Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Silk and Chai reading list: 10 books in English about Chinese history

I’ve been asked by a couple of my friends now on Facebook for book recommendations on a good English-language general Chinese history, and what they usually want is a one-volume. Personally, I find this question a bit perplexing and troublesome to answer, in part because I never learned Chinese history from a one-volume book. What I know of Chinese history, I learned first from my late, great high school area studies teacher Bruce Mjaanes. The rest, I’ve basically cobbled together from scholarly monographs, from scholarly books about China on other subjects like œconomics or literature, from non-scholarly novels like the Judge Dee mysteries, or from bilingual-edition or Chinese-language history books like the Spring and Autumn Annals, Ban Gu’s Book of Han or Sima Guang’s Zizhi Tongjian. Or from just living over there for about five years total.

In fact, one of my sorest temptations, when confronted with this question, is to recommend Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe (which is kind of cheating, because it’s actually a three-volume series). This recommendation would be only slightly tongue-in-cheek, because I have three good reasons for making it.


First of all: asking for a one-volume English general history of China is in fact a lot like asking for a three-volume general history of the entire known universe in cartoon format, because there’s so much there – five thousand years of a continuous civilisation’s journey from the Neolithic age to the Information Age seems a tall task to ask of any one book by any one author. What you would get from such a book, even if it were written by John King Fairbank, wouldn’t be much more than a cartoon history anyway – a caricature drawn from one scholar’s selection of relevant source material. So why not go for the ‘real deal’ instead, and get a few good yuks while you’re at it?

Second: Gonick is actually fairly balanced and nuanced in his Cartoon History. He spends roughly equal time on the great world civilisations – including Sumer, Ægypt, sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and the præ-Contact Native civilisations – and doesn’t adopt a(n overtly) Eurocentric perspective. His unique brand of humour – which sometimes consists of putting Freudian psychoanalysis in the mouths of figures like Attila the Hun, for example – allows him to enter into his subject matter with a degree of sympathy that you might not find in other, more ‘serious’ works. His global perspective also allows him to take into account the dynamism and interconnectedness of even the præ-modern world, and he even talks at length about the trade networks that formed the first world-systems in classical times!

Lastly: Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe has an impressive and painstaking bibliography, of which one can readily avail oneself if one wants to learn more about a given topic. He gives an impressive array of primary and secondary historical sources on each area and time period he covers, at the end of each volume. I’ve sniped more than one additional book from these bibliographies, much to the chagrin of my overstrained and double-stacked bookshelves…

So, yes. Gonick’s Cartoon History, if you want the one-volume scoop on China. Er, three-volume.

But if you want to go the route that I did, and learn about China from scholarly sources on your own power, I’d make the following recommendations.
  1. The Spring and Autumn Annals, traditionally attributed to Confucius. This is the OG one-volume history of (one era of history of) China, compiled toward the end of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. On the face of it, it’s a terse, fairly dry and matter-of-fact chronicle of the State of Lu – Confucius’s home state. It records important events in the lives of the ruling family (including marriages, deaths, accessions and so on), official rituals, foreign engagements both friendly and hostile, natural disasters and cosmic events. However, it is considered the classical work of Chinese history, in part because it was widely considered to be the work of Confucius himself, and in part because it provided the first format for history arranged in annals form – and was thus the go-to work for all subsequent Chinese history and historiographical commentary.

    Speaking of which, I recommend a good commentary to go with this one, as well. The three traditional ones are the Gongyang, Zuo and Guliang commentaries, of which three I tend to prefer the Gongyang Commentary, which has a recent English-language translation by Harry Miller. The Gongyang Commentary gave rise to the religious-personalist and politically-reformist New Text school of Chinese classical hermeneutics. The Zuo Commentary also has a bilingual edition by Jiahu Books.


  2. A Romance of Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. Though it is not to be considered history in the strict sense of the word, this one among the ‘Four Great Novels’ of China – the first one written in Early Mandarin rather than Classical Chinese – more than any other illuminates the way generations of Chinese people have thought about their own history. Written in the early Ming Dynasty around 1350 but taking place during the decline and collapse of the Han Dynasty about two hundred years after the time of Christ, Three Kingdoms is a labyrinthine tale of violent upheavals, power struggles, political manœuvres, deceits and stratagems – and the rise and fall of the three rival kingdoms led by Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. It illustrates nicely both the power-realist dimension in Chinese political thought, and also (by virtue of how much it’s wanting in the narrative) the high value that has traditionally been placed in Chinese society on peace and order. If you can get a hold of it, I recommend the Moss Roberts translation that I was fortunate enough to pick up at college, and which I read alongside the Early Mandarin original.


  3. A Chinese Account of the Opium War by Wei Yuan. English translation by Edward Harper Parker. Written by the gæopolitically-astute realist, political reformist and Gongyang scholar Wei Yuan, a close friend and confidante of Commissioner Lin Zexu, this retrospective military history – almost an after-action report, really – takes the form of a blow-by-blow account of the most formative and first engagement of China with a Western imperial power, beginning with Lin Zexu’s famous destruction of British opium at Humen. It also takes you deep inside the politics of the Qing state, and reveals the frustrations of a reform-minded Chinese official during a time when ‘foreign learning’ could land you in serious trouble with the Imperial censors. Wei Yuan’s political prescriptions for and critique of the Qing state are trenchant and unsparing, and meant to be read as such. A quick warning: the romanisations of the Chinese names and toponyms in this book will quickly get frustrating if you’re not used to them; they were written before even the Wade-Giles standardised romanisations of spoken Chinese. Helpfully, Parker includes footnotes with the original Chinese characters on each page.


  4. The Spirit of the Chinese People by Thompson Gu Hongming. On the far other side of the political spectrum from Wei Yuan, this work by the brilliantly contrarian, cosmopolitan reactionary polymath Gu Hongming is a sympathetic and highly-literate treatment of Chinese culture under Qing rule. Gu Hongming – a Malaysian-born half-Chinese and half-Portuguese immigrant who worked for the Qing statesman Zhang Zhidong – has a unique ‘third-culture kid’ take on life in Qing China. In this volume, Gu Hongming attempts to make the case – using literary references from Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe for the benefit of educated European readers – for the specific features of traditional Chinese life that were most apt to draw criticism from those same ‘enlightened’ Europeans. Personally speaking, I found this title a bit more interesting for the fact that it illuminates a certain aspect of ‘overseas Chinese’ and TCK experience and psychology, than for the insights it attempts to relate about the Chinese soul.


