A Chinese Liberal’s Critique of China: Xu Jilin

A review of `Rethinking China’s Rise: A Liberal Critique,’ by Xu Jilin, Edited and Translated by David Ownby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 2018; pp xxxii + 218/ £75.00).

In the China of Xi Jinping, since his ascent in 2012, liberals have had a hard time. Dissidents have been so effectively buried they seem almost to have become extinct. Rights lawyers were rounded up in 2015 and, in many cases, frightened into silence. There are critical voices, for sure. Xu Zhangrun, a prominent public intellectual, issued a lengthy critique of the Xi era of governance in Chinese in mid-2018. An anonymous letter in Chinese with equally succinct critical comments about the current leadership surfaced domestically in 2016, reportedly starting a witch hunt. But they are prominent because so rare. On a recent visit to China, I would not but notice how omnipresent Xi’s image and his imprint were. I was not alone. Many Chinese interlocutors were also amazed at how much the Party under Xi seemed to have penetrated into business, culture and daily life with unexpected completeness.
That makes engaging with the writings and thinking of historian and public intellectual Xu Jilin even more urgent. The outside world is woefully poorly informed about figures like him, and the range and depth of their scholarship and engagement with political and social issues. Xu himself refers to better known academics like Pan Wei of Beijing University, or Zhang Weiwei, of Shanghai’s Fudan, who have a noisy international presence – but they are enthusiastic promoters of the mantra of `China on Chinese terms’. As Xu shows, in the eight essays excellently translated here by David Ownby of the University of Montreal, there are more nuanced, subtle, and quieter voices – ones that indicate a greater depth of scholarship and betray a more reflective manner. These deserve as much, if not more attention, than their more grandstanding peers.

Xu’s theme, in different ways and in different contexts through this collection, is how Chinese modernity might be validly said to be exceptional, and how it links to other expressions of values and progress. European Enlightenment values get particular attention in each of his essays, but not as some monolithic entity that everyone has a clear idea about. While modern Chinese intellectual discourse often presents Western values as universalist, coercive and dangerously domineering in political, cultural and economic terms, and frequently make them a target of attack (best exemplified by the declaration in a state document issued in early 2014 outlawing the sympathetic teaching of many of these ideas in Chinese lecture halls and classrooms) for Xu the situation is a much more complex. `China has difficulty coming up with a narrative of values to explain herself’’ he states (p 77). All too often in China `the existence of this “us” as a national community ultimately relies on the Western other.’ (76) The figures from the new left side of the debate he most criticises in this book are often so exercised by this belief in the dominance of the West, and the need to assert their own exclusivity in the face of it, that they end up reinforcing the very thing they aim to undermine.

Xu’s presentation of the relevance of Confucianism in contemporary China and its inability to become a national religion is given particular force, as the editor Ownby says in his very helpful introduction, because as an historian of ideas, he knows much more about the evolution of this set of ideas through Chinese ancient and modern history than defenders of the idea like Beijing academic Jiang Qing. Xu’s sharpest points though are about the hugely important issue of a crisis of faith and ideas in the country – something that no amount of nostalgia or adherence to a dangerous intoxication with nationalism rather than ill-defined Confucianism will help cure.

Throughout the separate essays, there is a commitment to what he calls `cultural pluralism’ rather than relativism. Declaring that all expressions of belief are deeply linked to the cultures they are expressed in and that there is no underlying shared standard of truth is erroneous, he states. They are just expressing aspects of a singular truth in different ways. The concept `Tianxia’ is deployed a lot in these discussions – something profoundly rooted in Chinese histories, and yet also with adherence to what Xu sees as universal notions of good conduct and shared humanistic values and personal and social order. His declaration in the extended essay on the `Tianxia’ notion is a powerful one: `The reason,’ he states

`that Chinese civilisation did not decline over the course of 5,000 years is precisely because it was not closed and narrow. Instead, it benefitted from its openness and inclusiveness, and never stopped transforming outside civilizations into its own traditions.’ (131)

If there was a contemporary Chinese liberal creed, this is it: a defence of a China confident of its own diversity and ability to assimilate the ideas and attitudes of the outside world, rather than perpetually police them.

One of the most striking things about Xu’s works is what while a public intellectual in Europe or the US would rarely be able to refer to even the best known current Chinese thinkers, Xu, despite his not being a fluent English reader, is able, in translation, to draw on a vast array of non-Chinese sources, from Leo Strauss to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, to Jurgen Habermas, and Samuel Huntingdon.

There are, of course, points of his argument that are highly contestable. `Tianxia’ as a concept grows almost impossibly diffuse through his discussion. The claims about the dominant Han ethnic group contained in the essay `Civilizations and Cultural Consciousness’ are provocative, and, at least in this reviewer’s view, untenable. The notion of `universal Han’ that he outlines sounds like a legitimisation of one view of ethnic identity as superior to all others. Even with these caveats, Xu is an important author and thinker, and one that the outside world needs to appreciate better. It is a pity that a £75.00 price tag on this book might prevent wider appreciation of his ideas. This is an excellent introduction to one of the key intellectuals of contemporary China, and a reasonably priced paperback version would, I am sure, find the wide audience it deserves. Hopefully the publishers will consider this.

Xu Jilin

Talking about a Revolution: Poets from the Chinese Communist Movement

Gregor Benton has been a prolific writer and translator of Chinese texts from the Communist movement. He translated the deeply moving memoirs by the widow of Chinese dissident Hu Feng 胡风 into English a couple of years ago (https://www.versobooks.com/books/1154-f) making one of the most important and human testimonies of life inside one of Mao’s prisons available to a wider audience.

`Poets of the Chinese Revolution’ (Verso, London, 2019 – https://www.versobooks.com/books/2930-poets-of-the-chinese-revolution) is ostensibly about four key figures in the politics and literary life of Chinese in the 20th century. They were starkly different figures. Chen Duxiu was famously one of the key people who introduced Marxism to China, but then gravitated to Trotsky, founded his own splinter party in the late 1920s, then then was slung in jail by the Nationalists from 1937. He died in 1942. Mao Zedong needs no exposition. The 22 of the poems published during his life are in this volume. Some others have appeared since. Chen Yi was a close comrade of his, serving as a beleaguered foreign minister during the Cultural Revolution when he suffered travails woefully common at the time. But the real hero of this book, and the figure to whom half of it is devoted, is Zheng Chaolin ( 郑超麟).

Zheng is hardly a well known figure, even in China. Born in 1901, he was, as Benton states in his introduction to his poems, `a dramatic embodiment of the century’s main passions and vicissitudes in China’ who spent most of his adult life `either fomenting revolution or in jail.’ (39). Soon after the revolution he had contributed to bringing about, Zheng’s Trotskyist commitments meant he was flung into jail in the early 1950s, and didn’t properly emerge till over two decades later once Mao was dead.

Zheng is an attractive figure because, of all those in this book, both in the original Chinese and the English translations, he has something approaching a personal voice. Mao’s poetry might just as well have been written by a committee – in fact, with the help of Hu Qiaomu and Chen Boda some his works pretty much were produced that way. Some people like what he wrote – but it is hard to believe that anyone would read this stuff now were it not to have been associated with the author it is. Epic, almost superhuman, full of Mao’s antagonistic views towards nature (which figure simply a stage for human heroic deeds),  it’s heady, and unsettling, work. Chen Yi seems to be too keen on professing his political loyalties, and Chen Duxiu comes across as the creature of a sound Qing imperial education, stuck in the idiom of that era however modernist his politics.

