Monday, December 28, 2020

‘Ice and Fire’, by Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

From Joy Is Not My Profession:
Take a cigarette and describe the war to me.
Take a loaf of bread and describe my feet to me.
Tears streaming on my shoulder,
I’ll describe to you the caravans of wind and bullets.
I’m as innocent as the partridge, as deceptive as al-Jazzar,
but thirsty—
I may collapse at any moment!
I smile,
though my back is hunched with crying.

Royal dustheaps,
clear off my sad notebooks
and listen:
bread sickens me like poison;
water, like the plague;
yet I am thirsty, and my spirit burns...
and my spirit growas crooked as a faucet.

O God—Rose of ice and dust—
the hunger in our mouths, the breasts on our chests
are neglected, forgotten.
Prostitutes sicken me like tuberculosis;
virgins, like the plague;
yet I crouch for hours
under the rain, behind the chimneys
to watch a man approach his wife
or a girl scratching her side before the mirror.

Sometimes I think of victory, and of defeat—
of great heroes
hitching up their pants behind the fences,
yawning in bathrooms.
What is the difference between a flower on the dinner table
and one on the grave?
Between bread and tin foil,
a breast and a hammer?
Or between the man who dies heading an expedition
and one who dies in mid-yawn
    as he defecates in the ruins?

My God: the cherry branches grow tall
and send their plundered blood off on freight cars,
and the goats’ green eyes stream in the moonlight.
A summer here and a winter there
and blood-stained birds
huddle together over the corpses, with their red claws,
and we still don’t know what to do!
Should we love, or should we go to sleep?
Or do we fix the mirrors over the haunts of the heroes?

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A few words on Ludvík Svoboda

My apologies for being a bit late with this piece. I will be blunt: I was debating with myself whether to host this reflection on THAO or here on S&C for a long time. This piece deals with the political and military history of Czechoslovakia and touches on religious themes which are close to me, which on first blush would make it seem like a natural fit with THAO. But the story of General Svoboda’s most famous feat in the Great War, the escape of the Czechoslovak Legions from Siberia via the Tea Road, proved far too tempting to pass up to my left-Eurasianist heart. And so, I beg my readers’ forgiveness in advance for the occasionally-devotional tone in this piece. I am, after all, describing someone here who was deeply respected by at least one Orthodox saint, and whose spirit of self-sacrificial service comes quite close to the sort of devotion and personal valour I tend to value.

The twenty-fifth of November is the birthday of the great Soviet and Czechoslovak general, statesman and President of Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda. Svoboda was from the very beginning a supporter of Czechoslovak independence, an anti-fascist freedom fighter, a liberator of his own country from the Nazis. After the restoration of Czechoslovak statehood in the wake of the Second World War he joined the Communist Party and became a statesman in communist Czechoslovakia. However, he belonged firmly in the camp of the more conservative decentralists supporting Dubček, and gained a great deal of respect from his countrymen for resisting the imposed tyranny of Soviet rule on his country. But throughout his career, his service was characterised by a remarkable degree of disinterested selflessness and integrity that manifested itself as a fervent, heartfelt patriotism.

Ludvík Svoboda was born on the twenty-fifth of November, 1896 in the village of Hroznatín, the son of the poor farmers Jan and Františka. The land they lived on was marginal, and they barely eked out a living from it. Ludvík’s father died when he was only one year old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. He was sent to an agrarian school in Velké Meziříčí when he was fifteen years old, but was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1915 and sent to fight against the Russians in the Eastern Front during the Great War.

He was captured in action at Ternopol in September of that same year. He quickly joined the Czechoslovak Legion to fight against the Austrian oppressors, and demonstrated his heroism at the Battles of Zborov and Bachmač. Svoboda was one of the key personalities who organised and executed the legendary Great Siberian Adventure which saw the Czech and Slovak volunteers under the Tsar fight their way across Siberia to freedom in Vladivostok, in the Far East.

After the war was over, Svoboda went back home to tend to his family farm for a couple of years under the newly-independent government. However, in 1922 he again joined the military as a staff officer in the Czechoslovak Army. During this time, although politically he seems to have been fairly disinclined, his sympathies were fairly close to the Communists. By the time Czechoslovakia was betrayed and invaded by the Nazis in 1938, Svoboda was in command of an entire battalion. After having fought for his people’s freedom from Austria-Hungary, he was not about to submit easily to Nazi domination. He organised the underground resistance movement Obrána naroda in 1939 and committed to a guerrilla war against the Nazis until he could bring off a mass escape to Poland and organising a liberation force in Kraków.

Being captured again, this time by the Soviets, Svoboda got them to spare his life by telling his captors to make a phone call to Moscow and confirm who he was. He was very quickly placed in charge of the First Czechoslovak Army Corps, and fought with remarkable distinction and bravery. His unit demonstrated its resilience and determination at Sokolovo, where they joined the fighting against the Germans. And later, the forces under Ludvík Svoboda reentered Czechoslovak territory at the storming of Dukla Pass, one of the most famous tank battles in Czechoslovak history which is still commemorated in the Rusin town of Svidník in Slovakia. His service earned him the admiration of Marshal Ivan Konev, and as a commander he earned the devotion and admiration of many in his corps, including a certain conscripted Orthodox monk: Saint Iov Kundria. Saint Iov kept Ludvík Svoboda’s portrait in his icon corner together with that of Saint Luke of Simferopol.

For his bravery, honour and dedication Ludvík Svoboda was welcomed by most Czechs and Slovaks as a war hero, and had already earned the trust also of Edvard Beneš (the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile) as well as the pro-Soviet functionaries such as Klement Gottwald. In the wake of the liberation of Czechoslovakia he was appointed as defence minister by Beneš. Svoboda did nothing to stop – and indeed tacitly supported – the workers’ general strikes and demonstrations that took place in the leadup to the Communist transition in 1948, though he did not formally join the Communist Party until after this. Even so, as an independent-minded Czechoslovak patriot rather than an apparatchik, Ludvík Svoboda was distrusted by the Stalinists, who had him purged from the army in 1950 and thrown into prison in 1951, where they unsuccessfully pressured him to commit suicide to save his own image. However, after Stalin’s death Svoboda was released from prison and was sent unceremoniously back to his old farm. It was only after Khrushchev inquired after his ‘old friend’ Svoboda during a state visit that he was (rather hurriedly) reinstated into the Czechoslovak Armed Forces.

Svoboda continued a rather unobtrusive military and bureaucratic career – though he continued to be distrusted by the Communist hardliners. It was not long after this, though, that the Prague Spring happened under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Svoboda was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Dubček during this heady period of reforms, but he sprang into action again – with an astonishing vigour and at substantial personal risk – in the wake of the Warsaw Pact intervention which resulted in the overthrow of Dubček’s experiment and the imprisonment of Dubček himself. Dubček’s life was spared by the Soviet leadership under Brezhnev, practically entirely on account of the fact that Ludvík Svoboda went in person to Moscow and, using every bit of his military hero’s cachet and a significant store of sheer cussed bullheadedness besides, shouted down the Soviet leadership with demands for Dubček’s release. Long story short: he got it. Never underestimate an old Czech veteran brandishing a service revolver.

