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

Monday, January 31, 2005

I've been pulled back into the office this week, so the short story down below will have to wait to be stretched out and plumped up.
Have hung my shingle, or hoisted my petard, choose your cliche, at Writersnet:

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Firebrand (these 800 words of speech software inputted stuff are just the outline. The point is to churn out a story in two sessions of morning writing and then move on to the next story. I need to practice writing plots. Note to myself: create brand-new metaphors such as ‘birds swooping like burning rags, floating in the air like scraps of glittering white paper’ (unlike these two examples, the first is from Rick Bragg, the second from George Orwell)

"Are you ready?"

"As ready as I will ever be."

"Are you sure?"

He sighed, measuring his words. Thoughts, memories, phrases were running through his mind. But he calmed himself, and simply said, "yes."

The morning was chill, birds squawking, vehicles honking, the city up and about. He saw none of this, he kept his eyes closed. It was cold, and he felt colder and colder still, despite the rising sun, but he steadied himself. Soon, he too would be warm, hot, too hot for words. He sneezed, the smell of gasoline strong in his nostrils. Taking a couple of breaths, he began to feel woozy. He stopped breathing so deeply, slowing down. Calm was what he needed now to get the job done.

He asked the young man beside, Luwei the fellow protester he’d come to know well over the past couple of months, "Any sign of police?"

The young man was looking around. The old man could tell by the crunch of Luwei’s shoes, the gravel and grit of the square squeezed beneath his shoes. "Nothing! It's still early. Probably on their coffee break.”

“Even thugs need a break from busting humps.”

In a tone of concern, his voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper, “Are you sure about this?"

"You needn’t ask. There is no other way. I have no where to go from here but forward."

He thought back to his early days protesting back in the countryside where he was from. His lazy country farm, with heated kangs, drying peppers and corn in the rafters, smoke swirling out from chimney. He’d envied others then, others whose children had gone off to the city. His children had stayed and then the neighbors had complained their kids never came home. For a while his existence had seemed idyllic. A whole family under one roof. Poor, but harmonious.

His land had been rezoned, and by using eminent domain, the county government had snatched it up and given him a pittance in exchange. Even this pittance, issued in the form of a check, was not redeemable. He was left landless and without a way to make any money. This had been going on for quite a while, and I had been a growing protest movement. He had originally ignored it, figuring that it cannot happen to him. Figuring that it was best that he keep his nose clean.

But it caught up with him. He joined the ranks of the protesters, tying a bandanna around his forehead, written with the words, protest! Protest! After well, you change this to "down with the and county government". At first it is that up with a cordon of police that kept him away from the County government headquarters.

And then, someone had the wise idea of contacting the tabloid paper located in the provincial capital. A couple of reporters shut up, wrote up a story, and it appeared as headline news of a corruption scandal in the county. Although the county contacted the provincial government and closed and a new story, there was still the matter is issuing revenge.

He was rounded up and. In the prison cell, it was demanded that he write a confessional statement. He refused, he was beaten, the urine leaking down his pants, the turd getting squashed in his shorts. His ribs were cracked but still he wouldn't talk. And in the end, the statement of confession and when he was released his family took care of him and admonished him not to get involved in political protest again.

After visiting the Beijing central government and not finding any satisfaction, he comes back home. His family is starving. his kids are in rags begging on the streets. His daughter is a prostitute. He goes down to the county government in a rage and complains. This time it's a real walloping torture treatment. He gets linked up to a car battery with wires and so forth.

So that it makes a decision to head to Beijing and make a grand statements. He realizes this is not an age for heroes, as there are no heroes in prison dungeons. This is not a time for grand statements as there's no free press. So, he makes a final decision to go to Beijing.

The clock struck 9 am. The city square was filling up with people, the crowd was growing.

The old man asked, "there's so many people. No police yet? That's ought." He controlled his breathing, to keep the fumes of his lungs as much as possible. To remain keen, aware, acute for the job which was to be done.

"They're coming!"

The old man pulled out his some of the distraction, and his heavy nickel plated lighter, as he popped open the top, it played "the red sun sets over China."

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Prologue to letter below: I get the feeling that I'm going to learn about Chinese history, not by limiting myself to the study of Chinese history and plowing my way through the banal output of various Sino-experts, but instead by locating competent books in other fields and applying the heuristics I find therein. And, if there are any decent books on any given subject they're going to difficult to find here in Taiwan given the low standard of partisan scholarship (in this case Chinese) and the few English works to choose from. It wouldn't surprise me if my jerkwater college in Canada has more English works on China (it has a shocking number actually) than can be found in the libraries of all of Taiwan's schools put together and yet my alma mater doesn't even have a department of East Asian studies.
Hi T: moving back to North America is indeed tempting, and I would take the idea seriously if only I had a notion of what I would do moneywise. Do you have any suggestions for what options would be available work-wise in the South or South-West for someone like myself? Clearly there's freelance translation here and there. But does anything else come to mind, other than Walmart?
As to reading, for me it's still difficult to find books worth the time, that actually have something to say and/or are presented in a captivating manner. The more I read and write, the more I find that style is not about style but more about content and it's intelligent presentation. At the moment, I'm mostly reading academic tomes in preparation for grad school here in Taiwan. Most of these tomes appear to be built around a few core ideas, usually filched, which are then worried to death and filled out with 300 or more pages of facts and figures which offer little insight into anything other than that the author read an impressive bibliography without really learning anything. The more I think about grad school, the less it appeals to me. I have a hard time imagining that I would agree with much of what my professors had to say after a few months of performing my own research. I have an even more difficult time imagining that the graduate students would be able to test my ideas and help me weed out the bad ones that, based on my experience, constitute at least 75% of my ideas overall. Darryl is already encountering various issues and I can only imagine his situation would be magnified several times over in my case.
On the other hand, sticking with the writing of fiction and essays gets me going, gets me out of bed in the morning, makes me feel good about myself and makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile. At first I couldn't stand writing fiction, then I got to see there was some room for fun with it, and now I'm into doing it wholehog.
Dr. Howard (i.e. T.S. XXX) was very generous and gave me NT$100k to sponsor my master's studies. But since cracking a few jokes about me being a cheap whore, I've come to realize that the metaphor is sticking a bit faster than I might like. The problem is I'm having second thoughts about going to grad school and I'm not going to take the good doctor's money and run. And yet that 100k has had a significant impact on my book purchases and so forth. This is part of the reason I'm poring through these academic tomes that I was complaining about above. Sometimes I feel like I should just give him the money back and get on with my writing life. Other times, I figure I should take the doctor's advice and do grad school because I'll be getting paid to do what I want to do anyway. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
By the way, came across a writer yesterday who you might also appreciate, Rick Bragg and his memoir: All Over but the Shoutin'. It's written in a sort of Mark Twain fashion, with lots of metaphors that work and a pace that keeps those with short attention spans in their seat. I've only read the prologue and a bit of the first chapter so far, but it appeals to me quite a bit for a variety of reasons. He gives a presentation as part of his book tour on C-SPAN:

If you're a fan of Norman Mailer:

Stay in touch,

Friday, January 28, 2005

Preliminary rough comments on Thunder from the East by Nicholas D. Kristof & Cheryl Wudunn.

The authors claim the Asian financial crisis left Indonesian villagers confused and vengeful, with the result that they ended up blaming traditional bad guys, i.e. sorcerers, for their problems. They called these evil doers ninjas and went around beheading them. From page 9:

"How do you tell who the ninja are?"

"It begins when people see someone suspicious and try to chase him. Sometimes the ninja turns into a cat, and sometimes he stays human. If he stays human, then they cut off his head." Sukiando paused, sighed at the thought of all the beheading that remained to be done, and added: "There are going to be more heads chopped off. Because in every little neighborhood, there are seven or eight ninja who go out every night, and they've got to be stopped."

It sounds like some quaint savage practice, some avatar sprung from the remote human consciousness of the barbarous prehistory of mankind. And yet, this nasty business seems awfully familiar. In Stalin's Soviet Union the sorcerers were called capitalists, kulaks, and counterrevolutionaries. Stalin ordered the execution of individuals in a similarly random fashion. In other words, modern monsters goosestepping to ancient rhythms. A certain percentage of each district's residents were deviants and subversives. Stalin would order the rounding up of, for example, 2% of the population of each district across the country and have them liquidated. Because local party bosses had no idea who the baddies were, they grabbed people at random. Boy Scout meetings, book clubs, what have you. Gathering in groups and associations made it easier for the police to make a conspiracy charge and also made for less trouble than grabbing people at home where the neighbors might intervene. According to Solzhenitsyn, millions of innocents died in these lunatic purges.

Ditto for so many other other socialist paradises. Mao’s ninjas were the landowners and Chinese Nationalists. Pol Pot's ninjas were the educated. If you had glasses, if you could read, off with your head or a bullet in the neck.

The methodology employed in Indonesia for determining who was a ninja is also reminiscent of the British witch hunts of the Middle Ages. The accused were tossed in a river. If you drowned, you were innocent. If you retained the natural habit of doggy-paddling, this was proof positive you were a witch. You were scorched at the stake under a pyre of flaming faggots.

On page 18: "Still, important changes can be pretty awful. In the West, the great depression produced not just Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, but also Adolf Hitler and World War II."

I beg to differ. It was a generation of creeping corruption and the policies of President's Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the spectacularly dunderheaded New Deal in particular which produced and sustained the Great Depression. The Great Depression was not the failure of capitalism, it was the failure of corruption and informed innovation, and finally it was the failure of America's first great attempt at socialism.

Take bank failures, which featured so prominently in that day and age. Not one bank in Canada fell during the Great Depression because Canadian banks were not restricted in how they did business. They were evil corporations, cabals of self-interest, commercial elites strangling the little guy. In the United States, to protect mom-and-pop banking operations of small country towns, congress, in it’s infinitude of wisdom, keeping its ear to the populist ground and watching the polls, did not permit large banks to move into rural areas.

In other words, government intervention; state protectionism; the boosting of local pride.

The result of these good intentions, of keeping large banks out of rural areas, was that when there were runs on these small banks they were quite unnaturally unable to draw on assets from other parts of the country. Why? Because they were small, local banks. Any idiot could have seen this coming. Small banks were already failing throughout the pre-Depression 1920’s at the rate of a couple hundred a year. Evil large banks, by virtue of being large, more efficient, better managed, and diversified, did not fail. Nevertheless, myriad small banks of unblemished virtue went bankrupt prior to the great test of the Great Depression. When the test came, they failed. Had the pious small banks not been protected, the evil large banks would have moved into rural areas and pushed out all of the inefficient in competently run chemically pure small banks. The result would have been that the nationally famous bank runs would not have produced nearly as many bankruptcies and perhaps none at all.

The New Deal paid farmers not to raise crops in order to enhance the price of farm crops. Of course, this made it more difficult for the unemployed who lived in cities to pay for food. Thus, the government had to pay out welfare payments to enable the urban unemployed to purchase the farm crops that were rendered artificially expensive by the policies of the same government. Clearly this is inefficient to the point of being idiotic. But this and many other damn fool policies were formulated by Roosevelt (who, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, despised businessmen) and the so-called Brain Trust.

The opening section of this book is weakened by this all too typical habit of reporters to cover a great many topics without ever developing a profound knowledge of any of them. Rather than retail in ideas, ideation and trains of logic are replaced with the usual sort of reporters stories and vignettes to humanize the situation, to demonstrate the author's oneness with the people, to demonstrate to all that they feel the pain of humanity.

An excellent example of this is the reversion to received wisdoms when the author discusses China. For example on pages 26 and 27 the author writes, "Why did the West triumph over the East in the last millennium? For most of the last thousand years, Asia was far more advanced than any other part of the world. In that time, it would have seemed far more natural that Chinese or Indians would dominate the world in the year 2000 than that Europeans would."

However, the Chinese Empire did not compete with or encompass any democratic state during the last 2500 years. This is naturally quite different from Europe's history which sported a number of democracies such as ancient Greece, ancient Rome, those of many Germanic tribes, and all through to the modern age there's been partially democratic rule and a relative degree of freedom of expression in one part or another of Europe, within the various city states of the Middle Ages for example and so forth. This has been critical to modern intellectual development, movement which has led directly to modern prosperity and technological development. Thus though China was often more advanced technologically, it was retarded in many critical areas such as democracy, freedom of speech, rule of law, and so forth.

2500 years ago, ancient Greece had trial by jury. The heroes of the Icelandic sagas, of the Norsemen, were lawyers, not warriors. The Icelanders invented an ingenious legal system which let the free market set the price of fines and other penalties. And given that the dominance of the state over the individual was far greater in China that in Europe, it is hardly a surprise that free-market economics, democracy, free speech, and so on and so forth developed in the West and not in Asia.

On page 28, the author compares the vast scale of the Chinese fleet of Admiral Zheng He with that of Columbus. The former has 28,000 sailors on 300 ships whereas Columbus had 90 sailors on three ships. But this is an error confusing quantity with quality. Throughout history, in the realm of the military, democratic nations have consistently defeated autocratic nations with far smaller armies. This is because democratic armies to be of much higher caliber. They fight much harder, have far fewer deserters, and tend to be much better informed and intelligent in their combat because of the greatly increased flow of information throughout the ranks which comes about via traditions of freedom of speech, the stress upon individuality, and the greater degree of informality between men and social divisions.

