I’ve always been a bit bemused by the enormous, and more often than not malevolent, influence attributed to Vladimir Putin and Russia. The controversy about Russian influence on the 2016 UK EU membership referendum, and then on the outcome of the US election the same year, seemed a bit overblown. How could bots and social media and gross disinformation, misinformation, outright lies, call it what you will, influence people so much? Hadn’t the targets of all this – the voters in democratic countries – been educated in critical thinking, assessing evidence, engaging with plural view points? How could something as crude as a propaganda campaign via Twitter and Facebook penetrate things so much and fool so many people?
Nor could I really understand why Russia supposedly invested so much in this when its own economy was pretty small (eleventh in the world according to https://www.investopedia.com/insights/worlds-top-economies/, but barely 5 per cent of the US number, and 9 per cent of China’s), and consistently being hit by sanctions because of its claimed adventures abroad – the string of mysterious murders for instance, ending with the Salisbury poisonings in 2018. Didn’t it have better things to do with its money? Why didn’t it just do what China did and pump up its economic might? Had it learned nothing from the collapse of the USSR in 1991, when most analysis put a good part of that down to over-commitments to military spend over other more productive areas of growth supporting activity.
What I lacked was (drumroll) a narrative framework to make sense of this weird behaviour. It couldn’t all be because of Putin. His demonization in the West seemed way too straightforward. Surely it was about something he represented. But what? Reading FT journalist and long-time Russia watcher Catherine Belton’s compelling `Putin’s People’ (William Collins, London, 2020) has finally enlightened me. I am sorry for being so slow. For her, it’s very complex, but in the end also very straightforward. If China today is a political party masquerading as a country, then Russia is like a mafia group pretending to be a nation. It has used its weakness as its strength, deploying reckless moves like it has nothing to lose because, in essence, it does have nothing to lose. Putin, as she explains with clinical detail, is symbolic of a group of KGB operatives who may never have bought into Marxism Leninism while the USSR was around, but certainly drank the addictive drug of uber-nationalism. For them the Yeltsin era was a dark night of the soul. Putin, in power since 2000, was the corrective, restoring to influence around him a bunch of shadowy figures (they are listed in the book) who can now legitimise their continuation of the dark arts as governors rather than undercover agents. They might never be as strong as the West was, and still (just about) is. But they can certainly do their best to make it as weak as them. That seems to be the logic of their strategy.
Government as KGB-operator sort of accounts for the investment in psychological operations, and the patient way in which Russia, through business people, and sleeper agents, has slowly spread a network across Europe, the US and the wider world. Its greatest assets have been in two areas – naïve conviction in Washington and elsewhere early on that Western liberal values would prevail in a country that is culturally and historically so deeply linked to Europe; and the enormous, unaccountable amounts of money from gas and energy that have allowed the Russian network that Belton so admirably describes to reach deep into banking, commercial, and finally political networks outside the country. The UK, dismayingly, figures large here – London operating as a major centre for Russian money, and for flows of wealth that have managed to gush into the pockets of a wide range of people. It would be pointless to try to precis Belton’s account of this – that occurs in the eleventh chapter, `Londongrad’, from page 344. But while we hear some British politicians, particularly in the currently ruling Conservative Party, rail against the malign influence of China, in fact this is small beer compared to the largesse that Moscow business people managed to deploy over the previous decade and a half – much of it to members of their own Party! Maybe what we are seeing is a case of once bitten, twice shy – but boy, were we bitten – and by people who ended up literally getting away with murder.
Which bring me to the case of China. So are Xi and Putin different? Should we look at the Russian psychological warfare games and their many successes over the last few years and see that as a template for what China intends to do? The bad news is that China has figured in the very justifiable paranoia of British, American and European political elites now, with the expectation that it will be a new Russia. The claims about it buying influence and seeking political networks has spread in Australia, the UK, and will almost certainly intensify. Already, over COVID19 the phrase `Chinese disinformation’ is starting to gain traction. But before getting too excited by this, let’s dwell on the good news. China is clearly, for cultural and other reasons, nowhere near as good as the Russians at this. We know that because we are already aware of its attempts. Russia was already deep inside us before we had an inkling what was happening. China is barely coming up the road towards us and we are already howling in warning! The brute fact is that if the Russian political system with its psychological mendacity and intelligence had the money China does now, we would be sunk. It would be the same if China with its vast resources had the same kind of ability to read and get under the skin of Western governments and elites the way Russia has. At the moment, we have to thank our lucky stars that the one that is good at reading the West and disrupting it is limited by its small economy, and the one with the massive economy is too culturally and political different, and inexperienced, to do the dark work particularly well. At least till now!
This is no praise for Russia. As Belton makes clear, it is holding a tiger by the tail, almost parasitical on a Europe/US world it dislikes but defines itself against. With China, things are very different. Xi is not like Putin, and now with Belton’s book I know why. He was not from an intelligence background. Wisely, the Communist Party of China has been led largely by professional cadres in recent years. The intelligences services serve them – they never become their masters. Ditto the military. Spies becoming leaders is rarely a good look, even when they say they’ve retired! And while the KGB faction has clearly annexed the whole business and state machinery in Russia, in China the Party has annexed everything – with a far broader, more complex and more penetrating hold over society. Xi has constructed loyalty to the nation through the Party. Despite all the guff about Xi factions, and various other groupings, the Party faction is the one that matters – and it is a powerful one, because, by default, everyone is a member of it! Different context, and a different meaning I know, but in Russia, if you work for the KGB network you win, and if not, you lose. In China, Party member or not, if you stand by the Party even outside of it it’s always win win!
Matthew Polly in `Bruce Lee: A Life’ (Simon and Schuster, London and New York, 2018) says that the actor and martial arts master was the first figure who truly brought the culture and thinking of the Chinese world into the lives of Americans, Europeans and others. I can testify that this is true. In the early 1970s, when I was just coming to consciousness generally, Bruce Lee was there – on the television, in magazines, in cartoons. At the same time, however, he was also, tragically, already gone. He had died, I knew, in Hong Kong in late 1973. I had thought this was through some terrible accident during one of the epic fights in one of this films. Of course, that wasn’t the case. But the myth was reaching me, even without looking for it, in provincial Kent around the period immediately after his death.
Polly is a martial arts enthusiast, and he writes lovingly about the unique form of combat that Lee created, and the foundations of this on a philosophical view – use of inactivity and control, like, as Lee himself famously said, water – moulding itself, giving way where it has to, but accumulating massive reserves of strength till finally, it can overthrow whatever stands in its way.
Lee died at the age of 32. The complex circumstances of his death are examined in some detail in this book. The problem was his being with his mistress at the time, rather than with his American wife Linda, and the somewhat confused attempts by her, and others, to try to conceal this. Claims that he had suffered a kind of drugs overdose were soon undermined by the fact that the drug he did use, cannabis, was not one that could be overdosed on, and the fact that in any case his symptoms were closer to suffering from heat stroke. This is the reason that Polly settles on. No doubt though, the conspiracy theorists will continue with their own fancies.
Lee was truly an icon, and if today we look at the critical need to educate and create understanding about the Chinese world and its deep, rich culture and thinking as it becomes increasingly significant in our lives, then without what he achieved in his short life we would be in an even worse position than we already are. He made Asia familiar to vast numbers of people who knew little, or nothing of it, before his work. He also overcame tremendous prejudice, showing in his slender but immensely influential oeuvre of film works that a person of Chinese heritage could be the equal, and in many ways, the superior, of others who came into conflict with them. Lee was courageously insistent in his films, when he had the ability to do so later in his career, that he would always be portrayed as the winner – and that the old stereotypes of oriental femininity, weakness, and lack of confidence would be put to rest.
Not that he carried an easy identity in Hong Kong. Hong Kong identity has been done to death by theorists, sociologists, and anthropologists, so it is amusing that Polly manages through the story of Lee to say more about the curious edginess and vulnerability of the city’s feeling about itself than most of this work put together. It was, as Polly explains, almost like a refugee camp for much of its early colonial history, with a British leadership who were largely remote and unengaged with the social and cultural life of the place, focussed as they were on maintaining the commercial prowess of the port and the finance centre they were building there. This makes the new-found zealous desire, almost a quarter of a century after the end of the colonial period by some in Britain to defend freedoms in Hong Kong they themselves never promoted except towards the very end, even more curious. What is clear in this account is that before Lee, Hong Kong was often stuck in defining itself by what it was not – in particular, not Mainland China, nor Britain. Caught like the filling in a sandwich between these two great forces, Lee’s hybridity captured well the city’s complexity – a person of Han Chinese ethnicity, yet whose great grandfather had been Dutch-Jewish, and who had spent most of his life in the US.
This placelessness that Lee had coming from his family background and his own life path meant the media during this life in the city, after an initial period of adulation, were keen to pick him apart – his aggression, his assertiveness, and, bizarrely, even his ability to grow a thick beard, as he did briefly in the 1970s. All of this was taken as proof that he was not quite the real thing. Lee himself however articulate admirably a desire for unity – for a global spirit on oneness, and for being tolerant of others. His uneasy place in the local consciousness meant that it was not until the 2000s that a statue of him was properly unveiled in the city. Before then, his mark there had been as good as invisible. It is odd there is not a proper Bruce Lee museum, commemorating his achievements, or more made of him in the city’s branding of itself. He is, as Polly states, one of the modern world’s great cultural icons, even now – and one of the very, very few one could place beside the very different alternative – the face of Mao Zedong.
(An excerpt from the Introduction to Kerry Brown, `Chinese Life: A Tale of Five Cities’, published by China Publishing Corporation, Beijing, 2020. This is an attempt to simply describe the experiences and atmosphere of the five places in China that I came to most understand and enjoy).
I was born in Kent in the south eastern part of the UK, in the late 1960s. Kent is famous as a place rich in history, a crossing point between the coast and the ports of Dover and Folkestone, and the northern parts of the island, via, from Roman times two thousand years ago, the city of London, which was established then. Kent is small, and existed as its own kingdom till the eight century. It was then amalgamated into larger kingdoms. Its identity, though, has always been strong. And it has perhaps of all the British areas the richest literary history. Chaucer, the earliest English language poet, often came here; Dickens, one of Britain’s greatest novelists, spent much of his childhood here, and lived in the western part of the country as an adult. Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond 007 spy novels, had a house here, and wrote some of this thrillers while staying here. The poet T S Eliot sat in a beach hut in Margate and pondered his future after a mental breakdown, writing parts of his seminal poem `The Wasteland’ here. H G Wells lived in Folkestone, on the southern coast, and the great director Derek Jarman owned a house and small but extraordinary garden in Dungeness. Perhaps most extraordinary of all was the Polish-Ukrainian born sailor Joseph Conrad, who made the villages around Canterbury his home in the latter part of his life. It was here, writing in his third language, that he produced `The Heart of Darkness’, one of the greatest of twentieth century novellas, and which he set on a ship moored near the port own of Gravesend. Kent was even the home of the war time leader, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Winston Churchill.
