News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Novelists As Blanks

In between eating a tasty greasy dinner at a smoky greasy stall, waving off waves of mosquitoes, trying not to reciprocate the gaze of locals infatuated by my crude gesture of drinking beer directly from the bottle, and always trying, however faintly, to keep my girlfriend amused, I also managed to squeeze in three pages of the afterword to A Garden of Earthly Delights (by Joyce Carol Oates). An old pugnacious wondering began a-rumbling between my ears and in the end I concluded the obvious: that successful novelists, as a species, are unthinking and unreflective, and that there is a direct relationship between author superficiality and the fidelity to life of their works.

Ms. Oates writes the following: "to experience the white heat is not at all the same as comprehending it, still less controlling it. One is "inspired" -- but what does that mean, exactly? One is empowered, thrilled, fascinated, exhilarated and, in time, exhausted; yet one can't be at all certain of the value of what has been created for others or even for oneself. Especially, a writer's early white heat driven works come to seem to the writer, over the passage of years, mysterious in their origins, brimming with the energy of a youth not yet discouraged or daunted or even much aware of how any ambitious work of art might be received by others. All writers look back upon the early creations with envy, if not always unalloyed admiration: how much strength infused us then, for our having lived so briefly!"

A great mass of pretty words heaved onto the page; but after sweating to remove the shell of poetry I found but a blank where I had hoped to find logic and sense. Ms. Oates refers to white heat, but never gives any sort of definition for it. No explanation is attempted. It apparently never crossed her mind.

But is it yet another accident of fate that a fiction author dodges the illumination that would come from a clinical approach in favor of the aesthetic pleasure of spewing out a mulch of verbs, adjectives, and stream of consciousness? This preference for description not explanation, consistent throughout the novelist's profession, is the action of persons neither reflective nor thinking, but instead of persons with a talent for ably parroting whatever flashes before their eyes or across their mind. It would seem that a fictioneer is to a non-fiction author, as an actor is to a playwrite.

But, the excuse runs, we have an artist at work; not a philistine engineer. And artists are notorious for refusing standards; allegedly because standards are an infringement upon artistic freedom, though rather more likely because standards are an infringement upon irresponsibility.

Either way, the temptation of the reflective and intellectually curious person is always to seize upon a point of interest and work it for its significance and impact upon its environment. And on the basis of this, further explore their realm and generate ever more ideas. With Ms. Oates, there is none of this. None at all.

Another example: "... as if I had poured gasoline on my surroundings and lit a match to them and the flames that lept up madly were somehow both the fuel of the novel and the novel itself. These "white heat" experiences like waking dreams, consuming one's imagination, utterly fascinating, exhausting. The novel-to-be springs into a visionary sort of life like something glimpsed: an immense mosaic, film moving at a swift pace. You "see" -- but you can't keep up with that pace. The novel opens up for you like a dream, drawing you into it, yet it's a dream in which you are somehow participating and not merely a passive observer. So swift and obsessive was the original composition of the Garden of Earthly Delights for the young writer in her mid-twenties that it didn't dawn upon me, preposterous as it must sound, that Carleton Walpole might have been partially modeled on my paternal grandfather, Carleton Oates... like the similarity between "Clara" and "Carolina" (my mother's name). How opaque we are to ourselves sometimes, while transparent as crystal to another!"

Again, a welter of poetic verbiage portraying ably how she feels: which is remarkably passive in the midst of the storm. Despite her claim to the contrary, I suspect that she's hardly a participant at all in her own creation. Her muse, i.e. her subconscious, does the creative stuff, with her conscious mind a sort of bystander with a pen and clipboard. Because of the abyss between her creative side and her conscious decision-making side, she exerts only a secondary control over her creative faculties. She is, in effect, powerless as an intellectual force because she is virtually powerless over her intellect except as a scribe religiously recording events. Thus there is no ability to reflect, no temptation to engage in analysis, no access to an understanding of key events, and thus there is none of the critical wonder and the proactive involvement that might lead others to perform a forensic autopsy of their creative processes.

When this is the state of affairs, when superficiality is the only fare on the menu, it's little wonder novels are so difficult to read in our day and age; their superficiality is far outdone, in a positive sense, by television and cinema, both of which present the same sort of stories and images but directly, pure, unfiltered, and, relatively speaking, without artificial ingredients or clumsy editing or the shot out of focus. In a go-getter utilitarian age, books that don't educate the reader ain't useful and fail to catch. And novels in the overwhelming majority are, and have always been, written by folk who don't understand the significance of what they're on about. In other words: they don't know what they're talking about. The media has already taken over the market for entertainment without meaning or significance. Novels just can't compete with that sort of high-powered banality.

And yet, to give them their dibs, in their inability to reflect and connect the dots, novelists may yet have a congenital gift for their trade. Enjoying the benefits of a still mind, a perpetually blank slate as it were, one which is uninterrupted by the desire to understand and comprehend, novelists are perhaps best suited by nature and evolution for the menial chore of jotting down the noise in the system that constitutes their bread and butter. It is this uninterrupted mental blankness that perhaps constitutes God's best instrument for recording the phraseology and attitudes of fellow blanks, and for capturing the outermost, most obvious and thus least interesting layer of social movements that constitutes so much of the fodder that confounds and crazes the chattering classes each season. The reflective person with a mind ever voracious, ever scarfing and digesting data and churning out ideas, operates at a distinct disadvantage. Ergo the bad novels of George Orwell and the deservedly never-collected short stories of H.L. Mencken. Ergo the brilliance of Jack London the short story writer and novelist, his mediocrity as an autobiographer and apostle for the rights of the downtrodden, and singular failure as a sociological thinker .

Just as your's truly wasn't dull and obsequious enough for grad school, perhaps he has too much the frenzied inner mental life to be a successful novelist. Really? Then how does one explain Mark Twain and, to up the ante, how does one account for Oscar Wilde, who succeeded in all literary forms?


Just another ill-natured ill-considered thought deservedly exploded at the tail end of a frustrating day of foolish worrying and dillydallying. The solution to my ills is clear: get to work and do so in an organized fashion.

Biff Cappuccino

Thursday, July 22, 2004

To Dr. D.:

> i like to think of myself as an allrounder and am amazed at how incompetent others are or just plain uninterested in certain fields. not that i am competent! it's sad how much specialized background in a certain area you have to have to be competent. <

If by competence you're referring to the mastery of various minutia, then I'm sure you're right. On the other hand, if you mean a reasonable grasp of how things work, then I don't think it requires that much time. Particularly for people like you and me. I have a new book on the boxer uprising of the late 19th century and one reason I was willing to spend more than a thousand NT on it is that, though I disagree with the author's politics, she did compare sources in at least four languages and, more importantly, gave perspective to the events by referring to historical parallels. This is key.

To bring perspective to the Nanjing Massacre, last night I bought what appears to be a fascinating book on allied prisoners, their treatment under the Japanese, the revenge killings undertaken by allied soldiers, the way in which the men on both sides adapted, fit into cookie-cutter portraits or failed therein. Plus, I'll be reading what appears to be an insightful book on Lincoln and which goes into the illegal arrests of northern editors, the illegal imposition of martial law on Baltimore, the repeated massacres of civilians by northern soldiers, and the deliberate orgy of destruction which was the march down to Atlanta of 1865 (a sort of musket and cannon edition of the atom bombs used on Japan, both adopted as terror tactics to end the war and both, as far as I can tell at this stage, worked.)

One problem with many scholars of the Nanjing massacre is their guild-supported comfort zone of ignorance with its resulting myopia, sanctimony, and indifference to the evidence or countervailing views. They make claims such as the Nanjing massacre was the world's worst and that the pain-and-suffering its victims went through is ineffable. Clearly this is self-serving nonsense of the type: my daddy's bigger than your daddy.  But this is not an isolated incident, and instead to me it's reflective of their elemental childishness.

I suggest that instead of viewing such foolishness as an excess of enthusiasm or as a temporary giving in to the universal weakness for self-righteousness, that you see it as part of a deeper problem.  People who operate this way, in my experience, have a set of flawed precepts at the base of their thinking which skews their perception and judgement. Unless you have the time, patience, and skills required to counsel someone and get to the root of serially defective thinking, followed by the investment of time and energy required to overhaul it, short of said person enduring a sort of religious conversion, there ain't no hope.

Back in eastern Canada, it was initially a mystery as to why certain friends, people I cared about and tried to help, yet displayed poor judgment in almost everything they did. They chose the wrong clothes, the wrong restaurants, the wrong bands, the wrong girlfriends, etc. I concluded that many, many people have a sort of pathology of the intellect. Ergo, the common phenomenon of the moving violation of common sense: the amateur gambler, the get-rich-quick enthusiast, the charity fundraiser dupe, the devourer of newspapers.

I see much of the same in these punishingly dumb academics. Particularly given that a formal paper or a book has undergone repeated revision. A temporary misstep is unlikely to survive. And they make so many of these missteps in their writing. I.e. their misteps are chronic, ergo there's a fundamental problem with their judgement. There is good news however. Very good news I think, and it is this which keeps me banging away on my keyboard despite my own repeated (chronic? haha...) failures to date.

Beating these haughty prudes at their own game isn't difficult for all it requires is looking at other areas of research for historical parallels, which is not only rewarding but also invigorating and empowering. As we both know, research is an adventure when you take it seriously; when one looks into other fields one enjoys a sharp learning curve with it's complement of surprise, shock, and mystery. By continually probing one makes a run of discoveries, one after the next, which bring things back into an excitingly crisp focus and which often reorients our way of looking at things in general. This is what makes the academic effort enjoyable. The present crew of philosopher-kings are stuffy paper-shuffling bench-warmers who, on a pleasant afternoon, give thought to little more than exchanging the present secretary for a fresher edition with a raunchier perfume; they yearn, at the end of a day grading bad papers and fending off fraudulently overeager sophomores, not for more quality time pursuing  research but to be at home watching the football game or their favorite sitcom.

