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

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

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