26 June 2011

每个晚会有个扫兴,所以我们请你来 (Every party has a pooper, that’s why we invited you)

Well, okay. Maybe I’m celebrating a little early. But given that a film, 《建党伟业》 (Founding of a party), celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party was released just this past week, I think I may have a little licence for celebration and reflection. The more so when one notes that the New York ‘it’s-torture-when-you-do-it-but-enhanced-interrogation-when-we-do’ Times has just come out with both a news article and a review (well, more like a sound bite) of the film, both (as to be expected) broadly negative.

Now, I’d normally be the first person to say that a film produced by a political party narrating that party’s own history is pretty bogus, and I am certainly aware that political content can destroy artistic merit if it is offensive or ham-handed or both, but let’s be clear – a number of very decent films have been produced under state direction, even states whose politics were or are not what I would consider exemplary. The Soviet Union’s Белое солнце пустыни (White sun of the desert) is very much a gem, if you like Westerns… and have a taste for the black humour of Russian comedy. Even though from reviews I went into seeing Kazakhstan’s Қөшпенділер expecting to hate it, it turned out to be an enjoyable popcorn flick with fantastic scenery (character development be damned when there are horse chase scenes and battles to be had!). I actually halfway enjoyed 《建国大业》 (Founding of a republic) for the opposite reasons, namely its colourful characters and Shakespearean overtones to the characters of Mao Zedong and particularly the tragedy of Jiang Jieshi (even if the actual political drama was drastically over-sanitised and even downplayed, such that the propaganda content, such as it was, was pretty tame). I’m not averse to the NYT dumping on a film for its political motivations and the way it is propagated, so long as they acknowledge that’s what they’re doing.

And of course it’s wrong for the government to prey upon the desires of their audience by threatening to delay showings of other films until this one gets more box-office sales. But let’s not fool ourselves even for a moment that such an implied threat is not exactly what nearly all marketing is (if you don’t use this deodorant, the girl you like won’t go out with you; if you don’t wear our brand of clothing, other people won’t think you’re sexy; if you don’t drive our brand of car, other people won’t think you’re classy; if you don’t drink this brand of cola, people will think you’re an old fuddy-duddy; I could go on, but you get the idea – suffice it to say this kind of soft-power coercion, manipulation of desire, is both existentially unhealthy and insidious). If the New York Times is going to criticise the Chinese government for doing this, it seems to me that they might as well round up every last marketer working for every last corporation using TV advertising and give them the same shotgun treatment while they’re at it. Hudge and Gudge all too often wind up doing the same thing by different means.

Speaking of which, apparently the powers that be are threatening to delay showing the new Transformers movie, so Michael Bay will have to wait a few days to broadcast his lowest-common-denominator American-military-industrial-complex-approved cheap-plastic-toy-selling propaganda in China to line his pockets. Cue the world’s smallest violin for the world’s saddest song. I defer to Ben Croshaw’s highly astute opinion on the Transformers franchise in general; suffice it to say I wouldn’t shed any tears should theatres in China decide of their own accord not to show that particular film. And - let’s face it - it may well be that one of the saving graces of 《建党伟业》 is that it does not star Shia LaBeouf in the main role, even if it may star everybody else and his mother in a cameo.

Seriously, Bill Keller, you can do far better than this. I know your paper has a foreign policy agenda to push, so tell you what – I’ll cut your paper a break when it at least tones down the double standards (and believe me, I’m not the only blogger out there who notices). And I’ll give you three guesses as to which movie I’m going to go watch next – the first two don’t count. I’d like very much to form my own opinions.

EDIT: The pun in the title doesn’t really translate, since there are at least two Chinese words for ‘party’: 党 (dang, political party) and 会 (hui, a meet-up kind of party, like a 晚会 dinner party or a 茶话会 tea party or a 舞会 dance party).

19 June 2011

Of Meng, Wang and Hu – an incomplete revolution?