The remainder of Ludvík Svoboda’s public life was a series of quiet, if protracted, power struggles against Dubček’s replacement in office, a Slovak nationalist turned Soviet-style apparatchik named Gustáv Husák. Svoboda’s health began to fail him, however. After a series of respiratory complaints, he left the public eye and public life in 1975, and reposed on the twenty-first of September, 1979.

Svoboda’s legacy continues to be debated within the Czech Republic and Slovakia itself. Was he a patriot or a Soviet collaborator, or both? In all honesty, personally, given the lengths to which he went to defend Dubček from Brezhnev when it brought him no benefit, I would have to incline toward the former view. It is true, of course, that I am viewing the man through the lens of how he was understood by people who knew him well personally – not least, Saint Iov Kundria, whose judgement of personality I am inclined to trust. But on balance, I think he really was a man of integrity who really did care about the Czech and Slovak people. His coöperation with the Soviets during the Second World War in particular must be seen through a lens of pragmatic and realistic concern for their overall well-being. In fact, General Svoboda may very well have said it best himself:

All I have ever done must be measured by my intention to serve best my people and my country.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Legend of the Eagle Dance

Eagle Dance of the Sarikoli

The eagle is a national symbol of the Sarikoli and Wakhi peoples of the Chinese Pamirs, and the eagle dance is a source of deep pride for these Tajik people of Xinjiang, being one of their indispensable forms of folk performance art. The following is an account of the legend that inspired the eagle dance, from an ethnographic survey of the Dances of the Chinese Minorities by Li Beida (李北達):
The eagle flute and the eagle dance are the favourite musical instrument and dance of the Tajik ethnic group. As to the origin of the eagle flute and the eagle dance, there is a popular legend among the Tajik people.

Long ago, there was a young Tajik couple on the Pamir Plateau. They were both serfs and deeply in love with each other. However, according to local laws, the serfs were not permitted to love and marry freely. When their cruel owner found out they were in love, he deliberately separated them. He exiled the young man to pasture in the distant high mountains and the young lady to work in his house. Although these lovers were forced to be separated, their love grew deeper than ever before.

One day, when the young man was pasturing a herd of sheep on the mountain, he saw a group of hawks soaring in the blue sky. It caused him to feel a rhythm strong with both power and gentleness. He also heard the exciting sound from the wings of the hawks. The young man was inspired by the birds and picked up a wing bone of a dead eagle and bored three small holes on it. Then, he polished it into a flute. Later, at every dusk, he played this eagle flute toward the direction of the village where the girl was. The sound of the flute was soft in tone but loud in volume, exhibiting the lover’s yearning. This sound flew all the way into the ears of his lover.

The girl also missed her lover day and night. Each night, she snuck to the foot of the mountain and looked up into it. At that time, the melodious sound of the flute met her ears. One night, she saw a big eagle circle over the mountains, sail straight up to the clouds, and then dive with the speed of a thunderbolt. The girl admired its actions very much. She began to imitate the movement of the hawks. Fuelling her actions was her longing for her lover and her desire for freedom. Thus, the eagle dance came into being.

At last, the young man and woman prevailed against the evil will of their master through their arduous persistence, and married happily. The eagle flute and the eagle dance which they created are very popular on the Pamir Plateau, and it has become an essential treasure for the Tajiks. It is this beautiful old legend that explains the sentiments of the Tajiks concerning the instrument and the dance. The eagle flute and the eagle dance cannot be used separately, just like the lovers who were attached to each other.
As indicated by the legend, the eagle dance is often slow and fluid and light, emulating the lofty soaring motions of flight, but requires both power and grace, both technical skill and improvisation. In the Republic period, before 1949, only men were permitted to perform the dance; however, since that time women have been allowed to participate in the dance as well. It was traditional, in fact, for men and women to dance as couples (again, as the legend would appear to indicate).

Monday, November 9, 2020

Sorrow and hope in the modernism of al-Mâġûṭ

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

As Mr White was kind enough to cite in an episode of his Substack podcast Sisyphus Sits, I recently discovered and have been extensively quoting on social media the powerful words of the Syrian poet-laureate Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ, and in particular the slim collection of his early poems, The Fan of Swords. Owen quoted in full the poem I personally like best of his in that volume, ‘Shade and Noon Sun’:
All the fields of the world
are against two small lips.
All the streets of history
are against two bare feet . . .

Love, they travel and we wait.
They have gallows, we have necks.
They have pearls, we have freckles and moles.
They own the night, the dawn,
the afternoon and the day,
and we own the skin and the bones.

We plant under the noon sun,
and they eat in the shade.
Their teeth are white like rice,
our teeth are dark as desolate forests.
Their breasts are soft and smooth,
while ours are as dusty as execution squares.
And yet, we are the kings of the world!
Their homes are covered with pamphlets, accounts,
our homes are covered with autumn leaves.
In their pockets they carry addresses
    of thieves and traitors.
In our pockets we carry addresses
    of rivers and thunder.

They own the windows, we own the winds.
They own the ships, we own the waves.
They own the medals, we own the mud.
They, the walls and balconies.
We, the ropes and daggers.

Come, my love, let us sleep
    on the pavements.
Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ is a fascinating character in his own right. He grew up dirt-poor, the son of a peasant from Salamîya in Hama Governorate. Al-Mâġûṭ, a Shî‘a Muslim of the Nizâri lineage, joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party when he was twenty-one. Even though he joked it was only because the party office was closer to his house than the Ba‘ath Party office, and also because it had the added benefit of a fireplace during the winter, his attachment was apparently fairly sincere. He was an ardent Syrian nationalist and (it seems) a sincere admirer of the Christian leftist politician ’Anṭûn Sa‘âda who led the SSNP and was executed in Lebanon in 1949. Al-Mâġûṭ was arrested in 1955 and thrown into the infamous Mazza Prison in Damascus for his political activity and organising on behalf of the SSNP, and it was after this that he began writing on the insides of old cigarette boxes. His cellmate at the time, the celebrated poet ’Adûnîs, told him he might want to consider publishing his writings as poetry.

Al-Mâġut is a prose poet. He does not write, as you can see from the above, in a style laden with aphorisms and high-flown allegories, pæans to the lost greatness of mediæval Damascus and Baghdad. Nor does he write in a style popular among his contemporaries, which seeks to mimic the Western Romantics. Still less does he retreat into a mystical obscurantism. His use of allusions is occasional, and generally limited to well-known figures and events in Shî‘ite history: Fâṭima, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alî and the Battle of Karbalâ’, for example. He is a realist. He calls our attention to here. He uses immediate, tactile imagery. He talks about pavement and cigarettes, libraries and coffee-houses. Natural imagery and symbolism in al-Mâġûṭ’s poetry is present, but sparse. He looks for images that will be known and understood from experience. Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ’s style is innovative and path-breaking on account of this unflinching gaze upon the present, upon the reality in front of your nose.

And in that spirit, he draws our attention – leads us by the nose, so to speak – to the forgotten people and places, to the Biblical ‘least of these’. Although he is ’Ismâ‘îli, it is intriguing that he occasionally draws our attention to Christ, who weeps with the people who weep – or even occasionally writes as a penitent sinner confessing to a Christian priest. There are times when he weeps with God, with the rain. There are times when he rages at God, blames God for the tragœdies that befall undeserving people. This is where his poetry draws its resonance and power. He alternates between this righteous pain and sorrow, on the one hand, and a kind of cynical detachment on the other – even from his own art. He is able to satirise himself, mock himself, draw a kind of black humour from his circumstances and his powerlessness in the midst of police-state political repression and œconomic exploitation.

