30 October 2017

The Southern Sea, Africa and Wei Yuan’s realism

Wei Yuan 魏源

I recently posted about Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and intepreted him as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ in parallel with the Slavophils, up to and including his use of classical Confucianism to attack Qing corruption, materialism and concentration of power in his own day. I mentioned his colleague and fellow New Text scholar Wei Yuan 魏源 as a kindred spirit, and was motivated to read a brief biography and monograph of his work by Jane Kate Leonard. It turns out, he was one of the first people to understand the threat of Western capitalism and imperialism, and move to oppose it using China’s store of traditional wisdom.

Wei Yuan was very much a Confucian; he believed that the relationships between states should be governed not by vertical power relations nor by free-for-all trade, but instead by a harmonious, if slightly hierarchical, system of mutual security and tribute arrangements. In this, he deliberately cast back to the policies of the Ming Dynasty, and indeed consciously stood within the stream of reformist and statecraft-oriented thought that characterised the Ming Dynasty’s Donglin movement 东林党. But he was the first to use these insights in an analysis of the West and the threat of a very different world order that it represented, particularly in the wake of the Opium War (in which, on account of his close personal friendship with Commissioner Lin Zexu 林则徐, he took a strong personal interest). In his Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 《海国图志》, Wei Yuan treated the subject of colonialism at length, in what turned from a study on the Southern Sea trading kingdoms into a much broader, politically-oriented project.

Wei Yuan had a profound, and profoundly realistic, view of the geopolitical landscape of his time. He understood the trade rivalries between France, Britain and the US. He understood in the broad strokes how they were able to project power abroad, and how they used their power projection to promote corporate-capitalist commerce (backing up trading company ‘rights’ with the military force of their navies). He elucidated for a Chinese audience the nature of the ‘fortified-port system’ by which French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British navies could project hard power, even halfway across the world, to enforce their mercantilist goals. He also displayed, on this question, an altogether classically-Confucian aversion to the use of state power to back up private interests merely for the sake of profit. (In Wei’s view, Chinese trade in the Southern Sea was not only unfavoured by Chinese naval power, but entirely ignored – the Manchus had been forced by political expediency to turn a blind eye to the junk trade unless it involved piracy and land raids.) And he could be remarkably sensitive to the injustices perpetrated on other peoples by the pursuit of ‘free trade’ on the part of Western powers.

In Wei’s treatment of Africa, for example, he noticed how the ‘fortified-port system’ was used to enslave the inhabitants and drain the African coastline of its material wealth. ‘English and Dutch soldiers guard [the African coastline],’ Wei wrote. ‘They have taken the seaports for bases. They have built fortresses and markets, and the natives are used as slave labour.’ To this Leonard adds:
This passage contains Wei’s view of Western expansion, its commercial orientation, its application of force, its systematic exploitation of indigenous peoples, and its reliance on strategically located ports to maintain and protect lines of communication and trade. The same pattern reëmerges in Wei’s description of the rest of the network linking Europe and Southeast Asia.
In short, Wei’s attitude toward sub-Saharan Africa was one of humane (as in ren 仁) sympathy and solidarity. He betrayed no hint of the racism toward Africans that even some of the radical thinkers in his own school would, unfortunately, later harbour. The coastal black Africans may have been ‘barbarians’, but they were people all the same, and the radical implication of his geographical treatment of the African coastline was that their fate was intrinsically linked up with China’s. (This is an insight which, perhaps indirectly, the modern Chinese government has taken keenly to heart.) His message to the leaders and literati of the Qing was markedly not one of complacency; it was to the effect that ‘if exploitation and slavery could happen to the Africans through this system imposed by the West, it can happen to us – and it already is’. Despite the fact that, as Leonard convincingly argues, Wei is working out of a traditional Ming Confucian mindset regarding a hierarchical and harmonious tributary system, his insights lend themselves to an almost Wallersteinian sensibility regarding the workings of global capitalism.

Leonard is not uncritical of Wei’s remedies. In her view, Wei had an overly-confident view of China’s ability, in a rapidly-changing geopolitical environment, to reassert the traditional tributary system (however truly functional it was before his own time) and manipulate the Chinese ‘near abroad’ into action against particularly British encroachment. But she nonetheless has a keen appreciation for the subtlety and depth of Wei’s grasp of Western realpolitik given the paucity of the translated sources he had to hand. Interestingly, whereas Gong Zizhen saw Russia as a threat to China, his younger colleague and close friend Wei Yuan understood Russia (along with Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand) to be a natural geopolitical ally against powers further West: both on account of its long relationship as a frenemy of the Qing Dynasty, and also on account of the fact of its rivalry with Britain in ‘the Great Game’.

Another fascinating figure in the Chinese New Text tradition, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect. Though not nearly as pugnacious (and not nearly as given to jeremiads against the reigning order, foot-binding, opium-smoking, greed, corruption or inequality) as his elder comrade, his realism, his Third World solidarity with Africa and the victims of the Middle Passage, his advocacy for harmonious relations in the South China Sea and his (albeit mild and conditional) Russophilia endear him to me greatly. Wei Yuan is certainly someone to pay more attention to, particularly as each of his interests (up to and including the Chinese interest in Africa) has, again, become timely.

25 October 2017

A lover, not a fighter

Zhuo Wenjun 卓文君 listens to Sima Xiangru 司马相如 playing the zither

One name that came up a couple of times in the Yantielun 《鹽鐵論》 as I was reading it, once in approval and once in decided disapproval, was a rather familiar one. This official, on the good side, remonstrated with the Emperor Han Wu Di 漢武帝 against hunting in pleasure-parks. On the bad side, he opened up the Sichuan frontier with the construction of a road against the wishes of the local elders, and (according to the Literati) provoked conflicts between the Han Chinese and the ‘southwestern barbarians’ the Qiong 邛 and the Ze 筰. This official was also the single definitive poet in the fu 賦 form, and has been romanticised in modern times as a man who, unlike the vast, vast majority of his contemporaries, married for love rather than for material considerations, as recounted in the tale The Phœnix Seeks a Mate 《鳳求凰》. This official’s name was Sima Xiangru 司馬相如.

Sima Xiangru, apparently no relation to the Grand Historian, was born in Sichuan to a notable family, and nursed high ambitions for himself – after reading about the exploits of Lin Xiangru 藺相如, a minister for Zhao during the Warring States period, he took Lin’s personal name as his own. He travelled to the capital and made his living (grudgingly, it seems) as a low-ranking guard for some time under Emperor Jing 漢景帝, before Prince Xiao of Liang 梁孝王, a noted lover of poetry, took notice of the young man’s literary talents and invited him to his regional court, where Sima devoted his time to composition and developing the fu as his favoured literary form.

Sima Xiangru returned home only to find that his father had died, his mother was ill, his family’s wealth had evaporated, and only one loyal retainer remained with the family. Dispirited, Xiangru entered the service of the Magistrate Wang Ji 王吉 of Linqiong 臨邛 in what is now central Sichuan (the city of Qionglai 四川邛崍市), who planned to set Xiangru up with the recently-widowed daughter of a wealthy local iron trader named Zhuo Wangsun 卓王孫. According to the story, Xiangru was invited by Wang to Zhuo’s home, and, after having a few drinks, was prevailed upon to begin playing the zither for the assembled company. Zhuo’s daughter Wenjun 卓文君 was listening from outside the room, and was so enraptured by Sima Xiangru’s music that she peeked out and saw him, falling in love with him at first sight. Her father, however, had planned her remarriage to another local worthy. Enlisting the help of her older brother and Magistrate Wang, she fled her father’s house and eloped with Sima Xiangru. (It can’t be stressed enough how big a ‘no-no’ this was in the context of contemporary morals. Xu Fei stresses that her elopement with Sima Xiangru was ‘a rejection of the morality of the time’ and ‘an unpardonably wanton act’, and that ‘their actions embodied a search for love in the truest sense’.)

Her father having thereupon disowned her, the couple were incredibly poor to begin with. Eventually the couple resorted to opening a wine shop, the Rujun Tavern, in Linqiong, which ultimately had the effect of shaming Zhuo Wangsun into recognising their marriage. Meanwhile, in the Han capital – so the story goes – the new emperor Wu Di managed to pick up a copy of Sima Xiangru’s ‘Fu on Sir Vacuous’ 《子虛賦》, and exclaimed on reading it: ‘Why am I not privileged to be this man’s contemporary?’

