Sunday, July 21, 2013

Calligraphic poems transient in chalk



Last Sunday, the Dean of the School of International Relations Liu Honzhong and his family and friends, took us to a wonderful park in Shenyang. It is where the Ching emperor, Huangtaiji, was buried, the third largest such mausoleum in China (Mao has ended up in such a place in Beijing, the onetime revolutionary sleeping as the emperors sleep…).

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It has been a park for 150 years. It was once a gated area for royalty (there are many gated areas/compounds in Shenyang). Now it is a place where everyone in the middle of the city comes and exercises.

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On the ground, Esther points to the beautiful writing. It is a poem in chalk. Some older woman wrote it there, to be and to perish, with walkers and the rain, delightful and transient as Tibetan Buddhist or Navajo sand paintings. See here.

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The young, she says, do not write calligraphy any more. I recall the gorgeous calligraphy (would that I knew the Chinese to read it) on centuries of Chinese (taoist) scroll/paintings…

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Much is transient here.

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The shift to the modern – itself an unending restlessness and transience – is not complete here, the past still touching the present (Mao encouraged an over the top approach to becoming modern, an error, but it did not erase the connection with an earlier life).

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A great crowd walks, pretty much marches, to strains from a cultural revolution tune. It looks martial.

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China does not have a large army (2 million in a population of a billion, 2/1000ths…). It is proceeding in the world economically, gaining through trade and aid projects, and helping people lift themselves out of poverty, out of the countryside and into the city, educating many.

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Some, as one of my students told me, have parents who are construction workers, sending, with government aid, their children to University. Some are farmers (aid is given to people from the countryside and to rarer “ethnics” – the difficult Chinese term for non-Han peoples).

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Education is enormously valued in Liaoning. It is the province Confucius hails from. The University of that name is on a beautiful green campus. It stands out, as do the parks, in a sprouting city of gray buildings – a Soviet heritage, American and other stores, gated buildings/compounds, and cars.

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There is now (the government is beginning – hopefully – to shift toward this) an effort to create green areas, green cities. That is the hope of the planet, given especially the pollution and failures of the United States (Obama’s stimulus spent much on green projects; he has encouraged the military go green – there has to be some good aspect to American militarism, in addition to introducing the internet and being a somewhat integrated institution alone in American life; Obama has created new pollution standards at the EPA; yet he will go along with the Keystone XL pipeline, without even more pressure from below, and Congress is a disaster).

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The Chinese people value and are devoted to education, and one lasting feature of the Revolution is that it gives many more people the chance (China now has half the number of universities America does – and the number is growing). There are several in Shenyang including three (the main university, a medical college, an aerospace college) where we are staying.

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I asked my students how many people go to college every year and how many are from peasant and worker backgrounds. The second question was not easy to answer (a sign of danger I think), but one found 17% from rural backgrounds (the salary in the rural areas is about 4000 yuan, or about 660 dollars, roughly the cost of college tuition for a year, the urban average about twice that). If there is a similar figure for workers (I haven't found out about that yet), about a third of college students would come from poorer families.

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China is, as of now, no military threat to the United States. It has but Pakistan and North Korea as allies. America has made war in Korea and Vietnam, has a plethora of military bases in the area (there are riots against rapes and murders of children by American soldiers in Okinawa and South Korea – see Chalmers Johnson, Blowback, ch. 1-2). Has China attacked Panama and Mexico, does it have bases in South and Central America or Cuba?

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Put more sharply, North Korea attacked South Korea 63 years ago. Americans took over the war, nearly conquering North Korea and bombing heedlessly into China (America's hostility to the Chinese revolution escaped no one - and anti-communist or anti-radical hysteria was at its bizarre height). The Broken Bridge over the Yalu River where the Americans bombed is for China a symbol of patriotism.

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The Chinese fought back (Kim Il-sung led a group of Koreans that fought the Japanese invasion in China and then went back to found North Korea. The alliance was close). The Chinese saw the war, people here have told me, as started by North Korea, but as resisting American invasion of China. The Chinese government restored North Korea (some 200,000 troops) and memorialize what they did (there are museums to this in Dandong along the border).

