25 April 2012

Not the Poland they fought for + personal update

The redoubtable Czarny Kot has translated into English a highly-interesting article in Przegłąd by Krzysztof Pilawski, about the history of the Wałęsa family, from the Communist period up to the modern day.  I think the point is well-taken that large families such as the one Lech and Danuta had would not have the same opportunities under the modern regime that they had even under the Soviet puppet state - not that the latter is at all again to be desired.  The tragedy is that the Solidarność movement had such enormous potential to create a different dimension of politics that would not fall into the neoliberal-versus-social-parliamentarian axis which defines modern Europe.  A very highly recommended read.

...  and in a bit of personal news, I am now a newlywed, to Jessie Zong - the same wonderful young woman I have been dating for two years during my graduate school career.  Our situation is somewhat unorthodox on account of our graduate school schedule, but we do plan on having a full church ceremony sometime next month.  Wish us luck!

23 April 2012

All we want are the facts, ma’am

The Guardian has an excellent guest op-ed by the London School of Economics’ Dr Lin Chun.  Dr Lin certainly doesn’t pull her punches here, and immediately starts out with a vital question that cuts to the very core of the commitment of Western governments to advocating human rights and the rule of law in China:

Why is it that when Ai Weiwei is detained, the west assumes that he is a victim of trumped-up charges by the government, but when Bo Xilai is dismissed as the Chongqing party chief having angered the central party leaders, London and Washington follow every step of Beijing?

Of course, my own position is that neither Ai Weiwei nor Bo Xilai ought to have been imprisoned or charged with the crimes they have been charged with, on such flimsy evidence, particularly when a political motive is strongly implicated.  Naturally, Dr Lin continues, allowing what few facts we have access to to speak for themselves:

So far, the most astonishing thing is that nothing has been established beyond the fact that Neil Heywood, a British businessman who worked for a firm with M16 links, died in a Chongqing hotel. The UK foreign secretary confirmed in April that the British consulate in Chongqing was notified of Heywood's death by "overconsumption of alcohol", and in November, the family informed consular staff of their decision to have his body cremated. It was also reported that his relatives mentioned a heart attack and dismissed suggestions of foul play.

According to several versions of an increasingly colourful story, Gu asked Heywood to help her transfer a large sum of money abroad, the two disputed the commission, and he threatened to expose her assets and their transaction. Remarkably, once again, "there was no paper trail" (the Washington Post).

Similarly, Wang Lijun, Chongqing's former police chief who entered the US consulate in Chengdu on 6 February, is said to have documents implicating Bo and Gu. However, US officials say Wang did not hand over any papers.

But what happened to Bo Xilai on account of poor Mr Heywood is not nearly so distressing as what has happened to a few of Mr Bo’s more, shall we say, ardent defenders:

This is not to downplay the seriousness of corruption. Official corruption has ranked number one of China's social ills in several popular surveys. Indeed, it is such an entrenched problem that it is used as a political weapon, to bring down one's enemies or to rally unity: not many people dare disobey the leadership because so few are clean enough not to fear corruption charges themselves. Often the charge of corruption is only activated politically, aided by a tightly controlled media.

The crackdown has not stopped with Gu and Bo. Party leaders have demanded that cadres take a stand by denouncing Bo while declaring loyalty to President Hu Jintao's central government. By mid-April, more than 210,000 online "rumours" had been removed, and many leftist websites shut down. Thus a crackdown on rumour is used to legitimate political suppression. The officials vowed that any "violation of the constitution, malicious attack on state leaders or unfounded comments on the 18th party congress" must be crushed. People by such pressure are reminded of the cultural revolution purges.

The entire article is well worth the reading. But her final admonition is all the more haunting, that the seeming agreement of the Communist Party leadership, the Western press and right-wing groups like the Falun Dafa is not necessarily something to welcome, and is something to view with extreme scepticism.

20 April 2012

I’ll see your al-Assad and raise you one Stalin

The astute David Lindsay on last night’s Question Time:
George Galloway had David Aaronovitch bang to rights on Question Time. The old Stalin-worshipper has never said that that position had been wrong at the time, any more than his friends such as Michael Gove have ever said that their very active adoration of apartheid South Africa and of Pinochet’s Chile had been wrong at the time.
It is worth note that here, as for the Blairites there, the original neoconservatives (Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer and so forth) were, whilst not necessarily Stalinists, still very much orthodox Marxists.  After a brief period of flirtation with neoconservatism, Francis Fukuyama denounced the ideology as a form of Leninism, energised by the belief (tragic in its first Russian incarnation and farcical in its later American one) ‘that history can be pushed along with the right application of power and will’.  Before Dr Fukuyama, there was Dr Gary Dorrien, an esteemed historian of the neoconservative movement, who made careful note of the Trotskyist and American New Left origins of the movement in his early work The Neoconservative Mind.  It is little wonder that worship of naked power and will, rather than the worship of truth and beauty which energised the antique and religious forms of socialism, comes to dominate such ideologies.

Mr Lindsay drives home the point that the Blairites are even less reconstructed than the American neocons are, if indeed they left the Soviet sphere of influence much later than their American allies had.  And they are therefore as greatly, if not more, to be treated with suspicion.

Pointless video post – ‘Battery’ by Metallica


There are many good reasons to raise an eyebrow at the middlebrow modern rock direction in which Metallica have taken their careers, but any band which can earn the affections of both Roger Scruton and Rachel Maddow, it must be said, has something quite substantial to recommend it. And here (as on several other matters, not necessarily the same matters) I am in full agreement with both Roger Scruton and Rachel Maddow about Master of Puppets being an absolutely exceptional album. So here is a throwback to the good old days: ‘Battery’ is probably one of the tightest, catchiest and - to borrow Dr Scruton’s description - poetic pieces of early thrash out there. Enjoy, my gentle readers!

