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

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Recent letters of note from Atol. These are too amusing to let fall into the memory hole. Kept in original order. My reply to Travan’s letter is at the very bottom. Biff Cappuccino

If D Bhardwaj [letter, Nov 18] feels uncomfortable discussing English-speaking Indian elite's behavior, I will quit posting that. However, if you would like to have a free academic discussion of how dogs behave, I would love to offer my opinions. As a dog owner or master, you should pay more attention to the articles published about dogs. Dogs like to imitate (or mimic?) their masters. They always dream [that] one day, they can be equal to their masters. Jumping on to the driver's seat where their masters often sit is one obvious behavior. You love your dogs. You make them live a similar life as you do. I am sure your dogs are happy to live under your roof too. However, you would never regard your dogs as equal to your kind. Do you? That is why equality cannot be earned just by being the best friends of white men. It has to be earned independently with your own tradition, culture, honor and dignity. If you only care about the food you are eating, what is the difference between you and your dog?
FrankSeattle, Washington (Nov 19, '04)
Dear Frank [letters, Nov 18 et al]: Please stop your ranting. It has crossed into the zone where therapy would be strongly recommended. Your xenophobic spiel does no one any good be they white, yellow, brown, black, etc. As a Chinese, the unchecked chauvinism reminds me of how the "Central Kingdom" lost its way from the Ming Dynasty to the ill-fated Boxer Rebellion. I would offer you a "Da Xie" if you would temper your observations.
Tino TanSingapore (Nov 19, '04)
I have to say that I am surprised that ATol has continued to publish Frankie boy's rather whimsical and outright racist anti-Indian rants every day. (He isn't your CEO, is he?) The sheer hypocrisy of his arguments is hard to miss for any logic-abiding individual generally aware of current and past happenings in the globe. He tells us that it is OK for Chinese to learn English, but has been screaming foul weeks now about Indians doing the same. How sweetly convenient! He makes a rather incredible claim that the Chinese culture and language have not changed in the last 5,000 years - a claim which any objective historian should be able to trash without much difficulty (the Buddhist culture in China, for one example, was originally imported from outside). These days the Chinese are aping Western culture like never before. Women dyeing their hair blond and getting a nose job done, to Chinese students in the US dumping their own family traditions merely to get free lunches at the local church or Chinese teenagers adulating the Japanese stars who are seen as more Westernized. Having apparently bartered their attire and family values for Wal-Marts and Nike shoes, the well-off Chinese are even changing their names to Western names, for little rhyme or reason. As far as the economy goes, undoubtedly China has made huge progress in the past 20 years, but if you analyze closely you'll see that a large part of it is because it has successfully served as a hub of cheap (or is it "slave"?) labor to big Western corporations. There appears to be neither any significant private enterprise in China nor any significant innovation of any kind (quite unlike Japan). Talk about serving "white masters" ... Same also looks true for language. When most of the textbooks written in Chinese are nothing but translated replicas of original research papers done in English, and most original literature (arts/poetry/free speech) is promptly suppressed by a nasty nanny-like regime, it raises serious questions on the success of Chinese language (which Frank so loves to gloat upon). But I personally wouldn't judge China based on these relatively superficial/insignificant things. I believe that mass change is inevitable for any society, and must be dealt with in a useful way, not by running the cheap enterprise of shaming people for wiggling their tails and whatnot. Frank, incorrigible as he comes across, however, doesn't have any qualms about judging India similarly. Clearly, he has not learned the Chinese equivalent of the proverbial advice of not throwing stones if you live in glass houses ... or is there not one? Not even in a translated Chinese textbook?
Rakesh India (Nov 19, '04)
We continue to run Frank's letters because we are learning so much about dogs. - ATol
Daniel McCarthy and Biff Cappuccino [letters, Nov 18] display the same narrow world view, which is proof enough that those living in free societies can become even more limited in their understanding than those living in "unfree" societies. I never said that it is better to live in an unfree society. That is a foolish thing to believe, as all people would prefer to live freely and in peace. But the fact is, free societies are not the only ones [that] have produced wise and cultured people. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of the great writers of the world have lived in harsh and unfree conditions. But Mr Cappuccino and Mr McCarthy worship at the altar of America and modernity. They bring their modern pantheon of [George W] Bush, [Mark] Twain, [Oscar] Wilde, [Somerset] Maugham, and [Paul] Theroux. This pathetic group of gods they have created for themselves shows the limits of their mind. While I am writing of Du Fu, Su Shi, [William] Shakespeare, Cervantes and Ferdowsi, they are fulminating against Jane Fonda, or proudly boasting about "libraries, TV, and Hollywood". Cappuccino's knowledge of Ah Q is quite impressive from someone who claims to know Chinese and still calls Du Fu and Su Shi "storytellers". Su Shi and Du Fu are two of the great poets of classical Chinese. Some would say only the Book of Odes and Li Bai can compare to their work. Lu Xun is a very small figure in Chinese letters, but I suppose he is the only one famous enough for Mr Cappuccino to know about. How can someone like essays so much and not know that the form was vibrant in China at least 2,500 years ago? If you like essays, why don't you read Han Yu's "Yuan Dao" (The Original Path), which 1,200 years ago argued for expelling foreign influences from China (he was referring to Buddhism)? It is because Mr Cappuccino's masters, the "libraries, TV, and Hollywood" of the US, have erased all knowledge of his own culture from his mind. He doesn't know or care about the vast body of poetry and prose in his own language, but is obsessed with a handful of foreign writers writing about foreign lands and foreign people. How sad for someone to know nothing of their own ancestors. I have nothing against the US or the West. It is the unthinking servility to their culture that I am against. I'd rather be an Ah Q than a submissive mama-san, Mr Cappuccino. By the way, Mr McCarthy, in America, we don't call people by their first names until invited to do so.
G Travan California, USA (Nov 19, '04)
Did Su Shi and Du Fu have anything to say on the subject of dogs? - ATol

