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.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Affray in Aksai Chin, all eyes on South Asia


The recent scuffles between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan Valley along the border of Aksai Chin at the line of actual control, which have resulted in the first deaths since 1975, have been the subject of some interest in the Anglophone press. As usual, the best possible response to this seems to belong to Larison at The American Conservative, who rightly argues that the scuffle is none of our business and we’d do best to stay well clear of it. There have been a lot of far worse takes, most of which involve the kneejerk anti-Chinese sentiment which is currently en vogue on the American right, as well as some portions of the centre and centre-left.

The timeline of events seems to bear out the wisdom of Larison’s cautious approach. Not only does this spat have little to do with us. But it is also far from clear – despite the unthinking consensus among Anglophone mass media and the unverifiable assertions of the usual ‘intelligence’ – that this was an act of unilateral and unprovoked Chinese aggression. Dustups like these have been occurring regularly over the past few years, and much of them have to do with ‘infrastructure projects’ which are in fact logistical military concerns on either side. The disputed territories have in fact been matters of contention for decades.

The recent Indian revocation of Kashmiri autonomy, and administrative division of the territory into two separate provinces, also seems to have played a role here. This is a move that has appeared threatening to both Pakistan and China, and seems to have aligned Pakistan with China in an informal strategic formation against India.

It appears that the immediate spark for the recent escalation, though, had to do with the D-S-DBO road running north-south along the western side of the Galwan Valley, which is one of the strategic ICBR projects that India is using to shore up border defence.

What has been interesting to see is the response from India’s neighbours – in particular the plucky little dragon kingdom of Bhutan, which has traditionally been strongly aligned with Indian gæopolitics. As I noted before, even though Bhutan does not want to lose territory to China, there are more critical strategic considerations for them right now. Bhutan wants to preserve its diplomatic independence from India. And most importantly: they don’t want a war between India and China. And so, Bhutan’s response to the brawling between Chinese and Indian soldiers in Ladakh has been a water strike that critically affects tea and rice farmers in India’s Assam region. Gentle reader, if this strikes you as bearing a certain redolence to the plot of a Veit Helmer comedy, rest assured you aren’t the only one – though, granted, the stakes are indeed a trifle higher.

Intriguingly, Bhutan is not the only country which has begun using fresh water politics as a foreign policy tool. Nepal, too, has begun using its sources as leverage when dealing with India’s foreign policy, cutting off water to Bihar Province. It is not by any means an accident that Nepal’s government made this move the week after the standoff with China in the Galwan Valley – and Nepal’s partnership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative has actually given them a bit of a stiffer spine when it comes to asserting themselves vis-à-vis India.

And it’s not just in the Himalayan Plateau that this is happening. Bangladesh – also a signatory to the Belt and Road initiative on the maritime route – has recently signed a trade deal with China, and at that just four days after the Galwan standoff. This raised several eyebrows in India, it seems. Sri Lanka, too, has signed onto the ‘Maritime Road’ project initiated by Xi Jinping as part of the Belt and Road in 2013. Since then there has been a flurry of investment in Hambantota on the southern coast, where Chinese firms have been busily constructing transit and shipping infrastructure. And we can bet that Sri Lanka is keeping a close eye on the developments in Galwan, and that they are learning how much strategic leverage they have in the growing contention between India and China. As Dr Dayan Jayatilleka put it, writing for the Sri Lanka Financial Times:
In the new historical period that has just been inaugurated, Sri Lanka’s destiny will not be ultimately determined by the internal dynamics as decided upon by narrow nativists, petty autocrats and the local military machine—as their intrinsically circumscribed consciousness presumes—but by the global, continental and regional dynamics of Great Power rivalry and the alignment and role of Big/Pivotal/Emergent Powers within that Great Power rivalry.
The Belt and Road Initiative – that is to say, the attempts of China to rebuild the two southern routes of the traditional world system – is still something that small states like Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka need to be approaching with caution. Not for nothing is it connected with the term ‘debt trap politics’. Informal œconomic imperialism is certainly something to be wary of coming from China, though it’s necessary to understand that China still looks at its southern neighbours through the same lens as Wei Yuan did, in a defensive way. At the same time, Nepal and Sri Lanka both appear to be using their BRI involvement as part of a toolkit for asserting a certain degree of œconomic and gæopolitical independence for themselves, such that they are not aligned in a unipolar way with Indian strategic interests. The alignment of these new relations appears to be for the benefit of these small countries, when considered from a blunt realist perspective.