Admiral Zhengho may have had a great number of men under his control, but at the end of the day it was only himself and perhaps a few advisers who made all the major decisions. However, had this same vast fleet been split into 30 fleets of 10 ships each, much greater by way of exploration, discovery, and diplomatic works could have been achieved. What the Chinese expedition suggests to me is the perennial folly of state rule and weakness in the face of societies whose norms stress individuality and personal freedom. Columbus did not need a fleet of 28,000 sailors to make the first announced modern European discovery of the American continents. Nor did he need 300 ships to drop maps, navigation charts, and returned to Europe to spread the news and inspire a whole new era of discovery, economic growth, national expansion, and so forth.

On the other hand, due to an inauspicious thunderstorm in Beijing, there was a change in heart with regard to exploration. The fleet was shut down and the ships destroyed. Further exploration was banned. Incredible? No. Typical. The state had been in charge from start to finish. Had the exploring been performed by private entities such as Columbus, with the state keeping its fingers out of everyone's business, there would have been other individuals who, just like Amerigo Vespucci and Captain Cook who would have continued exploring the maritime world and eventually discovered Europe and America for China.

Again, China's problem is the problem with monolithic states everywhere and key to the problem of socialism everywhere as well. When the state gets involved heavily, it squashes private initiative, directly or indirectly. The US Post Office filing legal injunctions against Federal Express when it first got going is a perfect example of how the state fights free enterprise when it finds it's own interests threatened, the body politic be damned.

Thus I'm not impressed when the author writes, "The treasure ships had luxury cabins with balconies for the top officers and for foreign princes who would be brought home, and these ships were backed by specialized vessels including horse carriers, troop transports, cargo ships, two kinds of warships, and water tankers carrying drinking water. The crews included 10 translators, five astronomers, 180 doctors and pharmacologists to treat the sick and gather foreign herbs, and even to protocol experts to ensure that Chinese treated foreigners just a proper degree of politeness.

The sophistication of the fleet underscores how far the East used to be ahead of the West."

I think he has it completely backwards. Columbus was able to sail freely, something Chinese sailors could not do. He had a whole range of legal protections that Chinese captains did not have. He had a superior tradition of record-keeping which is why we still have the records many of the early explorers had. Not so with China because the records of the voyages were deliberately expunged, wiped out. Forget freedom of speech. All that proceeded from these explorations, all that wealth of knowledge, wiped out at a word from the palace.

Also, Columbus could engage in free trade. He traveled not only for glory, but also for personal profit. And the profit motive is a very healthy one in my view. Trade outside of China's borders was highly restricted and indeed at one stage of the 17th-century all Chinese residents along the southern coast were forcibly removed and brought inland several kilometers to prevent trade with various entities deemed dangerous by the central government. Was the power of a government in a position to do so impressive, or is it a sign of how absolute power corrupts absolutely? After all, eliminating trade, also eliminated interaction, which must've held back the country's development quite a bit. Not to mention impoverishing people who had made their livelihood of the ocean for generations.

Was it important that the Chinese admiral Zhengho had luxury cabins with balconies for his top officers? Is it important that he had water tankers carrying drinking water, or is it simply important that he had sufficient water for his trip? Translators would have been useful to Columbus, though all the wealth of Europe would not have enabled him to procure one. Noone in Europe spoke the Carib language. He did not require a herd of astronomers because he was capable of piloting his ship himself. I do not know whether he had doctors onboard, but I'm sure he had people on board with a knowledge of general pharmacology as this was usually the practice with expeditions. And Columbus did not seem to need protocol experts as he and his crew managed to have a great deal of sex with the Carib Indians while he was there.

My point is not to belittle the achievements of the Chinese Empire of the day, but simply to attempt to persuade you that quantity is not a substitute for quality, and that excess quantity does not amount to an improvement over quality.

The author also gets carried away with the larger scale of Chinese cities, forgetting how many times Chinese cities were sacked and demolished due to insurrections, serial famines, and the civil wars that broke out with every collapsing dynasty. The city of Nanjing, for example, suffered large-scale massacres in 1867 and 1912, for example, not just in 1937 at the hands of Japan's Kwantung Army.

China is also alleged to be "more... cosmopolitan than any place in Europe." My grasp of European and Chinese history is weak to be sure, and yet I immediately associate cosmopolitan with the latter Roman Empire, the Carthaginian empire, Byzantium, Moorish Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and so on and so forth. Sixth century England, a European backwater at the time, had an amalgam consisting of the original tribes (many of whom still spoke their original languages), Scots clansmen, Roman citizens, Angles, Saxons, Danes, Jews, Christians, and animists, and other pagans. Backward it was, but if even England has this level of mixing, I find it hard to believe that the various empires on the continent were not even more cosmopolitan. Not to mention the fact that the Chinese Empire, like other empires, was vigorous about assimilating and erasing local cultures.

Anyway, that's all for now. I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Biff Cappuccino
Thoughts on Hooligans and Thugs: Football's Most Violent Fans

"Well that's it for now. Did you learn anything? Probably not. See you later." These are the closing lines from the documentary Hooligans and Thugs: Football's Most Violent Fans. But actually, I did learn something from watching endless, to the point of boring, scenes of mob violence at soccer stadiums around the world.

It was interesting that the hooligans did not intend to hurt people, at least not seriously. In general, people gave a couple of kicks and moved onto the next victim. Once one person started kicking somebody, his friends joined in for a few dirty shots. And then they moved on like a cloud to the next victim where they swarmed and provided a similar drubbing. If anything, it looked like a video game with the object to score as many points in the shortest time as possible.

After the first shock of watching violent morons bash each other, the various mêlées started to take on a pattern, a very familiar one. After a few minutes I began to snicker, and then to laugh. I’d realized that the object was to incapacitate people, not hurt them seriously. A measure of this was that almost no one was carrying prepared weapons. The only implements of destruction consisted of junk snatched up onsite. People were ripping up the stands and throwing parts of the seats and other things at the enemy of the moment: police, bystanders, journalists, or fans of the opposing team. Seats and chairs were flying through the air as were water bottles, bits of wire fence, shoes, flags: this clearly is comedy, more the equivalent of a food fight and less mindless tragedy. And it’s quite different from smuggling in knives and black jacks and going at other people with injurious or lethal intent.

Also quite obvious was that most people didn't know how to fight. People took long crazy swings, gave gangly kicks. Rather than unify fist and body in the way that a boxer might, these people were tossing fists at the ends of arms which crumpled at the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and so forth. Most of the energy that they were trying to throw out was absorbed by their own bodies. The evidence for this, beyond the visible clumsiness of the pugilists, was that most people, after earning their beating, got up promptly and scampered off.

The fact that few people have died over the years demonstrates this. Massive numbers of people are involved, but serious injuries are few. The point is not to kill people, it's not even about revenge most of the time, it's simply about being a hellion, cutting loose, and having fun in the manner of a junior high school game of what my school used to call British bulldog. It's just about getting out and about with the lads, getting some exercise and getting off in a physical way, achieving that climax peculiar to sports and other physical exertion.

I suspect these mobs are populated by bored dudes holding regular jobs and who don't have much by way of hobbies. They're bored, lack much for exercise outside of lifting a beer stein to their mouths or wacking off in the shower. Here they get excitement, physical exertion, and camaraderie.

Once you've been in a fight with your friends, and your friends have stuck with you (as one sees time and time again in these videos), they become mates you feel you can really trust in a tight spot and with you have a visceral and spiritual connection, a low-budget edition of the connection that police and military people talk about. You're no longer a group of potentially and even probably fair weather friends. Friendship is no longer tentative or probationary; it's been tempered in “combat”, so to speak.

And I put worry quotes around combat because, after all, most of the soccer hooliganism seems to be more theater than anything else. Watching people bait others, shout and shake their fists, charge forward halfway to meet an enemy group and then back off to the safety of their own crowd, suggests that they are not really interested in hurting one another. What they want is the equivalent spicy naughtiness of a panty raid, a food fight, a hockey rink bout of socially approved fisticuffs.

If someone had killed a member of your family and you wished to avenge it, would you stand in the road shouting, railing your fists, charging halfway towards the object of your anger? Though this is what these mobs do, time after time, country after country. No, you would go directly for the person who killed your relative and try to kill him or her. You'd be of one mind about it, possessed. I've been in that sort of situation, although what prompted me was jealous love as a teenager. You’re blind with rage. You don't care if you live or die. You just want the other person dead. It’s ridiculous. It’s insane. And it’s not exemplified by the soccer hooliganism in this video.

Also noteworthy is the phenomenon of hooligans running so easily when pursued. They run because they enjoy being chased, not because they're cowards: in the same way that kids squeal with pleasure being chased while playing tag. The hooliganism in this video is not about cowards ganging up to feel safety in numbers when abusing individuals, it's about ganging up to maximize the ability to disperse oneself and avoid being caught once the police or the enemy crew start chasing you. It's no fun if you get caught for sure, or if you get caught too easily. It’s only fun if you get caught just once in a while for then it’s easy to maintain the façade of danger.

As a child I led a small collection of vandals, call it a gang if you will. We bought sling shots and went out and beaned construction workers and rent-a-cops around large construction sites. At one point, close to my home there was a huge drainage project being constructed which reengineered miles and miles of the local stream bed. The whole point of hurling marbles at the employees was to get them to chase us. I never hurt anyone. I wanted to be an annoyance. I took no pleasure in hurting people. As a member of this gang, I never even fought anyone. My friends enjoyed beating up people, but even then it was not about hurting anyone, simply about teaching wimps a lesson, making them stand up for themselves, getting them to act with self-respect. A sort of educational theater.

Per corollary, I would not be surprised if fans from opposing soccer teams in the UK or elsewhere, after the game, and after beating the crap at each other, could meet up in non-politicized circumstances (ex: overseas in Thailand) and be friends, respectful of one another for having the "guts" to beat each other up in public.

Furthermore, you'll notice that the crowds enjoy not only being chased by the police, but also charging the police. In other words, taking the game to their opponents.

The occasional excess where people get killed or are left in comas or are otherwise permanently debilitated is probably because some people cheat at the game. This game, like any other game, has people who will try to get unfair advantage. It is these people who come with weapons, explosives, fireworks, and who break bottles and attack people with glass and so forth. Of course you also get people who simply lose their temper and go berserk. But I would expect, although I have no forensic evidence to back it up nor any practical experience participating in soccer hooliganism, that it's probably not very common. That the occasional person being on the wrong end of real violence is what makes the news, suggests that the general tone of soccer hooliganism is playful. You just have to understand that people head butting, kicking and punching others can be a form of roughhousing that is recognized by both sides of the equation as playtime.

The pain of being struck violently is greatly overrated in the press, as anyone who's been a serial willing victim of violence (ex: boxers, martial artists, wrestlers) will attest. When the adrenaline’s running, pain functions as a measure of your tactical situation, your martial readiness, your mechanical functionability, and is not a determinant of whether you fight in itself. What matters is not pain, but are the eyes clear, are your muscles fatigued? Is your breathing relaxed and are you mentally cool and acute? Or are you charlie-horsed (temporarily incapacitated due to neural malfunction in your muscle tissue) and under stress? When people are that excited, they don’t feel much pain.

Anyway, I'm just trying to understand the phenomenon. I don't advocate it, not because it's politically incorrect, but because intelligent people surely have more interesting and productive things to do in their majority. They grow out of this stuff quickly. If you really wish to prove your manhood, get in the ring. That works fine, while guaranteeing you emerge in one piece and don’t have to spend the night in a jail cell.

Biff Cappuccino

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Meeting of Minds (inspired in part by the xenophobic rants of the communist Chinese correspondents at

Verne Caldwell loped through the downtown sidewalk, nimble as a mongoose he flattered himself, through the canyon of glass and steel office towers, past the sidewalk marquees advertising lunch specials. His route was crowded, confounded, with obstacles, primarily the happy lunch break crowd, out and about cheerfully, squinting in the sunshine, hunting for new eateries, chasing up specials, letting off steam, dallying and lollygagging, window shopping, gabbling and exuberant out of the office.

Verne was hurriedly threading his way between these annoyances, muttering on about human furniture. Each scramble down the sidewalks at this time of day was a double-dose of irritation but accompanied with a spike of pride, a double-edged sword that gave him a needed distinction, a welcome sense of elevated otherness. He walked rapidly, like an Olympic race-walker to avoid a collision, an incident which had potential to enrage him, to unplug his awkward unanswerable frustrations and embarrass him by revealing that his self-control wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.

Dustups excited him but he was pulled the other way by his past, his parent-inculcated pride in being a man of discipline; he strived honorably to quash these loose passions. Excitement, especially the wrong excitements - the addictive sensual callings, the power surge of successful sympathy tricks, the thrill of the effective imposture - could be the undoing of a person of rectitude.

Problem was, when he walked at a leisurely pace some of the locals had an unnerving tendency to walk right into him. Uncanny that. Drove him bonkers. He’d go to the left to dodge some punter coming head on. Rather than stay a straight course or go right, some of these buggers pursued him to the left and ended up meeting him head on. What the bloody hell was that all about?

He didn’t speak the language, wasn’t interested, couldn’t be arsed. What would kind of conversation could you have with people who couldn’t even tramp down a bloody sidewalk without plowing headlong into the other fella? Was it deliberate? What was it about? Why couldn't these geezers watch where they were going?

He’d run smack into a young fool just the other day, a tallish thin fellow, all gangly legs rooted in basketball sneakers and a shrill mocking laughter coming out of its wet smirking mouth, angling for attention. This soap-dodger lazily ambling down the sidewalk, side-by-side with one of his mates, eating up space, no consideration for others, no polite self-effacement in public. Verne had deliberately marched forward, come hell or high water, daring the boy to keep it up, yeah just keep it up, daring him to stay course, to play chicken, to test him to see if he’d blink first. By the time they impacted, Verne had worked himself through dozen stages of irritation, anger, high dudgeon and fury. He grabbed the wayward basketballer by the collar and shook him like a rag doll. Like a rag doll the boy didn’t resist him, went limp in his arms, hung on him like a deadweight, all eyes, whimpering, slobbering, his friends standing like an audience shocked into silence.

