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

Monday, November 15, 2004

My reply follows the letter below:

Daniel McCarthy [letter, Nov 11] is undoubtedly one of the 59 million silly fools who cannot tell the difference between a hypocrite and a saint. Yet he has the gall to write, "Until China has freedom of information, freedom of thought, and real education instead of more silly propaganda memorization, we cannot expect much more." As letter writer Sandy Lambrecht mentioned, Americans seem to think they are a master race, justified to look down on every other people around the world. Su Shi, Du Fu, Ferdowsi, Cervantes, Thomas More and countless other brilliant men of letters around the world lived in societies where the "freedom of information and thought" was limited or non-existent. It is a cruel joke of history that troubled times tend to produce the most gifted of men. If you doubt this, then offer an example of any writer or thinker now in Taiwan or Hong Kong who can hold a handle to those in 1920s and 1930s China, which was racked by dictatorship, invasion, civil war, and social revolution. China today has far to go in improving its education system, but there are many talented people who are not simple robots churned out by some imaginary totalitarian propaganda machine. Mr McCarthy "misunderestimates" China if he thinks their "children isn't learning". Why, the typical Chinese university graduate has better English abilities than the Harvard/Yale-educated president of the US.
G Travan
California, USA

With all due respect to G Travan's taste in literati, we'll have to disagree over Cervantes. He's hardly a first-rate writer. The allusions Cervantes draws are crude and simplistic, most likely because he wrote at a time when free speech was insufficiently protected. The resulting ignorance of his reading public is reflected in the dumbing down he constantly engages in and which mars his work beyond repair. He often writes as if for children.

As to the writers of 1920s and 1930s China, Lu Hsun is highly overrated and practically unreadable to anyone except hard-core Sinophiles: a crew of aficionados infamous for their ignorance of their own national literatures. Lin Yu-Tang was a brilliant writer from that era though. But to suggest that he has no peer in the contemporary era seems an awful stretch. Li Ao, who did two stints in jail as a political prisoner in Taiwan, was an extremely prolific essayist who covered a vast range of social and political issues with wit and vast volumes of footnoted evidence. He's presently vying for a seat in Taiwan's legislature. Several years ago, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. To his credit he didn't receive it: Nobel Prizes (like Pulitzers) are almost exclusively awarded to mediocrities. And to turn to historians (in lieu of thinkers - what thinkers?), how about Taiwan's Huang Wen-Hsiung: he's a best-selling historian in Japan (where he moved in 1964 to enjoy and profit from legally protected free speech) and is well-known throughout academic circles here in Taiwan. What distinguishes him from the pack is his willingness to face down the unholy uproar each of his books tends to produce (in one of his recent efforts, he argues that Lu Hsun's model for Ah Q, a story about a culturally retrograde moron, was in fact the national father Sun Yat-sen). His last several books have been particularly good because he's extremely concise: as opposed to the proud Chinese tradition of packing in as much stuffing and platitudes as will fit between two covers.

And as to the claim that conflict produces the best writers, I have to wonder who he's referring to? Paul Theroux is the most intelligent and engaging fiction author alive in my opinion, and he seems to spend as much time dodging difficulties as engaging them. He's notoriously shy and difficult, irritable and, no doubt, irritating. And the best essayist of the 20th century is not the politically correct George Orwell, but the politically incorrect H.L. Mencken. Mencken is by far his superior: being far more knowledgeable, wide-ranging and daring when it came to forming and expressing opinions. He lived at home with his mother most of his life. I'll leave you with the opening lines of the preface to Francis Kiernan's biography of Mary McCarthy: "Most writers’ lives are sadly lacking in drama. The dullest of people, it turns out, write witty and intelligent books. Once they push back their chairs and get up from their desks, they do little to warrant our attention."

P.S. As to the difference between saints and hypocrites: there is no difference. They’re one and the same animal.

Biff Cappuccino, Taipei

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