21 November 2017

Legacies of Plato and Confucius – an observation


A mosaic of Plato with his students at the Academy

In my experience, it’s been next to impossible to read anything by or about Plato without stumbling, in one form or another, onto that tired ‘series of footnotes’ saw coined by Alfred North Whitehead. And yet, we can identify, in the annals of Western thinking, discrete figures and groups of people who are broadly considered to have been ‘Platonists’. In the classical world: the Middle Platonists (of whom Plutarch was the major figure) and the neo-Platonists (epitomised by Plotinus). In early Christian times, several of the Church Fathers (but certainly not all of them!) were influenced deeply by Plato: Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Irenæus of Lyons, Saint Basil of Cæsarea, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Saint Maximus the Confessor. Later: Mary Astell and the Cambridge Platonists. And in our own age: Vladimir Solovyov, Leo Strauss, George Grant, Simone Weil and Alain Badiou. I haven’t even mentioned the Islamic Platonists, because I’m not familiar enough with them, although I’m quite aware of their existence and influence.

‘Confucianism’, however, is something at once more conceptually discrete, and also more diffuse, than ‘Platonism’, in spite of the well-founded parallels between the two philosophers otherwise. On the one hand, it would be profoundly silly to assert, as Whitehead did about Plato, that all of East Asian philosophy is a series of footnotes to Confucius, for the simple reason that Confucius’ contemporaries, the zhuzi baijia 诸子百家, existed, and that many of them went on to become profoundly influential. To be sure, many Western commentators attempt to do this anyway, by applying Confucianism as some kind of a priori cultural rubric onto everyday practices in East Asian business, etiquette, everyday life and so on. On the other hand, individual Confucians or groups of Confucians in Chinese intellectual history tend to be harder to identify than Platonists in the West, precisely because it was a philosophy that was heavily tied up with political legitimacy and class status. Anyone who passed the civil service examinations had to be familiar with the Classics and would be judged according to the depth of their understanding; thus, if one isn’t careful, one could wind up judging any post-classical Chinese thinker with official status as being a ‘Confucian’.

We can still try to draw some parallels. Confucius did have an academy, and many of his students went on to become philosophers in their own right. Mencius (a pupil of Kong Ji) and Xunzi each represented a branch of classicist thinking that relied heavily on Confucius’ teachings. Later, the schools of Dong Zhongshu and Yang Xiong represented a further split in Confucian thinking. Han Yu and his philosophical writings in response to Buddhism mark the definitive ‘neo-Confucian’ turn in classicist thought, and by the time you get to Zhu Xi the Confucian canons have been standardised and Confucianism fully transformed into a state ideology. (Ironically, Dong Zhongshu too often gets unfairly blamed for the process of institutionalisation perfected by Zhu Xi, the less-‘political’ thinker.)

After Zhu Xi it becomes much trickier to tell the difference between ‘Confucians’ (those philosophers convinced of the rightness of Confucius’ ideas and proponents of the classical canon) and the general class of scholar-officials tied to the Song, Ming and Qing states, and several Confucians were sympathetic to other modes and forms of thought (particularly those who rebelled and remonstrated against the official culture and order). There was no such ‘institutionalisation’ of Platonism, which makes it slightly easier to identify thinkers in the course of Western and Islamic history who were genuinely drawn to Plato’s ideas, despite the fact that Plato’s fingerprints are all over Western and Islamic philosophy.

I don’t think there’s any essential difference between the East Asian and Western-Islamic worlds that necessitated these shifts. I agree completely with Dr van Norden about the necessity of taking each seriously and on its own terms; and I find it atrocious that we don’t already. I further don’t think it’s conceptually impossible to find thinkers in modern times whose ideas and thinking were closer in spirit to Confucius than others – in the same way we can tell which thinkers in modern times are more influenced by Plato than by, say, Aristotle, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, the Cynics or the Epicureans. I merely happen to believe that the Confucians who are truer and closer in substance to Confucius’ own thought are those that haven’t tried to definitively resolve the self-ritual dialectic with conceptual imports from German idealist or Buddhist philosophy. Confucius himself leaves that question, of whether the institutional rites come first or whether the self which cultivates them in itself does, as a problem for his own students. He doesn’t set out to solve it himself, at least not in the Analects, and it’s therefore inappropriate to cast Confucius as a definitive individualist or as a definitive collectivist.

At any rate, just a random observation here about some of the difficulties in doing genuine comparisons between the historical legacies of Plato and Confucius. I am still convinced that the two thinkers have much more in common with each other, than either of them do with the modern societies that lay claim to them.


Confucius teaching his students

18 November 2017

The greatest criminals


In the annals of American decline, the Iraq War under George W Bush and Dick Cheney will, I am certain, come to be remembered as one of the great tipping points – if not the tipping point – at which we sacrificed any semblance of respect for truth in the pursuit of… precisely what is still not clear, and has become less so the more the war and its motives are examined. Revenge? Oil? Corporate privilege? Wilsonian ideology? Democratic idealism? The ‘end of history’?

The masterminds of the war will have much to answer for. The blood of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent Iraqis will cry up from the ground in accusation. But even more so, the willing tools of those neoconservative masterminds: the ‘liberal hawks’, the bleeding-heart interventionists whose good intentions would pave the way for a great utopian upwelling of Middle Eastern democracy and freedom. These people must stand accused and accursed. The greatest criminals are the ones who begin committing their crimes with the monstrous lie on their forked tongues: ‘we are your friends’.

Hillary Clinton. John Edwards. Joe Lieberman. Christopher Hitchens. Thomas Friedman. Jacob Weisberg. Paul Berman. Michael Ignatieff. Jonathan Chait. Bill Keller. Fred Hiatt. All of these people must be condemned, again and again, over and over, for each and every one of the half a million deaths, the rapes and the tortures, the infant deformities from depleted uranium, the displaced families, the persecuted Assyrians, the human blood that they wilfully plunged their hands into, the hypocrisies they indulged, the lies they perpetuated, the people of the world that they deceived, all in their support of Bush’s Folly. And not only them. Also Lech Wałęsa. Also Adam Michnik. Also Václav Havel. Also Liu Xiaobo and Yu Jie. Also Chen Shui-bian. Also Koizumi Jun’ichirô. Also Mikheil Saakashvili. Also Garry Kasparov. Also André Glucksmann. Each and every such native informant outside the West who backed Bush. Even though Hitchens, Havel, Glucksmann and now Liu are dead, their whited sepulchres deserve no honour, and the people who still honour them in defence of their ‘cause’ perpetrate the very same lies that they told in that ‘cause’.

These people are not heroes; they are not paragons of civic virtue and democratic idealism; they are moral cowards. They are dogs, carrion birds and maggots. From actual defenders of democracy in particular, they deserve condemnation and censure at every turn, not for their support of ‘democracy’, but for their wilful support of totalitarian untruths, in the name of ‘democracy’. Such people destroyed my faith in ‘democracy’ as an ideal, and I will not go back to the tyrannies they cherish and represent, their graven Inannas soaked in sacrificial Iraqi blood.

Upon the heads of such people, horrified though they might be by his rise, belongs the brunt of the blame for the relativism and cynicism of the Age of Trump in their disdain for truth and their hatred of just critique – precisely because they were not punished for their lies. If not ‘fake news’ itself, then the warranted distrust of the traditional news media, began with Judith Miller’s tall tales of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and the immanent threats he and his nation posed to democracy, peace and the liberal order. The fact that no single liberal commentator lost a job over his support of the war, and that prizes were given instead and backs were patted, speaks volumes about the spiritual death of our entire modern political order, and its impotence in the face of the very authoritarianism it ostensibly set out to destroy. Those whom God would destroy, he first makes mad. The supporters of the war in Iraq, and especially the liberal ones, bear responsibility for the crisis of political legitimacy we are in today.

I am in dead earnest.

We are where we are now because democracy failed. And the failure is not the current administration’s. The failure belongs to the supporters of Bush. Even and particularly his liberal, democratic and idealist supporters.

And all this deserves to be said now more than ever, precisely because of Bush’s rehabilitation at the hands of liberals, democrats and idealists, showing that these people have learnt nothing from the rise of Trump.

17 November 2017

China’s pilot ‘slow food’ village in Sichuan


Anren, Dayi County, Sichuan Province 四川省大邑县安仁镇

Last month, the South China Morning Post ran a story on Sun Qun’s initiative for ‘slow food’ villages in southwest China, specifically in Sichuan. The pilot village will be the ‘ancient town’ of Anren in Dayi County. The ‘slow food’ movement, initiated in Italy on principles that could largely be considered as ‘distributist’, has apparently made common cause in this case with the Chinese New Left and the New Rural Reconstruction Movement. That movement itself is a legacy of the original Rural Reconstruction Movement kicked off by Jimmy Yen and Liang Shuming, and of which a young Mao Zedong was a notable member. As I am fond of saying: I’m certainly no apologist for the last, but his legacy is far more complex than many of his modern-day detractors are willing to admit.