Why didn't the ball dribbler get angry? Why didn’t he defend himself?

In the early days, it had been lack of self-control that made him choke his first pedestrian. He’d shaken, heart thumping him from head to toe, a mixture of fury and a ragged-edged worry bordering on a heel-lifting cowardice. Retaliation was coming! And yet it didn’t. It never did in the ensuing publicly administered throttlings, gaggings, and garrotings.

Why? At first it was a question. Then a statement. Now it was a complaint. Verne would have been overjoyed, relieved, reassured by the prospect of a healthy bout of fisticuffs. Give it your best shot, boy! On the chin, I can take it. And then they could shake hands respectfully. No worries mate. Just watch your step next time. It can happen to anyone. Righto! We’re off then. Good luck to you.

But the fantasy never got any lift; it stubbornly failed to appear. This caving in business was abnormal, inexplicable, ominous. And why did the arsehole’s mates always abandon the one taking the damage?

It was all so very strange. What Verne couldn’t understand and couldn’t pigeonhole subverted his confidence and threatened to humiliate him in public. Public shame was the worst comeuppance of them all. Surprise, a commonly positive word, was a piercing throat-sticker in his lexicon.

And the more he looked and pondered, the surer he was that the nation was bending like a bow under decades of suppressed emotion. He’d seen examples of the murderous rampaging violence that broke out when people let their hair down, trying to slay each other like savages over a verbal misstep or a bowl of noodles someone forgot to pay. The inquisitive stare of an innocent bystander could get you killed once the insane sort of lunatic violence broke out.

One day the passive nation would break out in a mass pogrom and annihilate all of the latter émigrés, be they Chinese or foreigners. They’d all be collateral damage fit for sweeping into the national dustbin of history. And though he felt justified in his correcting of the behavior of others, in his instilling of a needed public discipline, he knew that the locals would see it as abuse unjustified. The reckoning was coming. It had come before. The next one was in the mail. It both frightened and excited him.

Ollie Cheng was coming up the street towards him. Cheng despised these damn foreigners, their messy guffawing laughter, the weird arrhythmic trotting strut of their men folk, the flat-footed sluttish hip-forward gait of their women kin. On the promenades or the beach, they romped like pale herds of bikinied furniture movers and grease monkeys. And yet despite their indecorum, they were awarded privileges, elevated above his fellows, his compatriots.

Despite their serial crudities, these rough foreigners with their cavalier spending habits had achieved technological advances putting them at the top of the global food chain. It made no intuitive sense.

So Cheng looked around for answers. First he turned to reading up on the prevailing conspiracy theories. The patriotic newspapers were full of them, detailed accounts of the wonderland of elites, cabals, and trusts that showed up under an ultraviolet lamp. But he tossed these over when he couldn’t picture the moms and pops who’d mothered and fathered his English teachers as being sophisticated enough to spin these complex webs of selfishness and hang them together. All the foreigners he knew were honest to a fault. In conversation anyway. They spoke their mind, spoke too much, didn’t know when to say when.

Speaking of which, why did these foreigners have such subjective opinions about China? And why couldn’t they mind their own business? China and Taiwan was a family affair. No ifs and butts. Except for the butt in Butt Out!

Cheng was all for free speech, as long as you were a patriot. And not a splittist! Or a sell-out to Yankee values! Or a worshipper of Jap dwarf fashions! Or a practitioner of Taikwando! What’s wrong with Chinese martial arts? Not good enough for you? Or the modern monster who maroons his venerable ancestors in old folks homes. Bah! Or one of those puffballs who’s gone and forgotten his ancestors and now stuffs his face with nontraditional fast foods, sloppy burgers, leathery steaks, Freedom Fries! Or…or…

Foreigners were a bad influence, squawking like parrots about things that didn’t concern them, inciting kids with subversive ideas. Be yourself! Let your hair down! Just do it!

Inelegant, they didn’t understand the sublime ecstasies of self-denial. Unsophisticated, they didn’t’ understand the benefits of delaying self-gratification. Beefeaters in the china shop, they were. It made him mad just thinking about it. Have one in his home? Perish the thought.

In a quest for enlightenment, Cheng turned to the old faithfuls. He started leafing through the classics in his local library, brushing the dust off the faded tomes, shooing snoozing grandpas from the cozy sofas. It never occurred to him to actually check out the foreign scene first hand, to be empirically curious, because that could lead to a humiliating cross-cultural incident. He was wrapped too tight to risk inter-racial interaction, with its dizzying welter of faux pas and multiculturalism. The last floored him: how could a cultured Chinese pretend to have respect for stone-age peoples, high mountain savages, island cannibals? Ludicrous! Or pretend to be on the same level with the European technologically advanced peoples, when his own people had been ahead culturally for millennia?

So he followed the enlightened lead of the hoary ancients and continued shunning foreigners, now privately referring to them with sacred epithets dropped from the lips of the old masters. He called them barbarians and divided them into two genera: the raw and the cooked.

When Ollie Cheng first saw Vernon Caldwell, tall and haughty, staring at him as he approached, it put him off… And yet...there was something about this ridiculous pale-skinned monkey that captured his attention, and drew him in a beeline to him. His sudden fascination gripping his entire attention, he dropped the book in his hand that he’d purchased up the street.

Verne looked down at the book and picked it up. Not just automatically, as was the way anywhere, but here hungrily, greedily. Good manners could be a form of revenge. He was a Good Samaritan with an ulterior motive. He took pride in showing these damn Chinese how things should be done. He praised himself for taking the time to correct irresponsible behavior by setting a better, more refined example.

Naturally, Verne's desire to make a good show went hand in hand with resentment because he could safely presume that Cheng would not lift a finger and rescue the book were the situation reversed. He looked off into the distance and handed the book to Cheng sulkily. "You dropped your book," he said dully, without warmth, as if to no one in particular. “Please” he said, with great relish, “be careful next time.”

Cheng was surprised and grateful. He particularly appreciated the patrician reminder to be careful. Most of all, he appreciated John’s detachment and his tact, not looking him in the eye and not humiliating him, as he expected foreigners to do, forcing him to face an obvious faux pas, relishing the attempt to make him squirm. Anyone could be foolish but only a boor upbraided one in public, making one take one’s comeuppance like a schoolchild. Cheng beamed, this white man might be civilized. He was certainly exceptional.

Cheng was moved to express his gratitude. "Thank you.” He spoke hesitatingly at first but thought better of it and looked Verne in the eye, the way foreigners do, and said, “Ahem…By the way, this book of mine, you might find it useful. It’s…eh…Harvey Mackay's Swimming with the Sharks. If involved in the business world in any way, I would highly recommend it. It contains many excellent suggestions and principles for enhancing efficiency, reducing expenditures, and so forth.”

Cheng’s English was remarkably fluid for he was indeed a quick study, but his accent was still quite strong as his English was book-learned. Languages were interesting conceptually and useful in conducting business, but it was quite another thing to suggest that he was interested in actually talking to living, breathing, farting native speakers. Verne wasn’t yet persuaded Cheng was fluent for his ‘thank you’ was elongated into ‘Shang-kuh you’ and ‘business’ stretched and worried into ‘bee-shee-nuss.’

More importantly Verne found Cheng’s familiarity presumptuous, his odd English disturbing. He gaped when Cheng’s wet mouth remained open during the pause in between words, gaping in the local fly-catching manner. This appalled Verne to the point of disorienting him and disrupting his thought processes, leaving him antsy and annoyed. Looking for something to be superior about, and thus relieve his sense of weakness, Verne honed in on Cheng’s gobbling of the opening and closing consonants of English words. He decided it was deplorable, a surely deliberate smear, a sneer, a willful fouling of Shakespeare’s sacred tongue. And yet, more than anything else, Verne felt doomed, as if the initiated conversation was now a gathering maelstrom of social obligations threatening to suck him in and pull him under.

After all, saying no was easy to strangers. Fuck off! was even easier because it gave things a rewarding finality. One more arsehole out of the way, one less bonehead to deal with, one more stooge put back in his hobbit hole. But once an unwanted conversation got on the go, he didn’t know how to end it gracefully. He always felt like a child, vulnerable, easily manipulated, easily led. Unnerving. Gave him goose bumps. He knew how to shout and harangue, reject and rebuff. The rules for that were easy. But he didn’t know the niceties for saying no. He just couldn’t say the damned word.

Verne's agitation grew, as it usually did in such situations, whether the conversation was with a foreigner or a local. His shoulders stiffened, his smile stiffened into a mask. As Verne looked on, Cheng was still chattering, the skin where his eyebrows should have been was quivering, his chinless chin wagging, his bridgeless nose making a cartoon out of his face, effacing his face. Cheng was making this disturbing noise about, “Terribly useful stuff. What you foreigners call toilet reading.”

Verne thought farts, bowel movements, digestive tract humor! Chimp-lish was his term for this barbarous chop-suey English. How to interact with the Chinese? When he wasn’t around them, he couldn’t be arsed to figure it out. When he was around them, there was no damn time to figure it out. Damned if you were and damned if you weren’t. It would take a lifetime to master the mystery of interaction with these inscrutable Orientals. In the meantime, he knew there would be awkward silences, perplexing apologies, laughs that meant everything from fear to anger. What a nightmare.

This fear made him unnaturally shy. He stammered, "Umm, that's quite all right. It's not really my cup of tea, the business world." But he was thinking that business is also one of those detested fields these Chinese naturally excelled at. Business meant greed, a view of money not as a means but as an end; not to mention the frantic heart-disease generating overtime, the abandonment of healthy hobbies like stamp and coin-collecting, fly fishing, or group tours to historical sites in favor of gambling (all about money) and majhong (an excuse to gamble), thrift (preparation for gambling), and all the other Chinatown stigmata of the monomaniacal fixation on commerce.

Cheng felt empowered witnessing Verne's weakness and hesitation. Cheng, a fellow patrician at heart, felt sympathetic and wished to help and protect Verne. He felt even more strongly now that he should return one good deed for another, that he should help this confused foreigner. Cheng's altruism, his desire to control and dominate others, came to the fore. "Well, speaking of tea, that's China's most famous export. It's the least I could do to buy you a cup of tea. I'm an expert in local brews, high mountain oolong. Though there's nothing of high quality around here. I know! Do you like green tea or red tea with pearls of jelly?"

"No really, it's all right."

"I insist. Many foreigners are rude, but you... you're different. Polite. Yes," and he rapidly evolved through excitement, then confidence, then earnestness, and then became aggressively imploring. "It is the least I can do to show a hospitable foreigner some hospitality."

He touched Verne and then shoved him. Verne, disarmed with the accusation of being polite, was still in passive mode, helpless without a ready excuse to exit. Without the ability to say no, he was incapable of manufacturing one.

As Verne began to move Cheng said "This stall over there is famous for its tea. Yet inexpensive. Tell me what you would like."

Parsimony irritated Verne. And yet, as a fumbling student of the Chinese language, he acquiesced, needing Chinese friends. His inability to be sociable had led to stilted pronunciation. He took a cheap pleasure mangling the language and blaming others for not understanding him. ‘Bu keyi’ (meaning ‘no can do’) became ‘beaucoup wee’; his pronunciation of ‘bu san bu si’ was tonally flat changing it from the original meaning of ‘not three not four’ (meaning ‘dubious’) to the incomprehensible ‘not mountain not waiter’. Either way, Verne thought, this Chinese guy treating him wasn’t so bad. Being cheap was one thing, accepting something free was quite another.

As they were moving through the milling crowd, a voice called out “John! Hey, John! Wait up!" A hand extended towards his, and Cheng noticed to his dismay that he had once again become the Chinaman invisible in his own country. The new foreigner looked right through and past him to Verne, saying, "Fancy hooking up with you here, man. Shit, I never see you out of class. You’re like a hermit or what, eh! Hell I don’t know. So what’s the deal, what’s happening, man?”

Verne prided himself on not being racist, but this Fielding Mellish was a Jew. That was different, a different religion. Fielding had the eyebrows, the curls, the deep dark liquid eyes, the stunted height, the verbosity, all the hallmarks of the natural born heretic were about him.

"Same... umm… not much Fielding. Just taking a constitutional."

"Say what? What's that?"

"Just taking a walk.” He said hurriedly, “For my health."

"Oh. Well, why didn't you say so? Hey, you wanna meet my new girlfriend? Yeah, this is Busher. Check out the duds, the package, man. She's all tricked out."

Verne extended his hand and the lithe, black-skirted Busher stared at it, not quite sure what to do. Fielding looked at her "Well damn girl, just shake it or something." He shrugged and laughed, "She hasn't quite got the hang of things, if you know what I mean." Fielding chuckled again, to good-naturedly mask his irritation and embarrassment.

Cheng knew what Fielding was thinking, that it was his responsibility to have trained Busher, to have picked her out of the muck and civilized her. But Verne too knew what Fielding meant, flaunting yet another long-haired dictionary. Cheng stared at the girl now, who looked away from him disdainfully. Cheng looked at Verne and knew what he was thinking: this tramp had acquired a short-haired dictionary.

Cheng eagerly noted Verne's awkwardness with Fielding. Verne was embarrassed to be seen with him, with this uppity opportunist who took advantage of naïve women. This once again confirmed Cheng's appreciation for Verne as a man of honor, of discipline, of substance. This Fielding fellow was clearly dissolute. A male slut, probably a lush and a pill-popper, a no-go right from the get-go.

Verne said, "Well, I'm sort of busy right now."

