10 March 2018

The Well at the World’s End

The usual SPOILER ALERT stands here. I go into detail about many of the key elements of the plot, so please be forewarned!

To say that William Morris is a gifted spinner of yarns would be a massive understatement, as would it be to say that said yarns have been profoundly influential. Even were it not for the fact that both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were avowed fans of the well-spoken wordsmith of Walthamstow, and owned as much gladly and openly enough between them for a dozen such authors, a perlustration of a novel like The Well at the World’s End would yield a wealth of witness to that very fact. At the same time, though, the Well with all its rough edges has as much of a kinship resemblance to the works of Robert E Howard (on whose ‘low fantasy’ sword-and-sorcery novels Morris apparently left as indelible a mark) as to the ‘high fantasy’ epics of his better-hoofed Inkling fans.

The Well at the World’s End is the tale of Ralph, the youngest son of the King and Queen of Upmeads, as he escapes from home and undertakes a perilous and nigh-impossible journey to the eponymous Well – a single draught from which is rumoured to improve one’s health, regenerate one’s beauty, lengthen one’s life severalfold and cast a certain luck and grace over one’s endeavours. As he sets off from home, he is given a set of beads by his godmother Katherine, which mark him as a quester for the Well. Ralph being a doughty and rather selfless lad, he gives his help to poor and imperilled people that he meets, and so makes a number of friends and well-wishers, and a few powerful enemies. The novel sprawls with a wealth of detail about the landscapes and societies that Ralph must traverse: the Perilous Wood, the Burg of Four Friths, the Land of Abundance, the Cheaping Knowe, the Uttermost Lands, the Dry Tree and the abode of the Sorceress that stands on the road to the Well.

Ralph starts out his quest with very little guidance and even less clue of what he’s doing, and he’s primarily guided by his emotions of sympathy and affection. He learns very early on that not everyone he meets is to be trusted or has his best interests at heart. He encounters, and either falls in love with or is seduced by, the beautiful and beguiling Lady of Abundance, who is never given a proper name in the entirety of the story, and who remains something of an enigma throughout. The accounts of the Lady of Abundance given by the people she rules, by her enemies and even by herself are contradictory and irreconcilable, and two distinct images of her emerge. Is she one of the ‘fey’, an amoral temptress who bewitches men and drives them to madness before leaving them? Is she merely, as she herself claims and as Ralph believes to the end, a simple girl who led an eventful life, whose preternatural beauty and other gifts all come from the Well (from which she drank)? It’s a testament to Morris’s storytelling ability that not only is that question left unresolved, but both interpretations of the Lady of Abundance make sense given what we’re told. Ralph saves her life on one occasion, and she later returns the favour after he is captured by the Knight of the Sun, her estranged husband who murders her in a jealous rage.

It’s really only after the Lady of Abundance is murdered that Ralph, driven by a mixture of grief and resolve, begins his pursuit of the Well in earnest – a sign of Ralph’s budding maturation as a character. He happens upon one of his brothers, whose valet is an old friend to the House of Upmeads and who directs Ralph on a road that leads through Cheaping Knowe to Utterbol, near which lives one of the men of his old hometown of Swevenham – who was said to have sought the Well some forty years back. Following these leads, and also the memory of a peasant girl he met at Bourton Abbas, and fancied early on in his quest, he sets off for Utterbol.

It’s here that the parallels with Howard’s novels become more obvious. The villains that Ralph faces are not powerful Dark Lords, dragons, necromancers or supernatural demons. They are men, and their evil is also very human. Ralph’s primary enemies are the quasi-Spartan warrior-citizens of the Burg of Four Friths, the slavers of Cheaping Knowe, and the lord of Utterbol. Ralph falls foul of the last, a debauched petty tyrant who takes pleasure in the torture, mutilation, castration and rape of his victims. Ralph learns of the yeoman girl he’d been seeking that she was taken captive by wild men and led by one of them, Bull Nosy, to be sold as a slave at Cheaping Knowe; however, she proved so unruly that Nosy decided to try his luck instead at Utterbol. He encountered the Lord of Utterbol on the road, who murdered him and took the yeoman girl as his own slave.

This yeoman girl, whom Ralph later learns is named Ursula, is in some ways the most admirable character in the novel. She is not blessed with Ralph’s extraordinary good luck (though they share identical tokens from Well-seekers, we learn later that Ursula didn’t get the effect of it because it had to be given by an admirer of the opposite sex), but sets off in pursuit of the Well on her own initiative and her own power. In the face of all the same dangers that beset Ralph, she proves herself to be resourceful, level-headed, understanding and kind. She falls in love with Ralph early on, but only dares to show it after he saves her from attack by a bear. But far from being a helpless damsel, she then goes on to save Ralph’s life multiple times and takes something of the more active rôle in leading him to the Sage of Swevenham, and from there to the Well.

