Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Saturday, August 13, 2005

I left Xi'an last night on the non-stop express train. I arrived in Beijing this morning, took a cab to the North Gate, and took the elevator to the 14th floor. But my electronic key failed to trip the solenoid that opens the main gate. I went down to the office of the building superintendent, and they made a bunch of phone calls. Apparently, they implemented a new security system when I was gone. The floor lady had to come and recode my key so that it would work with the new system. Anyway, it's good to be home.

Xi'an. What is the significance of this city? In terms of history, of course, it is very, very significant. Xi'an is the ancient capital of China. It was the capital for twelve or thirteen dynasties. But the "center of gravity" in China has definitely moved eastward. You wouldn't know it, though, to listen to some old timers.

Recently, the Chinese made an effort to purchase Unocal, the American oil company. There was a lot of bad press about this in the US, so China decide to do a PR thing, and invited a group of journalists to China to speak with officials. One of the officials they spoke with was a Major General in the PLA. He told the reporters that if the US came to the aid of Taiwan in a conflict between Taiwan and the mainland, China would use nuclear weapons against America (not very good PR, if you ask me). He said, "We will destroy 100 or 200 American cities!" But the part that really made me chuckle was his response when questioned about how China would handle an inevitable response from the US. He said, "We are prepared to lose every city east of Xi'an!" One glance at a map of China certifies the absurdity of that statement.

If I had been there, I would have said, "Listen fella, if you lose Beijing and Shanghai, you have lost China." As I said, his comments made me laugh. But the fact that the Chinese military is being led by people who actually believe that Xi'an is still the soul and essence of China is disturbing. In terms of history, Xi'an is extremely important. No question about that. But we don't study history to live in the past. We study history to live more efficiently in the present, and prepare more effectively for the future. The Scripture says that history repeats itself (Ecclesiastes 1:9), so understanding the patterns can help us to be prepared for the inevitable recurrence of them.
Several years ago, I did a ten-year study of the American Civil War. Through all the dozens and dozens of books I read during that ten year period, what consumed me was a determination to understand what kinds of attitudes characterized the "winners" and the "losers." Most striking was the comparison between Ulysses Grant, General of the Union Army, and Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate Army.

Robert E. Lee should have been the commander of the Union Army. He seemed perfect for the job. In fact, Winfield Scott offered it to him, but he declined. Grant was the most unlikely commander. He should have been the guerrilla leader of the Confederates. Robert E. Lee was the epitome of propriety. He went through four years at West Point without a single demerit. Grant wasn't at West Point more than a few months before he was writing home to his friends, "Every time you turn around, they give you one of those little black marks." Lee chose the military as a profession out of a sense of duty and honor. Grant's father got him into West Point because he was afraid his son could not succeed at anything else. He was right. Lee had success written all over him. He could have been a success in any one of a number of different fields. Grant failed at absolutely everything he ever did except commanding the Union Army in combat.

Don't get me wrong. Grant came from a good family. He was not vile or unruly by any means. But he wasn't exactly refined, either. Certainly he did not posses the Southern refinement that characterized Lee. Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class. Grant would have been delighted to have gotten kicked out of West Point, because he didn't want to be there in the first place, but he was just too nice a guy.

And the surrender scene at Appomattox Court House was even more unlikely. Lee, the loser, was dressed in his neatest uniform, wearing his ceremonial sword. Grant came walking in with muddy boots, wearing an old private's uniform with a general's star sewn to it. It didn't make sense. The roles should have been reversed. At least that's how it looked on the surface. But when you examine these two men a little closer, a different picture emerges. Grant, the defender of the Union, came from a very traditional, stable (if perhaps a bit boring) Calvinistic family. Robert E. Lee came from a broken home. In my opinion, Lee's statements before the war, about the impending conflict, and his willingness to accept the division that conflict would create, reflect a resignation developed as the child of a troubled family.

Patterns. This is what history is about. And in this sense, Xi'an is very important. There are many places to see in China. You can't see all of them. But Xi'an is not optional. You have to see it. The Qin emperor is credited with unifying China for the first time. In fact, many believe that the Western name for "China" came from the name of the Qin Emperor. And many do not realize that Mao was a great admirer of the Qin emperor. Like Mao, the Qin Emperor was anti-intellectual. He had more than 400 Confucian scholars buried alive. Mao listed intellectuals as "Category #9" in his categories of undesirables. He referred to them as the "Stinking Ninth." In referring to the Qin emperor, after whom he modeled himself, he said, "What can Emperor Qin Shihuang brag about? He only killed 460 Confucian scholars, but we killed 46000 intellectuals."

But the past is still the past. Understanding it is useful for the purposes we mentioned, but we must not live in it. Xi'an is the past. We must use what we can learn in Xi'an to understand what is happening now in this very rapidly changing country. Xi'an, then, is important not because of some present strategic significance. Xi'an is important because history is important. Listen to Robert E. Lee:

My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, or indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, of errors which I now see and acknowledge; or of the present aspect of affairs; do I despair of the future. The truth is this: The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

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