Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Orthodox Thinking in China 

10:10 PM 2/5/2004

Had an interesting talk with Adam this evening. I ran into him at the Lush. I had gone there to study, but they had scheduled a dance, so it was not condusive to study. So I gave up studying and spent some time talking with him and an American economics professor. Adam is from Sichuan Province in the western part of China. He has never been to the United States, but would like to go there to study. He noticed my interest in Chinese history, and particularly commented on a book I had by Lin Yutang. Lin Yutang is actually more of a philosopher than an historian. I told him that I thought Lin Yutang was a very talented writer, but that his western education had influenced his philosophy considerably. To be sure, he is Chinese, and he is widely regarded as the person who, more than anyone else, helped to explain Chinese thinking to the West. He was educated in the West, he spent many years in the West, and he writes in English for a Western audience. But, as I told Adam, my frustration with Lin Yutang is that his education was so western that he sometimes sounds like a run-of-the-mill American professor.

Both Adam and I agreed that "orthodox" thinking in China is essentially Confucian. During the cold war, many in the west came to believe that the key to understanding China (and other eastern countries) was to understand Marxism). But that was a mistake. Mao himself patterned himself after the Qin emperor, and all the rage and fury of the Cultural Revolution did not put as much as a dent in the pervasiveness of Confucian thinking. I expressed my frustration that in America, it is very easy to study the history of China for the last 200 years, but very, very hard to find books (in English) on the dynasties which proceded what we commonly know as "Modern China." Adam agreed, but he said that in many ways the history of Modern China is more important. Perhaps, but I still believe that understanding the history of transition from one dynasty to another throughout the thousands of years of Chinese history is critical to understanding how Modern China came to be what it is. From an historical perspective, the end of a dynasty is seen as a tragedy. The Qing dynasty is a good example of this. During the Qing dynasty, China was ruled by the Manchus. They were essentially foreigners, not Han Chinese. But there is really nothing unusual about that. The Han people have not historically conquered their foes by fighting them off, but by absorbing them. Beijing is actually a good place to study history, since Beijing has ruled China for six dynasties. The only city which exceeds this is Xian, which was the seat of power for twelve dyanasties. It's just really hard, with such a long history, to get a grasp on consistant patterns of history without doing a tremendous amount of reading. Part of this can be circumvented by reading the four classic novels. I have read "Outlaws of the Marsh" (actually about three-fourths of it--I got kinda bored after the vigilantes made up with the Emperor), and now I am reading "The Three Kingdoms." But in addition to this, I am reading a biography of Deng Xiaoping by his daughter. Adam noticed a quote I had underlined. Deng's daughter says,

"Happiness always contains some hardship;
within hardship there is always a little joy.
As long as you do your best to adjust to your
environment, life will provide you with compensation."

She is talking about the Cultural Revolution, when her father was placed under house arrest by Mao. Her book is a fasinating portrait of the one man who, perhaps more than any other, gives credibility to Adam's statement about the importance of modern history. Fortunately (both for him and for China), Deng was spared the fate of Liu Xiaoqi. Nevertheless, the man who would change the face of China--whose economic reforms would one day lift more than 250 million people out of poverty--was forced to live under very spartan conditions. He was confined to his home except in the morning, when he worked in a local factory as a fitter. It is an enlightening thing to watch how he handled his period of disfavor. Gives new meaning to what Solomon said twice in the Book of Proverbs, "before honour is humility."

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