The new formation of two developing blocs of œconomic and gæopolitical partners, one over the old Silk Road and one over the old Maritime Route, is something to watch with interest. At present it appears that India’s strategic options are limited. To be blunt, Modi’s government hasn’t done itself many favours by antagonising both Pakistan and China at the same time over Kashmir, and the disputed territories on either side. And the fact that many of the small nations appear, for the moment, to be drifting into China’s gæopolitical ambit, is further reason to continue to observe carefully.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

A grim but needed look at ‘90s Russia


As I’ve said over on my other blog, the film that made me into a critical Russophile – this was long before I became Orthodox – was the movie Brat, starring the late great Sergei Bodrov, Jr. One of the reasons that it made me sympathetic to Russia, or to be more precise the Russian people, is that it unapologetically portrayed what life was like for a certain class of Russians during the nineties. The cops were on the take. The government was nowhere. People were out of work. Those who relied on military benefits or pensions or any kind of social services were thrown to the wolves. Many became homeless, or turned to alcohol or drugs for escape. Crime became a way of life among Russia’s élite and middlemen, and the rest of Russian society had to live with that. Brat shows much of this en passant, but it effectively conveys a good deal of the hopelessness and hardscrabble reality of life for many people in urban Russia at the end of the twentieth century.

This fascination with a painful era in Russian history is one reason why I became interested in the figure of Sergei Glaz’ev: the co-founder of the pro-administration left-nationalist Rodina Party in Russia and recent aide to President Putin for Eurasian integration through the Customs Union, who has long been an outspoken critic of the liberal œconomic reforms that plunged Russia into chaos. I picked up the English translation of his essay Genocide: Russia and the New World Order. Don’t let the sensationalist title turn you off. Glaz’ev, a keenly sensitive œconomist with a good eye for big picture realities, was the only œconomist ever to resign his post in the Russian government, in protest at the harmful policies and outright theft that was going on all around him, and which his bosses were not only enabling but encouraging. In his view, the ‘shock therapy’ policies of the Russian nineties, and the concomitant demolition and outsourcing of most of Russia’s productive sectors, had an effect on Russian society that legally merits the descriptor of ‘genocide’. The statistics he puts forward on this are damning. He estimates the total number of excess deaths in Russia during the five years under shock therapy to be 3,890,000.

Glaz’ev – who had a front-row seat for much of this action – goes into considerable depth when describing each policy component and ‘phase’ in Russia’s structural adjustment. Price deregulation led to a wave of inflation that wiped out the value of most Russians’ bank savings. Privatisation of state-owned enterprises led to a wave of frantic speculation, producing spectacular wealth for the richest Russians and for foreign investors, but also creating a wave of unemployment and destitution. The speculation wave created pyramids and Ponzi schemes, which increasingly desperate Russians bought into and lost even more from. IMF-imposed deflationary ‘fiscal discipline’ led to social services being wiped out and the withering of Russia’s manufacturing and research sectors. And finally the government was called in to prop up, not the suffering population, but instead the investor class as the œconomic realities on the ground began to catch up to the frenzy of speculation and hyper-profit at the top. Glaz’ev also points out several ways these policies might have been structured differently: to bring about the desired reforms to a market-oriented œconomic structure without causing so much misery at the bottom of the social ladder, or so much built-in instability at the top.

In describing the ways in which these œconomic policies, taken together, utterly demolished the Russian social fabric and destroyed Russian lives, Glaz’ev is unsparing, albeit brisk and matter-of-fact. Again with admirably-sourced statistics, he highlights not only the death toll, but the sense of overall societal despair, the rise of alcoholism and drug abuse, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, the propitious rises in divorces, abortions, infections and parasitic diseases, felonies, suicides and accidental deaths and injury. In order to keep the society complacent and demoralised, Glaz’ev suggests that family structures were deliberately attacked by the architects of ‘shock therapy’, and that there was an active propaganda policy of pornography and live-for-the-moment hedonism targeted specifically at Russian youth – specifically to keep them politically-quiescent. The picture he paints of how Russia changed between 1992 and 1998 is not at all pretty, but it is necessary to know if we want to understand how Russia has gotten to this point, or why their cultural priorities are where they are.