It’s also worthy of note that this slow food village initiative has its nucleus and its pilot project in the deep-‘red’ rural Chinese inland. It also wouldn’t be the first time that traditionalist, rural and working-class concerns have overlapped in China’s recent political memory, though one hopes that these villages and the kinds of preservation they want to effect will be more politically-substantive than the hanfu movement. Ironically, and somewhat sadly, those commentators who do see a political meaning within the hanfu movement, both oppose it and deliberately ignore its working-class roots. I think we can expect to see, in the near future, more such discrediting attacks aimed at the slow food village initiative, even before it manages to take off.

I note also a certain degree of similarity between the slow food villages, and a certain urbanist counterpart, the Forest City Arcology in Guangxi. Both projects involve input from Italian ‘big concept’ thinkers and movements. Both projects are deliberately locating themselves in the Chinese inland. Both projects have an explicitly conservationist raison d’être. Both projects appeal to a specific kind of collective effort aimed at changing the boundary conditions for work, leisure and consumption. Both projects seek to circumvent capitalist waste, environmental destruction and cultural corrosion. (And both projects happen to appeal, to differing degrees, to a certain ex-expat blogger with both leftist and traditionalist sympathies.)

And yet there is a distinction to be drawn, and I’m not sure but it may yet be solely an æsthetic one. I admit to being more enthusiastic about the Slow Food Villages than I am about Forest City; in part, that may be because of my affinity for the Chinese New Left and the Rural Reconstruction movements with which it has consciously associated itself. It may also be the case that I’m attracted to such villages because they build on what’s already there, rather than planting a work of modern architecture ex nihilo. It will be interesting and edifying (uh, pardon the pun) to note what becomes of the arcology project in Guangxi; it will be still more interesting to see what happens with these Sichuanese slow food villages.

16 November 2017

Remembering Holy Apostle Matthew (rightly)


It’s been a habit of mine in past years to mark the feast-day of Saint Matthew by bringing to the fore his love for the Iranian people, both in his telling of the story of the Magi in the Gospel which bears his name and in his preaching the Gospel among that nation. Today as well that emphasis would not come amiss, as Iran struggles with the fallout of a great natural disaster. If possible, gentle readers, consider contributing on this Saint Matthew’s Day to the Child Foundation, a four-star charity which is assisting the victims of the Kermanshah Earthquake.

But it’s worth noting also, that in Orthodox hagiography and historiography, including in the Golden Legend, Saint Matthew was also responsible for evangelising among the Æthiopian people and bringing the Gospel into sub-Saharan Africa. Some parts of Africa, of course (and notably Æthiopia) have been Christian far longer than Europe has; to characterise African Christianity solely as the legacy of European missionaries is not only an insult to Saint Matthew, but also the very crudest sort of intellectual imperialism. Even now it is necessary to point out that the African churches are defending and advancing the whole of the Christian legacy even as Europe is abandoning it either for sæcular liberalism, or for an equally-sæcular race-nationalism.

Turning the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa into a political football for Western sexual identity politics and power projection (the two of which are never as far removed from each other as Westerners may think) has backfired spectacularly. This effort has spurred more Africans – on the whole more conservative than European whites – to begin to realise the importance of virtue ethics and the ethics of care when it comes to protecting themselves from the continuing colonial encroachments of their long-time oppressors. As I have said before – and I plan to get into this in further depth at a later time – African Christianity going back to Saint Matthew has had radical implications. It is not an accident and not some fluke of history that Marcus Garvey, Léopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and other great lights of pan-Africanism and African socialism were also drawn to traditional, apostolic Christianity.

If we’re going to remember the Holy Apostle Matthew today, let us do it rightly. Let us use it as an occasion for reflection and repentance. Let us reach out a hand to a suffering nation, a nation which taught us philosophy and right honour for the one God, many of us now still consider an enemy, but which Saint Matthew considered brothers and sisters in the Lord. Let us think back on our ill-treatment of our black African brothers and sisters, and instead of preaching to them now on what they should do and what they shouldn’t within their own countries, let us listen. They have been our brothers and sisters in the Gospel, since long before our barbarian ancestors living like wild animals in the northern woods of Europe had even heard the name of Jesus, the Christ. Let us remember the Holy Apostle Matthew and his missions to Persia and Æthiopia, then, in a respectful and attentive manner.

15 November 2017

Conservatism ain’t what it used to be


The original Red Flag

I left a comment on another conservative blog to the effect that, although I am not a fan of ‘nativism’ in such a context as my own, as a conservative, I had no problems either with trade protectionism (or, for that matter, legal sanctions and limits on entire sectors of œconomic activity, if they are socially harmful) nor with a non-interventionist foreign policy. Those were, after all, the stances taken by Lord Salisbury. The response was, shall we say, somewhat disappointing. Clearly the author of the blog had more interest in being ironically self-defensive about his own ‘modern false’ conservatism than in discussing the merits. One of the overriding themes of this blog, and an irony that never fails to get old for me, is that each and every single one of the positions that would have made me a good, High Tory conservative 160 years ago now renders me something similar to a socialist.

For example, my belief that families are generally a positive thing for society, and that even the most modest families should be protected and encouraged. On the modern right, the family has long been considered a secondary and expendable concern, next to the sacrosanct demands of the Corporation. The most pro-family œconomic policies (living wages, paid maternity leave, universal health insurance, food aid to needy children) are now, on either side of the English-speaking Atlantic, almost exclusively staples of the discourse of the left.

Or, for example, inequality. I’m currently reading Plato’s Laws, and here as in the Republic he is insistent that inequality is both a harbinger of instability and chaos, and the result of bad citizenship. Inequality is a mark that distinguishes a ruling class that has turned from the higher things to the wants of the belly. For Plato, in Book V of the Laws, a well-governed society legally won’t let the wealthiest citizens acquire more than four times the minimum amount of wealth needed for a dignified existence. Why is that? The reason he gives is wholly a conservative one: ‘A state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues-not faction, but rather distraction;-here should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty, nor, again, excess of wealth, for both are productive of both these evils.’ Inequality should be a concern for conservatives who seek to ward off both faction and distraction. Yet nowadays both left and right wallow, even revel, in distraction and, with some noble and prophetic exceptions like Neil Postman and Chris Hedges, do not see such distraction as morally problematic.

The conservative voices, the voices of the gentry and rural élites, speaking up for the nascent working class in the nineteenth century produced a great wealth of conservative enthusiasm for alternative forms of labour organisation. German conservatives like Justus Möser were advocates of the freer life for the craftsman that held under the mediæval guild system. In Britain, a direct line can be drawn among the High Tories from Richard Oastler to Arthur Penty and Gilbert Chesterton in their advocacy for traditional forms of workers’ self-reliance. The Russian artel’ and obshchina were favoured by the conservative Slavophils as peculiarly Slavic and traditional ways to organise labour and œconomic activity that would bypass capitalism. And, as I have pointed out before, in these areas you see an overlap between peculiarly conservative and peculiarly socialist ideas.

The suspicion that trade is and must be a political and not merely an œconomic matter, historically, hasn’t just been for socialists, anti-globalisation protesters and environmental advocates. This suspicion of ‘free trade’ has long been an animating force of the Old Right in Britain, from Richard Oastler’s spirited defence of the Corn Laws on through the tenures of Disraeli and Bentinck. Depending on whether or not you see Lincoln as a political conservative, on this side of the Atlantic you might be able to make a similar case.

Public management of utilities and infrastructure is nowadays dismissed as a far-left Corbynista pipe dream. The irony is that in Britain itself the idea that mail, rail, road and telegraph ought rightly to belong to the Crown was originally a conservative idea. There’s a reason that in Britain it’s called the ‘Royal Mail’: it was a project first undertaken by Henry VIII, but brought to fruition by His Majesty King James I of England, VI of Scotland with the mail service connecting London to Edinburgh. (Not coincidentally, British Unionism itself was a conservative idea and a Stuart and Jacobite cause to begin with.) It was Sir Robert Peel, of all men, who first brought the railways under state control. I could go on, of course, but you get the idea.