Fielding said, "Really? What's up?"

Caught of guard, Verne said "Uh… I'm just off for a cup of tea with this...umm...gentleman here." Verne had to stretch for an acceptable word in an attempt to dodge Fielding's contempt. Cheng heard a foreigner refer to him for the first time as a gentleman. This Verne had a keen eye. Verne was saying to Fielding, "I'm in a bit of a rush. No time to chat." Verne was looking off into the distance, again dodging the eyes of his foreign opponent.

Fielding was nonplussed, but also indifferent. All kinds of freaks studied Chinese as a second language and most of them never got the language down, the poor bastards. Too uptight, to nutty, too freaked out to get down with the ladies. He felt sorry for such people, but what could you do? "Okay dude. Well, I'm on my way. Yo! Busher, baby, let's haul some ass here girl."

She giggled, enjoying his sassiness, the novelty and unpredictability of his choice of words. He was cool, chic, like the best of this season's fashions. He made an excellent accessory, complementing her suggestive slip of a dress. He took her by the hand and she went very willingly, heels click-clacking down the sidewalk, attracting the attention of the hoi polloi and advertising her prize.

Verne followed the couple with his eyes thinking, Jews of the East or Chinky-Chonks of the West, he was surrounded by odd people with perverse dietary preferences, obscure religious practices, unhealthy obsessions with money.

Cheng interrupted his day-dreaming, pulling him towards the tea house again. Once seated, Cheng made a proposal. Cheng needed an English secretary, someone to handle the business communications, write letters of introduction, engage customers on the phone, and so forth. He needed a junior partner, someone who could interact with foreigners effectively and whose presence would impress people with the genuinely international savvy of his business operations. He needed someone who was reliable, disciplined, tactful. Someone no-nonsense, nose to the Grindstone.

Verne took up the job. He needed the money, though he despised business in principle.

However, he grew into his work. Dealing exclusively with foreigners, he didn't have to deal with Chinese except for Cheng whose near-perfect but fractured-accent English flattered Verne into believing he was still high in the pecking order. He gave up learning Mandarin and quit school, because it was no longer useful to him. Cheng provided him with a work visa enabling him to stay in country.

Verne realized that language acquisition was in fact a lengthy uphill struggle that was, in the end, a waste of time. What was he going to do with it once he acquired it? He could already order dumplings in a restaurant. Beyond that, what was the point really? If someone stepped on his toes, a cold stare was sufficient. If a taxi barged in front of him, a strong epithet in any language got the message across.

And so, Verne graduated from a discomfited student into an insulated business associate. Cheng trusted him implicitly, knowing that Verne would not waste his time with loose women, alcohol, drugs, or any of the other usual decadences beloved of in-country foreigners. Verne was steady, reliable, disciplined.

And so, Verne grew from an English secretary into the foreign frontman and mouthpiece for Cheng's company.

Things bumped merrily, steadily, if often dreadfully dully but securely and assuredly along until he ran into Fielding on the street a couple of years later. Fielding was in a business suit, Verne still in sandals, baggy pants, and highlighted hair. "Hey, Verne. Long time no see buddy. I thought you'd blown this popsicle stand ages ago. I never figured you for someone to hang around."

Verne tolerated him with an amiable smile, the Teflon manner that had enabled him to tolerate all of the sales reps that he dealt with over the years. He had matured, grown and acclimatized himself to the crudities and off-putting verbal fidgety nonsense of visiting foreigners. He never mingled with local foreigners now, finding himself out of touch and out of stride with them. He kept to himself. "Well, I've been keeping busy."

"Oh yeah, what happened to you anyway? You never seemed to really get into the language thing and then all of a sudden you just fell off the face of the earth. What have you been up to?"

Verne didn't want to get into a conversation, that recurring nightmare of obligation, and fended Fielding off by saying, "I work for an international business. I'm a key associate, you could say."

"Shit man. That's real savvy."

But Verne could tell that Fielding didn't really mean it. He asked him, "how about you?"

"Me? Well," he said shyly, out of character. "I've sort of got my own company. Exporting electronics. Specializing in fast delivery of high-quality designer prototypes."

"That sounds pretty good," though Verne was unsure of himself.

"Yeah, actually, now that you mention it. It is. It's not high volume, but high profit per piece. And more interesting because unlike mass OEM production, this stuff takes ingenuity, flexibility. Gets me out of the office and mingling with the movers and shakers."

"Sounds like you've done well for yourself." No movers and shakers for Verne. He felt reassured now, he'd made a wise choice sticking with Chinese gentleman Cheng.

"Yeah. I guess." Not wanting to embarrass Verne. "Well, it helps to have connections. As you...uh... probably know."

Worrying that if he pried, he would be embarrassed by what he found, Verne changed the subject and asked, "So, this must be your wife. May I have the pleasure?"

"Ha ha, the pleasure's all mine actually. She's not the little woman, not quite. Sort of a, uh…another connection, you might say."

When Verne return to the office, saying hello to Cheng stiffly, formally, despite the two years that had passed since their first meeting, he congratulated himself on his spiritual and corporal hygiene. His fortitude resisting temptations of the flash, his resolve to maintain his dignity and not give into any of the debaucheries favored by the local foreigners. The more of the local foreigners he saw, the more he began to see them through the eyes of Cheng. He noted their tendency to drunken debaucheries, their unhesitating almost bragging admission of various commercial brigandries, their shameless deflowering of local girls.

He was celibate by choice, just as Cheng, married off by his family, was functionally celibate. He began to resent free-wheeling disrespectful foreigners in the same way Cheng resented them. He began to realize with pride that he had more and more in common with the Chinese himself. He was assimilating. Multicultural. He understood these Chinese. Understood them better a damn sight better than the sort of Chinese-chattering, dinner-party mingling, whore-hopping clown like that damn Jew, Fielding, who was preoccupied pawing local tarts and deluding them with Hollywood expectations. He began to realize that the other foreigners were just tourist gapers, businessmen gawpers, and fair-weather English teachers. That foreigners advocating splittism were bloodsuckers aligning themselves on the butt-crack of the sacred Chinese nation. They had no right to their opinions, to their thoughts. Butt out! He turned inward, ever more inward. Congratulating himself on his insularity, his safe-haven. He was a bastion of propriety, an oasis of spiritual hygiene.

Copyright - Biff Cappuccino (this is so bad, I don’t know who would want to steal it!)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

My response follows below: Topic for incoming bloggers: Which author do you admire stylistically, and why? Is style equally important as original thought, or more? What is an important stylistic tool, and which examples best reveal it?
Biff C.:It took me a while to put this down because I haven’t thought about style for ages. Content, content, content is my mantra.

My favorite author is H.L. Mencken, who I don’t tend to think of as a stylist, but as someone whose departure points I generally agree with and whose conclusions are thought-provoking and amusing. Unlike most writers in most genres, who trot out filler verbiage like a filibusterer on Capital Hill, Mencken made a conscious point of trying not to waste the readers’ time by getting to the point, generating memorable metaphors and phrases, and by pointing to novel concepts animating various phenomena. As with Nietzsche, practically every paragraph of Mencken’s writing contains something quotable. Quotable because it’s pithy, useful, and often funny. Ex:

Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing.

Creator - A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.

Perhaps it’s worth trotting out one of my theories on humor as a ‘stylistic device’. Many writers are too busy affecting to feel people’s pain to have a public sense of humor (Like V.S. Naipaul whose books communicate the sadness of post-colonia but whose reply to one interviewer’s question “Why do Hindus have that red spot on their foreheads” was “It signifies, ‘I have no brain’”) Humor, after all, requires that someone be on the receiving end of something painful (though folly is usually the only acceptable target of humor). Ergo sadism, deftly wielded, is a weapon of any good writer’s (or comedian’s) armamentarium. Surely it’s better to be frank about this than to try to write memorable script with one’s heart on one’s sleeve and a head clogged with bogus pieties.

More Mencken in his own words:

For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.

Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

The American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goosesteppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages.

Is there a style? Perhaps. If honesty, clarity and novelty of expression, boldness and a willingness to follow a train of logic to its end regardless of its moral or ethical implications constitutes style. I don’t see a style as much as I see a way of thinking which then almost inevitably generates his manner of expression. I also don’t think it’s a matter of calculatedly trying to fit oneself into a style, because this style far from unique. What distinguishes Mencken in my view was his promiscuous range of interests and enthusiasms which enabled him to apply heuristics in one field to the next. This in turn naturally leads to aphorism, which he excelled at.

The same ‘style’ can be found in scattered throughout the works of Wilde, Twain, and others, and even within an essay or two of Tom Wolfe’s. Again, the hardest part of this ‘style’ is the years required to develop a broad interdisciplinary knowledge base, the years of concerted effort devoted to figuring how things ‘really work’ (through prodigious reading but also by getting involved in society at large and meeting the movers and shakers and the idea generators) so that you can emerge with the confidence required to state plainly, without cringing, trimming, or prevaricating, what you really mean in the knowledge that it will occasionally conflict, embarrass, and offend your readers. To cultivate a ‘style’ that will inevitably be seen as anti-social, you have to be able to stand your ground.

As might be imagined, given the conservatism of the US at that time and his column’s national syndication, Mencken received quite a few death threats for what he wrote. This was the era of lynch mobs chasing blacks and Catholics and socialists, the machine-gunning of striking workers in Ludlow, the air-bombing of black rioters in Oklahoma. When people talk of the (imaginary) bravery of the American fringe left (Chomsky et al), they forget how things used to be. And Mencken was just a libertarian.

Another example of something which might be mistaken for style would be Oscar Wilde writing that “nature imitates art”. But if you read the accompanying essay, you discover that’s simply a summing up of what he really meant. He wasn’t being funny or ironic. When a writer comes up with an engaging, even just superficially persuasive, alternative view of the world, be they Dickens, Twain, Wilde, Theroux, etc, as long as they state their worldview in a casual manner, the effect generated is usually parody. (If you harangue with the same worldview, then it becomes ‘deep’, ‘radical’, dangerous and threatening.) The writer develops a reputation for being a jester and his books sell to both the small minority that takes him seriously and to the great majority that belabors him with the unearned and maybe even undesired label of ‘comedian’. (Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, full of quaint humor to most of us, is in fact (if you re-read it) an acutely subversive anti-middle-America polemic and the US Religious Right sees this accurately. Ergo, it’s constant lobbying to ban it from school libraries) Naturally, if you come to agree with the writer’s worldview, what was formerly comedy becomes no more than a statement of the obvious, of reality, as one really sees it.

Two other quick examples of ‘stylists’ (I’ve got to get some of more bad fiction writing out of my system this morning):

A self-explanatory passage from Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”:
I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

…The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. …

Last of all: Marx to me is an example of a talented writer draping colorful imagery to disguise content and make the otherwise unpalatable appetizing, the otherwise nonsensical persuasive. In Farley Mowat’s memorable phrase, he doesn’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.

From the first page of section 1 of the Communist Manifesto of 1848:

-- The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors" and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. --

The last sentence is a charmer. Marx, the Judaic apostate and publicly professed atheist lauds the ecstasies of religious fervour. Chivalrous enthusiasm means put women back where they belong. Philistine sentimentalism… surely no two words were better married. Then again perhaps the first is redundant. Philistine = low class. Sentimentalism = low-class feeling. “Icy water of egotistical calculation” is his impressive transmogrification of Locke’s “enlightened self interest”.

Do words mean anything here? You can argue for hours about the intended meaning of this or that sentence, not because Marx was ‘profound’ or ‘deep’ (words I have little use for) but because he was poetic and rhetorical, confounded by a love for his own wind-music. He was deliberately obscure because he was in the position of a politician selling a platform to an audience of the unenlightened (Marx wasn’t shy about expressing contempt). A rumble-bumble of fine sounding, melodic, high-flying, inspirational sawdust and oatmeal filler.

So many comedians, so little time…

Perhaps Marx was a writer who deliberately cultivated style. Given his inability to generate persuasive content, that was probably his wisest option.

This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t work on style. Maybe I should too…

Back to fiction-writing for me…

Biff Cappuccino…

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Patriot Games

The university student crowd was roaring in unison, following his lead, aimless without him. Anything could happen and Chan loved this malleability. The possibilities were endless. He saw before him a tinderbox of stymied ambitions, repressed resentment, youthful angst, all of it on the verge of an undirected conflagration. So this was what the Cultural Revolution was like he sighed inwardly, his smile slipping into a leer, drunken with pleasure. A great age, a great time to be alive, our 1960’s generation was a great one. He’d missed it. But not this time. No, he would be here alright. He would be his generation’s Great Helmsman. Chaos, hormones, violence, free love, exhilaration, freedom were in the air making the atmosphere shockingly electric.

He was up on the stage. Power, ever the aphrodisiac, produced an erection stretching the front of his knock-off khaki chinos, pushing for freedom, meaning, fulfillment, climax. The guttural low-bass whoof of the magnificent crowd resonated with his diaphragm and even his clothes were vibrating in time with the beautiful cyclical hypnotic mass chant: "Down with the Japanese dwarves! Down with the Japanese dwarves!"

In clumsy hands, a crowd like this could easily get out of control, he knew that by now, but there was little risk. Or was there? And if there was? What of it? A mistake made was also a lesson learned. Shaking things up that needed shaking up, for the nation’s future, the People’s good. It was all for the greater good and harmony of mankind. He was just an enlightened instrument doing Heaven’s will, guiding the spirit of the People. The People must be awoken from their slumber. The motherland must be protected, revived and show global leadership, take the reigns of power from the decadents, the under-civilized, the disadvantaged and the submerged, and return the world to its proper harmonious order.