The keeper of the Emperor’s dogs, Yang Deyi 楊得意, who was a childhood friend and rival of Sima Xiangru, heard this outburst and told the Emperor who had written the poem. Han Wu Di immediately summoned Sima to his court and asked him to compose a new poem, which turned out to be the famous ‘Fu on Shanglin’ 《上林賦》. Sima Xiangru was not a fan of Han Wu Di’s pleasure-seeking excursions and hunts, which he believed had a bad impact on the common people; he remonstrated with the Emperor about the subject. The Emperor, though displeased with Sima to begin with, eventually took his admonitions to heart and reduced his hunting trips accordingly.

Sima Xiangru had attained to his childhood ambitions, but his wife missed him dearly. Once again she took it on herself to set out alone and seek him out in the capital. Once there, she got a cold reception from him, and saw him noticing other women. Afraid of losing him, she at once penned the ‘White-Haired Lament’ 《白頭吟》. Xu Fei’s version of The Phœnix Seeks a Mate shows Sima Xiangru repenting of his neglect for his wife upon hearing the ‘Lament’, and indeed coming to a stronger appreciation of both his wife’s devotion and her literary virtues. This is in accord with both the Book of Han written by Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, and also the Records of the Grand Historian, which describe Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun as living happily as a couple well into their old age.

Eventually, Sima Xiangru sort-of retired with his wife to a secluded estate at Maoling near the capital, though he continued to write poetry and attend court from time to time. Though an accomplished poet and not one without a sense of public conscience, he had little stomach for court intrigues, which wore down on him. He also suffered from a chronic ailment which was probably diabetes. Despite his repeated remonstrations against hunting, he was certainly not an activist poet, which caused some consternation among his later artistic admirers. He was popular within the Old Text school – both Yang Xiong 楊雄 and Ban Gu 班固 were admirers of his style – but they both upbraided him for not taking an active interest in the contemporary disputes over politics or philology. Sima Xiangru was, to the end, a lover rather than a fighter.

At any rate, an interesting figure from a troubled and intellectually tumultuous time – and remarkable for his rather unorthodox love life. Little wonder later generations of Chinese literati, particularly those in the late Qing and after, would make Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun out to be a romantic hero and heroine.

Salt and irony

Huan Kuan 桓寬

Time to revisit an old hobby-horse of mine: explaining why the entire concept of ‘Confucian capitalism’ is basically anachronistic bunk peddled by Westerners and West-friendly neo-Confucians in the mid-’90’s as a way of reconciling the Sage with his critic Max Weber (as if such a thing were necessary, let alone desirable).

First of all, it appears I owe an apology to Huan Kuan 桓寬. I took Long’s characterisation of Huan Kuan’s Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantielun 《鹽鐵論》) at face value and didn’t look at the source myself. That’s a terrible ‘my bad’. The first nineteen chapters of the source text are available both in Chinese and in its partial English translation here. If we were to go by the scanty treatment of the Yantielun offered by Long, we would conclude – erroneously – that the discourse was primarily for the sake of arguing against price controls and proliferation of laws. That’s a fact so partial (and so partizan) as to obscure the entire meaning of the text.

The text itself takes the form of an argument between the ‘Literati’ (wenxue 文學) and the ‘Lord Grand Secretary’ Sang Hongyang 桑弘羊, who represented (roughly) the Legalist tradition, over a broad variety of topics ranging from the state-run salt and iron monopolies, monetisation and warfare to general governance policies. This debate takes place in the wake of the rule of Han Wu Di 漢武帝, who implemented a number of these Legalist policies; the Regent who succeeded him put these policies up for review and invited critiques from the Literati and defences from the Legalists led by Sang Hongyang. It is worth noting that neither side argues that the government should stay out of the œconomy altogether. The Literati themselves are emphatic about the proper rôle of government as being moralistic:

The Literati responded as follows: It is our humble opinion that the principle of ruling men lies in nipping in the bud wantonness and frivolity, in extending wide the elementals of virtue, in discouraging mercantile pursuits, and in displaying benevolence and righteousness. Let lucre never be paraded before the eyes of the people; only then will enlightenment flourish and folkways improve.
This is emphatically not ‘laisser-faire’ as we’re used to thinking of it – certainly it is not the wonted mode of argumentation among the Austrians. Little wonder Long only included one brief and partial quote from the Yantielun. Looking through the Yantielun, one will start to see a very different pattern of œconomic thinking begin to emerge. Indeed, the very opening statement of the Literati’s ‘basic argument’ (benyi 本議) states that the rulers do have some very specific and very active duties in governance that extend well beyond the Daoist idea of wuwei 無為. And not only that, the Literati state from the outset in this disputation with the Legalist Sang Hongyang that one of the duties of government is to ‘discourage mercantile pursuits’ and to prevent the ‘parade’ of ‘lucre’ before the eyes of the people.

Looking further down, the objection the Literati had to these monopolies is that ‘the Government has entered into financial competition with the people’ (yu min zheng li 「與民爭利」), and as a result, ‘few among our people take up the fundamental pursuits of life, while many flock to the non-essential’ (「百姓就本者寡,趨末者眾」). Immediately this is clarified. The Literati wished that ‘rural pursuits may be encouraged, [and] people be deterred from entering the secondary occupations, [so that] national agriculture be materially and financially benefitted’ (「進本退末,廣利農業,便也」). The Literati – the proto-Confucians – had a much more interesting argument here than is being portrayed in the ideological post-Weberian literature! It was not so much government interference on the whole that they object to. It’s that they objected to profiteering and rent-seeking behaviour on the part of private actors in collaboration with the government. This lent the Literati in the Yantielun a stance in opposition both to government monopolies, and to the speculative and rent-seeking private interests which benefit from the government’s actions. They sounded, not so much ‘laisser-faire’, but suspiciously distributist or even syndicalist. The Literati could be remarkably localist in their sympathies, as here in ‘Hindrance to Farming’ 《禁耕》:

Now in Qin, Chu, Yan and Qi the quality of the soil differs. There is variety in the methods of cultivation of heavy and light soils. The use of large or small, the suitability of straight or curved ploughs, are different according to districts and customs. Each has its convenient use. But when the magistrates establish monopolies and standardise, then iron implements lose their suitability, and the farming population loses their convenient use. When the tools are not suited to their use, the farmer is exhausted in the fields, and grass and weeds are not kept down. When the grass and weeds cannot be kept down, then the people are wearied to the point of despair.
However, this is not an argument against government per se. On the subject of currency, the Yantielun has a remarkably nuanced view given the technical constraints of the time. The Legalists and the Literati were in agreement that currency needed to be regulated: the question was how. Sang Hongyang favoured a system whereby the money supply was constrained by an official centralised minting policy. The Literati recognised the problem but were not so concerned with the existence of independent moneyers and mints. The Literati perceived, astutely, that anything, even tortoise shells and cowries (or even bits of paper? naaah), could be used as a medium of exchange, regardless of scarcity, as long as it was backed by law. The problem of undervalued and counterfeit currency could be solved, therefore, not by limiting the money supply, but instead by ‘proper laws [against] coining bad money’ (「偽金錢以有法 」): that is to say, by indirectly regulating interest rates.

The Yantielun indeed provides ample evidence of an anti-capitalist slant to the argumentation of the Literati. In the chapter ‘Hold Fast the Plough’ 《力耕》, after citing a ‘utopian’ view that the ancients traded sparingly, out of necessity and only with the essentials of life in mind, the Literati drop these two strident and unequivocal bombshells: ‘Trade promotes dishonesty. Artisans provoke disputes.’ (「商則長詐, 工則飾罵。」) They launch into a diatribe against the ‘secondary occupations’ which convicts them of avarice and greed, and go on to accuse the foreign trade of draining wealth from the interior and from common people in pursuit of luxury goods, in what amounts to a stunningly protectionist argument – in opposition to Sang Hongyang’s argument that the Xiongnu can be impoverished and the Han strengthened through the foreign trade. Instead, the Literati promote the communal well-field system 井田 as a means for redistributing land to encourage productive agriculture. That’s not all – for the Literati, the institution of profit caps is one of the duties of a true and righteous King. Here is what the Literati have to say on the subject in the chapter ‘Circulation of Goods’ 《通有》:

Hence the true King would prohibit excessive profits, and cut off unnecessary expenses. When undue gain is prohibited, people return to the fundamental. When unnecessary expenses are cut off, people have enough to spend. Hence people will not suffer from want while alive, nor from exposure of their corpses when dead.
Interestingly, the Literati of the Yantielun are quite aware of the charges of hypocrisy that might be laid at their door for this stand. Indeed, Sang Hongyang hurls the example of Zigong (who became a merchant) at the Literati in ‘The Poor and the Rich’ 《貧富》 . In response, the Literati go so far as to (mildly) criticise Zigong for engaging in commerce, but hold him up also to demonstrate how much further the rentier class have fallen even from his example by abusing their offices:

[Zigong] secured wealth in the capacity of a common citizen; yet Confucius disapproved of him. How much more would he frown on him who does it through his position and rank!
Tellingly, the Grand Historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 – who, as Long does correctly note at length, is highly favourable to trade in all forms – is cited only by the Legalist in this discussion, Sang Hongyang, and at that in deferential tones as Master Sima 司馬子. The purpose of this quotation is to further accuse the Literati of hypocrisy in criticising the profit motive, which Sima Qian held to be universal and natural (much to the chagrin of the siblings Ban). Sang Hongyang even indirectly cites the Analects (「富貴者士之期也。」) as a way of doubling down on this accusation of hypocrisy. But it’s interesting indeed that Huan Kuan makes reference to the Grand Historian only here, as if (like the Bans later) he wishes to make an indirect criticism of Sima’s views by associating them with Legalism.

On that note: the Yantielun is actually one of the rare examples of discourse in post-classical China where the Legalists and the Literati (proto-Confucians) are seen to dispute with each other on relatively equal terms. Yet here, we see that the Legalists are the ones who favour trade (albeit under strict regulation), whereas the Literati themselves speak of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary occupations’ in a manner similar to the ‘city of utmost necessity’ in Plato’s Republic. This distinction between ‘primary’ agriculture and ‘secondary’ commerce and craftsmanship goes on to prefigure, and undoubtedly influence in a more direct way, the hierarchical ordering of the Four Occupations in the Book of Han. The proto-Confucian hierarchical ordering of the occupations is in contradistinction to the Legalist mode of thought, which disparages agriculture but praises pursuits which build power and wealth.

Touching briefly on Huan Kuan’s attitude to war with the Xiongnu – it’s enough to quote directly from the ‘Basic Argument’:

The ancients held in honour virtuous methods and discredited resort to arms. Thus Confucius said: If remoter people are not submissive, all the influences of civil culture and virtue are to be cultivated to attract them to be so; and when they have been so attracted, they must be made contented and tranquil? Now these virtuous principles are discarded and reliance put on military force; troops are raised to attack the enemy and garrisons are stationed to make ready for him. It is the long drawn-out service of our troops in the field and the ceaseless transportation for the needs of the commissariat that cause our soldiers on the marches to suffer from hunger and cold abroad, while the common people are burdened with labour at home.
Looking at the Yantielun as a whole, then, it becomes clear that the Literati of the Han Dynasty – including the Yantielun’s transcriber and compiler Huan Kuan, who belonged to the same ‘institutional’ Gongyang tradition that Dong Zhongshu did – were still wrangling against the not-so-distant legacy of Qin Legalism at the same time as they were advocating for more agriculture-friendly and poor-friendly policies in government.

23 October 2017

Five books that have materially changed my life

Based on a Facebook challenge from a friend of mine, Russell Arben Fox (who also blogs at In Medias Res), here is a list of five books that have materially changed my life. Some (actually, most) of them may be familiar to my gentle readers, others may come as a bit more of a surprise. But here they are, along with the reasons why they have been chosen.
  1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I devoured this book on a plane trip, at a time when I was feeling like a total failure as a human being. There is literature that medicates, that dulls pain, and then there is literature that heals. And this book was the latter: just the right book for me to read at just the right time. I wasn’t going through any of what Billy Pilgrim had to go through, but the story did help me put my struggles in perspective and got me through a bad depressive episode. So it goes.

  2. The Russian Revolution by Nikolai Berdyaev. An existentialist history that shook off the dogmatic shackles of my college-leftist thinking and opened me to a theological way of thinking about the world that would really open me up to Taylor, MacIntyre, Grant, Milbank, Cavanaugh and the rest. Ultimately played an assisting role in my conversion to Orthodoxy. Pretty big material change in my life there.

  3. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. Assigned reading. The only reason I joined the mandatory-for-graduation area studies class with Mr. Mjaanes in high school, who assigned it, was because my best friend in high school was joining it too. I came out of that class a convinced Sinophile. Would emphatically not be where I am today if not for Mr. Mjaanes or Ms. Buck.

  4. Mencius by Mencius. Helped me begin the process of winning Jessie’s heart when we were students together. ‘Nuff said.

  5. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. My parents were always insistent on my being exposed to ‘the other side’ of American history which doesn’t get taught in school, up to and including having me read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me. But I think it was Zinn - which was also sitting on my parents’ bookshelf for me to read - who really gave my politics their radical bent. That book taught me to sympathise with the powerless and the downtrodden of history, which is probably most evident now in my love for the Rusiny, the Palestinians and the Yemenis.

20 October 2017

China’s peaceful warrior

Cross-posted to In Communion and Public Orthodoxy

China is now portrayed in much of the news media as the world’s fastest-growing Christian country, and an increasing amount of attention is being paid to the plight of Christians inside China. Without downplaying either the successes or the struggles of modern Chinese Christians, particularly vis-à-vis the state, much of this coverage lacks a certain historical dimension, relevant to modern Orthodox and Catholic efforts inside China. Christianity – Eastern Christianity – has a long history in China which includes notable and well-respected individuals in Chinese culture.

An interesting historical factlet I came across recently in my traverses through Chinese opera in prose translation, is that Guo Ziyi 郭子仪, the ‘loyal and martial’ Prince of Fenyang 汾阳郭忠武王, historical military governor (jiedushi 节度使) of Shuofang Prefecture 朔方郡 (centred on present-day Ordos in Inner Mongolia) during the Tang Dynasty and literary inspiration for one of the heroes of Hong Sheng’s opera The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》, was in fact a member of the Syriac-Persian Nestorian Church of the East, a committed advocate for the rights of Christians in the Tang Empire, and – if such a thing can be believed – a peaceful warrior.

Guo’s portrayal in The Palace of Eternal Youth was that of an ‘upright and loyal official’ (zhongchen 忠臣) of the Tang court, an embodiment of Confucian virtues and righteousness, a cautious and deliberating general, generous to his troops and therefore popular, and one of the earliest officials to understand the deep threat posed by allowing An Lushan to go free. It was Guo’s swift and timely actions that allowed Emperor Minghuang to escape Chang’an with his life, and which allowed Emperor Suzong to regain control of the Empire after Yang Yuhuan’s death.

Guo Ziyi served as a military general under four Tang Emperors (Minghuang, Suzong, Daizong and Dezong), and was distinguished by his service to the Tang in putting down the rebellion of An Lushan. However, some of his greatest victories were achieved by being a peaceful warrior. In the true spirit of Sun Wu (or, indeed, in the spirit of some of the military martyrs of the Church!), Guo Ziyi was able to ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’. In the wake of the An Lushan rebellion, sensing weakness, the semi-independent Tibetan Empire and the Uighur Khaghanate sent invasion forces to loot, pillage, harry and invade chunks of the Tang Empire. Guo Ziyi was able to force the Tibetans to retreat with a mere four thousand tired and grumbling troops, using misdirection and trickery (lighting fires at various intervals and firing off firecrackers to confuse them and make them believe they were surrounded). In another instance, at the age of seventy, he went himself, unarmed and unarmoured, toward the Uighur camp. When they, who had been told he was dead, saw him and recognised him, they knelt down and surrendered to him at once. Guo thus turned the Tang Dynasty’s military fortunes around in a relatively bloodless way.

He ‘turned the other cheek’ in domestic affairs as well – never fighting back even when he was slandered by jealous members of the eunuch faction at the Tang court, particularly Yu Chao’en. In another instance, his son boasted to his wife, a Tang princess, that his father Ziyi, powerful general that he was, could become Emperor any time he wanted. Guo Ziyi, who valued loyalty above every other consideration, punished his son severely for that boast, imprisoning him and offering him up before Emperor Daizong for judgement. But when Emperor Daizong entered the court, he forgave the junior Guo, saying, ‘When son and daughter fight, it’s better as old men to pretend to be deaf.’