These are all areas in which I am distinctly drawing on and taking inspiration from conservative categories and modes of political thinking, but which have been leading me in what is now considered a leftward direction for the past decade. It’s not merely the opposition to Whiggish forms of thinking, not merely a reaction against an entrenched definition of ‘progress’ that has been tugging in this direction. There is indeed a substantive overlap between the two bodies of thought, that goes back to King Charles I (or, if you like, Tsar Aleksei of Russia, who did so much to ingrain the aforementioned obshchina into Russian life) and his defences of the rural working class against predation by the gentry. Even earlier parallels might be drawn: the early rulers of Kievan Rus’, perhaps, or the reigns of Emperor Constantine and perhaps even Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodōra.

What passes for modern movement conservatism, by contrast, is sorely lacking in moral content and, yes, deeply false. Trumpery is only the latest and most visible symptom of that, and should not be confused with the true rot. That set in far earlier with the prior conservative embraces of ‘free trade’ Whiggery, the non-ethics of pre-emptive war and torture, and an overriding disdain for the people at the bottom of the socioœconomic ladder who embody all the ‘little platoons’ they claim to cherish. If such ‘conservatives’ want to mistake me for a socialist, so be it. I welcome their contempt.

A few words on Empress Saint Theodōra


Holy and Right-Believing Empress Theodōra of Constantinople

Yesterday (pardon my negligence) was the feast day of the Holy Right-Believing Empress Theodōra of Constantinople, a royal saint of the Holy Orthodox Church who ought by no means to be overlooked! A working-class woman who toiled in a low-end brothel and performed on stage in her youth, she rose to become a respected and feared stateswoman, second only, if not equal, to her husband the Emperor of the most powerful empire on earth at the time. How she got there, what she did in respect of her office, and how she became a saint are all very much worthy of our attention as Christians.

Yes, Empress Saint Theodōra did begin her life as a ‘woman of ill repute’. A Cypriot by descent if not by birthplace, she was born to the very lowest class of Byzantine society. Both of her parents were ‘entertainers’; her mother, like her, made a living by her body. Her father having died when she was four, she entered the brothel as one of the few avenues open to her to support herself. When she was sixteen she entered the company of a Syrian-Greek official named Hekēbolos who had been appointed as governor of Libya; she stayed with him for four years, but left him on account of his neglectful and abusive behaviour to her. Travelling back to Constantinople, she made the acquaintance of Pope Timothy III of Alexandria, who apparently left a deep religious impression on her and steered her toward a more pious life.

It is here that the historical accounts tend to diverge. Prokopios, a hostile and rather unreliable historiographer, asserts that her conversion experience was fake, and that she met the Emperor Justinian while continuing as an actress and prostitute, after a performance of the parody Leda and the Swan. John of Ephesos, on the other hand, relates that she took up a job in the capital as a manual labourer, a wool-spinner, who caught the attention of the Emperor. In any event, Justinian was not able to marry her due to the class restrictions then in place; only when his uncle repealed the law was Justinian able to marry Theodōra. By that time, Theodōra already had an illegitimate daughter, whose father was likely Saint Justinian.

Saint Justinian and Saint Theodōra were an odd case at the time, having married for affection rather than for political reasons. At the same time, though, Saint Theodōra was quite politically-active. She broke with Roman convention by offering advice to the Emperor directly, and in so doing saved Emperor Saint Justinian’s throne, his life, and possibly the empire itself during the Nika riots. At the time, Saint Justinian and his closest advisers were preparing to flee the city, which was then under siege by the rioters. In her own words:
My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud.
Thereupon Saint Justinian broke up the riots – bloodily, according to Prokopios – and restored his hold on power. In the wake of that event, Justinian and Theodōra began to rebuild the royal city. They established vital infrastructure and public works (aqueducts, roads, bridges), built twenty-five churches (including the great Agia Sophia!), and spent a great deal on social welfare also, particularly public hospitals. Saint Theodōra, remembering perhaps her unfortunate youth and her ill-treatment at the hands of Hekebolos, was also an advocate against prostitution and in favour of women’s rights – including lower-class women’s right to work and feed themselves without having to marry or enter a brothel. She established a convent named Metanoia (or Holy Repentance), which catered specifically to ex-brothel girls and street prostitutes, giving them shelter, a space for reflection and the possibility – an all-too-attractive possibility at the time for many such women – of becoming a nun. As the folks at In Communion put it:
She made it legal to marry across class lines, gave women inheritance rights, gave women custody rights in the case of divorce, increased the penalty for rape, and outlawed the practice of infanticide whereby the father would decide whether a newborn would live and which often was committed against baby girls. She also opened many convents and saved many women from prostitution. Convents gave women of the time a way to support themselves without having to marry.
Saint Theodōra began her life of religious piety as a Miaphysite follower of Pope Timothy III, but after her marriage to Saint Justinian it appears she embraced Chalcedonian Christianity. At the same time, her sympathies were deeply engaged toward the Miaphysites, and she exerted tremendous political and spiritual energies in the attempt to heal the breach between the two confessions. The right-believing Empress reposed at the age of forty-eight, succumbing to an illness which was likely breast cancer. However, she would leave a deep impression on Saint Justinian’s reign even after her death, as he would continue to pass laws and institute social services for lower-class people, and particularly lower-class women, for the remainder of his reign. Empress Saint Theodōra, pray to God for us!

08 November 2017

A faith for my mixed-race children


Saint Andrei the God-Loving

So, I started writing a blog post on ‘the Eurasian face of Saint Andrei’ (who was half-Qypchaq and half-Rus’), which quickly turned into another one of my broadsides against nationalism generally. Not that the defamation and Yellow Peril yellowface caricature of one particularly complicated and ambiguous Eurasian saint of the Church, by the racist nationalist right to spite the Russians, isn’t heinous and contemptible. It is. It’s just that the most interesting point that the piece made about the incompatibility of Orthodox Christianity with the current right-wing nationalist moment got some rather short shrift, and I’d prefer to expand upon that here. The latter would be, in any event, a better way of defending the honour of Saint Andrei the Prince, given the ambiguous and complex position he occupied, straddling Asian and European cultures, values and principles.

Christianity itself is, after all, an Asian religion. Its adoption by the West immediately imbued Western pagan political institutions, categories, forms and concepts with a fundamentally ‘Eastern’ meaning and inward importance. The adoption of the languages of Roman statecraft and Greek philosophy by a messianic Jewish movement led by a nonviolent descendant of King David and hailing to the anti-Hellenistic, anti-Alexandrian Hasmonean legacy was indeed a recapitulation of all three of Imperial Rome, philosophical Athens and Old Jerusalem. But it also subverted all three: the former two ultimately more so than the last. In the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ Our God, the East in her own powerlessness gained a final spiritual triumph over the self-inflated political and intellectual pride and pomp of the West.

But, even if Christianity is unmistakeably a religion of the East in the reckoning of Saint Ilya Fondaminsky (marked by ‘solar’ monotheism and autocracy, personalism, communitarianism), it is also a true religion of the interstices. I have made mention of this multiple times, so it’s worth dwelling on a bit more at length. In life Christ dwelt in the places which both Roman statecraft and the Second Temple forgot: in the wilderness, among the lepers and disfigured, in the lands of the Syrians and Phœnicians. In death Christ hung on a Cross between two Jewish rebels, bandits, enemies of the Roman state and well left of the mainstream of the Jewish religion. Christ came from one of these interstices, a Jewish region under Hellenistic influence yet respected by neither: ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ It becomes a little too easy and a little to pat to romanticise this, among Christians of a certain kind of lefty stripe who want to make of their religion a kind of social service. There is unmistakeably that dimension too, of course, but it’s worth remembering that Christ did not come to offer merely a cause; he came to offer Himself. It was Christ Himself whom Saint Dismas accepted as he died in agony – and was lifted that very Friday into the Kingdom.

Not to get too identity-political here, but… Myself and my wife – we’re definitely working-class millennials, but we aren’t poor poor. We both have jobs. We don’t have five-figure debts. We keep our heads mostly above water every month. But we’re still an immigrant-expat family. We still exist within certain interstices and between-spaces which make our lives, our two beautiful children’s lives and all our relationships to the state complicated and ambiguous. We’re on various forms of government assistance, which makes some of these problems far more tangible to me. Ellie and Albert, by virtue of being my natural children, are citizens who weren’t born here. Ellie still gets homesick for China, and is still a bit slower than her peers to pick up English. Like Saint Andrei the God-Loving, she’s both Asian and white; and she in particular, being so young and yet aware of being both Chinese and Anglo-American, will face at least some of the difficulties he did in navigating his Qypchaq-Rus’ heritage. And yet in the eyes of the government, no matter how well-intentioned, she and her younger brother are always going to be slotted into one or the other, or else treated as ‘other’ entirely. Which, I suppose, is why the Maidanist sæcular-nationalist yellowface treatment of Saint Andrei rankles me, personally in such a deep way. Bad enough to attack a saint for not being white, which shouldn’t be done anyway. Such an attack attacks my family as well.