19 April 2012

The path to India

 Agni V nuke; photo courtesy Asahi Shimbun

This past week, two countries fired long-range ballistic missiles presumably capable of delivering a nuclear strike.  One of them, much-publicised and (rightly) much-condemned despite its laughable failure, was North Korea.  The other has received far less press, and where it has received press, its coverage has been quite nonchalant.

And yet, it is a country that has had a long and flirtatious history with violent nationalism and terrorism, including massacres, rapes and tortures of Christians, particularly Catholics (in which one of its major political parties was complicit).  It has gone to war numerous times with most of its immediate neighbours since it gained independence, mostly border conflicts.  It has in the past lent material support (in the form of dam-building) to the military government in Burma, much to the consternation of human rights organisations both within its borders and internationally (not to mention the people displaced in both countries by the projects).  It is one of only three countries in the world never to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  It faces violent left-wing insurgencies in a number of its regions, and its right wing is increasingly leaning towards a religio-nationalist ideology which bears a number of frightening resemblances to fascism.

This is not Iran.  It is not even Pakistan.  It is India.

Earlier today they successfully test-fired a missile with the capacity to hit targets deep into China and Europe; and international criticism has been low-key to non-existent, with the notable exception of the understandably-concerned People’s Republic.  NATO claims that the non-proliferation record of India is ‘solid’, and cites them as having ‘engaged’ the international community on non-proliferation issues, despite their only having gained a level of de facto legitimacy only recently under the keen detectors of threats regarding weapons of mass destruction in the Bush Administration.

I am not anti-India in any sense of the word.  I have a profound appreciation for the accomplishments of the Indian government since independence.  But, as a general rule, I do not approve any nation chasing after a level of nuclear technology which threatens to escalate into an all-out arms race.  I do not approve India’s doing so whilst facing so many domestic human rights problems, particularly regarding Christians, Muslims and Dalits.  And I do not approve the disproportionate attention Iran is facing over a non-existent nuclear weapons programme when numerous other countries in the region are much worse offenders.

Great moments in the history of import-substitution: Japan, 1868

The Meiji Ishin. Lord Keynes has a great blog post on the subject (thank you for the link, John!):
From 1859 and 1869, Japan had been subjected to a number of unequal treaties forcing a liberal trade policy on it, in which tariffs had to be kept below 5%.
  1. Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty, signed October 14, 1854 in Nagasaki.
  2. Ansei Treaties or the Ansei Five-Power Treaties, signed in 1858.
  3. Treaty of Amity and Commerce or the Harris Treaty between the US and Japan, signed on July 29, 1858.
  4. Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and Japan followed on October 9, 1858.
  5. The Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce, signed on August 26, 1858.
It is quite bizarre to see libertarian ideologues normally so insistent on opposing force defending trade liberalisation imposed by European and American coercion. In fact, the Japanese opposition to the “Unequal Treaties” (as they were called) was a major reason for the Meiji revolution in 1868 that overthrew the Shogun.
Lord Keynes goes on to describe how the effects of the Unequal Treaties were undone by the interventionist policymaking of the Meiji Emperor and his government, what would come to foreshadow the formal theoretical and practical development of ISI. Namely, the Meiji government (though bound by artificially-low tariffs imposed from without by the Unequal Treaties): a.) invested heavily in public infrastructure (post, rail, telegraph); b.) created modern industries, mines and weapon and textile factories; c.) sheltered glass and cement industries until they became viable and could be sold off; d.) subsidised key industries and raised tariffs once the treaties expired; and e.) wrested control over monetary policy away from the daimyos, and created a national bank and three public banks to direct credit to fledgling industries. Only after these things were accomplished did Japan’s economy really begin to take off, to the point where it could compete with the West.

Bright governance (meiji, 明治) indeed.

18 April 2012

But what think the Tibetans of all this?

Via Hidden Harmonies: a study by Goldstein, Beall, Jiao and Tsering; and another study by the Tibetan government-in-exile.

I do somewhat take issue with the title of the blog post; here is one Westerner who very much does care what the Tibetans who actually live in Tibet think. I also very much care about other things as well, such as the sovereignty and political sustainability of a multi-ethnic nation which much recalls yesteryear’s Yugoslavia before it splintered apart. Or such as whether or not the most vulnerable people of that nation have food, shelter and the legal rights to organise which belong to them as labourers. I care about many issues regarding the human welfare of China’s still-struggling interior. But the point is well-made. One has to wonder what, in a country where opinion polls are rare enough even amongst the majority population, the Tibetans actually care about, actually aspire to and actually want for themselves.

Interestingly enough, the proportion of Tibetans who do not desire Tibetan independence is roughly equivalent to the proportion of Northern Irish who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom (that is to say, a decisive majority), and the proportion of Tibetans who have respect for the Dalai Lama is a plurality, rather than a majority. A fascinating study indeed; it is striking to me how little the people who actually live in the region have a say in the political tug-of-war over their history and their culture between the TGIE and the Chinese government. Though the hunch of Mr Melektaus may be justified that if, in some alternate universe, an election were to be held tomorrow, it might well be the case that the Tibetan people would opt for a continuation of PRC rule.