After they have found the Well, they begin the journey back home. Quite typically of the fantasy novels to follow, and particularly those of Tolkien, Ralph sets out from home full of youthful impetuosity, longing for adventure and love and fame. But once he’s achieved his goals, having suffered loss and hardship and becoming somewhat more sure of himself, he finds that all he really desires is to see his beloved parents again, to love and serve them and his people of Upmeads. The road he sets out on ends at the same place he started, and Morris beautifully arranges the structured chiasmus to the entire story, as carefully as if it were one of his intricate floral-geometric wallpaper patterns. That’s something that Tolkien clearly strove for in his own writing.

As the two lovers and Well-friends approach Upmeads, they find that the world they traversed in their quest has changed – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The tyrant of Utterbol has been overthrown and replaced by the avenging brother of Bull Nosy, Bull Shockhead, whom Ralph had befriended on the road there – though Shockhead has plans to undo and make amends for Utterbol’s prior tyranny. The queen of Goldburg, having pined sorely after Ralph, abdicated her throne to her kinsmen. The champions of the Dry Tree, having suffered the death of their Lady, led a slave revolt against the Burg of Four Friths, and the former denizens thereof – bereft of their home by their former slaves – went on a rampage, killing and sacking towns and villages in the direction of Upmeads, driving Ralph’s parents and people out of their homes. The climactic confrontation is between Ralph, with the friends he’s made in his quest at his side, and the marauding former Burgers. If you’re noticing parallels with the Scouring of the Shire here, gentle reader, rest assured – you aren’t the only one!

Morris’s class politics make themselves felt more strongly here than in The Wood Beyond the World. It’s telling that the single most heroic character in the book, Ursula of Bourton Abbas, is a peasant and former slave, a woman used to working with her hands and arms and legs in the fields. The representatives of the ‘nobility’ are much more of a mixed bag: Ralph, obviously, has all the marks of a hero, but he is somewhat susceptible to being misled both by his naïveté and by his hormones; on the other hand, the Lord of Utterbol practically embodies the libido dominandi of the worst elements of his class. And the Lady of Abundance is so elusive and enigmatic herself as to embody Morris’s own ambiguous relationship to the elder ruling class. And lastly, the bourgeoisie: though there are examples of honourable and good members of the middle class (most notably Clement Chapman and his wife Katherine), the people of Cheaping Knowe and the Burg of Four Friths are generally portrayed as narrow, bigoted and unfeeling scoundrels, and their ‘capitalist’ exploitation of the poor is often portrayed as equally bad if not worse than that under the feudal kingdoms.

This sprawling fantasy epic, though overshadowed by the better-known novels that it inspired, is very much worth reading and enjoying in its own right. As with The Wood Beyond the World, Morris’s deliberately-antiquarian language can be a bit daunting at first, but once one gets used to it the artistry of his word choice and phrasing itself can be a source of reading pleasure.

08 March 2018

Hammersmith – neither state nor anarchist

With apologies to the late great Lemmy Kilmister, a convinced anarchist as well as a top-class musician, the political society named for Hammersmith was not an anarchist one. William Morris, the Pre-Raphælite father of guild socialism, is often glossed as an ‘anarchist’ or a ‘libertarian socialist’, but he deliberately rejected such labels for himself, even though he maintained friendships with several prominent anarchists such as Pyotr Kropotkin.

What are we to make of this, then? Guild socialism did have a profound impact on subsequent generations of ‘libertarian socialist’ and ‘anarchist’ thinkers, to be sure. And it was in direct reaction against state socialist Edward Bellamy’s nationalist enthusiasm that Morris wrote News from Nowhere (on which work I will have a blog post at a later time). So why, then, did William Morris feel it necessary to distance himself from anarchism explicitly, repeatedly and with enough insistence that he withdrew Hammersmith from the Socialist League over the latter’s anarchist turn? Indeed, Morris set out the programme for the Hammersmith socialists explicitly as ‘neither state socialists nor anarchists’. What was the rationale there?