This has a sense of militarism although China was then attacked and menaced by the United States. Since the Korean War, China has fought along the border once with India and once with Vietnam (it did this just after the American aggression in Vietnam ended). China has been very repressive in Tibet (mirroring American behavior toward indigenous people).

The image of the expansionary Chinese, big as China is, is an American fantasy.

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Frenzy about this, particularly in foreign policy circles (Condi Rice and George Bush, until they were swept away by fantasies of endless global war against Arab countries and the “faith” of the powerful “making reality”, pushed this) is foolish.

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China’s hope, one partly imagined here my students tell me, is to go strongly green and teach the world (the US is largely though not entirely abjuring the possibility), along with Germany, how to do it. Liaoning is a green university (a gated oasis within the city, and the Hanyue hotel is a green hotel. The Chinese breathe the pollution in the cities, and know how serious this issue is. If there are countries to innovate about this issue, China is one.

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That might give the 7 billion on this planet the chance to survive global warming for another hundred years, and perhaps even give humanity a new breath of life.

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China’s danger is to emulate foolish American militarism (the hopeless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have brought American economic collapse, the vast empire of military bases, the torture prisons and networks, the endless drones and secret killings by the Joint Special Operations command, the calculated ignoring of Presidential war crimes such as torture…). The Soviet Union and the US engaged in a death struggle of militarism; the Soviet Union collapsed, and as Chalmers Johnson’s trilogy underlines, the US is giving many of the same signs (straining to control the world, 6 military regions dividing the globe, 1280 bases abroad…).

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Living in resentment of being pushed around by imperialists – China suffered from this at the hands of the West, throughout the 19th century, and then Japan took the lead - is destructive and would lead China down a road of militarism, conflict and losing support, over time, among its own people (the economic progress would cease, the loss of soldiers, let alone conquest, would rightly wither patriotism at home).

Avoid this, as China might, and many things are possible.

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Not being the prisoner of a war complex, as Alexander Gerschenkron used to say, is a great “advantage of backwardness”…

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One serious error of John Mearsheimer’s/Kenneth Waltz’s neorealism is to make structural claims about how great regional powers must capitalize on their economic might with military might. That is often true (Mearsheimer’s chapter of American stealing of land and murdering on indigenous people is apt, though he condemns what it is too mildly – attempting misguidedly to be “value-free” about ethnic cleansing). But the Soviet Union and the US both have undermined themselves, one destroyed, the other decadent, because of trying to conquer and hold territory abroad (Mearsheimer is wonderfully critical of this in “Imperial by Design” in the National Interest, January-February 2010). And this is an era when global warming will make California a desert by 2040 – no agricultural production there – if it continues at the same pace (Energy Secretary and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu’s testimony at his Congressional hearing in 2008, not covered in the mainstream, i.e. corporate press).

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In this era, greatness of leadership will be measured not by guns (China does have to be armed against an American or other attack; it does not have to strive to become even the leader in drones…), but by economic progress and leadership – example, innovation and trade – in green energy (the countries which innovate about this will lead the world economy…).

Things that are likely or happen for a period or even more than once are not, as neo-realists like to assert “inevitabilities” and "predictabilities." Marx made that mistake (we would otherwise be in a much more cooperative society with much more ability to deal with the danger of global warming). Even capitalism itself – Marx’s chapter on “primitive accumulation” - is no inevitability but a coalescing of a number of important features over centuries (when it emerges and becomes dominant, it does transform the world, however).

That so great a thinker as Marx made this error might give structural realists some caution about such claims…Mearsheimer and Waltz were critical of Vietnam and Iraq (and Waltz’s account of the perverseness and brutality of the American “unipower,” even before the end of the Cold War and since, is very good), but their work is marred by now evidently false predictions. Social science and history are explanatory, not predictive disciplines as is Darwinan biology (about the evolution of new species).

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The people walking/marching by on Saturday night in the Emperor's Park were peaceful and yet a shadow in this picture. But modern wars are of course no longer fought very much by armies in the old way…

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People exercise here in groups. Many were playing a version of hackysack, kicking a badminton birdie. Others were taking turns skipping between two ropes (it hurts badly when it hits you, one of my companions said).