But Zheng is a writer of a different order, using many different styles, and remarkably instilling his work with much of his personal experience. The most moving of his works for me refer to the brief life, and tragic early death, of his only son at the age of seven in the War. There are also lamenting references to his wife, Liu Jingzhen, who was to survive his release from prison finally in 1979 by only a matter of months. A number of the poems were produced during his long incarceration, and refer to finding crumbs of comfort in amongst the daily soul-destroying grind of life then. In the era of the great famines in the early 1960s he was to console himself with the thought that at least he had food of a sort in prison. The free were left to die; millions did.

Zheng was obviously a very special, uncompromising soul. He survived to 1998, writing almost to the end. Mao and his acolytes may have dominated in life – but in his book, rightly, Zheng takes centre stage. As he wrote in `My Career’:

`Now is the thirtieth year of the second half of my career –

I think back sadly on missed chances.

Half the time was wasted

and the prisons kept on changing –

Cao River prison was the worst of all.

 

Flames of war raged everywhere, but life went on.

In the tenth year, I returned to my old haunts,

shocked to see the mansions flattered.

No more snarling jailers,

broken bricks on every side. ‘

Benton Verso

A Relationship Founded on Constraint: Notes on China and North Korea

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) enjoy a unique relationship, and one that may well call for a unique model by which to best understand and conceptualise it. They are treaty allies through an agreement in 1961 – the only one that the PRC currently has since the lapsing of the Sino-Soviet pact when the USSR fell in 1991. This brief document commits them to mutual self-defence. But it says little about the detailed reasons for their strong mutual commitment. For that one has to look elsewhere – to history, for instance, and past and current politics (https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3005971-1961-Treaty-of-Friendship-Cooperation-and-Mutual.html).

What do these tell us about the basis for the DPRK Chinese relationship? Part of their constrained predicament is simply a result of geographical necessity- they border each other. For the DPRK too, they need to keep a wary eye on their immense and increasingly powerful neighbour, particularly because of their isolation. They have no other proper allies since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union withdrew much of its economic and aid support before collapsing. Part of their link is through ideological closeness. Both share a model of governance where Marxist Leninist parties enjoy a monopoly of power. In some ways, they subscribe to a form of indigenous Leninism, though for each there are huge differences arising from their distinctive culture and their histories. This shared history goes far deeper back, to the era when under the long standing Chosun dynasty from the 14th century to the 19th, China in effect treated the Korean peninsular as zone of special influence. Chinese cultural also had immense impact here, through the migration of Confucianist social practices and beliefs into Korean society.

History and geography also highlight major differences. North Korea is a tiny 23 million compared to the PRC’s 1.4 billion. This is a structurally and obviously asymmetrical relationship. The history too is full of evidence that their closeness also reveals deep differences, and had led to a legacy where their attitude towards each other is infected by distrust, disdain, and sometimes dislike. This operates in a framework where they have to conceal and hide their differences because of the areas of closeness mentioned above. Whatever the issue between the DPRK and PRC, it is not one that is overtly spoken between the political elites on either side. It operates more covertly.

In this context, where so much seems predetermined, what sort of influence does China really have over the DPRK? If there is one country that China has attempted to persuade to adopt its political economic model, then this would be its neighbour. In the early 2000s, the then supreme leader of the country, Kim Jong-il, visited the special economic zones of its neighbour and had Chinese officials urge on him the need to adopt some elements of socialism with Chinese characteristics. But he did not respond, again perhaps through fear of not so much the political but the cultural threat that this might pose. The need for a clear ideological and identity barrier between DPRK and PRC is something Andrei Lankov commented on in his book. `Everyday Life in North Korea.’ Crossing the Yalu river from one to the other meant going over not just a physical but an ideological barrier. It seems therefore that even in a case where a lot of effort was made to exercise influence by China, it did not work. Is this true across the board in the relationship?

The deep structure of DPRK-PRC relations means that even a Chinese leader with the kind of powers which have been imputed to someone like Xi Jinping cannot change radically the framework within which this relationship operates. They may find the DPRK’s actions deeply antagonistic to their own requirements, and know and feel that public opinion in China on the DPRK is negative, or has a consensus on a specific set of actions, but despite this they are still unable to act. Amongst the most serious of these structural matters is the fact that reshaping the relationship would mean addressing a raft of historical issues where the PRC also risks undermining its own legitimacy and integrity. If it said from 1949, no matter what, that the relationship with North Korea was closer than lips and teeth, and it engaged, at its own deep expense, in the 1950-1953 Korean War, then how can it now, as part of the same socialist political tradition and narrative, turn its back on this? Revising the historic consensus on these issues would also not only effect matters about North Korean, but impact on many other associated more general ones, for instance about the commitment to Marxism Leninism, etc. Chinese elite leaders therefore work here in a context in which they have the illusion of agency and power, but where in fact they are not masters of their own situation. Unless they were to turn their back on their own political identity, and leave the historic narrative they are currently in, this is unlikely to change.

In this situation in which even the most powerful (leaders in DPRK and China) in truth have no real power, the key issue is to look at the ways in which opinion about north Korean in China in online forums and other areas is controlled, and the threat that it may turns from North Korean back to Chinese leaders neutralised. Despite being impotent, Chinese leaders do not want to come across like this. They want to convey the illusion of agency and autonomous power. They are therefore particularly sensitive to the hidden messages of public opinion on DPRK and how these might relate to them negatively, highlighting this obvious but suppressed part of their current predicament.
Of course, it is also tactically important for the Chinese government to have some notion of what the public mood towards the DPRK is. But the question remains in what ways expressions of public mood about this relationship can change anything, even if the central government wanted these too. It can enlist and sometimes manipulate anger towards Japan, for instance, or Europe or the US, for aims that it finds useful. Chinese leaders can claim with some justification that on the current trade war with the US, they are acting with public support, and they have to respond to public worries and anxieties.

With the DPRK, however, political kindredness, on the surface at least, means that the PRC government is ever alert and sensitive to language which seems to be about not so much the DPRK per se but its socialist system – one that is uniquely from a common historic root. Separating these issues – criticism of the entity, and of the system it operates on, and what implications for that there might be – is important. It makes the domestic discourse on DPRK for Chinese different from anywhere else, where such political commonality is simply not there. It is more about fearing public views that are too critical of China’s system and too laudatory over outside ones that is the problem for the rest of the world. For the DPRK, similarity is the challenge – and what sort of assessment to give to views which are ostensibly about the China but might be about something closer to home. This all highlights the fact that China, so powerful in the minds of everyone else in the world, on this issue looks, acts, and probably is, a prisoner of a series of constraints and comes across as the precise opposite – largely powerless.

Kent and Literature: The Stories of our Story

Talk at the Kent Archaeological Society Annual General Meeting, University of Kent. May 18th 2019.

First a word of clarification and justification. For those who might have looked at my CV, beyond being a council member and trustee of the KAS, and a member for almost three decades now, and despite having been born and brought up in this county, it’s apparent there is little clear connection between what I intend to talk about today and my professional life. Since 1990 in one way or another I have dealt with China, as a diplomat, in business, and then as an academic. What qualifies me to speak about the literary history of this county? Well, nothing – beyond perhaps the most important thing, which is a deep personal interest in this subject. The fact therefore that I am not paid, or rewarded in any tangible way for what I am going to speak about today shows I really do care about it and am interested in it.