Morris brought two major charges against the anarchists of his day. Firstly, that even the ‘left’ anarchists with whom he worked and most closely associated in the League had a ‘thin’ understanding of the human personality, one which could be easily detached from its social moorings. On the epistemological level, Morris thought it impossible in the first place to consider the individual, as the anarchists wanted to do, in isolation from her social status, relationships and physical surroundings. On the normative level, Morris’s Christian background – even after he had foregone it to a degree – would not permit him to take leave of the conviction that human beings are complex, irrational, often short-sighted and contradictory, subject to a ‘variety of temperament, capacity and desires’. This insufficiency demanded the presence of what Morris himself called a ‘social conscience’ or a ‘public conscience’, which the best anarchists – like Kropotkin – recognised in theory but not in practice.

Secondly, and on a related note, Morris came to observe that the tactics of political violence used by anarchists were counter-productive to the goals they claimed to want to achieve, and ultimately reactionary both in their consequences and in the assumptions of human nature and political action that underlay them. To tell the truth, Morris was quite prescient here: this is a problem which particularly continues to plague modern anarchists. Morris deeply mistrusted anarchist attitudes toward authority and violence, even though on the surface his critiques of the state seemed to overlap heavily with anarcho-communist ones.

A third difference between Morris and the anarchists – as well as the Marxists – may lie in the differences of their approaches to history. Morris thought, in keeping with his High Tory tutor John Ruskin, that there was something very much worth recovering in the ancient English traditions. Else, he would not have appealed to the peasants’ revolts of bygone days, to Islamic art, to the traditions of mediæval epic poetry and romance that would lead him to pioneer the modern fantasy novel. Kropotkin in particular had no use for this kind of synthesis; for him the past was always the location of exploitation and alienation in more primitive forms. Liberation was to be sought in the present. For Morris, by contrast, though the distant, meaningful and spiritual past was not to be imitated, traces and indications of a purer and more noble way of life were to be sought there.

It is perhaps a little too easy and a little too pat to write off Morris as a refusenik and a ‘splitter’. Just as with his æsthetic-political commitments, Morris’s own attitudes toward authority and political violence were complex and not easy to unpack in a simple or easily-categorised way, except possibly to say that he was an anti-imperialist perhaps even before he was a socialist. The fact that his proto-guild socialism was, shall we say, apophatically defined should not detract from the clarity of his vision, even if that vision was primarily to be seen in his written works and visual artwork, rather than in the form of a political manifesto.

07 March 2018

Wahda and sobornost’

Jamal al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad ’Abduh

In Arabic-British historian Albert Hourani’s book Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939, I managed to find this gem in the chapter on Muhammad Rashīd Ridā:
The second distinguishing sign of Islam is that it has created a single community: not simply a Church, a body of men linked by faith and worship yet separated by their natural characteristics, but a community in every sense. The long history of the Caliphate, the spread of a common culture, and many centuries of mingling and intermarriage, have created an umma which is both a Church and a kind of ‘nation’: it is held together by unity of religion, of law, by equality and mutual rights and duties, but also by natural links, and in particular that of language, since Arabic is the universal language of devotion, doctrine and law wherever Islam exists.

It is impossible indeed to exaggerate the importance of unity for these writers
[al-Afghānī and ’Abduh], and the scandal of disunity. But when they talked of unity, they did not mean a unity based on feeling or tradition alone. They were aware, as al-Afghānī had been, how transient and unstable a merely affective unity could be, and how dangerous when not transient. Nor did they mean that unity should express itself necessarily in the form of a single Muslim State; we shall see later what type and degree of political union Rashīd Ridā thought to be possible. Islamic unity meant for them, in essence, the agreement of hearts of those who accepted each other as believers and dwelt together in mutual tolerance, and the active co-operation of all in carrying out the commandments of religion. The community which was so constituted held authority from God: this was witnessed by the hadith, ‘My community will not agree upon an error’. In so far as any human being exercised any authority in it, it was ‘those who have the power to bind and loose’, a vague phrase which may mean, in general, those who have responsibility for the unity and continuity of the umma, or more precisely the doctors of the law and the holders of political power.

But unity is necessarily connected with truth: there can be no real agreement between Muslims unless they are all agreed on the truth, and conversely agreement is a sign of truth. Possession of the truth is the third and most fundamental sign of Islam, and the true Islam is that which was taught by the Prophet and the ‘Elders’ (
If something about this sounds familiar to an Orthodox reader, that’s because it very well should. Community which is neither sentimental nor outwardly political, but an active coöperation based on love and unity under a divine truth: the principle that these early Arab nationalists were aiming after, from another direction, was precisely the principle of sobornost’ which was espoused in the writings of the Orthodox Slavophils of the first generation. ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!