  5. The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. A novel in the realist vein, written by an American author and missionary brat raised in China, this was assigned reading for yours truly in high school, by the incomparable Mr Mjaanes. The sprawling story of Anhui peasant Wang Lung, his wife O-lan and their children, his father, it’s a sweetly sensitive and keenly observant look at the life of the Chinese rural peasantry during the early Republican era. The overall story treats the struggles of the peasant family to stave off starvation, and later to survive in the big city, and then explores cares and troubles of a different sort after Wang Lung becomes a wealthy man. But there is also an immense amount of careful detail and realistic treatment of Chinese folkways to be found in the nooks and crevices of that story. Among English-language reads about China, this should be on any essentials list, not just mine. My review and retrospective on The Good Earth can be found here at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  6. Land and Labour in China by Richard H Tawney. A work broadly concerned with the œconomic development (or lack thereof) in early modern China, this book by one of England’s foremost Christian socialists manages to bring to bear a gobsmacking wealth of data and statistics on the question without losing sight of the heart of the argument. Tawney sets aside his moralism for broad swathes of the book, but it is clear that his primary concerns when writing it in 1932 were for the œconomic well-being of the average Chinese peasant. Tawney has a palpable awe with which he regards the Chinese peasant family, and in particular the ingenuity and hard work with which they are able to do so much to feed themselves, with so little land and resources, with an environment of corruption and banditry that threatens to rob them at every turn of what they have, and with a government arrayed against them that simply does not care. His recommendations are clear and sweeping: nothing less than a reconstruction of the countryside is called for. It’s also to a testament to Tawney’s prescience that he was able to predict, that if nothing were done about official corruption and force against the peasantry, that a revolution of immense violence would result – and that the peasantry themselves would be the catalysts. My review of Tawney’s book may be found here, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  7. The End of the Revolution, by Wang Hui. Wang Hui is probably the single most interesting scholar of modern China that I know of doing work in English, even though he’s not a historian by scholarly training. He is a literary critic and a specialist on the novels and short stories of Lu Xun. I once described his take on Chinese history as Daoist, though it’s probably better to say that if he has a bias, it’s dialectical. He has a particular fondness for digging up forgotten histories and doing ‘history from below’, and bringing these forgotten histories into serious conversation with modern received wisdom. The End of the Revolution is his work grappling with the legacy of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and his take is valuable in that he neither flinches from the damage it cause, nor takes refuge in an easy moral umbrage which can too-patly dissociate modern China from its effects or its logic. He has a unique perspective that critiques Chinese nationalism but at the same time salvages valuable insights from China’s legacy of socialist governance. He also – endearingly to me – draws a great deal of his political insight from Immanuel Wallerstein and other world-systems theorists. I would also highly recommend his books China’s Twentieth Century, China’s New Order, and China from Empire to Nation-State… which is also a sneaky way of recommending four books by the same author in a single list item.


  8. The Open Empire by Valerie Hansen. A valuable volume of English-language history of China for several reasons. The Yale-based author covers the late-mediæval to early-modern era of China’s history through the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties. She also does so as social history, covering trends in material culture and the arts as well as political events; her book gives rich and detailed descriptions of the lives of ordinary people during this time, based on history as told through gazetteers, almanacs and archæological finds as well as traditional historiography. Hansen’s book also refuses, as the title of the book hints, to treat China as a ‘closed system’, but situates it in world history with a particular regard to how China interacted with its neighbours. The descriptions of the Song-period Jurchen Jin and Khitan Liao cultures are particularly valuable, as they would later play important governing rôles in China’s history.


  9. The Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian. This is a modern novel by an ethnic-Han author from Dongbei, which has been recently translated into English by Bruce Humes. If you want to understand how members of an ethnic minority in China understand themselves, and if you want to understand how they place themselves (or don’t) within China’s history and modern society, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better book than this one, even among scholarly histories. Taking the perspective of the last chieftain’s wife of an Evenki tribe in northeastern China, this elegiac and highly-poetic saga of her life spanning a childhood in the early Soviet and Republic eras to her old age during Reform and Opening showcases many of the dramatic material and social changes that the tribe underwent in the transition to modernity. This book is notable also in that it is non-judgemental on the people involved, without romanticising or sugar-coating either the brutality and harshness of their prior way of life, or the ambiguous and sometimes equally-dangerous blessings of modern technology and sedentary living. My full review of this novel is up on The Heavy Anglo Orthodox.


  10. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang. That’s right. Just to one-up my own recommendation of Larry Gonick, I’m also recommending a historical-based graphic novel collection in this series. Heh. Yang’s work is all awesome and worth exploring on its own merits, though: American Born Chinese and The Shadow Hero as well as the Avatar comics (big shout-out to Netflix for putting the original series up on Friday last week, by the way!). But Boxers & Saints, a fictionalised account of the 1899 Boxer Rebellion aimed at young adults, as told from two opposing perspectives – that of one of the Yihetuan leaders, and that of a Chinese convert to Catholicism, whose lives intersect and overlap in various comic and tragic ways – is both a tear-jerker and a cultural education in its own right. Yang is actually to be commended here for telling two compelling and seemingly diametrically-opposed stories, in a way that makes internal sense of both sides. He also doesn’t shy away from the ‘big problems’ of cultural belonging, colonial oppression, faith and violence; and explores a lot of the antinomies of his own experience in the process. There is a resolution, but it is far from a straightforward one, and it comes at a high cost. Yang does bring quite a bit of scholarly depth to this comic, but that’s nothing compared to the achievement of making you able to feel the messy, conflicted and contradictory spirit of the age: which is in fact a reflection of the present.


An interesting point of comparison, and one worth perusing for those who follow this blog already, would be the 100 books on China recommended by the contributors at SupChina, a list with a far broader scope than this one. My list here does share a bit of overlap with theirs: I notice off the bat that A Romance of Three Kingdoms, The Last Quarter of the Moon and The Good Earth all make appearances there. There are others on the SupChina list that I desperately want to read but haven’t gotten to yet – in particular the Yu Hua and Mo Yan novels, and Iris Chang’s book on the Rape of Nanjing. Others on that list touch on similar themes to the ones I list here: the Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution, for example.

So, there you have it: my ten recommended books on Chinese history. This list I’m intending to serve as a guide and ready reference to those who ask for places to start diving in. There are probably several others I could have included here that are even more specialist in their outlook and thus not as likely to be as interesting or as useful to a beginner looking to understand China. However, for those looking for that deeper dive into anthropology, sociology or biography, I could easily also recommend: From the Soil by Fei Xiaotong, The Transformation of Traditional Chinese Education by Tao Xingzhi, The Last Confucian by Guy Alitto, Tell the People by YC James Yen. And that’s not to mention philosophy, poetry and literary criticism… though perhaps it is best to stop here.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Yi, li and the illiberal age


A map of China during Spring and Autumn Period (771-476 BC)

We are living in an age of profound liberal decline. Liberalism still operates, in name, as the foundational doctrine of the remaining active international organisations. These institutions are still active. However, they are increasingly empty of ideological content, and dependent on bureaucratic inertia. In short: the hold of liberal doctrines and institutions on the reins of order in the world is slipping, badly. The agents of liberalism themselves, particularly in the Triad (Washington, Brussels and Tôkyô), have taken it upon themselves to gain for themselves ever more expansive political, military, police and surveillance powers over the masses they govern. As an ideology, liberalism has lost the globe-conquering spirit which propelled it to the heights of power following the fall of the Soviet Union.

On the international level, the agents of international liberalism have openly allied themselves with people who openly advocate the most violent and extreme brands of takfîri-Wahhâbi theocracy in the Middle East, fascism in the Ukraine, and nihilism in Hong Kong. In doing so, these agents of ‘rules-based liberal international order’ show that even they themselves have lost faith in the persuasive and rational power of liberalism as an idea. What remains is force.

Given my illiberalism, some might expect me to rejoice in this. I do not.

From a strictly historical perspective, eras of decline and fall are horrible, messy, and come at immense human cost. There will be nothing glorious or sweet about the fall of the liberal order or the end of the liberal era.