There is however also another reason. In fact, it was through the insights of a friend from Taiwan that I started to think much more about what this county’s literary history is, and how to make sense of it. Before that, like many other people, I had been vaguely aware of there having been a lot of prominent writers who lived or worked in this place, and specific locations which were sometimes associated with them. Dicken’s Rochester, for instance, springs to mind as the very obvious example, or Marlowe’s Canterbury. It was only when showing this Taiwanese friend the memorial to Ian Fleming on the coast at Dover that they pointed out something that has stayed with me since. Fleming after all created a character who really does have global reach. `007’ is a phenomenon well known in China, Japan and throughout Asia. Yes, this is mostly to do with the hugely popular and successful film franchise. But with no books by Fleming, these films would have never been made. And while there are scenes in his work that clearly occur in places like the Sandwich golf club, where the evil Goldfinger plays a high stakes round of golf with James Bond, in fact in the whole set of films only one scene was actually ever filmed here – in the docks at Dover in the 1971 `Diamonds are Forever’. Fleming, however, clearly lived in Kent – for two years for instance at the Bishop’s Palace in Bekesbourne – and, ever more clearly he died here. And yet, as my Taiwanese friend pointed out, why wasn’t there a much more solid commemoration of him than the very underwhelming slightly hidden iron figure at the tiny Dover beach sea front and a couple of plaques on pub and house walls?

There are a set of questions about why it should matter where a writer lived or how places which really exist figure in their work. Writers of fiction deal with empires of the mind. So this talk could be about the reimagination of Kent as a place with characteristics, history and idiosyncrasies as they exist in fictional works – Kent as an imagined place, and how it contrasts with the real one we all live in. Even here, we will start to need to make a few intellectual strategic decisions. Chaucer is world famous as the author of the Canterbury Tales. One would assume there could not be a more direct link between a work of fiction and a place than the naming of it in its title. Even so, for those who read through the immense unfinished `fragment’ that Chaucer left, Kent as a place does not figure much. It occurs purely as background, an assumed location where these varied characters happen to be when telling their stories about other places and other worlds. The Knight’s Tale, the infamous Miller’s Tale, the Tale of the Wife of Bath have no link to Kent. In the early 1970s, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini before his brutal murder in 1975 rendered some of these stories into a film – part of his `Trilogy of Life’. Tellingly, his choice of locations ranged from Wells in Somerset, to the streets of London. Kent only really figured when the beautiful small church on Romney Marsh at Fairfield appeared – a stark priestly figure walking across the grass away from the church. The Pilgrims Way, the road on which these imaginary speakers told their imaginary tale is arguably as much a work of fiction as Chaucer’s – not a place at all, more a creation of Victorian Ordinance Survey mapmakers and the poet Hilaire Belloc.
On the other extreme Dicken’s Kent seems to be a place with great solidity and tangibility. You can visit it, spend time in it, and find commemoration plaques on buildings in places like Rochester where you are informed that these were the locations where events that never actually happened occurred! The power of Dickens to have influenced and in some cases remoulded the physical world he lived in is remarkable. In effect he created a myth of Kent, just as he is often accused of creating the myth of Christmas. And yet here too there are other questions about his link to the physical space of Kent we can ponder. The place where he did most of the writing for the final years of his life, Gad’s Hill, in Higham, is now a private school, and sporadically open. The chalet he apparently most liked writing in is now stuck in a public garden, looking adrift and forlorn in Rochester High Street. Did it matter that he was physically here when he wrote the final books of his life? Would those books have been different if they had been written elsewhere? Is there some meaning we can draw from his being in this place, rather than any other? I don’t think these questions ever get asked much – but they should be. Instead, we seem to be invited to perpetually celebrate Dicken’s Kent, without any clear idea of what this really means, and whether this place bears any relationship to the one we all happen to be living in.

My core argument will be that just as archaeologists at a new site are almost always confronted with disparate and varied bits of evidences, seldom very coherent, and never very complete, and have to come up with some kind of interpretative narrative, in a very different context, but in a very similar way, the vestiges, material and otherwise, that writers have left on the landscape and in the memory traces of Kent are lying around us, and yet so far haven’t been rewarded with a proper analytic and synthesising framework to make sense of them. We can certainly tour in these places, and see them as sightseeing resources, and give them sporadic attention. But my submission is that the utterly remarkable literary history of this county deserves far more than that. The story of it and its literature is no less than the story of the English language and its literature. Some of the earliest written documents, as the magnificent exhibition of Anglo Saxon books at the British Library earlier this year showed, came from the centre of learning that was Canterbury after Augustine’s mission here. The earliest laws were written down here. This is therefore the longest literary tradition in the English speaking world. How odd therefore that Kent is so silent about the words and the world of words that it has been such a central location to.

Working out clear parameters for what we are looking at when we speak of literature and links with people and places is not easy, I understand. Someone just having been born here – as the Tudor poets Philip Sydney from Penshurst and Thomas Wyatt from Allington Castle were, means little. Their works are indifferent to or silent about Kent, and focus on placeless emotions and courtly love themes. Ben Jonson, their near contemporary, had no particular link to Kent, but wrote one of the great poetic celebrations of hospitality `On Penshurst,’ which is extremely specific in its celebration of the joys and honour of being a guest at that great Medieval house. With his inimitable elusiveness, Shakespeare haunts our landscape as he does so many other places. He may as a member of the King’s Players have come to Chilham to act in the castle gardens under the patronage of the Digges family who owned it then. He may have had a hand in the play about the infamous murder in `Arden of Faversham’ – the 2016 Oxford edition claims not Thomas Kyd but he wrote most of the work. The nature of his links to Kent is speculative, however well informed, with little solid documentary evidence. The most we can say is that the county figures in his work, with the epic scene between Edgar and a blinded Duke of Gloucester on Dover beach in King Lear and Falstaff’s encounter with robbers on the road close by to where Dickens lived in Higham in Henry the Fourth Part One being two of the most celebrated examples. These from quite early on became engrained in the collective unconscious of this region. Generation after generation learned them at school, to the point where we came to think they almost happened. There is even a Shakespeare Cliff on our coast, proving Oscar Wilde’s saying that more often than not life imitates art, rather than the other way around. In this way, they became part of our identity.

There are two writers who occupy a very unique place in any attempt to make sense of the literary history of this county. For both of them, ironically, English was not their native language. One of them is buried close to here. Joseph Conrad’s journeys, as a recent study had made clear, means that he is a figure who left traces around the South Asian region and the world, and in his native Poland/Ukraine. His works are located in venues running from Australia to Latin America, to Indonesia and the Malayan Peninsula. The most celebrated of them, `The Heart of Darkness’, while mostly occurring in the Belgian Congo, begins in Kent – though in the estuary waters by Gravesend where Marlow the storyteller, perhaps Conrad’s alter ego, announces the famous lines: `This too has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ He is referring to the conquest by Caesar, and how it occurs as part of a history of subjugation and enslavement, in Britain. The line haunts the rest of the book. Conrad’s own life in Kent occurred after his retirement from being a seaman, and some years based in London. Addington, Pent Farm and then finally Oswalds in the village near Canterbury of Bishopsbourne were all places he and his family rented. They seem utterly unimportant in his work, for sure. The account of his son Borys Conrad, who was accused of fraudulently using his father’s memory to make financial gain after his death, implies these locations were simply ones that Conrad lived in and which he had no deep connection to. And yet despite this, for anyone effected by the haunting quality of Conrad’s prose, a language which happened to be his third after Polish and French, standing by the buildings that he actually produced these works in is an oddly unsettling experience. Pent Farm (see below – photo on the left) is the place he wrote Heart of Darkness. It is not an easy place to find, hidden in the lanes as one drives down from Canterbury to Folkestone. One of the truly great visionary works of modernity was produced here, and yet the site itself is eerily silent and unmarked. On a still day, as it was when I visited, it seems fitting and appropriate that a work like this was produced here, though I have no easy way of explaining why – beyond the fact that the quietness of this place must have allowed Conrad the peace to concentrate on producing his great work, and that atmosphere has lasted to today. This, indeed, is one of the dark places of the earth, not so much because of what happened here, but because of what someone imagined while here!