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ looks, mostly in vain, for the gentle spirits in a savage age – that savagery being imported from the West in the form of colonialism, political ideologies, fundamentalist backlash, fascist dictatorship, the war of the rich against the poor. In his poetry, this leads him to always take the side of the exile, the prisoner, the homeless person begging on the street. These were his fellow-spirits, whom he embraced in his prose poems. In his life, this led him to a fellow poet. He met one of his ‘gentle spirits’, Saniya Ṣalîḥ, to whom he dedicated at least one of his anthologies. He fell in love with her, they married and had two daughters. Both of them continued to write poetry, but sadly Ṣalîḥ remained under the shadow of her more-famous husband.

The volume I have been reading from, The Fan of Swords, has been translated by May Jayyûsî and Naomi Shihâb Nye. Jayyûsî is a scholar and member of the Muwatin Institute in Ramallah; and Nye is a poet in her own right, a poet of Palestine and of the Palestinian diaspora. This translation is indeed powerful and alive in its own right. It readily relates to the English speaker both al-Mâġût’s pathos and his posture of cynicism – both the hope and the hopelessness of his struggle. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this volume if you have the twelve bucks to spare.

Here is another one of his poems, ‘From the Threshold to the Sky’:
As the sad rain
    floods my sad face
I dream of a ladder of dust,
hunched backs,
palms of hands pressed against knees
on which I’ll climb the lofty heavens
and discover
    where our sighs and prayers are.

My love!
All those prayers and sighs
sobs and pleadings
from millions of lips, breasts,
over thousands of years and centuries
my words are even now
    next to those of Christ
My love!
We wait for the sky to shed its tears.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A day in the life of the Sarikoli people

Recently got done watching this episode of CCTV’s Travelogue with He Tianran, as he visits an ethnic Tajik village on the Datong River. Please give it a watch when you can!

Life for the Tajik people is clearly not easy: the land is rough and dry, not easy to farm. The people of this village grow apricots, which at the time Mr He visits them are in bloom. And see the sparse vegetation which they have to feed their sheep! Yet they show a truly kenotic hospitality and warmth toward strangers, including Han Chinese people, as well as toward each other. They have to work together as a village, and help each other mutually, in order to survive. As Mr He says, even though the Sarikoli Tajiks have been sedentary for generations now, a lot of these traditions are carried over from when they were still nomads. And they still produce artwork of intense, vibrant, colourful beauty; and actively maintain their traditional music and dance. (They also clearly have a healthy love of cats.) These are all things that I truly appreciate about the Central Asian Silk Road cultures generally. Also the fact that, quite sensibly, they don’t ruin their milk tea with tonnes of processed sugar or tapioca. There is a lesson there, I believe.

One of the aspects of Tajik life that Mr He does not mention here, but which is vital to the Sarikoli and Wakhi identity, is their devotion to the Nizâri ’Ismâ‘îli branch of Islâm, an antique lineage of Shî‘a Islâm which traditionally places a strong emphasis on reason and on social justice. The head of their religion is His Majesty Karîm al-Ḥusayn Šâh, the fourth Âġâ Khân. Âġâ Khân last visited his followers in China in 2012. As Mr He notes, Tajik children seem to be growing up bilingual in both Mandarin and their home language, while the adults speak their home language (Sarikoli or Wakhi) almost exclusively.

It is also amazing seeing these high Western Xinjiang landscapes; Tashkurgan, of course, lies close to the gæostrategically-vital Khunjerab Pass. The Sarikoli and Wakhi peoples have a strong sense of honour and duty as well, and many of them belong to families who have served in the Chinese border guard likewise for generations, keeping a close watch on the Pass. Again, I am left admiring the Tajiks of Xinjiang, with their strong and deeply-felt senses of civic duty and mutual obligation. Though the Tajiks of Xinjiang are only a bit more than forty thousand in number, they occupy a key position in regard to China’s gæopolitical ambitions, and I hope that the Chinese state continues to extend them the gratitude and admiration that they are due, and also accords due respect to their religious faith.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Traditional wedding ceremonies on either side of the Silk Road

I’ve been reading more from Chrysostom lately, and have come across an interesting commonality with regard to the præ-modern wedding ceremonies, both in the eastern part of the Eastern Roman Empire (that is to say, Syria) and in China. In the Christian East, weddings were generally not held in the Church, but were civil ceremonies which were subsequently blessed by the Church. Here is a description of the præ-modern Syrian wedding ceremony, given by Catharine P Roth:
For a long time there was no specifically Christian wedding ceremony. If a husband and wife received baptism, their marriage was thereby incorporated into the body of Christ. If Christians wished to marry, they were expected to obtain the bishop’s permission. As Saint Ignatios says: ‘It is right for men and women who marry to be united with the consent of the bishop, that marriage be according to the Lord and not according to lust.

After a marriage had been contracted in accordance with the civil law, the Church ratified the union as a Christian marriage by admitting the newlyweds together to the Holy Communion. It appears from Chrysostom’s sermons that in his time the actual wedding took place in the [groom’s] home, at a banquet which could be the occasion of unseemly display. He urges that the clergy be invited to the party in place of the customary pagan singers and dancers, in order that marriage begin in seriousness and holiness…

When the State gave the Church responsibility for all marriages, whether the men and women involved were committed Christians or not, it became necessary to provide a wedding ceremony which could be separated from the Eucharist. So the rite of crowning began to be used alone. Those couples who were not able to receive the Holy Communion could instead share a common cup of wine.
Huh. Weddings used to be lavish banquets with singing and dancing, hosted by the groom’s family, with the newlywed couple sharing a common cup of wine… why does this sound familiar?
The wedding banquet is a lavish affair lasting two or more hours. Invited guests sign their names in a wedding book or on a large scroll and present their red envelopes to attendants at the entrance of the wedding hall. The envelope is opened and the money is counted while the guest looks on.

The guests’ names and amounts of money given are recorded so that the bride and groom know how much each guest gave toward the wedding. This record is helpful for when the couple later attends this guest's own wedding—they are expected to offer a gift of more money than they themselves received.

After presenting the red envelope, guests are ushered into a large banquet hall. Guests are sometimes assigned seats but are sometimes welcome to sit where they choose. Once all the guests have arrived, the wedding party begins. Nearly all Chinese banquets feature an emcee or master of ceremonies who announces the arrival of the bride and groom. The couple’s entrance marks the beginning of the wedding celebration.

After one member of the couple, usually the groom gives a short welcome speech, guests are served the first of nine meal courses. Throughout the meal, the bride and groom enter and re-enter the banquet hall, each time wearing different clothing outfits. While the guests eat, the bride and groom are typically busy changing their clothes and attending to their guests’ needs. The couple typically re-enters the dining hall after the third and sixth courses.

Toward the end of the meal but before dessert is served, the bride and groom toast the guests. The groom’s best friend may also offer up a toast. The bride and groom make their way to each table where the guests stand and simultaneously toast the happy couple. Once the bride and groom have visited each table, they exit the hall while dessert is served.

Once dessert is served, the wedding celebration promptly ends. Before leaving, guests line up to greet the bride and groom and their families standing outside the hall in a receiving line. Each guest has a photo taken with the couple and may be offered sweets by the bride.