Chan Cheng-gong, the bought and sold son from a village of malnutrition damaged villagers in Gansu Province, was delighted. He was at the forefront again, on the stage, living out the truth and bringing words into action, realizing the fantasy he had worked so hard for these past six months and translated into a living, breathing, organic reality. He was in his anointed role, once again the true patriot, upholding standards, leading by example, ensuring a great, the appropriately great, future for the nation.

He was tall and thin, good skin and a minority aquiline nose, an inexpensively dressed and indifferently coiffured radical student leader on the campus of Xiaguan University who’d come to power through initiative, industry, resolve and the almost pathological drive common to the outlandishly successful. You can be who you want to be in the New China. And he was who he wanted to be in the university’s athletic stadium, on the podium in front of the mike, jumping up and down, pogoing like a concert performer, with a headband with characters written in his own blood "Defeat the Japanese Pirates", the ancient epithet for the men of Nippon. There were nearly 10,000 students shaking banners and shrieking, bellowing, chattering, laughing, hating as one. The tinder was alight.

The students were in full mob fury, riding the feedback loop to the max, as Chan grabbed the microphone, "Hold on! Hold on!" He cut into their feedback, pulling the plug, draining the energy, shattering their momentum like it was glass and returning them to particles of sand. He was their acknowledged master, the shining local light, the bold young prince, the supreme equal. He put his hand up and waved down the crowd, "Stop for a second! Stop for a second!"

The shouts and wolf whistles faltered and the clapping broke, leaving behind a white noise of mumbling, coughing, and shuffling. He said "Just chanting our opposition to the Japanese dwarves is not enough. We must combine words with action. We must seize the moment, make something of today. Give the pirates something to remember." The crowd roared back in anticipation.

He continued "We've had enough of being insulted, of being looked down upon. Enough historical irony. Enough rewriting of history. Let us begin to make a difference on our own, if our government doesn’t dare. Let us be bold enough to tread were others fear to go." The crowd roared its acclaim again. Chan said, "Let us chase these Japanese off our soil, eliminate them, as they tried to eliminate us during the national war for liberation. Never forget I say! Never forget!" The crowd screamed.

"Never forget! Never forget!"

Chan raised his fist to the sky and did not stop them this time, letting the momentum build, the excitement grow. He wanted his students to prove themselves, to demonstrate their investment of emotional capital. He wanted strength, unity of purpose and by the power of a just heaven he deserved it and would surely have it. He strutted off the stage, the loose-limbed simian student lope of his earlier pre-activist days long gone, to get a drink of water and to confer with his associates about their plan for this evening.

The evening’s protests had been precipitated by that afternoon’s university open house. A pair of Japanese students attending Chinese language studies had dressed up in a lurid fashion that incensed the local rustics with whom prudishness was presently fashionable. The Japanese comedians had worn women’s underwear outside their clothes and carried placards of Japan loves China. Your run of the mill college prank. A clash of cultures ensued. People cursed, shoved, shouted, and the two comedians took to their heels. The local students were an unfortunately humorless lot with an inferiority complex due to the national history curriculum which presents history as battle between relentlessly evil foreign invaders and serially heroic patriots. Unlike most nations where children are taught that patriots are heroes and usually win, China teaches its children that its patriots are heroes and usually lose and by implication that a foreigner with a hand tied behind his back can whip a dozen Chinese. The national pride is a sort of high-flown ambidextrous racism in which the nation’s nice guys, though morally superior, always somehow manage to come last. And this goes hand in hand with the national cult of victimhood which is predicated on the familiar notion that the meek, i.e. the nice guys, will inherit the earth. Predictably, history viewed from this perspective is a series of inexplicable immoral outrages. But surely disappointment, in all walks of life, is simply the result of inappropriate expectations?

Five minutes later, when Chan returned to stage center, the crowd was still going and more people were showing up, attracted by the commotion. A fine seasonal mist was coming down, the moisture from the surrounding hills hitting the coal dust and condensing. It put a fine and ethereal glow on events. Chan put up his hand, "Fellow students, alumni, friends. We have business to attend to. Action speaks louder than slogans. Let us head to the hotel where the Japanese criminals are hiding." The crowd chanted its approval. He said "I have the address. Number 200, Sun Yat-sen Boulevard. Close to the intersection of Martyrs Park. I say let's make martyrs of the Japanese, make them pay, make them remember. We must be taken seriously. This is our time to make a difference. Remember people. People power! We have power and it is time to use it. People power! People power!" The crowd chanted back "people power! People power!" 10,000 voices in unison, united in a glorious manner unseen since the Cultural Revolution bellowed "People power! People power!"

Chan waved them down again. "Okay, by my watch the time is 9 p.m. Let us reassemble in front of the Japanese Embassy at 9:40 p.m." Looking back at the people his face shined aglow. I shall see you there my brothers and sisters. Make haste! Make haste. And never forget: People power! People power! Say it with me brothers and sisters: People power! People power!"

He walked off stage and began giving directions to student union representatives who took charge of students organized by class and department to ensure everyone moved off and reassembled in an organized fashion.

Chan took a breather and reflected. He was impressed. All of the work he’d put into organizing the students and inspiring their patriotic fervor had paid off. Events were favorable and they might achieve something of significance tonight. They were giving back to society in the manner of their parents’ generation and the generations before them. They were putting meaning back into young lives preoccupied with brand names, shopping, career choices, mortgages, credit cards and all the other shallow rot of modern living.

Over the past several months he’d spent many long nights patrolling web forums, planting information, trolling, working up the fury of fellow students. And many afternoons after classes writing provocative articles, working up fuming polemics, having them mimeographed and photocopied, distributing them by hand, his own hand. But through persistence, he’d attracted a coterie of groupies who now assisted him with the spade and shovel work, honored to accept his leadership and do his bidding. He was an effective manager, impatient with others and hot-headed at times, but generally approachable, fair and reasonable once things went his way. Over the past six months, he’d indeed made very impressive strides. He’d learned much about organizing and motivating his passive generation of politically-indifferent money-mad students, about planting the right shibboleths and harvesting the right mood.

He'd made his mistakes too of course. Initially his target had been the national government. He’d timidly submitted unsigned articles to student websites and maligned party corruption, sloth, and lack of vision: the party’s unwillingness to deal resolutely and efficiently with suppurating social issues like the corrupt use of eminent domain to purloin real estate, the enforcement of legal protections for workers, growing homelessness, pick-pockets, protection-racket shakedowns, violent crime. Christmas was now the peak season for criminals, with the nation’s have-nots swarming in a rash of home invasions and break & entries, to steal toys for their children from the haves. It was joked that Santa climbed down Chinese chimneys to steal gifts for Western children. All this could easily have been preempted with an ounce of prevention. Instead, the party sat on its dick and whistled The Sun Sets Red over China while more than 50,000 large scale workers protests broke out per annum.

Chan had been clever enough to escape the sensors most of the time and to escape the forum detectives of the party propaganda bureau. This had been almost too easy he thought. But then again the bureau was clogged with gray beards and grandmas, their heirs and assigns. A nepotistic crew of stuffed-shirts, pencil pushers, and paper shufflers bellying up to the national feed-trough. No wonder they’d fail to catch him. They'd have trouble catching a cold during flu season, he thought.

In the end, the most trying obstacle was not the party, but the students. They were too pragmatic and too easily worried by the government. The Tiananmen incident was still too fresh, too near for people to be bold and act on an anti-government platform.

Chan started out trying to whip up support for farmers suffering at the hands of the national government, and suggested demonstrations to promote abolishing party privilege in the hinterlands. But there was a general suspicion that farmers were herded and rooked deliberately as the government’s policy was to get people off the land to feed the demand for labor in the cities. Farmers jumping off buildings and setting themselves on fire had achieved nothing. What could student protests achieve? It was a non-starter.

Then Chan tried opposing multinationals stealing domestic market share and putting local companies out of business. But this was a no-go when he discovered that many students privately wished to work for multinationals because they offered higher wages, better benefits, status, sex appeal, and the prospect of getting out of the country.

Then he tried opposing local businesses that operated sweatshops and took advantage of illiterate workers from hinterlands. But this didn't fetch up much interest either because students were contemptuous of scruffy bumpkins in refugee suits and sneakers, and blamed them for the increase in purse snatchings, bag slashings, and pickpocketings.

So he threw yet another cause over like yesterday’s newspaper and tried supporting the right to religious freedom on behalf of Falungong practitioners. But this didn't go anywhere either because most students were atheists and thought all religion was superstitious and a primitive poison upon the land. Some wondered if he was a Falungong member and posted threats on forums.

And then Chan came across the Nanking Massacre. It wasn’t obvious as a cause at first because he associated it with government propaganda. He’d thought of the government as his natural enemy, the enemy of the people in fact as a whole. After all, it was the government that opposed democracy, that squelched student protests, that rounded up religious fanatics. But with the Nanking Massacre, he found a cause where their mutual interests combined.

The Japanese never apologized, they never offered compensation. It was the Chinese who defeated the Japanese in the Second World War, pushed them back into their hole, saving the world for civilization. And yet the Japanese had returned, revived like an incurable disease by the imperialist Americans. But at least the Americans had democracy, brand names, fast food, and the fascinating music of darkies. They were a mixed barrel of good and bad apples. But the Japanese, they were shameless murdering raping bastards! And now, even after the end of the great war of liberation, they retained their grip on Chinese sacred national soil. They deserve nothing, less than nothing. They should be exterminated as the vermin that they were. The sacred Chinese realm! They stained the motherland with their filthy presence, stamped disgusting boots on the face of Chinese soil.

He found plenty of material on the Internet to pump up the issue. He took a train and visited the Nanjing Memorial and looked on in horror and shock at these true photos of genuine massacre. He was appalled beyond his own expectations. This was a visceral disgust and for the first time he felt sheer terror. He left the memorial shaky, hysterical with rage. He couldn't think straight. But thinking wasn’t required for a chemically-pure cause. It would only complicate things and attract pencil-necks from the history department with their craze for explaining everything away and removing motivational value. Boldness, courage, resolve! These were paramount.

As he began trolling web forums, he found a common note of sympathy. Some of the students had parents who’d been in Nanjing or at least Shanghai and could relate the horror of what happened back in 1937. He realized that people from all over China must have been there and the potential scale of the slaughter must have been even larger than reported. The government figure of 300,000 was too small. Research unearthed that the initial figure for the massacre was over one million. The government must have watered this number down to prevent the country from dissolving into madness, a lust of revenge which would have reduced the country into absolute chaos. The first casualty of war is truth. So true! Oh China, how much have you suffered at the hands of foreigners? The mass slaughters, the serial rapes, the bayoneting of civilians as practice for soldiers, the medical experiments and vivisection of fellow patriots, fellow youths, fellow students.

He left Nanking a changed man. Reinvigorated, recharged. He resolved to formally enter the political stage, to set an inspiring example, to make history, to be a part of history, to be a seminal historical figure. Something had to be done.

He spat on his hands and applied the polish he'd gained over the previous several months to the cause. Tremors went through the Internet, a tidal wave of anger was unleashed, and swept across campus. People began to seek him out and encourage him, to thank him for reminding them of what had really happened. History was so easy to forget. And those who did not know history were due to repeat it. It was exhilarating and empowering to work for justice and devote oneself wholeheartedly and unquestioningly for the right side.

But not everyone could afford to be so forthright. He began to receive anonymous mailings of additional information. Judging from the formal nature of the material, it was from faculty members who could not become publicly involved. Or perhaps it was from members of the city government fettered by conflicts of interest as Japanese corporations snapped up local public works projects from patriotic firms. Either way, he received reams of confidential information concerning corrupt Japanese business practices, bribes, Japs visiting brothels, seducing secretaries, driving fancy cars over fellow patriots and thinking they could take care of the problem by throwing a twaddle of that filthy Japanese lucre around.

Chan was disgusted. There was simply no two ways about it. The damn Japs had to be taught a lesson. Had to be taught humility. They had to return to their proper caste in global society. The Chinese gave them their culture, their written language, their food, their technology, their martial arts. If it was not for the head start the Chinese emperors gave to them with pure motives and genuine generosity, where would the Japanese be now? And in return, what had Japan done to China? Kill, maim, steal, loot, rape. This had to be punished. They had to be brought in line, inculcated with civilization, civilized practice, civilized norms.

While Chan and the students were still getting assembled at the hotel domiciling the insulting Japanese perverts, the People's National Hotel, a fleet of police cars pulled up. Chan was not intimidated. He was ready for he had the public support of the student body and the private support of the city government. The police presence would be a sham at best.

The police chief got out of the car and immediately recognized that Chan was the leader by the deference he received, the blood-smeared headband of the fanatic, the handsome well-formed face born to charismatic leadership.

The police chief asked "I take it you are the leader of this student demonstration?" Chan nodded. Not answering verbally was a way of issuing the police chief with notice of his own authority. "Very well then. My men tell me that you're protesting the Japanese students in town. Frankly, I don't blame you. The Japanese have a lot to account for. But, I'm at a loss as to why you’re protesting at this hotel."

"Well, obviously because they are here.” Chan said snootily. “We have inside information."

The chief replied "Well, your inside information must be faulty. If you wish to protest anyone here, go for it. It's not my business. I will not stop you. But I will tell you that there are no Japanese inside this hotel."

“Humph!” Chan said, while looking the chief in the eye. "Well then, in your considered opinion, where are they?"

The chief looked away from Chan and into the hotel, grimacing, "I can't get involved in this sort of thing. Far too messy. I'm might lose my head for it.” He shrugged, “I already have my orders from above. I shouldn't even be talking to you. All I can say is, umm… just use your head.” He winked, “You'll figure it out."