Guo Ziyi’s military service indeed calls to mind that of the Syrian-Byzantine Saint Andrew Stratelátes – Saint Andrew, like Guo, was able to surprise and trick superior enemies into retreat from engagement using relatively small numbers of troops. Also like Guo, Saint Andrew fell wrongful victim to court intrigues; though, whereas Guo Ziyi was merely dismissed temporarily from his post by Yu Chao’en’s slanders and did not attain martyrdom, Saint Andrew and 2,593 of his soldiers were martyred at the hands of Emperor Diocletian.

Interestingly, however, it was Guo’s selfless and grateful treatment of the great Tang poet Li Bai 李白 – then suspected of desertion during the An Lushan rebellion – that exhibited in literary critic Wu Jingxiong’s 吴经熊 view the Christian temperament of the good general. Li Bai had saved Guo’s life long before, when he had been facing court-martial and execution for offending his commander in Shanxi. From The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry (pardon the Wade-Giles):
Unfortunately for Li Po, the troops of Prince Ling were routed in 757, and our poet had to escape to P’eng-tse in Kiangsi, but was caught and put in prison. He was sentenced to death, but Kuo Tzu-i, whom he had saved twenty years before, and who was by this time Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the imperial troops, went to the new Emperor and offered to ransom the life of Li Po by giving up his own official rank. Incidentally, Kuo Tzu-i, the greatest soldier-statesman of T’ang, was a Nestorian, and in this case he certainly showed the spirit of Christ. As a result of his intercession, the death sentence was remitted, and instead Li Po was banished to Yeh Lang.
For all of Guo Ziyi’s distinction in military service, being a servant of Christ he was also truly a man of peace, who desired peace and stability for his country above everything else, even though that state was not guided by Christian values. He was willing to subordinate his own personal interests and even suffer personal insults from high officials without complaining or retaliating, if doing so meant that he could preserve the dynasty. And he remembered what Li Bai had done for him in his youth, and laid down his career and even perhaps his life to save Li’s: the witness of Guo Ziyi for Li Bai is, perhaps not exactly analogical to, but mildly reminiscent of the intercessions of saints of the Church (like Saint Nicholas of Myra and Saint Alexandra of Rome) for criminals, even deserters, who were caught by the state and sentenced to death. Interestingly, the same virtues and skill that made Guo Ziyi a great general who could win battles without fighting and who became respected without striving for power and titles, also made him respected among the Confucian literati of his own time.

Guo Ziyi’s example may be something for Chinese Christians – indeed, all Christians – to consider. Balancing one’s loyalties to the ‘two cities’ is never easy, let alone practising an ethic of peace from a position of military authority, and Guo Ziyi’s example shows both the limitations and the personal sacrifices and risks entailed. At the same time, the fascination of Guo is that he shows a loyalty both to the Chinese dynasts and to Christian praxis to be possible.

18 October 2017

Jane Kate Leonard on the self-institution dialectic

Late Ming jingshi thinker Chen Zilong 陈子龙

Jane Kate Leonard, China historian and scholarly biographer of Qing statesman (Gongyang-school political Confucian and close friend of Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and Lin Zexu 林则徐) Wei Yuan 魏源, on the complexities of the Confucian self-institution dialectic:
Statecraft themes were perpetuated in the early Ch’ing period by Ming loyalists who saw statecraft as the ultimate goal of study and self-cultivation. The concept of statesmanship contained two main elements which provided its philosophical foundations. The first was the moral element which affirmed that the primary aim of statesmanship was the creation of a moral order at both the societal and cosmic levels. The moral leader or statesman played a key rôle in this process because his influence and charisma transformed lesser men into morally perfect beings which, in turn, resulted in the creation of a moral society and universal moral order. This idealistic approach took little account of the rôle of man’s institutional and legal environment in shaping character and human values.

The second element in statecraft thought was the practical or pragmatic one which expressed a greater concern for the realities of the here and now, especially the smooth functioning of the dynastic order. This approach, while affirming the central rôle of moral leadership, sought to achive the establishment of a stable, prosperous state and society which was viewed as the first step in realising the ultimate goal of universal moral order. The affirmation of moral ends, however, served to justify actions that were essentially utilitarian and directed toward the solution of immediate political, social and œconomic problems. Implicit in this approach was the Mencian view that the purpose of government is to rule on behalf of the people and that the conditions of life, to a great extent, shape human character. Because of a willingness to concede the important effect of man’s institutional environment on behaviour, advocates of the practical approach to statesmanship emphasised the importance of laws and institutions. They saw both in relative terms and were inclined to regard change in a positive light.

Moral statesmanship and practical statesmanship were closely tied; each represented different points on a continuum of Confucian values ranging from the idealistic and abstract to the more practical and concrete. In the rhetoric of Confucian political thought, the idealistic, moral approach was the more dominant. In reality, the two were inextricably entwined, with idealistic ends justifying a broad spectrum of practical means. In the early Ch’ing period, the lines between the two were blurred, and, although it was called the age of ‘practical statesmanship’, there was, nonetheless, an overriding concern with moral leadership and its achievement through rigorous scholarship and self-cultivation.
Leonard argues, convincingly, that early Qing dynasty jingshi 经世 (or ‘statecraft’) thought, the milieu to which Wei Yuan belonged, came largely out of the loyalist reform-minded cliques of the late Ming, as they grappled both with big existential questions and with the more immediate and nitty-gritty ones of how to run a just and well-ordered state. Their entire world, after all, had been completely overthrown: it’s only natural that much of their reform-driven energy would be redirected into questions normally reserved for Daoist reflection. It’s particularly interesting that Leonard mentions Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘practical’, political strand of Confucianism – that goes slightly against the received wisdom which sees Mencius as a forerunner of the ‘heart-mind’ school and Xunzi as that of the ‘political’ school, but it jives nicely with Song Dynasty reformer Wang Anshi’s preferences.

I’m only just beginning this text, and it’s already proven to be a fascinating one. Leonard is much more knowledgeable than I am, that’s clear to me already. But it’s interesting that she used her monograph on Wei Yuan to touch on a philosophical dialectic I’ve been thinking about and grappling with on my own for a long time, and that she expressed it in such clear terms.

16 October 2017

Yang Guifei and Dou E as victims and scapegoats

Yang Yuhuan (left) and the execution of Dou Duanyun (right)

Unsurprisingly, SPOILER ALERTS apply for this entire blog post.

Two of the other Chinese operas I’ve read recently have been The Palace of Eternal Youth and Snow in Summer; both of which centre on a female protagonist who is the victim or scapegoat of forces entirely outside her control, but for which she wrongly takes the blame and pays for it with her life. In each of these plays, traditional morality and family norms form the context within which these women act. In neither play is the traditional morality entirely rejected, but it is subjected to various levels of critique.

Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 is the tragic heroine of Hong Sheng’s 洪升 The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》. The youngest daughter of four, of an impoverished Sichuanese official, she is procured as a palace maid and given as a concubine to Prince Shou 寿王, the son of Emperor Tang Minghuang 唐明皇. The emperor, upon seeing Yang himself, is smitten with her and arranges for her to be sent to a Daoist monastery as a novice named Taizhen. After some time, she is taken into the Imperial harem herself, gifted with the rank of ‘Guifei’ 贵妃 (literally, ‘precious concubine’) and given some unprecedented privileges, like access to the Huaqing Pool 华清池, which was normally reserved for the Emperor’s exclusive use. Her promotion is good news for her overbearing and ambitious brother Guozhong 杨国忠, who is quickly promoted to prime minister, but she herself is surrounded by eunuchs and other court ladies in the emotional hothouse of harem life and secluded from the life of the people. Yang Guozhong abuses his position by pardoning a barbarian general named An Lushan 安禄山 for a favour from his patron; after that Yang and An become bitter enemies and pursue a private rivalry and feud with each other at the expense of the Empire. Loyal officials like Guo Ziyi 郭子仪 (on whom another blog post at some future date – he’s a fascinating character in his own right) can only look on in horror at the oncoming disaster for the state.