The other writer wrote not in English but in German, and his story is even more puzzling. Uwe Johnson died aged 49 in 1984. At the time of his death, in a sea facing house in Sheerness, he was so little known and isolated that his body lay undiscovered for a fortnight. And yet, with the publication of his `Anniversaries’ in a stupendous English translation for the first time in New York last year, he is being rediscovered. His work even more than Conrad’s has no tangible link with Kent at all. It is set in New York, the city in which Johnson had lived before coming in 1975 to the small Sheppey town, and then in pre-war Germany. No one knows quite why a writer called by figures like Heinrich Boll and Gunther Grass in his own life time one of the greatest German writers of the modern era did move to provincial Kent. What is clear is that alongside Joyce’s `Ulysses,’ Proust’s `Remembrance of Things Past’ and Musil’s `The Man of No Qualities’, `Anniversaries’ ranks as one of the great works of 20th century modernism, shifting between pre-war German history and then the remaking of the protagonist’s life in New York from 1967 to 1968. And while Joyce’s work is very much set in Dublin, Proust’s in Paris and Combray, and Musil’s in Vienna, the difference is that Johnson’s works shifts between multiple locations and territories. It is itinerant and peripatetic. That is part of its power. And once more, on a winter’s day coming to the house in which he wrote this tremendous work, in this most unexpected of places, itself has a huge emotional power. His was one of the great heroic lives of the modern era. It is commemorated by the smallest of plaques.

Kent was a place of centrality to Conrad and Johnson through living here. But there is a Kent literary history which is more about marginality – a place on the edges or away from the great all-demanding centre of London. Somewhere to come to to get away. For the poet T S Eliot, his trace on the local landscape is through one line, in the Wasteland, and one place – Margate: `On Margate sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing.’ His stay in the town recuperating from what sounds like a nervous breakdown and the emerging marital problems with his troubled first wife Vivian is particularly ghostly. He was there perhaps a month in the early 1920s. At that time Margate was still a favoured resort for those seeking the fresh sea air and its medicinal and therapeutic qualities. He stayed in the Albermarle Hotel. That is now long gone, its site occupied by flats. But there is one place that he was physically in which still exists– the sea shelter now on the northern edge of the beach. There, according to records, he sat covered in a blanket in the morning meditating. The hut stands today, largely unchanged. Efforts to commemorate it and make more of it have been limited, though it has been listed. At the wrong time of the year or the day, the enjoyment of going there is impacted on by the distress of seeing the plight of homeless people huddle under the shelter. Sometimes needles from drug usage are spread across the floor. An artist of a different genre and nature, Tracy Emin, herself a native of this town, has celebrated its harder edged qualities in her art. The tragic local writer David Seagrove wrote movingly in the 2000s of what these seaside towns with their experience of highs and lows now mean – before his own sudden demise in an apartment opposite Canterbury West station in 2009. When we stand in Margate in the places where we think Eliot stood and reflect on the immense impact of `The Wasteland’, a poem that starts appropriately for our purposes today with a quote from Joseph Conrad, it is not so much connecting nothing with nothing, but connecting this place with any proper understanding of its true role in inspiring the words that Eliot put on the page that is so difficult.

Eliot’s connexions with Kent do not end there. The premier of his verse play, `Murder in the Cathedral’ was held in the Chapter House in Canterbury – again an event unmarked today. M R James, the great Victorian writer of haunted tales, was born in Kent before moving for most of his career to Cambridge. His tales were tighter, more fraught and impactful than the now less well remembered `Ingoldsby Legends’ by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham. But the stories of both have a high incidence of landscapes and places where hauntings and the atmosphere left by the memory traces of past trauma are strong. For them, it is indeed manifestly the case that `this too has been one of the dark places of the earth.’ But perhaps the most powerful rendition of this spectral, haunting quality of the Kent city and rural landscape can be found not in a work about the past, but in Russel Hoban’s dystopian masterpiece from 1980 of the future – `Riddley Walker’ – a work which, much like that of the more orthodox, Canterbury educated W Somerset Maugham, or even of the great Dickens, tests the reader by renaming places. Canterbury for Hoban is Cambry, a place devastated a millennium or so in the future by a nuclear attack. Kent is a ruined place, tribes drifting across it attacking each other. The sole remnant of the great civilisation of the past is a Punch and Judy kit and a scratchy image of the myth of St Eunice which becomes the centre of a new religion. As Hoban has his protagonist declare, `every thing is about every thing’ – an antidote to the sentiments of Eliot quoted just a moment ago where nothing connects. The challenge in this devasted world is finding the link but the link somehow can, and must be found.
The finding of the link is what we have to do when we look at this truly remarkable literary history – one of the most powerful not just in Britain, but in the whole world. There are many more fragments we could attend to: the life of Christopher Marlow, schoolboy in this city, and whether his great invention of iambic pentameters really were the making of Shakespeare who came after him; the slow jaunts through Kent by figures like Daniel Defoe, who certainly critically wrote of the place in one of his many, many works, but much less certainly may have lived and written Robinson Crusoe in a small village here – either the Hartley in West Kent, of the same place in the East. William Hazlitt, great essayist and contemporary of Coleridge and Wordsworth, was the son of a unitarian minister in Maidstone, and spent his first decade or so there. But even in the work of figures like the damaged but massively influential American poet of the mid twentieth century, Robert Lowell, we find explicit mentions in some of his sequences while he was based here in the late 1960s and early 1970s of the disintegration of his own relationship at the time both with himself, and his wife. Perhaps the most striking of all these forays into our county was a car tour that Samuel Beckett, the Irish writer, took around the western part of the county in the 1930s, where the greatest absurdist writer of the last century was struck by the absurdness of names like Snodland and the difference between the spelling of Trotiscliffe and the way the word was said.