I was educated at schools in Kent, in the state system – first at a primary school and then a grammar school. And through them, I gained a position at Cambridge University, and read philosophy and then English literature. My interests were, throughout this time, within the western tradition. Greek philosophy, English thinkers like Locke and Hobbes, and Europeans like Wittgenstein and Kant – these were the staples of this kind of education. English empiricism, with continental idealism regarded as an exotic counter-tradition. This was a world which began and ended with the Western cannon, and where ability to read and think in French or German was regarded as unusual, and acquaintance with Russian language and literature `oriental’.
Later on I became acquainted with arguments by figures like Edward Said, the American Palestinian writer, about the tradition of Europe to be self-absorbed, and to confine everything outside of this cultural sphere to that vast area called `The Orient’. As a school boy, and at university, these places were not only unknown, but unknowable. My earliest memory of anything Chinese was the face of Mao Zedong on television in September 1976 announcing his death. A decade later, I acquired a large history of Chinese civilisation, and tried to read it. But it seemed to refer to a timeline and a narrative of history that I found impossible to relate to the European ones I was familiar with. There, lists of the reigns of kings and queens and different emperors and states gave me a backbone by which to have a handle on the progression of history. But Chinese imperial dynasties were complex, and went back deep into the past. Names were so unfamiliar, and it seemed to refer to a sense of history, and a story, wholly different to that of Europe, and one where, apart from occasional contact during the Yuan era and the modern period, were parallel with each other but not remotely interconnected.
In my school library, the only books relating to China were an Everyman edition of Confucius’s `Analects’. But a reading of that when I was about 15 was bewildering. No metaphysics, and no straightforward argument like I could find in the almost contemporaneous `Republic’ of Plato, the book seemed to be a collection of cryptic utterances. On television, China was a subject only sporadically glimpsed at – some documentaries, and occasional mentions of the reforms under Deng Xiaoping then underway in the news. But apart from this, China was remote – behind its famous Great Wall, an object I was told (wholly incorrectly, as everyone knows now) which was visible from the moon.
People of Chinese ethnicity in the UK were largely at that time those who had either come to the UK as migrants, or who were the children, or descendants, of earlier arrivals, largely from Hong Kong or Guangdong. There were Chinatowns in London and cities like Manchester, and Chinese restaurants – but again, these were exotic places, and the food that they offered, I found out later, heavily adapted to British tastes. For all of that, they were some of the few places where you could see Chinese characters – mysterious swirling figures utterly unlike the Roman alphabet – or Chinese art, on scrolls or watercolour pictures, and with a style completely different from most western art I was familiar with. There were very few students of Chinese or Asian ethnic heritage in any of the schools I went to. Indeed, the first person of my age I actually talked to in any depth was a student at Cambridge from Singapore. The simple fact was that in the 1980s and even the 1990s, Chinese tourists and students in the UK hardly existed.
The first encounter I ever had with Chinese writing was reading the `Cantos’ by the American poet, Ezra Pound. Pound, through an early twentieth century scholar of Asian cultures Fenolla, had become acquainted with some Tang and Song poetry in translation, and, without fully understanding the meaning of the characters used, had incorporated them into later sections of his epic poem. They sat on the page, between the other lines he had written in English, or Italian, French or Latin, mysterious, stark, and almost disconnected from the text around them. Pound did include transliterations, in the old Wade Giles system, in his text to explain the characters he used – and he also devoted a whole section of a poetic account of the rise and fall of some of the Chinese dynasties. But the effect, in this poem, rendered in this way, was to reinforced the sense of China and Chinese language, history and culture, being radically different – so different as to be almost unknowable.
Making Chinese knowable, and accessible, happened to me personally by accident, rather than intention. I was not a good linguist – my French was passable after two months spent in Paris at the age of 18, and I was, and still can, read it relatively well. My German after two years was almost non-existent, and attempts to self-study Latin got nowhere. If I had presented myself to a university in 1986 when I went to study as a potential student of Mandarin Chinese I would never have been accepted. Chinese was consigned to the `most difficult’ category of languages. That meant only those with proven skills in learning languages could get on formal courses to study it. Oriental studies at Cambridge was a mysterious, very niche area – I met one student in my whole time there on this course. It seemed highly technical, and almost invisible. And the message I got was that a subject like this was for only the most hardcore, serious minded scholars. China and Chinese studies were for the elite of the elites, people with a deep vocation – it often seemed almost like an exclusive religious cult.
One of the books I had been most impressed by around the mid-1980s was `Auto Da Fe’ by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 1981, Elias Canetti. The central figure in that, Peter Klein, epitomised the stereotype of a sinologist. Based in Vienna before and during the takeover by the Nazi party, Klein lived a life of severe self-discipline, and pure devotion to his scholarship. The book starts with a dialogue between he and a young boy in which he explains the meaning of a Chinese character. But as the story develops, his life complicates and darkens. He enters into a disastrous marriage with the only person he has had any regular contact with over the previous few years, his house keeper. She proves to be a grasping, greedy and brutal person. The other figure who appears in his life is a sinister dwarf, and his whole story escalates out of control, resulting in his final demise and the ruination of his orderly, controlled life.
`Auto da Fe’ is a work of wonderful originality and strange power. Often written in an almost semi-hallucinatory way, the choice of career for the fictional Klein is puzzling. Why of all things did Canetti decide on him being a Sinologist, rather than a classicist, or a scientist, or expert in literature. Part of the reason must be because this area above all overs confers a degree of otherness on him, and grants him a kind of mystique. The same might be said of the use of Chinese characters in Pound’s work. Neither had any deep understanding of Chinese language or, for that matter, any lived experience of China. The one poet from the West that did live in the country for any length of time over this period, William Empson, produced works which, tellingly, were devoid of any extensive mentions of the country he spent over a decade in in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps familiarity to him cured him of any temptation to `exoticize’ China. Even so, despite being a hugely accomplished intellectual, he did not study or learn much Chinese while he was there.
Klein was a poor role model for a career that I was one day to end up pursuing. Until the end of my university career, therefore, the best you could say was that the British educational system I had been through, excellent and comprehensive in so many ways, had given me only the most patchy, and superficial knowledge of the culture, history and language of a fifth of humanity. In some ways, it was worse than this. I had also been exposed to hardly anything about Asia more generally. That grew to seem increasingly anomalous as I grew older, and is one of the puzzles that I often think about the cure to today. How was it possible to be highly educated, and yet not educated in some key areas at all. C P Snow, a scientist and academic, had complained in the 1960s about the problem of the `two cultures’ – that of the world’s of natural science and physics or biology, and that of literature and the humanities. His critique had been in its term savagely criticised by the critic F R Leavis in the early 1970s. For Leavis there was only one culture, and different modalities of it – which science, humanities and other thought forms were parts of. But I could say that my educational upbringing had made me aware of a similar kind of `two cultures’ – ones which seemed almost segregated from each other, those of the West, and of the East. How could this great divide be remedied? That is the key theme of the stories in this book.
Up until 1978, one could argue that there were many reasons why China, in particular, was less known about. In the age before instantaneous electronic communication, and airplane travel, for one very practical reason – physical distance – China and the UK were very remote and often inaccessible to each other. Then there was the issue of cool political links between the two up to the 1970s, when there wasn’t even a full embassy in each others’ capitals – only legations. All of that was removed by the rapprochement between the US and China in 1972, which meant the UK was able to upgrade its relations with the People’s Republic. Finally, there was largely a lack of real commercial engagement. China was a developing country, a small economy, and one that was, till the 1980s, largely dependent on primary industries and agriculture. It simply didn’t have the kind of logistic and people to people links with the outside world that meant it was present in people’s lives in ways which, for instance, the US or Australia were. Added to all of this were language problems. The UK and China did not speak the same language. And very few people from either place could communicate with each other.
All of that has, in the second decade of the twenty first century, changed. There are 110,000 Chinese students in the UK in 2018. China is an investor and trader with the UK, and the rest of Europe, and the world, in ways which were not the case before 1978. 120 million Chinese tourists travelled abroad in 2017. Chinese signage is now on shop fronts, greeting people at airports, appearing on adverts on their mobile phones. You no longer, if you live in the west, need to search China out once you develop an interest in the country and its cultures and history; it will, no doubt, come and find you. And yet I suspect that children and young people can still go through the educational system in the US, Europe or elsewhere and come out with as patchy, and incomplete a knowledge as I did three decades ago.
It was a sheer accident that I eventually came to invest the time and effort into understanding China, and to learning its language. There was nothing planned about it. A teacher at university had spent time in Suzhou and recommended going to China to look – but I did nothing about this till I worked in Japan in 1990 for a year, and took the opportunity to fly the short journey from Osaka to Shanghai and Beijing in May 1991, during the famous Japanese Golden Week. Being a tourist in Beijing at this time with not a word of Mandarin was tough. The hotel I stayed at, City Hotel (now no longer) was near Sanlitun and the Worker’s Stadium. I was too afraid to use the underground, even though only two lines existed at the time, and could only go to restaurants where the menu was in English. Everyday, I walked the two miles or more, often in very hot weather, to the Friendship Store, and then on to the Beijing Hotel. I made one attempt to see the Great Wall, by going to what was then a small train station in the south of the city and showing the ticket seller a sign for `Wall’ (qiang). Needless to say, she had no idea what I was trying to ask for. On this occasion, at least, I never got to see the great sight.
I did at least by this time know some written Chinese. I had been studying `kanji’, the loan characters from Chinese in the Japanese language, in Nagahama, Japan, and had managed to memorise about 500. Many of those, however, were in traditional, rather than simplified form, meaning probably about half were recognizable when I tried to interpret menus and other signs in Beijing. The seven days there was a challenging experience. But it also created a kind of bond. The place seemed both very different, and yet very familiar, in ways which were wholly unexpected. The idea of China being `unknowable’ and profoundly mysterious and beyond comprehension started to be seriously challenged. This was a place full of humans like the one I had come from, trying to live their lives, and going about their business in ways very similar that of my home town. A six month stay in Melbourne, Australia, after I left Japan in 1991 reinforced the idea that China and the Chinese language were things I could and should be more knowledgeable about.
Despite its distance, Melbourne was a good place to try to at least get a start on learning Chinese. It had, for one thing, an excellent book shop with learning material in the Chinatown in the heart of the city. And China seemed far more present here than it did back in London. There were more Chinese restaurants, more people of Chinese ethnicity, and, most important of all, some non-ethnically Chinese who had mastered Putonghua – and therefore made it clear to me that this was something one could do even if it wasn’t an inherent part of one’s cultural and family background. The greatest inspiration came from a person I was lodging with at the time – Andrew Beale, a native Australian, but someone who had mastered the language of China to fluency, and who taught it at a secondary school. Days and weeks speaking to him about his life and experiences in China had a huge influence. I am glad to say he is still a good friend to this day, almost thirty years later.