The Palace of Eternal Youth juxtaposes scenes of human suffering at the hands of Yang Guozhong, An Lushan and even Emperor Minghuang’s other underlings, with the scenes of luxury, lust, jealousy and intrigue within the court itself. Despite her self-aware pulchritude and vampish demeanour, Yang Yuhuan is actually one of the single most blameless characters in the opera, apart from some wholly natural twinges of jealousy toward the other court ladies for Emperor Minghuang’s affections. She is kept oblivious to the human cost of her and the Emperor’s lifestyle until the very end. And yet by the end she is singled out by Emperor Minghuang’s guard as a scapegoat for the troubles of the Empire when An Lushan rebels. She hangs herself with her own girdle on orders from the eunuch Gao Lishi 高力士, over the initial objections of Minghuang, in order to appease the rebellious imperial guards and save her beloved Emperor’s life. The Emperor himself spends the rest of his life in a state of depression, wondering if he could have done anything to save the life of his beloved.

Opinion on Yang Yuhuan among the Confucian scholarly class was sharply divided after her death. Some scholar-officials saw her as a blameless victim of her family’s intrigues, guilty only of being an object of a besotted Emperor’s affections; others saw her as an evil temptress responsible for misleading the Emperor and bringing disaster on the Tang. The later Tang Buddhist poet-official Bai Juyi 白居易, whose ‘Song of Everlasting Regret’ 《长恨歌》 was the inspiration for Hong Sheng’s opera and is quoted at length within it, went a long way toward rehabilitating Yang Yuhuan’s memory and guiding scholarly opinion toward a more sympathetic and tragic view.

Snow in Summer, also called The Injustice to Dou E 《窦娥冤》, by Guan Hanqing 关汉卿, is a much earlier work that functions as a subtle attack on the social conditions for ordinary Chinese people under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty – but the main character is, like Yang Yuhuan, a young woman who has very limited control over her own immediate situation and who is also scapegoated for a crime she didn’t commit. Duanyun 端云, the daughter of an impoverished but highly-talented scholar Dou Tianzhang 窦天章, is sold to a petty usurer, Widow Cai 蔡婆, in lieu of a significant debt as a child bride for Cai’s son. Famine forces the three of them to move into another town, where Widow Cai again takes up her lending business to keep her family fed. Unfortunately, Widow Cai’s young son dies of illness.

One of Widow Cai’s debtors, a dishonest pharmacist named Dr Sailu 赛卢医, attempts to strangle her to avoid paying the debt he owes, but he is stopped by a pair of hooligans – Zhang the Dog 张狗儿 and his son Zhang the Mule 张驴儿 – who force themselves upon Widow Cai’s household. Zhang the Mule tries to rape Dou Duanyun, but she fights him off repeatedly. Scorned by the object of his lust, Zhang the Mule blackmails Dr Sailu into selling him poison to kill Widow Cai, but he poisons his father Zhang the Dog by mistake. Zhang the Mule then blames Duanyun for the deed and takes her before the corrupt and degenerate Mongol magistrate Taowu 梼杌, who then throws her in prison. He then robs Widow Cai of all her silver and uses it to bribe Taowu into finding in his favour. Dou Duanyun is sentenced to death by beheading for poisoning Zhang the Dog.

Dou Duanyun goes to her death in midsummer insisting that she was framed and protesting her innocence before Heaven. She proclaims that if Heaven has any justice, it will not let any of her blood stain the ground, it will cover up her dead body with snow despite the heat, and the district of Chuzhou will suffer three years of drought. When the executioner brings down his sword, none of Duanyun’s blood falls upon the ground, but instead flies up onto a white silken garment hanging over her head. A snowstorm blows up and covers her body in a snowdrift – and no more precipitation falls for the next three years.

In the meanwhile, Duanyun’s father Tianzhang has passed the civil service examinations and is sent to a remote district where he is promoted. He attempts to go back and find his family only to find that Widow Cai has already left their hometown. Heartbroken he returns to the Imperial court, where he is appointed a Censor and sent to back to his home province of Anhui to investigate wrongdoings by local officials. He comes across Chuzhou and discovers a drought that has been going on for three years – Taowu organises a lavish banquet for Tianzhang and offers him a hefty bribe to cover up the drought to higher officials, arousing Tianzhang’s suspicions.

The rest of the opera reads like a Judge Dee courtroom drama, with Tianzhang in the role of the magistrate as he reopens his daughter’s case. Under Tianzhang’s unrelenting and thorough investigation, the truth comes out about Zhang the Mule’s parricide and Taowu’s gross miscarriage of justice. The now-homeless Widow Cai is avenged and Duanyun’s memory is vindicated. Zhang the Mule is sentenced to death by slow dismemberment, Taowu to death by beheading, and Dr Sailu is exiled to a border garrison. After the sentences are carried out, a heavy rain falls on Chuzhou, ending the drought and indicating that Heaven’s justice is satisfied. Tianzhang weeps before his daughter’s grave, and takes Widow Cai into his home.

Duanyun, of course, is fictional and Hong Sheng’s Yuhuan a fictionalised version of a historical woman (who really was forced to commit suicide for the crimes of her brother). In their literary contexts, although they come from markedly-different backgrounds and live very different lives, they nevertheless share some similarities. Their ability to speak up for themselves is compromised in each case, and in the end they, innocent, are made to suffer and die as scapegoats for the guilty party: Yuhuan in her brother’s place at the hands of the Emperor’s guard, and Duanyun to save her persecutor’s skin at the hands of a corrupt and perverted magistrate.

Yuhuan is a much more ambiguous figure than Duanyun, being in a position of power that she herself is unaware of except insofar as it involves the person of the Emperor, and it’s stated in Hong Sheng’s drama that there are sins that her spirit must atone for. One can see, in fact, that the Confucian literati themselves were divided on how to view the historical Yuhuan – though in the end they were swayed to the view that she was an innocent victim of political intrigue. In each case, though, the positions of Yuhuan and Duanyun – as scapegoats for injustices they aren’t responsible for – are used to illustrate broader questions about political justice and legitimacy. This is an ambiguous point. There is a certain sense in which these literary portrayals of women justifies Chinese classicism’s claim to being a humanistic ethos, but there’s also a sense in which the same classicism understands women’s experiences and subjectivity to be still, in a broader sense, not their own.

One foot in the big red circle

Yup. I’ve got reservations about that, too.

The Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies recently released a paper which appears to be (and is – though you have to wade into the footnotes to discover it) a continuation of the study by Jennifer Pan and Xu Yiqing on nascent ideological formations in China, which caught my attention a couple of years ago. This study appears to be based on a much more fine-grained (but also more subjectively-based) survey that has a similar qualitative methodology, and which focusses on social media users in particular. It also has a broader and more ambitious set of goals, which I’m still not sure if it succeeds in meeting convincingly. Social media have a tendency to foster and voice opinions which may not resonate broadly off-line. The paper not only seeks to map the online presence of ideological formations, but also attempts to categorise and lay out the ‘party ideology’ of the CCP based on its interactions with all of these online groups in four case studies involving online controversies set off by a media-covered event or story.

The descriptions of eleven distinct online factions or ‘ideological clusters’ are interesting, and in some cases even convincing. They include three factions which fall mostly within the ‘party ideology’ (the Party warriors, the flag wavers and the China advocates), four which partially overlap with the ‘party ideology’ but also include critiques from various sides (the traditionalists, the Mao lovers, the equality advocates and the industrialists), and four which fall almost entirely outside the ‘party ideology’ and define themselves in terms antagonistic to the CCP (the humanists, the US fans, the democratisers and, increasingly, the market lovers). The rather more interesting thing about the paper is that it attempts to articulate the goal of the CCP as articulating a ‘China path’, a cultural and œconomic Sonderweg which runs agonal to the values and norms of the ‘West’, but which otherwise – in the words of the authors – ‘remains eclectic and vague’ in content.

The ‘China model’, in certain ‘eclectic and vague’ forms, is precisely something I’ve come to endorse, by degrees, over a long period of years of living and working there – and that includes the distrust of democracy. I’ve come to sympathise with the folks of Henan and Inner Mongolia – the two provinces in which I spent the longest time and where I developed the closest personal attachments. I understand, and even endorse to a degree, the populist sense of righteous brotherhood and solidarity to which the poor and downtrodden of the mainland Chinese interior are drawn – even if it is clothed in a ‘red’ mythology which tends to betray it.

I have a certain, very strong set of ‘traditionalist’ qualms about the current direction the ‘China model’ leads, though I also tend to hold out a kind of Tolkienian hope for it. I suppose you could say, even though I’m far from a fan of Mao and far from an uncritical supporter of the CCP, that I’ve got one foot firmly in the Big Red Circle the authors of the Mercator Institute paper describe. I’m personally still unsure I’d fit neatly inside of any of these ideological clusters, though if I had to choose one from the descriptions, it would likely be as a ‘China advocate – with profound reservations’.