After the wedding banquet, close friends and relatives go to the bridal chamber and play tricks on the newlyweds as a way to extend good wishes. The couple then shares a glass of wine and teach traditionally cuts off a lock of hair to symbolize that they are now of one heart.
It is possible to belabour the point here more than necessary, and I fear I may already have done so. Even so: the traditional Byzantine and the traditional Chinese sensibility, æsthetic and sense of proper order surrounding weddings – the rites surrounding the creation of new families and therefore the continuance of the state – seem to have progressed along very similar lines. From an anthropological perspective, the understanding of the stakes of a wedding seems to have been very similar also: the mingling of the blood being symbolised by drinking from the same cup of wine.

This case also shows that the proper rôle of the Church was once considered to be the consecration and transfiguration of existing social relations, not their destruction or replacement. One of the problems that both Christian West and Christian East now face is that Christianity has been embedded in the culture so long that we have forgotten what the cultural forms used to look like without Christianity – and as such we have tended to take the Christian transfiguration of culture for granted… or worse, mistaken the christened culture itself for Christianity.

Modern China is rightly wary of Christian attempts to subvert and destroy Chinese culture. Modern Christians in the West, who allow themselves to be duped by fascist bad actors like the Brazilian TFP and cult apologists like CESNUR, imagine that this is the result of communism. This is not true. Not only have Chinese Communists been open to Christian influence on the culture, but Chinese governments going back to the Qing have historically had good reason to be wary of Christian influence in society, particularly following the Taiping Rebellion.

We Christians can – and should – deplore and reject the Chinese state’s erastianism as a falsity in social relations. But in order to do this effectively, we need to divest ourselves of the liberal mythology that Christianity is something intrinsically private and individual and has nothing to do with the public sphere. (It’s not. And what’s more, liberals who destructively push and proselytise their preferred brands of Christianity in China don’t even try to pretend that it is.) Additionally, certain neoconservative Roman Catholics in particular need to divest themselves of any lingering papocæsarist dreams of subjecting the Chinese government to Catholicism. As long as they continue to entertain such fantasies, the Chinese suspicion that ‘one more Christian’ means ‘one less Chinese’ will be, to a certain degree, justified – and the Chinese government’s project of ‘Sinicising’ Christianity will have some degree of credible ideological vindication.

But Orthodox Christians can and should draw on the cultural and anthropological material provided to us by the experience of the Christianisation of Eastern Rome – as here, with Chrysostom’s sermons – to make the case that Christianity is not out to destroy China or to subvert Chinese people. Our mission is not to destroy but to transfigure. Just ask the Greeks and the Syrians!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Emperor of China: Kangxi speaks

I recently followed one of Kaiser Kuo’s recommendations and sat down to read Jonathan Spence’s work Emperor of China, which is unfortunately a bit difficult to classify. Is it best seen as a translation of documents left to posterity by the Kangxi Emperor? Is it best seen as a creative work of historical fiction, a stylised portrait drawn from fragments left in primary sources? Unfortunately, because it is presented as a free-flowing narrative rather than a direct translation of the documents Spence used to write it, the distinction is somewhat blurred.

But the result is a fascinating portrait of a unique world leader: a boy raised as a Manchu hunter who became the emperor of a country filled with people of a different tongue and ethnic belonging; a traditionalist who is fascinated by the modern learning introduced by the West; a spirited and energetic youth who battered by the responsibilities of his office and the intrigues around him into his old age; a forceful and strong-willed man who both excels in his duties and at the same time tries to make himself understood in spite of them. Spence certainly has an ‘aim’ in presenting Kangxi, the fourth Emperor of the Manchu Qing Dynasty and the ruler of China with the single longest reign, in a certain light. He portrays Kangxi as a strident personality who struggles against the straitjacketing forms of Chinese official culture and imperial expectations, and attempts to show the ‘real’, human Kangxi behind the state propaganda which does its best to elevate him to a divine status. I wonder if Chinese historians see in it something of a Western conceit consistent with ‘great man’ histories driven by personality, but as a project it is quite compelling.

The Kangxi that emerges from the pages of Emperor of China is an insatiably curious naturalist and empiricist who insists on seeing and experiencing things for himself. He revels in his travels around the country and makes notes about what he sees: the plants he collects, the animals he kills or captures. His meticulous observations, combined with a rambunctious and boyish personality (at least in his youth) at once call to mind images, at least for this American, of that other ebulliently-masculine outdoorsy commander-in-chief, Teddy Roosevelt. Kangxi’s accounts of his hunts and his military expeditions, as well as his fact-gathering excursions to other parts of his empire, are filled to bursting with an effervescence of energy and curiosity. (It’s little wonder that this fellow, who later in life prides himself on a certain degree of sexual continence, managed to father fifty-six children among an assortment of wives, concubines and court ladies.)

But there’s something of a tragic bent to his life as well. There are only a handful people in his life that he truly trusts, beginning with his grandmother – to whom, in his youth, he was particularly close. That affection is transferred later in his life, to the only surviving son of a favourite consort: his second son Yinreng. [A brief aside: the Romanisations in this book are all Wade-Giles, which may be frustrating to readers who are more used to Zhonghua Pinyin.] As Kangxi gets older and he has to deal with a number of court intrigues, the affections he lavishes on Yinreng begin to turn sour – as he finds Yinreng at the centre of these intrigues, with designs on subverting his rule. The Kangxi that emerges toward the end of the book is something of a pitiable shadow. Though he still retains his keen intelligence and is lucid to the very end of his life, he is weakened, aged, bewildered, disillusioned and angry – not knowing which of his sons to trust and not trusting any of his Chinese advisors or courtiers. He is very much a man alone. Spence aptly captures this sense of tragœdy in Kangxi’s life. For what it’s worth, I tend to think this representation ‘rings true’.

For me, there are other aspects of this book that are of particular interest. For one thing, Kangxi does dwell upon his campaigns against the Russians and recounts with satisfaction his humanitarian act of mercy toward the Albazinian Cossacks, feeding and tending the sick among the remnants of the beaten Russian Army, and resettling them south of the Great Wall: the distant progenitors of the Chinese Orthodox Church in Beijing and Tianjin. Kangxi also treats at length his campaign against the Oirats of Xinjiang under Galdan – the ‘stock villain’ of Kazakhstani period cinema who, at least from the Qing Emperor’s view, seems to have earned his reputation. The Galdan to whom Kangxi gives chase, is a cruel blackguard with an overconfidence in his own abilities and an overestimation of his own cunning, whose love of wine and women has alienated him from the Muslims under his rule. Even so, Kangxi is shown willing to take the surviving Dzunghars into his confidence as subjects and even officials.

The book also treats, from a Chinese point of view, the alternatively warm and cold relations between the Kangxi Emperor and the Jesuit missionaries who arrived from Portugal, Spain and Italy. Despite the protests of some modern Catholics that Communist-ruled China is uniquely repressive and has a particular interest in persecuting the Catholic Church, we can see from this portrait of Kangxi that the power-political dynamic between the Catholic Church and China’s rulers has in fact been going on for hundreds of years. Kangxi was actively invested in the Rites Controversy, and… did not react with particular favour to the Vatican’s resolution of the issue. From Kangxi’s perspective, the Confucian veneration for ancestors and the esteem in which the Sage was held were wholly reasonable and warranted. Further, the Pope’s attempts to command certain appointments and reshufflings of Catholic members in his court rankled and bewildered the Emperor, who could not understand why he would go over the heads of Jesuit officials who had lived and worked in China for years or decades. We may ultimately deplore his decision to force all Catholics to register with the court and expel all Catholics from the country who had lived in China less than a year, but that decision is rendered much more understandable when considered from the standpoint of an Emperor whose knowledge of the West came overwhelmingly from his contacts at court.