Where the book really got interesting – at least for me, the left-Eurasianist – is where he went into the question of ideology and the conception of Russia among the world œconomic élite. Here he borrows a good deal of language from Immanuel Wallerstein and the world-systems theorists. He is well aware, indeed, that the interests of the global financial jet-set are not the same as the national interests of the states they come from, and so he quite deftly sets himself apart from a paranoid nationalist discourse that posits either an international Jewish conspiracy or a cabal of Russia’s national enemies. In this way he also highlights a point of intersection between the conservative international-relations realists and the Marxists to whom he is indebted for his analysis:
Five hundred transnational corporations encompass more than one third of all manufacturing exports, three fourths of world raw materials trade, and four fifths of the trade in new technologies. They employ tens of millions of people and are active in virtually every country in the world. The genesis and base location of these transnational corporations are approximately evenly divided among the United States, the [EU] and Japan. They exert decisive influence on the foreign economic policy of these countries, as well as the international organisations they control, and they use this influence in their own interest on the world market. It is important, however, not to exaggerate the degree of consolidation within what, for convenience, may very conditionally be called the world oligarchy. This phenomenon does not fit the hackneyed models of world imperialism or a Masonic plot. It is a tendency, rather than a well-formed organisational structure. This tendency does, however, subsume the formation of certain institutions and organisational structures at the national and international levels, for purposes of shaping and realising the interests of major international capital.
However, he does indeed use Wallerstein’s concepts of core, semi-periphery and periphery to describe the relation of the G7 nations to the rest of the world, and to describe the differentiated interest that the financial élite take in each stratum of nation-state / œconomic complexes. Furthermore, he shows a finessed and sympathetic understanding of the dynamic that relates national governments to international finance capital. In the developed countries of the core, Glaz’ev notes that the realist interests of the national governments are often treated as identical with those of the élite, even though that isn’t necessarily truly the case. In the truly peripheral countries, the local managerial class is made thoroughly dependent on investment and capital from the core, and therefore adopts a comprador character in which they service not their nation’s interests, but the interests of this international capital. In the semi-periphery, precisely where Glaz’ev positions Russia, the contradictions in interest between international finance capital and national interests are made most visible.

Even though Glaz’ev does have a certain mild inflection indicating the messianic tendency in Russian thought, it does not appear at this point in his analysis. He is well aware that the world œconomic élite, despite being given to hateful paroxysms of russophobia, in fact have no special interest in Russia outside the aforementioned tendency to œconomic self-interest. In Glaz’ev’s analysis, Russia is primarily important to the élite first as a ‘milk cow’ to be strip-mined for its natural resources, and finally as a sacrificial animal to be split up and rendered politically-impotent. In Glaz’ev’s telling, the true challenger to world élite interests in Asia is not Russia, but China – even so, Russia’s own interests demand that it resist and disrupt the pressure of international finance capital on its own markets, and marshal the power of the state to rebuild Russia’s infrastructure, social safety net, indigenous productive capacities, scientific and technological research capabilities, and spiritual capacities. Even though this is almost a footnote for Genocide, the stress on Russia’s religious traditions and social-spiritual genius is necessary for understanding Glaz’ev’s project in full.

Having detailed the rapid, systemic and deliberate destruction and bankruptcy of Russia’s productive capacities, state structure and social fabric, Glaz’ev goes into detail to discuss how Russia might be brought back from the brink. His œconomic approach may be considered broadly ‘post-Keynesian’. He proposes that Russia undertake a whole-system approach, marshalling all state capacities and non-tax revenues to de-dollarise the Russian banking system, centralise foreign currency reserves and expand the money supply to expand the horizon for productive growth. He advocates hard price controls on necessities like fuel, food and electricity. He advocates a sustained programme of attacking organised crime and corruption, and purging state structures of all white-collar criminal influences. He also sets forward a plan for renationalising and recapitalising bankrupt businesses and instituting a selectively-protectionist policy for Russian manufactured goods. And finally he recommends deliberate, robust and aggressive industrial, R&D and infrastructure policies on the national level.