Making China knowable was important. Everyday, I would try to memorise a few more Chinese characters. I was working in a Duty Free shop specifically catering for Japanese tourists, of whom there were plenty at this time. They tended to come in large groups, entering and leaving the shop, and making large, unbusy gaps in between. I would stroll around the shop, with a pad in my hand, convincing the manager I was occupied doing inventory and stock checks, but actually writing down all the characters I knew. Usually I got to about seven or eight hundred. I even kept a primitive diary in Chinese. I tried to learn Chinese at night, and during the journey in and out of the city centre on the tram. The problem was, however, that while I could work out the grammar well enough (and we overjoyed by how much more familiar it seemed than gender-infested German or declension drenched Latin) even coming out with the simplest spoken sentence often proved impossible.
Back in the UK, I found that there was only one practical, year long post graduate diploma course in Mandarin Chinese. It was here that I hit the issue of how specialised and exclusive studying Chinese was in the British system again. Leeds and the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) both did masters courses, but with very limited language learning. The response to most of the places I spoke to was that I either learned Chinese privately (which was extremely expensive) or did a whole new undergraduate degree, taking up four years. Only a place called Thames Valley University, which before this went under the name Ealing Polytechnic before these were upgraded, had something affordable, and practical. Even then, without a bursary from the Great Britain China Centre I would have found it hard to embark on a degree.
My memory of learning Chinese in earnest therefore is not of living in Beijing, or Shanghai, or some of the places mentioned in this book. It is instead of sitting in a small bedsit in West London, near to Acton Town tube, over 1993 and into 1994, and learning passages, reading Chinese novels and news papers with a dictionary by my side, and having conversation exchange partnerships with about half a dozen people, sometimes putting in ten hours of study a day. For eight months I did this, trying almost to create a little world of China around me in a city thousands of miles from the country I was becoming so interested in. If I bought books, they were about China. It I went to films, they were the few then being shown which were in Chinese. I tried to eat each day in Chinese restaurants, and get whatever knowledge I could about China. Even when I went to Second Hand Bookshops I trawled through the bookshelves trying to find anything relevant – some of it over a century old.
This could almost be called my second education. I started to know that there were figures like Cao Xueqin, author of the great Qing dynasty novel `Dream of the Red Mansion’ and historic figures like Sima Qian, the Grand Historian from the Han Dynasty. I came to appreciate that Confucius was one of a large number of other thinkers around the Warring States time, four centuries before the time of Christ – people like Mencius and Han Fei and Mo Zi. For the first time I learned of Lu Xun, the greatest of the early twentieth century Chinese writers, and of events like the May Fourth Movement in 1919, and the anti-Japanese war from 1937. I read Edgar Snow’s `Red Star Over China’, the first account in English of the rise of Communism in China and then his subsequent visits to the country in the 1960s. I learned about oracle bones, the First Emperor, the Tang Dynasty, and the voyages of admiral Zheng He in the early 15th century. It seemed an extraordinary thing that this world, which was there all the time, had never appeared to me. But then, like most other people in the West, I hadn’t been inclined to look, and had been given the impression that even were I to seek, what I would find would prove to difficult to understand.
Carl Jung, the psychologist, and one of the western intellectuals figures of the twentieth century most interested in Asian religion, philosophy and belief systems, had categorised humans as `symbol loving species’. I guess one could add to that that humans are, through symbols, lovers of stories. One of the great challenges of engaging with China was to try to create my own understanding of the China story I needed to construct, and what my own China story would be. Chinese history was long and impossibly complex. But it was also, at first inspection, full of contradictions – a country which was new and old; one that seemed diverse and yet uniform; a place where there was no unifying framework supplied by adherence to a common belief system, as had, eventually, happened in the West from the fourth century onwards through adoption of Christianity. There was this China of what looked like industrialised cities and the other place which seemed to have jungles and pandas still living in the wild there. This place was not an easy one to fit into any pre-conceived box. It seemed to evade easy assumptions and frameworks. And Chinese people, after all, during the early period of learning about the country, were not that present even in a major centre like London.
The only remedy for that was to actually go and live in China. So I applied to work for an organisation partly funded by British government aid money at the time, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). That was the reason why I spent two years in the Inner Mongolia region of China from 1994, where, to all intents and purposes, I finally manged to speak and read Chinese with some fluency – and, after a fashion (as the first chapter will show) write it.
The `unknowability’ of China, and the need to move beyond that and make both a China story, but one which is honest, truthful and, above all, manageable, is the main theme of this book. The personal account I have given above at least offers some context for why someone who had never had any link whatsoever with China came, from their mid-20s, to increasingly focus on the ideas, histories, literatures and people of this geography. Since 1994, I have worked as a diplomat, business person, consultant, and then finally academic in, with and on China. I have been to every single province and autonomous region, lived in the country for over five and a half years, and visited more than a hundred. From 2006, I have written twenty books on China lectured about the politics, economics and history of China in over 35 countries in four continents. I have lived over three years in Australia, working as an academic dealing with China, and back in the UK. Over that period, I have been interviewed by every major news outlet, from CNN to BBC to Sky to ABC and Al Jazeera
, along with what was once China Central Television (CCTV) and is now China Global Television Network (CGTN). I have written on China for the New York Times, the Telegraph, the British Independent and Guardian, the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and about every other major European language news paper or internet journal. If anyone would have told me even in 1989 that I would have a career like this, I would have regarded them as crazy. At most, I thought I would specialise in English literature. And until 1989, I wanted to simply stay in Cambridge and continue my career there. If I had a dream, it was an English one, not a Chinese one. This book is primarily, therefore, a story of how that England Dream became the China Dream for me.
Before anything else, I have to say that entering and then living this `second life’ has, whatever its challenges, been a source of great joy. And if anyone reading this who is in the same position I was thirty years ago is encouraged to make China and its rich culture and literature knowable the same way that I did, then that would be reward enough for writing it. Sharing the pleasure of knowing about China, and coming to know China better and deeper, is the principle meaning of my professional, and much of my personal life, now. Seeing that there was another realm, a different world with a different view of life and destiny, was immensely liberating. And while there were periods over the era of this encounter in my life when things were very challenging – when it seemed extremely tough to fit in in China, and hard to make sense of many of the things I was experiencing and seeing – that has all been immeasurably outweighed by the returns of investing in understanding the country and getting to know some of its people better. China being knowable for someone who started off even till quite late in their life knowing woefully little about the place is my main theme. And showing the many different strands of that knowability, and the ways in which it can be shared and understood by almost everyone else who devotes some time and effort to it is hugely important.
The way I have chosen to convey this however is distinctive. A simple autobiographical account would have been tempting, but in the end too limited and subjective. It would be one narrative amongst all the others of those who weave in and out of the life of China, or who belong to the current country’s great and vast national story. My aim is to aim for something which might be a little more useful, and give some ideas or tips about just how those unfamiliar or new to China might make what they see and experience there part of this mission to make all aspects of the country `knowable’ without losing the integrity of its `otherness’ and difference. This is not a popular idea in the era post-Said, where Orientalism and creating `otherness’ is regarded as discriminatory and limiting. Despite that, I will try to show in this book that there is a point beyond this one can see the familiar and the unfamiliar in one organic, balanced, embracing vision, and hold them with their uniqueness while also seeing what connects. The great work of divination from the earliest dynasties of China, the I Ching, talks of everything being connected. Striving to understand and appreciate those points of connectivity , but also to see clearly where margins, boundaries and division lines are is important.
In fact, this lay behind the work of someone I did, very peripherally, know about, and physically at least see a few times, from my college days. The Cambridge college I spent three years as an undergraduate at, Gonville and Caius, was the home of Joseph Needham. He was, in the time I was there, in his mid to late 80s, a stooped, venerable looking figure who would slowly pass across the quads on his way from his rooms to college dinner some evenings. I never managed to speak to him, but was alerted to his great work, `Science and Civilisation’ and to some of his long and distinguished experience of China from the 1940s. I had, too, at least one thing in common with him – he had clearly come to study and understanding of China relatively late in his career, after an early period where he had been a biochemist. Needham had worked at the British Legation in Chongqing as a Science and Technology attaché in the latter part of the Sino Japanese War era, when the nationalists moved to this south western city then in Sichuan province to make it their national capital. It was there that he had been alerted to the rich history of scientific thinking in China, dating back to the pre-Qin era, and to the eras in which China had historically been an innovative and inventing powerhouse. This inspired the rest of his life – resulting in the many volumes of his great work, some authored by him, some by other experts, which continues t this day. A few years after I graduated in 1989, he died, aged 95, in 1995. One of his obituaries noted that he was the greatest European scholar since Erasmus, of the early renaissance period.
Needham had answered one of the enquiries about what had drawn him to China so deeply by the statement that engagement with the country and its intellectual history and the values underpinning this had been an exposure to something wholly different from that of the western tradition. It offered an alternative, another way of looking at reality. When I deployed this line at a talk in Shanghai some time in the mid-2000s, someone in the audience rightly pointed out that this was `orientalist’. But even so, it seemed to me an idea I was reluctant to give up. China didn’t exist on another planet, for sure. But it had a coherent set of social practices, a narrative of its histories, and a whole attitude towards the world which certainly differed from the tradition I had grown up in. How could I ignore that?
In this book, I have decided to focus on something tangible, and very physical, as a way of telling my China story, but also illustrating this issue of difference, but how differences can aid the quest to make something more defined and knowable. Place is something that always fascinated, and continues to fascinate me, in my life in England. The relationship of particular places, for instance, to the lives of writers, something I mentioned at the start of this introduction, in Kent. The memory traces, as they are called, that are left after major events in places like fields where battles occurred, or buildings where major events happened, or cities or towns which testify to the many different kinds of lives that have been lived there over the generations. Ancient places were of specific interest – fragments of old churches in the UK which went back to the earliest period when Christianity was being spread here, in the fifth and sixth century, or the faint traces of roads from the Roman period, which are often left in the landscape. Domestic buildings which, despite modernised facades facing the high streets, were clearly very ancient behind these, or woods which had iron age or other remains covered up by shrubs or trees, but still were just about visible.
Coming to a new city, right from when I was quite young, I would always try to get a map of it in my head. This was helped in Britain, and Europe, by the simple fact that almost every place, however old or new, usually had a specific pattern – a church or churches, or a cathedral, somewhere near the centre, and then perhaps a city or town or village square, with businesses, restaurants, a pub, hotels, and, spanning out from this, parks, monuments, major streets, leading to other hubs and major features. Sometimes there were very visible public buildings – government offices, or institutions, or museums. At other times there were art galleries, or newly rebuilt areas where the feel and features of the buildings were wholly different. All of this helped build up an idea of age, character, and contributed to the sense of place.
One of the great challenges in exploring places in China, as this book will illustrate, is that the lay out and geography, and the meaning of particular places, along with the best way to interpret these, is very different. Contemporary China, the place I have been visiting and familiar with over the last quarter of a century, is a place that has undergone and continues to undergo immense physical transformation. Cities can change in the space of a few years, so they are often almost unrecognisable from the first time one visited. This only adds to the original problem – how someone from a different cultural background can start to `read’ the terrain they are physically walking in. Temples instead of churches is one of the easier issues to readapt to and be alert about. But the ways in which city space and town space is organised and managed, the functions of buildings, their style, the ways in which you can date them – all of this needs different kinds of knowledge.