The current situation roughly corresponds to that which prevailed under the Spring and Autumn Period in China. We are already beginning to see regional hegemons vying for power and asserting their dominance over their neighbours. The one key benefit to the coming Spring and Autumn is that – just as the Hundred Schools of philosophy blossomed into being during this period in Chinese history – perhaps as many as a dozen discrete variants of illiberalism will be seen on offer. Some of these illiberalisms will be shown as beneficial, and others will be shown as world-historical frauds. I would not be surprised in the slightest if Antichrist were to appear in the coming decades. (If it sounds like I’ve been reading Spengler and Solovyov lately… good!)


Painting representing the Hundred Schools of Thought (諸子百家) in China

Given this Spring and Autumn-like coming global political landscape, perhaps it is best to look at the phenomenon from the perspective of Chinese classicalism. I realise that, the Ru philosophy of Confucius being a participant in the events it describes, there is a sense of anachronism to this which cannot be overcome. Even so, none of us – least of all yours truly! – can really extricate ourselves from our historical time or perspective. So perhaps I may be forgiven for using philosophical terms and concepts from another time to describe our current predicament.

Two useful concepts when understanding the increasingly illiberal global political landscape that we currently inhabit may be the Ru concepts of yi 義 or ‘justice’, and li 禮, which is commonly glossed in English as ‘ritual propriety’. The competing social doctrines I’ve previously outlined: of democratic socialism, of civilisational realism, of Marxism, of integral nationalism, of Shî‘a Islâmism, of Sunnî Islâmism and of fascism – to which I will also add the social doctrine of nihilism – do differ along several dimensions. I think it is useful to sort them first by the uniting principle of justice, and secondly by the dividing principle of ritual propriety.

There is a clear divide between these social doctrines when it comes to the Ru conception of justice, as we can see from how they now congregate into discrete gæopolitical blocs which either favour or oppose the current ideological superstructure of domination of the world’s political and œconomic life by the Triad. These power blocs are driven by rival conceptions of yi: of what constitutes the substantive proper order and common good among and above states, and of what constitutes the proper meaning (zhengyi 正義) of the ends of the state.

If we consider the power of the Triad as a hegemony (ba 霸), then at present, there are a set of illiberalisms in righteous resistance: these are represented by the civilisational realists of Russia under Putin, the (predominantly Shî‘a) Muslims of the Muqâwamah represented by ’Asad and Khamenei and Nasrâllâh, and the various remaining Marxist and socialist states in East Asia and Latin America. There are also, as mentioned above, a set of illiberalisms which are in alliance with the reigning hegemon: with the fascists of Eastern Europe and the Sunnî Islâmists of the Gulf States making common cause under Washington’s direction. The relations of the remaining illiberalisms, including the democratic socialists and the integral nationalists, may be described as opportunistic: democratic-socialist states (like Germany, Bulgaria and Slovakia) and integral-nationalist states (like Orbán’s Hungary, Modi’s India or Erdoğan’s Turkey) will try to compromise with or resist the Triad’s demands as they find convenient.

The growing informal alliance between modern Russia, modern China and modern Iran is based on a common understanding that what constitutes proper order and proper meaning among and above states is not the same as the substantive commitments underscored by the œconomic and military hegemony of the Triad over the world. There is a shared sense of justice between China, Iran and Russia – at least as regards the concrete political engagements each state is engaged with vis-à-vis the combined financial and military power of America, the EU and Japan. But the Ru conception of justice alone cannot account for the differences among the plethora of illiberalisms we are faced with, and for that we must borrow another concept from Ru: that of ritual propriety or li 禮. Yi highlights the commonalities which hold political blocs together. Li helps us to distinguish the differences within those blocs.

Ritual propriety is concerned primarily with the establishment of right relationships between people, as detailed in the Book of Rites (or the Li Ji 《禮記》), and also the establishment of a proper form of government. Although the notion of the relationship between church and state did not exactly exist at the time in which Confucius wrote, the entire idea of the Rites, in establishing rules of official decorum, was to regulate and create liminal boundaries for an order between the earthly powers of the ruler and the moral powers of Heaven. For Confucius in particular, the most important power of ritual propriety was to act as a constraining force on the libido dominandi of the ruler, by means of the interpreters of Heaven’s decrees – the scholarly class (shi 士).


It’s worth considering that for several of the illiberal ideologies mentioned above, there simply is no consideration of ritual propriety. Fascism acknowledges no transcendent authority above the leader of the state, while takfîri-Wahhâbi theocracy rolls all aspects of the state into a particularly horrid version of the transcendent authority. In the former case, the voice of God is brutally silenced at the will of the Führer. In the latter case, the voice of God is docilely made to say whatever the khalif wants Him to say.

Also: among Russia, China and Iran – even though they are making common cause on the level of what constitutes international justice, being opposed to an order which squeezes and immiserates poor countries for the comfort of the rich ones – there exist dramatically different attitudes toward ritual propriety. This can explain in part the divergences in governing ideology between civilisational realism and muqâwamah, and between both of these and Xi Jinping Thought.

I sort these differences in ritual propriety in the following way. China tends to adopt a Westphalian perspective wherein, in the interests of sovereignty, the sæcular authorities hold the reins of power over religious expressions but do not dictate what those expressions are. Iran, on the other hand, constrains the government’s political power by referring it to the ’Âyatollâh, who is the supreme spiritual authority in Twelver Shî‘ism. Russia is currently attempting to thread a balanced approach between these two, after having flirted in its Tsarist period with the Chinese-Westphalian model of regulating religion by means of the state. Unlike in fascism or Wahhâbism, none of these configurations completely destroys religion and subsumes it into the state, or completely destroys the state and subsumes it into the religious authority. But neither are these configurations liberal. The Jeffersonian liberal model in the United States – and later the model of French Revolutionary laïcité – created a hard separation of state and religious authority, in which the state would run all public functions while the religious authority would be confined to the private sphere. In each of these models – the Russian, the Chinese and the Iranian – religion and the state have a dynamic and dialectical interplay with each other.


Roman Catholics in China

Ironically, from a Western perspective, the People’s Republic of China’s attitude toward ritual propriety is probably the easiest to understand. China still operates out of a perspective broadly inherited from the Jesuits at the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, in which the prince vies for power against the Pope (or the various Protestant missionary societies). The various religious upheavals of the nineteenth century – such as the disastrous Taiping Rebellion – have taught China that religion can be, and often is, a dangerous force which the state must keep in check. The attitude about religion in China is thus directly analogous to that in Western Europe after the Thirty Years’ War and the Peace of Westphalia. (There are intellectual figures in China who are trying to push back against this configuration: notably Jiang Qing, whose plans for constitutional reform favour a more balanced approach to relations between the state and religion.)


An Iranian masjid

The Iranian perspective has grown organically out of the disparate, multi-tendency political theory of disparate political activists such as Dr ‘Alî Shari‘ati, Dr Mehdi Bâzargân, and Sayyid Rûhollâh Khomeini out of response to foreign domination and to indirect imperialism by the US under the last Šâh. The Islâmic Revolutionary ideology in Iran contains distinctly liberal elements, but in its general orientation it is not a priori liberal. As such, we can see both a parliamentarian ‘form’ in the Iranian government, as well as distinct legal safeguards (including guaranteed representation in Parliament) for freedom of religious expression by Iran’s Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. However, the governing authorities derive their legitimacy from a Qajar-era doctrine in Twelver Shî‘a Islâmic jurisprudence: ‘Wilâyat al-Faqîh’ ولاية الفقيه, or ‘government-by-jurist’. This concept is by its very nature fluid and pragmatic, being considered a less-than-ideal state of affairs, though there are both absolutist and realist versions of the doctrine. However, it places the final responsibility for the government in the hands of the Islâmic legal scholars. In terms of ritual propriety in the Ru sense: Iran represents a principle of theocracy. The faqîh, the Iranian equivalent of the Chinese shi, is the source and final authority of the state.