From an Orthodox perspective, of course, a quest for sobornost’ within Islam is bound to fail, precisely because that truth which is the absolute criterion for such a quest is something Islam fundamentally lacks. Sobornost’ in Orthodoxy is a principle which flows out of the paradoxical theology of a Triune God: three persons, three wills, in perfect community sharing a single essence. The Symbol of Faith is an ikon of the sobornost’ of the Trinity, which when the believer confesses it, is truly imparted to her as a participant in that same communal love through the Holy Spirit. We participate in the communal love of the Trinity when we partake of the Eucharist. The criterion of truth that is the basis of sobornost’ is embodied in that Eucharist; for the Christian, the truth has always a human face.

In Islam, God is a monad, disembodied (Saint John Damascene would say ‘mutilated’), accessible only through the law and the textual record of the words of its Prophet. The criterion of truth to which the Islamic theorists of sobornost’ had to appeal was, by its very nature, univocal – the community, the umma, which could be based upon it would by necessity have to be passive recipients of that truth rather than active participants. The sobornost’ thus arrived at would therefore be one-sided; having only the single aspect of obedience to rely on, it would have to seek refuge in some rigid outward form – fideism or rationalism, of the sort which Rashīd Ridā ultimately embraced – or else in those forms of mysticism to which al-Afghānī was drawn, which in any event would lead back to the source.

The point of this post, however, is not to indulge in a straight-up critique of Islamic theology, but instead to point out that Muslim thinkers were independently arriving at a dynamic and communal theory of wahda – or may we say sobornost’? – through a critical engagement with modernisation. Even if al-Afghānī was deliberately and unambiguously positioning himself counter to European colonialism, this striving after spiritual unity, both within his thought and as a hallmark of the Arabic political thought that followed him, is not to be considered as a simple borrowing of, or reaction to, Western ideas. The philosophical debts of al-Afghānī, as Hourani makes clear, are to the mediæval Persian Academic ’Abū ’Alī ibn Sīnā and the Peripatetic ’Abūlwalīd ibn Rushd. As in China with Xu Zhimo 徐志摩, German Romanticism (which is sometimes considered to be the fountainhead of Slavophilia) makes its appearance in Arab thought only with the later figure of Sāti’ al-Husrī.

But it is unsurprising that those Orthodox Christian Arabs who followed in al-Afghānī’s footsteps – notably Michel ’Aflaq (in whom the thought of al-Husrī too echoes loudly), Qustantīn Zurayq and George Habash – seized with such fervour upon this dynamic and multivalent principle of wahda. There is far greater power, even latent, in the Orthodox Christian tradition for such a concept, and it may have left subtle traces on the thinking of these political figures. More interesting still is how figures like ’Aflaq could speak of wahda and in nearly the same breath talk of the need for decentralisation and localism. This can be interpreted in a purely cynical way, of course. Such cynicism is indeed growing more common with the waning intellectual currency of Arab nationalism and its long history of authoritarian governance. But it can also be read much more charitably, as a call to an Arabic unity of spirit and will based on love, rather than a mere outward political unity or one predicated on some external form of rationality. There is a gem worthy of retrieval in this particular line of political thought, however it may lie depreciated by decades of propaganda against the states of Baššar al-’Asad and Saddām Husayn.

Again, this is based solely on my readings of both the secondary literature (like Antonius and Hourani), and primary literature in translation, so I may well be barking madly and comically up the wrong tree. Even so, this passage in Hourani’s book is deeply and richly suggestive to me. There seem to be many paths pointing to a certain, very Christian end in the world of Arabic thought – even Islamic Arabic thought – and I can’t help but follow where those paths might lead.

06 March 2018

Ruskin, Morris and the Byzantine æsthetic

A Coptic Baptismal Procession
by Pre-Raphælite painter Simeon Solomon, 1865

The relationship of the Pre-Raphælites to the Holy Land and the Middle East is a somewhat ambivalent one. There is in the artwork that sprang from the movement, to use Said’s term with all of its various shades of connotation, an orientalist approach to the Near East. Though the Pre-Raphælite painters showed a marked preference for verdant copses and pale maidens, draped in the mists of European antiquity, one might surmise (with some degree of justice) that a sepia palette would occasionally allow the Pre-Raphælites to project various prejudices and insecurities about the Western art world onto what they may well have imagined, in their Romantic sensibility, to be something of a blank canvas. And yet, such an interpretation is never entirely fair to them, as a school.

