecting her of being a fame- and fortune-seeker rather than a woman who managed to do the right thing and save a little girl’s life. In our current economic and social climate, as I believe the reaction has shown, another Lei Feng 雷鋒 (a popular hero of the PRC era, who was famed for his selfless service to his community and country) is probably not going to be well-received. Somewhere along the line (Cultural Revolution, anyone?), China has become a country where people who do not keep their heads down will be punished.

I really don’t want to make it sound as if it is cultural – or if it is, it is a culture which is common between East and West. In American society as well as Chinese society there is a definite pressure to ‘fit in’, to keep one’s head down, to mind one’s own private business, to not get involved. I think one of my friends, Yu Dong (also from Guangdong), has it pretty much right. He cites Lu Xun – one of whose themes is the idea that modern China has become a society of jaded, anaesthetised spectators. Lu Xun is very evocative, and there’s a lot in his writings to admire. But at the same time, his attachment to the existentialism of Nietzsche proves his undoing: his need to get under the skin of his readers, to write out of the spectator’s shoes in a position of detachment to provoke the reader, he takes so seriously that he winds up in a self-made hell of madness, bitterness and disenchantment.

The tale of Yueyue and of Chen Xianmei proved just how right he was, and just how wrong. Lu Xun justly wielded his pen against the crowds who stood by whilst atrocities were committed before their eyes. He had enough of a sense of irony that he could step into the follies of the crowds, but he did not have enough of a sense of humour to forgive them. If one really wants to get around the ‘bystander effect’, one has to have a sense of humour about it; not only irony. But once we get into this discussion (which naturally attributes meaning wherever one notes irony or humour), the next logical step must be a religious one.

Sinostand’s attitude (and the one the CCP has) toward religion in the wake of this tragedy – as a means of retaining power over people, using Heaven and Hell as a Machiavellian carrot-and-stick to influence good behaviour – I find to be fundamentally facile and unhelpful. The studies cited by Sinostand take assume only a functionalist, consequentialist morality (a sad product of our soulless system of economics) in which personal utility is the only consideration; this only matters because, to a certain extent, the testers (and the broader capitalist society) say it matters. The true irony is that it is in the interests of the high-powered and moneyed controllers of capital and technocratic managerial class to see religion as a tool to keep the rabble in line. But if the Nanjing Judge side of the equation has any meaning at all in this instance, people who fear punishment, divine or otherwise, will not be the ones to move themselves to undertake good actions – Confucius was ultimately right that harsh punishments do not give people a sense of shame in order to distinguish right from wrong. Further (and more to the point theologically), Jesus never spoke of Hell to the poor, to the common people or to the ‘sinners’; he only spoke of Hell to those who were already ‘righteous’: the religious authorities and the wealthy. If Jesus truly embodied this theology, the Sanhedrin and Pilate would have seen him as a useful tool rather than a threat!

This really is pure and utter tragedy; I truly cannot blame people for reacting the way that they have. One ray of hope, though, is the outpouring of generosity which the Chinese people have shown to Yueyue’s family in the wake of the event. It appears that, when it comes to a sense of morality in the Chinese people, all is not (as somewhat feared) lost.

Thank you, Rob Klugerman and Yu Dong, for the links!

13 October 2011

A belated 雙十節快樂!

Sorry, this is really 囧 on my part. I need to be much, much better about blogging holidays. Particularly when Dr Sun figured into my last post so heavily as a proponent of a viable Confucian synthesis with Western thinking!

Anyway, Hidden Harmonies has a solid (if somewhat polemical, in HH’s usual style) article for the occasion. Naturally, I very much concur with the ideal of establishing a ‘free and democratic nation with an equitable distribution of wealth’; but I also share Allen’s concerns that freedom doesn’t necessarily entail following (or continuing to follow) the same blood-soaked and exploitative path that so much of the modern West has. One of the reasons that China continues to intrigue me is that its traditional thinkers, as well as a number of its more contemporary ones, hint strongly at an alternative vision of modernity which parallels similar Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian turns among critical, radical-conservative thinkers in the West. But, as Zhou Enlai once put it, it’s still far too soon to say.