It's no wonder post-modernism appeals to savants snoozing at the wheel: it brings an end to the dismaying chore of tackling the new and improved theories that appear every year like fresh strains of swine flu.  Post-modernism is a high-sounding excuse for doing nothing, for a safe and undemanding chasing of the same tails every year. Assessing a novel theory takes effort, requires a sharp eye, and means offending someone somewhere, no matter if you take to it or trash it.  And if its a really new theory, then there is no precedent, no safe rut, no easy parroting. What if you find yourself out of step with the herd? Trouble lies awaiting, in ambush at every stray footfall out into the weeds. 

But perhaps I overstate my case...

Tail end of a letter to Dr. D. (more practice at essay styling...)
The letter in brackets is someone hassling Dr. D.
 > > ...if not, then perhaps another system will be invented to do the > > job better. in my understanding, this is how science works. > > In my understanding, this is how science consistently obscures and perverts > the discpline of observation and self-cultivation: insteading of *looking*, > and *learning*, scientism puts us in the position of reducing everything to > a preconceived framework of values ("a system"), then trying to compensate > for that system's deficiencies, by re-evaluating what we've observed in its > terms, and redefining categories to achieve a better fit.  Does that sound > like a good way to translate poetry to you?  It isn't.  Guess what learning > Pali is all about?  Learning to understand philosophical poetry.

Science perverts, for the most part, only those who are educated above their intelligence. And who, with an inquisitive discerning mind would accept a preconceived framework (whether of values, or anything else) when the systems designed or at least those applied to almost all fields of human endeavor have proven so frequently to be less than optimum, with many clearly half-baked. Look at the disasters which we call public education, socialism, the drug war, AIDS science, the professional media, the various cosmologies.
I'm reading several books on the Nanjing Massacre and yet again, I'm amazed at the naive, name-dropping, indecisive, parroting crap that emanates from academia in a foul flood of publish or perish publications, year in and year out. As usual, the last person to know what's happening at ground zero is the sequestered iron-rice bowl academic. The problem isn't science; it's bogus scientists.  Academia, with its tenure (i.e. socialist) system, ensures that universities are, by and large, safe-houses for the ignorant and incompetent ladder-climber who wouldn't cut the mustard in the private sector. For-profit works published for general or niche consumption, as a rule, tend to be of higher caliber scholarship and much abler thinking. Most people can't think for themselves to save their lives, but at least in the private sector you can't trot out dismal unappetizing products and expect to survive. In the private sector, the widget has to be new and improved, fresh and exciting. Count out 99% of academia then.
I grew up in a family of overeducated mediocrities.  When I got to grad school in Canada it was clear that I just wasn't dumb enough: I wasn't ignorant, fawning, and credulous enough. My fellow students, on the other hand, were as insincere and career-oriented as the educated children of prosperous farmers and small-business folk, yearning now for something more than green acres and one-horse towns, could be expected to be. Not to mention they had no distinguishing talents or aptitudes. How can people, implanted with ambitions than cannot be realized via creative ingenuity, avoid the temptation of giving in to the safe, peer-approved mediocrity of scientism? They can't. No more than a cat can be trained to bark.
The problem isn't even scientism, the problem is graduated half-wits, proud and smug stuffed shirts, hollow men mouthing the phrases of talented pioneers.  I saw plenty of that. That's one reason I got the fuck out.
I don't know your interlocutor and I shouldn't be presumptuous perhaps, but he sounds like another excitable industrious half-wit without two clues as to human nature. Ian is one of these people. The first day we met, he tried to demonstrate a math proof to me and when I began to question it and attempt to unwind the way his evidence was presented, he got really upset and started shouting in the office, as if that's going to stop or persuade me. He also visited me in my pad during the early days of our brief acquaintance, when my place had the esthetic appeal of a jail cell.  I quickly discovered that he expected it to be something like his place, outfitted with tony rugs, choice cultural icons from the home-country (preferably to do with pop music), and anthropologically significant baubles to impress the ladies and gents.  Bozos like Ian think of themselves as promising intellectuals, as thinkers, but have very little mental life beyond the sort of narrow calculus that a professional accountant or actuary engages in (i.e. investment and career-based) , when not giving into boyish fantasies of gallant or heroic achievement. Thus the prettified pad; his mental life is primarily external and he needs a daily ration of reassuring, peer-sanctified icons.
My advice, as you know, is don't take shit from anybody. You can't operate effectively from a position of weakness and intimidation. Whether this guy is right or wrong in his arguments and theses, he's incompetent at the fundamentals of social interaction.  That's a big problem and unfortunately very common with ambitious types. Lacking talent, they try intimidation. Most of them, given the credulity of the public, friends and family, go for the rewards of dishonesty too.
He needs you confident and in good spirits. For otherwise, you can't be all that you can be. Demand an apology from him for his "grow up" remark. If he he's too proud (i.e. if he's too weak) to give you an apology, then cut him loose. Don't deal with him. Find inquisitive supportive people who are honest but know the harm that comes from intimidation, which is, after all, inevitably a sword that cuts both ways. By intimidating others, he's cutting himself off from reality and from the checks and balances he needs to filter his good ideas from the bad. At the end of the day, no matter how good with generating new ideas one is, one has to have feedback. Writers need editors, husbands need wives, friends need each other. He ain't nobody's friend. Fuck him. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Review of Scars of War.  This is a collection of essays concerning violence and its repercussions in modern China.  Although the essays were penned by academics, I still decided to take a look because there's few options available to me here in Taiwan.  Naturally, I'd rather read a work with greater potential to be competently thought out and written, i.e. one put out by an author writing for a broader audience and who thus regularly sings for his supper and knows his customers and their needs intimately. 
There is something very wrong with the checks and balances of academia.
For example, during the introduction, page five, appears the following: "Foreigners fell back on insulting clichés such as "the Chinese are used to suffering" or "the Chinese are fatalistic."  At best, these clichés are flippant; I fail to see how offering a sincere, if facile, explanation for events is insulting.  The author is trying too hard to make her case, not to mention appealing to the lowest of all motives, the fear of shame via the I'm offended card. This weakens her case and reduces the tenor of discussion to the level of a social engagement or a lover's quarrel.
More to the point, the Chinese are used to suffering and developed a defensive culture and outlook in response.   Ergo, society was traditionally family and clan-based and not nation-based; family members were traditionally indifferent and free to act unethically with non-family members; urban legends developed discouraging the provision of assistance to others (example: the notion, and accompanying urban legends, that victims will accuse Good Samaritans of causing their injuries if and when the authorities arrive, because getting money/compensation from anyone, even a helping stranger, is better than none and, besides, the victim's family (reliably unethical, as opposed to one's own) will approve); the evolution of a veritable blank where public morals should be and the resulting indifference to the suffering of others (example: the China phenomenon of citizens circling criminals and victims, not to lend assistance to the victims, but to watch the show for its entertainment value); the evolution of a national diet and cuisine reflecting adaptation to chronic privation (example: the eating of organs, the use of tofu as a meat substitute, the prevalence of cannibalism during the dynastic era); the arranging of marriages to enhance clan power; the heavy focus on money and guanxi due to the absence of legal guarantees. The list goes on and on.
On the same page one finds: "The terrible things that happened in so many parts of China may be unknown to the wider world, but not to the people who lived through them or to their descendents."  Hogwash! Chinese are famous for being tightlipped, particularly to their descendents.  In general, they don't talk to their kids freely and gratuitously like North Americans do.  The job of raising children is not that of the parents, but that of the school.  It's the teachers' responsibility to communicate with one's kids.  The result is that kids generally know very little about their folks and other antecedents.  Both Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston point this out at length in their works.
Again on the same page appears the following: "Neither of these approaches does justice to the experience of the disaster; both preclude compassion for the anguish and suffering that the [numerical] figures embody."  First, anguish and suffering seem redundant.  Secondly, the statement is a bold proclamation of the patently obvious (a favorite technique of academic hacks) and the entire sentence is superfluous. 
What is the function of an adult publicly demonstrating that he cares; what would motivate an adult to wear his compassion on his sleeve?  Presumably, the author is juvenile, lacks sufficient worldly experience and lacks membership within a cosmopolitan, urbane, and empowered social class.  For otherwise, the author would be aware that gratuitous demonstrations of allegedly heart-rending emotion signify immaturity, frivolousness, and self-absorption; such emotion is simply a waste of time for people for whom time is money and thus have more important things to do, and who can and do intend to leave their mark on the world not just by chattering about it, but by actually doing something about it. As Orwell pointed out, it's typical of the chronically un-empowered to think, speak, and write in an irresponsible and moony fashion.  Ergo, the popularity of Marxist thought amongst these bozos. 
And yet, presumably, the wearing compassion on one's sleeve is so fresh and empowering (upping her legimitacy within her clique of unempowered sages whose impact upon the real world is indirect at best, negligible in the main, and productive of sneers and hooting at worst) for this jejune author that she deems it worthy of note.  This points to another weakness of academic hacks which is that their audience consists of naïve, fawning, cynical, role-playing, ladder-climbing students (captive audience number one) and naïve, fawning, cynical, role-playing, ladder-climbing fellow academics (captive audience number two). No wonder standards of scholarship, comportment, common sense, and honor are so low in her field.
Its no mystery why academic works are so seldom read. It's not that the audience is unsophisticated, incurious, and lacking the motivation to get down to the nuts and bolts of what's at hand, but that the absent-minded professors turn out, on closer examination, to be overeducated yahoos and pampered suburbanites peering out of focus from their ivory towers, mesmerized by the blur of events and seeing what they want to see and believing what they want to believe.  Which is to say, they're educated above their intelligence, they're virtuosos of incompetence.
Page six: "By the time of the 1911 Revolution, Chinese society in the eyes of its greatest writer, Lu Xun, was already seriously brutalized.  Moreover, the escalation internationally of military technology and its importation into China permitted the mercenary or warlord armies of the late 1910s and the 1920s to lay waste the countryside in a series of regional wars."
Once again, another symptom of the affliction hampering academics. Given that academics tend to overspecialize and get mired down in minutia, there's a lack of perspective on the greater picture and clichés end up taking the place of personal experience.  For example, the writer Lu Xun is not by any stretch of the imagination China's best. Lin Yu-tang is far and away the better and more intelligent writer of the era, not to mention the many writers superior to Lu Xun who have since appeared.  Presumably the author,  like the committee awarding Gao Xing-Jian a Nobel Prize in lit, has read little Chinese literature
As to the claim that military technology and its importation into China permitted warlord armies to lay waste countryside, this seems dubious given the fact that warlord's have been laying waste to China's countryside for the past 2000 years.  During previous eras of warlord fighting, the population of China dropped in half.  In terms of scale, this is far worse than anything that took place during the 20th-century. Again, it seems the author pitching her product far too hard.  Why the great effort? Again, where are the checks and balances?  Why were her absurd claims not caught before publication?
By page seven, I begin to tire of the author's passion for ambulance chasing, her tear-jerking dramatic gestures, her blinkered and self-serving ambition to sell her story as the most important and significant, destructive and dismembering "oddysey of pain" on tap: "The terror of daily bombing raids and fear of arbitrary death and dismemberment became every man's family story - too horribly mundane to be told by novelists or historians.... The Chinese population was traumatized and rendered in articulate by the ever present possibility of arbitrary death.  This state of trauma is far removed from clichés such as "a disregard for human life."
From the same dreadful page: "Is it the task of historians to fix the blame for the descendents of violence?  In the case of specific acts of violence, certainly." The task of historians is to engage in blame games?  This author pursues partiality, not impartiality. Rather than take an Olympian view, she prefers the perspective of the uninformed hothead who, driven by an inferiority complex and overweening ambition to avenge the wrongs of childhood, is always open for a cause (i.e. an excuse) to flog his peers with.  We're all a mess of dysfunctional psychology, but surely part of growing up and becoming an adult is mastering the more prominent of one's pathologies or, at the very least, curbing one's morbid desires when mingling in polite society or when under the spotlight. The author is a drama queen indeed. And proud of it.
I went on to review the rest of the essays in the collection.  Needless to say, it was a waste of time.  The anti-Japan feel was very strong.  It was always the damn Japs did this or the damn Japs did that.  In one of the essays, a Japanese pacification officer talks about trying to assist the locals and every time he makes a positive comment, it's given the most negative light possible.  This kind of thing gets very tiresome very quickly.  One gets the feeling one is dealing with grownup children for whom the historical events dealt with are in fact reducable to the sort of story you find in a tabloid: neat plots and pat actors who play roles of either good and evil.
The fact that Chinese warlords were killing far more people and often making a policy to cut off genitalia, lop off heads, gouge out eyes, torch buildings full of people, burn entire villages, loot banks, and so on and so forth, doesn't make these eggheads blink when it comes to the Nanjing Massacre.  No, it's the damn Japs.  They have a militaristic culture and they're just given to being savage.  It's a shame when the Chinese kill each other but it was their environment, they couldn't help it.  But oh those Japs! They did it on purpose.
In one of the essays, the professor scorns the notion that the Chinese were considered devious and unreliable by some pundits.  In this and many other ways, these authors have a herd-like timorous adherence to political correctness and don't dare follow up on the obvious leads right in front of their nose-rings. 
Surely, even children realize that different cultures are different! and that they arise from different lifestyles, histories, and so forth.  Japan has history of peace.  China has a history of constant war, rebellion, insurrection, famine, floods, and so forth.  Ergo, the Chinese, like the Ashkenazi Jews, developed a culture that was tilted far more to self-preservation in the face of the constant threat of natural and man-made disasters.  Just like the Talmud contains advice exhorting Jews to take advantage of Gentiles, which makes perfect sense considering how Jews were often treated, the Chinese developed a family and clan based structure which stressed loyalty only to the family and clan, with the devil take the rest.  On a small-scale, this results in the everyday familiar Chinese style fabrication (i.e. the plethora of dodges, white lies, and other compromises with the truth which, given the history, are quite sensibly part and parcel of normal communication), lack of interpersonal communication, profound ignorance, public irresponsibility and profound distrust of strangers.  At the national scale, this generates the infamous Chinese xenophobia that we all know about.  These imbeciles would have you believe that this xenophobia is the fault of foreigners. Well first, it's not anybody's fault and second there are many examples (like Japan) where the xenophobia of threatened or invaded countries took a less vigilant and more benign and accomodating form.
But these folks, like most scholars are closet racists. So, the best they can do is mask their phobia and hatred of the damn, yellow-bellied, murderous, insidious Japs. God deliver us from these half-witted pedagogues.
The gang of experts authoring these essays would have you believe that everyone is fundamentally the same, and that we're all joined at the hip and have the same outlook on life and the same daily considerations.  They march in lock-step.  I get the distinct feeling that if you pointed out to one of these literate jakes that dogs don't purr, you'd be denounced as a reprobate who's deliberately infested himself with a prejudice toward canines and who should be publicly denounced and perhaps railroaded into the jail overnight for disturbing the peace.  The combination of insincerity, half-understood premises, self-doubt, plus the artificial PC limitations that this crew of swamis place upon themselves and, by corollary, upon each other as fellow members and keepers of the herd, in conjunction with their inability to think on-the-fly, ensures that these essays contain almost nothing enlightening, stimulating, or otherwise rendering them worth reading.
Again, there's the high-school student-like compulsion of academics to drop an abundance of names, on the pretense that the author has actually given serious consideration to a range of opposing views, and yet there is no followup and an arrant failure to draw any sort of thought-provoking conclusions.  The net gain is zilch.  It's just another exercise in public relations.  Publish or perish. 
There's also the irritating habit, also no doubt performed with the sole motive of filling up space, of introducing photographs when no introduction is required.  You're looking at a photo of a train and the solemn scholarly byline follows that you're looking at a train.  It's not that I feel insulted, it's just that I detest having my time wasted. 
And it is this pervasive notion that one is scraping the bottom of the I.Q. barrel, awash in cold fish devoid of sparkle or other signs of life, and that one is doomed never to meet up with a novel twist or a provocative notion plus the growing conviction that these studious clowns suffer from an abject inability to add anything new to the discussion that is the real problem here.  This incapacity for thinking leads directly to the intellectual timorousness that glazes the eyes and the resulting constellation of transparently insincere gestures that fills up page after droning page with empty words, fly-blown platitudes, extraneous explanations of photographs, sophomoric Chomsky-like commentary on the morality of this or that, all performed in the knowledge that the author is safe because his peers are just as incompetent, clueless, and timid as himself. 
Lacking the capacity for manufacturing ideas or running with them, none of these blank cartridges are competent discharging or, more importantly, defending a new idea.  Even if they were to come across something fabulous, courtesy of plugging their fingers into a light socket or rifling through the work of one of their brighter graduate students (though, given the chronically low performance of related graduate research, there must be something fundamentally wrong with the culture of these graduate programs as it appears to reduce bright keeners into flocks of colorless parrots) they would remain far too intimidated to speak up about said new idea at a conference or risk putting it in a paper and further risk the wrath (i.e. professional jealousy) of their shoddy, flabby, idiotic peerage. 
Enough complaining.  But what awful, tedious, cabbage-fart rubbish!

