Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
How an Italian Jesuit in China Relates to a Portuguese King in Morocco Relates to the Spanish Empire Relates to Brazil Relates to the Dutch East India Company Relates to Indonesia
In 1582, a 30-year-old Italian friar arrived in Macau. Matteo Ricci had dedicated his life to spreading the Gospel as a member of the Society of Jesus. And now he was on a mission to enter mainland China from this Portuguese outpost. Chinese authorities at the time frowned upon the presence of foreign missionaries. But in time Ricci would become one of the most important missionaries ever to work in Asia. In fact today a bronze statue of him stands in the heart of Macau, and he remains a household name in China.
Well, his name in Chinese, Li Madou. He chose it for himself as a rendering of his Italian name. But the middle character, 瑪 (“ma”), had a story behind it. It consists of two parts, 王, meaning “king,” and 馬, meaning “horse.” Ricci chose it in commemoration of his patron, Sebastian the Desired, King of Portugal.
With Netflix’s no good, very bad, culturally appropriating “Iron Fist,” Hollywood is again dipping into the martial arts genre that comes out of China, known in Chinese as “wuxia.”
I assume that the makers of “Iron Fist” had no idea that the genre in which they were working arose from a 10th century short story. Indeed, I assume that hardly anyone knows this to be true. The wuxia genre, in its cinematic incarnation, especially in those old Hong Kong films with low budgets and visible wireworks and obvious fight choreography, can seem risibly silly. But the fact is that wuxia is a venerable literary tradition.
And just as, according to Dostoevsky, all of Russian fiction came out from under Gogol’s “Overcoat,” all of wuxia derives from a single story of under 2,000 words written in the late-9th or early-10th century by a Taoist priest.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
The most interesting thing about The Lord of the Rings is that its chief hero, more than the great Gandalf, more than the dashing one-and-future-king Aragorn, is the diminutive hobbit Frodo, because he can hold the ring of power without being corrupted by it.
At the time of my birth, the country of my birth was a dictatorship. Martial law was in effect. Opposition political parties were illegal. And the sitting president had had the position handed to him by his generalissimo father.
So imagine how I felt hearing the news that this year’s Freedom House “Freedom in the World” report adjudged Taiwan to be freer than the United States. Taiwan, officially still the Republic of China and barely recognized by anyone internationally, scored 91/100 according to Freedom House’s methodology, while the U.S. scored 89.
We owe it in large part to one man.
In 1960, Communist China successfully tested its first ballistic missile. In 1964, it detonated its first atomic bomb. In 1967, it had a thermonuclear bomb. In 1970, China launched its first artificial satellite. Not too bad for an impoverished nation that, from 1959 to 1961, had gone through a famine that killed up to 30 million people.
And none of it would have happened but for an MIT- and Caltech-educated scientist who returned to China in 1956.
Qian Xuesen, or Hsue-Shen Tsien, as his name was spelled when he first arrived in the U.S., was born in Shanghai in 1911 right when the first Chinese Republic overthrew the imperial regime. Ten years before he was born, in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the imperial court had agreed to pay reparations to numerous Western powers including the United States. Unlike the other recipients, the U.S., in an earlier and wiser time, had used the money to establish a scholarship to help talented Chinese students pursue advanced studies in America.
I was in Armenia in November and December, which afforded a chance to investigate my favorite mystery from Armenian history. The Mamikonian family arrived on the scene in the late-third or early-fourth century A.D., obscured by the fogs of antiquity. Edward Gibbon described a certain Mamgo who appeared “[a]mong the Armenian nobles [as] an ally” around 286 A.D., although the first Mamikonian lord of whom we have any definite knowledge was Vatche Mamikonian, active in the 330s.
Moses of Chorene, or Movses Khorenatsi, in his fifth century History of Armenia, claimed that back in the second century, two brothers named Mamik and Konak came to Armenia from China. They were half-brothers of “Chenbakir,” an emperor of the Han Dynasty. They had rebelled against their brother and, after defeat, fled to the protection of Parthia or Persia, which sent them to Armenia. The Mamikonians were descendants of Mamik.
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
The Chinese language contains many phrases known as chengyu (成語), literally “fixed expressions,” what in English we’d call cliches but which are an indispensable part of Chinese.
One fixed expression goes, “three in the morning, four in the evening” (朝三暮四). Today the expression is used to describe someone who is mercurial, hot and cold, inconstant. But that’s not what it originally meant.
Many fixed expressions have fun origin stories. This one goes back to ancient Taoist philosophy. In Zhuangzi, a foundational text of Taoism named after its author and published in the third century B.C., there’s a cute fable in “A Theory on the Equality of All Things” (莊子‧齊物論) about a man who raised monkeys and could talk to them. The man came to the monkeys and said, “How about I feed you three fruits each in the morning, and four in the evening?” The monkeys protested that this was not enough food. The man nodded and went away. A little while later he returned and made another proposition: “How about I feed you four fruits each in the morning, and three in the evening?” The monkeys now cheered and accepted the proposal.
2016 has turned into a year of walls. Late last year Hungary built a fence on its southern borders to keep out refugees. Last month the British began building a wall in Calais, France, also to block migrants. It wasn’t that long ago when the English Channel was good enough. And of course, throughout the year we have been subjected to a certain presidential candidate’s repeated promise of building a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S.-Mexican border, with the fanciful proviso that Mexico would pay for it.
Well, if you’re thinking about building a big, beautiful wall to keep out foreigners, you might want to consult the Chinese. I hear that they have some experience in the matter.
According to the “Records of the Grand Historian” by Sima Qian, written in the 1st century B.C., what we now know as the Great Wall of China began as a series of disconnected fortifications. The northern members of the Warring States, a series of seven kingdoms that divided China from the 5th to the 3rd century B.C., had constructed them to keep out barbarian tribes from the north.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."