A scholarly paper I would like to write sometime, which I have hinted about in previous posts, would be a Christian encounter with traditional Confucian thought. My own would likely be from an Anglican (specifically Anglo-Catholic) theological viewpoint, inspired by (through his treatment of Plato and Aristotle), though perhaps not in full accord with, Dr Milbank’s radical orthodoxy – taking some dialectical notes along the way from the Rt Rev Rowan Williams (with his noted proto-radical orthodoxy) and the ‘socio-literary criticism’ of Ched Myers regarding the ultimately tragic character of the Church and the pilgrimage which is to become the Kingdom of God. As such, meeting the disciples of Confucius intellectually must take place ‘on the way’ between kingdoms, between cultures and between times… but it must be left unmediated by a placeless, formless and levelling modernity governed by false universals; this is a modernity Dr Wang Hui attempts to escape, though ultimately (or so it appears) his attempt is left incomplete. We are left with hints, fragments, tantalising suggestions of a ‘Chinese alternative’ – suggestions which sound, ironically enough, appealingly Christian at some points, though frustratingly nihilistic at others.

Let us begin here. The useless tree puts forth the argument that Dr Wang’s argumentation places him on a parallel path with Mencius. I would agree with the basic thrust of this: Dr Wang is concerned, as a public figure, primarily with issues of justice 义 (particularly opposition to the corruption which is concealed and shielded institutionally by the ‘depoliticisation’ of the CCP), and sees these considerations as standing over-against a set of political projects which place primary emphasis on profit 利 (whether nationalism, status-based favouritism or an atomistic Western-imported neo-liberalism). But two or three things trouble me about this interpretation. First, Mr Crane doesn’t quite give poor Mencius his due by reading him on his own terms. It seems as though he wishes to recruit Mencius as an ally of modern, rights-based liberal democracy, which doesn’t appear to follow very clearly from his thought. If one thinks of ‘rights’ analogically (a modern term for which the Chinese translation is quanli 权利, connoting at once unfettered rule, domination and grasping after profit), a straight reading of Mencius would seem to place him against such an idea as ‘rights’; his programme for ending systematic abuses of power (also a problem in his own time) entailed rather instruction into an ordered social role, from which not even kings were exempt – and could be removed if they failed to fulfil that role. Second, Dr Wang cites (among others, such as Wallerstein) JS Mill as one of his formative political influences – Mill, though his thinking tended in a broadly socialist direction, was still foremost concerned with issues of profit (albeit for as broad a swathe of people as possible) rather than the character of a government and its people. Third, though Dr Wang may indeed be taking cues from Mencius, he hints in End of the revolution that he is nevertheless doing so as interpreted through revolutionary author Lu Xun. As Dr Wang himself writes:

For me, as he [Lu Xun] rebukes real people, he is also criticising the history of old China, from Confucius, Laozi, Mencius and the Buddha in ancient times, to sages and philosophers in the modern era. To discuss Lu Xun’s stubbornness, then, we must first speak of his stubbornness about Chinese history. The secret of this was revealed at the outset: ‘Neither Confucius nor Mencius was satisfied with the status quo. They both wanted reforms. But their first step was to win over their earthly masters, and the tool they used to control their masters was “Heaven”’ (‘The Evolution of Roughs’).

This reads as all the more intriguing to me, for it suggests that Lu Xun regarded the virtue-ethical tradition of Confucius and Mencius as a revolutionary exercise (even as he berated the Confucian-based Old Society 老社会 for all its various corruptions, injustices and hypocrisies). It suggests, indeed, that Confucianism itself contained a number of conceptual (and, dare I say, liturgical) tools adequate to address its own practical failings.

It is here that I must introduce my own path. I am a Christian – an Anglican Catholic – by clear-eyed conviction, with English as my native tongue and an ancestry which traces out English, Anglo-Scandinavian, Welsh, Bavarian and Jewish history. The Augustinian boldness of Dr Milbank serves me only so well here as I walk on bloodied soil; I must tread lightly, in full awareness of the tragic and sinful failings of character that members of my adoptive tradition – the Church of England, as one cultural locus of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – inflicted upon Chinese political culture. (This is where the guidance of the Archbishop of Canterbury comes in greater use than that of his student.) I too am convinced that this tradition held within itself all of the conceptual tools necessary to critique and correct itself in regard to its past sins, with constant reference to the person of Jesus Christ, to the moral directives of St Paul, and to Patristic theological thought. Just as St Paul did when he travelled in foreign lands, however, I must listen and learn before I begin to weigh, to test, to debate.