Biff to Dr. Travan: Prior to you mentioning his name, admittedly I'd never heard of Du Fu. I looked him up on the web, was appalled, but in the interest of brevity didn't mention him in the last letter. The problem with Du Fu as a poet, as I see it, is that he has practically nothing to say. Let's take a look at one of his poems, a fairly representative one at that:

Enjoying Flowers Walking Alone on a Riverbank (1)

Before Huangshi pagoda the river flows east,
In spring's brightness I'm tired and need the breeze.
An ownerless clump of peach blossom's opened,
Is dark or light red more to be loved?

This is simply someone in touch with his own feelings. For modern folk, it's woefully understated to the point of sounding shallow, even artificial, and hence unattractive. It comes off as the sort of exciting blank-charge nothingness prized by high school teachers intimidated by works of ideas which test their mettle and have the potential to be controversial and hence dangerous. Safety is found in breezy blather which can stretched and spun in any direction. Nobody is wrong. Holding steadfast to an opinion is not just narrow-minded, but becomes an offense. Hence the popularity of furry academic jargon. Hence the popularity of multiculturalism. Hence Mr. Travan.

Many of Du Fu's works remind me of the Police song, "Every Breath You Take." When most people heard it (myself included) they thought that it was a simple but pretty love song. It turned out to be the theme song to the political drama, 1984, and is actually about the sinister Nosy Parkerism of totalitarian régimes and their very close watch of the intelligentsia in particular. But then again, Sting has been forthright in interviews stating that he deliberately writes lyrics with fuzzy edges. He found that if he expressed himself too clearly, then people would make a decision about what he wrote and would then agree or disagree. Perhaps half of his customers would abandon each song based on something bothersome in the lyrics. On the other hand, if you write with less clarity and let people fill in the dots with whatever stuffing they please, sort of allowing them to DIY the song lyrics, the customers tailor them to their own idiosyncrasies and find, unsurprisingly, that they like them. Sting and the lads took the credit for our mental labor and laughed all the way to the bank.

But with Du Fu, there's almost nothing there to DIY. About the best you can say about him is that he's in touch with nature, that he enjoys communing with the natural world. But even this overstates it. Because there are no ideas, no concepts. It's pure sensuality. And his vaporings are far below what's required to fit the bill for artistic appreciation in our era. He's more on the level of a horse pleasantly lowing in a field, mulching green grass, the wind passing through his mane, only a few gnats harassing his backside. About the best you can say about this body of his work is that it's a sort of MTV-style hit-and-run kaleidoscope of word pictures; just a random smattering of pictures thrown at a simple audience meshugga with rhythm and not wanting the distraction of ideas. You could say that in its homely way it's observant, but you can't argue that it's intelligent.

Now you may not want intelligence in your poetry. That's fine. But, for better or worse, I do. And intelligence requires free thought and the cross-fertilization of ideas that comes from unimpeded access to books, personalities, and ideas. In terms of English poets, you're probably happy with Coleridge and Wordsworth, whereas, given my impatience with the obvious, I prefer people who say something new. I don't want a restatement of what I already know.

From Song of the Wagons:

We know now having boys is bad,
While having girls is for the best;
Our girls can still be married to the neighbours,
Our sons are merely buried amid the grass.

Isolated, it glimmers for a moment. But in the original poem it’s just another plain statement of the obvious, just another platitude awash in a sea of platitudes. I might as well be expected to remain excited with a Morrissey lyric when I’m 40.

Thus, though I very seldom read poetry, when I have, I’ve preferred the war anecdotes set to rhyme of Rudyard Kipling and the freshly-baked citified notions that T.S. Elliot set in blank verse.

Biff Cappuccino

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