By Biff Cappuccino (this is drivel  I churned out to practice typing Chinese. It's only the second time I've written anything in Mandarin, so...)
左派分子的想法很多是不認真思考的結果.不一定是故意的但是一般來說是投機,是借用別人的, 是偷懶免費抄襲的. 他們的自我肯定來自於一種自我方便的自欺欺人.
左派分子一般來說,除了比較光明正大投機份子 (象Michael Moore) 或有魄力好口才的騙子 (象Karl Marx) 以外是一些普通年輕人; 就是說,是一些無能為力的有理想有夢想滿頭霧水的蠢材. 他們有種也有膽,但是還沒有社會地位,也沒有高等學問,也沒有像話的成就. 很可憐. 怎麼辦?
想出人頭地,跟別人競爭而表現自我於達到的自我優越當然是健康的一個出發點因為是憑公開競爭能力於道理於口才等等. 問題來的時候就是在於被誘惑而適用一些不正當的方法, 旁門左道, 方便達到目標. 畢竟沒有什麼出類拔萃的才華, 但是有兩個虎視眈眈的眼睛往前看. 那就要靠別的.
就是說,為了達到目標而適用不擇手段而忘記了為什麼方法跟目標是一樣的重要. 比方說,一般有點年紀的人是擁有比較廣又有踏實地的知識與看法 (就是說, 是右派的趨向). 一個年輕人怎麼超越他呢? 很簡單! 如果你發現別人的心情不合現代的價值觀,你可以耍手段而超越頭腦簡單老老實實的學者而說你自己的價值觀反而是比較正確,比較合乎國際觀,地球村, 等等. 你只要讓人知道你是同情弱視團體之類.
比方說,爸爸說別關心什麼政府定的最低薪水. 讓市場決定. 這是最好的機會教育這個可愛年紀大的阿土.
你就理直氣壯的怪他不在乎可憐的低產階級老百姓. 你鼓吹政府要通過法律設定最低薪水而抗議在總統府的前面而搞個假的絕食馬戲團. 媒體不怕餓飯嗎? 台彎治安那麻好,它沒得報. 它也不的不來. 你放心一定會來. 你搞個示威遊行而變成黑手與便利商店晚班被剝削朋友 (全球化受害者) 的英雄. 你開始出名了,出人頭地. 政府通過你的法律,你贏了. 現在就可以擴充你的慈善工作的範圍到一些其他需要同情又愛的可憐同胞.
但是法律定的新薪水會讓低社會競爭能力的人找不道工作因為他舊有的工作會被老板奪走而給比較有可看性的新員工.本來低薪水是給工作能力低的人. 薪水要給多一點,老板當然要換好一點的員工.
在美國定新薪水的受害著都是年輕黑人最多而失業率漲高兩到三倍.但是這個事實,你們左派的英雄們可以不用管!畢竟終點是你們有一個正義感,一個使命感! 弱勢團體已經給了好得機會. 還不行嗎? 那你們已經負責到底. 沒有辦法了! 哎! 反正什麼都是貪心的右派工廠老板的走狗. 左派萬歲!萬歲!