Others in a large group were dancing, dancing….

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This is no society to stay home with television on Saturday night. Everybody goes to a park and exercises (in the mornings, the parks are filled with people doing tai chi and chi gong).

That will continue (though young people are less into tai chi…).

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There is a lovely and exuberant health and energy here (again with a centralism and potential militarism in the background or as an undercurrent, which may not be).

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We walked down to the emperor Huangtaiji’s tomb. It was from the Man (Manchu) dynasty centered initially in Shenyang, later moving to Beijing.

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To do this, we passed his statue, bulky, staring firmly out. He was once saved from his enemies my wife has discovered by being covered by crows. His enemies thought he was dead, being picked apart, and did not go down to check. The crow is, marvelously, the bird of the Manchus, although we went to the Emperor’s palace this week and there were lots of dragons and phoenixes (the symbol of the Empress) carved in wood or stone, but no crows. There was, Paula discovered upon asking and searching, a perch for crows.

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The tomb itself is ornate, lion-like creatures and dragons with big eyes (a symbol in the old Imperial hierarchy only of the Emperor).

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The Man wore their hair in a topknot with a braid, the sides of the head shaved. The Emperor ordered the conquered people of the Ming – the Han – to shave their heads. “Keep the hair, off with the head; shave the hair; keep the head.”

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Confucius had told the Chinese to preserve the hair and the body of each person…

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The Chinese government has, since Mao, established a one child policy. The latter is to limit population growth, given that there are a billion people in China. But this is a family oriented culture. It is a terrific hardship, and many complain…

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The policy recalls the old Manchu policy – a kind of sweeping tyrannical edict, though this time with a purpose other than humiliation. One result is that each family treasures and invests spiritually in the one child, and helps her to become educated. There will not be much happiness in China to put these children at risk. There never is; it was one of the big motivators of the anti-Vietnam war movement in the United States, once upon a time. But in a family oriented culture, if you are restricted to having only one child, the anger and sorrow are even more intense…

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As another inadvertent effect, two parents who work can sometimes take care of a single child creatively. The students I have seem quite well nurtured and happy (there is less social masking in the Chinese, something unusually more from the heart).

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The state is already beginning to relax the once child policy. There is talk of the population graying after 2020 and having no children to look after parents. Arbitrary edicts disintegrate important features of communal life…

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A single child is now allowed to have two children.

“Ethnics” have always been allowed two children.

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As Amartya Sen has emphasized in Development as Freedom, Kerala in India, led by a pro-Soviet Communist party once upon a time, contrasts favorably with China. A matriarchal civilization, the Keralans invested in education for women and women’s cooperatives. The society has become as egalitarian as China, and the birth rate, due to the independence and initiative of individual Keralans, is lower voluntarily than that of China, with coercion.

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The Chinese revolution, led by Mao and the communists, placed tremendous emphasis on the liberation of women. Today at Liaoning University, many women are on the faculty (there are many couples teaching at this university or in two universities in the city). It is expected that women have their own careers, play a big and independent role in political and academic life.

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The Dean asked Paula Bard, my wife, to come and give three lectures about her art (photography, prints) and the culture about birds (corvids) in the United States. With 60 people attending the first, the four who made comments or asked questions were women.

My class is half women and women are among the most active participants. That everyone takes seriously and as a matter of course each person as a contributor in her own right, is striking here.

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The Ching emperors were big, the people small, the park gated as many buildings are.

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The park is now open, the people enjoy it. The statue of the emperor and some of his traditions (Mao, the emperor, entombed in Beijing; the one child policy) remain. But the individuals, through their determination, are overcoming this.

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The beautiful words of the poem in brown chalk on stone stare up. Stanzas of ideographs. The delicacy of the forms lingers, already fading under footsteps, but still clear. The characters will wash away. The greatness of the culture, even the reverence and fun of older people to come and write out transient poems in the park, will wash away.

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But there is here a 5000 year old civilization, its marvels realized, made anew among many; its parks and “forbidden cities” inhabited collectively, enthusiastically, raucously, and generously by its people. It is a gift to be here.

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