The police chief marched off, getting back in his car, the siren blared, and his flotilla moved off. They sailed down the block about 200 yards and stopped in front of the new International Travelers Hotel. They stepped out and formed a cordon.

In his research into Japanese investment in local ventures, Chan had learned that the new hotel was a joint project, a cooperative venture between Chinese and Japanese investors. So, this was a hint that the police chief was giving him. Support for his anti-Japanese protests was indeed emerging from all over the place.

Chan grabbed a megaphone from one of his assistants and called to the students, "Attention! Attention people? We have a new venue for our demonstration. The New International Travelers Hotel.” There was a stir in the crowd. “I have new information. The Japanese cowards have moved to the New International Travelers Hotel. That is their safe haven, so they think. Let us make them feel the warmth of Chinese patriotism.” A cheer broke out. “Let us remind them that history will not be rewritten, that the Japanese bandits will not be forgiven for their treachery, their bullying, their murderous appetites. Onward my friends! Onward!" The students roared their approval once more. "Let us move over to the hotel and reassemble there by 10:15. Onward brothers and sisters. To the hotel!"

When they got there their protests went off as expected. The students chanted their slogans, vented their rage. The phalanx of police kept the students from the hotel and Chan stood just outside the vestibule, while curious onlookers upstairs in the building viewed events from their windows. The local television station showed up and interviewed him. Chan felt like a prince of the People, the Emperor of patriotic activists, a Force for the good side who helped people and made the world a better place.

About an hour and a half after they had begun, close to midnight, just before they were going to call it a day and return to the dormitories, an ambulance pulled up at the original hotel where they were going to protest.

It was just one of many minor distractions and he paid no attention to it. People were constantly committing messy suicides in major hotels because going out in style maximized the humiliation of the lovers and family members who survived them. But five minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was one of his laggard students from chemistry class barking into the phone "they're getting away! They're getting away!"

Chen shouted at him, "calm down! Calm down! Who's getting away?"

"The fucking Japs! The dwarves are hightailing it into an ambulance. What the fuck is happening?"

Chan was stunned. What the fuck was happening? He looked at his cell phone. The student was still shouting but he wasn't listening to him any more. He looked over at the police chief who smiled back at him knowingly. The chief spoke an order into his walkie-talkie and his men immediately put down their riot gear and started demobilizing. Students charged into the hotel and raced for the elevators. It was too late to stop them. Everything was out of control now. Chaos.

Chan was enraged and ran over to the police chief. Before he had time to get a word in the chief pulled up his baton readying it to strike him. He said "hold it right there sonny. Or you'll be sorry you were born."

Chen barked at him, "Why?"

The chief waited a moment, making sure his men were first already back to their vehicles and out of hearing range. "Why? Because I have my orders. Like I said, I agree with what you're doing. But I get my marching orders from above."

Chan was stunned, not know how to take this treachery, how to deal with this violent coward. The chief picked up the slack, "Again, nice demonstration. Well coordinated. If only our troops were like that, maybe we could do something about that there Japan."

"What do you mean? One Chinese could slay ten Japanese cowards! My source tells me they scampered into your van like rats from a burning outhouse!"

The chief said sharply, "Watch it! You should be proud of what you achieved today. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of you. But," and he moved closer, confiding,” Watch your step. If you get too important too fast, I might get more orders." And he winked again. And that was that.

When the students didn’t find the Japanese, Chan didn't come clean about being duped by the police chief. If that story got out, the coward might want avenge the libel. Rather than invent a story, Chan just remained quiet, outwardly confident and resolute. He let his underlings explain thing any way they liked. That was their job now, he mused, to relieve him of the messy details of day-to-day management. Cultivating mystery and leaving his actions enigmatic would appeal to youthful imaginations. He had no competition to undercut him. So let them make him larger than life, for that was his destiny anyway.

Either way, admitting that he’d been fooled would damage his image, cut the legs out from under his growing cult of personality. It was too embarrassing, too humiliating, too human. He wasn’t going to be pulled down a notch by the treachery of others too weak-willed and limp-dicked to do what was right for the motherland.

The next day and the day following that he looked hopefully for coverage of events on television, but no mention was to be found. Nothing. It had been erased from history, aborted before it had even had a chance at life.

The debacle chastened him, chagrined him, put fear back into him. He went back to being normal again, he was no longer special. He went back to having nightmares.

Chan had grown up in Gansu province as the second child of an impoverished family. His elder brother and he had grown up as a sandbag babies. Their parents were too poor to afford cotton nappies, let alone disposable ones. Traditional-minded, they bundled their children into sand-bag-nappies. If sand was good enough for Fluffy the cat, then it was good enough for Chan the child. Sandbags, though prone to giving kids nappy rash, were effective and their unsightliness was more of a cosmetic issue than a health one.

The real issue was that, like the parents of other sandbag babies, his parents used the traditional daycare solution. Both of his folks worked but were too poor to place their children in a daycare center and so they made use of the local tradition of thrift: To keep them out of harm’s way while their parents were gone, Chan and his brother had been firmly restrained, tied down with rope, to the top of a bed. This was also a traditional method of insuring children were filial. Keeping children away from temptation, keeping them away from stimulus of any kind, calmed them down by dumbing them down, turning an unfortunate percentage of the children into clinically certifiable imbeciles. But they were filial imbeciles and that was the important thing. Imbeciles who could hay and rake and weed and otherwise get the job done on the farm. Some would say it made for children who couldn't think to save their lives without realizing that some traditionally-minded folks considered that to be a bonus.

Chan's family had been so poor that the economics of the situation dictated they sell him when he was two. Being cut loose from his family was a great boon, rescuing him from growing into a simpleton like his brother. However, he never outgrew his memories of being tied down to a bed.

Even after he left -- growing up in his new well-to-do business family on the coast, having been purchased in a night market, his liquid doe eyes and natural tendency to smile two selling points that were actually temporarily remaining stigmata of his kang-enforced idiocy -- he still had vivid recollections. He would wake unable to breathe, clutching at his throat and trying to get the rope off his hands. After a couple of moments, the fog of nightmare was over and his eyes not just open and full of imaginings, but open and focused and seeing the prosaic reality of his bedroom around him. He would try to settle down and end up, as often as not, smiling nervously at the ridiculous thought of using one hand to get the rope off the other when he recalled that both of his hands had been tied down by his parents to the bed. He shook off clinging memories of the excruciating boredom of tight restriction, being unable to move, the frantic wailing hours of claustrophobia, the terrific panicky mental strain created in someone born with an attention-deficit and a naturally nimble mind.

All throughout his young life, when under strain, the nightmares would return. When he got bored or wasn't preoccupied with something, his subconscious squirmed. The attention deficit ensured that his mind constantly looked for something, anything to focus on and play with, like a cat with a ball of string. Even more satisfying to his subconscious was something to obsess on and generate that perpetual motion machine of the mind, his brain whirling and chasing phantoms of its own construction, like a demented house pet chasing its tail. His mind played tricks on him and the nightmares returned. Now that he'd botched the demonstration to throw out the Japanese, the squirming came back home to roost.

He woke up in a sweat the following morning, shaking, body tight as a string bass. He cursed at his nightmares like a dog frightened by motorists, trying to convince himself he was in control, still the alpha male between his ears. He got out of bed, blinked and blew his cheeks. He tried to relax. But self-confidence first thing in the morning is a zero-sum game. Now he was cocked and hair-triggered, his shoulders tight, high strung. He was ready to fire. But at what? Whatever he wanted. That was his discovery. His motivation. Like an edgy athlete who had yet to touch the ball on the playing field, he could not be serene until he proved himself. He could not be confident, he could not be himself, which is to say he could not be the person, the People's person, the People's hero he wanted to be and envisioned himself destined for.

Once was enough. He was not interested in having to endure yet another and other evening of interrupted sleep and nightmares. Having been hustled by the police, he decided to go back on the Internet and see what he could come up with. He needed more cause. More direction, more purpose. In its own way, this psyche hang up his was healthy, he had always known. For, it always kept him moving forward. The constant pressure, constant drive to do new things, to have new achievements, accomplishments.

He went back onto the Internet. He networked with friends on campus and contacted handful of computer nerds. The Chinese government was keeping him down, suppressing him. Not just through their actions, their deception and betrayal of the People's will, but also through their hampering of the people's ability to access knowledge and make their own decisions. He acquired the trust of several nerds and began to receive coded information from the about the latest mirrors for accessing web sites aggressively blocked by the Party’s Internet censors.

He chose a gay Internet café. Fags were perverts who didn’t contribute to making the nation strong by fucking for children. That was all he knew and all he wanted to know. But a gay café was the last place he figured the Party would watch when looking for political activists. After first staring off and disappointing a couple of eager avuncular looking gentlemen, he got down to work.

Inevitably, he came upon Nanking massacre denial web sites. He dodged them, not wanting to soil himself with their toxic filth. Then he thought back to Sunzi's the Art of War. The First Patriot had exhorted that one must know one's enemy to the fullest to maximize the opportunity for victory. He took a deep breath and immersed himself into their septic works, conceiving this as a baptism in the sewer.

Unsurprisingly, the claims threw him into a rage, making him frantic with disgust, the spittle which usually grows at the corners of standard-accented Mandarin speakers growing unconsciously into a froth now. Either way, most important of all, it kept him focused.

Some Japanese web sites said the massacre was limited to the slaughter of Chinese troops. A war crime yes, but not a citywide slaughter. Some dispensed entirely with sophistry and were completely shameless. They refused to admit any massacre at all, claiming that photos were falsified and attempting to prove their provenance lay elsewhere. They libeled the bones dug up around Nanjing, claiming they were from the 1860's Taiping Rebellion's Nanjing Massacre and the Manchu dynasty's 1912 Nanjing Massacre when the Manchu Dynasty fell and the city was torn by civil war. Other web sites claimed Japan's officials had been apologizing for the massacre for decades. Another mentioned that Japanese schoolbooks had taught school-children about the Nanjing massacre since 1946. Yet another website maintained that the Japanese civilian government was overwhelmingly opposed to the slaughter of soldiers that took place in Nanjing. The list of excuses went on and on and on.

Finding patterns in their lies gave him strength, revived his moral fortitude.

One pattern was the minimizing of the scope of crimes, as if ten deaths was less of a moral transgression than fifteen. Then there was the floating of historically obscure excuses to confuse the non-expert and the infirm of purpose, and thus snatch away the power of decision-making from the People. Then there was the positing of ‘contributing factors’, ‘group psychology’, ‘social imperatives’ and other lame devices to humanize the demon criminals and obscure their crimes by placing them in a context that implied inevitability, thus deflating the People's righteous desire for moral punishment. Further, there was the blaming of individuals, renegades, elites, and rogue armies in order to slyly slip into place the lie that the invasion was not the design of a morally debased nation attempting to subjugate and enslave a morally upright People.

He was taken aback. It was like there was an entire industry devoted to apologetics, to twisting history, to perverting the People's understanding of events, to spinning the sacred truth into a profane dust. One Nip professor even maintained that national self-determination was the most disastrous concept to hit the 20th century. He wanted a bullet for this imperialist colonizing bastard.

Who did they think they were fooling? Lies. All lies. Hollow excuses, casuistry, sophistry, word-spinners, history re-writers. He focused on his hatred with all his might and yet there remained subversive, slippery seeds of doubt. With doubt might come collapse of his obsession with hating Japan. And that would return his nightmares. For the first time he realized that he not only wanted this cause, but that he really needed it too. That he was doomed to pursuing a lifetime of causes. But by then he had already recognized that pursuing causes would bring the limelight, celebrity, and make him into someone and somebody. He took pride in his muscular ability to overcome adversity, to turn doom into an engine for success.

He reassured himself by impressing himself with the notion that thinking was for pencil necks. Twisting logic was the knack of academics. Though a university student, he was an engineering major and thus had the universal engineer's dim view of 'academics' and shared their perception of them as being no more than a bunch of gabbling pencil-pushers who constructed nothing but castles in the sky.

Later sessions of Web surfing through portals to the outside world revealed for him even more deviousness: Japanese writers who smeared the name of the nation's father, Sun Yat-sen. They had to be Japanese provocateurs using Chinese names, for they maligned the founding father as a fascist who had demanded an oath of personal allegiance when founding the Chinese Nationalist party, as a crook who absconded with Japanese funds time and time again, and as an accessory to the assassination of three of his fellow patriots.

Chan’s face went even hotter, his blood pressure rising to a level that verged on giving him an aneurism. Tears rolled down his cheeks. But he was silent. Pensive. Reflective. His rage had collapsed. Now he was mawkishly sentimental, the intellectual equivalent of the fetal position. He felt a profound helplessness and vulnerability. The People’s vulnerability. Was there no shame in the world?

There was so much deception, even out in the free nations. Even out there, there were conspiracies of denial, conspiracies to deceive, conspiracies to oppress. He began to realize that democracy was not everything it was cooked up to be. There was strength in communism, unity of purpose. While surfing the web, he had barely survived the testing of his own doubts. The People, particularly those of lesser conviction, would only be confused by information overload. The morality-spinners, blame-dodgers, and word-smiths would win. They would defeat a morally and chemically pure People vulnerable to clever global shysters. He realized that a free press was not free after all. The motherland, Greater China, he realized, was still in the right after all. Five thousand sacred years. And the tears once again rolled down his cheeks. Tears of gratitude for membership within the great national family. Tears of relief that he was safe, home again.