EDIT: My attitude toward modern Western notions of freedom and democracy quite nicely parallel those of David Lindsay, here:

The West is the recapitulation in Jesus Christ and His Church of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism and the Roman Empire. I would die to protect it, on whatever shore it found itself, and it now finds itself on every shore. But if by “the West”, you mean the rootless, godless, globalised, hypercapitalist, metrosexual wasteland of usury, promiscuity and stupefaction, then I hate it as much as does any Islamist.

Though Mr Lindsay expresses himself rather polemically here, I think he’s got it pretty much right. ‘The West’ (in the latter sense) is as much to be found in the PRC as it is here; though the tempering elements that can preserve true freedoms without trammelling people under the forces of a ‘rootless, godless, globalised, hypercapitalist, metrosexual [I would say “faceless”]’ order are more like to gain reception by reconceiving existing institutions in accordance with Confucian norms, than they are by an increased importation of pre-packaged institutions from abroad.

Pointless video post - ‘NM 156’ by Queensrÿche

This is perhaps one of the best songs the ‘Rÿche has ever written, coming off their legendary full-length 1984 debut, the Warning. As well as being lyrically masterful (playing upon tropes from a dystopian technocratic future, inspired no doubt by the likes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy), it simply exudes atmosphere: the repetitive drum and guitar riff being disquieting, spooky, building up to an epic chorus line, which at last declares a human element breaking out into the pure sanity of emotion (as opposed to the computerised logic which is ‘just a synonym for this savagery’): ‘have we come too far to turn around?’. Awesome, awesome song.

12 October 2011

In which I agree and disagree with Sam Crane on the subject of Master Zhongni

Zhu Xi (left) and Zhou Enlai (right)

Sam Crane, in this post at the Useless Tree responding to
a Reuters blog post
on a Confucius Institute in Kentucky, tackles the question of whether Confucius can save the middle class. His short answer – no – is one I can certainly agree with, though for different reasons than the ones he gives… having to do both with the character of the great disappearing American middle class and with the character of Confucian philosophy. However, I believe Mr Crane’s attempted accommodation between modern Western liberalism and Confucianism to be somewhat misguided on several counts.

I’ve discussed Confucius and the ways in which Westerners should (and should not) productively interact with his philosophy at length elsewhere – mostly in relation to liberals and palaeoliberals who want to co-opt him into saying things he manifestly never would have supported himself (given both what he wrote and the context in which he wrote it). So when I see yet another liberal (albeit of a much more moderate and left-liberal bent) attempting to create a programme to make Confucius more ‘broadly… acceptable’, more ‘relat[able]’, more ‘relevant’, it does rub me somewhat the wrong way*. First of all, from a literary and an historical view, neither Confucius nor his disciples were very interested in bowing to the ‘way things were’ in order to become more ‘broadly acceptable’ or more ‘relevant’: Confucius ended his career in relative ignominy and frustration at the state of the world, a poor teacher in his own hometown; Mencius retired early in similar frustration with his lack of influence. However, in spite of these ends, neither man truly wanted to ‘sell out’ or adapt his thought to the dominant paradigm of the day – to the pursuit of gain (li 利) at the expense of justice (yi 義).

I do agree with a lot of Mr Crane’s exposition on the places of ‘overlap’ between Confucianism and contemporary liberalism, but I think his commenters have already done a fairly good job of showing the deficiencies of translating zhi 志 as ‘free will’, in the voluntarist and content-free sense it is often meant by contemporary liberal thinking. For the Confucians 志 is not without virtue-ethical content. When Confucius said, in Analects 9.25, ‘三軍可奪帥也,匹夫不可奪志也’ (‘A commander can be kidnapped from a large army, but a common man’s will cannot be taken from him’), Legge notes that the ‘man’ being considered is ‘one of a pair’ (相匹) – that pair being ‘husband and wife’. Relationships and embedded (rather than necessarily universal) ethics are present in implication even when Confucius nears something approaching a liberal sentiment. Also, very interesting is the context in Analects 12.1 and 12.2:


Yan Yuan asked about humanity.

The Master said: ‘To restrain oneself and follow ritual is humane. [If one can] for a single day restrain himself and follow ritual, his humanity would be recognised everywhere. Humanity is self-originating; can it not only then occur in others?’

Yan Yuan asked, ‘Please tell me, how does this happen?’

The Master said: ‘Do not look at what goes against ritual; do not hear what goes against ritual; do not speak what goes against ritual; do not do what goes against ritual.’

Yan Yuan said, ‘Although I am unwise, I will follow these words.’

