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