And then, the following day, there was headline news. Japanese accusations of a Chinese submarine entering national waters! He was saved! When he dug into the background, he discovered the Japs were sneakily drilling for oil and natural gas in Chinese territory. They sunk pipes into the ground and then used advanced technology to make their drill bits cut at an angle, entering the sacred sediments of the Chinese sea-shelf. Once again, the Nips were at it! They had given up on a hot war with China and were now engaged in an economic war. The cowardly big-wad bastards!

He pumped up the issue again on campus, writing juicy polemics for web forums, minimizing the possibility for student confusion by downsizing facts and supersizing rhetoric. He got around campus, dressed in a donated suit and tie, distributing leaflets by hand to judge the level of emotion he was building. Once again, the students of his small country university, comfortable and with plenty of time on their hands and happy to get involved in anything that got some excitement going, got into it. He revived group discussions of the Nanjing massacre. But he also introduced students to a new crime against humanity, the libeling of the national father by Japanese revisionists.

He once again visited the gay Internet café to access mirrors allowing him access to overseas news and yet again he was disgusted to find events being spun by the so-called free press. Corporate media such as CNN even manufactured the lie that China's president Hu Jin-tao had issued a de facto apology to the Japanese for the submarine’s invasion of Japanese territorial waters. Who could believe such nonsense? Such fantastical rubbish? He shook his head. There's a sucker born every minute.

Lately, news references to the Chinese submarine adventure had links to previous stories about the Diaoyutai Islands. These islands were presently under the administration of Japan but for years Chinese patriots had been taking fishing boats out of Hong Kong and visiting the islands to heroically plant Red flags and reclaim the islands as part of the sacred national territory. He had long ago considered going to the islands but lacked clearance required to get into Hong Kong, not to mention the prohibitive price of hiring a fishing boat there. Now, however, he read that boats from Dalien in the north were being allowed direct access by Chinese authorities to the islands to protest Japanese actions. Although local authorities had been of two minds supporting his protests here in Xiaguan, it seemed clear that they would be united in their support of protests coming out of Dalien.

After a couple of weeks, the submarine kerfuffle had shot its wad and was shrinking in importance. He quickly shifted gears and chased after the Island issue. He applied the usual tactics, heating up talking points and working up some steam in his fellow students. But this time he wanted to persuade them to join him and visit the Diaoyutai Islands during the Spring Break. He got people psyched by promoting the trip as the premier Yunnan province student team demonstration to go to Diaoyutai Island. This would be something students could brag to their girlfriends about and later amuse their grandchildren with. Everyone who joined would become heroes, famous throughout the student community, even nationally known. All of their names would acquire a halo of lifelong moral and patriotic rectitude.

He knew his game and his target audience and everyone got excited and on the go. Students solicited local businesses for donations to the great cause and took out an ad in the local paper to spread the news and build up interest. Aboriginal proprietors, overeager to demonstrate patriotism to an ever-doubting nation, and Taiwanese investors, hoping to pry the local party hacks off their backs, were immediately forthcoming with generous funding. Sponsoring students was an excellent and inexpensive investment in public relations. The funds came in above and beyond their needs.

The evening before they departed, there was a final celebration to unify purpose. Everyone was fêted, emptied shot glasses all night long, and got sloppy promising eternal fraternity, patriotism, righteousness. The next day, the night before’s love-in was hazy at best and everyone groaned while piling on the train to sleep it all off.

Chan had made the necessary arrangements through coordinating with other student leaders. When they got to Dalien, their boat was ready. He arrived with his cohort of twenty students and at the Dalien central train station met the local patriotic student leader he had found on the internet. He was tall too, alabaster skin, a cravat under a leather jacket and wool suit pants below that. His leather lace-ups were gleaming. Though Chan was tired, rumpled, and grumpy from riding the train for three days, he found a reserve of genuine enthusiasm for the student leader who in turn immediately informed Chan that, "Actually, there will be two boats going out to the Diaoyutai Islands today. One will be one which you've hired and the other will be provided and piloted by a local party division head."

"The Party’s coming along? What does the Party had to do with this? I arranged this demonstration on my own, from the initial concept through to the propaganda through to canvassing for funds on down to arranging our travel and accommodations. The Party is good for nothing but sitting on its ass."

The local student leader chuckled jovially, "Slow down, slow down! This is just standard operating procedure. You didn't really expect to go out into the ocean with twenty students and not have the Party know about it, did you? They know everything, or at least they think they know everything. They also know they have to avoid an international incident. What if your boat got lost and you and your students drowned? Can you imagine the embarrassment for the nation? The outcry from parents? There's no way the Party’s going to risk something like that happen. These things have to be managed with a certain finesse… A certain professionalism you might say. I mean, after all, these events capture international attention. One has to make sure things go smoothly. The national interest is at stake. This event is bigger than you or I. It’d be a great loss of face if things went awry, right?"

Chan began to grumble but realized the inevitability of national events had over taken his provincial plans. He stopped up and blew out his cheeks. "All right! All right. I give in. So who is this paper-shuffling doughboy anyway? When do I have the grand pleasure of meeting this Party hack?"

The local student made a nervous honking noise, the sound of laughter getting choked in his throat. He warned in a low voice "Hey! I don't know where you come from, but around here we watch our mouths. It's one thing to be brave. It's another thing to be foolhardy. It's not worth getting into trouble over this. I admire your spirit. But, really, this is just a demonstration after all."

"Farts! Everything you say is just farts. I'm willing to die for my country. Any true patriot is. It’s the least he can do for the People. I must say I'm shocked at your cavalier attitude. You act as if this was simply a school play, a staged stunt, a commercial advertisement with actors paid by the hour. We are serious. We're here to make a difference. I suggest you reassess your moral outlook and take us seriously."

The local student leader put up his hands to keep Chan from saying anything else that might get him in trouble, "Okay man. Whatever you say. It's your show. Look, I'm just here to give you some basic directions and make sure that you know how to get to the harbor."

"Of course I know how to get to the fucking harbor. I look like some kind of country moron to you? I can't read a map?"

He looked at his watch quickly and then said, "Well, why don't I just let you handle things from here on in. It’s your show. You're right. I don't want to get in the way. I’d just be a third wheel. Go for it. And good luck." He scampered, disappearing immediately into the morning rush-hour crowd.

Chen took his twenty apostles down to the harbor on a bus. He took the absence of pickpockets to be an auspicious omen. As they disembarked they were greeted by the party representative. He a graying official in suit pants and a white golf jacket, accompanied by two tall rugged younger men in sunglasses and jogging-suits, bodyguards by the look of them.

The party official had a well-lined face and practiced smiling eyes. He was friendly and frank. A can-do person without pretension, he looked like a business owner, comfortable dealing with authority and used to ordering flunkies around, but with a human touch. He looked Chan in the eye "So! You are the young lion that we've been waiting for. The young firebrand from Yunnan province out to make a name for himself that will ring out in the heavens for generations to come."

Chan was caught off guard and tried to angle for time by prevaricating. "This is not about me, but about us. The nation.”

“Yes, yes. The national interest. That’s my preoccupation too. Professionally speaking.” He smiled.

“What do you mean?”

“Everything and nothing. There are answers to all questions if you are patient. All in good time.”

Chan was not the patient kind. “How do know about this demonstration?”

“You meant to keep it a secret from the Party? How bold of you. Not to mention presumptuous. Not to mention subversive and perhaps even criminal in intent.”

“There’s nothing criminal about me. I’m as pure as the purest white bleach.”

“Bleach is white, is it? Interesting. And rainbows are the color of rain I suppose? Or are they the color of bows?” He turned to his men, “I can never quite remember.” They laughed. “That’s always the way it is with your kind of operator. Nothing means anything. Anything means everything. Everything means nothing.” He brought out a knock-off Zippo lighter and fired up a Red Flags cigarette, not asking Chan if he wanted a smoke. He snapped the lighter cover back heavily, making a statement of authority out of it. He said “Back in the Great Leap Forward, words were everything, rhetoric was very popular. You would have loved it.” He inhaled and thought dreamily. “In those days, to state that 2+2=4 was to be dull, to lack a sort of revolutionary imagination. Why not give the People hope? Why couldn’t 2+2 be stretched to equal 5? Put your heart into it! Have some imagination they said. Why couldn’t 2+2=6? Or 26? Or 626? Soon, to say that 2+2=4 became a counter-revolutionary act.”

“Nonsense! You lie!”

“I lie? Only in the small things, the details. Not in the big things, those that matter. What I say is far from nonsense, young lion. Words mean something. Words cause actions. Actions cause reactions.”

“This is obvious. Of course.” He spluttered, feeling lured into a trap and frustrated by this riddling. “What…what do you mean? I don’t understand.”

“Questions, questions. You are a visionary, no?” He laughed caustically. “I would have expected you to have all the answers.” He snorted, “Don’t worry. You will. Soon enough.”

Chan was irritated by this feeble attempt to put him down. Never one for banter, he changed the subject to something more serious, "I just wanted to know if you'd really known so much about our activities in Yunnan. It's not so often we’re flattered by the attention of authorities on the East Coast. Usually your sort despises provincials. And for no good reason I might add. That sort of unfair bullshit prejudice makes my blood boil. Who has come out today to protest, to make a difference, to make an international statement, to validate our nation’s sacrosanct territorial claims? Is it the local high hats? Is it the local dandified students, dressed in the barbarous costume of the foreign imperialists? Is it..."

"Enough! Save your southern-fried preaching for the islands when we get there. We’ll be filming this, by the way. Just plug that hole of yours until we get there or I’m going to be seasick along the way.” He paused to take a breath and collect his thoughts, “There will be plenty of time for you to inspire us with your patriotic vaporings and posturing.” Chan was making a face when the officer turned to look at him and said, “I’m serious this time. We want lots of your waffle. The more the better, actually. You want to be a hero? Well you’re going to be one. That is the party’s decision. It’s fiat. In its infinite wisdom, as always.”


“Yes. Indeed.” And he sighed heavily. “However, in the meantime I’d appreciate it if you can put a lid on it. I’ve lived through more history than you, young lion, and I've better things to do with my remaining days than waste them trying to resurrect a past that never was."

Insulted, Chan burst out "What do you mean! I demand to know what you mean!"

"You make no demands of me, young man! Let's get this straight, right from the beginning. I give the orders, you do the bidding. One word from me and this adventure is over. One more word from me and you're in prison and your parents can visit you one weekend a month." Chan went red with rage and humiliation, but said nothing for he knew the official could do precisely what he wanted. He looked away.

The official said, "That’s better. Now let's get going." He put his arm around Chan's shoulders and said, "Look young man. It's nothing personal. I just want this whole business to go smoothly, you understand. You have your considerations, I have my own. For you this is just a lark, but I have my orders. So please forgive my impatience."

Chan wanted to say that this was not a lark, but held his tongue. He hated compromise. It was compromise which had given China its problems in the first place. It was a lack of resolve that had made the country weak. One had to make sacrifices for the country, for the common good. Why didn’t more people understand this?

They headed down to the quay to the fishing boats. As they pulled up to their boats in particular, the official said, "This large white fishing vessel is for your fellow students. We prefer that you accompany us on this smaller one." He was referring to a nimble-looking navy blue cabin cruiser.

"Why? What do you have in mind?"

"As I previously mentioned, the party wants a video and photographic record of all events. The party agrees with you that this should be a seminal victory walk to mobilize the people and persuade them that the country is worth fighting for.” He was rolling along as if giving a prepared statement. “That China has international rights. That it is a peaceful country. But also that it is one which will not be trifled with, abused, or mocked. We hope that you will star at the center of these events. We wish to reward your ambition with fame and recognition for giving your all on behalf of the country.” He stopped for a second and nodded at him, prodding. “We thought you would agree to this."

Chan was flattered "Yes. Of course. Yes, naturally so. I'm pleased to see that the party and I agree and see eye to eye."

The party official grinned, giving him a mock bow of respect and honor. Chan was immensely flattered and gratified. He was pleased that things were going according to plan. He was going to make something of himself. He was going to become someone of significance. He was being rewarded for acting in the spirit of having only one life to live, one life to give for one's country.

The boarded and got under way. As they pulled out from the harbor, they received an ovation of applause from the fishermen who shouted, "Banish the Japanese back to the land of the dwarves! Remove the Japanese pirates from our sacred fishing grounds!"

After the six hours of rolling waves, rolling ship, and a bout of seasickness, they finally arrived. There were no Japanese ships on the horizon and they smoothly disembarked and began to scale the rough rocks of the head island. Immediately on reaching the highest promontory, they set up Chinese flags in the brisk breeze and began to film. Almost as if on cue, a helicopter appeared. A speaker sounded, with someone in heavily Japanese accented Chinese demanding that they leave the island at once. It went on giving the expected litany of legalese concerning Japanese jurisdiction this, international law that, and no foreigners allowed.

Chan roared in exhilaration, throwing up his hands and making a great V of victory with his arms. The party official and his two bodyguards continued filming. Chan was at the center of the shots, time and time again. Much of the time, the wind was blowing so hard the sound quality was poor and dubbing would have to be done later. But Chan didn’t mind. The lengthier his involvement in all of this, particularly on the studio production end, the better.

The other students filled in as a background and gradually, everyone was interviewed and shared their patriotic sentiments on film for the record. They needed little prodding from the official because they were all genuinely moved with the occasion.

Soon however, a destroyer and a smaller intercepting vessel appeared on the horizon. Within fifteen minutes, two launches showed up with armed Japanese soldiers in uniform. They disembarked and began to scale the promontory. The helicopter landed a Japanese official below and through his megaphone kept insisting they come down immediately. The official kept filming all the while until he judged the soldiers were too close. Telling the students to wait for the soldiers and cooperate with them, the official and one of his two bodyguards made a run down the other side of the promontory for their boat. The students were bait to keep the Japanese soldiers preoccupied.