In the end, Glaz’ev also remarks on the unique ‘comparative advantages’ that Russia possesses and can build on: a vast territory, an abundance of natural resources, a highly-educated populace, a wealth of theoretical knowledge and technical know-how that can be marshalled into the sphere of advanced technologies, miniaturisation and biotech. But he also remarks in a way echoing Nikolai Berdyaev on Russia’s unique spiritual heritage:
The Russian character and Russian spirituality can play a decisive role in Russia’s natural progress into the future world civilisation, as one of its leading countries. The traditional Russian qualities of collectivism, unselfishness, striving to help others, ‘universal sympathy’ and self-sacrifice are key elements for a new organisation of social production, devoid of ‘œconomic egoism’, and based on the principles of mutual help, cooperation and trust… Reliance on traditional values in Russian spiritual culture, such as patriotism and self-sacrifice for the common good, creative labour, and the primacy of the spiritual over the material, will be necessary to overcome the systemic crisis in Russia and bring about its rapid rebirth as a great power, which unites the values of œconomic and spiritual-intellectual progress, sustaining high rates and quality of growth, and combines harmonious social relations with responsibility for supporting global stability and the sustained development of human civilisation.
I admit to being thoroughly fascinated by Sergei Glaz’ev. His admittedly sketchy synthesis of world-systems theory and gæopolitical realism, animated by a hard analytical distinction between the interests of international finance capital and national capital, is nonetheless fascinating. Though he is clearly aware of the dynamics of Eurasian integration, and the potentialities of cooperation with China – otherwise he would not be in the position he is now – I would have liked to read his further thoughts on the subject, though I’m aware they will be in Russian! And although his emphasis on building a muscular, interventionist and welfare-oriented state belongs very firmly on the left, as well as his unabashedly heterodox monetary policies and his international analysis, Glaz’ev combines these with a concern for the stability of Russia’s families and the genius of Russia’s traditional religious expressions – Orthodox Christianity in particular. Glaz’ev’s unique blend of Marxist analysis, post-Keynesian policy recommendations and Orthodox spiritual values aims precisely at the sort of left-conservatism I’ve tried to give voice and expression to on my blogs.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The lives of poor folk


Sennaya Ploshchad’ and St Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, 1840s
Painting by Paul Marie Roussel
Poor people are subject to fancies—this is a provision of nature. I myself have had reason to know this. The poor man is exacting. He cannot see God’s world as it is, but eyes each passer-by askance, and looks around him uneasily in order that he may listen to every word that is being uttered. May not people be talking of him? How is it that he is so unsightly? What is he feeling at all? What sort of figure is he cutting on the one side or on the other? It is matter of common knowledge, my Varvara, that the poor man ranks lower than a rag, and will never earn the respect of any one. Yes, write about him as you like—let scribblers say what they choose about him—he will ever remain as he was. And why is this? It is because, from his very nature, the poor man has to wear his feelings on his sleeve, so that nothing about him is sacred, and as for his self-respect—!
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Poor Folk
I recently read Dostoevsky’s first full-length work, Poor Folk. When it was first published in 1846, it was heralded as a minor masterpiece of realist fiction, and I can certainly see why that is the case. Dostoevsky gradually reveals, in an epistolary format, the lives of two working-class residents of Saint Petersburg, two second cousins Makar Alekseevich Devushkin and Varvara Alekseevna Dobroselova. Devushkin is a government copy clerk of middle age, who lives in a wretched subdivision which he shares with some half-dozen other tenants and their families; he makes meagre wages, is constantly fretting over the threadbare state of his wardrobe, and is constantly in debt. However, he dotes upon his younger cousin Varvara, a seamstress who lives with her housekeeper in a similarly wretched situation just across the street, and writes to her often – often giving her expensive presents which he can’t afford.

This novel is really quite cleverly put together, dropping us in the middle of their correspondence and giving us these elliptical hints as to their life situations at each turn. Even at this early stage in Dostoevsky’s writing, the dark confinement of Saint Petersburg makes itself felt as an unspoken ‘third character’ in the background. The constraints and frustrations of both of the protagonists make themselves felt, at their most powerful, with a tremendous blunt force. The novel is naturalistic, but it is a naturalism markedly different in character and intent than Aksakov’s pastoral accounts of his family past. Dostoevsky hasn’t quite yet reached that point in his career where everything is ponderously meaningful, and yet even the piffle – that is the right word – the two epistolary narrators exchange with each other has the benefit of revealing to us the hard constraints they are both under. There are certainly elements of Poor Folk that remind one of Dickens, but those reminders are subtle.