But to Ellie and to Albert, Christ offers Himself in the Divine Liturgy. It’s a comfort to know that we are every bit as welcome at the chalice as any Russian, Ukrainian, Rusin, Romanian, Armenian, Lebanese Arab, Japanese, African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native. In the eyes of the Church they are whole persons and living icons – and not merely ‘either / or’, not merely categories or stereotypes or fractions-of-persons – made one in the Symbol of Faith and the prayers and fasts of the Church. Thanks be to Christ our God for that. Holy Prince Andrei the God-Loving, pray to God for us sinners here.

07 November 2017

Election day in Saint Paul


In Saint Paul, sensibly, we have a ranked-choice voting system, whereby you select different candidates for first, second, third places and so on up to six. It’s a system which seems almost Platonically-oriented, actually. Almost. I don’t think Plato would approve of democracy even in this form. But all the same: ranked-choice voting is hierarchical: you list your votes in order of preference, and can therefore rank the candidates by their merits. It’s also structured so that each of the parts of your soul (the nous, the thumos and the epithumia) can each cast a vote in its proper place.

As to how I voted?
  1. Elizabeth Dickinson. My first-choice ‘head’ vote went to GPMN candidate Ms Dickinson, for the reason that I was able to have a long and relatively good discussion with her a couple of days ago about a broad variety of topics, and get a good feeling for where her interests and passions lie. We talked about jobs, education, development projects, renewable energy and community policing. On the jobs-and-renewable-energy front, she seems fairly convinced that ‘green jobs’ are the way to go and wants to make sure that Saint Paul is in the lead in the wind and solar power sector, which is well and good. But it’s clear she also cares a great deal about both the police and the communities they serve, and has given a lot of thought and effort to the issue already – going on ride-alongs, talking with policemen and community leaders, getting a feeling for where they each stand. She wants to implement community policing policies similar to those which have met with success in Providence, which I think is key to ensuring police safety, keeping police accountable and combating racial prejudice among police. Also, as a GPMN-endorsed candidate, a vote for Dickinson is a good way to keep the DFL accountable and to break its iron grip on the state, and that’s something I personally value.

  2. Tom Goldstein. The former treasurer at my daughter’s public school. My ‘heart’ vote went to a DFL candidate, yes, but a DFL candidate in the Wellstone vein. He gets under the skin of the state party élite – as evidenced by his high-profile opposition to big sports-industry boondoggles and the fact that his detractors in the DFL slam him as a ‘contrarian’. (I dearly love such contrarians. See why he’s my thumos vote?) I like his insistence on measures for government transparency and Jane Jacobs approach to city planning. I’ll be honest, though, I don’t know what he really means when he says ‘small business’. Also, I was a little bit queasy about his retro nineties technophilia and ‘broadband to the masses’ approach. But in his own way he’s (attempting to) stand up for the little guy, and that’s something I respect.

  3. Dai Thao. My ‘gut’ vote – that is to say, my blatant, œconomically self-interested vote – went to Dai Thao, who is an honest-to-God, working-class, union-backed representative of the left wing of the DFL. He can be trusted to promote policies and social programmes that will make my and my wife’s lives easier. Like my wife, he’s an immigrant from Asia. He’s a family man, a man of faith and a father of five. He knows the real everyday struggles that poor parents face raising their kids.
Not too great an importance should be attached to this listing, of course. Like I said, I don’t believe the philosopher would be happy with democracy even in a hierarchical form like this one; too many would still be tempted to vote with their passions. And it should be apparent that I would have reasons to be happy with any of the above candidates being elected mayor, albeit different reasons for each. There seems to be something of a lesson in the fact that, on the whole, local candidates seem to be far more palatable, far more human, than the candidates who seem drawn to run for higher levels of government.

06 November 2017

Undeclared war on Carpathia


A church in the Rusin style, Uzhgorod, Zakarpatska Oblast’

It’s unfortunately been a truism in history that the Orthodox Rusins get the short end of the stick, no matter who has managed to get a hold of the other end.

Lem.fm has a story up about how the Ukrainian government has, since its inception, refused to recognise even marginally, the cultural distinctiveness of the Rusin people. The Rusin language is not permitted to be taught in schools, and even referring to oneself as Rusin is enough to get one branded a ‘separatist’ (and lose one’s job and social standing). The Ukrainian government refers to the Rusins as Verkhovyntsi, or ‘uplanders’ – the classist and pejorative implications of which ought to be clear to anyone who has studied the region in any detail. It is, of course, not very surprising, given the long and depressing history of repression, forced displacement, mass murder, book-burning and desecration of graves in the region at the hands of (variously) the Poles, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Galician nationalists and the boot-licking Uniate priesthood. And it is also very little wonder that the Rusins have been very reluctant to join in any nationalist projects, and that, when given the opportunity, they have lent their voices to various different left-wing and regionalist causes.

But the Ukrainians in particular will not admit to any wrongdoings against the Rusin people because to them, the Rusins are not a people. The entire nationalist project of the Ukraine, based on the bourgeois urban language politics of the nineteenth-century Galician elite class, depends on the coöptation and subjugation of Rusin linguistic and social forms to a ‘Ukrainian’ template. This, in spite of the fact that some of the White Croats, the ancestors of the Lemko Rusin people according to historian Dr Simeon Pyzh, have been Orthodox for longer than the Ukrainians or the Russians have, being part of the original mission of Saints Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs in the Kingdom of Great Moravia. These Rusins, indeed, were the ones who sent priests to baptise Saint Vladimir and the Rus’.

The Ukrainian nation and identity is currently under no existential threat; no, not even from Russia. But they themselves pose a grave threat to a brave and noble people of the Carpathian Mountains. A people who were never very wealthy, but rich in ancient tradition and always made to feel keenly aware of their own distinctiveness (often by their very poverty). The Rusin people deserve far better than their current abuse at the hands of the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian junta now.

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 7: bodies, chains, sets and means


So I recently finished reading the Timæus and Critias, and I’ve needed some time to digest them both because there’s a lot there that I’m sure that I just didn’t get. Moreover, I’m still bent on going back to the Avesta when I’m done with the Laws, because I really want to understand where Plato’s mythopœic sensibilities come from, and also to understand how radical they are when compared to other, more mainstream Classical Greek thinkers. I still think Aristotle was wrong about Persia, and Plato was – if not wholly right about Persia, then at least less wrong. Indeed, if we look at Plato’s placing of the myth of Atlantis into the mouth of Critias (who was one of the Thirty Tyrants of whose crimes Socrates was considered guilty-by-association), it becomes a little clearer (if it wasn’t already from the Funeral Oration) that Plato is not altogether a fan of the Athenian tendency to juxtapose its virtues against both Persia’s vices and her might.

But that’s very far from the most interesting or frustrating aspect of the Timæus, which at times reads like a tract on traditional Chinese medicine. The descriptions of the human body would find a number of places of agreement with the modern practitioners of TCM: the importance of the bodily fluids, the impact of the five (in Plato’s case, four) elements on each of the major organs, the hierarchical orientation of the parts of the body to each other. But the Timæus is not only a medical tract, just as TCM itself is not solely about medicine as it’s understood in the modern West. The Timæus presents us with a series of ‘pictures’ of the human being, going down to the level of the human being’s ‘constituent elements’ – or even past that, to the level of certain axiomatic geometric truths.

I still really don’t know what Plato was getting at here, and I fear to get something dangerously and egregiously wrong. So, if you’ll take the word of one such as me, struggling to get a clearer ‘picture’ myself and feeling at times a bit like a blind man groping around in the dark, it seems like Plato’s Timæus was putting forward, as I was saying above, a series of images of the human ‘form’ (with the full depth and range of meaning of the word implied): the idea that the human being is made up of irreducible constituent elements; the idea that the human being is a living biological unity of the elements and functions only when the organs retain a balance between the four (without excess or dearth); and then the idea that the human being also has a reasoning soul which abides within (but at the same time transcends) the material elements. I think this may be where we get the idea of a ‘chain of being’: each of the higher levels participates completely in the levels below it. It’s a mathematical set, in other words, which includes everything in the set beneath. And it’s only by a transcendental ‘effort’ (note how man is biologically-oriented to ‘face forward’, and the effort to overcome the gap between the matters of biology and the matters of the soul is likened to the effort needed to turn ourselves around physically!) that the lower levels are able to perceive or participate in the higher ones.