In addition to his expeditions, Kangxi dwells long upon his eating habits, his study habits, his troubled relationships with his sons. He also dwells on his approaches to administration and justice, which curiously blend a sort of tribal Tungusic preference for egalitarianism and directness of demeanour (something you see in, say, Dersu Uzala) with a thoroughly-Confucian desire to implement a reasonable and humane mode of justice through the hierarchy he has inherited. Kangxi is sensitive to the hypocrisies and personality flaws of many of his advisors, but is still forced to rely upon them and to trust them to varying degrees.

Spence also shows us how at least some of Kangxi’s late-life paranoias were justified, by giving us both versions of the valedictory address Kangxi gave at the end of his reign: the original draught written during his lifetime, and then (relegated happily to an appendix) the version that was published posthumously by official Qing court censors. Spence says of these two versions in their differences:
K’ang-hsi had originally presented himself as a man in pain and a man with doubts; he had also expressed scepticism about the value and honesty of the way (he guessed) he himself would be enshrined in the historical tradition. The ‘final’ valedictory edict shows how right K’ang-hsi was to be sceptical—he emerges only as a shadow, his platitudes enshrined and his forcefulness and anger and honesty and pain all—alike—removed.
As a work of historical fiction, as I believe this work must be treated, Spence has delivered a masterwork, delving deep into themes of religion and politics, as well as the commonplaces of literature: the loss of innocence, the fraught relationships between fathers and sons, the pains and sorrows of aging, the entirely understandable desire to be understood. Spence has succeeded in at least one of his aims. His Kangxi, the Kangxi that he has puzzled together out of the fragments he was working with, is indeed a vibrant and full human being, and it is a pleasure to read about him.
Kangxi in traditional Manchu hunting attire

Saturday, September 5, 2020

With Dersu the Hunter: a review

Having watched Dersu Uzala as part of my (post-)Soviet film series on THAO, I decided to actually read the book. It is bad form, I do realise, to watch the movie before reading the book – but in my defence, it is a Kurosawa film. The book, With Dersu the Hunter: Adventures in the Taiga, was written by Vladimir Klavdievich Arsen’ev, a White Army officer who later served in the socialist government of the Far Eastern Republic (Dal’nevostochnaya Republika) as a commissar for ethnic-minority affairs. As a surveyor for the White Army, Arsen’ev was an avid naturalist and an amateur ethnographer, and his adventures in the Ussuri taiga with the Hezhen hunter and trapper Dersu Uzala became an overnight classic of Russian nature literature and attained broad publication, including in English. The version I read was the clothbound 1965 George Braziller edition, translated by Victor Shneerson and adapted by Anne Terry White.

Firstly: it is a travelogue, and a naturalist’s firsthand account of the wild places – previously unexplored by Russians – of the Far East: the areas of Ussuri – now the Khabarovskii and Primorskii kraya – bordering the Chinese province of Heilongjiang. His account is laden with painstaking, beautifully-inked maps, as well as sketches of the flora and fauna he observed in his travels. Equally painstaking are the prose descriptions – of birch forests, of blizzards and windstorms, of wapiti in breeding season, of bears and tigers, of flying squirrels, of wild fowl, of seals and sea lions on the rocky coast. Secondly: the book is a stunningly-intricate ethnographical account of a borderland region peopled by Korean, Chinese, Udege and Hezhen people, plagued by pirates and Japanese invaders. At best, law is administered informally by trusted militia leaders like Arsen’ev’s Chinese friend Chen Pao, who leads a mixed baojia of Chinese and Udege enforcers. At worst, it is governed by warlordism, racketeering and ethnic feuding, with entire villages often discriminating against outsiders and warding off or even hunting their neighbours.

Thirdly, though: it is a touching biographical portrait of a beautiful human being with a beautiful soul – Dersu Uzala himself, a member of the Hezhe people [also called Nanai, or Goldy in Russian] with keen powers of observation, quick reasoning and dauntless compassion. Despite losing his wife and all his children to smallpox, he does not allow his experiences to embitter him, but instead lives lightly upon the taiga and helps the people he meets. He treats everyone, everything – including animals, birds, trees, water, even firewood – as if it were a human being with a soul. Though he must, and does, hunt and kill to survive, he honours even what he kills and does not waste anything.

Dersu Uzala

Arsen’ev’s account would not work, without his having both a trained naturalist’s eye – a desire to be objective and fair – and also a thoroughly- and beautifully-Russian sense of humility himself. He does not see himself at all as superior to the places and people he studies, even when they are hostile to him. Instead, even when he is brought up short against his own cultural biases, he seeks to understand and to walk a mile in the other person’s shoes. At times he is startled by many of his own habits and blind spots, for example as he struggles to understand Dersu’s worldview and life. He does not understand at first why Dersu leaves little packages of rice and salt and stacks of firewood in empty huts in the taiga. But then when Dersu explains that these things might save the life of the next hunter or fugitive who happens upon the hut, Arsen’ev marvels that this seems to him like basic compassion and hospitality.

We are thus taken with Arsen’ev’s descriptions of the harsh beauties of the taiga, but we are not spared his account also of the dangers and hardships he and his men faced. In several places the men faced starvation as they were on uncharted territory or, in one case, the boat with their supplies got blown off course all the way to Sakhalin, leaving them stranded. We can feel the gnawing hungers of his men as they are forced to subsist upon old fish-heads discarded by a bear. The famous scene in the film where Dersu and Arsen’ev are caught together out on a frozen lake as a harsh blizzard is brewing, and must race against the clock to cut enough grass for a makeshift shelter before it hits and they freeze to death – that actually happened. Arsen’ev details both the cold and the fear, the work that Dersu did most of (and pushed him to do) in building the hut. Likewise, the incident where Dersu pushes Arsen’ev off an out-of-control raft in a billowing rapids, to save him and get him ashore, before the Udege themselves save him: this is something that Arsen’ev also recounts in the book.

However, as Arsen’ev’s friendship with Dersu grows, Dersu begins to lose his eyesight, and he is afraid that he can no longer survive in the taiga as a hunter without the ability to use a rifle effectively. In addition, we learn that in his youth, Dersu killed a tiger – something which he believed to have been a great sin that will eventually catch up to him. In the shamanic worldview of the Manchus as well as their kissing-cousins the Evenkil, the Daur and the Hezhen, overhunting and killing certain sorts of holy animals are wicked and hubristic sins against nature, and they carry with them their own form of punishment. We see this in the oral tradition of the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness, in the judgement of the gods of the mountain against the hunter Sergudai whose soul she sets out to retrieve.

Dersu moves into the city, but finds that city life does not agree with him. He sees no appeal to living within four walls. He cannot adapt to Russian law’s expectations of him. For example, he is not allowed to shoot his rifle within city limits, or cut down trees for firewood. He is morally, even religiously incensed at the fact that people actually buy and sell water and wood – in his mind, these things are first of all the stuff of life, and the gifts of God, which should be available to all without having to exchange money for them. In the end, he decides to return to the taiga. However, on the road he is murdered by thieves who steal his rifle and the contents of his knapsack. Arsen’ev is stricken by Dersu’s death, and even somewhat blames himself for having brought Dersu to Khabarovsk in the first place.