The most haunting of all links, however, are the visits here by Jane Austen, as a published but largely marginal writer in the early 19th century. Austen, as the bicentenary of her death only two years ago attested to, is a truly global figure. Her work is known in Japan, America, Australia, and in China. There are vibrant appreciation societies of her in all these places. And while she is linked with her native Hampshire, spent much time in Bath, and is buried in Winchester, Kent was of major importance in her work. Largely itinerant while alive, her situation meant that she often came to Kent to stay with her elder brother, a man who had been adopted by a wealthy family in Godmersham near Ashford and changed his name from Austen to Knight by act of parliament in order to inherit the estates of the noble house here. Austen is a truly global figure, and yet the very real traces of her life in this county, something commemorated every time one looks at the back of the ten pound note and sees her face, and the sketched outline of Godmersham Place, is only accessible to those that really look. Goodnestone Park, near Canterbury, was another of her haunts, and she most probably was here when she wrote `Pride and Prejudice.’ But Rowling’s, the house in which she may have done this, the one she stayed at near Goodnestone, is now a private residence. Beyond worthy occasional openings of its gardens to the public, the great manor of Godmersham, in the library of which she must have written Mansfield Park, is off limits except to optometrists who are members of the society that now owns the place and who hold training courses there. Austen stayed in coaching inns in Dartford, and probably in Sittingbourne – and attended functions which she rated as somewhat dreary in Ashford. Of course, the issue is that in her writings, because of their focus on manners and human behaviour, any sense of an external, physical landscape is minimal to non-existent.
Kent has mattered not just to adult fiction, but in the writing for children. This is the city where Mary Tourtel created Rupert Bear; E Nesbit lived and worked throughout Kent and holidayed in Yalding, producing a short children’s novel, `The Wouldbegoods’ which is clearly physically based in the area. She is buried here, on Romney Marsh. Clive King set his massively popular 1960s tale about a prehistoric man being discovered by children at the bottom of the garden, `Stig of the Dump’, in a Bromley house he had lived in near the end of the war and seen the impact of bombing on. Even H G Wells, as much a writer for children as adults, spent almost a decade in Folkestone, on the hills looking over the Channel just a stone’s throw from where Agatha Christie, a few years later in the 1920s, would spend time in the Grand Hotel penning `Murder on the Orient Express.’ Well’s home is marked, but is now a retirement house. It was here where `The War of the Worlds’ was produced – a work that also has had global impact.

Forgotten for many years, but now making a significant comeback, the poet David Jones, who fought in the first world war alongside other natives of Kent, Siegfried Sassoon (who schooled in Sevenoaks), Edmund Blunden (from Yalding) and Sidney Keynes (an old boy at Dartford Grammar School) produced work which associated him with the Wales of his father. He himself was born in Bromley, then part of the Kent county area before the borders were redrawn in the latter part of the century. For Jones, the hybrid nature of British identity and history, reaching back to the Roman occupation and even before, into the deep history of British native religions and oral traditions, produced a truly remarkable fragmented quality in his work – work which is best read aloud to capture the amazing richness of its texture and sound. In much of his poetry, and in particular his complex masterpiece `The Anathemata’, the British landscape inscribed with so many marks of human intervention and invention, and with the traces of different kinds of comings and goings, is the true protagonist, and humans simply supporting actors on it. This landscape deserves to be attended to, read, understood, on its own terms – a landscape which in Kent is so densely marked and so immensely difficult, and yet rewarding, to interrogate and make sense of. At some points, in for instance the wonderful work from the late 1960s, `The Sleeping Lord’, Jones simply produced questions – asking perpetually but not producing anything like a culminating statement. Kent as a question, prompting, stimulating, almost mystical in its elusive qualities, is perhaps not a bad way to see the interface between lived experiences of writers in this space and the physical remnants that they have left and their writings.

It is just strange that there is no specific place that can commemorate this and give us the chance to think more about what this history means. Dublin and Edinburgh have splendid museums of literature, celebrating and making clear their heritage in this space. Kent’s efforts are almost half hearted and sporadic. With tourism so important to our economy, how very odd that we are not branded as a place with such a massive literary heritage. Even when we leave this place, in Dover, the location which I started with my story of Ian Fleming and the underwhelming statue there, we still leave not just a physical territory, but one entwined with words, where the words almost bid us goodbye. The Victorian critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, not remotely connected to this county, set his great declaration of the loss of faith at the dawn of high modernity not in the streets of London, or the other grand metropolitan centres of central, or northern Britain, nor the places of learning like Cambridge and Oxford, but on Dover Beach:
`The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The Three Key Things About the Rise of China that Are Changing the World: Talk at TEDx Thessaloniki May 2019

We know that China is important. It is important enough for Donald Trump in the US to want to wage a trade war on it. It is important enough to send a space ship to the dark side of the moon. It is important enough to be the world’s largest exporter, and the holder of the largest stock of foreign currency. It is important enough to say no to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and not worry. China however is more than just that place that makes so many of the daily goods in our supermarkets across Europe and America for budget conscious shoppers. It is much more than the space covered in darkness on the map of global Facebook users! China is not just the world’s second largest economy, and the world’s second largest army, the world’s largest purchaser or luxury brands and the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. There are three reasons why China presents the world outside with a set of challenges that it has never faced in modern history. And through these three issues, the world, like it or not, will change – is changing – far more profoundly than most realise.

The first is that China’s recent rise fundamentally challenges our mindsets. In modern history, from the time of the industrial revolution two centuries ago, we, the Western world, in Europe, the US and its set of political and economic alliances, have only ever known a weak China. Weak China is a place we are intensely comfortable with. A place of colonial adventure by imperial powers like the British in the 19th century, of exotic strangeness, of backwardness during the era under Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976 when the country was closed off to much of the world. It is a place of marginality. This is the place that managed to sleep through the first century of the era of steam power and mechanisation while enjoying none of the benefits of these new technologies, nor showing much desire to do so. It is a place that figured in western narratives as a victim, the sick man of Asia as it was called in the early 20th century when most of its people lived in rural places and its poverty seemed endemic and shocking. It was the tragic object of Japanese cruelty during the Second World War when the sole modernised industrialised power in Asia threw its might against a country still undeveloped and with nothing but its massive population to defend it. In very different ways, even after the so-called `liberation’ of 1949 when the People’s Republic was founded, the country became victim of Maoist excesses and policy failures like the terrible famines that saw so many tragically die in the 1960s, and then the catastrophe of the decade long Cultural Revolution from 1966. .

But that China has disappeared. It happened quickly. From 1978 soon after Mao died China has been reforming, and developing its economy. But far quicker than was ever expected, and in ways which almost no one foresaw, the world is now, for the first time ever, presented with a strong China – a China that sounds strong, and that has massive influence over global markets, supply chains, and geopolitics. Under current leader Xi Jinping, strong China is not a notion. It is a reality. And this has left many in the outside world struggling to catch up, and change their mindsets. Their eyes see a strong China; but their hearts still think the place must be weak. Strong China is a novelty – not just for Chinese people, but for us. No wonder we are all disorientated.

Secondly, we are finding out what Chinese power is through another novelty. Throughout the last five hundred years, from the brief period of adventurism under the Eunuch admiral Zheng He in the early 16th century – the China the West knew and dealt with was a land power. It had no ships. It did not appear at all on the great seaways around it. But since the 1980s, the era of China as a naval power has been upon us, buying not just civilian ports in places like Piraeus in Greece, but also slowly expanding its military capacity. Now, in terms of sheer vessel numbers, the People’s Republic has more capacity than the US. For sure, in technological terms, it lags far, far behind. But that does not change the fact that China is now an authentic sea power. And that means it has the ability to project power way beyond its coasts. Into the South and East China Sea. Into the Pacific Ocean. Towards the coast of Africa. Even into the seas of Europe. This is also unprecedented.

Naval China is the issue that raises the question of how do we, outsiders, interpret this. Do we see it as a sign of aggressive intent – a gambit for China to control under a new Pax Sinica the sea ways around it, by threat and force? Are we going to see naval battles in the 21st century that pit the US ands its might against China, the new player on the block? Are we, as Prime Minister Abe of Japan complained some years back, seeing a scenario in the Asia Pacific reminiscent of that which existed in Europe on the eve of World War One where a dense network of different alliances spread across Asia means that one small clash could bring everyone else in to fight it out against each other because of their pre-existing defence and security commitments? Or is this Chinese sea power a mirage – a sign, once more, of the ways that Chinese power is very different from other kinds of power in the way it haunts, and does not act. This is, after all, a country that has not seen combat experience despite its vast military since 1979. France, Italy, the UK, all of these powers have had more field experience in the last two decades than China since 1961. In the end, are we just seeing a phantom, something that is there to bring psychological pressure on us. In the end, the fights and conflicts of the future are more likely to be in cyber space. In many ways, this new kind of great virtual space battle has already begun. Even while we gaze at the busy seas around China nervously, we are looking the wrong way. And while Russia has been the one so far accused mainly of infecting the social media of the west with misinformation and discord, China has been accused of undertaking extensive forays, accused of hacking into government IT systems in places as far afield as Canberra, Berlin and Africa. It has been accused too of stealing vast amounts of intellectual property. In this `war’ in virtual space, China seems to more than compensate for its vulnerabilities in the real world. Its navy in this context figures as a decoy, while the real action is taking place elsewhere.