Looking at Confucius and Mencius on their own terms, I can detect in them the same revolutionary tendencies that Lu Xun did. Both of them lived in a time when various small warlords ruled postage-stamp kingdoms and more often than not oppressed and despoiled their own people. The point of reference and political legitimacy, for them, was the founding of the Zhou and the rites and songs suggested by Zhou Gong Dan (周公旦, or Duke Dan of Zhou) – and this was not incidental, though it was Mencius rather than Confucius who drew the line most directly. The thinking of Zhou Gong Dan was that virtuous leadership, rather than descent, was the primary condition for divinely-sanctioned rule. The revolutionary twist to Duke Dan of Zhou’s thought, added first by Confucius, and then later clarified by Mencius, was that the single defining mark of this virtuous leadership was benevolence (or ren 仁).

I say ‘revolutionary’ because, in comparison with their axial-period Western analogues – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle – Confucius and Mencius, at least conceptually, extend the capacity for virtue, education and self-cultivation to everyone, including women, servants and ‘barbarians’ (as I have remarked before). Though they themselves were not particularly good on the question of gender, often not having much to say beyond advocating that wives were to be subservient to their husbands, it is a point of note that women such as Ban Zhao could advocate greater education for women using the tools provided to her, particularly by Mencius. Instead of insisting on a concept of personhood-as-dominion over oneself and one’s property (as in Plato and Aristotle, a position which led them to the conclusion that women, slaves and ‘barbarians’ could not be fully people), Confucius and Mencius appear to have radicalised personhood by locating it within proper relationships characterised by the same set of virtues.

This helps to turn Confucianism away, at least in part, from the contradictions Milbank saw in Western pagan virtue (between ‘the city’ and ‘the household’, and between ‘the city’ and ‘the individual’); unlike for Plato and particularly Aristotle, for the Confucians (particularly in writings like The great learning 《大学》), the same relationships which govern 国 (‘kingdom’) also govern 家 (‘household’) and also govern 身 (‘person’). For the students of Confucius, the household is not necessarily the site of anarchic desire to be brought under the reign of pure dominion by force (which was the contradiction Milbank noted in Aristotle), but rather the site of all order that is to bring peace to the anarchy of the outside (on the level of states!). What this means in practice is that Mencius begins to demand more of political leaders than did the ancient Greeks: instead of merely advocating that Sage-King Shun (舜帝) order his justice minister to prosecute and arrest his father on a suspicion of murder (which would be the humane and just thing to do as a king), he also believed Shun should abdicate and accompany his father into exile (which would be his obligation as a son). One starts to see in Mencius a proto-Augustinian ‘succession’ of moral edification predicated on familial relationships (notably the ‘Four Beginnings’ 四端).

The difficulty is that, though there is an ethical revolution in progress among the Confucians, it is continually delayed. Confucius spoke of bringing his teachings to the Nine Yi – though this was indeed a revolutionary, even Pauline sentiment (as well as being a rather trenchant critique of China at the time), the fact that he mentioned it highlights a key point of Chinese thinking that has not gone away, in which they do share a similarity with the ancient Greeks: the distinction between 夏 (‘Chinese’, or ‘civilised’) and 夷 (‘barbarian’). For Plato and Aristotle, the City was erected as a defence against the barbarism both from within (the household) and from without (the nomadic warriors represented at various times by the Cyclops, the Centaurs and the Amazons). Though Confucius and Mencius have almost completed a revolution with regard to harmonising the household and the self to the kingdom, male dominance in the family and rule by force are nevertheless necessitated and secured by orienting the ‘kingdom’ defensively to the outside, and even at its peak Confucianism could never completely dismantle this orientation – so to this day one still sees temples to (male) tutelary deities in Chinese cities, one of whose roles is defence against the outside. Instead, Confucius (and Mencius after him) merely relocated the orientation against barbarism to the cultivation of proper virtuous relationships and appropriate use of rites and music.

We do actually see Dr Wang Hui taking some steps toward rectifying this dichotomy by criticising the East-West model common nowadays among social scientists on both sides of the pond in almost Daoist terms. At the same time, it is possible that he is hindered more than helped by his reliance on the postmodernists, for whom the end goal of the revolution (if there ever was one) was always in flux. We also see General Secretary Hu Jintao making some rhetorical progress toward these goals, particularly in the ideal (with currently just enough content to be tantalising) of a multicultural 和谐社会 (the harmonious society) and in the reintroduction of a new form of Confucian ethics through the 八荣八耻 (‘eight honours and eight shames’). But allow me to suggest a possible third way: perhaps the ideal of the harmonious society will be brought about more… well, harmoniously, by a new, radical synthesis of Confucian and Daoist thought, perhaps aided and inspired by the Gospels, the Epistles and the Patristic writings.