HH Pat Kirill of Moscow celebrating Divine Liturgy

Then we come to the Russian version of ritual propriety. From the start Russia has been torn between a state-led ideology, that of samoderzhavie or autocracy (in which the Church was just one bureau of the government), and a more balanced, mediæval ideal of harmony or symphony between Church and state. The state of Russian relations between Church and state has very rarely met this balance even in principle. In 1721, the Russian government abolished its own (relatively new) Patriarchate and replaced it with the Most Holy Synod; it was only with the Russian Revolution that the Patriarchate was restored under Saint Tikhon and granted a degree of autonomy from the state – which quickly weathered away under the constant pressures of Soviet atheism.

It’s historically necessary to point out that the modern Russian Orthodox Church currently enjoys a far greater degree of formal autonomy from the state than it has had at any point previously in the past three hundred years. The Church is largely still figuring out what to do with that autonomy. But among the beneficial things it has done, is that it has produced an invaluable social vision and mission for itself, in which it fully articulates its desire to be a cooperative partner for the state in public life, rather than a competitor or a slave or a master. Ironically, this expression of church-state harmony seems to come closest to the traditional Ru ideal of how the literati and the state should relate to each other.

I do not speak from an unbiased perspective, here. I am an Orthodox Christian who has spent a great deal of time in China, and a not insignificant amount of time studying Chinese philosophy – including classical historiography. It follows from the above that I certainly have a preference in terms of how I would like to see ritual propriety structured. On these questions I tend to align more strongly with Russia – and Syria, with its government’s commitment to cooperative sæcularism – than I do with the more theocratic elements of the muqâwamah, or the suspicious and atheistic elements of Chinese Marxism. But I do not dispute that the substantive principle of justice, among and above states, is on the side of those who resist the Triad.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Bergson and twentieth-century Asia


Henri Bergson

Henri Bergson is something of an underappreciated philosophical figure in Western thought. As a theorist of duration, of intuition and vitalism, he was something of a celebrity and a touchstone for an entire generation of thinkers around the world, but for various reasons he was later overshadowed. His Jewishness may have had something to do with this, but it seems the case that his reputation in France suffered unjustly on account of his heavily-female audience. He was influential on process philosophy and theology in America and Britain: Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne in particular. He captivated the French personalists Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier. He also inspired idiosyncratic socialists like Charles Péguy, György Lukács and Georges Sorel. Souleymane Bachir Diagne discusses Bergson’s influence on Muhammad Iqbal in South Asia and Léopold Sédar Senghor in West Africa. But this piece is concerned largely with the impact Bergson had on three other radical thinkers of twentieth-century Asia: Liang Shuming in China, and Michel ’Aflaq and Zakî al-’Arsûzî in Syria.

For reasons similar and parallel to the earlier popularity of Slavophilia in Russia – which vaunted the native religious traditions and the integral knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy over Western rationalism and Enlightenment thought – Henri Bergson’s thinking was particularly popular in Asian, Latin American and African post-colonial thought. Bergson’s emphasis on intuition offered a grammar for articulating the independent and intrinsic value of indigenous knowledge. In China, Bergson’s philosophy was introduced by John Dewey, and it immediately attracted a number of disciples – high in importance among them being Liang Shuming.


Liang Shuming

Liang Shuming 梁漱溟, the Buddhist and (later) Confucian populist who was heavily involved with the Mass Education Movement and the China Democratic League in the interwar period, was particularly drawn toward the Bergsonian reverence for intuition, a term which he translated into Chinese as zhijue直覺. As my former professor of Chinese philosophy, Dr Yanming An, has demonstrated, as Liang Shuming moved more and more toward traditional neo-Confucian ideas, he began to abandon the terminology of zhijue even though he kept the Bergsonian understanding of intuition and folded it into the better-attested Chinese philosophical terminology of lixing 理性. Liang Shuming’s political philosophy, which naturally oriented itself toward the rural agrarian working class and the petit-intelligentsia (schoolteachers in particular) of inland China rather than toward the urban intellectual class of the Chinese coast, tended to frame the distinction and relationship between zhijue and lizhi 理智 (or ‘intellect’) in a similar way. Zhijue, and later lixing, in Liang Shuming’s work Eastern and Western Cultures, was the basis of the innate love of peace and harmony which characterised Chinese culture in the grassroots, and which Confucius himself recognised as the basis of morality which the rational lizhi-intellect (by itself an amoral and potentially dangerous tool) could hone and refine.

For Liang, Bergson’s respect for zhijue-intuition marked a certain parallel movement in Western philosophy, away from the Enlightenment worship of the disembodied ratiocinating mind, and toward a harmonious balance between reason and sympathy in real duration. As Guy Alitto’s book discusses, within the œconomic sphere Liang Shuming saw similar tendencies in the guild socialism of William Morris and GDH Cole. (This connexion, between Bergson and the guild socialists in Liang’s understanding, would make for a most interesting comparison and contrast with Georges Sorel’s use of Bergson’s philosophy to support the revolutionary syndicalist movement in France. For obvious reasons, though, it’s outside the scope of this current meditation.) Liang Shuming saw in the guild socialists of the Anglosphere: a desire for quality over quantity; a desire for harmonious order; and a tendency to seek equilibrium with nature rather than control and mastery over it. All of these things he linked to the Bergsonian intuition.

Liang Shuming’s career in China would largely be one of a philosopher-activist. Along with Tao Xingzhi 陶行知 and Jimmy Yen 晏阳初 he was one of the leaders of the first movement for rural reconstruction under the (markedly unenthusiastic) Nationalist government in China. He was close to the modernist poet Wen Yiduo 闻一多, and even investigated and denounced his assassination at the hands of Nationalist agents. As mentioned before, Liang Shuming was a member of the China Democratic League – but like most members of the Democratic League, including Tao Xingzhi, he had profound reservations about the theory and practice of democracy.

Liang Shuming had, like many contemporary Chinese intellectuals who were drawn to Bergsonian philosophy, taken his theory of knowledge – intuition being contraposed to intellect and related to time-as-real-duration under his epistemological theories in Creative Evolution – and transmuted it into a system of ethics. This was long before Bergson himself took his own stab at moral philosophy in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. As it turns out, however, Bergson has similar misgivings about democracy to those of his Asian students. Bergson sees in democracy a laudable, but primarily sentimental impulse – a negation of the abuses and the sufferings of the premodern world, rather than any coherent and positive moral system in its own right. Bergson acutely assesses, and then criticises, democracy’s evangelistic tendencies and imperial orientation, and also grasps the connexion between the rise of democracy and the rise of ‘mechanism’ in politics, which is as destructive there as it is in epistemology. And yet, student and teacher alike are unwilling to do away with democracy tout court.