The classical orientalism described by Said would presume a Whiggish view of world history, wherein the enlightened modern European must be portrayed flatteringly against the essentialised, emotivist-primitive-and-superstitious ‘eastern despotism’, the better to prepare the latter for the inevitable ‘uplift’ and assimilation into a European-led modernity. Yet it was precisely this Whiggish view – in both the æsthetic sense and the political one – that the Pre-Raphælites rejected outright! Though we can see traces of this kind of orientalism in Holman Hunt, there is also the countervailing force in his work of a genuine appreciation for something the Near East has that modern Europe lacks.

This tendency is even stronger in the Pre-Raphælite theorists, John Ruskin and his pupil William Morris. While the rest of polite English society looked down their noses with a mingled pity and distaste, after the fashion of Edward Gibbon (or Baron Acton), on the benighted ‘east’, Ruskin was publicly in raptures over the art which Venice had plundered from thence. To his mind, the artistic and architectural style of the Eastern Roman Empire represented a deep human truth whose integrity had been shattered by the onset of the Renaissance, which had all the character to his mind of a Satanic betrayal. Though we may assume Ruskin was genuine in his appreciation for the Eastern antiquity which peeked through in Venetian architecture, it seems reasonable to assume that it was his ‘violent Tory[ism] of the old school’ speaking when he denounced the modern turn.

William Morris may never have been as prolix as Ruskin in his admiration for the East (both Christian and Islamic), but then, he never really had to be. The Arabic-Islamic influence on his artwork, and particularly the patterned plant motifs which became his hallmark, left its own profound witness. However hostile Morris may have been, and with good reason, to the Ottoman Turks on a political level, Morris was nevertheless a devoted admirer of Islamic handicrafts, and his basic conviction that utility and beauty were in an ultimate sense not only not at odds but practically identical, seems to have resonated with the same.

To be sure, there may have been a subtler form of orientalism at play in the Pre-Raphælite treatment of the East, broadly considered. The Romantic sensibility evinced by the Pre-Raphælite artists and critics demanded a certain ‘state of innocence’ on the part of those societies deemed closer to ‘nature’, which could by turns be every bit as patronising as the ‘sloshy’ Whiggism they rejected. Though it may hold the grains of a very important truth, the sharp divide Ruskin wedges between the Eastern Roman Empire and the art of the Renaissance is… historically a bit naïve, let’s put it that way. All this having been said, though, the Pre-Raphælites indicated something critically important. That indication was not necessarily about the societies they portrayed, but instead about our own, and the debts we owe in our spiritual life to a civilisational deposit that cannot be easily glossed as merely ‘Western’. Bear in mind: these were not Orthodox Christians talking. These were Anglicans, English non-conformists and the odd cultural Catholic. Even if the point the Pre-Raphælites made was in a purely æsthetic fashion, it was still sorely needed.

04 March 2018

Morris, the Eastern Question and socialism

William Morris

I’ve spoken a bit briefly on the topic of the great William Morris, having read and enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World earlier this year. But the question of how Morris went from being a relatively apolitical artist and antiquarian into political activism and advocacy for a sort of guild socialism is an interesting one. In fact, it was a question of foreign policy which first made William Morris turn his attentions to questions of politics and œconomy. And, at that, a question of foreign policy involving Russia.

William Morris’s interest in social questions had already been somewhat roused by an interest in the preservation of old buildings, and particularly old churches. By the same token, the preservation of the ancient communities which inhabited those churches was a matter of keen interest to him. The news of the atrocities which the Ottoman Turks had committed in the Balkans against the Christian populations of Bulgaria and Yugoslavia caused Morris to set his face solidly against them, and to take an almost automatic position of sympathy with Russia in their disputes with the Ottomans. Add to that, that he had already been taken with some admiration for the Russian government for its abolition of serfdom and for its stance on the liberation of slaves in other areas of the world. Here is what he said in a letter to a friend, Charles Joseph Faulkner, in 1876:
As to the Russians, all I say is this: we might have acted so that they could have had no pretext for interfering with Turkey except in accordance with the unanimous wish of Europe: we have so acted as to drive them into separate interference whatever may come: and to go to war with them for this would be a piece of outrageous injustice… I know that the Russians have committed many crimes, but I cannot accuse them of behaving ill in this Turkish business at present, and I must say I think it very unfair of us, who freed our black men, to give them no credit for freeing their serfs: both deeds seem to me to be great landmarks in history.
Interestingly enough, this stance on the ‘Eastern Question’ came to heighten Morris’s sympathy and concern for the English working class, and for a reason which – particularly for a man who came to be so renowned for his socialism – may seem striking for its conservatism. In the English working class Morris saw an admirable inertia, particularly on questions of war and peace, similar to what the arch-reactionary Pobedonostsev observed among the Russian peasantry. The workingmen of London proved a more sympathetic audience to the anti-interventionist message than any other, and Morris began to address them with gusto:
Who are they that are leading us into war? Greedy gamblers on the Stock Exchange, idle officers of the army and navy (poor fellows!), worn-out mockers of the clubs, desperate purveyors of exciting war-news for the comfortable breakfast-tables of those who have nothing to lose by war… Shame and double shame, if we march under such leadership as this in an unjust war against a people who are not our enemies, against Europe, against freedom, against nature, against the hope of the world.