At any rate, I was discussing this Dialogue with another member of my church over coffee hour yesterday, and he directed me – wisely, I think – to examine the Timæus in reference to the Republic and especially the Phædrus. Each of the human ‘forms’ in the Timæus seems to correspond with one segment of Plato’s ‘divided line’ in the Republic, which corresponds in perfect ratio to the ones beneath it in the same way the Golden Mean (1 : 1.618) would do; and they also seem to correspond with the different elements present in Plato’s cave. Sense-impression has less reality than the object of that sense-impression; which in turn has less reality than the mathematical ‘solids’ from which they are composed and formed; which in turn have less reality than the form of the good.

Despite the presence in the Timæus of a demiurge, this is one of the reasons why I’m increasingly convinced that a ‘Gnostic’ reading of Plato doesn’t make much sense at all. Yes, Plato’s Socrates has us try to ‘forget the body’ temporarily, in the Republic – to get us to escape, momentarily, the biological demands of sex. He also has us try to ‘forget the body’ temporarily in the Phædo to reconcile us philosophically to the death of the body. But he is far from demanding of us that we ‘forget the body’ permanently! Even in the Phædrus, note, the virtuous philosophers who fall in love cannot escape the demands of the flesh; they merely understand the need to tame it, moderate it, harmonise the needs of belly and mating organs with the rede of head and heart. It’s worth noting also that in the Timæus the concern with sex (and at that, an ambiguous treatment) only comes about when the ‘picture’ of the human soul is presented.

Erōs, the divine madness, is indeed one of the few drives in the human spirit that can rightly ‘turn us around’ to an awareness of a higher ‘link’ in the chain of being. Or, alternatively, if left unharnessed, it can degrade us to the point where we’re no longer aware of anything in that chain, but instead ‘broken down’ past bestiality to our constituent triangles and atoms and elements. That’s one of the things that Socrates keeps bringing us back to in those three books, the Phædrus, the Symposium and the Republic. It’s the erotic drive in Glaucon that is seen to ‘save’ him from the fate of Gyges, but only by Socrates directing the desires of his soul toward something other than glamour, earthly splendour, mastery of others, libido dominandi, the ‘lust of the eyes and the pride of life’ (as the Gospel of Saint John would have it). We have to erotically desire ‘the good’ (justice, in Glaucon’s case) in order to really see it for what it is. And that is not an apology for licentiousness. It is instead a call to treat erōs with the care and respect it deserves, and to somehow aim the (natural, present) wants of the body toward higher things, whether through fasting or through some other discipline.

Talking about the Timæus with someone who actually understood what to look for and where the really meaningful references lay, did indeed help me sort out a couple of things about it. Even so, I am well aware that there’s a lot there I didn’t get on first read.

03 November 2017

From saint of science to Catholic convert


John Thomas Scopes

There are things that you end up learning every day. For example, yesterday I found out that John Scopes, the man who stood up to no less a figure than the mighty Great Commoner himself, William Jennings Bryan (and who in turn was defended by Bryan’s one-time Populist colleague Clarence Darrow) over the topic of evolution, was a convert to Catholicism, and stayed a Latin throughout his life – even having a Roman Catholic burial in Shreveport, Louisiana.

On inspection, it seems like Scopes made his decision for the same reason many fellows end up converting – to please his wife. Scopes remained an agnostic even after having been received into the Catholic Church – he converted only for love. In that he seems a foil for his Hollywood-fictionalised counterpart Bernard Cates of Inherit the Wind, who doesn’t compromise his convictions even though his fiancée pleads with him repeatedly to do so. Still, to my contrarian Tory-radical heart, the little factoid of Scopes’ Catholic conversion produced an altogether too-tempting, deliciously-poetic image of Scopes.

It struck me that a man caught in the middle of the storm between the hard-nosed roundhead bigotry and tea-totalling nativism of Bryan’s nascent fundamentalist-Protestant Religious Right on the one hand; and the cynical bloodless contempt, empty witticism and life-hating eugenicism of Darrow’s and Mencken’s élite high modernism on the other; would be tempted to break off the whole blasted debate. Indeed, that’s what Scopes did. He shunned the spotlight after the trial, hated the very idea of being made a carnival sideshow, refused to cash in on his fame and even burned a stack of his fan/hate mail, convinced that it wouldn’t contain anything valuable, and refused to talk with reporters about the trial afterward, mentioning it only to his immediate family, and only when they asked him first.

It struck me that it would have been well within his character to convert to a religion which both eschews anti-scientific pietism and which rejects an anti-human contempt for the common man – a religion which, moreover, positively invited the opprobrium of both the fundamentalist nativist Right and the cynical modernist sæcular Left. Personally, as an Orthodox Christian, the ‘plague o’ both your houses’ temptation is still a remarkably strong one for me on the ‘scientific issues’ of the day.

Sadly, though, for Scopes this was not the case. Scopes was thinking only of his dark-haired, brown-eyed South Carolinian belle: which, to be sure, is an altogether understandable reason as well. Probably, in the end, it’s nobler and healthier to be a gentleman and get married to one’s lady in the church of her choosing, then settle down out of sight to raise one’s family, than it is to insist on fighting Quixotic intellectual battles. In that, John Thomas Scopes, for all his stated agnosticism, may have been a better catholic Christian than I am.

01 November 2017

Vladyka Rastislav speaks


Metropolitan Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia has spoken on a wide array of topics recently, which I was delighted to see. Vladyka Rastislav was speaking nothing but the plain truth on most points, and the truth has its own power. He understands, and indeed sympathises, with the impulses that attracted so many Eastern Europeans to Communism in the first place. He does not condemn the people of the Balkans for their hopes for a better future. He does not condemn them for political leftism. He chastises them when it comes to their optimism, putting ‘trust in princes and sons of men, in whom there is no salvation’. Read it all the way to the end, gentle readers; it is quite good. But here are some of the most relevant and powerful pieces of his talk in Romania:
Before the revolution overthrew the old regime and Lenin became Russia’s new ruler, he tactically wrote that even the faithful might be the members of the Communist Party. However, as soon as they were able to seize the power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks issued a series of anti-church decrees in the spirit of wartime atheism. Patriarch Tikhon’s reaction was the anathema declaration over the Communist government. The local council of the Russian Orthodox Church, which took place in 1917, confirmed this anathema on Soviet power and government.

The Communists’ response was uncompromising and cruel. In one of the letters of the world proletariat leader, as Lenin was called, addressed to Felix Dzerzhinsky on May 1, 1919, we can read that it is necessary to “get done with the
pops (priests) and religion as soon as possible. The pops, as counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs, they must be arrested and shot with no mercy. The churches must be taken or changed into warehouses …” So, the “red terror” that had not been experienced by Christianity since the era of pagan Roman Emperors, was resurrected.

This other face of a progressive ideology that, for effect, had been striving for a just society and social equality, should have remained hidden from the eyes of the trustful people in the Red Army-liberated countries until the Communists get into power. That was exactly the case when Communism spread like plague to the countries of South Eastern and Central Europe, including Czechoslovakia.

The Red Army’s victory over another ideology of evil – Nazism – brought optimism to those who above all saw Communism as more just society and social equality.
Also, this. He pulls no punches with regard to the falsity of the Unia and their longstanding collaboration with oppressive right-wing dictatorial states, but he decries (as well he should) the unjust and counterproductive Soviet methods for coercing them back into the Orthodox fold:
Already in the times of Austro-Hungarian domination, national awakeners in Bohemia and Slovakia increasingly looked towards Russia and the Slavic part of the Balkans, especially to Serbia and Montenegro, where they sought the roots of their own identity. This fact led the Austro-Hungarian authorities to intensify the fight against Pan-Slavism, which de facto, meant against the Orthodox Church. Beginning with Ľudovít Štúr and Václav Hanka to Adolf Dobriansk and with the Marmaros-Sighet process to the execution of the priest-martyr Maxim Sandowicz, there has been only one way of cross – the path of desire for its own identity and the authentic Church.

The year 1918 and the constitution of Czechoslovakia brought much greater religious freedom, which helped consolidate Orthodoxy in Czechoslovakia. Already existing process of returning back to Orthodoxy, intensified by the movement in the United States and Canada among emigration, almost exclusively the former Uniates from the poorest regions of Eastern Slovakia, who began to return to the Orthodox Church, together with the return of the Orthodox Czechs from Volyn province and numerous Russian migrants after the Bolshevik Revolution greatly strengthened the position of Orthodoxy in Central Europe.

If we add to this a national revivalism among the Roman Catholics in Bohemia, which led to the creation of a so-called Czechoslovak Church, the part of the faithful of which later accepted the Orthodoxy, the prognosis of the development of the Orthodox Church in Bohemia and Slovakia were more than favourable. However, the Second World War came to an end, and the Orthodox Church in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was outlawed. Execution of St. Bishop-martyr Gorazd and his closest associates greatly weakened the position of Orthodoxy in Bohemia.