In the Arab world, the Bergsonian philosophy was introduced largely through the pages of the literary and scientific journal al-Muqtataf (‘The Digest’), in the form of a debating series of essays between three of the journal’s left-wing Arab Christian contributors: the materialist and supporter of Charles Darwin Shiblî Shumayyil on the one side, and two sæcular but non-materialist critics Ya‘qûb Sarrûf and Faris Nimr Pasha on the other. At issue was the topic of the First World War, and al-Muqtataf had published an essay of Bergson’s on the nature of war, with Sarrûf and Nimr taking the position aligned with Bergson’s that human evolution naturally implied some form of moral, spiritual force. Sarrûf in particular argued passionately that this moral force was indispensable if human beings were able to rise above the level of brutes and overcome the tendencies to racial violence and the predation of the strong against the weak:
In April 1916, Al-Muqtataf published a summary of the speech Henri Bergson had delivered in the first winter of the war in which he attributed German aggression to materialism itself. Sarrûf had already made a similar argument to Shumayyil. The war was the outcome of materialism, Sarrûf argued, and he advised Shumayyil to read Bergson’s speech. How could Shumayyil now deny the importance of a divine force in securing a cosmic order and overcoming the pursuit of individual self-interest? ‘What would prevent a man from killing anybody who hinders his interests,’ Sarrûf wrote to Shumayyil, ‘exactly as he kills lions, wolves and flies? Why should not a man from Paris or Berlin then kill blacks who prevent him from hunting in Africa? Is not the deterrent that keeps strong people from having a free hand with weak people a moral and not a materialist one?
In Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s telling in Postcolonial Bergson, quoting Damian Howard, ‘Bergson decoupled the idea of progress from the fashionable worldview of reductionist materialism’, and made ‘it possible to be at once religious and progressive’. It was precisely this moral orientation to Bergson’s epistemology – once again, in parallel to that which formed in China and was popularised by Liang Shuming. This influence, even ‘at a distance’, had a profound influence on the intellectuals of the Arab world, particularly those belonging to the religious minorities. Prominent among these was the heir of these early Arab socialists: the father of Ba‘athism, Michel ’Aflaq, who imbibed the teachings of Henri Bergson at the same time as he was reading Sâti‘ al-Husrî.


Michel ’Aflaq

To be sure, ’Aflaq was not the only one whose philosophical and political orientation was influenced by Bergsonian thinking, nor was Bergson the only or even most prominent among his European influences: his biographers in English, particularly Norma Salem-Babikian, note that he was fascinated by André Gide, and influenced to a lesser extent by Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Mohandas Gandhi. Bergson was philosophically much more prominent in the thinking of ’Aflaq’s fellow Ba‘ath pioneer and sometime rival, Zakî al-’Arsûzî. Al-’Arsûzî set forth a careful synthesis of Platonic hyper-realist metaphysics with a Bergsonian vitalist understanding of the philosophy of language, in order to justify the Arabist idea of the Arabic language being uniquely close to nature, and uniquely suited to expressing subtle ideas in an exact and succinct way.

’Aflaq’s philosophical indebtedness to Bergson is a bit fuzzier than al-’Arsûzî’s, but he used Bergsonian philosophy in a similar way to al-’Arsûzî, to articulate the organic and intuitive unity of the Arab people. In this, he was travelling a road that was well-trodden. He had not only to look to the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his spiritual faith in the all-common Russian soul, or to the Enlightenment-sceptical psychology of Nietzsche. He had at hand also a number of Middle Eastern theorists who had been saying many of the same things. Both ’Aflaq and al-’Arsûzî were undoubtedly acquainted with the political writings of the early-modern Muslim neo-Platonist political philosopher Sayyid Jamâl ad-Dîn al-’Asadâbâdî, and their thoughts on organic unity (wahda) – bolstered by Bergsonian vitalism – took the same path as his.

The middle-class, reformist-minded, intellectual ’Aflaq had to be essentially goaded and educated into taking up left-wing positions by one of his fellow Ba‘ath Party members, Wahib al-Ġanim. Al-Ġanim was an itinerant doctor of the Alawite faith, who had intimate contact with the wretched conditions under which the fallahîn laboured. Like Liang Shuming and Jimmy Yen in China, al-Ġanim had direct experience with organising rural coöperatives, and he brought that skill with him when he entered the party. (One of al-Ġanim’s first recruits, as it turns out, was a certain young man named Hâfiz al-’Asad.) It was Ġanim, along with the Arab Socialist Party’s ’Akram al-Hûrânî with which the Ba‘ath Party merged, who put forward the vital planks of the Arab Ba‘ath Party – worker coöperatives, nationalisation of infrastructure, state ownership of heavy industry and public utilities – that placed it firmly on the political left. ’Aflaq’s Bergsonism was until that time concentrated on an idealistic programme of persuading the Damascene professional classes of the need for the Arab world’s political unity. But once ’Aflaq was led to understand the plight of the rural poor, he embraced their cause with a sincere fervour.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s discourse on Bergson points out how his thought was carefully observed and adopted by postcolonial pan-African and Indian philosophers as well. Bergson’s concepts which explore creativity, organicism, vitality in the process of evolution, the durée réelle: all of these things were themselves creatively adopted by the intellectual classes throughout the Third World. It seems a natural inflection that these largely epistemological concerns on Bergson’s part would take on a heavy ethical inflection as they were applied to colonial and postcolonial politics: an inflection along which Bergson himself would find himself following in the footsteps of his own pupils.

So what is Bergson’s relationship to Eurasia? We have seen his influence at work among pivotal Chinese and Arabic thinkers who preceded revolution on either end of the Silk Road. But within Russia proper, on the Northern Route, Bergson was as often as not the subject of as much critique (Nikolai Lossky’s, for example) as of admiration, the two meeting in more or less proportional admixture. Russia had, after all, its own native tradition of defenders of intuition and integral knowing – the Slavophils Khomyakov and Kireevsky writing a good seven decades before Bergson – as well as its own postcolonial prophet in the person of the exile Prince Trubetskoi, and in the left-Eurasianists who followed him. Understanding Bergson is still useful, however, for the purposes of developing a common grammar of Eurasianism in the same way al-’Arsûzî and ’Aflaq tried to develop a grammar for a uniquely Arabic political philosophy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A historical meditation for Tea Day


Ahh, I do love a hot cup of Ahmad of London green tea at ten in the morning. And despite being (unapologetically) a left-Eurasianist, I’m still enough of an Anglophile to celebrate Tea Day in April rather than in December. My Anglophilia of course came before my Eurasianism, so I suppose it wouldn’t be quite kosher to blame Konstantin Leont’ev, Prince Trubetskoi or even that incorrigible lover of everything British Prince DS Mirsky for that. But I think I’ve made my point.

According to legend, tea was discovered by accident, in 2737 BC. The divine Emperor Shennong, who was also a skilled herbalist and physician, preferred to drink only water which had been boiled and thus cleansed of any impurities. It happened one day that the retainer whose job it was to boil the Emperor’s water left the cauldron unattended for a few minutes, and a dead leaf from a Camellia plant growing wild fell off an overhanging branch into the cauldron, turning the water a bright orange-yellow. The retainer, who realised almost too late that the water had been left boiling, rushed back to fetch the hot water but failed to notice the leaf which had fallen in. When Shennong tasted the water he praised his retainer and asked how the drink came to be so refreshing, which is how he came to discover the properties of tea.