11 April 2012

Kang Youwei and China’s own radical Tory tradition

Kang Youwei 康有為 (Image courtesy Encyclopaedia Britannica)

The current political situation of China is, to put it mildly, grim. Bo Xilai, a confident breath of fresh and honest wind into a political culture characterised by secrecy, paranoia and opacity, has been effectively snuffed out by precisely the authoritarian structure he sought to challenge, hoisted upon precisely the political rhetoric he sought to make political hay from. His wife is accused of the murder of Mr Neil Haywood (whose death, it cannot be emphasised enough, was thought by his closest friends and next-of-kin, including his wife, his sister and his mother, to be perfectly natural and who had no suspicion of foul play), and it is likely that Mr Bo will be safely swept under the rug, into house arrest, into the hinterlands or into a prison where he may suffer a very politically-convenient and not-at-all-suspicious death in a game of hide-and-seek.

Yet the alternatives to the CCP presented by the two current strongest political factions – the Maoists and the neoliberals – are very little better. In fact, it is quitearguable they aren’t really even alternatives: they merely represent the two extremes of the range of opinions which have already been evinced by high officials within the Party apparatus, with a few variations from the party line tacked on from orthodox Marxism or from orthodox Washington Consensus thought. But this is not to claim that all alternatives have been exhausted. The non-Maoist elements of the Chinese New Left remain. Also, patriotism remains very strong in China, even amongst Western-educated Chinese youth, as does the suspicion that not every political solution needs arrive in China neatly prepackaged and posted from the sociology or economics departments of Western academia. Indeed, the time may be ripe for a re-evaluation of the thought of Kang Youwei 康有為.

Kang Youwei, a thinker influenced heavily by Buddhism, by the Wang Yangming school of neo-Confucianism and by the textual-critical school of Confucianism popular in late Qing China, was the most influential of the Confucian philosophers to see Confucius not as a reactionary but rather as a humanist reformer, and build on this interpretation from a careful reading of the Classics. His magnum opus, the Datongshu 大同書, sets out an idealised vision of a Confucian society in which class, race and age conflicts have been overcome, in which property has been circumscribed and in which everyone enjoys a dignified standard of living – though, like St Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, it is to be read with a few grains of salt given Mr Kang’s Confucian and Buddhist background. He set out a vision of reform for the Qing Dynasty which borrowed inspiration from the British model of constitutional monarchy and from pre-Marxist socialist thought, but which remained firmly grounded in a Confucian cosmogony and legitimation of power. (Sadly, from the thought he encountered he borrowed several racist, eugenicist concepts which his work could well have done without – though thankfully his respect for human dignity did not allow him to take these concepts to the anti-human extremes of sterilisation and euthanasia for those deemed ‘inferior’.) His thought had a great influence on the young Aisin-Gioro hala-i Dzai Tiyan (the Guangxu Emperor 光緒帝), and inaugurated the abortive Hundred Days’ Reform. Though Kang is often blamed for causing the Hundred Days’ Reform to have failed by virtue of his arrogance, of his naivety in his dealings with the British and of his miscalculation of the political will of the Qing diehards, it speaks to his own credit that he kept the Guangxu Emperor apprised of his every move (including his dealings with the Welsh Baptist missionary and diplomat Timothy Richard).

The quashing of the Hundred Days’ Reform by Cixi provoked Kang’s subsequent flight to British Columbia, where he founded the reform-monarchist society Baohuanghui (the ‘Protect the Emperor Society’ 保皇會, with the Emperor in question being Guangxu), one of the largest civic organisations amongst Chinese-Americans and Chinese-Canadians in the world at that time. The Baohuanghui, led by Kang Youwei and his pupil, Liang Qichao 梁啟超, competed primarily with Sun Yat-Sen’s revolutionary, republican United Society 同盟會 for political influence amongst overseas Chinese. Eventually, as history played out, the Tongmenghui (which later merged with the Xingzhonghui 興中會 into the Nationalist Party or Guomindang 國民黨) would win the hearts and minds of most Chinese people, and Kang Youwei’s later efforts to uphold the Qing Dynasty would come to be seen as the last futile gasp of a reformist whom time had passed by. Though Kang Youwei’s thought had indeed become more leftist over time, he had never really lost his faith in a monarchical system of government or in Confucianism – the fact that he went from being considered a dangerous radical in his youth to being a misguided reactionary in his old age showed how greatly attitudes in China itself had changed. The man of the hour was not to be the radical reformer Kang Youwei, but rather the even more radical revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen.

It is quite tempting to see in Kang’s cautious Anglophilia and his attachment to the monarchy the work of a form of Tory radicalism finding a comfortable ally in traditional Confucian thought. But all the more so when his work is being adapted to a modern Chinese outlook on politics by Kang Xiaoguang 康曉光 of the People’s University in Beijing. Though in his early career he collaborated with Chinese New Left intellectuals such as Wang Shaoguang 王紹光 on articles tackling poverty issues and regional imbalances in development, and though he retains a radical and economically-egalitarian bent in his politics, recently he has taken up the intellectual mantle of Kang Youwei and the cause of re-Confucianising Chinese society. His thought shares much in common with Catholic social teaching: he wants to see good government first, and an economy with a basis in compassion and morality, with an emphasis on securing the basic welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable. However, Dr Kang’s Tory side begins creeping in with his well-thought critique of liberalism, methodological individualism and political interest groups. The primary criticism I have of his work, though, is that theologically he rejects original sin as the underpinning of liberalism and capitalism – even though both are based on warped versions of the concept which find resolution (or lack of resolution) through means other than the Christian narrative of salvation. Thus it isn’t actually original sin he is attacking, but the misinterpretation and misuse of the doctrine by secular mythologies of economy and power.