In Slovakia, where until 1948 the return of entire church parishes from the Union to the Orthodox Church in a natural and nonviolent manner, the communist state power in 1950 produced a so-called Presov´s Council, which “abolished” the Greek-Catholic Church and the former Uniates, regardless of their opinion, became “Orthodox” “during the night”. This irreparably damaged and stopped the naturally ongoing process and, at the same time, the firm foundations of the “feeling of injustice” and of the mutual hostility between the Greek Catholics and the Orthodox in the near future have been laid.
And, on the fact that communism is not the biggest problem or greatest spiritual hurdle facing Eastern European Orthodox Christians today. Instead, that stumbling-block is consumer capitalism and sæcular-democratic understandings of ‘freedom’:
Although the state secretaries disappeared from a church life, the new challenges and problems appeared with the restoration of freedom, for which were not ready, in particular, those born earlier. The doors of the schools and institutions, prisons and barracks, hospitals, and other institutions were reopened for the Church and the priests. It seemed that the newly acquired freedom was a cure-all for all the difficulties and problems. It turned out, however, that a more responsible challenge and a more complex test than persecution was presented into the church life.

Nowadays, many people understand the freedom of man absolutely differently from the Christian understanding. It is no longer the moral choice freedom and the ideal that lies in the keeping of the clear and unambiguous moral standards. Falsely understood freedom – liberalism, in which all is allowed now, I dare to say, is a greater challenge for Christianity than Communism was.

Consumerism – this is the reality of today. And only God knows what regulations will be set in some decades by the children who grow up today in incomplete or broken families and whose conscience is shaped by very individual, if any, moral principles.

Beautiful echoes of a ruined empire

I am currently listening to the Seven Melodies of Minyak 《木雅七韵》 a folk album by Dogi Balmo 多吉巴姆, an album which has an amazing and beautiful backstory which I was reading on China Daily.

The story of how the album got made, linked above, is strange and beautiful enough: the fact that a student of music in Sichuan would find herself befriending a performer who is one of the few surviving speakers of the Qiangic Minyak 弭藥 (or Muya 木雅) language on earth. And the fact that the album they produced together would spur genuine attempts at linguistic conservation on the part of the government. But even more bizarre, twistedly beautiful and tragic is the history of the Minyak themselves - kissing cousins to the Tibetans who are in the PRC’s ethnic schema classified either as Tibetans 藏 or as Qiang 羌 people. Tradition has it that they are among the few living descendants of the Tanguts.

And who are the Tanguts, you ask?

Originally, the Tanguts, belonging to the historical Qiang people, were invited by the Tang court to act as a buffer state between China and the Tibetan Empire. But between the 800’s and the 1200’s, they became a major, major headache for the Tang Dynasty (after the Rebellion of An Shi) and the following Song Dynasty. Traditionally herders, they forged an empire - the Empire of Western Xia - in what are now Gansu Province and Ningxia Autonomous Region, along with the southwest parts of Inner Mongolia going up to the Ordos Loop.

Despite their situation on a rich overland trade route (the Hexi Corridor of the Silk Road), they held to their traditional customs. The western half of their Empire was nomadic and pastoralist, while the eastern half, consisting of Han Chinese as well as Tanguts and lying on the fertile loess plateau of the Yellow River, was agrarian. They had advanced techniques for smelting iron - a necessity when situated between two very hostile states (the Khitans and the Song Chinese). They developed their own writing system, which they used primarily to translate Buddhist sūttas and the Chinese Classics into their own language.

An independent kingdom which, like many of its type, performed a delicate diplomatic balancing act to stay afloat, they basically managed to thumb their collective noses at everybody in Central Asia until Genghis Khan arrived on the scene. Even then, they refused to cooperate with Genghis Khan’s conquests - and they paid dearly for their hard-fought resistance to conquest. Their capital at Xingqing (now Yinchuan in Ningxia) was razed to the ground in 1227 and all of its inhabitants slaughtered by the marauding Mongols.

The Tangut Empire’s post-apocalyptic survivors fled south into Henan, Hebei, Tibet and Sichuan, where most of them were absorbed either into the Han Chinese or the Tibetan populace, with a few lonely holdouts lasting until the middle of the Ming Dynasty. The Minyak, who are mostly located in Kangding County in Sichuan, are thought to be one of the last surviving pockets of these hardscrabble survivors, and they have long been in danger of being culturally assimilated - by the Tibetans. I know that might be a bit hard to believe given the prevailing Western political narrative around Tibet, but the Tibetan culture is actually remarkably healthy.

The living knowledge of the Tangut script has been lost to time, so asking the Minyak people to go back to using that would be not quite as bad as, but something akin to, asking the modern Greeks to go back to using Linear B. Yang Hua’s idea of compiling a Chinese-Minyak audio dictionary as a way of helping to preserve the unwritten language is an intriguing one, though.

Again, this is completely fascinating stuff to me. Here is one of the songs from the Seven Melodies: enjoy! And very many thanks to my friend Xu Minghuan for helping me track down this album so I could hear the whole thing.

30 October 2017

The Southern Sea, Africa and Wei Yuan’s realism


Wei Yuan 魏源

I recently posted about Gong Zizhen 龚自珍 and intepreted him as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ in parallel with the Slavophils, up to and including his use of classical Confucianism to attack Qing corruption, materialism and concentration of power in his own day. I mentioned his colleague and fellow New Text scholar Wei Yuan 魏源 as a kindred spirit, and was motivated to read a brief biography and monograph of his work by Jane Kate Leonard. It turns out, he was one of the first people to understand the threat of Western capitalism and imperialism, and move to oppose it using China’s store of traditional wisdom.

Wei Yuan was very much a Confucian; he believed that the relationships between states should be governed not by vertical power relations nor by free-for-all trade, but instead by a harmonious, if slightly hierarchical, system of mutual security and tribute arrangements. In this, he deliberately cast back to the policies of the Ming Dynasty, and indeed consciously stood within the stream of reformist and statecraft-oriented thought that characterised the Ming Dynasty’s Donglin movement 东林党. But he was the first to use these insights in an analysis of the West and the threat of a very different world order that it represented, particularly in the wake of the Opium War (in which, on account of his close personal friendship with Commissioner Lin Zexu 林则徐, he took a strong personal interest). In his Illustrated Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms 《海国图志》, Wei Yuan treated the subject of colonialism at length, in what turned from a study on the Southern Sea trading kingdoms into a much broader, politically-oriented project.

Wei Yuan had a profound, and profoundly realistic, view of the geopolitical landscape of his time. He understood the trade rivalries between France, Britain and the US. He understood in the broad strokes how they were able to project power abroad, and how they used their power projection to promote corporate-capitalist commerce (backing up trading company ‘rights’ with the military force of their navies). He elucidated for a Chinese audience the nature of the ‘fortified-port system’ by which French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British navies could project hard power, even halfway across the world, to enforce their mercantilist goals. He also displayed, on this question, an altogether classically-Confucian aversion to the use of state power to back up private interests merely for the sake of profit. (In Wei’s view, Chinese trade in the Southern Sea was not only unfavoured by Chinese naval power, but entirely ignored – the Manchus had been forced by political expediency to turn a blind eye to the junk trade unless it involved piracy and land raids.) And he could be remarkably sensitive to the injustices perpetrated on other peoples by the pursuit of ‘free trade’ on the part of Western powers.

In Wei’s treatment of Africa, for example, he noticed how the ‘fortified-port system’ was used to enslave the inhabitants and drain the African coastline of its material wealth. ‘English and Dutch soldiers guard [the African coastline],’ Wei wrote. ‘They have taken the seaports for bases. They have built fortresses and markets, and the natives are used as slave labour.’ To this Leonard adds:
This passage contains Wei’s view of Western expansion, its commercial orientation, its application of force, its systematic exploitation of indigenous peoples, and its reliance on strategically located ports to maintain and protect lines of communication and trade. The same pattern reëmerges in Wei’s description of the rest of the network linking Europe and Southeast Asia.
In short, Wei’s attitude toward sub-Saharan Africa was one of humane (as in ren 仁) sympathy and solidarity. He betrayed no hint of the racism toward Africans that even some of the radical thinkers in his own school would, unfortunately, later harbour. The coastal black Africans may have been ‘barbarians’, but they were people all the same, and the radical implication of his geographical treatment of the African coastline was that their fate was intrinsically linked up with China’s. (This is an insight which, perhaps indirectly, the modern Chinese government has taken keenly to heart.) His message to the leaders and literati of the Qing was markedly not one of complacency; it was to the effect that ‘if exploitation and slavery could happen to the Africans through this system imposed by the West, it can happen to us – and it already is’. Despite the fact that, as Leonard convincingly argues, Wei is working out of a traditional Ming Confucian mindset regarding a hierarchical and harmonious tributary system, his insights lend themselves to an almost Wallersteinian sensibility regarding the workings of global capitalism.