Working men of England, one word of warning yet: I doubt if you know the bitterness of hatred against freedom and progress that lies at the hearts of a certain part of the richer classes in this country: their newspapers veil it in a kind of decent language; but do but hear them talking among themselves, as I have often, and I know not whether scorn or anger would prevail in you at their folly and insolence. These men cannot speak of your order, of its aims, of its leaders, without a sneer or an insult: these men, if they had the power (may England perish rather!), would thwart your just aspirations, would silence you, would deliver you bound hand and foot for ever to irresponsible capital. Fellow-citizens, look to it, and if you have any wrongs to be redressed, if you cherish your most worthy hope of raising your whole order peacefully and solidly, if you thirst for leisure and knowledge, if you long to lessen these inequalities which have been our stumbling-block since the beginning of the world, then cast aside sloth and cry out against an Unjust War, and urge us of the middle classes to do no less!
Note the last part especially: Morris sees vanishingly little hope within his own middle class even at this early date, but instead finds it incumbent on himself to ask the working class to act out of its own patriotism for the salvation of the country from embarking on a grave injustice in a foreign adventure against Russia. He had little trust in Gladstone or in the Liberals’ interest in anything but their own pocketbooks. The dithering of the Eastern Question Association in the light of prevailing public opinion soured Morris on bourgeois politics for good, and he threw himself instead into the cause of liberating the working man from the shackles of capitalism – the logic which pinned together the entire imperialist war machine which Morris despised. His shift from a kind of Cobbett-like radicalism toward full-fledged socialism was gradual, but complete by 1882.

We may also assume that he imbibed some of this friendliness toward the working class and sympathy for socialism from his colleague and mentor, the Tory socialist art critic John Ruskin. However, the influence of the foreign-policy debate and the ‘Eastern Question’ of the time on Morris’s evolving political and œconomic views cannot be easily ignored or explained away in other terms.

03 March 2018

Watch the west

The news out of China recently has been all about the abolition of term limits for the presidency, thus theoretically allowing Xi Jinping 習近平 to hold power for an unlimited time. The reporting in many English-language news outlets has therefore gloomily (and, frankly, arrogantly) taken on the cast of how ‘we lost China’ again. The term limits question was not the only one addressed this past month. Rural issues have also taken a front seat. China’s leadership is planning to loosen institutional arrangements around land ownership and increase credit flows to farms and small rural businesses. But the response in English-language media, where this has been mentioned, has been likewise dour.

The Chinese state can do a great deal of good in this area if it wants to, though it has to avoid the IMF-prescribed patterns of privatisation and neoliberal ‘reform’. I’ve seen it for myself. When I was working with PlaNet Finance (now Positive Planet) China, I dealt first-hand with the data that showed how successful the Postal Savings Bank of China was in making credit easily available to farmers and to the getihu 個體戶 œconomy. The Postal Savings Bank had a decided edge over the big commercial banks. A state-run organ like the PSBC was demonstrably far less squeamish than the Big Four about sending credit into areas that were considered higher-risk and lower-return. Postal savings banks work – and it’s an initiative that I support here as well.

But that’s somewhat beside the point. The bigger question is: is China ‘backsliding’ on democracy? Or, indeed, was there ever much hope of China becoming democratic? Those of you who follow my blog know that I’m generally rather sceptical of democracy in the first place. And in China’s case, I’ve long held that people ask the wrong questions about democracy. To discuss democracy in a country with China’s history and institutions is inescapably to engage in multiple levels of irony. Insofar as there was ever any hope for freedom and justice in China (a question which is related to, but far from identical with, that of democracy), it’s always come from the interior and never from the cities. If you’re looking to Shanghai or Hong Kong for either one, you’re barking up some very tall, but very wrong, trees.