One of the most moving parts of the early book is when Varvara discloses to Makar a diary that she wrote when she was younger, detailing her family’s move from the countryside into Saint Petersburg, her family’s debt woes, her father’s early death, her ‘adoption’ by her aunt Anna and her subsequent ill-fated romance with her tutor Pokrovsky. Her account of Pokrovsky’s relationship with his father – a twice-married, abused and shy man who seeks refuge in drink, but who sobers up thanks to his son’s ‘tough love’ – and her subsequent description of Pokrovsky’s illness and death, are told in a straight and matter-of-fact way, without much embellishment… and yet the emotional impact of the entire episode is remarkable. Dostoevsky may be speaking through his narrators, but they themselves only reveal to us what they choose to reveal to each other, and that clearly isn’t everything – as we can see by the end of the book. And in this way Dostoevsky skirts the ragged edge of sentimental melodrama without quite going all in.

Dostoevsky actually spares quite a bit of space for the mundane, trivial and œconomic details of his protagonists’ lives, how the want of a good cloak or a good pair of shoes can ruin their chances. This is particularly the case in Devushkin’s case, as his job as a despised copy clerk is at one point put in jeopardy on account of one of the buttons falling off his hand-me-down jacket, which happens in front of the government official he works for, when he is called on to account for a missing line in an urgent document he was supposed to copy. The reader is led to this point with a sense of utter dread for what will happen to Devushkin. But thankfully, ‘His Excellency’ takes pity on Devushkin and gives him another chance, as well as giving him an advance on his pay to spruce up his wardrobe.

What is interesting, too, is that Dostoevsky’s dual attitude toward Asia is somewhat on display, even here in his earliest novel that, on its face, has nothing to do with Asia! For Aksakov Asia – and in particular that part of the Urals where he grew up – is something of a pastoral idyll; for Dostoevsky Asia is both a ‘mythical’ source and a ‘tragic’ return. On the one hand, Varvara grew up there, and yet she does not talk about it except to say that she preferred it to Saint Petersburg (and little wonder!). It is the source of her happy memories, but these memories are not alluded to in her letters to Devushkin. On the other hand, though, it is also the place, alluded to as the ‘steppes’, where Bykov – Varvara’s elderly, lascivious and unfeeling suitor – promises to take her when they are married, and it is also where Varvara disappears to at the end of the novel, with Devushkin mourning over her as she departs to the steppes with Bykov. Though Dostoevsky’s attitude toward Russia’s eastward Asian frontier, its Tea Road alignment, would evolve later in his career, as we can see from his Writer’s Diary, the seeds of it are present in Poor Folk as the source of both Russia’s past and its unforeseen future.

Dostoevsky’s characters are given to certain psychological tics: Devushkin in particular has a style which is prolix and in some cases repetitive, and this style more than anything else reveals to the reader his nervous state and his overly-scrupulous, conscientious personality – which is particularly strained by the circumstances under which he is forced to live. And Varvara, as we can see through her letters, is deeply sensitive and able to cram a lot of meaning into a few elliptical phrases, but also has a certain hidden guilt or trauma, which we only begin to explore with her account of Pokrovsky. Here we can see some of the stylistic influences of Gogol on Dostoevsky, the psychological flourishes which he uses to give his characters expression. But unlike Gogol (most of the time), Dostoevsky approaches, and speaks through, these two interlocutors with a deep and humane sense of sympathy. He writes, not to judge these two or to hold them up as exemplars or object lessons of any kind. His interest in them is not, prima facie, political – despite Herzen (with some justification) calling this a major socialist work in Russian literature. Dostoevsky writes about them, instead, to understand and to love them.

Genuine sympathy seems to be the primary factor which separates Poor Folk from the common run of sentimental melodrama – and what elevates it above some of the other contemporary works of social realism such as those of Hugo or even Dickens. Dostoevsky would later follow up Poor Folk by delving into the tormented psychology of his narrator in Notes from the Underground: a novel which had a much less likeable protagonist but which still somehow manages a kind of sympathy for him. Herzen and Belinsky did correctly intuit that it broadened the scope of the literary world in profound ways, some of which were even political. Dostoevsky’s politics themselves took a rather different turn than Herzen’s, though certain commonalities continued to exist until the end of his life. Even so, Poor Folk is still a landmark in Russian literature standing at the transition between one generation of authors and the next; it deserves to be read for this reason, and also on its own merits as work of social realist fiction.

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.