Still, it is refreshing to see Kang Youwei receive a second opinion from Chinese academia eighty-five years after his death. And it is refreshing to see a revaluation of Confucianism more generally in Chinese culture. Let us hope to hear much more from Dr Kang Xiaoguang and those of like mind with him.

10 April 2012

Pointless video post – ‘Paradox’ by Forever Storm

Remember that band that I introduced earlier to my gentle readers, the illustrious Illyrian instrumentalists Forever Storm? Apparently, they are back, and have released a new song ‘Paradox’! Their first album was a heavy power metal album in the style of Manowar or Hammerfall or Teräsbetoni, yet blessed with a creativity and unique use of transitions which gave it a progressive, epic flavour without being pretentious or poseurish. The instrumentation and the quality of the singing were entrancing enough so that the actual lyrics were just icing on the cake. They have stepped up their game, at least on this new song, by keeping the progressiveness but turning the crunchy thrash-inspired rhythms up to 11. Check it out:


These guys are awesome; there’s no two ways about it. Here is hoping they catch some fame outside their native Serbia this time around; Heaven knows they deserve it! In the meantime I shall be awaiting their new album with bated breath.

09 April 2012

‘Worse than’ - and in part because of - ‘the Cultural Revolution’

Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre head Tian Qing 田青

Via China Study Group, an interview of Mr Tian Qing by Mr Ian Johnson of the New York Review of Books:

Ian Johnson: The government has declared culture to be a national priority. It’s also promoting Chinese culture abroad as a kind of soft power.
Tian Qing: I think it reflects a genuine desire by people to preserve their culture. It doesn’t matter what system you have, but governments often reflect popular desires. It’s the same here. It’s a very popular issue so the government is addressing it.

[...]
What accounts for this interest?
We wondered why it was like this. It’s because for thirty-five years we have opened our doors and studied foreign things with the aim of modernizing China. That became our top priority, our national priority. But modernization is a foreign concept, it’s a Western concept. We did whatever the West did, that was modernization for us.

And then there was the speed. When you run so fast you can only look ahead, you can’t look back. But after a while we realized that the little treasure my grandfather had left for me was falling out of my pocket. I’m not saying there haven’t been huge advantages but people are wondering what they’ve lost.

[...]

Sometimes I wonder if people want to have their old traditions protected. You note that people flood to museums, but in daily life it’s a different story.

The problem is that modernization and protecting heritage are at odds with each other. It’s like driving a car and then you tell someone to look back. You can’t do it. On the one hand everyone says yes, yes it’s great, wonderful, let’s do it. But you say, for example, to a Miao woman, “Your clothes are beautiful,” but she says, “No, I want to wear jeans”. The old clothes are so difficult, they take half a year to make and you can’t wash them easily; jeans are better. Or you say to a Dong person [an ethnic minority concentrated in south China’s Guizhou province], “Your homes are great—wow, it’s made of bamboo, it’s great!”—and they say, “I don’t want it. It’s cold and there’s no running water”. People want modernization.

Can’t one unite the two? For example, Bach’s sacral music is now more often than not performed in a concert hall. The music has been preserved but has a different function in society.

It’s possible. But it can lead to horrible things too. In Yunnan Xishuangbanna [a popular tourist area in China’s far south] there’s a Water Splashing Festival of the Dai minority. It’s related to the birthday of Sakyamuni and used to be once a year. But now people splash water on you every day. As long as tourists come, they splash water. It’s lost its religious function. Or after [the director] Zhang Yimou filmed Red Sorghum and showed the bride in a sedan chair. That used to take place in a really small area of Shanxi province. Now across the country at every tourist spot are people with sedan chairs for hire—hey, for 50 yuan you can ride in it. Tourism. It’s terrible.

As for Bach, yes, he left the church but it was slow. Your modernization took two hundred years. For us it’s been thirty years. You went step by step. We ran. So a lot of the experience that you had isn’t applicable here. Humanity hasn’t ever experienced such sudden change, where such a large number of people are going through modernization at such a fast pace. No one before us has had that.

What about Taiwan? Maybe its experiences are applicable?

Definitely. We can learn a lot and we have exchanges with Taiwan. But they are a lot smaller and had more time than we did.

They also didn’t have a Cultural Revolution.

Yes, the Cultural Revolution was terrible, but sometimes outsiders exaggerate it. It lasted at most ten years but really the main attacks [against cultural traditions and monuments] were limited to the early years. The key point is the Cultural Revolution was top-down. Ordinary people really didn’t like it. They resisted it and protected many things. I went with the British scholar Stephen Jones around Beijing and we found many things that had been saved, like Qing-era musical scores. As the locals recalled, “They ordered us to destroy them but we didn’t. We buried them.” This was despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution was worst in the environs of Beijing. Mao himself recognized this. When Nixon met Mao, Nixon tried to flatter him by saying “You changed China” and Mao said, “No, I just changed Beijing and a few areas around it.” He knew it.

I visited a Daoist music troupe in Shanxi and the youngest member of the troupe is ninth generation. He has an eleven-year-old son and said he won’t let his son learn the music because it’s a poor job—there’s no real money in it despite the subsidies and it has no status.

There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s from their own heart. This is typical in humans. Most people look forward and forget the past. It’s mainly a few intellectuals and experts who say that the past is ke ai (可愛, cute). You can go to the countryside and say to a musician, why don’t you use sheep gut strings for your stringed instruments? But they want to use steel. They say it’s longer-lasting.