But the third issue is the most profound. No one – neither inside or outside China – knows the answer to the simple question of what a world run on Chinese values looks like. The `v’ word has become very politicised. And yet Chinese leaders, particularly under Xi, have been clear. Their view of the world is not that of the West. They do not accept western liberal values. They have a unique set, informed by thousand of years of different culture, philosophy and thinking. But because of China’s economic power, and its influence across the rest of the world, for the first time ever these internal values are of huge importance to the world around. Chinese values, because of the Chinese economy, are also becoming global ones – despite the very significant differences that they have to enlightenment ones of the West.

This is not an ideological issue, but a structural one. The simple fact is that whatever their content, Chinese values are hybrid. Unlike the Judaic Christian unifying belief system in the West from over a millennium and a half ago, in the same period of time Chinese culture has been shaped by radically different views or reality, values and humanity – Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. These are the three great changes. In modern times they have been joined by Marxism Leninism, Maoism, Capitalism, and now Xi Jinping Thought. All of these exist on a Chinese market place of ideas. All survive alongside each other in a space where there is no imperative to demand one singular idea of Truth. The hybridity and flexibility of the Chinese view of the world is perhaps the most singular thing that differentiates it from the Western, Enlightenment world view. It is also, at heart, perhaps the biggest stumbling block between any convergence between the US and China. One believes in Truth. The other in truths. And while the former can accommodate the latter, this is not reciprocated. Chinese values are more humanist, relative and not absolute, and reside in a form of hierarchy and family collectivism that seems to stand against the western love of individual freedom and concrete rights.

What we think about a world where there is greater space for Chinese values is a massive, and profound issue. In this New Land, hybridity and the accommodation of radically different world views under one pragmatic system of engagement will be the order of the day, with China at one end and the US at the other, and other powers ranged in between needing to be careful they look both ways and don’t get trapped in any fights between the two major players. In this world, there will be no US house on the hill, ready to take anyone in, offering some grand shelter for all and sundry. Instead, China, exclusive and excluding, will set up its own place just across the valley, proposing a different kind of relationship, more transactional, more based on self-interest, and for many other powers perhaps more respectful of their differences and desire for autonomy. That’s at least how it will seem. Its aim, China will say, is simply to coexist, respectful of everyone else. But of course, that won’t be straightforward as the two start to move slowly into each other’s spaces. Hybridity is fine in the world of ideas. But hybrid ownership of land or physical property is not so easy. There, the limits of the tangible start to hit home. And there will be many places where China will start to make demands and use its economic levers in ways every bit as demanding as the US.

We really are at a huge crossroads. The three structural changes that China’s rise brings could be a liberation for all of us – the creation of a new, looser, more diverse world, with space for radically fresh thinking as, like never before, all of us expand our horizons and accommodate and look at things in a way we never had to, or needed to before. But it could also be a period of deep cultural clash – one which is seen as threatening, creating insecurity and instability, as people feel their identity and values are being undermined, and eroded by this new, very different, player in their lives. The great Sinologist Simon Leys wrote that an encounter with another culture also ends up being changed to some extent by that culture. In the era of China’s rise, we are moving beyond globalisation in the abstract to a form which is far more intimate, more deep seated, and more confronting – with a power who was weak, but now is strong; who once existed just on land, and now manifests its prowess on the high seas; and who has values that recognise, but do not wish to join those, of the Enlightenment West. Navigating this will take patience, imagination and courage – not qualities that international leaders currently have. But ones, we hope, that people in these two great spaces – China and that outside of China – do have, and can use in the new ere we are moving in.

 

Uwe Johnson: The Rediscovery of a Great Lost Voice

I never heard of Uwe Johnson until I was reading through a book about the Thames Estuary, and his name cropped up. One of the great voices of post-Second World War German literature, admired by figures like Gunther Grass and Heinrich Boll. And yet, unlike them, largely forgotten. The advice though was to get hold of the epic `Anniversaries’, his greatest single work. And as luck would have it, hunting around I found that the whole piece, all 1668 pages of it, was about to be issued in a full English translation, the first to appear.

New York Review of Books, and the translator Damien Searls, need commendations for allowing the English speaking world to now appreciate fully the fruits of Johnson’s final fifteen years (https://www.nyrb.com/products/anniversaries?variant=51442122951). Finished in 1983, the final page of the second volume of this splendid work states that it was in the underwhelming Kentish seaside town of Sheernes that the piece was put to bed. In fact, on a bitterly cold day in early January this year I took a pilgrimage to this place – it is close to where I live in the UK. A non-descript terraced house, facing a wall which in its turn faces the sea, with the smallest of plaques by the door commemorating Johnson’s final decade (he moved here from New York in 1975). As this excellent BBC documentary shows (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qyjsr) his period in Sheerness was a quietly tragic one. His death at the age of 49 in 1984 went unnoticed for a fortnight, till a neighbour alerted the police who came and found his body.

But in this house the bulk of `Anniversaries’ was completed. If Musil’s ‘Man Without Qualities’ and Joyce’s `Ulysses’ are novels of ideas, and Proust’s `Remembrance’ a novel of the sentiments, then Johnson’s work is a novel of events. This is not to disparage it. On the contrary, from the very first entry, August 21st 1967, the ways in which separate stories weave themselves together testifies to the primal importance of narratives, of the way stories are told, and how different levels about different things can weave into a single lived thread.  If theren is a model of what the great Russian critic Bahktin called `heteroglossia,’ then this is it – voices about different things on different levels, shifting from reports in the New Yorks Times each day, to memories of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl  and her family in German and then Soviet Occupied territory during and after the Second World War, to dialogue with her 11 year old daughter about all of this, and their day to day life in New York over the year 1967 to 1968.

Long before the era of social media and the saturation of everyone’s daily life by reports online and in the news about events far beyond one’s own living environment, making the whole world almost tumble in on top of us all, this great novel shows the inner life of new global people. Vietnam, the assasination of Robert Kennedy, the presidency of Lyndon B Johnson, and the developments between West and East Germany – they all figure in the story, but so do stories of the past – the brutal occupation of Jericho, Gesine’s childhood home, and the impact of the defeat in the war, and the creation of a new life in its ashes.

The ennoblement of daily life, and the ways in which the story of someone who on the surface lives a very ordinary kind of existence with her daughter and yet has exraordinary tales to tell is one of the great messages of the book. The other is the way in which the placing of events, the meanings that can or should be imputed to them, plays such a great part in the work, from beginning to end.

Johson himself lived the most self-abnegating of lives – unremarkable almost to a fault, going most days to the pub in Sheerness in his final years there, striking the other drinkers as someone who was nothing out of the ordinary. The final laugh is his though. Under this facade, he was constructing one of the great heroic works of moderm times, a novel of vast and yet very human sweep, and an account of the heroic inner stories within us all. This makes the immense journey of reading this work very poignant – a private, intimate odyssey into the daily life of a single woman and her child, and yet something that speaks powerfully to anyone reading this work. Monument to normality, and how extraordinary that so often is.Uwe Johnson.