16 June 2011


塔上站观黑云者 紧目见月踪
围吾轰之疑为雷 何持静无悚
曾其无旨盲徊也 八道而非足
亦被运跌而飏之 波中迷小孺
为何开愚揽世愤 为何敢再恋
吾意求安愈难安 直至近汝身
则冷风雨雪不怵 因内人爱仡
吾可辞塔达汝也 乃要汝信力

- 郭明正,2011年06月17日

08 June 2011

On Fanta, festivals and philosophy

‘It is green.’

It’s sugary. It’s artificially-flavoured. It looks toxic – worse, it looks like the bottle of Aldebaran whiskey served to Scotty by Data in TNG’s ‘Relics’. It comes in long, scratched, dusty violin-shaped bottles in iceboxes at the mom-and-pop everything stores and newspaper stands found across Beijing. It is indispensable if you happen to be working during the hot, dry Beijing summer on the twenty-fifth floor of an un-air-conditioned office building in a foreign residence district. It is green apple Fanta, one of the small joys of life in China, sadly not available to the American public.

6 June – today is 粽子节 or 端午节 (the Dragon Boat Festival), which I celebrated by walking around Qianmen, hanging out at home, and for dinner eating zongzi 粽子, a kind of sweet ball of glutinous rice, stuffed with dates and wrapped in bamboo leaves (which are not eaten). They are actually quite good boiled. My girlfriend informed me of the history as well, which is fairly interesting – an official / poet named Qu Yuan, famous for his resistance to the Qin Empire, was banished from his homeland (the state of Chu 楚国 during the Warring States, nowadays in Hubei湖北) due to having been slandered by corrupt officials. When he heard of Chu’s capture by Qin, he became depressed and committed suicide by walking into the Miluo River 汨罗江 after composing a lament for the loss of his homeland. Pretty heavy stuff. The reason zongzi are eaten on the Dragon Boat Festival is apparently because villagers on the Miluo River threw rice-balls into the river to keep the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s body; also, the reason it is called the Dragon Boat Festival is because dragon-boat races are held on the river, so that Qu Yuan won’t be lonely.

Speaking of loneliness, I miss home a lot, these days. A lot more than when I was here last time, which is a bit odd. This is a familiar city to me, and yet somehow it’s not the same place – a bit colder, a bit more reserved; or is it me who has become colder, more reserved? Maybe the perspective of an adult working in Beijing is much different from the perspective of a child studying there. Maybe it is because I must spend this time away from my beloved Jessie and from my friends in Pittsburgh. Maybe it is because Beijing herself has changed. Maybe it’s because I haven’t found my sea legs yet. Maybe it’s all of the above.

But, I’m actually doing real work on the PlaNet Finance China website, which is awesome; also, I’m using my daily bus commute to slog the rest of the way through John Milbank’s Theology and social theory, which I have now decided to me is an Important Book, in the same way Ched Myers’ Binding the strong man and Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and trembling were Important Books. I think it should be required reading for anyone attempting to articulate a uniquely Christian form of social and political engagement – even though Dr Milbank is generally more concerned with exposing the faith-based and mythical assumptions behind social theory and postmodernism, he nonetheless hints strongly at what an existentially-authentic, politically engaged radical Christianity should look like. I would be very interested, as a subject for further study (in, say, a PhD programme), in applying some of Milbank’s method and legwork to the field of international relations, particularly as concerns China – in other words, preparing the grounds for a space on which Milbank and the Chinese New Left (as represented by Wang Hui) can interact constructively. This would involve, though, seriously engaging with the mythologies – both Hegelian-Marxist and pre-Confucian – within which the political structures of China constitute themselves, in the same way Milbank engaged Plato and Aristotle via Alasdair MacIntyre.

The house I’m living in now is in a hutong 胡同, but it’s a pretty upscale hutong – my own room is spacious and comfortable. Structurally, it’s kind of similar to an old style siheyuanr 四合院儿, with a dining room and bathroom in the front, bedrooms in the back and a courtyard in the middle, except a.) much smaller, suited only for a single nuclear family and b.) one of the sides of the courtyard is a wall separating it from the hutong. I’ll hopefully take some pictures later.