Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Yushu Earthquake Donation: Compassion or Tyranny?

An email from China, received today:

[in translation]

This morning I routinely turned on the TV, and was startled to see every channel broadcasting only CCTV1's news program. At first I thought my TV was broken, then I suddenly remembered today is the "national mourning day" for the Yushu earthquake, and all entertainment activities must be suspended.

The government seems more formalistic than ever. Mourning is a natural mood from one's heart, what has it to do with enforcement?  Why must they make good taste go bad?   Every channel broadcasts only one thing; every person before the camera passionately agitates "transform sorrow into strength, tomorrow will be better!" Such a rolling-broadcast every 30 minutes is capable of causing you a nervous breakdown.

Now it is already 9 pm. I turn on the TV again; every channel still has the same picture and the same language. This is probably something that can only be achieved by China's and North Korea's governments. 

A few days ago a public servant friend said that, for the Wenchuan earthquake last time, at least the employees had been "mobilized" to donate; this time they simply had our salaries docked. The boss hypocritically notified everyone: Whoever doesn't wish to donate, come talk to me in my office. Who dares to go to his office and say "I'm not willing to donate"? Unless one doesn't wish to live!

For the previous Wenchuan earthquake, my friend S donated 1000 yuan voluntarily. This time 100 yuan was directly docked from his salary. He said it didn't feel like he donated, it felt like he was being robbed.

Nowadays the earth environment is so poor, if there are a few more tsunami or earthquakes or floods or droughts a year, wouldn't one's salary "be donated" completely?

Of course a work unit docking employees' salary is because they have no alternative; a red-title official document has come from above. It assigns a quota of donation, and each work unit has to deliver the money to above for aggregation, so that the CCTV can claim "the whole nation unites like one heart, the unity constructs an insurmountable wall, and so far people have actively donated this many billions. It fully demonstrates our fine tradition that all ethnicities are as dear as one family, and one place's disaster receives aid from eight sides," et cetera. 

There are also articles in newspaper ridiculing this "be donated" thing. China has so many natural disasters; when problems occur, isn't it the government's responsibility to solve them? Whether people donate or not, is their own business. Since when does it become a quota?  This has nothing to do with consciousness or compassion; it is simply procedural tyranny.

There are also enterprises that turn donations to an advertising expense. In a charity performance, a man from a company holds a big check and grins like an idiot before the camera. The program host hawks with full gusto, So-and-so gives a hundred million! Wow a hundred million! A man from another company is not willing to concede and jumps up, I give two hundred million! The program host shouts madly, So-and-so's offer goes up to two hundred million! If you didn't know you'd thought it was a field auction.

This recalls a story of an old neighbor of mine. The old man in his eighties was half paralyzed. He had the habit to sit at his door listening to the radio. He only listened to Kunqu opera, and he always turned the volume to its highest. It drove his neighbors crazy. But because he was old and ill, the neighbors couldn't bring themselves to complain. Only his young grandson grumbled whenever coming home from school, "The noise is killing me!" The old man pretended he didn't hear. Then one afternoon, as the old man generated the high-frequency noise as usual, the young boy returned home again. He charged to his grandfather with a loud shout, "Wenchuan earthquaked! You are still listening?" The boy then righteously switched off the radio. The old man was at a loss. The boy covered his mouth and ran away.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ba Manzi's Tomb

It was reported that, early this month, the Ba Manzi Tomb in Chongqing was reopened to the public ("for free"), after being closed for more than a decade.  This news bears certain intimacy to me because, I suspect, Ba Manzi's blood once steeped deep in my mother's veins.

During China's Warring State Period (475-221BC), Ba Manzi was a general commanding the Ba Kingdom's army. This small kingdom was caught in a civil strife that its tiny army was unable to quell. Manzi turned for help to Chu, a much bigger neighboring kingdom, and offered Chu three towns to restore order. Chu’s army came to Ba and quelled the internecine war, at which point Chu’s king sent an envoy to receive the three promised towns. Manzi said to the envoy, “My head may be given, our land may not. Because I can’t give you our land, to keep my promise I’ll give you my head.” He drew out his sword and cut off his own head. All were shocked. The envoy brought Ba Manzi’s head back to the King of Chu. The king was so moved that he held a grand burial for the head, while the Kingdom of Ba gave an equally grand burial to the body. The three towns of Ba stayed intact.