For a long time, up until the Han Dynasty, the herb was treated strictly as medicinal – and it was grown mostly on the southwest border of the empire, in what is now Sichuan and Yunnan. It gradually grew to be used recreationally from the Jin Dynasty into the Tang Dynasty, when its first mention as a recreational drink is recorded by Lu Yu in the Classic of Tea, written around the year 760 AD. One reason for this shift was that the process of brewing strong tea became simpler. Instead of the laborious process of steaming, pressing and moulding tea cakes from the first flush, it was discovered that the same taste could be gotten by simply sun-drying or roasting the leaves. The price of tea plummeted and it became available to a wider number of people, and could be drunk socially instead of simply as a medicine reserved for the ruling class.

Naturally, around this time as well, the tea trade began in earnest, along both the Northern and the Southern overland routes. Chinese tea came into demand both from Tibetan highlanders and from Turco-Mongol nomads, who bartered for it from the Tang Emperor under the tributary system. Tea would reach Korea through the tributary system by the 640s, and Japan by 805. The Arab world also became aware of tea at this time, with an account of Chinese tea and salt taxation being given in the report of an Arabic traveller in Guangzhou in the year 879. The cultivation and harvest of tea leaves was kept under strict state control, precisely on account of its tributary value. There were even regulations to the effect that the tea bushes could be tended only by unmarried maidens, and the diets of these nubile young tea-gatherers were also regulated so that the oils from their skin would not damage the flavour of the leaves. The tea that was traded to the tributary states tended to be of a lower quality than that consumed domestically, and also tended to be shipped in bulk for convenience.

Shennong’s brew of course has a long-standing appreciation in both the English-speaking world and the Russian-speaking world, to the point where it was among the staple goods of trade along both the Maritime Route (a trade dating back to the Song Dynasty) and the Siberian Tract (dating back to the Yuan Dynasty). Speaking personally, my own tea-drinking habits were indelibly formed in Saimasai in Kazakhstan, where the custom is to serve black tea with whole milk and sugar, on a dastarhan usually decked out with copious quantities of pastries, cheese, fruits and sweets, and of course naan with butter and jam. (I later got spoiled by bottled Unif Premium Assam Milk Tea, delicious when chilled and readily available in your average chaoshi in Baotou…)

Ahem. At any rate, black tea largely arose as a result of this expanded trade. Raw green tea, even sun-dried or roasted, tended to spoil. As a method of preservation, tea traders on all three routes began to crush, roll out and oxidise the tea leaves in a controlled environment, only afterwards allowing them to dry, producing a stronger flavour and a deeper colour – and also a product that could be shipped over long distances and long travel times without spoiling. It was in this form that tea was introduced to Europe by a Portuguese Jesuit, Jasper de Cruz, in 1560. It goes without saying that the subsequent European thirst for tea was one among several reasons that the colonial European powers began to violently muscle their way into the Indian Ocean and prey upon trade on the Maritime Route through the fortified-port system. The destruction of the old Indian Ocean-centred tributary world system, and the creation of a new capitalist one centred in the Atlantic, thus had a great deal to do with the tea trade.

But don’t think I’m going to go all puritanical in some sort of self-flagellating leftist paroxysm over this history, even as I acknowledge it. Tea is something to be deeply enjoyed and thoroughly appreciated – and the variety and the methods of brewing make the preparation and drinking of tea a thoroughly-enjoyable pastime. In our house – having both Chinese and American drinkers – we drink loose-leaf, tea balls, bagged tea and matcha; and the favoured brands are Maiskii, Taylors of Harrogate (particularly Yorkshire Tea – that’s the good stuff) and of course Ahmad (both the house green and the Earl Grey), though Twinings, Bigelow and even certain parts of the Unilever mega-conglomerate also have a welcome. At any rate, a happy Tea Day to all – please do enjoy an extra cup or two!

Monday, April 20, 2020

Chinagate is the new Russiagate


Red Ogre and Blue Ogre, from the Legend of Momotarô

If you ever needed proof of the truth of the assertion by the great WEB DuBois, spoken in 1956, that:
I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no “two evils” exist. There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say. There is no third party.
… one need look no further than the utter sham that is Chinagate, and the current mania on the right for ‘holding China accountable’ for the abject failures of the American government to keep its people safe. The idea that China is somehow responsible for the spread of SARS-CoV-2 around the world on account of the ‘six days’ (itself a brazen lie – China warned the world about the human transmission of SARS-2 on the fifteenth of January, not the twentieth) and that this is somehow to blame for the United States government doing nothing for two full months after the WHO announcement is risible on its face. That has not stopped the new nationalist right from promoting this narrative with every single outlet they have available.

But that is not the most interesting thing about Chinagate. What is interesting about Chinagate is how exactly it parallels Russiagate. I note, grimly and without satisfaction, that I had already predicted this turn of events in 2018. Tucker Carlson is the Rachel Maddow of the new nationalist right. The anti-China narrative uses the same tropes about China’s ‘authoritarianism’ to blow up the non-story – literally, the fake news – of China’s putative unresponsiveness to the outbreak. It uses the same media spread. Cable news is the primary medium, which is of course natural since MSNBC is based on the Fox News model. There’s the same sort of emphasis on ‘holding [Russia / China] accountable’, the same propping up of an élite-run innuendo-heavy nothingburger ‘investigation’ [Mueller Report / Wuhan Institute of Virology] as an outlet for carefully-massaged popular anger. There’s the same trotting out of ‘intelligence’ community ‘experts’, whose job is literally to spread misinformation, to bolster the narrative [Russia / China]. There’s the same orchestrations of performative flag-waving.

Remember the Japanese legend of Momotarô. The red ogre and the blue ogre pretend to be enemies, but they really just want to kidnap the villagers and steal their food – in this case, the red ogre and the blue ogre both want to kidnap our votes and steal our livelihoods. And they both do so in this case by pointing to a horde of foreign devils and insinuating that the other ogre is in league with them. The scapegoating of China in 2020, like the scapegoating of Russia in 2016, is little more than a cynical ploy used by one wing or other of the Evil Party to manipulate voters into pulling the lever a particular way. And, of course, blue ogre Joe Biden – creepy old neoconservative dotard that he is – has jumped right on that train, attacking Trump from the right on China. The message is clear: we have always been at war with Eastasia.

The fact that this narrative of a generalised and overblown ‘authoritarian’ threat to the homeland from Asia has ‘sped up’ in recent years is no accident. The Asian continent has gotten a lot more integrated over the past decade, to the point where we are approaching something akin to a Eurasian power bloc. Strategically, this is a nightmare for the Atlanticists, who sought specifically to break up such a power bloc during the Cold War, and have sought to prevent it from recurring ever since. Little wonder that the chattering classes on both sides have begun hyperventilating.

Several things have contributed to solidify the current alliance-of-convenience between the powers of the Silk Road and the Tea Road. The most important contributing factor has been the overreach of the NATO alliance, going back to the accession of the Baltic states and the two wars with Yugoslavia. The wholesale betrayal and destruction of a democratic state which had somehow kept up friendly ties with Russia and friendlier ties with China caused a great deal of alarm in both countries, particularly after the ‘accidental’ NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Successive acts of Atlanticist imperial overreach followed, which caused Russia and China – and later, Iran – to recognise and begin acting on their overlapping strategic interests: the war in Iraq in 2003; Saakashvili’s anti-Ossetian bombardment in Georgia in 2008; the war in Libya in 2011; the Syrian Civil War and NATO’s heavy involvement on one side; the continued support for the most extreme forms of political Zionism and hostility to the Palestinians on the part of the Atlanticist powers. Iran, China and Russia have been acting, with increasing degrees of coherence, as a bloc on all of these gæopolitical issues involving Asia. And their actions, at least in this theatre, have been entirely defensive!