Mr Crane takes the first part of this quote, and takes it to mean that humane behaviour being self-originating is an affirmation of the individual responsibility for his own actions; of standing over and above his own desires (which might, if we consider the passage in isolation, make of Confucius a sort of proto-Kantian!). But note that there is an interesting (and troubling, for this interpretation) dialectic at work in the latter part of the passage: it is not the ‘I’ directing and controlling his own desires in isolation, but rather the individual conscience is something in some numinous way received: from ritual! Poor Yan Hui’s modest and (what reads like a) rather befuddled response may carry the interpretation that the reader is not merely supposed to take the first part of the passage for granted, as a ‘given’ affirmation of the ‘I’. The ‘self’ is, for Confucius, suspended in dialectic with the power that created it.

Useful also are James Legge’s own notes (though, naturally, Legge’s missionary tendencies ought to be taken with a grain of salt; he is apt to rather overstate his case, particularly when he is attempting to draw parallels between Confucian assumptions about human nature and the Christian doctrine of original sin). But his point about the teleological connotations of li 禮 (‘ritual’) ought to be well-taken: as Zhu Xi defined it, it was 天理之節文 ‘the cultural artefacts of Heaven-imparted principles’. The good life can be lived out only within a community defined by rituals oriented to a higher purpose outside itself.

The anti-consequentialist nature of Confucian ethics is well-documented in the exchanges between Confucius’ disciples and 墨子 Micius (popularly thought of as China’s first utilitarian, though that term is somewhat disputed), as well as the countless passages in Mencius and the Analects (i.e. 4.16) which place (another) li 利 ‘gain’ (whether collective or individual) in a subordinate position to yi 義 ‘justice’ (‘君子喻於義,小人喻於利’). But Confucius is exceedingly careful to steer clear of the opposite polar extreme of liberal deontology: for Confucius, moral sentiment (志 may be translated thus, but in a negative sense Confucius uses chi 恥 ‘shame’) must first be properly aligned for truly good intent, and thus action, to arise – in marked contrast to the Kantian demand that sentiments be divorced from intentions. If any meaningful connexion with the normative demands of any Western ethical tradition is to be made with Confucianism here, it seems it must be made through Plato and Aristotle.

Which brings me to my evolving suspicion that Confucianism may, in fact, be much more radical than Mr Crane supposes. Though Confucius’ intellectual legacy was indeed one of the most prominent and most tragic victims of Maoism run amok during the Cultural Revolution, we should be careful to remember that both the Georgist socialism of Sun Zhongshan and the radical conservatism of Zhou Enlai were informed by Confucian influences, and Mr Crane himself would also very likely acknowledge that this influence may continue to speak through the intellectual standard-bearers of the Chinese New Left.

EDIT: After reading some of Mr Crane’s back posts, such as this one, I have a somewhat greater appreciation for what he’s trying to do. And I have the utmost respect for the comparative religion work of the former Dean of Marsh Chapel, Dr Robert Neville. But, being both a metalhead and a MacIntyrean, I think it may be necessary (as a bulwark against the new Dark Ages of which MacIntyre warns) to build small enclaves of Confucian or Confucian-sympathetic asceticism within the broader society, rather than seeking a society-wide rapprochement (either in China or in the United States) with Confucian ethics. If we are approaching a new Dark Ages, or for that matter, a new 戰國時代 Warring States Period, that may be the necessary means of, shall we say, taking hold of the flame.

* To Mr Crane’s credit, and I do give him major props for this, he does actually (in the comments) recognise the suspended and embedded nature of individual agency within the Confucian worldview, and also poses the question of whether and to what extent ‘liberal Confucianism’ would still be Confucian. I’m highly tempted to say that if it did (and still retain some of its Confucian character), it would probably end up looking very much like Sun Zhongshan’s 三民主義 (Three Principles of the People), and have a distinctly religious-socialist rather than a secular flavour.

… Still, the whole language of being ‘relevant’ doesn’t mesh well with my own philosophical and theological instincts. Making oneself understood is good, and being sensitive to the needs of others is better still, but – as my dad would put it – too many good things have been sacrificed already upon the altar of Relevance, including many worthwhile aspects of Christianity itself (hence, the rise of moralistic therapeutic deism).