For someone non-Chinese like me, navigating and coming to terms with a new place in the country is challenging. But it is absolutely necessary. One issue is the very practical one of climate – of how because of temperature, it is frequently not easy to walk far in Chinese cities, particularly in the southern more tropical areas, where being outside for only a few minutes can leave you drenched in sweat. The other is how often paths and roads in China are not easy to walk along – simply because there is so much traffic, and so much of it is different (bikes, vans, lorries). Chinese cities, unsurprisingly, are far more crowded than most western ones because the population is greater. Their signage is different, road etiquette completely unlike the UK (crossing roads in China can be famously challenging, rules of the road are different, the status of pedestrians also different). Very finally, in many Chinese cities, particularly further back in the past, when I walked around I was conspicuous, the only person with fairer hair. It was hard to simply fit into the crowd. If I stopped to look at something, I sometimes gathered a crowd of onlookers around me. In recent years, with the rise of foreign tourist numbers in China, this issue has become almost negligible.
What sense one makes of what one sees, however, is another matter. Local histories, and the ways in which places testify to events in the past, is largely conveyed through very general guidebooks, and then in Chinese language material, which is, of course, harder to access. The places I have written about in this book are mostly well studied and well known. There are other books about them, many in English. Even so, getting real intimacy with their stories is not easy. So this account is predominantly personal – and not a pretence at writing anything like an authoritative history of these places. In that sense, it offers simple a history of me understanding and growing to have feelings and impression and attitudes towards these different cities.
The places I have covered all have symbolic importance to me. Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia, was the city I went to in 1994 to work for VSO at the Inner Mongolia Medical College. Whatever I knew about China, I knew next to nothing about the climate, location, culture and history of this place. For two years, I studied Chinese there, in the main local university, while teaching post graduate doctors English. I went back many times after I departed in 1996, and saw the physical transformation of this place. But this is also about the grasslands, stretched around the city, and the difficulties of trying to understand their geography and atmosphere.
The second chapter covers my experience of the capital, Beijing, from the first visit there in 1991, to the period in which I lived there from 2000 to 2003 as a diplomat, and the times I have been since. In some senses, as the place I best know in China this chapter operates more as a palimpsest, offering up different parts of the city and different times when I visited. The best I can do is to chose some of the most meaningful places, and create a personal narrative from this.
The third chapter is of a place I have actually written a whole book about – the great city of Shanghai. This is in some ways the account of a conversion – from disliking the city because of its sheer size and energy when I first visited in 1998 as a freshly appointed diplomat still based in the UK, to spending a great deal of time in the city at the end of the next decade working on the link it had with Liverpool. It was over this period that I great to appreciate the extraordinary atmosphere of the city and the way in which it so dramatically conveys some of the contradictions, and the innovations, of modern China.
The fourth chapter is about Xian, the great Tang dynasty capital, and home most famously today of the Terracotta Warriors, a city I visited for the first time in 2000, taking a British official delegation there, and then returned to many times, becoming increasingly fascinated by the almost endless residue of former dynasties and previous Chinas in the buildings and historic artefacts left in the city.
The final chapter is on Hong Kong, only restored to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, but a place that maintains a unique atmosphere, and which has proved perhaps the most difficult to make sense of. My Hong Kong is not that of a long term expatriate there, but of someone who has enjoyed many short visits since my fist encounter in 1991. For me, therefore, Hong Kong is a special, but very Chinese city – an international Chinese city, perhaps, and one that has physically changed perhaps the least of the others in this book, but offers examples of transformation in other ways.
There is a final strand that runs through this book, and the places I have listed above. That is the business of that most mysterious thing of all – everday life. When I worked at the British Foreign Office in the late 1990s, I remember one day a colleague I was working with sighing and saying that he had `no idea what most people fill their time with.’ In fact, it is even more perplexing than that. We in our own lives, the lives we live, which we alone have complete ownership over and scrutiny of, often have little idea of where time goes, and, when gifted with the freedom and ability to deal with our time, are often overwhelmed or unable to structure it well. We keep busy, we bury ourselves in distraction, and find targets, ideas, things to chase after each day. Sometimes, too, we cede control over the majority of the waking hours we are conscious in by subscribing to the structure and discipline of whoever we work for. In London, most people commute, get on trains, sleep, read the paper, wait till they arrive at their terminus, then get onto buses, or other means of transport, and then go into the place where they work. Most of the time, these are offices, more often than not communal ones, meaning one deals with a specific circle of people each day, with the pleasures, reassurances and challenges that involves. There are meetings, lunches, appointments, times before the computer, times on the phone, times in meetings. The grammar or daily life in post-modern societies, for all the variety, is often standardised, no matter where one lives. For me, even in the times when I lived a life like this (thankfully, not very often) it was always a case of trying to create more variety, more stimulation, more engagement in the prescribed daily structure that was supplied for me. Probably many people are like this – creative about the opportunities open to them, making the structure of the day more bespoke. But there are limits. And bosses are often intolerant of too much creativity.
The structure of the day and of everyday life in a new place as the separate accounts which follow of each of the places will show, was often different. In Hohhot, I was immersed in a new cultural and social context and from day one had to find co-ordinates, familiarity and reliable routines, things that shaped my time. I had limited teaching hours – the rest was for me to fill. And as someone wholly fresh to this place, that meant challenges, creativity, a sense of being on an adventure where there was freedom to do things and shape things and a great deal of self-determination. But there was also the task of learning new social norms, new codes of etiquette, new boundaries that I had to be heedful of in order to integrate and settle in. We all know of the intolerant outsider, the person who comes, particularly from a western context, into a place like China, and expects, wants, demands things to be absolutely as they had found them back home. The constant battle to achieve what is impossible, because of course things cannot be the same, often leads to a period of fractious battle with the environment and the people in it around them, and then either reconciliation and adaptation, or, more often, dissatisfaction and departure.
In Beijing I was more of an organisation and lived a more structured life. For Xian and Shanghai, and to some extent Hong Kong, things were different. For these places, I was a visitor, never staying for more than a few days at any single time, passing through, and had limited commitments to the environment I lived in. That entailed a certain amount of privilege – not needing to grow too attached to the place, able to exercise the detachment of an observer rather than someone too implicated and owned by a place. But the range, and depth, of feelings for the second kind of relationship to a place are very different to the first. That will hopefully come across in my accounts.
Because of this interest in the basic structure of everyday life, that gives the accounts that follow a different kind of flavour. These are not travelogues. They are not seeking for the exotic and strange, and not trying to use the privilege of an outside perspective to tease some deep `message’ from each of the places, and put them into some kind of narrative of what China is, how it has to be seen, what its meaning as a country or a culture is. Instead, I have recognised the subjectivity of what I am conveying. There was me, with my set of experiences before I arrived at a particular place, the background I have described above, and the interests I had – and then there are the illuminations that happened when that life, that set of experiences and expectations, happened to then be placed in the new environments mentioned in this book. In a totally different context, the Anglo Saxon historian Nicholas Howe wrote in his book on looking at ancient sites in the UK from the period of the dark ages about how this involved negotiating two realities – the site seen, and the seer, the person looking, with their sets of knowledge and ideas. In China, for me as an individual, as will be seen, this became a constant pre-occupation, particularly as I started to know enough to critique my knowledge and understanding of what I was seeing and experiencing, and start to see it in a richer and more complex context.
The French philosopher Michel de Cereau wrote in `The Practice of Everyday Life’ a rich set of observations about what constituted this `mysterious thing’ – the business of simply going through each day, as an individual. Daily life to him is not the most common and normal thing, but something loaded with different symbols, the site, in fact the only site, where meaning is created, and where goals and stories and aims are defined. Daily life is the ultimate space, the place where life itself happens, not something humdrum and demotic and boring. One of the ideas he articulates is that of frontiers between different spaces of our daily lives – that of work, of leisure, or rest time and active time, intimate time and active time – all of these of course circumscribed by the cultures and habits and modes of behaviour of the larger environment within which a single individual with their life is inevitably embedded. In that sense, a daily life can be seen as an rendition like a soloist of a larger `text’ – the sorts of expectations, beliefs, desires and ideas which arise in any society and culture and which everyday life is an iteration of.
It is not often that one sees lives from such different cultural backgrounds properly described. A lot of material, much of it very good in terms of its honesty and complexity, is written in English, French, and other languages describing China and life in China, the life of Chinese, from the point of view of an observer. The privileged position of the authors of these kind of works is based on their linguistic distance, their specialist knowledge, and their desire to demonstrate neutrality. David Bonavia, one of the finest earliest journalists from Europe working in China after reforms started in 1978 produced, soon after his time there, an account simply called `The Chinese’. No one could contest his knowledge of the environment he lived in. He as a superlative linguist, and a fine journalist. But there is distance built into his account, something which is true of all similar endeavours produced since. It is as though someone were looking through a telescope and seeking, and finding, in an object wholly separate from them, differences, and not only differences but differences that are evidently meant to mean something, and to imply an almost irreconcilable distance.
In this account I have simply tried to cure this problem of distance by focussing on the things that would unite people, whatever the place and background they came from – the physical environment they have to exist in to be people and be in a place with its smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and the ways in which these construct narratives and meanings – and the simple temporal existence of people each day, living in time, patterning their daily habits, no matter whether they are Chinese or from elsewhere. Chinese time as I experienced it in the different places described in this book was something I lived in, as a perpetual outside, but it of course changed and forced adaptation on me. I had to observe the sort of customs of time boundaries in each place I found myself in – the times of shops opening and closing, the moments of the year when there were major festivals, the habits of people each day when they had siestas, or ate, or were watching television, and it was best to either join them or refrain from contacting them till a suitable time came up. The space which China is, and the time that it has as a place, are present as threads throughout this book, and transcend, it seems to me, the issues of culture and habit. They act as fields in which things and people can actually do the business of living. That, in essence, is my theme- the way in which I, coming from elsewhere, negotiated, adapted, and changed, the places and times of the locations in this book. A simple subject, for sure, but one that is so utterly essential, and so often ignored, as a means of describing how finally a bridge can exist between two such different worlds and traditions and cultures and histories of that of China, and of the West.