This is not to say that real gæopolitical and ideological points of dissension do not exist between the three ‘poles’ of this new alliance. There is no such thing as a monolithic ‘authoritarianism’, still less ‘totalitarianism’, to which all three of these Asian powers ascribe. Real differences do exist, and thankfully the cooler and more realistic heads in all three countries continue to be mindful of them. What’s more: as a Marx-influenced left-Eurasianist I am very far from neutral on these differences. More on that in a blog post to come – watch this space. However, the fact that both the blue-ogre neoliberals and now the red-ogre new nationalist right have come to describe two poles of the alliance in a language which indelibly yokes them in the American imagination with the third speaks volumes indeed. And it says more than just that the American élite are simply incapable of thinking or acting strategically on the world stage.

We are now seeing the manifestations of a generalised hostility to Asia among the Washington donor caste. It’s generally ad hoc, but the primary raison d’être for this generalised hostility is to keep Americans afraid enough of the great external threat to control their electoral behaviour. However, some sectors among the Washington élite (notably former Trump appointees Bannon and McMaster, but also some, like Stoller, connected with the neoliberal Democrats) see the promotion of an anti-China grand narrative as the ‘big push’ necessary to lead a cultural, œconomic and financial renaissance.

Asian integration is still in its nascent stage. It’s also been mostly ad hoc, defensive and in response to aggressions by the Atlanticist powers in the Balkans and in the Near East. (Proactive œconomic organisations like the Eurasian Union and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation are the exceptions that prove the rule.) However, as Asian integration continues to deepen, we can expect to see the American government and its cable-news and legacy-media mouthpieces amplify the anti-Chinese, anti-Russian and anti-Iranian invective, which we can expect to become more violent and hateful. Hate crimes against Asian-Americans may be occasionally tutted over, but they will be ultimately considered as acceptable ‘collateral damage’ in the fight against the Great Enemy. In the meantime, it is incumbent on Americans that they don’t buy the propaganda. It’s not in our interest and never has been: the red ogre and the blue ogre aren’t actually as friendly as they pretend to be.

EDIT: If you want to see some actual investigative journalism on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and how that came to be a meme among the new nationalist right, here’s an excellent piece by The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal and Ajit Singh. Also, Nature has a peer-reviewed journal article on how we know the SARS-CoV-2 virus to be naturally-occurring rather than lab-created.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Family Chronicle: a review


Autumn trees at Aksakovo, Orenburg Oblast
Farewell, my figures, bright or dark, my people, good or bad—I should rather say, figures that have their bright and dark sides, and people who have both virtues and vices. You were not great heroes, not imposing personalities; you trod your path on earth in silence and obscurity, and it is long, very long, since you left it. But you were men and women, and your inward and outward life was not mere dull prose, but as interesting and instructive to us as we and our life in turn will be interesting and instructive to our descendants. You were actors in that mighty drama which mankind has played on this earth since time immemorial; you played your parts as conscientiously as others, and you deserve as well to be remembered.
- Sergei Aksakov, Epilogue to The Family Chronicle
Russian hunter, fisher, literary patron, folklorist, novelist, nature writer and biographer Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov is unfortunately a bit overlooked in the great literary canon of that nation, despite having been a close friend and enthusiastic supporter of a certain young Nikolai Gogol (celebrated author of Dead Souls and The Inspector-General). He appears to be overlooked for several reasons: for one thing, he belongs to an ‘in-between’ generation in Russian literature, being the senior by several years not only of Gogol but also of Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev. For another thing: his creative period seems to have come in his waning years, by which times the tastes of the Russian reading public had decisively shifted. Aksakov’s scrupulous realism and focussed miniatures of Russian backcountry life were overshadowed by Dostoevsky’s psychological flourish and Tolstoy’s grand historical epic style. And yet: Aksakov was deeply appreciated by both Gogol and Turgenev, who saw in his work a depth of truth, closeness to nature, and a gift for exploring the subtler dynamics of psychology.

Aksakov’s first quasi-biographical novel in what was to become a trilogy, The Family Chronicle (also titled in translation A Russian Gentleman), was published in 1856. The events it narrates, however, take place in the late 1700s under the reign of Catherine the Great. The Family Chronicle is, at its core, Sergei Timofeevich’s story of his mother, and her relationship with her father-in-law, the head of the family, whose surname in the novel is changed to Bagrov. But despite its short length, it is a sprawling, ambitious work of fiction which deftly weaves together a number of disparate strands. There is the naturalism and ethnography of the Tea Road frontier, where the author grew up – what is now the Oblast of Orenburg and the Republic of Bashkortostan. There is also the main story itself: the interactions between the author’s mother and father and their various relations. There is a depiction of the drawing-room habits of the Russian nobility in general, something which might not appear out-of-place in an Austen novel. And then through it all there are subtle social commentaries, embedded within keen observations, on ethnic relations and the class conflicts between serf and master, something which certainly echoes the Slavophile critique of the institution of serfdom.

What is noteworthy about these characters, as is hinted from the postscript from which I quoted a piece above, is that these characters are quite human. Indeed, the frank depictions of frontier life in The Family Chronicle occasionally met with the disapproval of the censors, and the version I have is peppered lightly with footnotes to this effect. The primary conflicts of the story arise between characters who genuinely mean well and genuinely care for each other. And yet their temperaments, life situations, loves and other priorities place them at odds, without malice – and yet not without hurt. True, some of these characters do exhibit malice and even cruelty: however, even in these cases, Sergei Aksakov is quick to point out the underlying logic of it, so that even if we do not condone, we may nonetheless understand what he is showing us.

The main character in the book is the author’s grandfather, Stepan Mikhailovich. A proud nobleman from an ancient Kievan line, descended from a distant Varangian ancestor named Shimon, Stepan Mikhailovich Bagrov is a short, wiry, fair and formidable lordling. Although he is all but illiterate, his general inclination is toward a ferociously-scrupulous generosity. He is willing to forgive slights, pranks, laziness and the common run of knavery and disobedience. But the one thing that gets under his skin are deliberate lies. He is brutally honest and demands the same honesty of others. And when he is angry, he has a tendency to fly into violent rages against his serfs and even his wife and children. The author neither overlooks nor excuses this, though we are meant to see it as preferable – in the case of his serfs – to locking them up or to involving the police.

With the ancient Bagrov estate at Simbirsk dwindling generation by generation after being parcelled away amidst an ever-expanding brood of cadets, Stepan Mikhailovich hears of the land rush in Bashkortostan and goes out there to try his luck. Though, being honest, he views the exploitation of the Bashkirs with extreme distaste, he nonetheless has no objection to buying such land on the cheap from a fellow Russian, and he purchases 12,000 acres on which to settle himself, his family and most of his serfs, 200 miles east of the city of Ufa. This settlement of ‘New Bagrovo’ soon becomes home to him and his family: his wife Arina Vasileevna; his cousin Praskovya Ivanovna; his four daughters Aksinya, Elizaveta, Aleksandra and Tatyana; and his son Aleksei.