Monday, July 19, 2004

Review of Falsified Modern History by Professor Huang Wen-hsiung.  This proved to be a very rich and satisfying book, one which can be read and referred to again and again and which deserves a proper place, front and center, on the vanity bookshelf.  It's chock-full of claims and hypotheses which rub up hard against the grain of the facts and views that one takes for granted if relying on the mainstream media. 
As an aside: it's inevitable that the press is inaccurate because reporters as a rule are overworked, underpaid, and overstuffed with minutiae from morning to night, but have barely two clues as to what it all means at the end of the business day.  Watching C-span confirms this hypothesis in spades.  On the other hand, unlike the ponderous TV anchors employed to parrot second-hand news reports, the actual recorders of news themselves tend to be young and impressionable, which isn't to imply that they're not cynical. Far from it. They're often fast-forwarding through a spate of journalism whose primary significance lies in resume enhancement. The main show is a career in advertising or public relations or some other such field which requires prior experience in pulling the nose of the customers at large. 
As I've mentioned elsewhere, reporters impress me as operating under a number of useful axioms, with a cardinal tenet being that if the reporter himself doesn't understand the subject matter of their own report, it's a sure thing that neither will the readers: ergo, a minor and hopefully deft spinning of the news can be conducted safely with the result that much of the news is indeed spun with the goal of enhancing the color and volume to have it appear more dangerous and sensational than it ever really is. 
If said journalista has not yet written a book, and thus not yet acquired a profound level of sophistication with interpreting the bold spin of colleagues, with reading between the lines of fellow plagiarists, with putting various cherished principles (often developed during pub crawls) to the actual test, or with connecting the dots between ludicrous claims that have exhausted their grand original purpose of enhancing newspaper circulation and personal prestige, then the fellow, when in the role of opinion-maker, is probably not worth listening to.
As opposed to the earlier works of Professor Huang, with their tendency to dawdle and hum and haw, this is a tight high-density piece of work reflecting the impatience of a man with much on his mind and too short a schedule to get it all off his chest.  There's no wasted space; no oatmeal filler; no indigestible skin between one's teeth and the sausage meat.  And rather than wear the reader down with cold fly-blown footnotes and figures, the professor confidently presumes a certain degree of background and sense in his readers and gets straight to his damning hypotheses; of which I am happy to say there are many.  This is a book of ideas, for people with a head for ideas.  As such, it's much to my liking. 
Page 18, he points out that without Japanese strength, Taiwan and Korea would've been colonized by the US or Europe.  American foreign policymakers were eyeing Taiwan during the 1850s and it was the US Civil War which preempted US hegemony.
On the same page the professor dabbles in xenophobia and racialism.  For example, he says that today remains the white man's era and the colonial era.  On the other hand, he says that foolish xenophobic pride kept China behind and blithely ignorant of developments in the rest of the world and that this remains the case today.
On page 20, he says that during the late Ching Dynasty the regime considered sending punitive expeditions to stop Japan from selling out traditional ways in favor of Western ways. The Ching régime expected ordinary Japanese to meet a Chinese invading expedition with flowers in hand.
Also much appreciated is the professor’s use of sarcasm; a naughty no-no in most of academia whose inhabitants only make time for serious topics discussed in serious tones of voice.  Earlier generations of these solemn folks were incapable of giving a serious hearing to the theses of Wilde, Twain or Mencken due to their regrettable belaboring of the pure expression of ideas with wit and humor.  Pedagogues, a surprisingly ignorant and fearful lot that are remarkably given to the security of herd behavior, have a dreadful peer-approved habit of laying out ideas with all the humor of an accountant, as if laying out raw data for a number-crunching machine.  There is a consistent failure to sweeten the pill for readers through levity or any other colorful device that might get the sedentary reader’s blood flowing.  In part, the problem is that most professors, when it gets time to appear in print, become dunderheaded and decline into timid recitalists of the banal.  Even basic statements about human nature, the kind obvious even to teenagers, become heavily footnoted.  The pang of paranoia, the stamp of bovine anxiety, escapes off the page. This chronic worrying over peer-approved disapproval showing up at any corner, a nagging fear of a scholarly Big Brother, mutes voices particularly in an era when the seer Marx and his balderdash are Big Brother and his ideology.
Professions of fealty to the Marxian worldview places intolerable stresses upon honor and integrity, for Marx – a spin-meister, chronic debtor, father of his life-long unpaid maid’s love-child, and failed prophet - was clearly no Oracle.  He was, however, at least a very clever stylist, distracting readers from his exclamations of the unbelievable with loud dramatic images that lifted the imagination and wrapping the rest in a soothing burbling extra-literate diction that impressed the pseudo-literate with a scholarly imprimatur.  Marx was what his acolytes have seldom ever since been: a leader not a follower, an MC not an audience.
Thus he had the chutzpah required to write effectively; even if he chose to write nothing worth reading. Today’s pale imitation roots nervously around the groves of sapience.  The proof lies in the incompetence of not just the herd’s thinking, which consists of a more or less organized chasing of tails, but in the herd’s writing, which is better described as typing. There is no wit and no humor. But of course not.  For humor requires cheery confidence, a will to power, and the dangerous expression of sadistic tendencies on paper.  That is to say, once in print there's no room for denial.
Page 21: the result of employing Western technology but retaining traditional Chinese management practices led directly to loss of the Chinese Navy in just one hour during the Sino-French war.  Japan was only taken seriously when it achieved military victories in the international arena.  In other words, the Chinese régime only listened to force, not to reason.  It was too insular and xenophobic, too apparently successful over the millennia, to take the ideas of other, lesser mortals, seriously.  Imperial China and Korea considered white folk to be animals.
Japan's success was due to wholeheartedly embracing European thinking.  A popular notion in China at the time, and which remains to a certain degree, is that Japan should be grateful to China because it served as a fire wall during the era of European imperialism.  China was carved up by the European powers, thus diverting Europe's attention from Japan.  Great anger among numerous patriotic organizations arose due to Japan's lack of gratitude for China’s sacrifice and in particular for turning around and even invading China.
Similarly, many Koreans versed in history feel that their nation gave Japan its culture and feel betrayed and indignant about being invaded by Japan.
Both of these situations demonstrate anthropomorphizing on the part of Chinese and Korean activists, writers, and, I hesitate to use the word, thinkers. Clearly a nation is not a person, but an amalgam of myriad persons pushing in different directions and operating with self-interest and according to semi-conscious motives that express themselves en masse as social movements and national developments.  National debts are not incurred with the informal exchange of ideas nor due to accidents of diplomatic history that line up in a manner convenient for imaginative sophists and opportunistic hot-heads.  No doubt the more sensible and enlightened of the Chinese and Korean citizenry saw through this mad foolishness that yet captured the attention of the more excitable half-wits.  No doubt the rest of the population paid no more attention to this than they paid to the annual passing of Chanukah.
The professor says that it was Japan's thorough overhaul of its feudal economic structure which enabled it to structure a modern economy and build the military strength necessary to avoid being colonized.  China, on the other hand, in the main kept looking to the past for sure-cures from the mouths of various domestic editions of Nostradamus.
Professor Huang also points out that, contemporary reputation to the contrary, Japan has generally been peaceful.  Prior to 1895, Japan enjoyed 300 years of peace.  Since 1945, there have been 50 years of peace.  On the other hand, China, unlike its contemporary image as an inert faded empire populated by colorful victims, has in fact endured almost constant civil war and insurrections for several thousand years.
He claims the Japanese invasions of Korea and China were designed to preempt China's attack of Japan.  At the time, many writers in China were exhorting the Ching regime to attack Japan in order to avenge Japan's sell out to Western values.  The author claims that Korea was invaded to save it from Chinese hegemony and to modernize it and prevent it from being colonized by Western powers.
The primary reasons that China lost the war with Japan according to the author are budget malfeasance, cutting costs by firing expensive foreign military consultants and foreign sailors at the last minute, and by cutting even more costs by canceling military exercises, reducing ammunition purchases, and so forth.  This resulted in folly such as the Chinese Navy running out of ammunition within the first hour of fighting the French Navy.
Page 43: the author claims Ching Dynasty soldiers engaging in looting sprees at the public's expense, were deemed to be full of bravado and high spirits by various government officials.  On the surface, this seems a difficult claim to swallow, except that last year more than a couple of Japanese politicians came out and praised the gang rape by Japanese university boys of Japanese university gals saying that this was positive evidence of the boys' masculinity and animal spirits.  Perhaps this machismo is a hangover from the feudal era.
On page 44, the author points out the during the Sino-Japan war, the Ching southern fleet refused to fight and instead declared neutrality, hoping that the northern fleet of Li Hong-Chang would be defeated.  Japan fought a modern Republican war, whereas Ching officials did not trust the public and instead issued financial rewards (so many dollars for killing officers, less for killing soldiers, more for killing white soldiers and less for killing black soldiers) and so forth to try keep soldiers motivated and fighting.
After Japan's military defeated Russia’s military, a flood of Chinese students went to Japan where they founded a number of patriotic societies devoted to overthrowing the Ching Dynasty.  Japan's defeat of Russia was considered the first success of a nonwhite nation over a white nation.
On page 52, the author points out that without a Japanese victory over Russia, Manchuria, Korea and Hokkaido would currently belong to Russia.
On page 54, the author tries to defend against the claim that Japan was by nature destined to invade other nations.  This seems to be an up-hill battle not worth fighting.  It’s human nature for the strong to mess with the weak.  Which is as it should be, after all.  Why should Japan be different?
On page 56 and 57, the author expends a great deal of energy defending Japan.  At this point I started to wonder if he feels indebted to Japan given that he’s an emigré from Taiwan and has been very unhappy with the KMT.  Perhaps he's the type who takes up a new citizenship and tries to outdo the locals in being a model citizen and patriot.  I have no evidence for this; it's just a thought.  Something worth keeping in the back of my mind.
On page 58, the author points out that vigorous nations tend to believe their morals are superior to those of other nations around them.
The author also points out that in Chinese history, the dynasties were never able to keep the peace or deal properly with the management of the country for long.  Only invaders were able to keep the peace and only prior to their becoming acculturated and Chinese in their outlook.  Thus, the Manchu invaders were welcomed to Beijing by the residents who sent out envoys to meet them outside the Chinese wall.  By corollary, when the Manchus became Sinofied, all hell broke loose and a number of racking rebellions rocked the national scene such as the white turban rebellion and the Taiping rebellion.
According to Mao Tse-tung and Chang Kai-shek, everything from Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia to Nepal, Sikkim and Burma belongs to China.  Some writers include North America as part of the sacred territory of China.  For example, in Shangainese the pronunciation of Alaska means my home.  Ergo, it belongs to China. No joke.  In 1954, Khrushchev said to Mao that using this type of logic, China in fact belongs to Mongolia because Genghis Khan conquered China.
Page 68: Chinese cannibalism is limited to the Chinese, with the barbarians on the fringe not recorded as people-eaters.  As Chinese culture proceeds south, major incidents of cannibalism appear in the Chinese records.  The author explains this as the result of the tradition of having massive families which, high mortality rates notwithstanding, regularly generated excessive population densities that approached the levels of the modern developed countries (there was often a doubling of China's population with each generation). In the end, there was extensive overdevelopment of the land, desertification, and soon a massive disaster in the pipeline. Time and time again.
On page 67, the author mentions the famous historical figure Huang Chao who established a human meat processing factory to feed his 500,000 troops.  The meat came from slaughtering several thousand civilians a day and was primarily used in making noodles.
With drought or prolonged battles and campaigns, food runs out and after everything else resource-wise is exhausted, people become targeted as a food source, especially by the military.  There are many records of this, both in Chinese, Arabic, and in the writings of Marco Polo.  The logistics divisions of various armies openly hunted people on occasion and typically prepared human meat for storage by drying it, salting it, etc.
Due to the mystical benefits of eating human flesh, mainlanders hunted aborigines in Taiwan during the Ching Dynasty, with Xiamen becoming a main port doing the sort of business.  Because China was a society in which the poor supported a heavy load of several social echelons, there was a constant stream of rebellions for 2000 years.  Many Chinese left and became diaspora.  Prior to the Spring Autumn period, almost no record of cannibalism in China exists.   After, there are plenty of records beginning with the Chin Dynasty.  Human meat becomes a commodity available in large cities (ex: during the late Ming Dynasty, male meat cost seven cash, women eight cash; during the Taiping rebellion inflation set in and the price rose from 90 wen to 130 wen).
On page 70 to the professor points out that human organs were also popular with apothecaries.
On page 80, he points out that Sun Yat-sen helped overthrow the Ching Empire and imperialism, so why cannot Taiwan also be free and independent of the present Empire and its imperialism?
On page 93, the professor claims that there was no Sino-Japan war because China was not a country at the time.  It was disunited and managed by independent warlords.  It was for this reason that Japan never formally declared war in fact.  When Japan invaded China, it put an end to warlords endlessly fighting and helped ensure a united China in the end.  Mao Tse-tung publicly stated that if it were not for the invasion of Japan, he would not have been unable to unite China and win the war against Chang Kai-shek.
Page 94: prior to the Sino Japan war, China had engaged in 150 years of civil war.  Mao said Sun Yat-sen's claim that the Chinese are historically a peace loving people was a lie.  Mao said instead that they were historically a warring people.  Sun was a bumbler and failure; Mao a survivor and victor.  Who would you trust as a better judge of the nation and its history?
Page 96: the author states that warlord fighting was often a proxy for the foreign Imperial powers.  He says the same was the case for the Sino Japan war in which the chief parties managing the engagement where Russia, Japan, and United States.
Page 98: Japan is considered an invader because it failed to establish a long-term government.  The Huns, Mongols, and Manchus are not considered invaders because they established the successful dynasties.
Page 103: the author states that the Japanese were welcomed by the local population into many cities and says that in fact, historically speaking, this was the case regardless of who the invader was.  Whether the KMT, warlords, international imperialists, Communists, or someone else, they were universally greeted.  With new régimes there was always a hope by the civilian population of better treatment.  In the case of Japan, it enjoyed a reputation for law and order.
Page 107: Manchuria's independence was akin to the establishment of Israel by England.  The Manchurians were not Chinese and wanted independence.  Sunday Yat-sen agreed to separation, believing that the Manchus were not Chinese.  The Chinese Communist Party said Israel is just like Japanese Manchuria, a puppet state.  Imagine what repatriated Jews would think of that statement after being banished from Israel for 2000 years.  Now, of course, the Chinese Communist Party is buddies with Israel and buys military hardware from it regularly.
Manchuria was recognized by half the world's nations and under Japan it became prosperous.  Under Chinese rule, Tibet was mostly destroyed.  Manchuria originally had an economy based upon lumber that under Japan to developed its own industries such as automobile plants and fighter plane plants. Sounds like more imperialism benefiting the locals which is, of course, how imperialism typically works.
That’s it for now. I’m about to fall fully asleep.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Partial Review of The Real Face of the Chinese