The Mercator Institute – an affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations – paper unfortunately tips its own hand in the conclusion. The ‘China model’ is not a scholarly interest to be considered objectively as it was for Pan and Xu, but instead a threat to the West to be contained, resisted and neutralised by Western nations ‘revitalis[ing] their political institutions’ and ‘their œconomic and technological capabilities’. The way of the humanists, US fans and democratisers is taken uncritically as superior. It is therefore not an academic exercise but a policy paper written for use by NATO and the OECD as intelligence in geopolitical struggle, seeking to leverage upwardly-mobile upper middle-class intellectuals active on social media as a kind of intellectual fifth column in that struggle. Even as such, it does have elements of valuable analysis that deserve to be considered seriously.

15 October 2017

The meta-Confucian rage of The Peach Blossom Fan

Still going strong on my Rumiko Takahashi-inspired Chinese opera kick. I just finished reading a prose translation of The Peach Blossom Fan by Kong Shangren 孔尚任, a descendant of Confucius who lived during the decline and fall of the Ming Dynasty and the rise of the Qing – the backdrop which sets the tragedy of his dramatic work.

Kong Shangren’s work indeed shows a strong streak of Confucian moralism, as is to be expected. Hou Fangyu 侯方域 is a sympathiser with the reformist Donglin Movement 东林党 (a critical neo-Confucian movement focussed on reforming the bureaucracy, and a predecessor of the Changzhou New Text revival and the broader jingshi 经世, or ‘statecraft’, ethos which took hold in the early Qing), and his lover, a hooker with a heart of gold named Li Xiang 李香, has an even greater sense of moral scruple than he does – refusing dowry gifts from corrupt officials, refusing any other suitors than Hou, rebuking the evil Ruan Dacheng 阮大铖 to his face. The same shared moral outlook which brings the two of them together in the beginning and strengthens their relationship as the play progresses, also ultimately makes it impossible for them to end up together. They find, ultimately, that in a world without a moral centre, where there is no possible safe haven and no way to retain their moral standing, they cannot at once retain their integrity and remain a couple. Kong has them both undertake vocations in Daoist monasteries by the end of the play.

But despite the tone of moral outrage that accompanies Kong’s descriptions of the persecutions of the Donglin clique, the each-man-for-himself betrayals among the military and the civil service, the decadence and cowardice of the Imperial court in the face of foreign invasion, there’s something of a nihilist streak that runs through the play. As in Zhao the Orphan, most of the ‘righteous’ characters are rendered powerless either by being too trusting or too stubborn, and the vast majority of them end up either dead, in hermitages, or on the lam from both the Ming and the Qing courts. But there is a significant difference here. If, in classical Confucian thinking, righteousness and virtue nucleate the people around a salvific leader, a ‘worthy’ with charismatic power – here those ‘worthies’ are notable by their absence. There is no orphan of Zhao in whom the ‘righteous’ people can put their trust. The play ends with Nanjing occupied, most of the Ming loyalists scattered or dead, and three of the ‘good’ characters being pursued by the new Qing Dynasty’s police into the mountains, with no hope of salvation in sight. The world of the Ming has come to an end. Nothing noble has replaced it, unless it is the path of total renunciation proclaimed by the guard-turned-Daoist-monk Zhang Wei in the final scenes.

It’s this very streak of nihilism – this very apocalypticism – which renders The Peach Blossom Fan such a beautiful, poignant and masterful tragedy. The heartbreak which accompanies the failure of Hou Fangyu’s relationship with Li Xiang is rendered all the more piercing by the broader failures of Ming governance and Chinese morality more broadly around them. But there’s something in it which smacks much more of the Russian sensibility. Under the quasi-Daoist resignation of Hou and Li, there is an unspoken call to apocalyptic revolt in the sense meant by Berdyaev. There is a finger of accusation which Kong Shangren points at the very people who would enjoy The Peach Blossom Fan as a merely æsthetic work, which the constant allusions to other operas (particularly The Peony Pavilion) as vehicles for narcissistic enjoyment by corrupt officialdom make plain. It’s not light amusement. When Zhang Wei tears the eponymous fan in half at the end of the play, it’s almost a dare to the audience that they find any reason to be happy in the result. It’s also a mistake to see it as simply a ‘loyal’ tribute to the Donglin movement of the Ming Dynasty’s final years – the Donglin partizans, however righteously aggrieved, are hardly effective heroes in the face of the Manchu threat. There is something prefiguring Lu Xun’s all-consuming rage against his own social milieu present in the play, barely contained below the poetic verse, that comes off even in the English translation.

I can certainly see why the work is considered a dramatic masterpiece. I’m still not sure if it’s my ‘favourite’ of the several dramas and operas I’ve read recently – the sheer bulk of the historical background Kong Shangren brings forward makes his opera appear a trifle overstuffed in my (admittedly-biased) Western view – but I can understand its importance and appreciate its tragic sensibility. Highly recommended reading. I’ve read only Chen Meilin’s novel adaptation rather than the Zhen-Acton-Birch translation, but the latter will certainly be on my list!

12 October 2017

New Hieromartyr John of Riga

Father and New Hieromartyr Saint John of Riga

Our father among the saints, the Holy New Hieromartyr John (Pommers) of Riga, was martyred by fire at the hands of unknown assassins widely believed to be working for the Bolshevik government, on this day eighty-three years ago, as I was informed not long ago by a gentle reader and friend of this blog, Mr. S—. Saint John seems to have been something of an activist priest, and head of an Orthodox Party focussed on organising and aiding landless peasants, whose unique blend of agrarian-socialist and monarchist politics seems on first blush to be somewhat similar to my own. He was also acquainted with Father Saint John of Kronstadt and a close friend and compatriot of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow, with whose blessing the Latvian Orthodox Church was granted autonomy. One of Saint John’s appointees, Bishop John (Garklavs) of Riga, fled to the United States and became the OCA bishop of Chicago and Minneapolis, my current diocese. Also – another small fact: unbeknownst to me, the relics of Saint John of Riga were present in the very altar of the Russian Orthodox mission church at which I was chrismated.

Saint John was born to the Pommers family, whose ancestors had adopted Orthodoxy while Latvia was still under Teutonic rule. The (at that time Lutheran) Dukes of Courland persecuted Orthodox believers mercilessly, and refused one of the Pommers men a Christian burial. The local peasantry gave him a grave of his own and erected a double cross over it, but this grave was desecrated by the Germans under the orders of the Duke.

Saint John himself grew up tending flocks of sheep for his parents, but soon developed an aptitude for reading and writing which landed him in a seminary, complete with a scholarship. Ever the filial child, he worked for his parents each summer while he was at school, and was careful not to burden them financially. When he moved to Kiev, he supported himself by taking on jobs as a teacher. With a recommendation from Saint John of Kronstadt, he was tonsured a monk and continued to teach, instilling in his students a love for Scripture and the Church. He was also politically active at this time, adding to his teaching mission various forms of charitable and activist work – aiding the unemployed and advocating for sobriety among the peasantry.

He held various sees in his tenure as a comparatively young bishop in the Russian Empire: Slutsk, Odessa, Priazovsk-Taganrog. In each place he proved both his pastoral ability and his deep compassion for the people under his care. As bishop of Taganrog he provided shelter to many war refugees from the (then-enemy) territories of Austria-Hungary: Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians alike, and encouraged his Russian parishioners to do the same. Having grown up in poverty himself, he was a strong and tireless advocate for the rights of labour against the claims of capital, and he came to occupy positions as representative for the fledgling labour unions in his sees as a result.

He was not, however, a friend to the new government after 1917, and neither was the Bolshevik government a friend to him. Seeking excuses to remove him from office, they brought several phoney charges against him which were easily disproved by the Metropolitan. The workingmen of Taganrog, supportive of their bishop and comrade, sent an armed escort with Saint John as he went to and from Divine Liturgy. Seeing that their strategy had failed, the Bolsheviks then began transferring Saint John to different bishoprics: Tver, then Moscow, then Penza. At Penza, the authorities used every excuse they could find to harass the Latvian bishop, and several attempts were even made on his life – suspected to be instigated by the secret police. However, Saint John survived all of these attempts, and he was popular enough even with the people of Penza that no harm came to him. The persecution came to an end when the Cheka issued an order in 1920 proclaiming Saint John innocent of all the charges that were arraigned against him and allowed him to carry out his religious duties unmolested.