How do you feel about your work? It sounds hopeless.

No, we’ve had some successes. One is the national holidays. In the past we just had three: Chinese New Year, Worker’s Day on May 1, and National Day on October 1. But now we’re celebrating soon the Qingming Tomb-Sweeping Holiday on April 4 [during which families visit cemeteries and leave offerings or flowers for departed ancestors] and we have others as well. A few years ago the government announced that half a dozen traditional holidays were now national holidays. That changed people’s awareness. Most young people are still more interested in Western holidays like Valentine’s Day. But now people are aware of these other festivals and some will learn about the stories behind them or the traditions associated with them.

The real problem is modernization. It’s worse than the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution was forced on people. But modernization is yearned for by people themselves, it’s their own desire. You can’t force the Miao girl to wear traditional garb. If she wants to wear jeans, she will.

It is very common for Western observers, in the news media or in the expat community, to blame the Chinese government for the deterioration of local cultures, languages and traditions, citing unequal language education practices, unequal development and Han colonisation of minority regions. A number of these criticisms are very much warranted, and a number of others are not; one has to be very careful about educating oneself about the individual case in question, and be aware of the interests and stakeholders on all sides.

But I think Mr Tian’s point is a good one. The Cultural Revolution was ultimately a failed and self-destructive policy as far as the Chinese government should be concerned: its success in destroying the social and familial networks of trust was matched only by its success in undermining the legitimacy and mandate of the very ideology Mao sought to promote. But the neoliberal modernity which took its place has been infinitely more insidious and successful in eroding what remained of China’s organic, traditional order, largely because it is so successful at displacing any discussion of spiritual, religious or otherwise ‘intangible’ goods, and at creating artificial desires for itself and its own artefacts, largely from nothing. This holds just as true for the minority (Miao, Nuo, Qiang, Tibetan, Dong) peoples as for the Han.

08 April 2012

Orwell’s Burmese Days

Eric Blair (George Orwell)
during his tenure in the Burma Provincial Police
(third from left, top row)

Reading Burmese Days for my Governance and Civil Society course has given me the acute and somewhat unpleasant feeling of being back in senior high school, even though the prose of Burmese Days carries with it the quite refreshing memories of Orwell’s charmingly terse, often quite blunt literary mannerisms, critiques of language and cynicism about society – in this case, the British Raj, rather than the Soviet Union. In the ‘unseemly squabble […] over the corpse of George Orwell’ (as Mr David Lindsay once put it), one of the things that the late Mr Christopher Hitchens and his language-abusing neocon water-bearers at, say, Harry’s Place so often forget is that Mr Orwell was as implacable an enemy of imperialism, however ‘well-intentioned’, as he was of political authoritarianism – a facet of his work which comes out most strongly in a work like Burmese Days.

The entire novel is essentially a tale of unrequited and ultimately frustrated love, but the broader implications of John Flory’s pining after Elizabeth Lackersteen are seen in the way in which they relate to each other, to the other Europeans and to the Burmese and Indians, who are always in the background and occasionally starkly in the foreground. It is a tale of frustrated love between Flory and England, between Flory and his own life as much as between the two protagonists. It is clear, even as Mr Orwell is placing all of the typical contemporary defences of the British Raj in the mouth of (for example) Dr Veraswami, the local physician, that he detests it with a passion – in the way in which it not only deprives the people it subjugates of basic dignity and legal rights, but also in the way it practically mandates the British to live in isolation and to live in a nest of convenient lies. The despicable, bitter (and, in Ellis’ case, violent) racism of many of the members of the European Club is only the most blatant and easy example of this, but one sees it also in Flory – who espouses all of the high egalitarian ideals of British society at its best, but abuses the natives (such as Ma Hla May, his sometime mistress) and seeks escape from the contradictions of his life by pursuing a relationship with a shallow, insensitive and self-centred girl in the hopes that she might be able to understand him. In the background lurks a coldly, efficiently corrupt schemer of a local magistrate whose sole ambition in life is to gain entrance to the European Club, regardless of how many of his countrymen he has to trammel down in pursuit of that goal – as Flory stands in his way, U Po Kyin conspires to have him removed as well. His success in that pursuit serves as the punchline of the novel, the ultimate condemnation of British rule in Burma.

It seems to me that the outlandishness of the characters, their exaggerated mannerisms and linguistic turns, the exoticisms of the Burmese backdrop of Burmese Days are all very deliberate. Mr Orwell is no stranger to caricature, whether well-received or not. In this case, though, it serves to bolster his point rather than to detract from it. In spite of the palpable influences of Mr W Somerset Maugham, this isn’t The Painted Veil, with some great self-realisation lurking at the end of the main character’s mishaps and prejudices. Indeed, the primary characters end up either dead, displaced or exactly in the same place they were, having learned nothing at all. In this form of ‘we can’t go on like this’ pessimism, it is quite prescient of his better-known novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

An important book, even if not exactly pleasure-reading. Even I enjoy a return to my high-school days every once in a while, though.

St Mark 16:4-8

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia; alleluia!

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

06 April 2012

St Mark 15:33-9

A remembrance for the Friday on which Our Lord gave up his life:

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’

Confucianism as religion: preparing new rituals on ancient ground

Confucius Temple in Beijing 北京孔廟

The following was submitted as a paper for Dr Paul Nelson’s ‘Religion and Development’ course at GSPIA on 6 April 2012.

