books book reviews

books about China

reviewed by T. Nelson

Chinese Shadows

by Simon Leys
Penguin, 1978, 220 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

A few years ago, I spoke to a Chinese lady who grew up during the Cultural Revolution. She was still able to recite to me long passages of Mao's Little Red Book, which children were required to memorize, as if she had learned it yesterday. The fanatical Red Guards who rampaged through China in the 1960s, torturing and killing their elders, left a permanent mark on the survivors. We have many historical accounts of Mao, Lin Biao, Jiang Qing, and the rest. But what was it actually like for the people?

It's no good reading analytical accounts like Andrew G. Walder's Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement, statistical summaries like The Black Book of Communism by Courtois et al., or even Death By Government by R. J. Rummel. We have no Chinese Solzhenitsyn to tell us how it felt. It's one of those times when we need the account of a Sinologist like Simon Leys writing in 1972 when his impressions were fresh and still shocking.

The impression he gives is of a cultural and architectural desert, not only in Beijing, which was physically devastated, but in most large cities. Leys says the Cultural Revolution was the worst disaster to hit China since the 1861 Taiping Rebellion. The tens of thousands of deaths were nothing compared to WWII or the Great Leap, when fifty million died and people cannibalized their own children; in the Taiping Rebellion twenty million died. It was the cultural annihilation and the reign of terror that made the Cultural Revolution so traumatic. It tore the country's social fabric. Most of the ancient buildings, Buddhist temples, pailous, museums, ancient tombs, monasteries, books, and statues, as well as 90–95% of the country's irreplaceable ancient manuscripts, were burned or destroyed. Beijing turned into “a bleak cultural desert.” So many ancient buildings were destroyed that Leys found the city unrecognizable. In Hefei, the capital of Anhui province, when he asked if there were monuments to be seen, his guide said “What do you think! After the Cultural Revolution? We had the Red Guards here!” The same was true in city after city: every cultural landmark the Red Guards could find was destroyed. All education was suspended for ten years afterward; the next generation, growing up with only propaganda, knew nothing about their country's history, and the older people, once open and friendly, were afraid to speak to him, even to give directions. Leys wrote:

It represented, after all, the climax of twenty years of periodic, sometimes violent purges, twenty years of systematic training in aggression, of legitimizing violence and hatred. The daily witnessing of looting, revenge, cruelties, humiliations inflicted by children on their elders under the pretext of “class struggle”; the obligation to be present at, if not to take an active part in, the public denunciation of neighbors, friends, fellow workers, and parents—all this must have put its mark on the society as a whole.

Leys, a distinguished scholar of Chinese culture, published a book of collected essays titled The Hall of Uselessness shortly before his death in 2014. It is mostly a writer writing about other writers, but his essays on China in that book show that his love of China was still matched by sadness for what the Red Guards did to it.

The chaos ended when the military took control and re-established law and order. The Cultural Revolution led to a strengthening of central government power, and that was its real purpose. That is also the true purpose behind our current crop of fanatics who loot and riot and demand that our cities defund the police.

Leys was not a political commentator. His interest was in art and calligraphy, so he didn't comment on the politics. He only described what he saw.

oct 11, 2020

The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation

Trans. by Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr.
Ballantine, 1998, 326 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

Sooner or later, if you live long enough, you're going to have to read Confucius's Analects, so you might as well get it over with. This one has the Chinese text next to each paragraph, in original complex characters, so you can check the translation.

The translators say the Chinese language is less substantive and more ‘eventful’ than English, so relatedness between objects in the Confucian world view is metaphysically intrinsic and constitutive. No-thing and nobody has an essence, they say, and one can be defined only correlationally, which is to say we are defined by our relatives and friends. Terms are defined paronomastically [i.e. by cognates and phonetically similar words] . . . and . . . .

Well, this sort of rubbish goes on for seventy pages, so let's skip to the text. It somewhat resembles Plato's dialogues, as his disciples are asking questions. The translation could use a little tweaking, and it can't convey the elegance and pithiness of the original, but you can get a general idea of what Confucius is saying. Example:

Lead [the people] with virtue [or 'excellence' as the translators say] and they will develop a sense of shame, and moreover, will order themselves. [2.3]

This quote is much like what we find from Lao-Tzu, who says the skillful leader makes the people think they did it themselves. Mostly, though, Confucius talked about propriety, honesty, and filial piety. He gives lots of advice:

Exemplary persons first accomplish what they are going to say, and only then say it. [2.13]

To become accomplished in some heterodox doctrine will bring nothing but harm. [2.16] To know what you know and know what you do not know: this is wisdom. [2.17]

When your father and mother are alive, do not journey far. When you travel, be sure to have a specific destination. [4.39]

[In government] if you try to rush things, you won't achieve your ends; if you get distracted by small opportunities, you won't succeed in the important matters. [13.17]

But by far the most important passage for today's readers is 13.3, commonly called the Rectification of the Names. Here is their translation:

When names are not used properly, language will not be used effectively; when language is not used effectively, matters will not be taken care of; when matters are not taken care of, the observance of propriety and the playing of music will not flourish; when observance of propriety and the playing of music do not flourish, the application of laws and punishments will not be on the mark; when the application of laws and punishments are not on the mark, the people will not know what to do with themselves. [13.3]

In short, he is saying if you cannot call a thing by its true name, you will never be able to solve the problem.

We have an epidemic of that today. We now know that if people are forbidden to say what the problem is, the problem will continue to get worse until it's too late to do anything about it. The question Confucius never asked is: why do people seem to want that?

oct 11, 2020