Leonard is not uncritical of Wei’s remedies. In her view, Wei had an overly-confident view of China’s ability, in a rapidly-changing geopolitical environment, to reassert the traditional tributary system (however truly functional it was before his own time) and manipulate the Chinese ‘near abroad’ into action against particularly British encroachment. But she nonetheless has a keen appreciation for the subtlety and depth of Wei’s grasp of Western realpolitik given the paucity of the translated sources he had to hand. Interestingly, whereas Gong Zizhen saw Russia as a threat to China, his younger colleague and close friend Wei Yuan understood Russia (along with Nepal, Burma, Vietnam and Thailand) to be a natural geopolitical ally against powers further West: both on account of its long relationship as a frenemy of the Qing Dynasty, and also on account of the fact of its rivalry with Britain in ‘the Great Game’.

Another fascinating figure in the Chinese New Text tradition, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect. Though not nearly as pugnacious (and not nearly as given to jeremiads against the reigning order, foot-binding, opium-smoking, greed, corruption or inequality) as his elder comrade, his realism, his Third World solidarity with Africa and the victims of the Middle Passage, his advocacy for harmonious relations in the South China Sea and his (albeit mild and conditional) Russophilia endear him to me greatly. Wei Yuan is certainly someone to pay more attention to, particularly as each of his interests (up to and including the Chinese interest in Africa) has, again, become timely.

25 October 2017

A lover, not a fighter


Zhuo Wenjun 卓文君 listens to Sima Xiangru 司马相如 playing the zither

One name that came up a couple of times in the Yantielun 《鹽鐵論》 as I was reading it, once in approval and once in decided disapproval, was a rather familiar one. This official, on the good side, remonstrated with the Emperor Han Wu Di 漢武帝 against hunting in pleasure-parks. On the bad side, he opened up the Sichuan frontier with the construction of a road against the wishes of the local elders, and (according to the Literati) provoked conflicts between the Han Chinese and the ‘southwestern barbarians’ the Qiong 邛 and the Ze 筰. This official was also the single definitive poet in the fu 賦 form, and has been romanticised in modern times as a man who, unlike the vast, vast majority of his contemporaries, married for love rather than for material considerations, as recounted in the tale The Phœnix Seeks a Mate 《鳳求凰》. This official’s name was Sima Xiangru 司馬相如.

Sima Xiangru, apparently no relation to the Grand Historian, was born in Sichuan to a notable family, and nursed high ambitions for himself – after reading about the exploits of Lin Xiangru 藺相如, a minister for Zhao during the Warring States period, he took Lin’s personal name as his own. He travelled to the capital and made his living (grudgingly, it seems) as a low-ranking guard for some time under Emperor Jing 漢景帝, before Prince Xiao of Liang 梁孝王, a noted lover of poetry, took notice of the young man’s literary talents and invited him to his regional court, where Sima devoted his time to composition and developing the fu as his favoured literary form.

Sima Xiangru returned home only to find that his father had died, his mother was ill, his family’s wealth had evaporated, and only one loyal retainer remained with the family. Dispirited, Xiangru entered the service of the Magistrate Wang Ji 王吉 of Linqiong 臨邛 in what is now central Sichuan (the city of Qionglai 四川邛崍市), who planned to set Xiangru up with the recently-widowed daughter of a wealthy local iron trader named Zhuo Wangsun 卓王孫. According to the story, Xiangru was invited by Wang to Zhuo’s home, and, after having a few drinks, was prevailed upon to begin playing the zither for the assembled company. Zhuo’s daughter Wenjun 卓文君 was listening from outside the room, and was so enraptured by Sima Xiangru’s music that she peeked out and saw him, falling in love with him at first sight. Her father, however, had planned her remarriage to another local worthy. Enlisting the help of her older brother and Magistrate Wang, she fled her father’s house and eloped with Sima Xiangru. (It can’t be stressed enough how big a ‘no-no’ this was in the context of contemporary morals. Xu Fei stresses that her elopement with Sima Xiangru was ‘a rejection of the morality of the time’ and ‘an unpardonably wanton act’, and that ‘their actions embodied a search for love in the truest sense’.)

Her father having thereupon disowned her, the couple were incredibly poor to begin with. Eventually the couple resorted to opening a wine shop, the Rujun Tavern, in Linqiong, which ultimately had the effect of shaming Zhuo Wangsun into recognising their marriage. Meanwhile, in the Han capital – so the story goes – the new emperor Wu Di managed to pick up a copy of Sima Xiangru’s ‘Fu on Sir Vacuous’ 《子虛賦》, and exclaimed on reading it: ‘Why am I not privileged to be this man’s contemporary?’

The keeper of the Emperor’s dogs, Yang Deyi 楊得意, who was a childhood friend and rival of Sima Xiangru, heard this outburst and told the Emperor who had written the poem. Han Wu Di immediately summoned Sima to his court and asked him to compose a new poem, which turned out to be the famous ‘Fu on Shanglin’ 《上林賦》. Sima Xiangru was not a fan of Han Wu Di’s pleasure-seeking excursions and hunts, which he believed had a bad impact on the common people; he remonstrated with the Emperor about the subject. The Emperor, though displeased with Sima to begin with, eventually took his admonitions to heart and reduced his hunting trips accordingly.

Sima Xiangru had attained to his childhood ambitions, but his wife missed him dearly. Once again she took it on herself to set out alone and seek him out in the capital. Once there, she got a cold reception from him, and saw him noticing other women. Afraid of losing him, she at once penned the ‘White-Haired Lament’ 《白頭吟》. Xu Fei’s version of The Phœnix Seeks a Mate shows Sima Xiangru repenting of his neglect for his wife upon hearing the ‘Lament’, and indeed coming to a stronger appreciation of both his wife’s devotion and her literary virtues. This is in accord with both the Book of Han written by Ban Gu and Ban Zhao, and also the Records of the Grand Historian, which describe Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun as living happily as a couple well into their old age.

Eventually, Sima Xiangru sort-of retired with his wife to a secluded estate at Maoling near the capital, though he continued to write poetry and attend court from time to time. Though an accomplished poet and not one without a sense of public conscience, he had little stomach for court intrigues, which wore down on him. He also suffered from a chronic ailment which was probably diabetes. Despite his repeated remonstrations against hunting, he was certainly not an activist poet, which caused some consternation among his later artistic admirers. He was popular within the Old Text school – both Yang Xiong 楊雄 and Ban Gu 班固 were admirers of his style – but they both upbraided him for not taking an active interest in the contemporary disputes over politics or philology. Sima Xiangru was, to the end, a lover rather than a fighter.

At any rate, an interesting figure from a troubled and intellectually tumultuous time – and remarkable for his rather unorthodox love life. Little wonder later generations of Chinese literati, particularly those in the late Qing and after, would make Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun out to be a romantic hero and heroine.

Salt and irony


Huan Kuan 桓寬

Time to revisit an old hobby-horse of mine: explaining why the entire concept of ‘Confucian capitalism’ is basically anachronistic bunk peddled by Westerners and West-friendly neo-Confucians in the mid-’90’s as a way of reconciling the Sage with his critic Max Weber (as if such a thing were necessary, let alone desirable).

First of all, it appears I owe an apology to Huan Kuan 桓寬. I took Long’s characterisation of Huan Kuan’s Discourses on Salt and Iron (Yantielun 《鹽鐵論》) at face value and didn’t look at the source myself. That’s a terrible ‘my bad’. The first nineteen chapters of the source text are available both in Chinese and in its partial English translation here. If we were to go by the scanty treatment of the Yantielun offered by Long, we would conclude – erroneously – that the discourse was primarily for the sake of arguing against price controls and proliferation of laws. That’s a fact so partial (and so partizan) as to obscure the entire meaning of the text.