This is a quick review of the first two sections of The Real Face of the Chinese People, written by Taiwanese author Lien Gen-Teng in Japanese and translated into Mandarin.  These two sections constitute the first 80 pages or so of the book. I decided to stop here because the volume of notes I've accumulated is already lengthy.
The author claims Chinese are traditionally fanatical about winning and adopt an attitude of no compromise, take no prisoners, all or nothing.  This is alleged to derive from ideals and metaphors such as "the sky has only one sun."   But I think he's trotted the cart out in front of the horse: this particular metaphor is a flower from a branch of the national tendency for fanaticism and hysteria which in turn has its roots in a deep-seated paranoia.  The latter is a homegrown product primarily of the cherished family upbringing which by North American standards is perverse and cruel.  But all things happen for a reason and the main reason I’d posit would be several thousand years of chronic and cruel busy-body incursions into the family and one’s person by the users, and more typically abusers, of the traditional power and influence scheme that went by the name of empire.  The latter was more often than not run like an Alabama chain-gang with family members, close relatives and distant cousins all held communally responsible for the crimes real or alleged of individuals. 
Without well-lined pockets, one lacked reliable law courts.  In lieu of that, for protection one had to rely upon one's own wits, connections, and make a mad dash when opportunity beckoned to infiltrate ever higher up the food chain.  After all, if the only lasting security is to be found by being a cock at the crest of the dung heap, then in many respects, life is about winning at all costs; there are no safe havens nor mutually acceptable compromises.  It's a dog-eat-dog world without checks and balances and where the winner takes all.  When placed in an environment of chronic and implacable insecurity, people are separated into those who are with you and those who are against you; innocent bystanders flattened by one's juggernaut of guanxi are considered by friends and family to be acceptable collateral damage.
On page 22, the author attributes the Chinese love of face to the same dismal environment.  Plus the refusal to admit fault. 
On page 23 the author points out that pacifying aborigines was often facilitated by assigning grand Chinese surnames, required by these new citizens when dealing with the grand bureaucracy and its passion for documentation.  After the passage of several generations, the family would become Sinofied and, now like any other mainstream member of the empire’s population, the great-grandchildren of the original generation of pacified aborigines would most likely be completely unaware of their genuine antecedents (because Chinese parents don’t talk much to their kids). Looking at their surnames, they would now believe that they were derived from Han Chinese (and illustrious ones at that, as the surnames of prominent historical figures were typically issued to pacified peoples).  An example of the ironic outcomes this generated is the contemporary Cantonese opposition to Taiwanese independence.  Many Hong Kong activists get hot and bothered at mention of the betrayal by Taiwanese independence activists of native Chinese roots and ancestry.  However, the ancestors of neither the Cantonese nor the Taiwanese were Chinese.  They were aborigines conquered and tamed by Han Chinese.
The above notwithstanding, the author does not often get into the root mechanisms that generate behavior.  He describes things rather than explaining them.  In other words, he's not a generator of ideas but a collector. He's not a thinker, but an observer.  Nevertheless, he does point out a number of very interesting issues.  For example, he talks about the Chinese fetish for the sacred national realm, which has inspired a popular notion of a sort of ethnic eminent domain. 
He also discusses the Chinese application of the term barbarian and how it gets appended to what are in fact fellow civilized nations; this is an old trick of ancient times and also found in the Old Testament where illiterate shills for Jehovah are to be found hooting at the citified and literate Philistines whom they considered unsophisticated.
My own explanation for this phenomenon, i.e. the confident primitive who believes mumbled words can in and of themselves alter not just the face but also the substance of reality, is the retention of the child's tendency to anthropomorphize.  Baby Jake stumbles over a tree root and bawls, drumming his fists on the ground in teary rage at the temerity of the offending root.   This is also the basis of animism: the installing of human intelligence and will-power into sacred trees, sacred mountains, fearful weather, and one’s reflection in water.  Once buying into this cosmology, people tend to develop lucky words and portentous phrases such as abracadabra or open sesame in an attempt to put magic to work out in the real world; i.e. to circumvent the restrictions of an otherwise logic-based universe; to slash a bold shortcut through the fatiguing industry required by less savvy mortals pursuing similar ends.  It's a sort of ultimate laziness for primeval couch-potatoes. 
Again, it's a world phenomenon.  Once upon a time, the medieval King Canute of England commanded the tide not to come in and got soaked for his trouble.  But it's still with us; witness a New York Times best-seller, in fact the number one selling, allegedly nonfiction book of 2003: The Prayer of Jabez, which consists of enlightening the faithful in the arts and mysteries peculiar to massaging one line of The Old Testament in just the right way.  Through so doing, one earns a God-given right to pass by secular suckers and other ignoramuses and short-circuit the information highway to financial security and independence.  In other words, a get-rich-quick scheme.  Well, isn’t that probably the most ancient scam of all?
Perhaps it also arises from a universal confusion that many of us feel at a young age.  At around two or three children often believe they can eliminate the physical universe by closing their eyes.  If said child can't see anything, it ceases to exist.  As late as seven and eight, I still cherished a conceited suspicion that people were puppets placed in my universe to feed, coach and entertain me.
Either way, this juvenile outlook, when extending into adulthood, results in many a Chinese historian describing a competing city state as a hive of bandits.  A competing culture becomes simply: the barbarians.  The more things change, the more they stay the same? Yup.  This Chinese edition of snide wordsmithery, a farcical seduction by one's own fibs and spin, when taken seriously, was a sort of tragic-comic precursor to the modern left-wing lunatic conspiracy fringe, forever angry, depressed, and feeling unappreciated, but still bellowing fine, high sounding words which, when moaned en masse with heartfelt piety, are believed to somehow generate an impetus and kick-start social movements and great awakenings of the spirit.  Great things are a-coming. If you dress up and protest free trade imperialism, type blogs belaboring capitalist cliques and capitalist roaders, and moan about right-wing media spin long enough, things will surely change.  Especially if one refers to fellow self-interested parties as brother, sister, or comrade.  A secular prayer is often added to help bring down to earth whatever phantasm is currently atop the politically correct pedestal.  
Hyperbole? If you look at what past and present Chinese patriots have said, it's pretty much the same deal.  For two thousand years, Chinese regimes have been regularly defeated by incursions from other imperialist states (i.e. bandits) and cultural hegemons (i.e. barbarians).  When sticks and stones didn't work, the regimes tried harsh words and sneering.  They still do.  Just today, Jiang Tze-min has threatened to take Taiwan back by violence by 2020.  Take it back with what? With the power of positive thinking. What other options does he have?
A letter writer to the Asia Times recently mentioned the willingness of the Chinese to sacrifice hundreds of millions of fellow citizens for the righteous cause of returning Taiwan to the sacred realm.  Again, this is not just a case of barking dogs don't bite, but also a case of a person believing words (i.e. thoughts) have a palpable force about them that matches that of an extended arm or a clenched fist.  (Wishful thinking still infests the People's Daily too, causing it to flounder like a bull in quicksand whenever a politically sensitive topic comes up.) It also reflects an outlook which is markedly pre-democratic, pre-me-generation, pre-capitalist, pro-clan, pro-violence, pro-fairytale, pro-magic, and pro-extended family.  It also reflects the pseudo-literacy and propaganda machine which acts as a brake on China right down to the present-day and which results in an ignorant, chauvinistic, incurious and intellectually under-stimulated popular perspective that is lacking in compassion or sympathy for the plight of others (i.e. bandits and barbarians).  This in turn also encourages ancestor worship, the notion of sacred territory, and gratuitous association with murderous emperors because, according to the bogus family history, they’re family. And family is the only thing one can count on when justice in the courts requires a bidding war and there’s always a bigger bull in the china shop somewhere.
The author also makes the claim, not unpersuasive, that fleeing Chinese diasporas and overseas Chinese are often interpreted by the home team as weapons, cultural guerrillas, for increasing the national territory.  Ethnic Chinese dominate economies all across Southeast Asia for example.  He points out that in 1997, one million of Hong Kong's 5 million population planned to emigrate to the United States and Australia. 
On page 55 he notes that Chinese parents inculcate Junior with the axiom that strangers are dangerous and unreliable.  He points out that this is also flipped to serve as an excuse to overcharge and under-serve customers, tourists, outsiders, barbarians, bandits, imperialists, enemies, citizens, friends and acquaintances, etc.  In turn, this lack of trust in others leads to a pronounced lack of public morals and decorum when interacting with unknown human entities.
This lack of trust also makes for a persecution complex and unwillingness to entrust strangers in such situations as business relationships.  Ergo the preeminence of the family biz and the unwillingness to distribute authority, which in turn makes for management inertia, micromanagement, and showy frivolous displays of imprimatur.  It also leads to the deliberate promotion of incompetent ass-kissing underlings because they are less threatening.  Competence is feared and fawning is encouraged.  Office politics and politicking blossoms to amazing heights.  Appearances and face are all important.
There is chronic disinformation and spin at a personal level and an unwillingness to share information and thus the common phenomenon of the surprisingly uninformed flatlander Chinese vs. the (relatively-speaking) informed upland aborigine.
This also leads to a lack of cooperation between government bodies plus unwillingness to act without orders.  A lack of orders makes employee initiative in most situations far too dangerous. In part because, even if you do the right thing one’s superior is likely to feel he’s been showed up, and nobody in the office will publicly go to bat for you.
The author also hypothesizes that Chinese conservatism is based on fear of persecution when attempting new things.  Anything threatening to disturb the status quo upsets the other nervous Nellies, and particularly incompetent superiors (even, and in many cases, especially parents) who will strive to quash or make off with your ideas.
He also discusses how China's 2000 years of violent overthrow evolved due to threatened emperors being consistently afraid of making concessions when their regimes began to dysfunction (more than usual that is) and began to face great pressure.  Emperors feared concessions would be interpreted by usurpers hiding in the wings as weakness.  Thus the only way to change a régime was to overthrow it.  No compromises. No negotiating. 
This, to me, also helps explain the incredible folly of Saddam Hussein and his unwillingness to make concessions to the US government and instead take his crazy chances with a ground war.  Not only was he deluded and perhaps genuinely believed he could defeat US forces, but also he may have been very afraid of showing weakness of any kind because internal forces would have risen and toppled him. By internal forces, I'm referring to members of his own military, perhaps members of his personal staff even.  As pointed out by the late Colonel Fletcher Prouty, when the United States wished to topple a banana republic that it had in its pocket, it didn’t send in the assassins.  It made a public statement to the effect that it was withdrawing support from the régime.  Inevitably, regime loyalists scattered like rats from a burning home while the more proactive career-oriented idealists arranged a murderous coup d'etat and dispatched him to the trash bin of history.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Review of The River at the Center of the World by Simon Winchester