The debate over whether Confucianism is a ‘religion’ is a venerable one in Sinological circles, hearkening back to debates between Christian missionaries in Asia and the defenders of the Confucian tradition. The ambiguous position of the concept of tian in the Confucian belief-system, along with the semi-agnostic nature of Confucianism regarding the supernatural and the afterlife, led many Western thinkers to place it outside the category of ‘religion’, of which the archetypes were the Abrahamic traditions with their shared insistence on a transcendent, universal God and the eschatological fate of each human being (Cavanaugh 2007). Asian scholars themselves are divided on the issue: on the one hand, Confucianism-as-religion was conceived by cultural nationalists at the turn of the century as a possible response to Western colonialism and conversion; on the other, to secular Chinese reformers of the Republican era who saw it as a symbol of the corrupt lao shehui which was holding back China from modernity, it was merely an outmoded philosophy – the creation of a religion from it was essentially an inauthentic reaction to Western forces and did not even reflect the true purposes of Confucius himself, who never relied upon supernatural powers or evocation of the transcendent to draw people to his message (Coppel 1989). And yet, in spite of the successes of the Republican government and of the Communist one which followed, not only the teachings of Confucius but also the rituals and material culture reflecting them have endured and indeed experienced a revival in recent years.

Part of the reason for this century-old debate is the fact that ‘Confucianism’ as a term has no real analogue in the original Chinese: it can be rendered as rujiao (‘scholastic doctrine’), as ruxue (‘scholastic learning’) or as rujia (‘the scholastic school [of thought]’). Of the three, the first has religious connotations (partly as a result of the translation of the English term ‘religion’ into Mandarin Chinese as zongjiao, implying both worship and formal doctrines), whereas the second two are more ‘secular’ and imply philosophical or ideological inclinations (Sun 2005). In some Asian countries, such as Indonesia and South Korea, Confucianism is considered a religion and its temples (litang, wenmiao) are viewed in the eyes of the law as houses of worship. There is currently a movement in Mainland China, drawing most of its support from academics and public officials, to have Confucianism recognised as a religion, and the traditional Temples to Confucius (kongmiao) recognised as places of worship (Yang 2007). This movement is far from new, however – the grassroots Indonesian Kongjiao Zonghui movement (itself inspired by the late Qing reform movements in mainland China) served as inspiration for more top-down efforts by the warlord Yuan Shikai and by the reformist activist and philosopher Kang Youwei to establish a religious Confucianism or ‘Confucianity’, efforts which were vigorously attacked by more liberal Republicans (Coppel 1989; Sun 2005) and by Marxists, who wished to categorise Confucianism as a religion and thus to safely manage it (Sun 2005) and relegate it to a ‘superstitious feudal’ (fengjian mixin) past, even though there were virtually no people on the mainland in the early Communist era who would have described themselves as religious ‘Confucians’ the way they might have described themselves as ‘Christians’.

Although the Chinese government still holds (on paper) to the anticlerical, atheistic doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, the ideology has been soundly on the retreat for the past thirty years since the death of Mao Zedong. On the ground, the aggressive capitalism, market reforms and increasingly unaccountable government which have replaced it have led to a crisis of faith, so to speak, for a great many Chinese people. In the past few years, Christian churches (even those registered by the government, such as Gangwashi and Chongwenmen in Beijing) have become increasingly strident in their messages and have attracted many adult converts; to a certain extent, the same is true of the Buddhist temples, such as Miaoyingsi Baita (Cooper 2007). The growing popularity of religion in Mainland China speaks to the cultural, moral and religious vacuum which arose in the wake of the Cultural Revolution as the state first overreached and then repudiated its own role as an essentially religious force, which various religious traditions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, have attempted to fill in the meanwhile. Among these religious traditions attempting to gain cultural traction, also, is Confucianism – or at least, Confucian revivalism in the process of being reinterpreted as a religion. This movement has seen some institutional support and support from scholarly movements, from New Confucian scholar Kang Xiaoguang’s 2003 ‘Outline for a Cultural Nationalism’ and the 2004 Jiashen Wenhua Xuanyan to the establishment of state-sponsored Confucius Institutes (Kongzi Xueyuan) both in China and abroad (including one at the University of Pittsburgh) to elaborate public celebrations of the birthday of Confucius (Xu et al. 2004; Yang 2007). Since 2001, a spirited and often acerbic debate has been taking place within the academic community as well, particularly within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, concerning the status of Confucianism as a religion (Sun 2005).

At the grassroots level, however, the Temples to Confucius (kongmiao) are presently heavily patronised in post-Cultural Revolution China. To a certain extent, they occupy the same ambiguous and uncomfortable space in contemporary Chinese material culture and daily life as Buddhist temples do: though they have been deliberately preserved by the (atheistic) Chinese authorities essentially to serve as cultural sites and museums, and are still marketed as such by tourism and travel agencies (Cooper 2007; Mu 2011), they are visited as places of worship by the general populace. In Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora, there has been a more or less continuous use of Confucian temples for religious devotions, as well as the much more widespread use of Confucian ritual forms in syncretic folk-religionist, ancestor-worship, Daoist and Buddhist observances (Clart 2003). There, as on the mainland, students would often offer prayers and make offerings in Temples of Confucius for help on examinations (Sun 2005) or simply out of veneration for his teachings and his place in Chinese culture (Mu 2011). On the mainland, in Qufu, Shandong Province, the hometown of Master Kong Qiu, the ‘original’ Confucian temple has been restored from its destruction during the Cultural Revolution (Overmyer 2003) and is in active use. An elaborate ceremony and memorial procession is held annually in Qufu every 28th of September; though there are smaller celebrations at Temples of Confucius throughout China (Chinavine 2009). Statues of Confucius are being (re)erected on university and school campuses and in public places throughout China, and classes in ‘national learning’ (guoxue) and in the Confucian Classics are gaining greater and greater prominence (Yang 2007).