Thus Ba Manzi's head and body were buried in separate locations. However, Huayang Guozhi (《华阳国志》), the ancient book that recorded the story, does not say exactly where. Experts say the Ba Manzi Tomb in Chongqing does not contain his remains; it could contain just clothing, or could be empty. Why such an empty tomb is in Chongqing, who built it and when, is one of numerous puzzles in China's history.

My mother shares the hometown, now the Zhong County (忠县), with Ba Manzi. The place, a few hundred miles downstream from Chongqing, was the ancestral land of the Ba tribe that mysteriously vanished some two thousand years ago. It was an improbable chance of literacy that brought my mother, the daughter and only surviving child of poor peasants, to learn the story of Ba Manzi at age thirteen. For two thousand years until the 1949 liberation, in each spring, on the third day of the third moon of the Old Calendar, Zhong County held a grand temple fair called “third moon festival” to commemorate Ba Manzi.  As a middle school student in the early 1940s, my mother danced and sang and paraded in each year’s “third moon festive." Since then, Ba Manzi's patriotic, self-sacrificing heroism has never lost its vitality for her. I suspect her drive to join the underground Communists before the liberation and risk her life for a cause that later proved vain, that brought her life-long pain, had something to do with Ba Manzi's spirit. On the other hand, her illiterate mother, my grandma who we called Gaga, who knew nothing of heroes beyond cats, water buffaloes and mythical rhinoceroses, lived a relatively more contented life of 95 years. Gaga was born in the same year as Mao – 1893, but out-lived Mao for a full cycle of twelve Earthly Branch years.

My mother is sure that her ancestors were native Zhong County inhabitants ever since Pangu separated the sky and earth from chaos, because in her youth she had read her family genealogical chart. "It contains eight generations of my ancestors, all in Gingko Bay village," she once told me. When the Chinese say "eight generations," it does not mean eight; it means all. If this is the case, then I'm fairly confident my mother is a descendant of the Ba tribe, the valiant, dance-love ancients who forged bronze swords along the Yangtze and buried their dead in boat-coffins hanging on high cliffs above the gorges.

In February 2009, I revisited the Ba Manzi Tomb in Chongqing. It had become a forgotten, dilapidated, dark basement of the commercial world. Though its name was on the tourist map, few residents along the street knew about its exact location, and I had to ask many people to eventually find its obscured entrance. Down a flight of wide stone steps piled with furniture supplies, the tomb front had turned into an unauthorized storage room for a retail store. Another, fancier furniture store sat on top of the tomb. I asked a store worker if he worried about the government's punishment for occupying the site of a cultural relic, he said no, during the several years he worked next door to the tomb, he had seen occasional tourists, even foreigners, but no government people. That's why they had unscrupulously piled their furniture supplies, blocking the sight of it.


The Ba Manzi Tomb in Chongqing (February 2009)

in front of the tomb (Feb. 2009)

on the tomb's top (Feb. 2009)

Now, why did the Chongqing government suddenly remember it? Is it because Bo Xilai needed another teachable instrument for heroism and patriotism?

That's beyond me at this moment, as I'm fascinated by something else: it just occurred to me that my father's lineage has an almost opposite nature, almost anti-heroism, from that of my mother's.

The Chinese say marriage is the combination of yin and yang, in which the woman possesses the softness of yin and the man the power of yang.  In my upbringing, however, it had always seemed to us children that our mother was the yang element. This is to say, while we grew up, the family's roof had been pillared by our mother, not father. I wonder if my father's soft personality has to do with his ancient heritage.

Next time I'll tell you the fascinating story of my father's ancestry, one that he himself might not be aware of. 



Tuesday, April 13, 2010

New Photos of Covered Bridges in Taishun

A reader, Steve, recently left a comment under my post Dream Left on Covered Bridges 廊桥遗梦:
I spent a week in Taishun County during the Chinese New Year. You can see my photo's here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/byrnzie28/sets/72157623306936489/
Those are beautiful photos! Go take a look.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Han Han and Time's 100 Competition

Best on-line fun of the month: watching Han Han's climbing rank in Time's list of the "100 most influential people in the world" nominees. When I first noticed it, Han Han was 12th; two days ago he was 7th; today 5th.