What follows is a detailed gæographical and ethnographical description of the land and its people. Aksakov dwells at length on the beauties of the Bashkortostani woods and steppes and hills; the variety of its wild flora; the bounty of its fish and fowl; the abundance of its mineral wealth – and in this there is a tone of sadness as well, for he knows that much of that wild and natural beauty has been despoiled by the settlement of which his own family was a part. And he also describes with no small amount of Romantic admiration the free life of the semi-nomadic and loosely-Muslim Bashkir people, who in his telling tend flocks as well as keep bees.

An episode follows in which his pretty, orphaned young cousin Praskovya is seduced by a scheming suitor named Mikhail Maksimovich Kurolesov. Stepan Mikhailovich at once takes a fervent dislike to Kurolesov, but the young man has an uncanny knack for insinuating himself in the company of the women of the house. Attracted by Praskovya’s large fortune though deterred from expressing his intentions openly by Stepan Mikhailovich, he manages to convince Praskovya – then only fifteen years old – to elope with him by means of several intermediaries. Stepan Mikhailovich is incensed when he finds out, and forbids Kurolesov from visiting the house. His character is gradually revealed as a cruel, debauched tyrant, who takes pleasure in tormenting his serfs and taking the pretty ones to his bed. He hides this side of his nature from his wife as long as possible – though she does find out, after he beats one of her favourite serfs, Ivan, to within an inch of his life. After Praskovya lets him know he’s found out, he also beats her, and locks her in the cellar on her own estate. Stepan Mikhailovich hears of this and mounts a rescue at the head of an armed band of his own men, and carries her off without resistance from a drunken and incapacitated Kurolesov. Not long after this, Kurolesov dies suddenly, and despite having been deceived in his character so long, Praskovya bitterly mourns his death.

The bulk of the story, however, concerns Stepan Mikhailovich’s young son Aleksei – the author’s father under another name – and his courtship of and marriage to the author’s mother, under the pseudonym Sofya Nikolaevna. Aksakov details the sad childhood of his mother, condemned to a menial Cinderella existence in her own house under the harsh tyranny of her father Nikolai Zubin’s young but envious second wife. The wife takes deathly ill and begs the forgiveness of Sofya on her deathbed, which Sofya is all too happy to offer. Sofya Nikolaevna is true to that forgiveness, and cares for her younger stepsiblings as though they were her own flesh and blood. But her harsh upbringing has some startling effects on her character. For one thing, although she is proud, she cannot tolerate pride and tyranny in others. She cannot stand duplicity or pretension. But, a bit less attractively, after her experience with her stepmother she begins to have a fascination with exercising power, and entertains fantasies of control and mastery over her husband. This causes a great deal of friction in their marriage.

The language that Aksakov uses to describe his parents’ courtship wanders between the tolerantly-affectionate and the tragic. He spares no effort to describe the ill-suited nature of the match. Aleksei, though handsome, is a simple and forthright soul, very much a man of ‘the country’. He enjoys hunting and fishing – two pursuits which Sofya Nikolaevna views with disdain. Sofya, on the other hand, though far from Saint Petersburg society, is very much a city girl: sophisticated, clever, sensitive, learned in French and German, attentive to manners and the fine details of decorum. Aleksei meets her several times and is instantly smitten with her; for her part, Sofya is attracted by Aleksei’s humility and stoic quietude, and encourages him where she scorns the flattery of her prouder suitors. And she also begins to think of herself as Aleksei’s saviour, or a sort of Pygmalion: in Aleksei, she saw a man she could guide, tutor and raise in whatever image she saw fit.

And so, problems crop up from the start. Aleksei’s sisters, particularly Elizaveta and Aleksandra, take an instant dislike to Sofya and do their level best to blacken her name for Stepan Mikhailovich’s benefit, and the once-burned patriarch of the family puts his foot down hard. Aleksei threatens to commit suicide, however, and rather extorts his father’s acceptance of Sofya. This does not impress her. Sofya and Aleksei have further disagreements and miscommunications. Sofya starts to think of Aleksei as shallow and unfeeling, and Aleksei begins to tread on eggshells around a fiancée he sees as overly-sensitive. Even so, the wedding goes ahead: Sofya overcomes all her doubts through prayer to an icon of the Theotokos, and doubles down on her efforts to groom Aleksei into her image of the ideal husband.

Aksakov details many of these trials in his parents’ marriage. Sofya finds that she detests life in Bagrovo. She views the living conditions there as dirty and crude. The social circles there she finds to be limiting and low. She is repeatedly slighted, annoyed and attacked by two of her sisters-in-law particularly, who see her as a threat to their position in their father’s house. She starts to think her husband won’t stand up for her when they do so – though in truth Aleksei tries to smooth over conflicts without hurting anyone’s feelings. And she develops a keen jealousy of Aleksei’s attachment to the Bashkortostani outdoors, his hunts and his fishing trips.

The one factor that saves their marriage – and indeed the central relationship in the book – is Sofya Nikolaevna’s father-in-law Stepan Mikhailovich. Though Sofya is occasionally shocked by her father-in-law’s violent temper, she soon comes to treasure his fundamental honesty, openness and fair dealing. And the now-elderly patriarch of the family, for all that he had opposed the marriage, at once sees in his daughter-in-law a woman of deep piety, sound sense and formidable intellect. Stepan’s advice and guidance help the mismatched newlyweds to come to a modus vivendi, that helps them weather several crises that crop up in their early years.

The Family Chronicle does not carry any grand philosophical themes – it is truly a work of biographical fiction rather than memoir. There is very little exploration of the ‘great Russian soul’ or the promulgation of the great Russian truth in his work: though there is plenty of space, as can be seen, for the treatment of Russian souls in plural and in variety; and his patient love for all of them – even the ones who misbehave or who misunderstand each other – has the ring of its very own truth.

But certain strands of the author’s romantic high-Tory Slavophilia are there to be noticed. Aksakov is more observational than didactic when it comes to treating his surroundings, but his contempt for the institution of serfdom – as noted through its ill spiritual effects on even obedient serfs and well-meaning masters – comes through with remarkable clarity. His romanticist love of nature – probably better explored in his tracts on fishing and hunting elsewhere – also comes through quite notably, given his lavish and affectionate descriptions of the countryside around Orenburg. Some environmentalist themes crop up as well, as he does not spare his own family from criticism for despoiling the landscape with building projects, overhunting and overfishing.

But even here he evinces a certain preference even if he does not say so explicitly. He does his best to be fair to the town life in Ufa. But his great love is the wild countryside of the Tea Road; and despite the ill behaviour of his aunts to his mother, Aksakov nonetheless takes a high view of the closeness and affection that tied his rural spear-side of the family together. He admires the frankness and fair-mindedness of his grandfather even if he can never quite excuse or condone his rages. He also shows a high opinion of his father’s profound simplicity – mistaken by Sofya Nikolaevna for dullness or inattentiveness in good times, but showing his true and noble colours in times of difficulty.

Aksakov writes from the heart about people and places he knows intimately, and that sincerity shows in the result. The Family Chronicle is not what I would call a deep book, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read and an excellent local treatment of life – among a certain class, anyway – on the Tea Road during the Russian expansion eastward.


Sergei Timofeevich Aksakov