And yet, though the impact of these seemingly innocuous academic revivals are much more subtle than those of Buddhism or Christianity (both of which have long and colourful histories of active proselytisation), these Confucian devotions and this burgeoning renaissance of the Confucian Classics are also playing a rather significant role in the quest to shape new moral identities in China. The appeal of Confucianism both in the West and in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (where much energy was spent in the continual destruction of anything bearing a whiff of Master Kong) draws both upon a transgressive impulse to subvert a revolution which failed, and upon a genuine desire to build upon a transcendental, axial tradition which is positively and distinctively Chinese.

Sun Xiaodong hypothesises that the religious or quasi-religious rise in popular worship of Confucius is attributable to the long-standing ethical system associated with Confucian teachings, and to the ready identification of Confucian tradition with distinctively Chinese culture and nationhood (Sun 2005). Columbia University’s W. Theodore de Bary describes his own ambivalence to this revivalist attitude, particularly amongst ‘young people’ and marks some of the difficulties with adapting Confucianism to the role many idealistic Chinese students would have it play, charging full-steam ahead into the century-old debate about the religious qualities (or lack thereof) of Confucianism, and at the same time speaking to the lasting appeal of Master Kong’s humanist values (de Bary 1988). But where the daily devotions and the thirst for knowledge on the part of young people meets the academic field where Confucianism is supposed to thrive best, is precisely where even further complications begin.

Master Kong’s legacy is now being comprehended and rearticulated in at least three different ways. The first, common in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the overseas Chinese community and exemplified in the work of Tu Weiming (Professor of Confucian Studies at Harvard University) and Robert Neville (former dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University), who have come to be known as the Boston Confucians. Both seek to find perspectives of overlap between the thought of the Confucian Classics and amenable points of contact with secular Western liberalism and theories of democracy and human rights (Tu 2002) and with Christianity (Neville 2003) in order to give Confucianism a legitimate foothold in modern philosophical discourse and from thence create a broader platform from which Confucians can engage with contemporary problems in precisely the ways de Bary claims challenged classical Confucian thinkers and their intellectual progeny all the way up through the end of the lao shehui. Tu and Neville provide a conduit to relate and reinterpret the intellectual struggles faced by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and the overseas Chinese communities as they have confronted the weighty contradictions of modernity with Confucianism foremost among their intellectual paradigms.

On the other hand, a much more conservative (and yet more radical and populist) academic approach to Confucianism has made its presence amply felt. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Professor Kang Xiaoguang on the academic side and Yu Dan on the pop-culture side (Yang 2007) are the standard-bearers for this phenomenon. Inherent to their readings of the Classics and of the broader tradition is the critique of the general arc of Chinese society from the Republican Era through the Communist Era, the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang (‘reform and opening’) to the present day – the crisis of legitimacy and the loss of a coherent moral narrative are definitive of modern China. Kang cites an alliance of large business interests and the ruling elites at the centre of the crisis, and notes that their rapacious behaviour has eroded the fabrics of trust and of empathy which must sustain any just society. His twin critiques of capitalistic Western liberalism and of Marxian communism (whether deliberate or coincidental) mirror very closely the rhetoric and logic of Catholic social teaching: what is demanded is good government, aligning with principles of social justice and mutual responsibility rooted in the virtues and lived experience of a specific community. It is from here that he reads Confucianism both as a radical interlocutor of Western liberalism and as the solution to China’s current dead-end course in an amoral market and an amoral state. He cites Confucian reformer Kang Youwei as the primary model for building a more just, more equitable and more humane China on Confucian principles (Kang 2006).

Beijing Normal University’s Yu Dan’s much-maligned (by academics and public intellectuals), more popular interpretation of Confucian teachings, including a television serial on exegesis of the Confucian Lunyu (The Analects) and a mass-market book touching on similar themes, though not as overtly radical as Kang Xiaoguang’s critical use of Confucian doctrine, still seeks to provide a replacement in the popular imagination for a culture she feels is becoming too materialistic. Though Yu’s work may be the Confucian equivalent of the toothless, vaguely-spiritual American ‘inspirational literature’ (Martinsen 2007), she is nevertheless articulating a message which is running at odds with a post-Deng Chinese consumer culture and attempting to get her audience to think on different dimensions. Her work has been a phenomenal success – the first run of her book (600,000 copies) sold out within four days of publication (Yang 2007).

Yet a third strain is the same Chinese state’s attempt to appropriate Confucian imagery and symbolism through the Kongzi Xueyuan and other official outlets and endorsements of traditional Chinese culture. The Chinese Ministries of Culture and of Education were very quick to pick up on the cultural shift back toward Confucian thought and expression in the early 2000’s, and in 2006 the Ministry of Culture elaborated in its five-year plan the need for ‘protection of national culture’, the reinvigoration of traditional holidays and the promotion of the Classics. As the Chinese state is suffering from a crisis of moral legitimacy, yoking Confucian doctrine to the cause of nationalism as a means of retaining cultural and political dominance is understandably seen as a prudent strategy (Yang 2007). Kang Xiaoguang notes that the Chinese government, in its public use of the language of ‘harmony’ (hexie) and the ‘well-off society’ (xiaokang shehui), was already beginning to incorporate ancient patterns of Confucian thought in place of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine, and to privilege (at least in its official language) class collaboration over either class struggle or the post-Deng ‘alliance of the elites’ (Kang 2006).