The text itself takes the form of an argument between the ‘Literati’ (wenxue 文學) and the ‘Lord Grand Secretary’ Sang Hongyang 桑弘羊, who represented (roughly) the Legalist tradition, over a broad variety of topics ranging from the state-run salt and iron monopolies, monetisation and warfare to general governance policies. This debate takes place in the wake of the rule of Han Wu Di 漢武帝, who implemented a number of these Legalist policies; the Regent who succeeded him put these policies up for review and invited critiques from the Literati and defences from the Legalists led by Sang Hongyang. It is worth noting that neither side argues that the government should stay out of the œconomy altogether. The Literati themselves are emphatic about the proper rôle of government as being moralistic:
文學對曰:「竊聞治人之道,防淫佚之原,廣道德之端,抑末利而開仁義,毋示以利,然後教化可興,而風俗可移也。」

The Literati responded as follows: It is our humble opinion that the principle of ruling men lies in nipping in the bud wantonness and frivolity, in extending wide the elementals of virtue, in discouraging mercantile pursuits, and in displaying benevolence and righteousness. Let lucre never be paraded before the eyes of the people; only then will enlightenment flourish and folkways improve.
This is emphatically not ‘laisser-faire’ as we’re used to thinking of it – certainly it is not the wonted mode of argumentation among the Austrians. Little wonder Long only included one brief and partial quote from the Yantielun. Looking through the Yantielun, one will start to see a very different pattern of œconomic thinking begin to emerge. Indeed, the very opening statement of the Literati’s ‘basic argument’ (benyi 本議) states that the rulers do have some very specific and very active duties in governance that extend well beyond the Daoist idea of wuwei 無為. And not only that, the Literati state from the outset in this disputation with the Legalist Sang Hongyang that one of the duties of government is to ‘discourage mercantile pursuits’ and to prevent the ‘parade’ of ‘lucre’ before the eyes of the people.

Looking further down, the objection the Literati had to these monopolies is that ‘the Government has entered into financial competition with the people’ (yu min zheng li 「與民爭利」), and as a result, ‘few among our people take up the fundamental pursuits of life, while many flock to the non-essential’ (「百姓就本者寡,趨末者眾」). Immediately this is clarified. The Literati wished that ‘rural pursuits may be encouraged, [and] people be deterred from entering the secondary occupations, [so that] national agriculture be materially and financially benefitted’ (「進本退末,廣利農業,便也」). The Literati – the proto-Confucians – had a much more interesting argument here than is being portrayed in the ideological post-Weberian literature! It was not so much government interference on the whole that they object to. It’s that they objected to profiteering and rent-seeking behaviour on the part of private actors in collaboration with the government. This lent the Literati in the Yantielun a stance in opposition both to government monopolies, and to the speculative and rent-seeking private interests which benefit from the government’s actions. They sounded, not so much ‘laisser-faire’, but suspiciously distributist or even syndicalist. The Literati could be remarkably localist in their sympathies, as here in ‘Hindrance to Farming’ 《禁耕》:
「夫秦、楚、燕、齊,土力不同,剛柔異勢,巨小之用,居句之宜,黨殊俗易,各有所便。縣官籠而一之,則鐵器失其宜,而農民失其便。器用不便,則農夫罷於野而草萊不辟。草萊不辟,則民困乏。」

Now in Qin, Chu, Yan and Qi the quality of the soil differs. There is variety in the methods of cultivation of heavy and light soils. The use of large or small, the suitability of straight or curved ploughs, are different according to districts and customs. Each has its convenient use. But when the magistrates establish monopolies and standardise, then iron implements lose their suitability, and the farming population loses their convenient use. When the tools are not suited to their use, the farmer is exhausted in the fields, and grass and weeds are not kept down. When the grass and weeds cannot be kept down, then the people are wearied to the point of despair.
However, this is not an argument against government per se. On the subject of currency, the Yantielun has a remarkably nuanced view given the technical constraints of the time. The Legalists and the Literati were in agreement that currency needed to be regulated: the question was how. Sang Hongyang favoured a system whereby the money supply was constrained by an official centralised minting policy. The Literati recognised the problem but were not so concerned with the existence of independent moneyers and mints. The Literati perceived, astutely, that anything, even tortoise shells and cowries (or even bits of paper? naaah), could be used as a medium of exchange, regardless of scarcity, as long as it was backed by law. The problem of undervalued and counterfeit currency could be solved, therefore, not by limiting the money supply, but instead by ‘proper laws [against] coining bad money’ (「偽金錢以有法 」): that is to say, by indirectly regulating interest rates.

The Yantielun indeed provides ample evidence of an anti-capitalist slant to the argumentation of the Literati. In the chapter ‘Hold Fast the Plough’ 《力耕》, after citing a ‘utopian’ view that the ancients traded sparingly, out of necessity and only with the essentials of life in mind, the Literati drop these two strident and unequivocal bombshells: ‘Trade promotes dishonesty. Artisans provoke disputes.’ (「商則長詐, 工則飾罵。」) They launch into a diatribe against the ‘secondary occupations’ which convicts them of avarice and greed, and go on to accuse the foreign trade of draining wealth from the interior and from common people in pursuit of luxury goods, in what amounts to a stunningly protectionist argument – in opposition to Sang Hongyang’s argument that the Xiongnu can be impoverished and the Han strengthened through the foreign trade. Instead, the Literati promote the communal well-field system 井田 as a means for redistributing land to encourage productive agriculture. That’s not all – for the Literati, the institution of profit caps is one of the duties of a true and righteous King. Here is what the Literati have to say on the subject in the chapter ‘Circulation of Goods’ 《通有》:
「故王者禁溢利,節漏費。溢利禁則反本,漏費節則民用給。是以生無乏資,死無轉尸也。」

Hence the true King would prohibit excessive profits, and cut off unnecessary expenses. When undue gain is prohibited, people return to the fundamental. When unnecessary expenses are cut off, people have enough to spend. Hence people will not suffer from want while alive, nor from exposure of their corpses when dead.
Interestingly, the Literati of the Yantielun are quite aware of the charges of hypocrisy that might be laid at their door for this stand. Indeed, Sang Hongyang hurls the example of Zigong (who became a merchant) at the Literati in ‘The Poor and the Rich’ 《貧富》 . In response, the Literati go so far as to (mildly) criticise Zigong for engaging in commerce, but hold him up also to demonstrate how much further the rentier class have fallen even from his example by abusing their offices:
「子貢以布衣致之,而孔子非之,況以勢位求之者乎?」

[Zigong] secured wealth in the capacity of a common citizen; yet Confucius disapproved of him. How much more would he frown on him who does it through his position and rank!
Tellingly, the Grand Historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 – who, as Long does correctly note at length, is highly favourable to trade in all forms – is cited only by the Legalist in this discussion, Sang Hongyang, and at that in deferential tones as Master Sima 司馬子. The purpose of this quotation is to further accuse the Literati of hypocrisy in criticising the profit motive, which Sima Qian held to be universal and natural (much to the chagrin of the siblings Ban). Sang Hongyang even indirectly cites the Analects (「富貴者士之期也。」) as a way of doubling down on this accusation of hypocrisy. But it’s interesting indeed that Huan Kuan makes reference to the Grand Historian only here, as if (like the Bans later) he wishes to make an indirect criticism of Sima’s views by associating them with Legalism.

On that note: the Yantielun is actually one of the rare examples of discourse in post-classical China where the Legalists and the Literati (proto-Confucians) are seen to dispute with each other on relatively equal terms. Yet here, we see that the Legalists are the ones who favour trade (albeit under strict regulation), whereas the Literati themselves speak of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary occupations’ in a manner similar to the ‘city of utmost necessity’ in Plato’s Republic. This distinction between ‘primary’ agriculture and ‘secondary’ commerce and craftsmanship goes on to prefigure, and undoubtedly influence in a more direct way, the hierarchical ordering of the Four Occupations in the Book of Han. The proto-Confucian hierarchical ordering of the occupations is in contradistinction to the Legalist mode of thought, which disparages agriculture but praises pursuits which build power and wealth.

Touching briefly on Huan Kuan’s attitude to war with the Xiongnu – it’s enough to quote directly from the ‘Basic Argument’:
「古者,貴以德而賤用兵。孔子曰:『遠人不服,則修文德以來之。既來之,則安之。』今廢道德而任兵革,興師而伐之,屯戍而備之,暴兵露師,以支久長,轉輸糧食無已,使邊境之士饑寒於外,百姓勞苦於內。」

The ancients held in honour virtuous methods and discredited resort to arms. Thus Confucius said: If remoter people are not submissive, all the influences of civil culture and virtue are to be cultivated to attract them to be so; and when they have been so attracted, they must be made contented and tranquil? Now these virtuous principles are discarded and reliance put on military force; troops are raised to attack the enemy and garrisons are stationed to make ready for him. It is the long drawn-out service of our troops in the field and the ceaseless transportation for the needs of the commissariat that cause our soldiers on the marches to suffer from hunger and cold abroad, while the common people are burdened with labour at home.
Looking at the Yantielun as a whole, then, it becomes clear that the Literati of the Han Dynasty – including the Yantielun’s transcriber and compiler Huan Kuan, who belonged to the same ‘institutional’ Gongyang tradition that Dong Zhongshu did – were still wrangling against the not-so-distant legacy of Qin Legalism at the same time as they were advocating for more agriculture-friendly and poor-friendly policies in government.