Meanwhile in China, the People’s Daily website, people.com.cn, reported this news with the headline "Han Han Included in World’s Influential People: Time Magazine Deeply Nearsighted?" In addition to the negative angle shown in the headline, the site holds two "small polls" (I've included the results so far):

  1. "Do you like Han Han? Why?"
Like him because of his blog and books (64%)
Like him because of his intelligent and seasoned personality (13.4%)
Like him because of his unusual personal experience and appearance (4.6%)
Don't like this person (14.6%)
Can’t say clearly (3.3%)

  1. "Do you think Han Han can represent China?"
Absolutely can't represent (34.4%)
Can only partially represent (58.8%)
Unclear (6.8%)

While the first question is sort of interesting, the second is a complete hack. First of all, Time's competition is not for the "most representative" people of a country. Second, the poll asks a positive question, then positions the most negative answer at the top. Further, such muddling of the issue of "representing a country" shows an inability to distinguish the identity of a person from that of a country; apparently the communist tradition of mixing the two still occupies some minds.  

Also strange is that, since the poll includes the extreme option "absolutely can't," shouldn’t it also include the other extreme "absolutely can" for completeness and symmetry? Plus, the word "only" in "Can only partially represent" is redundant unless its intention is to emphasize the negative biases against Han Han. If a poll is set to be biased, is it really a poll?

All that said, I'm not completely sure such negativity was the editors' true intention. It could also be a strategy. As far as I can see, since this report from people.com, Han Han's votes on Time.com have increased rapidly. The poll results on people.com also show that public opinion strongly opposes the editors' negative diction. So the question boils down to whether the editors there are smarter or stupider than we think: It is certainly a clever thing to do if they made the report and polls appear negative in order to pass censoring, while expecting the public to react differently. Otherwise, the unintended results have made fools of them.

Another article I found entertaining: "Han Han is hardly a hero of our times" from ShanghaiDaily.com (h/t ESWN). I thought the aim of a commentary should be to convince. Failing that, at least one should avoid contradicting oneself, right? Now hear this: "It strikes me as naive that being critical of the Chinese government should be the major, if not sole, criterion for making Time’s list..." Didn’t he see the Chinese government officials Bo Xilai and Wang Qishan on the same list? What is “the major, if not sole criterion” for them to make the list then?

While I do view Han Han as "a hero of our times," such a view is subjective and not a basis for meaningful argument. The commentary’s author, however, confuses the more measurable concept of "influential" with the largely subjective notion of "heroic,"  and his criticism of Time's "wrong" choice might have stemmed from another typical communist principle of "one standard for all." Well, Time is not a communist magazine that takes setting heroic examples as its mandate; as such applying a "hero" selection standard to its influential people list is like "donkey lips not matching horse jaws," as we Chinese like to say. "Influential" is not a moral term. There is nothing in the definition of "influential" that excludes a person whose influence is viewed as "good" by some and "bad" by others. The fact that Time's list has Chinese government officials Bo and Wang sharing space with Han Han (who's critical of the government) and an imprisoned dissident, Liu Xiaobo, certainly illustrates this point.

It is even more aimless for the author to suggest that Time replace Han Han with "Tang Fuzhen, a 47-year-old in Chengdu who died after setting herself on fire in November of last year to protest the forcible demolition of her home.” I wonder, if Time did include Tang in the list, how many votes she would get, given how few people know her name? And if she did not get many votes, wouldn't the ShanghaiDaily author become even more outraged with Time?

I must say that I'm not a big fan of Time, and I usually don't care about its 100 competitions. My main point here is that a journalist who opposes something should have a clear aim, and at least some knowledge of the target before shooting his bullets.  I guess being honest is the most essential quality for a journalist. Without it, one's words can easily become a laughing stock.