Does this attempt to synthesise modern nationalism with Confucian trappings necessarily turn this Confucian revivalism into yet another form of state propaganda? Many scholars have been tempted to say so, but qualitative studies such as the one conducted by French sinologists Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval in 2008 show that laypeople do have what might be considered genuine religious experiences stemming from encounters with Confucian thought. They trace the story of a Liaoning native who went from being a PLA dancer to a successful businesswoman in the gaige kaifang period to a Buddhist neophyte and then to a student of Confucius by way of Taiwanese philosopher Wang Caigui. Her religious experiences led her to a concern for individual peace of mind and for social justice that is summed up in the phrase anshen liming (‘be at peace and fulfill [one’s] duty’; Billioud and Thoraval 2008).

Thus, it appears that there are two separate, though contemporary and interlinking motions toward the reintroduction of Confucianism as a religion in the daily life of Chinese society. The first, a genuine, organic religious or quasi-religious expression by students, intellectuals and common people who wish to pay tribute to Confucius as a patron of culture and learning, is contiguous with and part of a long-standing tradition of veneration of Confucius and his students by ordinary Chinese. The second, also prominently drawing from students and intellectuals, deliberately and actively seeks to promote and evangelise these expressions as an alternative both to Marxist ideology and the growing dominance of cultural and political liberalism (what Yang Fenggang describes, somewhat unfairly, as ‘Confucian fundamentalism’). Though the cooptation by the state and by the Chinese Communist Party is viewed somewhat askance by Western (and some Chinese) observers, it would be mistaken to dismiss the newfound interest in Confucianism amongst Chinese intellectuals (among others) as merely a ploy for ideological legitimacy by a government which has run for practically thirty years without it. Confucianism in the mainland, far from being a dusty relic of a distant, superstitious feudal past, has a ‘future’, as Sun Xiaodong aptly puts it, ‘about to unfold right before our eyes’ (Sun 2005).

Appendix A: Chinese Terms and Proper Names

anshen liming 安身立命
Chongwenmen 崇文門
Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平
fengjian mixin 封建迷信
gaige kaifang 改革開放
Gangwashi 缸瓦市
guoxue 國學
hexie 和諧
Jiashen Wenhua Xuanyan 甲申文化宣言
Kang Xiaoguang 康曉光
Kang Youwei 康有為
Kong Qiu 孔丘
Kongjiao Zonghui 孔教宗會
kongmiao 孔廟
Kongzi Xueyuan 孔子學院
lao shehui 老社會
litang 禮堂
Lunyu 論語
Mao Zedong 毛澤東
Miaoyingsi Baita 妙應寺白塔
rujia 儒家
rujiao 儒教
ruxue 儒學
Shandong Qufu 山東曲阜
Sun Xiaodong 孫笑冬
tian 天
Tu Weiming 杜維明
Wang Caigui 王財貴
wenmiao 文廟
xiaokang shehui 小康社會
Yang Fenggang 楊鳳崗
Yu Dan 于丹
Yuan Shikai 袁世凱
zongjiao 宗教

Appendix B: Bibliography
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  • Chinavine. 2009. ‘Celebrations of Confucius’. University of Central Florida Online Archive. http://www.chinavine.ucf.edu/qufu/confucius_celebration/ (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Clart, Philip. 2003. ‘Confucius and the Mediums: Is There a “Popular Confucianism”?’ T’oung Pao 89: 1-38.
  • Cooper, Matthew Franklin. 2007. ‘The Role of Religion in Modern China’. Capital Normal University. Integrative cultural research project.
  • Coppel, Charles A. 1989. ‘«Is Confucianism a Religion?» A 1923 Debate in Java’. Archipel 38: 125-35.
  • De Bary, W Theodore. 1988. ‘The Trouble with Confucianism’. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at the University of Berkeley, 133-83.
  • Kang Xiaoguang. 2006. ‘Confucianisation: a Future in the Tradition’ (trans. Liu Huiqing). Social Research 73(1): 77-119.
  • Martinsen, Joel. 2007. ‘Yu Dan: Defender of Traditional Culture, Force for Harmony’. Danwei. http://www.danwei.org/scholarship_and_education/yu_dan_defender_of_traditional.php (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Mu Duosheng. 2011. ‘Confucian Heritage Locked Behind Expensive Entrance Fees’. Global Times Online. http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/678663/Confucian-heritage-locked-behind-expensive-entrance-fees.aspx (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Neville, Robert C. 2003. ‘Response to Bryan W. van Norden’s Review of “Boston Confucianism”’. Philosophy East and West 53(3): 417-20.
  • Overmyer, Daniel L. 2003. ‘Religion in China Today: Introduction’. The China Quarterly 174: 307-16.
  • Sun Anna Xiao Dong. 2005. ‘The Fate of Confucianism as a Religion in Socialist China: Controversies and Paradoxes’. Chapter 9 in State, Market and Religions in Chinese Societies, eds. Yang Fenggang and Joseph B. Tamney, 229-51.
  • Tu Weiming. 2002. ‘Confucianism and Liberalism’. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 2(1): 1-20.
  • Xu Jialu et al. 2004. ‘Cultural Declaration in the Year of Jiashen’. People’s Daily Online. http://www.people.com.cn/GB/paper81/13119/1176605.html (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Yang Fenggang. 2007. ‘Cultural Dynamics in China: Today and in 2020’. Asia Policy 4: 41-52.