Despite its many facets, being an exploration of the natural and social worlds of the Russian Far East and that section of the Tea Road, as well as an exploration of the personality of a gentle spirit and cunning hunter such as Dersu, With Dersu the Hunter is a book which expresses the same love of naturalistic detail and painstaking observation of the physical environs that we find in Sergei Aksakov’s book The Family Chronicle, to which it may be considered something of a spiritual successor in this sense. But Arsen’ev sees himself as something of a kindred spirit to James Fenimore Cooper and his own account of Dersu Uzala as being akin to The Last of the Mohicans – evidently unaware that Cooper unfortunately just plain made a lot of his narrative up under the influence of sunstroke, rather than observing anything firsthand. It is possibly more apt to compare his books with those of Robert Louis Stevenson and Lawrence Durrell, both of whom cut their teeth on similar travelogue accounts of exploratory expeditions and naturalistic endeavours.

In any event, this is a book well-suited to adults and young adults alike, and particularly young men of an exploratory and adventurous bent. I highly recommend it as such. As an introduction to the intricate, complex, sometimes violent, indisputably harsh, but at the same time wildly beautiful territory of the Russian Far East and the Chinese Northeast, it also serves its use well. And of course, as a biographical portrait of its eponym, no man could ask for a more touching or immortal epitaph than this. The beauty of soul of this Hezhen hunter shines through in every chapter.

Vladimir Arsen’ev

Thursday, August 13, 2020

What’s China’s deal in Africa?

It is a most puzzling thing to think about. In Anglophone and Western European news media generally, coverage of Chinese presence and investment in Africa is fairly uniformly negative. China’s aims in Africa, assert Western analysis, are ‘fraudulent and deceptive’, and ‘no better than colonial exploitation’. Indeed, China’s strategy particularly in East Africa is considered to be part of a ‘new Scramble for Africa’, making that link to the historical subjugation, slaughter and violent expropriation of the continent explicit. The development initiatives China is pursuing on the African continent are ‘not working’, certainly not working for the benefit of the people of African countries. And besides, the entire model of infrastructure-led development is wrong and doomed to fail.

So, if all this is actually true – that Africa is being colonised, exploited and expropriated by amoral Chinese government officials and SOEs in the same way that it was in the nineteenth century by Europe, and indeed if this model is doomed to fail – then why does public opinion polling in the African nations which are surveyed there routinely favour China? At the end of last year, public opinion of China in Nigeria, Kenya and Tunisia was all over 50% favourable, according to Pew Research – not exactly an outlet of Chinese propaganda. Indeed, Nigeria had the most favourable opinion of China in the world second only to Russia, at 70% positive. Tunisia’s opinion of China was 63% positive. Kenya’s was 56% positive. Even South African opinion of China, at 46% positive, was significantly above the international median opinion of Chinese influence. Why do African nations seem to have such warm feelings for what Western media characterises as its brutal exploiters?

First of all, it may be necessary to point out that China’s investment in Africa is primarily connected to its desire to build up the Maritime Route and rebuild the Indian Ocean trade as one axis of the new world-system. Asserting that China has an interest in Africa tout court is somewhat misleading: most of its activity in Africa is concentrated in the East. China was the number one foreign direct investor in the following countries in 2017: Botswana, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Malagasy Republic, Mozambique, Namibia, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the biggest recipients of Chinese FDI in total volume were Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia.

Notice a pattern? Most of these countries (with the exceptions of Guinea, Nigeria and Angola) belong, at least in part, to the East African region, and many of them are host to significant shipping ports on the Indian Ocean. Also, the overwhelming majority – two thirds – of Chinese FDI in Africa is aimed at the transportation infrastructure and energy (coal and petrochemicals) sectors. This is the same pattern we see with Chinese investment in places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran and Oman. We should not lose sight of these facts. The gæographical and sectoral emphases of Chinese investment suggest that China’s interest in Africa is indeed strategic, that it is aimed at rebuilding shipping lanes and energy transport vectors across the Indian Ocean, and that it does have as one of its principal aims the supplanting of Atlantic Anglo-European dominance of the world-system. Wei Yuan would deeply approve.

The overland and maritime routes of the Belt and Road Initiative

But does that make China’s investment in Africa something intrinsically nefarious, as Anglophone media routinely suggest? Is it a form of imperialism, in the same vein as the nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa? Do the people of Africa stand in danger of suffering from Chinese domination into the next century? The polling numbers from Africa show us that we must be open to the idea that more is going on between China and its African partners in development than meets the eye.

It’s a complicated question. On the one hand, much of the criticism of China’s debt policy in Africa that actually does come from the West is shamelessly hypocritical. China’s state-sector creditors have been much more generous with regard to debt relief in Africa than any Western country has been, writing off $3.4 billion and restructuring $15 billion in African countries’ sovereign debt without any of the punitive strings and demands for neoliberal restructuring that, say, the IMF and World Bank have a long and ignominious history of attaching. (Of course, this opens them to the other hypocritical charge from the West that China is coddling dictators and corrupt governments by not imposing conditions on debt. Damned if you do…)

On the other hand, China is certainly being strategic with regard to how much of African sovereign debt it forgives, and on what conditions. It isn’t doing blanket forgiveness. China does not want to let go of monetary instruments that it can conceivably use to their strategic ends described above. China is indeed behaving like a realist power and acting on behalf of its strategic national interests. From the left perspectives which privilege internationalism over realism, there are certainly substantive grounds for criticism here.

Xi Jinping with Senegalese President Macky Sall

But even from this perspective, it’s worth remembering that China has a long memory, particularly with regard to its international engagements. Both Chinese officialdom and the Chinese public still remember the 1955 Asian-African conference at Bandung which began the Non-Aligned Movement. Both Chinese officialdom and the Chinese public still remember the 1971 session in which the vast majority of the African continent – including all of East Africa with the exceptions of Malagasy and Malawi, as well as other major partners like Nigeria, Guinea and Zimbabwe – voted to allow the People’s Republic to accede to the United Nations in place of the Republic of China. It’s possible to dismiss this memory as ‘socialist nostalgia’, of course, but it remains a very real internal motivation for much of the Chinese government as well as many of the Chinese civilian businessmen and labourers who go to Africa.

With regard to China’s activity in Africa, it’s probably wisest to adopt a ‘middle-of-the-road’ perspective. China’s behaviour in Africa is driven primarily by its interests in rebuilding the Maritime Route, and African nations partnering with China would be wise to be cautious. It should not be much of a stretch for them to understand that China’s interests do not necessarily coincide with their own. On the other hand, what China is doing in Africa is clearly not the same sort of violent and exploitative expropriation that has characterised Anglo-European involvement on the continent. Their approach is far less intrusive, far less punitive and far less destructive of people’s lives and livelihoods on the bottom of the ladder. The warm feelings that African people demonstrably have for China (and vice-versa, truth be told) can be seen to rest on a very real basis. Even if the world landscape has changed significantly since 1955, there is a powerful shared history there that cannot be entirely written off.

Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference, 1955

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The problems with ‘hate the government, not the people’

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

There is a certain deceitful rhetorical tactic which our current administration – in particular Pompeo more so than Trump himself, some of the reliable cheerleaders in Congress like the Hawley-Cotton-Rubio triumvirate, and their cheerleaders on Fox News and other ‘conservative’ media (scare-quotes deliberate, I shall explain why soon) – deploys with regard to China. This tactic is to separate the Chinese people from the Chinese government. The idea is to set the ideal Chinese person on a pedestal, to invoke his virtue and his longsuffering and his yearning for freedom, and to agitate for his liberation from a government which oppresses him. The government, by contrast, keeps him in chains. Even if regime change is not explicitly mentioned, the implication is clear that the government is unworthy of the people and must be pressured and toppled.

What is instantly observable from this ‘hate the government, not the people’ rhetorical tactic is how utterly dependent on the logic of Jean-Jacques Rousseau it is. ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ as the old saw goes. The idea that there is this ideal essence of the people that can be divorced from any concrete grounding in history or in social relations, that is ‘completely distinct’ from any such groundings, and that must be liberated from the oppression foisted upon it by the government – of course this is pure Rousseau. The appeal to the ‘general will’ against a government, which of course conveniently cannot be expressed in any authentic way under that government, is also very much a part of this construction. The French Revolutionaries themselves used this Rousseauian logic as they attempted to overthrow other governments – particularly Austria’s – which were under the control of the ancien régime (note the use of the latter word in particular) in the War of the First Coalition. As the Encyclopædia Britannica succinctly put it: ‘the political situation in Revolutionary France impelled the new government to make war on neighbouring states’.

The problem is that ultimately, Rousseau was wrong. Man is not made free by destroying the social fabric from which he comes, and man is not, in any way resembling a law of human action, made free by the neverending attempts to further ‘rationalise’ the government under which he lives. Human beings live already embedded in real human communities, real social structures, real œconomies, and these exist under real governments. Some governments may indeed be unjust and in need of changing. But it is a breathtaking mendacity for a foreign government to topple another by appealing to a ‘general will’ that cannot be measured and is often times not even applicable.

Which makes this logic all the more dismaying when one sees it in the pages of, say, The American Conservative. It used to be the case that The American Conservative was not, as a matter of course, given to paroxysms of Faustian revolutionary sentiment or any particular love of Rousseau’s philosophy generally. Sadly that appears to have gone out the window now that the ‘general will’ can be weaponised successfully against the Yellow Peril. On the part of these conservatives who fancy themselves to be ‘ideas people’, this Rousseau-derived attempt to position our government as a spokesman for a ‘people’ which are not our own is a stunning display of unprincipled opportunism. A lot of it, I suspect, has to do with the attempt to reposition the magazine for a post-Trump Trumpian politics – that is to say, for a nationalist-populist moment that will realign the power structures of the Republican Party. That great French contrarian of both left and right, Georges Sorel, would of course be brandishing his most poisonous pen, were he still alive to see it.

This is a shame. The insight is particularly salient right now, that the dynamics of culture, of spatial gæography and of international œconomics don’t necessarily change when governments do. The internal politics of nations are of secondary importance to and are supported by the distribution of natural blessings and the dispositions of the people that live among them. This used to be a conservative insight associated with statesmen like Metternich, Castlereagh, Chateaubriand, Pobedonostsev and Danilevskii. But now – particularly now that realism in the vein of Morgenthau, Mearsheimer, Walt, Bacevich and Kinzer is relegated largely to an academic position outside of respectable media – one sees it primarily on the left, and in particular in the world-systems thought promoted by Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunter Frank and Samîr ’Amîn.

To give an example: China has been through an Imperial government, a Republican government and a Communist government over the past 120 years, and all of them have generally had to face the same issues, including territorial and œconomic ones. The Belt and Road Initiative is very much an attempt to rebuild a part of the world-system’s œconomic infrastructure that prevailed in the Middle Ages, before the 1300s. Likewise, the obstacles that modern China faces regarding its gæopolitical position are largely the same obstacles that it faced when it was under the Qing Dynasty – with the noteworthy exception that modern Russia tends to be more Sinophile (thanks to the dogged efforts of statesmen and œconomists like Sergei Glaz’ev) than Tsarist Russia was. Worthy of mention also is that the Republican government currently based on Taiwan still, to this day, considers not only Tibet and Xinjiang to be the rightful territory of China, but also what is now the independent nation of Mongolia.

Thus, for one thing: even if you change the government, the people will still face many of the same problems, and their approaches to those problems are going to be guided by path-dependency and informed by past experience. There is absolutely no reason to believe that a democratic China would be better disposed towards, say, Japan, particularly when the democratisation of South Korea did not bring about the same results. For that reason as well, attempting to extrapolate what a democratic China would look like by appealing to Taiwan is an exercise in grim futility.

The other problem with ‘hate the government, not the people’, is the more direct observation – which appears to be obvious but needs to be stated over and over again because the thrust appears to be lost on most Americans – that when our government tries to hurt other governments, the people are the ones who suffer most.

Look at Yugoslavia. In Yugoslavia the American military, as part of NATO, tried twice to position itself as a humanitarian force against an evil government that was ethnically cleansing the people. (Milosević has, of course, been posthumously exonerated of the war crimes his government was accused of by the ICTY, a fact which is hurriedly hushed up and covered over whenever the Yugoslav Wars are mentioned nowadays.) But the effects of this war were disastrous. What was left of one of the world’s most successful experiments in œconomic democracy was completely obliterated. Civilian infrastructure was destroyed, and standards of living plummeted: its HDI dropped from a rank of 34th in the world to ‘a disappearance from the charts’. Hundreds of thousands were internally displaced from their homes. Post-traumatic stress could be measured on a societal scale in the wake of the wars. NATO’s heinous bombing campaigns (including the use of depleted uranium) wreaked environmental devastation on the Balkan Peninsula.

Look at Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the American military tried to position itself between the innocent and martyrific ‘Afghan people’ – in particular Afghan women and girls – and ‘the Taliban’. And so we intervened to help ‘the people’ against ‘the government’. But were the people actually helped? According to a study by Brown University’s Watson Centre, ‘War effects include elevated rates of disease due to lack of clean drinking water, malnutrition, and reduced access to health care. Nearly every factor associated with premature death — poverty, malnutrition, poor sanitation, lack of access to health care, environmental degradation — is exacerbated by the current war.

Look at Iraq. The Bush Administration was going into Iraq in 2003 to remove an ‘evil’ government and expected to be ‘greeted as liberators’ by the people. We also went in expecting to find weapons of mass destruction which turned out to be non-existent. The results of that war were catastrophic for the people of Iraq. Over half a million civilians died. Human rights abuses were rampant, as with the torture at Abu Ghraib. American military units murdered and raped with practical impunity at Fallujah, and those who blew the whistle on it went to prison. The use of depleted uranium and other environmentally-destructive weapons has caused an explosion of cancer rates.

Look at Libya. NATO was going to remove the ‘evil’ Mu‘ammar al-Qaḏḏâfi (we came, we saw, he died) and support the virtuous rebels who would install a nice popular democracy there. Instead, the NATO intervention oversaw the genocide of Libya’s blacks (for a long time unmentionable) and the opening of slave markets. Atrocities are still occurring there, with thousands being killed, hundreds of thousands displaced. Most Libyans are actually mourning the revolution and nostalgic for al-Qaḏḏâfi.