The Enigma of Chinese Bookshops

Xin Liu’s `Moralization of China’ (World Scientific, Singapore, 2018: https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/10712) is a provocative book, and written in a provocative way. Readers can’t complain they have not been given a clear warning, when the very first page of the text carries a dedication:  `To the Intelligent Few.’ I wondered whether I could dare imagine falling into this cohort, and then started to worry whether it wasn’t a dastardly authorial trap. Being invited to think you are smart, and then being tripped up by an writer exposing one’s hubris and self over-estimation.

I hope it was Xin Liu being playful. But they take no hostages as the book’s argument proceeds. Social media, Maoist China, contemporary Mainland cinema – they all get targeted assessment. However one assesses the drift of the argument (and there are times when it does become a trifle hectoring) the extent of referencing and allusion is impressive. From Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, to Marx and Foucault, via Weber and a host of other luminaries, the brickbats come thick and fast. I particularly admired the author’s way of continuing the fight not just in the main text but in a series of coruscating footnotes. Great technique. I will definitely try to copy one day.

Round about halfway through the book, on page 78, Liu describes a contemporary Chinese bookshop. This in particular made me lay aside the book and ponder for a while what it is about bookshops in the People’s Republic these days that is so baffling. They are vast places. Chinese people certainly like reading. And going from the number of people in them, they like buying their books in person, not so much online (though I know business there is pretty good). Back in the old days (which for me means the mid 1990s when I was first living in China) there were the cavernous Xinhua bookshops, government run, with vast piles of political tracts, and the usually peaceful acreage devoted to Marxism Leninism and various other ideological matters. On the ground floor though were the more commercially attractive self help and business books. The crowds usually assembled there.

There were smaller bookshops too – and ones that dealt with what passed for second hand books. It was in these, in a place called Book City, that I managed to buy kilos of stencilled and poorly printed leaflets and pamphlets from the Cultural Revolution decade starting in 1966. The Winter day I did that, back in Hohhot in 2000 on a brief visit, meant that finally my doctorate was viable. I had the source material I needed. The shop owner evidently thought Christmas had come early. One other customer jubilantly declared to me while I was leading that the 500 yuan I had spent was a `con’. But in the pavement outside the shop I corrected him. `I know it’s a lot of money’, I said, `but it’s my thesis. I’d have paid ten times this to be honest.’ He looked at me uncomprehendingly, as though I had just achieved the impossible and made my actions seem even dumber.

These days Chinese bookstores are bigger, more commercial and as Xin Liu shows a place where students, migrants, parents, and others can come to while away the time. But they don’t have anything like the aura of the amazing Eslite chain in Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose founder died a couple of years back. These really are places of excitement, full of contesting and contrary ideas in contesting and contrary books by authors from across the world. They have great coffee shops too!

Utopia bookshop near Tsinghua University in Beijing, long since closed down, at least had a certain edginess to it, even if it was busy pushing neo-Maoist and new leftist fare. The `San Lian’  place, linked to the eponymous publisher, issued jewels by writers like the late Yang Jiang (杨绛) and Qian Zhongshu ( 钱锺书). But these days the main offer is either the latest business guru, translations of palatable blockbusters from the West, and then, of course, walls of locally produced political fare.

How you can have such well stocked, popular and, at times, immensely diverse bookshops which at the same time clearly have `edited’ stock – with a lot of material either not available, or available in a form which omits some key issues, is, at every least, symptomatic of the boundaries, visible and invisible, that exist around you in the larger environment of China. Borges could have written something subtle, elegant and revealing about the phenomenon of bookshops in modern China. They are monuments to a certain attitude or disposition, and in a strange way typify the commitment to stability and control which is currently so embedded in the culture. That might be one reason why Xin Liu’s observation is, in my experience, so true: for all the people in Chinese bookshops these days, you sure see a lot of readers who look, for all the world, like they are sleeping.  But of course it is very obvious. They are reading through closed eyes.

10712.cover

 

The Chinese Countryside: Heaven or Hell?

The vast majority of Chinese people from the earliest times to the last few years have lived in what is classified as rural China. Their lives as they figure in literature or studies have a sort of static, almost unknowable quality.  Rural Chinese under Mao became, at least in the language of the Communists, the masters of their own affairs –    organised into production brigades and patiently feeding the slowly expanding cities as the country was reconstructed and resurrected. In the Cultural Revolution from 1966, because of the phenomenon of sent down youth, the ranks of the peasantry (in Chinese, the less loaded word 农民) were swelled by these new, sometimes hapless agents of revolution. Current president Xi Jinping fell into this category in his years in Shaanxi from 1968.

The Chinese countryside figures in contemporary imagination as a place either of over-idealisation (the simple faithful and innocent foot soldiers for Mao’s sinified Marxist grand experiment) or deep pessimism verging on horror. In their report, `Will the Boat Sink the Water: the Life of China’s Peasants,’ written and promptly banned in China in the early 2000s, and then translated and published in the West in 2007, Anhui journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi  drew an unremittingly bleak picture of the conditions in the rural areas. This was a world dominated by the struggle against poverty, unfair taxes, and larcenous, all powerful rent-seeking officials. Chinese farmers were victims. No wonder everyone was trying to leave and move to the nearest town or city.

China’s countryside is so vast, diverse and varied that reality must be more complex. And so reading the work of  Australian-based Mobo Gao serves as an excellent corrective to the tendency to regard China’s rural areas as bottomless pits of need, backwardness, and despair.  His `Gao Village Revisited: The Life of Rural People in Contemporary China’ (Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018) (https://cup.columbia.edu/book/gao-village-revisited/9789629965785) is the sequel to a work he authored two decades ago on his home in Jiangxi province, south eastern China. Gao himself left to study in Europe in the late 1970s, and has since had academic positions there, and in his current base in Adelaide. But he has evidently maintained close contact with the place of his birth and upbringing, and it serves as a central motif of his work.

Gao has always been a wonderful and often bold contrarian. His earlier work, `The Battle for China’s Past’ written in 2008 was a counterblast against the narrative of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 being an unmitigated catastrophe for Chinese people. For him, as a rural inhabitant then, this allowed the elite, urban narrative to dominate over the less privileged one – for occupants of this other China, the decade from 1966 allowed freedom, and on many levels was liberating. He refers to this a little in the current book by talking of this era, when he was an adolescent, as one of exploration, and of permission to be allowed to attack traditional ideas and  conservative shibboleths. This is contentious, but his interpretation needs to be set alongside the many others of this era to fully appreciate its complexity, and  avoid falling into  easy, moralising frameworks.

The most important point that Gao makes in this work is that far from being a place of victimisation and passive, tragic weakness, China’s countryside in the era of Xi Jinping is one of assertion, agency and optimism. It is also, as he very eloquently argues, a place that does not fit into the usual power-dynamics. Far from being a drain on government resources, and a place where the key imperative is to get out as fast as possible,  Chinese rural dwellers are `looking after China, taking care of the Chinese government’ (p 19). The dependency is the reverse of what is usually expected. Without the hard work, optimism, and  massive energy of this part of China, the rest of the country would not work.