Personally, I'm very happy to see the ever rising votes for Han Han. For one thing, and an important one at that, based on my reading Han Han is a way more honest person and definitely a way better writer than most Chinese journalists. Not only is he bravely candid and sharp, he also makes sense, and has good humor. And he cares. He cares about social justice. Reading his blog posts often makes me feel 痛快 (to be honest I don't know how to translate this expression precisely and satisfactorily), a nice feeling I don't often have reading the writing of others.

As to why Liu Xiaobo's votes lag behind Han Han's, again it has to do with the extent of influence. Liu Xiaobo may be a deeper thinker, but for various reasons his influence has not spread to ordinary people of different ages and classes as extensively as Han Han’s. While Lui Xiaobo may be a hero to intellectuals, Han Han is a hero to ordinary people. And to say Han Han is one of the most influential people is no exaggeration. Really amazing, considering that he is only 27 years old, without even a high school diploma.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

"They Produce Lies, We Pretend to Believe"

New Weekly's interview with Wu Si

(Note: The governmental behavior described by Wu Si in this interview seems quite universal. Communism not required.  I think Wu Si has many good insights, though his confidence in democracy seems too high. There's no shortage of lies in America, for instance. — Xujun)

[in translation]

Wu Si has been the executive editor, co-director and chief editor of the Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine. His books, Hidden Rules: the Real Game in Chinese History,  and Blood Remuneration Law: The Survival Game in Chinese History, have widespread influence. He is dubbed "father of the hidden-rule concept." (Interviewer: Hu Jiujiu)

There Is a State System that Makes It Easy to Produce Lies

New Weekly: Lao Tzu said, "With the emergence of intelligence, come big falsehoods." I wonder if it's alright to understand "falsehoods" here as "lies"?

Wu Si: Yes. Either "hypocrites," or "lies," alright.

New Weekly:  This is a question of historical view: what history is true?

Wu Si: The fact is, there is a kind of state system that makes it extremely easy to produce lies, manufacture lies, under which lying becomes legitimate and cost-effective. Look at this system in our history: an emperor, a bunch of bureaucrats under him, facing a country of peasants, peasants with no open information channels. To the person who fights for state power, who rules the country, whether Qin Shihuang, Zhu Yuanzhang, or Liu Bang, the problem he must solve is how to rule the country. The highest ruler has two options: one is using naked violence, compulsion; another is using persuasive power, benevolent governance. The two options also have to be kept in proportion. Ruling by violence alone is fragile, and will not last, or in other words, the long-term gains are not looking good. Thus the partial adaptation of Confucian ways, to convince you, exhort you, let you approve by heart.

New Weekly: Then this becomes a set of lies by the ruler.

Wu Si: This is a set of theories. If the ruler truly follows the theory, then it is not a lie, or at least the proportion of lying is low. If he does not follow the theory, we can say it is a lie.

So, will he follow the theory? He definitely won't, or not completely. On one hand he requires you to follow, on the other hand he himself does not completely follow. For example, "the sovereign be benevolent, the subjects be loyal," "the father be kind, the son be filial," "the husband be righteous, the wife be obedient." My duties are the rights for you to enjoy, and your duties are the rights for me to enjoy. We complement each other.  Even if your rights are bigger than mine, my duties are more than yours, since you are the sovereign and I'm the subject, your responsibility is also bigger. I can accept that. This is the Confucian "three cardinal guides and five constant virtues," and it sounds acceptable.

In reality however, the more powerful side does not want to be restrained, has difficulty obeying, is very easily corrupted, and often is neither benevolent nor kind. Benevolent rulers are rare in history; the proportion is very low. But, lack of benevolence does not permit disloyalty. Therefore [the ruler] can’t rely too heavily on reasoning.  He needs to mix the kingly way with Taoism, Confucian outside Legalist inside. On the outside he is Confucian, talking soundly, persuasive, fastidious about standards in all aspects. What actually happens is that he lets you follow the rules, he doesn't. Further, he doesn’t let you know he’s not benevolent, instead he publicizes his benevolence. If anyone dares to object, no more words, simply destroy him. The ruler carries penal laws and raw power.

Looking at such a state system, persuasive power is very important. It can lower ruling costs, and increase ruling gains. It can form inner constraints in people as the ruled. Not only that, it can bring to the whole system a sacred, magnificent sense.   This persuasive power is so important, naturally it can't be given up.