20世纪60年代后期，我出生在英国东南部肯特郡的乡村。肯特以其丰富的历史内涵名闻遐迩，自两千多年前古罗马时代起，它一直是沿海地区及多佛港、福克斯通港，取道当时业已建成的伦敦市，去往不列颠北部地区的必经之地。肯特的面积不大（不足4000平方公里，仅比上海城区大五倍），直到第八世纪，它一直作为其自己的王国存在。后来，它被并入一些更大的王国。然而， 肯特的人文底蕴却极为厚重。在英国的所有地区中，它拥有或许是最丰富多姿的文学史。乔叟（Geoffrey Chaucer），作为十四世纪最早的英语诗人，常常到访肯特，来履行他作为政府官员的职责（诸如收税以及间谍刺探）；狄更斯（Dickens），作为英国最伟大的小说家之一，19世纪早期在此度过了他很长一段童年岁月，成年后则居住在西部乡村，直至他于1870年离开人世。创作了詹姆斯·邦德007间谍小说的伊恩·弗莱明（Ian Fleming）在肯特拥有一座乡间寓所，在此逗留期间完成了其中几部惊悚作品。1921年，诗人艾略特（T. S. Eliot）枯坐在马盖特海边的一座海滩小屋内，在经历了一场神经崩溃之后，思索着自己的未来，写下了其最有影响力的诗作《荒原》的某些片段。 举世闻名的《星际战争》一书的作者赫伯特·乔治·威尔斯（H. G. Wells）曾客居南部滨海小镇福克斯通，而伟大的电影导演德里克·贾曼（Derek Jarman）则在邓杰内斯置有一栋别墅及一座小巧但又十分别致的花园。或许，在所有这些文人墨客中，最卓尔不凡的当属出生于波兰-乌克兰的水手约瑟夫·康拉德（Joseph Conrad），在其后半生，他以坎特伯雷周边的村庄为家，在此用其第三语言创作了被誉为20世纪最伟大中篇小说之一的《黑暗之心》，他为该作品设定的背景是一艘停泊在格雷夫森德港口的船。肯特甚至还是英国战时领袖、诺贝尔文学奖得主温斯顿·丘吉尔（Winston Churchill）的家的所在地。
后来，我逐渐熟悉了像巴勒斯坦裔美国作家爱德华·萨义德（Edward Said）一类的人物所提出的论点，将欧洲传统描述为过于“自恋”，并批评该传统是如何将欧洲传统这一文化范畴之外的一切，全部纳入到一个庞大的研究领域，将该领域含混地、且毫无助益地统称为“东方学”。无论是在中小学，还是在大学期间，这个庞大的术语所涵盖的所有地方，对我而言既一无所知，亦一概不可知。我头脑中最早的与中国有丝毫关联的记忆，是当时中国领导人毛泽东的脸——1976年12月，电视上播放了他去世的消息。十年之后，我弄到了一本由法国学者雅克·格奈特（Jacques Gernet）所撰写的关于中国文明的大部头著作，我尽力加以研习。但我发现，该书所涉及到的时间轴以及对历史的叙述，似乎均无法与我所熟悉的欧洲的时间轴及历史叙述形成任何关联。在欧洲传统中，一长串又一长串的欧洲国家的国王和女王的统治，以及不同的皇帝与女皇，能给我提供一个架构，藉此把握历史的演进。但中国的朝代极为纷繁复杂，历史更为久远，各朝代的名称甚为陌生，而关于这些朝代的历史所涉及到的，似乎是一种全然不同于欧洲的时间感与叙事，在这种历史叙述中，中国与欧洲除了在13、14世纪的元代以及近代有所交集之外，历史事件虽彼此平行发生，但彼此间没有丝毫的关联。
我第一次接触中国文学作品，是阅读了出自美国诗人埃兹拉·庞德（Ezra Pound）之手的《诗经》（Cantos）。庞德通过20世纪初一位亚洲文化（特别是日本文化）学者欧内斯特·芬诺列萨（Ernest Fenollosa），熟悉了一些译成英语的唐宋诗词，并且在并不完全理解所使用的汉字意义的情况下，把它们融合到他自己那部史诗般诗篇的后半部分。这些汉字出现在书页上，夹在他用英语、意大利语、法语或拉丁语写成的其它字里行间，显得神秘、生硬，几乎与它们周围的文本断无关联。庞德在他的文本和翻译中，确实采用古老的威妥玛-翟理斯 (Wade Giles) 拼音法，附上了音译，来解释他所使用的汉字。他还专门辟出一个章节，用诗歌的体裁对中国一些朝代的兴衰交替进行了叙述。但是，在这首诗中，他以这种方式来处理汉字，所追求的效果主要是为了强化这样一种意识，即中国、汉语、中国历史和中国文化，与西方的那些完全大相径庭——两者间存在着如此的天壤之别，以至于几乎是不可知的。我由此得出结论，中国极为复杂，难于知晓。
20世纪80年代中期，《汽车大铁》一书给我留下了最为深刻的印象，它是1981年诺贝尔文学奖获得者埃利亚斯·卡内蒂（Elias Canetti）的作品。书中最核心的人物，彼得·克莱因（Peter Klein），集中体现着一个关于汉学家的刻板印象。20世纪30年代，克莱因居住在被纳粹党接管之前和接管期间的维也纳，他的生活极度自律，全身心奉献于学术。小说的开头，是他和一个小男孩的对话，在对话中他解释一个汉字的含义。但随着故事情节的展开，他的生活变得愈发复杂，日趋黯淡。在此前的几年里，他只与他家里的帮佣维持着定期的接触，两人陷入灾难性的婚姻。她被证明占有欲极强，贪得无厌、且甚为残酷。出现在他生命中的另一个人，是一个邪恶阴险的侏儒，而他的整个故事愈演愈烈，失去控制，导致他最终的死亡，他那本来序然有序、按部就班的生活也毁灭殆尽。
对于我日后所追求的汉学家这一职业生涯而言，克莱恩可谓是一个十分糟糕的榜样。因此，在我大学生涯行将结束之际，我对自己所经历过的英国教育体系，最好的评价充其量也就是，虽然它在诸多方面相当优秀，且范围广泛，但关于那个占了全人类五分之一人口的民族及其文化、历史和语言，英国教育所赋予给我的知识，却极为零碎、肤浅。在某些方面，情况甚至比这更糟。此外，对于亚洲的概况，我也无甚接触，知之寥寥。随着我年岁渐高，那种情况变得愈发不正常，时至今日，这也是我颇费思忖的人生困惑之一，力图予以弥补。一个受到过良好教育的人，为何在某些关键性的领域竟然一无所知呢？查尔斯·佩尔西·斯诺（C. P. Snow），一位科学家和学者，在20世纪60年代曾对“两种文化”问题满腹牢骚，一种是由自然科学界及物理学或生物学界所构成的文化，另一种是由文学和人文科学界所构成的文化。他的这番论述却在20世纪70年代遭到了批评家弗兰克·雷蒙德·利维斯（F. R. Leavis）言辞激烈的冷嘲热讽。在利维斯看来，世界上仅有一种文化，以及这种文化的不同表现形态，所谓科学、人文学科及其它思想形式，均是这种文化的不同组成部分。 然而，我所能说的是，我在教育方面的成长经历使我意识到了一种类似的“两种文化”情形，这两种文化被一堵藩篱几乎彼此隔绝，这两种文化便是东方文化与西方文化。这一巨大的鸿沟究竟如何才能得以弥合，这便是本书所要叙述的一个个故事的主旨所在。
尽管墨尔本与中国相距遥远，但它仍不失为一个不错的场所，至少为我试图学习中文创造了一个良好的开端。一方面，位于市中心地带的唐人街有一家很棒的书店，里面有很多中文学习材料 。在这里，中国给人的存在感要远胜于在伦敦给人的那种感觉。这里有更多的中餐馆，更多的中国裔人口，最为重要的是，还有一定数量的非中国裔人士，他们掌握了“普通话”。因此，我意识到，一种语言虽然不一定是某个人文化与家庭背景中固有的一部分，但将它学好无疑是一件既可望亦可及的事情。对我而言，最大的励志源泉来自我当时与其合租公寓的那个人，此人名为安德鲁·比尔（Andrew Beale），一位土生土长的澳大利亚人，但他很好地掌握了汉语，水平达到娴熟流利的地步，在当地的一所中学担任汉语老师。我十分欣慰地说，时至今日，几乎经过了三十年的光阴荏苒，他依然是我的一个挚友。
回到英国后，我发现只有一门实用的、学制为一年的汉语研究生文凭课。这里，我再度遇到了要在英国的教育体制中学习中文是多么的专、多么的偏的问题。利兹大学（Leeds University）及伦敦大学（University of London）的亚非学院（School of Oriental and Africa Studies, SOAS）均开设有硕士课程：但专门用于学习汉语的时间甚为有限。我打探过的绝大多数地方，所给出的答覆是，我要么是聘请私人家教学习汉语，这将意味着一笔极其高昂的开销，或者是去完成一个完整的新的本科学位，耗时四年之久。只有一所叫做泰晤士河谷大学（在那些原本更侧重于职业培训的机构完成办学升级之前，该校的名称为伊林理工学院） 的学校能提供相对不算昂贵、且甚为实用的汉语课程。即使在当时，如果没有大不列颠中国中心（Great Britain China Centre）所提供的奖学金，我仍然发现要从事一个学位课程的学习，那将是难之又难。
这一经历几乎可以被称为我人生中的第二次教育。我开始知晓某些著名人物的名字，例如曹雪芹，他是杰出的清代小说《红楼梦》（又名《石头记》）的作者；还有历史人物司马迁，即几乎二千年前的汉代太史令。我也逐渐了解到，孙子是活跃于战国时期前后的诸子百家思想家之一，比西方基督诞生的时代还早了四个世纪，与孟子、韩非子、墨子等人并驾齐驱，探索人生，著书立说，勤于思考。我第一次听说了鲁迅，20世纪早期中国最伟大的作家；我还了解到了一些重大事件，像发生在1919年的五四运动，以及始于1937年的抗日战争。我阅读了埃德加·斯诺（Edgar Snow）所著的《红星照耀中国》（Red Star Over China，又称《西行漫记》），这是第一次有人用英语记述共产主义在中国的兴起，我还读到了他之后在20世纪60年代对中国的访问。我也了解到了甲骨文、始皇帝、唐朝、以及大将郑和在15世纪早期七下西洋的航海之旅。对我而言，中国这样一个自古以来就存在于东方的国度，却从来没有出现在我面前，这是极不寻常的一件事。但即使在当时，如同西方的大多数人一样，我并没有意趣去对中国窥探一番，并且，当时的环境给我的印象是，即使我真的要去作一番“寻寻觅觅”的话，我所探寻到的东西也会显得难以理解。
要弥补这一缺憾，唯一的方法是实际前往中国，并在那里生活。因此，我申请就职于一家名为“英国海外志愿服务社”（Voluntary Service Overseas ,VSO）的组织，该组织当时获得英国政府援助经费中的部分资助。这就是为什么我自1994年起得以在中国的内蒙古地区度过了二年的时光，正是在那里，我终于能够基本上较为流利地用中文进行会话和阅读，并勉强地（如第一章所示）进行写作。
中国的“不可知性”以及如何去超越这种“不可知性”，并将这二者都转化为一个中国故事，将故事讲得坦诚，实事求是，尤其是易于驾驭，这便是本书的主旨所在。我在上面叙述了我的个人经历，它至少可以提供某种语境，藉此说明为什么像我这样一个与中国原本毫无关联的人，竟然会在二十几岁的年龄开始，越来越将注意力聚焦于这一国度的思想、历史、文化以及民众。自1994年起，我的职业角色经历了多重转换，做过外交官、商人、咨询专家，最终成为学者。我的绝大部分时间要么是在中国度过的，要么是在与中国的合作中度过的，要么是在对中国的研究中度过的。我亲身前往中国的每一个省份以及自治区，在中国总计度过了五年半的时光，对中国进行了一百多次的参访。自2006年起，我撰写了论述中国的二十多部著作，在四大洲的三十五个国家，围绕着中国的政治、经济和历史举办过演讲。我在澳大利亚居住过三年，我的工作是作为一个学者对中国展开研究，之后重返英国。这一时期，我接受过世界上每一家主要新闻媒体的采访，其中包括美国有线电视新闻网（CNN），英国广播公司（BBC），美国广播公司（ABC），以及半岛电视台(Al Jazera)，此外，还有当时的中国中央电视台（CCTV）以及现在的中国国际电视台（CGTN）。我所撰写的论述中国的稿件发表于《纽约时报》（New York Times）、《电讯报》（the Telegraph）、《英国独立报》（the British Independent）、《卫报》（Guardian）、《南华早报》（the South China Morning Post）、《中国日报》（China Daily）、以及几乎每一家用主要欧洲语言出版的新闻报纸或网络刊物上。即使在1989年，倘若有人跟我说我会拥有这样一种职业生涯，我会觉得这完全是疯人痴语。充其量，我只会认为我将以英国文学作为我的专业领域。直到1989年，我所梦寐以求的是能留在剑桥大学，在那里继续我的职业生涯。如果我真的拥有什么梦想的话，它也只是一个关乎英国而非关乎中国的梦想。因此，本书所说述的故事，总体而言是原本的英国梦如何在我身上转而化作了中国梦。
事实上，这一点恰恰隐含在某位作者的作品之中。我对这人隐约有所了解，并在我的大学时代至少亲眼看到过他几次。作为本科生，我在剑桥大学度过了三年的时光，冈维尔与凯斯学院（Gonville and Caius）便是大科学家与大学者李约瑟（Joseph Needham）的家所在之处。我在剑桥时，李约瑟已年届八十五与九十岁之间，略显驼背，但看上去令人肃然起敬，傍晚有些个时候，他会从他的房间出来，步履缓慢地穿过四周有建筑物围绕的方院，去参加学院的晚餐。我从来没能跟他说上话，但经人提醒，了解到了他的鸿篇巨著《中国的科学与文明》（Science and Civilisation，即《中国科学技术史》），也知晓了他自20世纪40年代开始的某些既漫长、又杰出的中国经历。此外，我至少还有一件事情与他不无共通之处，那就是他早先时候曾经是一位生化学家，在其职业生涯相对较晚的时候，才开始研究并了解中国。在中国抗日战争后期，李约瑟在驻重庆的英国公使馆工作，其身份为科学参赞。当时，国民政府搬迁至四川的这座西南城市，在20世纪40年代中期将它确立为全国的首都。正是在重庆，李约瑟惊闻了中国丰富的科技思想史，该思想史可一直追溯至秦朝之前，历史上中国在多个时代都是世界创新与发明强国。这一经历激励了他的后半生，最终形成了他多卷本的巨著，有些由他亲自执笔，有些则由其他专家撰写完成。时至今日，这套巨著依然影响巨大。在我1989年毕业之后，又过了数年，李约瑟于1995年与世长辞，终年95岁。关于他的一则讣告写道，他是“自文艺复兴早期的伊拉斯谟（Erasmus）以来最伟大的欧洲学者。”