In 1921, Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow acknowledged a request from Riga to appoint Bishop Saint John to the head of that see in the Latvian Church. During the same year, the Patriarch granted the Latvian Church autonomy, with Saint John as its first Archbishop. As Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in Latvia, John worked as tirelessly for the preservation and recognition of the rights of Orthodox people in the newly-independent country as he had for the workingmen under his care in Russia. He lived in the basement of the Cathedral, in protest of the Cathedral’s planned demolition by the government. His protest was successful and the demolition was cancelled. But his activism on behalf of the Orthodox faithful in Latvia ended up having political ramifications: he wound up as the leader in the Sæima (the Latvian Parliament) of the Party of the Orthodox.

The Party of the Orthodox was at once a minority-rights party, a confessional party and an agrarian populist party. Like the modern Latvian Russian Union under Tatyana Ždanoka, the Party of the Orthodox stood for the civil rights of ethnic Russians in independent Latvia. It also stood for the religious rights of Orthodox Churches – Saint John was able, through political actions, to have many of the historical properties of the Orthodox Church in Latvia restored to Orthodox control, and also to secure funding for church repairs and education. And lastly and chiefly: it was a party for the landless peasantry. The Party of the Orthodox championed the radical land reforms that broke up big estates and transferred them to the dispossessed, and worked to see that Orthodox and ethnic Russian peasants in particular got a fair shake under the terms of the reform. Saint John’s service in the Sæima, unusual and irregular for a bishop, was as selfless as his ecclesiastical life. A Latvian himself, he gave his full efforts to fighting for the rights of the ethnic minorities in his flock. Still: the hard left in the Sæima did not trust him because he was considered a ‘monarchist’, and the right did not trust him because he supported land reform.

Unfortunately, even in Latvia proper, and even as a representative of a sort of left politics, the saintly Archbishop could not escape Bolshevik persecution. (Like the Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, Saint John’s was considered the wrong kind of leftism: too rural, too religious.) He got involved with the Russian Christian Student Union – a left-wing youth movement with an educational focus – but he left it when it became clear that it belonged to a Marxist-Leninist tendency. Saint John was thereupon subject to attacks by hooligans and partizan zealots, and was subject to false allegations of sexual abuse. He even came into possession of papers claimed to prove the disloyalty and treasonous activities of the Marxist-Leninist faction in the Sæima, and it’s thought that these papers were what caused him to be marked for death.

In the end the Soviet secret police caught up with him. Several unidentified hooligans, thought to be under their employ, found him at his dacha, tied him to his carpentry bench, tortured him, soaked his robes in kerosene and set him on fire – sending him to a martyrdom very much like that of Great-Martyr Nikitas at the hands of the heathen Goths. They also trashed his dacha and burned his papers, which were their true objective.

Saint John was mourned by the entire city of Riga, and a hundred thousand people – nearly a quarter of the city – turned out for his funeral. One Russian student saw a vision of the martyred Archbishop standing in prayer beside his body, along with a number of other saints and martyrs with shining faces. He was glorified in the Latvian Orthodox Church in 2001, though he had been recognised as a martyr for some time before that in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Holy Father and New Hieromartyr John of Riga, pray to God for us sinners!

10 October 2017

Realism, history and politics

The ancients, who were our betters and nearer the gods than we are, handed down the tradition, that whatever things are said to be are composed of one and many, and have the finite and infinite implanted in them: seeing, then, that such is the order of the world, we too ought in every enquiry to begin by laying down one idea of that which is the subject of enquiry; this unity we shall find in everything. Having found it, we may next proceed to look for two, if there be two, or, if not, then for three or some other number, subdividing each of these units, until at last the unity with which we began is seen not only to be one and many and infinite, but also a definite number; the infinite must not be suffered to approach the many until the entire number of the species intermediate between unity and infinity has been discovered—then, and not till then, we may rest from division, and without further troubling ourselves about the endless individuals may allow them to drop into infinity. This, as I was saying, is the way of considering and learning and teaching one another, which the gods have handed down to us. But the wise men of our time are either too quick or too slow in conceiving plurality in unity. Having no method, they make their one and many anyhow, and from unity pass at once to infinity; the intermediate steps never occur to them. And this, I repeat, is what makes the difference between the mere art of disputation and true dialectic.

   - Socrates, Philebus
This passage from Plato’s Philebus was brought to mind by a couple of conversations I had been party to on Facebook recently – only one of which was on the topic of colonialism. The problem with modern discussions of colonialism (among other historical phenomena needing critique), that I can tell, is that they vacillate between two mutually-irreconcilable and incommensurate poles, which themselves nonetheless exist in a strange kind of dialectic with each other. The first is the one of moral outrage – the idea that colonialism was a horrific evil (which it was), and that any effort to differentiate or distinguish between different forms of colonialism is an attempt to muddy the issue or to exculpate oneself wrongly from the institutions which resulted. The second one is one which pretends to understand the issue, but which actually does exculpate an involved historical figure by claiming – without any further reference to the context – that he or she was a ‘product of his time’.

Actually, the conversation which brought this issue to mind was a discussion of Jehan Cauvin, in the wake of a rather tone-deaf article by Calvinist author Marilynne Robinson attempting clumsily to portray Cauvin’s Geneva as some kind of enlightened proto-Scandinavian welfare state, and Cauvin himself as a jolly French liberal humanist and democrat. Contrarianism can be charming, but not when it comes at the cost of historical fact. I pointed out that the Consistory which handed down totalitarian repressions, tortures and death sentences with relative abandon was largely the work of Cauvin himself, and backed up my argument with evidence drawn from Geneva’s own judicial records. The response, tellingly, was that Cauvin was a product of his time, and that similar tortures and executions were carried out in France and Russia.

Leaving aside the historical fact, here, that even though corporal punishment was used often, execution was vanishingly rare in Muscovite Russia until after the reign of Peter the Great, there is still a distinction that needs to be made. Cauvin’s Geneva was demonstrably worse in the torture-and-executions regard, even than nearby Zürich. In just seventeen years, Cauvin’s Geneva – one city of about 10,000 people – executed 139 – an average of over eight executions per year. This may be compared with the record of the canton of Zürich with over 73,000 people, in which 574 executions were held in the entire sixteenth century, an average of under six executions per year in the entire county. Cauvin’s Geneva was actually worse than the prevailing norms when compared with other examples from its own time and space. These drastic differences in degree should hint to us that it’s simply not enough to excuse the very real evils for which Cauvin was directly responsible, by simply making him a ‘product of his time’ and submerging him and his ideas both in the misleading philosophical unity of his historical epoch.

Likewise, cover is given if we dismiss the Europe of the Reformation and the Renaissance as characterised by a false infinity of iniquity. The initial, lazy slacktivist overreaction which refuses to draw distinctions between different kinds of ‘social evil’ – different kinds of slavery, different kinds of colonialism, different kinds of misogyny – discredits itself by rebelling against our moral intuitions that qualitative differences exist between different circumstances and environments: the same intuitions to which Socrates alluded in Philebus. We miss highly significant differences when we absolutise a particular kind of evil, and we discount these differences altogether when we relativise evils under the guise of ‘historical progression’. As I was arguing earlier, following the labour historian Frank Tannenbaum’s book Slave and Citizen, slavery in Anglo-America was a demonstrably crueler institution than it was in Latin America. In Latin America, slavery was still slavery – and attended by all of the brutalities and inhumanities that characterised slavery in the former British colonies. But, as Dr Tannenbaum carefully notes, manumission was nowhere near as difficult in Brazil and in New Spain as it was in North America; freedmen were treated with full legal dignity; and ‘miscegenation’ was not frowned upon at all.

If we’re going to find a way out of the current war between these emotivist factions in our politics, both the identitarian left and the identitarian right, then that way out needs to find a way to draw distinctions, make meaningful comparisons and create apposite analogies that can situate and orient us realistically within our historical moment. The aim of Socrates and Protarchos in the Philebus was to seek out and define ‘the good’ for the human person; here we are using some of the same insights to sort between evils. But the end goal is the same. Politics is about finding and implementing a course of action which moves us toward the good. Dithering between the poles of false unity and false infinity does not get us there.