In particular, how are cost and benefit calculated? The benefit is to have the subjects and people willingly follow rules and norms. The cost is that the ruler himself has to follow the rules, setting an example. Benevolent governing has big benefits, ruling by persuasion, by simply moving lips to make peace in half of the world, such benefits one should completely receive. But the cost of setting an example is very high, one shouldn't pay fully, but should make it look like full payment, even over payment, meanwhile the truth can't be exposed. So the cost of setting an example is transformed into secretly tidying up a few people, sealing the throats of opponents. As to those who lick the ruler's boots, no shortage of them, they come automatically without being called. Under such a state system lying has a high benefit and a low cost. Starting from the top, large scale lying is inevitably going to happen. 

Formation of a Lying Community

New Weekly: The first biggest lie is "the sovereign's authority is bestowed by God." All lies under that come from this root.

Wu Si: That's right. The line "the sovereign's authority is bestowed by God" itself contains a lie. But the lie is a conditional one. It does not mean that God bestows you the power once and for all. The orthodox expression is that God's will falls on a person of virtue. Not everyone can be "God's son." You have the virtues, you get God's will. You don't have the virtues, God's will can change, revolution can happen. So you must pretend to have the virtues. God sees you through your people's eyes, so you must lie to all your people, to display your virtues. Then you'll get God's will; those who covet the power will give up. Where interest lies, where the ultimate trend goes, this decides that the state system inevitably makes lies.

New Weekly: Finally, lies in China form a lying community; from top to bottom everyone has unspeakable secrets. Sometimes, lies are not for hurting others but for protecting oneself.

Wu Si: Don't talk freely. Don't leave evidence that can be turned against you.

New Weekly: We've published an article by Wu Xiaobo titled "Qian Xuesen, Your Greatness Is Short of One Apology". It says the father of [China's] nuclear bomb once wrote an article on the science of how yield-per-mu can "launch a satellite."[1]  Looking back from now, does that count as a lie?

Wu Si: He and Mao Zedong had a more particular conversation. Mao Zedong said, I've read your article. Qian Xuesen said, I wrote that one casually. One datum has yet to be calculated accurately. Mao Zedong immediately said, Ah, you are talking recklessly too. When Mao discussed this with him, he made it slightly ambiguous, taking a step back. Even if he calculated accurately, it may not be a lie theoretically, it still has the room for making a lie: possibility in theory is not equal to possibility in realization using available technology. Anyway, his calculation, that the yield-per-mu could be as high as the solar energy transfer rate dictates, indeed had real impact on Mao Zedong.

Later someone asked Mao, you were born to a peasant family, don’t you know how much one mu could yield? Mao said, I read Qian Xuesen's article, the scientist said so.  — At least Qian played a role of adding fuel to the flames. Thus he indeed owed a great apology. Not great, he owed a proper apology.

New Weekly: Among intellectuals, lets say we can divide them to several kinds, for example one kind are of humanities and social sciences, another kind are of natural sciences and technology, the third are bureaucrat intellectuals. Among the three kinds, which one do you think will most easily produce lies?

Wu Si: Government intellectuals for sure.

New Weekly: His daily needs.

Wu Si: Yes, it is necessary for ruling, but we should also look at particular times. For example, in the Mao era, especially pre-1953, the government intellectuals' subjective feeling was that they had truth in their hand, not lies. They confidently carried out reform on others. At the time intellectuals at large were the subject of reform, many hid their true thoughts and said things against their own will. What is truth, what are lies, the subjective standard is in favor of the government. After the Great Leap Forward, lies were burst, with extremely serious consequences, even by the subjective standard, government intellectuals became the main producer of lies. But intellectuals at large then didn't dare to talk much, the pressure after the anti-rightist movement was too high, so they produced lies in a differently way – by faking belief.

Lying and Split Personality

New Weekly: Ba Jin wrote the book of essays Vagrant Thoughts, claiming to speak the truth, what do you think of it?