由于我对日常生活的基本结构兴趣浓厚，这给我接下来所要作出的叙述赋予了一种不同的韵味。这些叙述绝非游记类文字，它们不是为了异国情调或为了猎奇，也不是想利用局外人的视域这一特权，来嘲弄每一个地方所透露出来的某种深层“信息”，更不是对这些地方作某种客观的叙事，以说明当下的中国是什么样子的，它应该如何被外界看待，以及它作为一个国家或作为一种文化，其意义是什么。恰恰相反，我已坦承，我所欲传递给读者的内容带有我的主观色彩。书中的主角就是我，在我到达一个特定地方之前，我带着自己那一整套的经历，以及我在上面所描述的背景，再加上我所拥有的各种兴趣。接下来所发生的便是那种豁然开朗式的颖悟，之所以会如此，因为那样的一种人生，那样的一整套经历与期望，非常巧合地被置于本书所提及的那些全新环境之中。在一个完全不同的语境中，盎格鲁撒克逊历史学家尼古拉·豪威（Nichola Howe）撰写了一本书，讲述如何去欣赏英国自中世纪以来所留下来的古代遗址。书中写道，任何一次观赏都涉及到两个现实之间的交融，一个是被欣赏的遗址，另一个是携带者一整套知识与思想的观赏者本人。“比德的世界”（Bede’s World）是一座现代博物馆，用以纪念英国自第八世纪以来最早的本土史学家的研究工作。在游览这座博物馆时，豪威写道，他必须将两个不同的时代加以平衡，并惊叹道，“这样一处地方竟然能将英国历史相隔1200年之久的两个截然不同的瞬间悬置起来——一个是农业村庄，另一个是工业景观。” 正如读者们所将读到的那样，在中国，对于作为个体的我而言，这已变成一项长期的、聚精会神的事务，尤其是当我开始获得了对中国充分的认知，足以能够让我就所见所闻形成的知识与理解进行剖析，并开始将我的所见所闻置于一个更为丰富和复杂的语境中来予以审视。
法国哲学家米歇尔·德·塞罗（Michel de Cereau）在《日常生活的实践》（The Practice of Everyday Life）一书中，作出了极为丰富的一系列观察，以说明是什么构成了这个“神秘之物”——作为一个个体，一个人究竟应该如何度过每一天。对他而言，日常生活不是最普通和平常之物，而是负载着不同的象征符号，构成了一个场域，事实上是唯一的一个场域，意义在这里得以被创造出来，各种目标、故事及目的得以被界定。日常生活成为终极的空间，成为生活本身得以发生的场所，而不是某种平凡、通俗或乏味的东西。他所表述的一个观点是，在我们日常生活中存在着不同的空间，即工作、闲暇，休息时间与活动时间，亲密时间与活动时间，在这些不同的空间之间，存在着疆界——所有这些空间无疑受到一个更大的环境的文化、习惯及行为模式的制约，因为任何一个单一的个体，只要生活于其中，便无可避免地被囿于这一环境之中。从这层意义上说，日常生活可以被视作仿佛是一位独奏者对某个更大的“文本”所作的诠释，这个“文本”泛指形形色色的期望、信念、欲望与理想，它们源于任何一个社会与文化，而日常生活便是对所有这一切的旦复旦兮的循环交替。
要让一个人恰当地从不同的文化背景来看待生活，这不是能经常发生的事情。关于中国、在中国的生活以及中国人的生活，已经有很多人士从观察者的视角撰写了大量的材料，有英语的，有法语的，还有其它语言的，就诚实性与复杂性而言，其中的大部分材料均属上乘之作。这些类型的著作，其作者们一个得天独厚的优势在于其语言上的距离感，其专家知识，以及他们对于采取中立立场的渴求。戴维·博纳维亚（David Bonavia）是中国在1978年开始实施改革开放之后最早的、也是最出色优秀的欧洲新闻记者之一，他在中国逗留了一段时间之后，便撰写了一部叙述，书名就叫《中国人》（The Chinese）。 没有人能质疑他所呈现的关于他生活于其中的那个环境的知识。他是一个非凡的语言学家，也是一个出色的记者。但他的叙述中存在着一种间隔，而这种间隔普遍存在于自那以后所有类似的著述之中。情况仿佛是，有人透过一架望远镜寻寻觅觅，在一个与他们全然无关的对象身上找到了种种差异，不仅仅是一般性的差异，而且还有某些带有显著意义的差异，但无论如何，这些著述都会暗示某种几乎无可调和的间隔距离。
A lot of people – myself included – speak and write and talk about contemporary Chinese political and intellectual life. One of the particularities of this has always been that getting to hear voices direct, because of the political environment within the People’s Republic, has never been straightforward. Some figures are labelled quickly as being `government friendly.’ Others have to speak in that peculiar register characterised by ambiguity and concealment -`Hanyi’ (含义）as it is called in Chinese. Those who do speak clearly and unambiguously are always aware that if what they say strays from officially permitted boundaries, they are running real risks of punishment – losing their jobs, being detained, and, in the worst cases, sent to prison for many years.
Since 2012, under current leader Xi Jinping, this situation has significantly deteriorated. The subtitle of this excellent and very timely collection of essays by key figures writing now is `public intellectual debate from contemporary China.’ But as the editors Timothy Cheek, David Ownby and Joshua A Fogel make clear in `Voices from the Chinese Century‘ (Columbia University Press, New York 2020) a series of Party edicts in Xi’s period have made the permissible space for full debate more and more narrow. From the vantage point of 2020, the late 2000s under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao seem almost liberal – something they certainly didn’t feel at the time.
This collection is a great place to start considering some of the reasons why China has ended up in the situation it is in – and where it might be heading in the future. One of the most compelling pieces is by Liu Qing (刘擎), a professor of political science at East China Normal University, which starts the whole collection. Liu’s defence of what could be called `liberalism with Chinese characteristics’ seems anachronistic today in view of the decidedly illiberal trend Xi seems to have taken. But his acknowledgement of what he calls the `complex historical process’ by which modern China has been produced needs urgent attention. These deep historic structures were not swept away by the 1949 revolution. Issues like the tension between family and the larger society, the self and the context in which it existed and had meaning, and the question of Confucian hierarchy and the new Communist egalitarian order may have been managed by repression in the Maoist era. But as Mao himself lugubriously admitted late in his life, in interviews to Edgar Snow, he was not able to transform much the deep layers of cultural commitment that lie at the heart of what it means, even today, to be Chinese. `Traditional ethical sentiments and their transcendent spirit have not vanished in present day China,’ Liu writes, `but instead exist either overtly or implicitly and manifest powerful influences’ (63). Strangely the challenge for liberalism is the same as for Communism – how to deal with the anomalies that arise from these deep, and embedded historical structures, which are often an impediment to modernity, but which are so central to Chinese identity. The question is in what ways the two forces, which aim for reform, are able to be combined. Xi’s China implies not much.
Other essays that follow this are less deliberative and calmly argued. Businessman Rong Jian (荣剑), who had been an aspiring academic till the upheaval of 1989, is much more coruscating in his criticism. `In the past century’, he asks,`has China actually produced its own thought?’ (77) Chinese liberalism, the kind that Liu referred to above, derived all of its resources from the West, according to Rong. Mao’s revolution, he goes on to claim, was a `revolution bereft of thought’ (87). This sense of intellectual deficit is one that has often appeared in the language of Chinese intellectuals. It is underlined by the fact that the voices in this book are informed about figures like de Tocqueville, Hegel and Adam Smiths in ways it would be hard to see a similar group in the West bothering to know much if anything about Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, or Hu Shi. Even so, perhaps the counter argument to Rong is that going on so incessantly about the paucity of Chinese intellectual resources just reinforces the very problem it is meant to address. It is not a good thing that the outside world knows so little about key figures in modern Chinese intellectual and cultural life, and as much an admission of their own limitations and complacency as any fault in China itself. If the West had had more, and perhaps (dare it be said) better Joseph Needhams, maybe our situation today of knowledge imbalances and the antagonism that grows from this would not be so bad.
