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

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!

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