This is a hugely important point to consider. The other is made earlier in the book where Gao argues that `China has to be understood and interpreted on its own terms’ (p. 4). Of course, many would take issue with this, asserting the need to stand up for universal ideas of analysis and assessment. But Gao’s work  appeals to me most strongly because, for fairly self-evident reasons (this is after all the place from where he originally came, and to which he is still deeply linked)  of the strong emotional link between the observer and scholar (him) and the object of his work (his ancestral home). That gives his narrative an extra dimension, and moves it beyond the sometimes cold, and often almost inhumanely calculating social science or anthropological posture one often gets in books about China.

gao village

What IS China?

Ge Zhaoguang, of Fudan University in Shanghai, is one of the most learned and the best translated historians of China and Chinese intellectual history. Like Qin Hui from Tsinghua, he has written across historic periods and dynastic boundaries, and ranges between disciplines. In an era of deeper and deeper specialisation, this is welcome. His work illuminates by making connections and putting pieces of the vast jigsaw puzzle that is Chinese culture and identity together. He should be more widely known and understood outside of China, not least because he is the authentic voice of contemporary intellectual engagement in the modern People’s Republic, and belongs to the same lineage as Hu Shi, and Qian Zhongshu.

There is one question of piercing clarity in `What is China?’ (Harvard University Press, http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674737143),  a collection of essays derived from lectures that Ge gave in the early 2000s, which really repays attention. `Why,’ he asks, `then is Europe the “universal” and China the “particular”?’  He goes on , `Perhaps the history of the formation of the Chinese nation state was an equally rational and natural process.’ (p 59) Irritation at the universalist claims of Enlightenment European powers has increased in modern China. It’s climax can be seen in the fierce resistance to proselytizing for what is somewhat loosely called `western values’ in the China of Xi Jinping. But Ge’s point is mercifully free of the politicised posturing of other formulations, and throughout this book he proves a consistent, and forensic, critic of what he calls the statism and nationalistic agendas of some of those working in the fields of archaeology or academia. For him, the deeper, and more valid target for enquiry is how best to describe and encapsulate this complex, valid, and often shifting, relationship between the physical entities that have occupied the current geographical space occupied by the People’s Republic today, and the identity of what has now come to be called Chinese culture and civilisation.

In his discussion of this vast, problematic issue, he ranges across questions about the relationship between physical space and territory, the meaning of borders, ethnicity, and the interpretation of history.  All of these are massive issues, and ones that his deeply informed, elegant discussions help to grapple with. Ge’s discussion offers lessons not just for those outside of the cultural and political context that he is addressing, but also for those within it. Chinese exceptionalism these days seems to be reaching fever pitch. The country under Xi Jinping is acquiring something close to a messianic notion of its semi-divine destiny to be a great, strong nation again, restored to a place of mythical centrality it once thought it occupied in the past. ‘All under heaven’ and other formulations try to capture this vague, largely spiritual sense of special destiny. But as Ge sharply comments, `It need not be the case that, because we are Chinese people, we have to heap praise on Chinese culture and feel that every aspect of the culture is good.’ (p 137). To exemplify this he brings in a host of European, American and Japanese writers to illustrate the points he makes, referring at one point to Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, and his very helpful work on the malaise of modernity’ from the 1990s. Ge in this book shows the uses of comparative material and studies, and the ways that they can be entirely respectful of the particular (in this case, the longevity , plasticity and complexity of Chinese senses of identity) but also take heed of the universal (what the role of common notions of nationalism has been playing in modern China as the nation state of the PRC has grown, matured and developed.

For anyone thinking about tackling the question, `What IS China?’ this book is a wonderful start. Ge’s `Intellectual History of China’ has also just been issued, but that is a far longer, and much more expensive work. This is more accessible, and, importantly, more affordable.

9780674737143-lg

The Curious Anthropology of the British Royal Family: Pope-Hennessy and `The Quest for Queen Mary.’

My grandmother, who died in 2011 at the age of 93, often used to boast about how, while working in Harrods in central London in the 1930s, she had met Queen Mary of Teck. She told me this when I was very young, and then repeated it over the years. Of course, I had no clear idea who this person was, and `Teck’ sounded bewildering. Where was it? Was this some foreign imperial figure? Even now, I have to think a bit about who she actually was – widow of George the Fifth, and therefore grandmother to the current queen. And not remotely foreign: She was born in Kensington Palace, at least according to this book.

One thing James Pope-Hennessy does clear up in `The Quest for Queen Mary’ (Hodder, London, 2018: https://www.hodder.co.uk/books/detail.page?isbn=9781529330625) was something that had greatly impressed my grandmother during the brief moments when she presented herself before the Queen – and that was the pure, smooth quality of her skin. I’d always considered it hyperbole imposed in hindsight, but no: Nan was right. May, as her few friends who dared use this familiar term called her, did indeed have pellucid, fair skin even into old age.

This book is not the formal and officially approved biography Pope-Hennessy wrote in the 1950s,but the edited notes, collated and adorned with explanatory references by Hugo Vickers. They are, as other reviewers have noted, utterly hilarious – written with a subtle, and often subversive humour, and giving a glimpse of a lost world. The jaded tour of the intimidating and unlovable Norfolk pile of Sandringham alone is worth reading the book for. But there are other deeply comical encounters and pen portraits of the vestiges of European royalty, all delivered with a gentle but nevertheless often mocking prose style.

My very very peripheral engagement as a diplomat with British royalty confirms that Pope-Hennessy’s point about it not so much being them that makes them difficult to deal with but the courtiers and flunkies around them is bang on the money. A decade and a half ago I had to accompany one around China. His staff were an incredible menagerie of indiscreet, often anarchic, deeply obsequious creatures, but the tales they told of shenanigans back at home base was even more unsettling. They really did sound a queer bunch – obsessing half the time about the slightest daily needs of their patron, and the rest of the time taking lumps out of each other, or, to not put to fine a point on it, sleeping with them.

Blissfully, my life has been largely free of this sort of burden since then. I always look with the greatest sympathy on social media posts of smiling royals having their latest visitation that former colleagues still in the service put up. I know the  price everyone has had to pay to get the events they are advertising successfully dispatched and out of the way.

Pope-Hennessy talks too of the weird networks of people who hang on to royal associations – he calls them lichen’ which clings to stone in dark and damp places, and in his book deals acidly with a couple of examples. About a decade ago I was on a bus travelling down the Strand and this remarkable middle aged neatly dressed man and his mother got on. I know it was his mother because as she cursed him in some blood curdling sounding foreign language he would translate her words calmly so the rest of the bus passengers could hear. `No Mother, you cannot kill me by pushing me off a cliff. There are no cliffs in London.’ Even more unsettling was the way he interjected these translations by what sounded like a highly informed commentary of the links between every place we passed and some member of the Royal family. `And here is where Her Royal Highness the Princess Alice graced the merchants of this shop with her presence in 1958.’  I guess he proved in a melancholy way that the British Royal Family literally can send some people insane.

Because of the emotions invested in them, however, it has proved fruitless to display republican inclinations too openly in contemporary UK. And in a way Pope-Hennessy’s marvellous accounts of his Royal tour to interview figures in the late 1950s proves that for sheer eccentric comic value they probably do have a role.  He himself, as Vickers writes in his introduction, enjoyed a less comical ending, tied up and beaten in the early 1970s by thieves,  by then already a well progressed alcoholic, and dying a few days later of the effects of this crime. His brother lived longer and himself enjoyed a distinguished career latterly as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Someone I know who worked with him in the 1970s referred to him tartly as `The Pope’ recently. For a moment I thought they were talking about the real one. But as this book shows, real’ is negotiable.

 

Queen Mary