But is it a hopeless question? It’s ever been only halfway hopeless to begin with. There are two tricks to it. The first is not to consider China ‘ours’ to ‘lose’ in the first place. The second is to look at the grassroots. The old narodnik dream of YC Jimmy Yen 晏陽初 and Liang Shuming 梁漱溟 is still alive and kicking, with people like Wen Tiejun 溫鐵軍 and Wang Hui 汪暉 going out to the countryside and assisting grassroots self-help projects in places like Anren village in Sichuan Province, in ways that deliberately recall the old movements for rural reconstruction. Anren itself seems to be a place to watch, if for no other reason than that the rural reconstruction programme there seems to be far more comprehensive than just the ‘slow food’ initiative.

Does the recent move to give Xi Jinping more time in office change anything? I’m not so naïve as to think it won’t. But Zhongnanhai is not the only or even the most important place in China to watch – and if Zhongnanhai is smart (and they normally are), they’ll be watching elsewhere too. If massive change comes to China, history shows that it will normally come from the countryside.

28 February 2018

A few words on Diaochan in Three Kingdoms

Diaochan 貂蟬

I lived and worked for two years in the city of Baotou, Inner Mongolia, as an English language teacher. The city has several claims to fame: it is, most recently, a centre for heavy industry; the centre of China’s rare-earth metals production and electronics industry; it sports some of the most polluted water on earth; it is also historically considered the ‘place where the deer live’, denoting its use as a hunting ground by the Mongols. But for a Three Kingdoms fan like me, it had a peculiar attraction. Baotou also happens to be the birthplace of one of China’s most-feared warriors, a man whose berserker strength and personal treachery both became infamous: Lü Bu 呂布.

Chen Shou’s 陳壽 Records of Three Kingdoms, considered to be one of the closest historical treatments of a contentious and still somewhat-shadowy period in China’s history which has turned to myth and folklore, has this to say about the assassination of the tyrant Dong Zhuo 董卓 at the hands of his foster-son, Lü Bu:
Lü Bu was an adept archer and rider and his arm strength was unmatched. He was nicknamed the “Flying General”. A little later, he was promoted to “General of the Interior”, and given the title of Marquis of Duting. Since Dong Zhuo knew that he treated others without much courtesy he was always in fear of being murdered, and for this reason had Lü Bu guard him wherever he went. However, Dong Zhuo was stubborn, easily enraged, and often expressed his anger without considering the consequences. Once, being vexed [by Lü Bu], he pulled out a short lance and threw it at him. Lü Bu, being strong and agile, dodged the lance and turned to apologize to Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo’s anger was relieved, but Lü Bu began to secretly harbor hatred toward Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo had often commanded Lü Bu to guard the inner houses, but Lü Bu had an affair with one of Dong Zhuo’s maids. Fearing that he would be found out, he lived in great anxiety.

Right from the beginning, Lü Bu was received warmly by
situ Wang Yun, as he knew Lü Bu to be among the strongest in the province. Soon after, during one of his visit to Wang Yun, Lü Bu confided to him that he had seen Dong Zhuo looking murderous on several occasions. At the time Wang Yun was actually plotting with pushe Shi Sunrui to kill Dong Zhuo. As such, Wang Yun wanted Lü Bu to act as an insider to facilitate their plan. Lü Bu was vexed because he felt that he and Dong Zhuo had a father-son relationship. To this, Wang Yun pointed out that despite the oath, the father-son relationship would not hold since both of them had different surnames and Lü Bu was not Dong Zhuo’s own flesh and blood. Lü Bu was convinced and subsequently killed Dong Zhuo with his own hands [details can be found in Dong Zhuo’s biography]. For this deed Wang Yun recommended that Lü Bu be made Fenwu Jiangjun and given a fujie (the action being known as jiajie). In addition, Lü Bu was given the title Marquis of Wen and he was honored with a ceremony similar to those performed for sansi. Together with Wang Yun, Lü Bu oversaw court affairs.
This brief, in-passing allusion to Lü Bu’s affaire de cœur is all the historical treatment we get, pretty much, of this anonymous maid. There’s not much independent reason to doubt Chen Shou’s account of her historicity, but even so it’s a fairly marginal rôle. Later, though, she is elevated, through the Three Kingdoms operatic tradition and the literary hand of Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中, into the bewitching beauty and femme fatale Ren Hongchang 任紅昌, also known by her cognomen Diaochan 貂蟬 (meaning ‘Sable Cicada’, probably a reference to an item of jewellery she wore). This maid who got such a brief mention by Chen Shou in his biography of Lü Bu, became one of China’s celebrated Four Beauties.