The other bodyguard grabbed Chan by the arm and said "I'm here to assist you. You'll be safe with me. Let's go." While the Japanese official and his soldiers were occupied counting and ID-ing the students and otherwise processing them, Chan and his bodyguard were already away, running down yet another path towards a promontory about 500 yards away. As Chan looked down from above, he saw that the party official had unmoored his boat and was underway. The Japanese official was now talking into his walkie-talkie and pointing at the dark blue cabin-cruiser.

Chen asked, "Where are we going?"

"We need to get you back on the boat for more film footage. You're the hero here, remember? The young lion. We want people to know who you are, to see you in action. We want your name to last. Like the good name of Lei Feng."

"But he died forty years ago.” He mumbled to himself, “A falling telephone pole or something.” Louder. “Some sort of freak accident. Maybe a stroke of lightning. Real tragic, considering how young he was. "

"And no one has replaced him. He lived and died for the party. He was great. Selfless. The good die young. That’s what they say.”

Chan wasn’t listening. He was too busy imagining himself in posters and on television. “Lei Feng was forever giving of himself. He always did what was right. Not just for the party, but for the individual. He's been a hero to every one of us Chinese ever since.

“Yup. The Party wants to hold you up as the new exemplar."

"Really?" Chan's eyes opened with wonder, the reality of this finally hitting him, the awesome weight it placed on his shoulders making him shy and self-conscious. "Do you really think that I have what it takes to be a national hero? I don't know. That's an awful responsibility."

The bodyguard patted his shoulder from behind while they quick-footed across the rocks of the island, "You'll do just fine. Somebody has to do it. Don't worry. You're perfect just as you are."

Chan looked back and saw that the rest of the students were moving in an orderly fashion back to their fishing boat. Looking from afar, he saw a peaceful herd in motion. He really was very different from them. He was the leader, the organizer, born to be in the vanguard. He was born for more than following. He had much more to give.

The bodyguard was ahead of him now, guiding him to their destination. The party official’s boat was waiting for them, the official waving them frantically to get on. They leapt aboard and the cruiser pulled away immediately.

Before they got more than a kilometer out to sea, the Japanese launches pulled aside them, ordering them in Chinese through a megaphone to stop. The party official ignored them confidently telling Chan, "We're heading towards international waters. We'll be there presently."

Chan thought his thinking was little strange, given the fact that they were presently in Chinese territorial waters. That was the whole point of coming out here. But the official had been a wet blanket right from the beginning and the party had its own reasoning, its own internal logic.

One of the Japanese launches began firing rifle shots over their bow to try to get them to stop. But again this was to no avail and Chan was proud of the sterner stuff that the party official was finally showing. But when the destroyer pulled up alongside them, there was clearly no way they were going to get to the international waters the party chief had mentioned. The destroyer was huge and towered high over them, its blue camber like the edge of a floating amphitheater. It began to turn into their heading and force them to change direction.

The party official looked back to one of his bodyguards and then looked to Chan. "Well, looks like this is the end of the road for us. Time to say our goodbyes."

"I don’t follow you."

"Well" the party official said and went to pull something out from underneath the captain’s chair. But then he looked out the window to check the distance with the destroyer and withdrew his hand. He whistled to one of the bodyguards and said, “Take the wheel. You know what to do.”

"Well, young lion, sometimes events are larger than people. On the other hand, sometimes people are larger than events.”

The destroyer loomed over them like a canyon, the waves foaming up and splashing on the prow of the cruiser, making Chan excitable and impatient "Stop with these fucking riddles! I don't understand what you mean."

The official burst out laughing. "People like you never do. You’re so busy shoveling clever words in the air that you never have time to worry about their significance, to worry about what it all means. Everything I mean. The country, your place, your role. The past, the present. You specialize in words useful for the moment, with only a temporary significance, like the slurring humor of a drunk. What was funny the night before seems silly, childish by the harsh sober light of morning. Only you never regain sobriety. ”

“What are you saying? Do all Party members speak like this?”

“Perhaps. Being circumspect is an advantage to be sure.” He hesitated and looked out the window again, checking. “Time is short. But I owe it to you to explain your fate.”

“Yeah. My grandparents could never give up Buddhism. Cost them plenty.”

“No, I mean…”

“Hush! Okay. The Party agrees the nation must be awoken from its slumber, the motherland must be protected. Look at it this way. Chairman Mao sacrificed half a million men to secure the Korean border from the imperialists in the 1950s. We sacrificed tens of thousands of men to secure the Vietnamese border in 1978. We sacrificed a thousand students in Tianmen to save China from a military coup d'état posing as Russian glasnost.” He checked the window again. The destroyer was slowly veering toward them, carefully closing the gap. “These days, large scale human sacrifice is no longer necessary. And for the first time in the two millennia since Chin Shi-huang united China for the first time, we no longer have to sacrifice herds of academics and students for the safety of the country. These days we have prosperity. Low culture has been replaced with high culture. Chin Shi-huang was buried with a live retinue of guards. These days even great men like Chairman Mao are buried alone, accompanied by a wax dummy at best. Barbarism has been replaced with civilization."

All of this historical gibberish was maddening. What did it matter? What the hell was the point of all of this nonsense?

The party official read Chan’s annoyance and dragged out the word "Wellllll" while he reached over to beneath the captain’s seat and pulled out a pistol. Turning around he aimed it at Chan’s widening eyes and said, "You're about to find out what this is all about.”

Chan was suddenly put in a chin-na wrestling grip by the bodyguard not piloting the vessel. The party official held the pistol slackly now and said "Frankly, I would prefer to shoot you, because that would mean less pain for you. I take no pleasure in torturing fools but a bullet would just needlessly complicate the historical record. Sorry, but history does indeed take precedence over everything here today." The official said to the bodyguard piloting the cruiser, "Bring us closer alongside the destroyer. Where’s that Japanese launch?"

“Coming up on starboard.”

“Fine. Keep us up to speed. You have your orders. You know what to do. Wait for my mark.”

“What the fuck are you doing? What are you going to do with me?”

“Make a hero out of you, what else?” replied the official, looking out the starboard window. To the pilot, “Steady! Steady!”

“Why are you doing this? I didn’t do anything wrong?”

“I know. You did everything right. Picture perfect. If the Party had scripted your performance, it couldn’t have done a better job than you’ve done on your own.”

“Please! I beg you. Please!”

The official picked up a grappling hook from the floor of the boat and Chan screamed, “Don’t! Don’t do it!” But the hook came down on his head, blunt side first. Twice it came down hard with a thud. “How’s his pulse?”

The bodyguard’s face was ashen as he felt Chan’s throat. “Weak. But still there.” The official gave him one more hard whack with the hook to be sure. Chan didn’t flinch.

The official said, “I hate it when they scream. It’s like a pig squealing and vomiting on the way to the slaughterhouse. It’s enough to make a vegetarian out of you.” He laughed awkwardly. “I am a vegetarian, you know.” As if this was an apology for events just passed.

“Haul him over to the cabin window.”

The bodyguard piloting the boat pulled it to within five meters of the Japanese launch. The official ran up to the pilot’s seat, and the bodyguard went back to join the other, helping him grip Chan’s limp body. In the midst of blaring fog horns and megaphones, the official raised his hand to make the signal the bodyguards were waiting for. He waited thirty seconds, waiting as the launch edged in closer.

When the cruiser was about three meters from the side of the Japanese launch, he dropped his hand, at which point the guards lifted Chan up and swung him one-two-three. Watching Chan’s body sail through the air, the official executed a hard left turn, slowing the engine thrust, aiming to crush Chan between the cruiser and the launch.

It was silent inside the cruiser except for the engine. The Japanese launch was no longer blaring at them.

But nothing was going to be taken for granted. The party official immediately wheeled the cruiser around 180° and went back to look for Chan. If by some miracle he had been alive, the official would have rammed him at high speed. But there was no need. Just Chan’s cadaver limp, mangled, floating.

Just drowning Chan would have been sufficient, but the Party ordered something dangerous, something dramatic that would really fetch the public ire. The official screamed to one of the bodyguards, “Take some shots dammit! Shoot your film you bastard!”

The other bodyguard was still noticeably uncomfortable and the official’s conscience was pricked. "You don't know how many needs this country boy served." The bodyguard stiffened. The official said, “Mao was a country boy too. No offense.” He paused and blew out his cheeks. He fiddled about for a cigarette, saying, "Look, I'm no happier about this than you." He burst out laughing, a quacking laughter to dissipate his own growing discomfort.

Machine gun fashion, he began explaining, "This young lion was going to die. The question was: was he going to languish in a jail, a Gulag, and become an organ donor to some Western fly-through geriatric? Or was he going to die doing something valuable for the country? The Party doesn't let anyone outside the Party fly high. As you know, even in the party, you’ve got to watch every step. Every personal failure is an excuse for someone to advance by stepping on your face. Every success produces envy, even hatred. Especially hatred. We live in dangerous times. Do you think it’s safe for me, just because I'm an official?" He pulled out a flask of rice wine and took a gulp. "Hah! What do you know? What do you think you know? When an official on the take gets shot it’s not because he’s corrupt, it’s because he isn’t corrupt enough. He didn't pay his bribes on schedule. They make an example of him. Don’t worry, officials disappear and donate organs just like everyone else. We're not exempt."

Irritated by the bodyguard’s lingering disapproval, angered by the guilt he felt unfairly being thrust upon him, the official said "Speak! Fucking say something!"

The bodyguard spat "Why did you kill him?"

"Why did I kill him?” the official laughed in momentary falsetto burst. “Why did I kill him? You flatter me. I'm only the instrument, the messenger, a mechanic on the national assembly line. I did not kill him. I simply took my orders and performed the tasks necessary to end his life. Anyone could have done that.” He shook his head, trying to rid it of the ugliness he had just witnessed, “It was the party that killed him."

"In its infinite wisdom?"

"In its great and infinite reservoir of infinite fucking wisdom."

An international incident emerged. The Chinese government claimed that the Japanese murdered a patriotic student activist. Students went mad across the country. The Japanese embassy in Beijing was bombed with rocks. Two tourists were verbally attacked on a bus, stripped of their brand name products, and made to give lengthy stuttering apologies on local television. Students, learning of their whereabouts, held violent protests at their hotel. The Japanese government refused to apologize, claiming the Chinese student tried to board a Japanese vessel of war in Japanese waters, fell short and was crushed between the Chinese vessel and the Japanese vessel. Internet broadcast of hand-held Japanese video footage of the incident was embargoed by Chinese censors. CNN blamed the incident on rising tensions, Fox News blamed it on the commies, Chomsky blamed America, and Democracy Now blamed global warming and tried to feel everyone’s pain.

In financial news, China terminated the bids of Japanese construction firms in all domestic government construction projects. Three weeks after Chan's patriotic adventure, a quiet notice appeared in the financial section of the People's daily reporting that Japan's Mitsubishi had in fact been awarded the high-speed railway line construction from Beijing to Shanghai. Patriots across the country groaned in their web forums. The CCP propaganda hit back explaining that in fact the Chinese side had scored a magnificent victory requiring all labor to be unionized (thus protecting employees from multinational exploitation) and requiring Mitsubishi to partner with a domestic firm (thus ensuring fair technology exchange and preventing the global multinational from charging exorbitant maintenance fees for its technology.)

Celebrations were in order and patriotic glasses clinked around the nation.

In the end the union leaders leveraged Mitsubishi for slush funds while shortchanging employee wages and gutting the employee insurance plan. Though the union hacks took off with employee benefits, they left Mitsubishi with the blame. It became tarred with a reputation for being yet another racist multinational exploiting the developing world and abandoning darker-skinned employees to the sharks. As to the partner firm, it turned out to be a subsidiary of a Chinese Army general. No surprise there, nor was it any surprise that ‘subsidiary’ was just a polite word for shell company. The general blackmailed Mitsubishi for more cash by constantly going to the press with complaints about the damn Jap company’s reneging on technology exchange though of course shell companies by definition have no interest whatsoever in technology of any kind beyond wire transfers and money laundering. It was patriotic laughs and patriotic profits arising from the usual patriot games popular all over the developing world.

Chan, however, achieved his dream. He’s now revered nationwide as “A heroic hero who demonstrated heroic heroism.” He’s replaced musty old Lei Feng, who had, it must be admitted, far outlived his shelf-life. Lei Feng meant well but was a milquetoast, as the age demanded and historical determinism determined. He was a clean-spirited do-gooder, a politically correct ass-kisser, a well-meaning brown-noser, a sort of jumped-up and glorified ankle-biter.

New heroes are need for a new age. Photos of Chan conquering Diaoyutai and erecting the People’s flag for the everlasting glory of the nation are found in grammar school civics texts nationwide. His personal sacrifice is an example, a divine inspiration to all. A set of hidden private diaries has been unearthed and it turns out that he early on set his eye on the stars of patriotism and service to the Party. Recovering the sacred Diaoyutai Islands was a lifelong ambition of his, inspired by the very lips of the Great Helmsman himself. It has been discovered that Chan swore himself to upholding the fatherland at the age of five, first sequestering himself for a month of meditation followed by pledging an oath of allegiance at the nearest party outlet. This prodigy of miracles began at the behest of his traditional middle-class family and the example of their loyal servant and driver, a Taiwanese political refugee who crossed the straits to freedom. Wishing to atone for his former political apostasy, the servant made his life’s work the educating of Chan, inoculating him against the heretical deviltry of the gutter Taiwan independence splittists and inspiring him with an everlasting patriotism for the sacred homeland. Chan will not soon be forgotten.

Copyright - Biff Cappuccino