Wu Si:  Ba Jin spoke a bit of truth. In a private conversation – I forgot where I read it – he said, I just spoke that little bit of truth, didn't dare to speak the complete truth. According to him, if the measure was a bit wider, if he said a bit more, then it would not be able to get published. Speaking truth is a measurement issue. All truth, three out of ten, or one out of ten?  He could speak five or six out of ten, it's already very good, it's progress compared to one or two out of ten. Not lying is progress.

New Weekly: Why does the state system that easily produces lies last so long in China?

Wu Si: It has low cost, high benefit. The core of the state system are the rulers, to them this is a natural strategy. The lies are nothing but statements of how the ruling system conforms to the public will. If the system changed to one with elections by popular will, becoming a negotiation between the public and public servants, then the system would be a trading system, the elected naturally conform with the popular will, there's no need to make lies. Further, in such a trading system, all sides watch to see if you follow the contract. Hence the system is one that destroys lies. If you violate the contract, if you lie, it generally results in bigger loss than gain.

New Weekly:  Living in a state system of lies, I can even feel a split personality in myself.

Wu Si: A split personality might be like this: you must say something you don't agree with, you know very well you are lying, still you have to say it. In so doing, you must deal with the issue of lying, to rationalize it, to find a spirit strategy. This is easy to split. But there is another state: though being demanded to lie, I don't lie. I only speak truth. When it gets to the point that I can't speak truth, I stop talking. This way avoids splits. I reach whatever point I can, then stop moving.

New Weekly:  What's your personal attitude toward speaking truth? To try your best to not lie, or lie occasionally, or what?

Wu Si: We have to limit this in politics. On domestic politics, I only speak truth. If I can't speak truth, I don't lie. If you are talking about daily life stuff, for example when [your parents] asking whether you are getting better from illness, even if you are still sick, you don't want to make your parents worry, you just say yes. Such so-called white lies are unavoidable.


[1] Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), a leading Chinese physicist in the 20th century, published an article in 1958 in People's Daily claiming that scientific calculation shows crops yield can increase more than tenfold. That article is now viewed by some as a significant contribution to the calamity of the Great Leap Forward. Xujun

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Standing Water: "Not the Town’s Problem"

It was sunny while I was in Scotland in mid March. Everyone said it always rained in Edinburgh, but not on me. Only when Bob phoned from home that I heard about rain, and lots of it. He was in the basement of our house, pumping out water everyday.

Now it is April 1st, and the water is there again, and more. We are not alone, we have lots of neighbors with flooded basements and flooded yards, roads are closed, dams have burst. Even our tax filing deadline has been extended because of the flood. We just keep pumping and getting soaked.

Yesterday, the skies opened and it was possible to go outside. In our yard, the standing water formed little lakes (see photo below, taken today). Bob tried to figure out where it spread to. Hopping on his bike, he took a ride to the street corner across from our yard. There he found a little stream running down a road, through a culvert, and into a forest. Following the road, it became clear where the stream wanted to go: a massive wetland on the other side of Rt. 30. But the highway blocked that and the water had no place to go. So the water spills up onto the road and also back to our yard, all the way to our basement.












I finally called our town's Conservation Department yesterday, hoping they would know about streams and, in our case, unwanted little lakes. This was the first time I've ever called the town for help during our 12 years living here. The nice lady there couldn't really understand my question, but she called back in the afternoon, directing us to the Highway Department.

So, here's a rough rendition of Bob's conversation with the Highway Department this morning:

Bob: "There is a stream that runs through a culvert then hits route 30, thus the water on the road. It looks like the highway is blocking the water flow. Could you do something about it?"

Highway Department: "No. The water runs into a retaining area and that is overflowing."

Bob: “Isn’t there a culvert under Route 30?”

Highway Department: “No.”

Bob: "Shouldn’t there be?"

Highway Department: "Not the town’s problem."

Bob: “So who is responsible?”

Highway Department: “Nobody, it is what it is.”

Bob: “Would it be possible to pump the water across the highway?”

Highway Department: “Absolutely Not.”
I would not be surprised if I heard a bureaucrat talking like this in China. But this is Massachusetts, USA. I guess my two countries have more in common than I think.

Update:  Apparently Obama was in our neighborhood today for the flood.