Countless other examples abound, particularly when sanctions policies are factored in: Syria, Iran and Venezuela. In each of these cases, the rationale is one of supporting the ‘general will’ of the people in these nations and opposing an evil government – even if that government is one that the majority of the people in the nation support! But in each of these cases, the policies that our government takes, ostensibly against the governments of these countries, in fact hurt the people most. Sanctions on Syria hurt the Syrian people; sanctions on Iran hurt the Iranian people; sanctions on Venezuela hurt the Venezuelan people. Hurting the people is, in fact, the point of the sanctions. The American government would not foist sanctions on any nations in the midst of a global pandemic if hurting the people of those nations were not the point.

So when Pompeo (or hawks like Hawley, Cotton or Rubio in Congress; or new nationalist right blowhards like Carlson, Bloom, Boland, Dreher or Dougherty in the media) claims to be acting in the interests of the Chinese people by opposing the government, given both the ideological underpinnings and the factual track record of such a statement, the automatic suspicion of anyone with even an ounce of awareness of political reality needs to be to call ‘bullshit’. Because the real strategic aim of the American government is actually, as Kissinger Institute director Robert Daly has said, to prevent China from becoming a ‘peer competitor’ – and the form of the government doesn’t matter in that aim so much as the capacities of the people.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The flags of Xiao Shufang

Xiao Shufang 萧淑芳 was an artist from Tianjin, born to a family which ancestrally hailed from Xiangshan County in the Chinese South, who specialised in classical paintings of flowers. She was born in August 1911, a mere two months before the Xinhai Revolution occurred, and died at the end of 2005. At the age of fifteen she went to study at the National School of Fine Arts in Beijing under instructors of painting representing both the Western tradition and the Chinese tradition; her own style fused the two. She combined the traditional composition and colour choices with a Western medium (oil on canvas), in much the same way her assassinated poetic contemporary Wen Yiduo 闻一多 used traditional lyric forms as a vehicle for poetry in the vernacular language. Xiao Shufang also studied at the National Central University (then in Nanjing) under the master ink painter Xu Beihong 徐悲鸿. Xiao Shufang was also an accomplished figure-skater, having won the first-place prize in a skating competition in Northeast China in 1935.

She went to the United Kingdom in 1937 at the height of the Sino-Japanese War, and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she specialised in sculpture, chalk and woodblock painting. After she came back to China from the UK in 1939, she lived in Shanghai, where she met and married her fellow painter, Wu Zuoren 吴作人, who had also studied painting in Europe and had a stylistic preference similar to hers: being proficient in both Chinese ink painting styles and Western oils.

Xiao Shufang and Wu Zuoren

The marriage and professional partnership between Xiao and Wu was intense, prolific and mutually-enriching. It deserves mention here that Wu Zuoren was a painter with a political bent. Though he was born in Suzhou, his family hailed from Anhui Province, and as such he had a natural sympathy for the common rural folk of the poorer inland provinces as well as the minority peoples from there. His sympathies there led him to spend time in Qinghai Province and Inner Mongolia, where his subject matter tended toward yaks and caravans. His sympathy for inland Chinese and for the national minorities along the Silk and Tea Roads, and his quasi-narodnichestvo, bled over from his artwork into his politics – which were decidedly leftist. He became active in the circles of the China Democratic League, later in his life serving on the central committee of the party.

All this is to correctly situate and background the participation of Xiao Shufang in the contest for a national flag of the new People’s Republic of China in the wake of the Civil War in 1949. On the fourth of July, 1949, the Preparatory Committee issued a call for flag designs which was published in, among other outlets, the People’s Daily and the Guangming Daily. There were four requirements for submissions to be considered. First: it had to show Chinese characteristics, relating to gæography, history and culture. Second: it had to show power characteristics, relating to the alliance between the rural and urban working classes. Third: it had to be on a 3:2 rectangular background. And fourth: the main colour had to be bright red, as specified by Zhou Enlai 周恩来.

There were somewhere in the vicinity of 3,000 entries submitted in the latter half of July that year, and these were reviewed by the Political Consultative Conference throughout August and September. Among those who submitted flag designs were the Romantic poet Guo Moruo 郭沫若 and Singaporean businessman Chen Jiageng 陈嘉庚. However, the Political Consultative Conference managed to pare down the contest entries to a set of thirty-eight finalists. Among these finalists, two stand out in particular, and these are both the contributions of Xiao Shufang. Xiao Shufang’s flag designs both prominently feature Christian crosses – or, alternatively, the character tian 田 to represent agriculture and the peasantry. Proposal № 34 is: the red flag with a blue cross in white panel hoist, and Proposal № 35 is: the red flag with a white cross in blue panel hoist. The blue in the flag represents water, and the white represents light or hope – both of which Christ attributed to himself in the Gospel.

Finalist proposals for the PRC flag
Mme Xiao’s flags are on top row second from the right, and third row far right

To my knowledge, this is the first and only time that China has ever come close to having Christian imagery in any of their public symbols. That includes the Ming, Qing, Republican and Communist periods. Also, the nature of the competition was such that each and every symbol submitted on a flag was subjected to intense ideological scrutiny. Indeed, the reason that Mao Zedong’s 毛泽东 preferred flag ended up not being chosen, was because the horizontal yellow line through the middle, representing the Yellow River, was taken to represent a division of the country between north and south – and this was undesirable because the PCC wanted to emphasise the unity of the country.

And yet Xiao Shufang’s flags ended up as finalists, within the thirty-eight out of over three thousand that were seriously considered by the PCC to become the national flag of the new People’s Republic. Of course, it’s not possible to be ‘in the room’ with the PCC seventy-one years after the fact, but the implications are tantalising. Did Xiao herself understand the nature of the power characteristics of rural China, and the role of Christianity in rural reconstruction? Given her husband’s involvement in the China Democratic League, that’s not implausible. And clearly the PCC liked these flags enough to consider them as finalists. Did the Chinese Communists remember their intellectual and political debts to Christian œconomists like Richard Tawney and Christian social activists like Jimmy Yen 晏阳初? Given Mao’s own personal involvement in the Mass Education Movement, again, that’s not implausible.

At this point, one might look at the above, shake his head, and wonder: ‘This is all well and good, but the realities of Communist China were as far from Christian praxis as it’s possible to get.’ It is true that the Communist Party absolutely has been, and still is to a large degree anti-theistic. At the same time, though, the realities on the ground are messy – my wife comes from a family where a picture of Jesus Christ is on one wall of the same living room where a propaganda painting of Mao Zedong also hangs. Based on the example of Xiao Shufang’s flags, I would say that this strange and seemingly-incongruent messiness extends all the way to the top, and has extended a long way back.

Also, the point of bringing to light these historical eddies and byways, these instances of ‘may-have-been’ and ‘almost-was’, is to shed a certain degree of light on the present. Western observers would do well, in this case, not to presume too much, or to make too many stereotypical generalisations about Chinese public life even on the mainland. And Chinese people, particularly those of a nationalist bent, would do well to consider the complexities of their nation’s historical relationship to Christianity – which is not and never has been merely coterminous with the same nation’s relationship to the West. Christianity is a religion of the Silk Road. And the paintings of Wu Zuoyan and Xiao Shufang are by no means wholly Western.