09 October 2011

Pointless video post - ‘Alsatia’ by Galneryus (and ‘Soundchaser’ by Rage)

‘Alsatia’ by Japanese shred metal outfit Galneryus is certainly a solid offering; not quite sure what to make of the distorted voice at the start. The crunchy opening bass riff reminds one a little bit of later Angel Dust; there are some peculiarly Japanese, almost poppy-sounding elements to the bridges, but thankfully these do not detract from the song as a whole. Apparently this is the opening theme to an anime which I have not seen, Mnemosyne no Musumetachi 『ムネモシュネの娘たち』, which is apparently a thriller about a private investigator with a dark past who is unable to die. If the music is anything to judge on, this is one I should watch.

UPDATE: Hier ist auch noch etwas mehr Rage, denn man kann einfach nie genug Rage haben. SOUNDCHASER! ... Ich frage mich auch, ob Victor Smolski weiß doch, was das chinesisches Schriftzeichen 《禪》, das er trägt, bedeuten.

Truth to power, and power to truth

I leave it to my gentle readers to decide which is which in this particular instance. I believe there is substantial room for interpretation, even though readers will remember that I am decidedly not a fan of Liu Xiaobo (noted bigot, corporate tool, seditious imperialist and supporter of indefensible wars), nor am I a great fan of his substantial legions of liberal ‘arse-kissers’ (melektaus’ term) in the West.

Let me be clear, though: I believe extrajudicial killing is profoundly wrong if not outright murder, regardless of the culprit’s identity. On al-Awlaki I may be willing to grant some room for interpretation, but there can be none for the killing of Samir Khan. I don’t believe there is any justification for it, regardless of the opinions of the people involved. Even the barbarity of mobile executions (for the use of which there is still a trial, regardless of whether one agrees or not with the actual ruling) rather pales in comparison to drone strikes against citizens completely outside courts of law.

Generally, though, the Chinese government is not interested in extrajudicially slaying its citizens living abroad, even ones with dubious political goals and known records of support for terrorism. Not that I don’t have my problems with the Chinese government, but as a rule, they do not make a habit of killing dissidents (even radical ones) abroad, MacGyver episodes notwithstanding.

EDIT: Not really an update, but it seems a propos somehow. From ChinaGeeks. My agreeing with Chuck Custer is one of those blue-moon phenomena, but I think he’s right on the money with this one. Imprisoning a six-year-old girl because of who her father is? Why doesn’t the government just go ahead and bring back 株連九族 (executing everyone within nine degrees of relation) while they’re about it?

States suck sometimes.

A modest proposal for the Occupy Wall Street movement

I generally agree with Paul Krugman here – I see in the Occupy Wall Street movement a loose collection of disparate movements in what vaguely appears to be a productive direction. But then I read embarrassing articles like this, and my palm gravitates automatically to my forehead. Yes, Columbus Day is something of which even good Catholics ought to be well and thoroughly ashamed (Chris being as unabashed a genocidal bastard as many contemporary twentieth-century dictators one might care to name), but it has nothing to do with a movement to – and let me check if I have this right – occupy Wall Street. I would say that staying on message is the challenge now, but it is sadly apparent (particularly to outside observers) that a message is precisely what the movement lacks. And this isn’t a concern troll talking, unless one is willing to count Paul Krugman also as a concern troll, but rather a potentially interested and certainly sympathetic bystander.

So, if I may, as a potentially interested and certainly sympathetic bystander, offer a humble suggestion, I would like to propose the following. If Occupy Wall Street is genuinely interested in counteracting the destructive influence of large banks on the political arena and on the body politic in general, it would seem to me that making it a priority to impose an interest rate limit (or, to use an elegant term for a more civilised age, an ‘anti-usury law’) on banks in the United States would be a good place to start. If they are feeling somewhat bolder and more idealistic (a strong likelihood in the target demographic of OWS), perhaps reintroducing some of the Social Credit ideas of Cliff Douglas as a set of concrete policies: in place of the Fed, a full-reserve national bank under the direct control of the legislature (in our case, the US Congress) and a regulatory agency to ensure that the money supply does not exceed or run short of the productive capacity of the economy. Be nice if we could get Citizens United reversed and corporate personhood overturned, but first things first.

Anyway, just tossing ideas out there. See if there are folks who are keen.

07 October 2011

Pointless video post - ‘The Trooper’, performed by Rage

One of Maiden’s great anti-war classics, updated into a relentless thunder-and-steel speed-metal storm by Teutonic power then-quartet, now-trio Rage.