There are many other attractive parts of this rich, well translated and well presented collection to admire. Excellent and stimulating discussions of Mao Zedong, Kang Youwei, and Confucianism. But two in particular have representative value. The first, by Wang Shaoguang (王绍光), formerly based in Hong Kong, and now mostly in Beijing. Wang has been an influential academic for many years within China. It is easy from the essay rendered here to see why. He takes no hostages, managing, just about, to control a hardcore polemical tone that must owe something to his political training in the Cultural Revolution. American democracy in particular gets a fairly fierce beating. China, instead, is offered as the model for the future – representational, with wise and caring cadres going down to the grassroots to listen to opinions which they then use to inform their decision making, rather than representative democracy from the West which is corrupted by money, vested interest and a multitude of other distortions. Wang’s description of the mass line, promoted in Xi’s China, is helpful. It gives what I think is the most succinct and lucid outline of what contemporary leaders in the country think the heart of their work is. But my own experience of these `consultations’ which Wang refers to makes me far less idealistic than he. Yes, Chinese leaders at various levels do go down to the grassroots, and arrange learning sessions. Some of these work well. But a lot are stage managed, and it is hard to really see anyone daring to sit in situations like these and raise difficult or contentious issues, without running the risk of pulling opprobrium and trouble on their head. Wang’s spirited defence, therefore, is great in theory. In practice, though, it really needs way more justification than the highly combative, albeit spirited one it gets here.
None of this however can possible prepare for the grand finale of the book – Jiang Qing (将庆) and his dialogue with a former female student about the ways in which Confucianism far from being a burden to Chinese women over the millennia is actually their salvation. David Ownby in his short introduction to `Only Confucians Can Make a Place for Modern Women’ can clearly barely conceal his mixture of amusement and contempt at some of the ideas that Jiang comes out with. Jiang himself has been amongst the most fanciful thinkers of modern China – one so extreme that even the government has not bothered much to silence his musings on Confucian democracy (where a third chamber would be composed of descendants of the sage). But Jiang’s declarations of how women need to be secure in their family and home, and how their European and American sisters are burdened by terrible modernist horrors like needing to work and pursue their own careers is not only out of history – at times, it sounds like Jiang is out of his mind! So too is his reference to some figures he calls his `friends’ who then get hilariously indiscreet and harsh criticisms for their lack of moral, Confucian behaviour.
This is a truly excellent collection, and one that introduces some important and little know voices to a wider English speaking audience. There are younger thinkers coming on line. But they operate without even some of the space that these from a slightly older generation have been able to enjoy in their careers till now. Those that visit China, and have engaged with the place, know how deeply stimulating the atmosphere there is, despite the reputation for being coercive and controlled. This book shows there are no easy answers, and no easy parameters, to understanding the political social and other kinds of problems the country now faces. That must be why it has no conclusion: at the moment, no conclusion is possible to the situation it testifies to and reports.
In what seems like many eons ago, I thought of the Internet as a wonderful, life-enhancing thing. This was in the 1990s, when it was just emerging. Things before that were so limited. Getting hold of books, particularly if they were from outside the UK, took forever – or proved impossible. Getting things published was for a tiny number, it seemed. The appearance of a bunch of new platforms seemed so liberating.
That truly was an age of cyber-innocence. No one then considered a world where we have the Dark Web, Trolls, online stalking and bullying. Julia Ebner does refer to this a lot in her work on the truly terrifying world of online extremists. The issue is not so much that the Internet distorts the real world and human nature. It reflects it all too realistically, warts and all. In fact, it makes those warts utterly unambiguous and obvious. It bring into stark daylight what we once could relatively easily ignore.
Ebner has gone undercover, infiltrating online hard right communities, and then going to their music events in Germany and interacting with their key ideologues and leaders. These are people, she explains, who use the benign excuse of defending freedom of speech to then produce some of the most horrifying statements. They are anti-Semitic, frequently holocaust deniers, and some make as their pastime sending congratulatory or abusive messages to parents whose children have committed suicide. Into this appalling mix come the single, young, male fraternity, who have established a niche area full of misogyny, in which women are labelled as persecutors because of their unwillingness to have relationships on the terms and with the kind of people these networks attract.
This is a world simmering with dizzying amounts of enmity, fear, anger and resentment. The problem is that online platforms and deeply manipulative activists have managed to seep into the mainstream. Far right parties like the AfD in Germany, have come close to read power. Some of their key followers have backgrounds as proponents of racial supremacy theories. Many talk of the need for purity and a restoration of white power, in particular. Hitler and National Socialism (Nazism) are held up as attractive models and serve as a source of inspiration for them. They have found ways of using the symbols and iconography of the Nazi party, despite rules in Germany militating against this.
The response of policy makers has been variable. Moving too far means arousing worries about attacking free speech. Many have chosen to look at regulation. But even when vast platforms like Twitter and Facebook attempt to implement these (with varying degrees of success) ones like 4Chan, where pretty much anything goes, provide an alternative. In any case, as Ebner makes clear, regulation is simply a case of focusing on the results, and does nothing to deal with the root causes. The problem is that in our societies there are a large number of people with issues which lead to anger, prejudice, fear and hatred towards others. These end up having very complex causes and outcomes. Regulating does nothing to address these.
Why this matters is that things in the virtual world increasingly have real world impact. Ebner refers to the revolting spectacle of seeing the New Zealand mass shooting in 2019 which resulted in over 50 deaths as it was live streamed by an Australian who had been expressing extremist ideas for years. He was proof that for some of these people, the words are not just where it ends. They are willing to take their hatreds outside and do things. Mass shootings in synagogues, churches and of ethnic minority groups have all happened in recent years in the US. The terrifying prospect is that at some point these might reach some kind of critical mass. The insurrection that many key spokespeople of the extreme right wing world speak of will be upon us.
This is no idle speculation. As `Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists’ (Bloomsbury, 2020) (https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/going-dark-9781526616784/) shows, to the online community of the extreme right, the election of Trump in the US was a great moment. Despite contempt for him as a person, his views were regarded as beneficial to bringing them an even larger platform. They mostly regarded him as their useful idiot. The clashes, which resulted in the death of one demonstrator, in Charlottesville in August 2017 were a manifestation of how it is increasingly possible for members of groups once believed to be beyond the pale like he Ku Klux Clan to appear and express their views in public. The `normalisation’ of opinions previously regarded as taboo has been assisted not just by the Internet, but by public worries over immigration in Europe, the fear of terrorist attacks from militant Islamic groups, and a generally rising tide of anxiety. A seemingly apocalyptic event like the current Covid19 global crisis stands a very good chance of only exacerbating this situation.
Ebner’s book is a terrifying one. One just hopes it is also proves to be about a phenomenon that ends up retreating to the margins of society. This is no criticism. For a work like this, about a theme like this, the best thing it can do is worry enough people to do whatever they can to countering some of the hateful views expressed by figures profiled here, sending them back to the small and unpleasant space they belong to. Believing in a common human community would make a good start. That’s if the current leaders of the world leave much of it after their current campaigns and incompetence. We will see.
The popularity of the Taiwanese author Chen Maoping (陳懋平), who wrote under the pseudonym Sanmao (三毛) has proved perennial. Her tragically early death in 1991 at her own hands, still not even fifty, added to the appeal of the mythos of her life and character that has lasted up to the present in the Chinese speaking world. It shows no signs of abating. Her works were easily available in the state-run bookshop in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, when I lived there in the mid 1990s. They can be found not only throughout the People’s Republic, but across Hong Kong, and in Taiwan. I can seriously say I have never met anyone who had a negative view of her works. Along with the singer Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng, 鄧麗君) and Pai Hsien-yung’s (白先勇) (author of`Taipei People’), she remains one of the great figures in Taiwanese cultural prowess and power in the last half a century.
Of her works, `Stories of the Sahara’ (撒哈拉的故事) is amongst the most popular. Written after a stay in El Aaiun, a part of the Sahara desert then under Spanish control in the 1970s, this collection of shorter pieces has never before been fully translated into English. Mike Fu’s accessible, and fluent, rendition just published by Bloomsbury ( https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/stories-of-the-sahara-9781408881880/) rectifies this.
Sanmao’s persona was that of a free spirit. She was evidently also a very troubled one. Her life pushed her to Europe, Latin America, and then back to Taiwan, where she spent her last years. Restlessness, a sense of inquisitiveness, an open-mindedness, and a lack of cultural encumbrances which meant she could experience the world around her without losing a sense of who she was and what her values were are clearly displayed in this translation. Her style in the original Chinese is direct, and accessible. This English version duplicates that. Whatever she writes about, her subject, and her interests are clear, and engaging.
Sanmao lived in the Sahara with her Spanish husband. His death in a diving accident in 1979 was a catastrophe she never recovered from. He figures in these tales as an uncomplicated presence – someone who did not speak foreign languages, was happy to go through life in the same simple, unadorned way as her, and is appreciated for his stability and loyalty. Sanmao herself records her response to the expected, and unexpected, challenges of living in such a remote and different environment to the one she had been born and brought up in. Her tone is the key: open minded, but also critical, amazed but not overwhelmed, and made human by the fact that so much of what she was and experienced in the society she found herself in was amusing and comprehensible to her. Her humour and humanity clearly maker her a global citizen – something that, alas, is less and less appreciated in our more anxious, partisan and parochial times.
She is a very gifted raconteur. Her account of her husband’s being stranded in quicksand while on a trip to search for fossils. and her desperate effort to save him despite an attempt by passers-by to abduct and possible rape her, is gripping – and even manages to end with a not of defiant humour, saying that the couple planned to go on the same kind of expedition the week after. Another tale mentions her wearing a necklace she had found on the street and being afflicted by increasingly serious illnesses until a local faith healer tells her the jewellery is cursed. Along the way, she tells of how she managed to get a local driving licence, how she battled with locals over gaining supply of food, how she and her husband formally married (in the lowest key way possible) and finally, how they had to leave their home for good because of the increasing instability.
Even in English, Sanmao’s energy and quirkiness come through. She often describes herself as `cackling’ at events, particularly those involving her husband and his battles with their environment. She mentions her disdain for flashy clothes and any form of make up. Her ability to relate to, engage with and understand the environment she is in through admitting what she did not understand is admirable. She may be a teller of tales, but she gives these tales authenticity by resisting easy endings and resolutions. One episode tells of her deep compassion for a local slave that they had found was working on improvements to the property they were renting. Another mentions the attempted rape and execution of the beautiful wife of a local rebel leader. In neither case was the end of the episode a particularly happy one – the slave got sold to another owner, and the wife was shot dead. But in both cases, there were at least some tiny mitigating mercies. The slave was able to hand money she had given him to his family before being taken away. The wife was shot dead by a fellow rebel intervening, before the vile agony of rape and public humiliation. These betray the messiness of real life, rather than the tidying up intervention of a story teller focussed on the story telling than the story itself.
This is powerful and intense material. It is great that this translation makes the work of such a popular and important modern Chinese language literary figure available to English readers. Sanmao fascinated and intrigued generations of readers in the Chinese speaking world. It will be fascinating to see what kind of following familiarity with her work might gain her elsewhere. Even in a wholly different language, and in a different era, her character and the way in which that is reflected through her writing style, is striking. She deserves to be a global figure. Hopefully this will be part of a successful posthumous application process.