This book has a fair amount of worthwhile information stored in the later chapters, and this makes it worth reading. However the first two chapters are excruciating due to the author's pomposity, self-absorption, and more than willingness to wallow in a stodgy poetry that's often wide of the mark and rather than clarify or vivify, tends to interrupt, arrest, and irritate.

When looking at the book in a bookstore, I did the usual flip to the middle of the book and looked for a certain density of fresh information and perspectives. This time around, though, I started from the beginning: "This book is dedicated to Lucy and David Tang - a small token of a great delight." ...a great delight. What on Earth does that mean?

On page xi, the first paragraph ends with, "To all three, connected to each other only by the faint incandescent trails of digital electronics, I owe a very great deal." Digital electronics don't leave faint incandescent trails. They leave the electronic version of a paper trail, maybe, but no incandescence that I'm aware of.

I point this out not be tedious and nitpicky, but because the first two chapters are consumed with this kind of nonsense.

Page Two: The Nile performs a flirtatious little wiggle through the north of Sudan.... The sheer sharpness of the turn is what is so peculiarly dramatic about it - the sudden whirl on a sixpence, turn on a dime, now you see it now you don't kind of a back flip, a riparian volte-face of epic dimensions.

On page seven the author introduces readers to the adventure that constitutes his typical early-morning: "'Welcome!' spoke the computer, with a tinny amiability that took the chill off the early-morning. 'You have mail!'
Duly, and robot-like, I then performed the slight mouse movements of finger and thumb that are all that is necessary these days to retrieve inbound electronic letters, and found in an instant the morning's mass of post."

By page 22, we reach apogee with the author's indulging in a day-dream about the high drama of an artist writing a colophon for an alleged masterpiece: "What to write? he would wonder. And then, once content was composed, how best to write? Should it be with long sweeping characters, or in figures that were small, tidy, and precise? And let alone what he should do - could he do it, could he write an epigraph that was as elegant in style and expression as that of his great-great-grandfather, or of the succession of mandarins who had gone before? Would whatever he managed to write have the poetry, the rhythm, and the spare economy that was appropriate to a picture of such antiquity and to a Yangtze River that demands and deserves such greatness?

"I fancy - though I never inquired - that his courage in such situations would invariably fail him. His brush would hover above the empty paper, paper that almost cried out to be marked indelibly by the owner's ink.

"... It was, it seemed to me, an exquisite kind of dilemma, a kind of mind torture that only China, with her perverse ways, could invent."

But surely this is the same sort of dilemma and mind torture faced each day by ad executives on Madison Avenue. So what's the big deal? Why the double standard? Is it the all too common phenomenon of the Sinophile or Sinologist well versed in Sinology but having a high school graduate's familiarity with his country of origin? Not in this instance maybe. Perhaps it has something to do with the author's occasional reverse-racism, his apparently morbid desire to prove that everyone is equal (because, unfortunately, he doesn't quite believe this and is still feverishly trying to convince himself).  Either way, he has a marked distaste for the Western imperial powers and a peculiar reverence for Chinese imperial power - the latter being the right power, the righteous imperial power, the indigenous and thus venerable imperialist.