09 October 2017

Dr Samuel Johnson on colonialism

From Dr Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage, expressing Mr Savage’s rather dim view on colonialism, a dim view which is cited with approval by his biographer:
Savage has not forgotten, amidst the pleasing sentiments which this prospect of retirement suggested to him, to censure those crimes which have been generally committed by the discoverers of new regions, and to expose the enormous wickedness of making war upon barbarous nations because they cannot resist and of invading countries because they are fruitful; of extending navigation only to propagate vice, and of visiting distant lands only to lay them waste.
A very happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day to my gentle readers, and (as is relevant) feast day of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow.

08 October 2017

The Righteous Empress Myeongseong of Joseon

Empress Myeongseong

Empress Myeongseong of the Kingdom of Korea is a fascinating figure who, although I have mentioned her once before on my blog, is much worthier of study than I had first thought. She was, after all, the one primarily responsible for the welcoming climate that Christians have since found in Korea, even though she never became Christian herself. Despite this, I consider her a martyr: killed unjustly by the agents of a hostile and revolutionary foreign power, for her pro-Christian and pro-Russian sympathies.

Empress Myeongseong was born Min Jayeong to the scion of a respectable, but impoverished, family of gentry in Yeoju in central Korea. Despite growing up in poverty, she was bright and well-read in the Chinese Classics, and apparently a bit too independent-minded than was fashionable for a Korean woman of the gentry class. She was introduced as a suitable bride to King Gojong by his father and regent, Heungseon Daewongun, for two simple reasons: as a noblewoman, her bloodline was suitable; but as a poor woman, her family would not be in any position to cause dynastic troubles. She also was described as having a pleasant face, a good physique, and a suitable education. The Heungseon therefore thought her a harmless and pliant wife for his son, who would not make waves or rock the boat. That was the Heungseon’s great mistake.

Gojong married Miss Min in an elaborate ceremony when she was sixteen years old and he fifteen. It became clear that the newly-crowned Queen Min had a mind of her own and did not behave like other court ladies. Instead of attending to social functions, she kept to herself, reading the Chunqiu and the Old Text Zuo Commentary, cultivating her knowledge of history, science, philosophy and political œconomy. She did not have a high opinion of her husband at first – Gojong being something of a party animal by temperament, she tended to belittle him. However, when Gojong’s majority came, he found a firm supporter in Queen Min, who advocated quietly but firmly – against the Heungseon, earning her his mortal enmity – that it was only just for her husband ought to rule in his own right, rather than being the puppet of a regent. This she did through Choe Ik-hyeon, a neo-Confucian scholar who argued that the rules of propriety demanded a clear rectification of the titles between lord and vassal, and assailed the Heungseon in fiery invective terms for his corruption and immorality. Gojong, grateful for this assistance and finding himself in need of his wife’s intelligence and erudition to rule the country, soon developed a firm respect for her. And she, seeing his serious turn, reciprocated that respect.

In their early years, King Gojong spent his time with other women and neglected Queen Min. She only became pregnant with his child five years into their marriage, as he began relying on her more. Eventually she gave birth to a boy, but this child died at only four days old, under suspicious circumstances. Queen Min blamed the Heungseon for the baby’s death, and moved to have him removed from the court permanently, along with his supporters. She and Gojong would eventually have another son, Sunjong, but this son would grow up sickly.

Both King Gojong and Queen Min shared a belief that both of the reigning foreign policies favoured by the Korean political establishment and the yangban – of total isolation on the one side, and of appeasement towards Japan on the other – were mistakes. They witnessed the decline of Qing China and the rise of Japan under the Meiji with alarm, and began studying the Japanese path of modernisation. To counterbalance the influence of Japan, Queen Min sent ambassadors to American President Chester Arthur, and invited advisers from Russia and America, as well as Christian missionaries, into the country. However, she herself was not in favour of a Meiji-style reform. There was a ‘progressive’ clique of yangban who advocated for a full and immediate Westernisation at the cost of relations with China; Min, who favoured the conservative-reformist and pro-Chinese Sadae faction, understood well that cutting ties with China the way the progressives wanted would only mean, in the end, a swifter capitulation to the Japanese.

Queen Min supported education in scholastics and manners for Korean girls, and appealed to American Methodist missionaries to make this a possibility. With Queen Min’s blessing, the Ihwa Academy was founded by Mary Scranton for the purpose. Under Queen Min, also, the first newspaper press was organised, the first factories were founded, telegraph lines were laid, and Western agricultural methods were introduced from the United States. Russian Ambassador to Joseon, N. A. Svishchiy, sent a memorandum to his superiors in Russia detailing Queen Min’s tolerance of Christianity generally and her interest in Russia specifically, prompting the establishment of a mission which eventually turned into the Orthodox Metropolia of Korea.

Again, however, Queen Min was not interested in altering the spiritual basis of her society. She was herself a Buddhist and a Confucian to the end. Though she did not like her husband at first, she was loyal to him alone and eventually earned his trust, respect and love – and learned to trust, respect and love him back. She lay a great deal of emphasis on appropriate relationships. She looked, not to Germany as Japan had, but instead to Russia for inspiration: a traditional power with a traditional religion, which was attempting to modernise at its own pace and on its own terms.

But even though she had accomplished much in her career, she made powerful enemies among Korea’s yangban class – the most dangerous of whom was the Heungseon. Needless to say, her anti-Japanese stance did not endear her to that government, either. The Heungseon enlisted the help of the Japanese minister Miura Gorô in a conspiracy to assassinate Queen Min. This assassination, this heinous and despicable crime against Heaven, was carried out on the eighth of October, 1895. With the aid of troops loyal to the Heungseon, Japanese assassins, acting under direct orders from Miura, entered the palace, subdued the king (who had tried to interpose himself bodily between the assassins and the women’s chambers), and sought out the palace women. They found three women, dragged them forcibly out into the courtyard, stomped on their prone bodies, hacked them brutally to death with blades, sexually molested and defiled their corpses. When one of them was identified as Queen Min, they burned her and scattered the ashes – the final and most outrageous sacrilege upon the body of a Confucian woman like Min.

The reaction to this brutal regicide was instantaneous and it was outraged. The Russians in particular were moved to fury at this brazen, shameless and damnable act of lèse-majesté, this superlatively-hideous murder and defilement of a Korean royal by Japanese thugs and dog-officials, and lost no time moving against the Japanese in Korea. Ambassador K. I. Veber, upon hearing of the incident, assured King Gojong of his government’s support against this brutishness, which the King accepted. Russian officials and military assisted King Gojong in retaking the palace from the Japanese and expelling the traitors who had allowed his beloved wife to be massacred. Unfortunately, the newfound Korean self-assertion under King Gojong would be short-lived, as Tsarist Russia herself would soon be embroiled in a war against Japanese aggression.

It quickly became clear to all observers that the barbarous assassination of Queen Min had been the result of a Japanese conspiracy at a very high level, with the Heungseon as co-instigator. The primary conspirators were part of a political clique centred in Kumamoto Prefecture, and included not only Miura Gorô but also the oligarch Inoue Kaoru and the statesman Itô Hirobumi, who was informed of Miura’s plan, and who himself would later be killed by Thomas An (a Roman Catholic advocate of Korean independence) in retaliation. A number of other members of the Japanese legation and the Imperial Japanese Army were directly implicated. In response to international outrage and pressure, the Meiji government orchestrated a sham trial which, disgustingly, exonerated all fifty-six of the arraigned blackguards and regicidal scum on a legal technicality, even though enough evidence was indeed available to the Japanese government to convict Miura at least.

At least a handful of Japanese moderns have some sense of compunction for the bloody event. The descendants of two of the assassins came to Namyangju in 2005 to offer their personal and heartfelt apologies to the soul of Queen Min on behalf of their ancestors. However, there has as yet been no apology forthcoming from the Japanese government itself for this crime against Heaven, for which they made themselves directly responsible when they acquitted Miura.

As for Queen Min herself – titled Empress Myeongseong after her murder – she was a Cassandra for her people. She spoke only the truth to the yangban, but she was not believed in her own time, either by the progressives or by the isolationists, that the moderate, measured reforms she sought were necessary. Like Cassandra, too, she faced a bloody end precisely on account of her perspicacity, forethought and care for her people. Her treatment of Christians in Korea was correct and gracious; if we Orthodox do not view Empress Myeongseong as a holy martyr, than we must at least acknowledge her as one among the righteous pagans who kept the law written on their hearts.
Have mercy, O Lord, on the soul of Thy servant Empress Myeongseong.
Unsearchable are Thy judgements.
Let not this prayer of mine be counted as sin, but let Thy will be done.