I knew Joseph Needham (1900-1995). Or at least, for three years in the late 1980s while an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, the Cambridge College he was based at most of his life, I would see him, slowly moving by in his black gown to the Fellows’ table at dinner. I never spoke to him directly. Just saw him. And heard others speaking of him as this legendary figure – a sinologist, scientist, polymath.
At that time, I had no idea I would ever become a Sinologist myself. I wasn’t studying Chinese. The closest I had ever been to the country at that time was Israel! China was a place of tremendous mystery and remoteness. It was only a few years later that I started to gravitate towards this place, visit it, learn its language, and start to link my life with it.
As a result of this, later Needham became important symbolically. A great British China expert. Someone who proved that one could come to know and to some extent understand the very different culture and worldview of this place. He himself wrote of the encounter with China as a liberation, an exposure to a wholly different perspective on the world. He did this despite speaking of a place under atheist Communist rule while he was a devout Anglican. Here was hybridity in the flesh, a great humanist celebrating the common bonds that linked disparate parts of humanity together.
Needham’s great work (and the use of the word `great’ here is almost something that has to go with the title of the series of books itself regardless of their real value) `Science and Civilisation in China’ (https://www.cambridge.org/gb/academic/subjects/history/history-science-general-interest/series/science-and-civilisation-china) was something I was aware of even at Caius. I borrowed a few volumes from the library there. They intrigued me, with their distinctive covers. They had a monumentality about them. They were heavy and bulky, almost embodying the vast scholarship they contained. But to me at the time, despite a brief valiant attempt, they were also unreadable. Their theme, their layout and sets of references were ones wholly unfamiliar to me. They referred to a history, and intellectual tradition, I didn’t have the most basic means to understand. They were, in that sense, truly a closed book. All reading them did was to end exposing and illuminating my own ignorance.
It is embarrassing that I have not till very recently ever properly come back to them. Sonorously declaring at a dinner while a diplomat in China in the early 2000s of how Needham had showed that the Chinese traditions of scientific exploration and innovation were ones that actually belonged to a common humanity, I would have been hard pressed to give a fuller explanation of this by anyone there who had read the books. Luckily no one had. I became very familiar with the Needham question – why, despite being a place rich in empirical, scientific enquiry from the earliest dynasties had China never experienced the modern industrial revolution? What had that happened in the West? But I really wasn’t familiar with Needham’s treatment of this, and only relayed it almost as though by hearsay.
Reading through the first volume of Needham’s magnum opus, as I have recently, is a chance to reflect more critically on the Needham phenomenon. He is, it is true, the ultimate intimidating hard core sinologist. His work is written on an epic subject in an epic style. There are few if any concessions. The account his first volume gives of Chinese history, language, and culture are things I know enough about however to assess. For a book that is nearly seven decades old, it is not surprising to report that this material is deeply out of date. Its references are to an earlier, almost ancient tradition of mostly European sinology that would hardly be referred to now. This gives the book a sort of musty, archaic flavour.
`Science and Civilisation’, for all its intimidating exterior, is, at heart, built on a straightforward design. It is a linear, temporal narrative of Chinese history. In subsequent volumes it then focuses on particular niche areas. Engineering, chemistry, biology. As an act of rediscovery of the heritage of certain lines of thought in one language to that of another, it is a monumental work. But it cannot be described as a particularly complex one. Its complexity comes from the range of different subjects it covers, and the amount of material, not from any intellectual framework it supplies.
That being the case, it is strange that Needham has been called the most important intellectual figure Europe has produced since Erasmus. Leaving aside the fact that Erasmus himself hardly had anything like the impact of a figure like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or Charles Darwin, I question the contribution that Needham made. He created a work of encyclopaedic vastness, for sure. But his work is the epitome of inaccessibility. This is a huge pity, because the basic story Needham tells is not a remotely complicated one, and one that deserves being listened to widely. It is just that very few would have the time to extricate it from the somewhat terrifying edifice that it is currently contained it.
It is true that what claimed to be an abridged version of the `Science and Civilisation’ series did appear. But they were actually complete rewritings by another author. Needham’s work therefore is as much the monument to a kind of tradition of sinology as it is to the subject it addresses – a sinology which is largely now fading away.
It is a harsh, and perhaps a disappointing thing to say, particularly after having these works as part of my mental world for more than half my life, but Needham’s work is not like the Diderot Encyclopaedia in the mid 18th century, or a work of that order, fundamentally reordering and redesigning the basis of human knowledge. It addresses a very specific issue, using a very specific and conventional tradition of historiography. It did it in a monumental, and almost self-defeatingly intimidating way. Needham is the patron saint of a kind of study of China which has `Do Not Enter unless you are the Elect’ plastered all the way around it. I may be wrong about this. I hope I am. I am happy to be corrected. But this is the way things look for now.
The 1981 `Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party’ (https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/documents/cpc/history/01.htm), issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China after much drafting and redrafting under emerging paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, is clear enough about who takes ultimate responsibility for the calamitous Cultural Revolution from 1966 till Mao’s death a decade later: Mao Zedong. Without him, the Resolution crisply states, there would have been no such movement. Even the manipulative doings of the Gang of Four, being hauled before the courts at the time for what were to all intents and purposes show trials, would have had limited impact without Mao’s benediction. There the matter was left. China, and the world, needed to move on: this issue was sorted, as far as the Party were concerned.
Writers like Ba Jin however were more circumspect. In the mid-1980s. he wrote of how all of society needed to step back and reflect on what had happened during the various moments in the mass movement that had consumed the country in the final years of Mao’s life. How did it make sense to blame one man, or a small group of people? To some degree, as victims, or victimisers, of both, Chinese people themselves needed to take some responsibility. They had seen an aspect of their nature which was truly terrifying. Why add insult to injury by not at least learning some lessons from the turbulent decade, as the Cultural Revolution came to be called, and asking harder questions about accountability?
Few scholars have done more to address the kind of questions Ba Jin and others asked, and work out in detail how this movement happened, and who played a part in it, than Andrew G Walder. Walder’s worked is fuelled by a deep dissatisfaction with over-simple explanations. It is unsurprising, in view of this, that his work does not support the idea that blaming everything to one figure, manipulating the many millions of others as they went about blindly doing their bidding, will get us very far. Even so, working out to what extent Mao and his unique brand of politics in the latter period of his life did make a significant difference is important. In that sense, Walder’s work is a great act of rebalancing, working between the extremes of the 1981 Resolution and voices like Ba Jin.
In an earlier work, `Fractured Rebellion’ (Harvard, 2012 – https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674064133) Walder had looked in detail at one of the hotbeds of domestic revolution – universities in Beijing – during a key period over the summer of 1966 to 1968. There he meticulously plotted the most influential figures amongst the plethora of Red Guard groups that were set up, the ways they clashed with each other, the kind of legitimacy they were seeking, and their relationship to new entities like the Cultural Revolution Leading Small Group.
The most recent work, `Agents of Disorder’ (Harvard, 2019 – https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674238329&content=reviews) addresses the same general question of agency, and of who did what, and how, during the early period of rising chaos and dislocation in the CR. But it broadens the canvas to a national level, and to areas far beyond universities.
Using data from across the country’s provinces, much of it from official sources, Walder builds up a model of different kinds of actors, motivated by different kinds of impulses and objectives. Inevitably, he reinforces the sense of the era’s complexity. But he also does much to dispel this notion of Chinese people being somehow passive, duped actors over this period. They were, from different vantage points, and in different ways, all engaged in the vast unfolding patter of events happening around them. They may have had highly imperfect access to sources of information, and they may have misinterpreted, or misunderstood (wilfully or otherwise) the situation they were in. But as far as they were able, they engaged in different kinds of mass action, often with very clear intentions.
Red Guards we know much about, thanks to the work of Walder and others. But Scarlet Guards, those who were within the Party cadre system, and who, prompted by the attacks of outsiders mobilised and fought back, is a new term. The Party and its membership as victims of the Maoist populist onslaught is a well developed narrative theme in other work. Walder contests this on two levels. Firstly he shows that the Party membership did not just sit and take what was doled out at them, but worked to respond. Secondly, he shows that for some this involved coalescing at lower levels in order to attack their top bosses, and for others it meant unifying to hit back at external non-Party attacks. In effect, the Party fought not just itself, but others.
The inevitable bedlam this sort of fragmentation resulted in was significantly intensified by the very measure that was meant to ameliorate it – the involvement of the military. They too become embroiled in the carnival of activism consuming the country, hauled in first to try to pacify and restore order to some regions, but then infected by the same factionalism and politicisation as everyone else.
Chinese society, as we well know from the work of Fei Xiaotong and other anthropologists and sociologists, is a profoundly networked one. Walder’s account of the period from 1966 to 1968 shows how much this dense patter of social connections and links was both a sense of strength and flexibility, but also, when things went wrong, assisted in creating deep divisions and fracturing. The networks, partly with aid from Maoism, became contaminated by fractiousness and antagonism, resulting in outcomes no one could predict. Even Mao himself appears in parts of this study as a bewildered bystander watching the turbulence unfold. If one wanted to assign one single factor to explain the Cultural Revolution, this issue of networks and how they showed deep structural disunity in Chinese society would be amongst the most compelling.
Walder’s meticulous and compelling narrative of these different kinds of agents, and how they contributed to the unfolding movement, sheds light too on one of the features of this period – the ways that a purely political struggle in 1966 resulted in so much violence at its peak two years later. This violence though needs to be set in context – something in his final chapter Walder so admirably does. In overall numbers of fatalities, the Cultural Revolution ranks as one of the worst examples of peacetime domestic conflict ever seen in modern history. Only the obscenity of the Khmer Rouge period from 1975 to 1979 in Cambodia exceeds it, with over 1.8 million deaths. But when put beside the huge size of China’s population at the time – 800 million – things look very different. In a population this vast, however lamentable it is to acknowledge this, levels of fatality even in the peak period of the CR were low. What is interesting is the kinds of places where the figure was disproportionally high – Guangxi, certain areas of Inner Mongolia, and Sichuan, for instance. Here, there were particular factors (ethnic tensions, and social issues) that made things particularly bad. The prosaic fact is that for the overwhelming majority of Chinese people alive at the time, the Cultural Revolution did not register largely in their lives.
This is an excellent, thought provoking study – deeply empirical, taking great pains to speak measurably and with academic neutrality about a period of the country’s history that remains sensitive to this day. It would be excellent to see this work in a Chinese translation, available within the People’s Republic, though with current levels of censorship this is unlikely. This is a pity because Walder has no political axe to grind, unlike some of the more recent attention-grabbing, moralising work by other non Chinese scholars on this period. Instead, he shows with great honesty and clarity what happened, and how these things happened. That gets a little closer to answering the larger question of why – but this is one which Walder wisely offers only partial conclusions – largely because, going from what we currently know, partial conclusions are the only sensible and defensible ones.
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.