His fondness and apparent preference for Chinese scholars is in part reflected by the following from page 19: "Mr. Weng had told me he had studied hydrology, and I imagined he might hold a view on the dam, as most people did: but no, he had all the tact and circumspection of the careful scholar and ventured no opinion. ' I have studied it in detail,' was all he said as we passed the site by. 'It is a most complicated issue.'

A scholar who has no opinion on something he's studied, who ventures no view on something even if not fully abreast of the facts in the case, isn't much of scholar, far less a character deserving mention in a book of travel literature. Surely said sage could have ventured a tentative judgement. And surely his tact and circumspection were not the product of being a careful scholar but instead of being a careful citizen under the watch of the omnipresent spies of the all-seeing Big Brother. Perhaps what made him most attractive to Simon was his physical likeness to a smerf and his refreshing lack of opinion. Opinions often, after all, turn  out to be contrary opinions which, in turn, tend to be doubt-provoking and world-view disturbing; just plain old bothersome to fusspots like Simon.  Lacking a distinguishing talent for ideas and observations, he's instead left with the poor man's alternative of cramming empty literary space with bonhomie about the tinny amiability of speaking computers.

There is, in the end, no small degree of wish fulfillment in this book and a constantly expressed distaste for the home country, its foreign policy and imperial history.

But before I got that far, I got to page 24 and read, "upstream was ancient; downstream was more modern. Downstream is today; upstream was yesterday," Feeling insulted beyond limit, the following unfortunate sentences appear in my notes, "That's it! Fuck this book."

But I forged on, hope ever-victorious over experience, skipping the rest of the chapter, praying for something better.

By God's providence, I was rewarded. On page 41 traditional xenophobia creeps into the picture and the author accosted on a boat with: 'You're a spy? We think all lao wai are wanting to know too many things about China. Why you are so curious? We are not curious about you.'

There are about 500 million souls in the Yangtze River Valley, most of whom are yokels, whether urban and rural, with about the same level of inquisitiveness and cosmopolitanism.

On page 44, its pointed out that the mouth of the Yangtze River is full of unmarked boat wrecks. Perhaps this is yet another inadvertent tribute to the pronounced tenacity of the domestic culture vis-a-vis self-preservation (what the cheeky might describe as a pronounced tenacity vis-a-vis incompetence meeting the requirements of modern life: efficiency being the principal requirement). The local explanation for the wrecks would presumably have been something traditional and thus along the lines of as long as it's not my wreck, then it's ain't my business; responsibility in the public sphere not amongst the constellation of cherished Celestial values. Though Simon Winchester writes that the wrecks are indeed dangerous I have to wonder, given his prejudices, whether he isn't privately of the opinion, like so many other First World tourists, that unmarked Third World wrecks (additional example: the Solomon Islands) are cute. As opposed to how they'd be viewed in New York Harbor or at the mouth of the Thames.

Concerning the dredging that opened up a channel enabling large ships to venture up the Yangtze River and expand the trade and prosperity of the region, Simon Winchester has an interesting perspective:

"The perils of the sands lessened, then vanished altogether. Shanghai duly took her place as one of the world's great trading cities, and the Yangtze make good on her promise to become a huge highway into the very heart of China. Yet had the Manchus remained in control in Beijing, it might never have been so. As a symbol of Chinese imperial intransigence clashing head-on with Western mercantile realism - or, viewed another way, as a symbol of ancient and home-grown pride clashing with an alien culture of greed - the 60 year saga of the state of the Woosung Bar has few equals.

"Yet the foreigners were not motivated merely by avarice. To those who knew its geography and its importance, the Yangtze was the principal gateway into the mysterious heart of the middle Kingdom...

"It took almost a century to remove [the sand bar preventing shipping moving up river]. And then a little more than a decade later, the British and all other foreign navies were banished from the river, for all time. Seen in this context, as a device for keeping the foreigners at day, the Chinese intransigence on the matter has a shrewdness all of its own."

Shrewdness? It would've been shrewd to adopt the Japanese approach of beating the foreigners at their own game. And who are the Chinese that Simon is speaking of? Not the Chinese man on the street, but instead various warlords followed by the present communist lords. Improved shipping meant improved opportunities for trade, travel, etc. Chinese moguls capitalized their businesses by borrowing from Western banks throughout the European imperial adventure. (Western banks lending to Chinese? Surprised? I was. Why? Since being weened on desperately bad public education, I've since had my nose constantly pulled by the forever-unreliable free press.)

Chinese intransigence so-called wasn't shrewd; not nearly; it was just another dimwitted xenophobic panic, just another group of inscrutable stiffs frozen in the headlights; just another guild of overeducated but fundamentally childish men who were forever frightened by reality. The Manchus and their Mandarins and the Republican generation of cronies typically enjoyed elevated positions that, once received, seldom required them to do an honest day's labor. Of course foreigners were scary, but so were domestic businessmen, whom the Manchus et al did their best to fleece and/or suppress as well. Clearing the Woosung sand bar wasn't a battle between nations, or even of national cultures, but battle between capitalism and feudalism; between disturbing freedoms and venerated bondage.

An indication of how far China, as a national culture, remains contentedly in the mire is Winchester's description of page 53: "A squadron of Chinese ships - destroyers, frigates and Corvettes - was moored on the left bank. They looked, I thought, decidedly unprepared either for the protection of China's maritime frontier or for war. Laundry was tangling from the stern of each craft, straw hats were perched on some of the after guns and the sailors were marching about idly, smoking in the warming sun. Had these been British or American vessels the men would have been busily chipping paint, greasing bearings, polishing brass or holystoning the decks: here they looked as though they were on holiday, or else dying from boredom.

"But it was a timely encounter, as it happened, and I gazed with interest at the ships through my binoculars. The headlines that I had seen in Hong Kong papers just a few days before had all been about the Chinese Navy, and what a new and belligerent mood its admirals seemed to have adopted."

The book has a 1996 copyright. Has anything changed since then?

Also of interest is the Manchu government's paranoid fear of trains and telegraph systems. From page 57~60: "Woosung was the site of the country's first, and as it happens very short-lived, steam railway.... but the construction of this first modest permanent way over the twelve modest miles that separated Woosung from Shanghai proved a difficult and, eventually, unhappy experience... it showed how deeply suspicious China was then of anything - no matter how obviously beneficial - that was fashioned by barbarian hands.... Their people, [the Manchu government] said, felt that fiery iron dragons -no matter how modestly sized - disturbed the essential harmony of the Empire. The temple to the Queen of Heaven was to be built on the site of the terminus - a proper propitiation, it was felt, to a deity whose tranquility had been insulted by the foreigners. It was to be 20 more years before Woosung and Shanghai were connected by rail again.

From page 58: "Much the same atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy surrounded the construction of the first telegraph cable, which also came to China via Woosung. A Danish company built it, but was told that the infernal cable could not touch any part of the Celestial Empire, but had to be landed on a hulk, moored out in the river. The Danes ignored this and paid the cable secretly out along the Whangpoo, bringing it ashore at night, in a hut. It was some while before the court found out, by which time the telegraph's value had been indisputably proven."

In other words, it was not imperialism or imperialist nations which defeated China.  Instead, it was the unwillingness of the national government to open up the country and to admit and given currency to new ideas.  It was this which inadvertently left it increasingly vulnerable to predation (or what might more charitably be called competition); the same domestic folly and incompetence in the face of foreign predation/competition, I might add, which had enabled the Manchus 300 years prior to stroll in and almost absent-mindedly sweep away the previous dynasty like a swarm of defunct mayflies, despite being outnumbered 100 to 1.  Now, as the incumbent regime, a later generation of acculturated Manchus failed to open up in part because it was racist and unwilling to demean itself by accepting the ideas of others; that would have meant that they were off their pedestal and on all fours with the rest of the world. As a result of this foolish pride, the so-called imperialist nations grew in power because their democratically empowered populations benefited from a relatively unrestricted flow of ideas and flow of capital with the result that everything from manufacturing to weapons progressed by leaps and bounds. On the other hand, China remained much where it had been.

A more successful policy was that of the Japan's government (which, by the way, was threatened with invasion by both imperial China and Korea for betraying traditional Chinese values. China's regime, after all, was no innocent nor fully asleep at the wheel; in the late 19th century the imperial regime was a rapidly arming and belligerent ignoramus and incompetent of a rogue state. Just like today's communist regime.) A fully westernized Japan was proof against being carved up by the imperialist nations; it wasn't worth their while. It was one thing to make demands of backward hermetically-sealed Japan in the 1850s, but by the turn-of-the-century, Japan had defeated China and in 1905 would defeat Russia. China's Manchu government, or the later Republican and warlord governments would have been wiser to open up fully (and not half-heartedly, sloppily, resisting all the way with a moony eye fondly gazing upon the glorious past, as was unfortunately the case).  Had they accepted so-called Western ideas, the Japanese invasion of 1937 could not have taken place either. It was a fatal mistake to suggest that capitalism, democracy, feminism, etc. were Western ideas when, like all ideas, they had no intrinsic nationality nor gender nor religion nor skin tone nor political affiliation. No more than 2 + 2 = 4 is indicative of being a western, anarcho-syndicalist, vegetarian earth-mother.

Page 88: "The Cantonese - ' rice-eating monkeys', a Beijing friend remarked to me once - are ill regarded by just about all their brother Chinese. They have performed economically so well, it is widely thought, merely and solely because of the benign invigilation of the British, who kept them cozy and secure and colonized for a century and a half." 

An excellent example of doublethink. Usually one hears wrenching unreliable fifth-hand testimony about colonizers trashing the country; unless it's a fellow citizen or ethnic group who's envied, in which case the colonizers subverted them through cosseting and lavish spoiling. Those rotten colonizers! Western extremists!

Self-pity is still a favored, indeed highly-regarded, emotion. In this instance, as with many others actually, East meets West, for self-pity motivates so much of the same spirit of entitlement that infects so much of the modern welfare state, just as it empowered and impelled so much of Christendom. The meek shall inherit the earth. A sour joke to those of sense perhaps, but a well-worn phrase which, amongst others, adeptly discharged has kept many a sharp shyster in charge of flocks easily pacified by the burble of smooth words.