Even if she is at best semi-fictional, Diaochan’s story is still one which illustrates – as well as, if not better than, those of Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環 and Dou Duanyun 竇端云 – the precarious, treacherous and often contradictory positions held by women in China’s old society. In the operatic (and later novelistic) embellishment of Chen Shou’s work, Diaochan is not the hapless serving-girl that comes between Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo. She is Wang Yun’s 王允 sixteen-year-old adopted daughter, and a key co-conspirator in the assassination of the tyrant. Seeing her adopted father in distress at the tyranny of Dong Zhuo, she agrees to help him, even if doing so would mean ‘dying ten thousand deaths’. She is then tasked by Wang Yun with seducing both Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo and driving a wedge between them, such that Lü can be more easily manipulated by Wang Yun into betraying Dong.

She pulls this honeypot subterfuge off with aplomb. Wang Yun sees to it that she is taken into Dong Zhuo’s household after being promised to Lü Bu in marriage, and she deftly begins leading each man on. Lü Bu begins to turn against his foster father, and Wang Yun exploits his discontent to make him party to the conspiracy to kill Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo attempts to move Diaochan out of his foster son’s reach to Meiwo 郿塢, and at the same time usurp the Han throne for himself. Wang Yun, now knowing Lü Bu is on his side, moves to arrest Dong Zhuo – and Lü Bu himself, loudly declaiming an edict to exterminate a traitor, personally lands the killing blow with his halberd. He then sought out Diaochan and, having secured her, proceeded to exterminate Dong Zhuo’s family. This action earned him the enmity of Dong Zhuo’s few remaining loyal generals, who force him to abandon Meiwo and kill Wang Yun.

Diaochan’s fate is left unknown both in Chen Shou’s work and in most versions of the novel. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, she survived Meiwo and is present at Xiapi 下邳; in some versions she is killed alongside Lü Bu after Cao Cao 曹操 and Liu Bei 劉備 defeat him there. The operatic tradition embellishes this somewhat: having taken her as booty from Xiapi, Guan Yu 關於 himself decapitates Diaochan, either because he fears her ability to manipulate men, or because he fears she will drive a similar wedge between himself and his sworn brothers, who desire her for themselves.

Such an end for Diaochan obviously makes sense within the framework of operatic tragedy. Like Dou Duanyun, she is possessed of an unshakeable inner integrity which conflicts with her outward appearance and behaviour. Like Yang Guifei, even within a position wherein she can sway powerful men to her bidding, she is still vulnerable to abuse by those same powerful people. Unlike the traditional Confucian views of Consort Yang, however, Luo’s treatment of Diaochan is almost – almost, but not quite – entirely sympathetic. Historically, Confucian scholars have been notably unkind to women who gain undue sway over men by means of sexual attraction. But even as a seductress, Diaochan’s motivations are accounted as pure, and she embodies both private and public Confucian virtue from the orthodox standpoint preferred in the Han Dynasty. Here she stands in marked contrast to her lover Lü Bu, who is only ever motivated by self-interest and lust.

Luo Guanzhong portrays Diaochan’s seduction and double-cross of Dong Zhuo as an act motivated by selfless patriotism on behalf of the Han Empire, and of filial obedience to Wang Yun. Diaochan’s sexual allure and ability to mask her true feelings are skills which she uses in a virtuous cause. I say that Luo Guanzhong’s treatment of Diaochan is almost entirely sympathetic, but not completely, because at the same time Luo alludes to the entire intrigue as cause for ‘sighing’ or ‘lamentation’ (tan 嘆): Dong Zhuo’s tyranny could not be brought down by righteous generals, knights-errant or men-at-arms, but instead had to be defeated by the wiles of a woman. In the end, though, the woman who risked execution between two powerful and unscrupulous men to save the Han Emperor is deemed too dangerous to live by the ‘righteous heroes’ of martial ability who couldn’t destroy Dong Zhuo themselves. Diaochan’s patriotism, filiality and selflessness, praised by Luo, counts for precious little with them.

Diaochan may be almost wholly fictional, but her example even as an operatic fictional character is interesting, because Luo’s novel points to a certain radical potential for a Confucian appreciation of ‘unconventional’ virtuous femininity – under certain conditions and in certain extraordinary situations. On the other hand, there is an implicit critique of the prevailing conventional expectations of women. The reason Diaochan’s story is a tragedy, is because Lü Bu’s execution by Cao Cao as a traitor and a kinslayer was justified. Diaochan, sharing that fate, was blameless.