You’ll take my life and I’ll take yours too -
You’ll fire your musket but I’ll run you through!
So when you’re waiting for the next attack,
You’d better stand - there’s no turning back.

The bugle sounds as the charge begins;
But on this battlefield no one wins.
The smell of acrid smoke and horses’ breath
As you plunge into a certain death.


And as I lay there gazing at the sky,
My body’s numb and my throat is dry -
And as I lay forgotten and alone,
Without a tear, I draw my parting groan.

01 October 2011

於貔抱者、於龍戡者 (Of panda-huggers and dragon-slayers)

A little something for the first of October. 祝大家國慶節快樂! Also, a happy belated 2,562nd birthday to Master Zhongni!

Dr Amitai Etzioni, founder of the Communitarian Network used both these terms (‘panda-huggers’ and ‘dragon-slayers’, which I’ve translated into Chinese as 貔抱者 and 龍戡者, respectively – though, to be fully accurate, the 貔貅 pixiu actually refers to a benevolent mythical creature which is thought to be associated in antiquity with the giant panda) to describe what he sees as a growing polarisation in American foreign policy – no longer between ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’, these categories correspond strictly to how the United States should approach its foreign policy with China. The issue is whether we should view China as a foreign policy threat or as a possible foreign policy partner.

Dr Etzioni places himself with a slight note of reticence in the ‘panda-hugger’ camp (where I gladly join him). On the ‘dragon-slayer’ side is Dr Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University, writing for the Wall Street Journal, for the New York Times and for various other venues on how China should be seen primarily as a rising threat to our power and interests. Dr Friedberg, though he uses quite a bit of realist language, actually ultimately argues from a liberal perspective, emphasising the differences in ideology between China and the United States in terms of the vision of each nation for the future of East Asia and using this factor to drive his point home that the interests of the United States and China might diverge in the near future. There may be a point to this – as witnessed by the ongoing flame war between the 五毛黨 and the 五美分黨 (the ‘Five Jiao Party’ and the ‘Nickel Party’; pejorative terms used for the online sockpuppets of the Chinese and American governments, respectively), many observers (and perhaps the governments of the US and China themselves) view the US and China as ideologically at odds in several respects.

But, very worth reading also are Dr Etzioni’s pieces on the same subject: ‘Is China a Responsible Stakeholder?’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of the Chinese?’. In the first, he puts forward the argument that China, though its performance in the past on issues of being a responsible member of the international community and a responsible citizen under international law has been, shall we say, chequered, he also notes that China’s government is increasingly cognisant of international obligations and standards, and ever more willing to abide by a set of norms observed and encouraged amongst the nations of the developed West. Further evidence of this has been China’s understated cooperation with the Obama Administration’s demands to back off from their support of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He notes that, no, China does not live up to these standards – but then, very few nations actually do, including nations to whose abuses we are wont to turn a blind eye (like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan); and that one’s attitude toward China is different depending on one’s normative and positive interpretations of the role of the United States in global affairs. Are we a hegemon, or are we another player in an increasingly multipolar world?

The other article engages in a little more realpolitik. China, by any rational standard, cannot hope to compete with the US in terms of sheer ‘hard power’, even within its own sphere of influence: much of their military equipment is out-of-date, and what they do purchase they purchase on a budget one-sixth the size of ours; there is relatively scanty proof that China harbours any ambition of militarily dominating even its own region; and their own security is best assured at this juncture by ensuring their population’s basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, education and vocation.

I tend to take Dr Etzioni’s view of things, thus perhaps making me a member of the Panda-Huggers. China’s government is, sad to say, currently not as effective as it ought to be even at doing the things they ought to be doing – like taking care of their own more vulnerable members. (One hopes that President Hu and Premier Wen continue on their present course, and that the sage advice of Dr Wang Hui and Dr Cui Zhiyuan may have more impact in the future than it presently appears.) I do admit to being rather leery of our continued volume of overseas trade with China, as much for conservationist and distributist economic reasons as for geopolitical ones (such trade does precious little to benefit the small farmers and 個體戶 getihu small-business owners in China, or in the US), but thankfully I do not believe that continued good relations need rely on an unjust and unsustainable form of economic dependence.

Happy Saturday evening to my Pitt friends, and Happy National Day to my Chinese friends! Try not to get too drunk!