More from page 88 and some from 89 : "And, you know, what the people here are doing, they're doing on their own. They learned from you, the foreigners. The Shanghainese are not too proud to learn, that's always true. But what they are doing now, they're doing without any help....

"You know what? This tower - it says to me that we Chinese are on the inside. We are running the place. We make the decisions. You foreign people are on the outside. At long last. And that is as it should be."

This comes from Simon Winchester's female guide. Simon makes no comment about it either way, and given his tendency to comment when dissatisfied with something, I presume he's more or less approving. He agrees the foreigners should be kicked out on their butts. But one problem with this is that it's racist or culturally chauvinistic. My problem with racism and cultural chauvinism is not moral. It's practical. A cosmopolitan Shanghai would benefit everyone involved. Surely it's obvious that shutting out the foreigners led to the historical incidents which angered his guide. In other words, in this respect his guide essentially retains the same medieval viewpoint as the foolish government of a century ago. As does Simon.  So much for progress.

On page 113, Simon Winchester points out that when he went to visit a memorial, he could tell immediately that the boat anchor on display was a fake. On page 111 he complains about how the Chinese never seem to know where anything is.  "It is a most baffling habit of most Chinese - this mute insistence that they do not know where anything is. You ask an ancient who has lived all of his long life in Zhenjiang, where is the old British consulate? as I did - and he will shake his head, wave you away with his hand, professing no clue, having no interest. Asking for the anchor itself produced still more puzzled refusal. No, never heard of it. Purple stone hero? Not anywhere here. Doesn't ring a bell with me, old man."

Beginning with page 138, Simon start serving as a CCP propaganda shill. "Only one thing cheered her: the surrender table, which had a room to itself, and around which Chiang Kai-shek had made the Japanese sit on child sized chairs, so that their stature appeared as diminished as they deserved."

In other words, Chiang Kai-shek attempted the same sort of humiliation that backfired when applied by the victors of the First World War to the Germans at the Versailles Conference. Simon seems to have forgotten this in his indignation.

"I asked her about the grudging, halfhearted apologies that had been occasionally wrested from the Japanese, now that the war has faded somewhat by time. She thought for a moment."

Contemporary Japanese officials, privately and publicly, have apologized repeatedly for events that took place between 1937 and 1945. Of course, they themselves, being from the post-war generation, had nothing to do with these events. It's like apologizing to a stranger for the unjust and harmful actions of a relative that one has never even met. It's a theater of the absurd. Perhaps the key question at this stage is just how many apologies are required by the Chinese government? If a specific number could be generated then we could get the final act going with a road tour of  Jap representatives bowing and scraping through town and country. Naively, I would have expected that the apology scam would surely have been worked to death by the CCP propaganda crew by now. But double jeopardy, if not double-standards, doesn't seem to apply in the case of propaganda. The losing side is forever guilty, harrassed with impunity, and the newly born are guilty by association.

"'I cannot believe we will not meet them again one day. I think one day they will have to answer for what they did. They were powerful than. But we are becoming more so now. We will get our own back for all this, I think. I hope.' I have heard Chinese say many times that they believe that if they ever do go to war, serious war, it will one day be against the Japanese, against the detested ' little people'. From the strength of feeling in Nanjing, a feeling that is so strong and palpable it infects the very air, I can well believe it. One day, the city seems to be constantly murmuring, we will teach those little people a lesson."

Again, Simon appears to approve. And yet, how does one teach those 'little people' a lesson? Japan's electorate is overwhelmingly opposed to violence these days. It's a very different country now. Those 'little people' who engaged in atrocities during the second world war are no longer with us for the most part. And their descendents are a lot taller. By the time China is in a position to engage in a successful war with Japan, the dwarves among them will surely all be dead and departed. So who will be left to be taught a lesson?  Innocent Japanese. Not Chinese patriots.
Again, this is yet another insincere gesture, ill-conceived and peculiarly hypocritical in the case of Simon Winchester as his own words will demonstrate.

For when it comes to the Nanjing Massacre, Simon swallows the whole kit and caboodle and parrots it unquestioningly, faithfully, with all the accoutrements of a partisan of conscience.  Why bother doing one's homework on the incident? That might create problems, sticky wickets; it wouldn't be polite. However, when it comes to an international incident involving soldiers from his own country, England, well then that silly old Chinese claptrap edition of history must be corrected. In other words, the yellow Japs were capable of anything. Our chaps? Well, they're... well, Englishman, after all. We don't do that sort of thing, don't you know.

Go tell it to the Irish.

This is Simon's guide on page 105, in the high dudgeon of the righteous oppressed: "'I know the ship. Of course! We call it the ' Imperial Make Trouble Vessel', what is the name? Purple Stone Hero, yes, that's it! We defeated it! All Chinese know the story. You came as pirates and we made you run! You were forced to leave a part of your precious ship behind, here in Zhenjiang. You destroyed a passenger ship on your way out. Killed many people. Yes, I have forgotten. We found a piece you left behind here as proof. The anchor - you're right! It was a great humiliation for your precious British Empire.'

This is the same anchor mentioned above, which turned out, on inspection by Simon, to be a fake relic trotted out by the CCP. So what is Simon's reaction to his guide's creative rendition of history? Does he reflect that if this story is suspect, that maybe the Nanjing massacre and other atrocities stories are suspect as well? Does he have a crisis of conscience; do pregnant doubts accost him; does his spirit wither? No, of course not. Simon is not a thinker; and he doesn't like opinions, remember? He prefers scholars who keep their mouths shut. He's much too preoccupied with stuff like the tinny amiability of speaking computers.

Am I being cruel? For reasons perhaps pathological, I just don't like blustery posers. Check this out from pages 105: "I reeled slightly from this unexpected onslaught. Not that Lilly was entirely correct. Nor entirely wrong, for that matter. The facts - or at least, the facts as presented to us as schoolchildren - had cast the whole affair in the very different light."

That's rather Olympian of Simon except that he goes on for the next five full pages explaining in excruciating detail what he thinks did in fact happened. Are these the facts that were presented to him as a school child? Methinks not. So how does one go about presenting the facts, very contrary facts at that, in a manner which conveys impartiality and, more importantly to poseurs, the magnanimity of the grand old man?

In such cases, an apology that doesn't harm one's case but which brings a gullible opponent's guard down is favored by many, myself included. It's a sort of standard operating procedure and Simon knows it well.

From page 106: "In 1949 - an exceptionally dangerous year, considering the vicious Civil War going on between the Kuomintang and the Communists - [the ship] was assigned to a task on the Yangtze...

"By today's standards it was a bizarre arrangement - as outlandish and unimaginable as, say, letting Japanese warships patrol today's Mississippi to protect a Honda plant in Hannibal, or allowing Chinese gunboats to settle among the punts on the Isis to look out for the interests of Beijing students up at Oxford University. But in the late 19th century the Chinese were too debilitated and powerless to prevent such high-handedness."

Given the 'vicious civil war', rather than be too debilitated and powerless to prevent high-handedness, more to the point the Chinese were too debilitated and powerless to prevent banditry on the river. And there is no civil war on either the Mississippi or the Isis, so of course there are no gunships on it, local or foreign. That's surely a no-brainer. Which makes Simon's creepy desire to be fair fully disingenuous.  It's a throwaway. Besides, Simon, like a well-known Canadian author, is not one to let facts get in the way when he has a truth he is hot too sell.

And that truth is that when the British got engaged in a sticky military engagements, events happened for logical reasons. As opposed to what? As opposed to the world view of Simon's guide in which mystical wars take place between opposing forces of good and evil.  The divide is between a belief in magic (ex: good or evil, fate, karma) or one believes in logic (ex: logistics, strategy, economics, disease, weather).

To keep things brief, here is Simon's version of what happened to the Chinese passenger ship. Page 110: "A junk unexpectedly crossed into the path of the fleeing and unlit ship: the bridge officers waited, sickened, for the awful crunch of smashed wood and the cries of drowning fishermen. There was nothing they could have done. Many must have died. But the Amethyst could not afford to stop. It raced on, now doing an unheard of 22 knots."

I don't think he mentioned this version to the guide because it would have produced an explosion of anger and Simon doesn't mention any such incident. As opposed to several other incidents involving friction, which are. Here again, Simon commits his oft crime of addition. Were the bridge officers sickened? How does he know?

"There was nothing they could have done... [under attack] the Amethyst could not afford to stop." I have no particular reason for doubting this.  But it's worth pointing out that Simon is demonstrating an inherent logic in the chain of events. Why not with Japanese crimes? Or Chinese crimes? Or everybody's crimes for that matter?

So it's a bit frustrating to have to wait another 50 pages, page 164 that is, to find him make the obvious statement that, "Chinese Communists lie on an epic scale." No shit, Sherlock.

After which, one has to wait for page 223, where he gabbles indignantly about the national government spreading bogus flood stories to win support, domestic and international, for the Three Gorges Dam. More frank truth and cynicism earlier on would have been greatly appreciated.

Despite my complaints, this book of Simon Winchester's is still eminently readable and worth one's time as long as you begin with the third chapter. Like most literati he lacks an understanding of how capitalism works and doesn't realize that he is a prime product and beneficiary of our beloved system of greed. This leads him to make various absurd comments and has him opposing developments which will in fact assist in modernizing China. Were his way of thinking pervasive in China, the country would creep into decline and mosey on back to the mediocrity of the late Ching Dynasty. In sum, Simon's a bit frivilous, too much the socialite, and far too much the champagne liberal frolicking with the darkies while pretending not to be an equal more equal than others. But that's a common failing. I may suffer from it too, for all I know. Either way, he still has enough gumption and truth about him when it suits him or gets excited to make the book and the people around him interesting.
Biff Cappuccino