According to Mr. Mann there are two popular scenarios about the development of the world’s largest state and the world’s second largest economy. Eithe...moreAccording to Mr. Mann there are two popular scenarios about the development of the world’s largest state and the world’s second largest economy. Either will China collapse under the contradictions of Chinese society, or China will evolve towards democracy, free elections, an independent judiciary, and human rights. This is what Mr. Mann calls the “soothing scenario”.
Proponents of the soothing scenario point at the long term, and simply consider any proof of China’s repression as a temporary setback. Visitors to China often restrict themselves to the big coastal cities, where they mistake skyscrapers, conversations with taxi drivers, and Starbucks as signs that “they” are already just like “us” (i.e. Americans), allowing Mr. Mann to repeat a quote from Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska that “with God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up until it is just like Kansas city”. Those expecting an upheaval often point at the many protests and riots, ethnic strife, unequal distribution of the newly created wealth, ecological disasters, and corruption.
However, Mr. Mann advocates a third scenario: the continuation of the current regime. He gives various reasons for this. The riots and strikes are often isolated given China’s size, and the country has a long history of holding itself together. I think he could very well be right. Although the global trend seems definitely towards more democracy and transparency due to the rise of the middle class and the opportunities for information exchange offered by the internet (transparency being one of the most fashionable words of the decade among political and business talking heads), there seem to be few cracks visible in the system that could not be repaired. And most of all, the state is bringing home the cha siu: it is delivering an improvement in the standard of living of as many as the world has ever seen (albeit not uniformly among all Chinese, and certainly not in an efficient manner). Mr. Mann points to the fact that the Leninist structure is still in place completely. He does not believe China will evolve like South Korea or Taiwan. Its scale is vastly different, and China can resist pressure from the outside much easier, as it does not need America to support its national defence. He also points at China’s increasing sophistication to combine economic openness with political repression. In that way, you could somewhat compare China to Singapore in the days of Harry Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore has opened up since then, and the People’s Action Party is still in power. Unfortunately, Mr. Mann does not make this comparison.
Mr. Mann gives three arguments why we should care about political development. These are the right of the Chinese people to choose their own government, the instability of communist regimes in the long run, and the support China gives to all kinds of rogue regimes in the world.
The analysis only takes the first 29 pages of the book. The rest is devoted to how the “soothing scenario” was adopted by America’s governing and business elite. I doubt this surprises many people, as it offers profit-opportunities for the business elite and allows for inaction by the political leadership that also profits from any increase in national wealth brought by trade. Mr. Mann discusses and dismisses the various arguments brought forward against trouble makers, and the continuity of China policy among the administrations since Nixon’s. He also gives some examples of how the Chinese government sometimes just tell Western delegations what they want to hear, while no follow up is given to such “initiatives”.
All in all, the subject would have merited more analysis than given in this book.(less)
Although Robert van Gulik/Gao Lo-pei/(高羅佩, was not a discoverer, I could not help thinking of the similarities with...moreThe Cloud and Rain, before the Qing
Although Robert van Gulik/Gao Lo-pei/(高羅佩, was not a discoverer, I could not help thinking of the similarities with Richard Burton when I read this book. Both were highly literate polyglots and colourful products of the colonial age, who wanted to give back some of the history to the cultures they studied. Both also showed a great interest in sexuality. Where Richard Burton concentrated on India and the Arab world, Robert van Gulik’s main interest was China. Besides a set of detective novels that gave a vivid impression of ancient Chinese culture (and that were supposedly mandatory reading for American diplomats to China), Robert van Gulik also produced some academic works related to Chinese history.
This is Van Gulik’s best known academic work, which after 50 years is still often quoted. It covers a single theme across most of Chinese history, from the beginning until the fall of the Ming dynasty. From the earliest available sources, we see an interplay between Taoism and Confucianism, with Buddhism playing a secondary role. Although the Christian concept of sin was absent in Chinese culture, Confucianism tried to constrain sexuality (and women), as it considered it a threat to stability and order. Taoism on the other hand stressed the importance and power of human sexuality. With its mystical and alchemic nature, Taoism saw sexuality as the path to eternal life for men. Taoism’s philosophy is based upon the idea that the feminine (yin) and the masculine (yang) cannot do without the other. Although intercourse was often called a “battle”, various sexual positions could cure different diseases and vaginal fluids could greatly increase the strength of men, particularly if the woman enjoyed the congress also. The “cloud and rain” (云雨/ Yün Yü), as sex was called (cloud symbolising the womb and rain the semen), on auspicious moments and sex with lots of women was also considered greatly beneficial. Intercourse without ejaculation (“coïtus reservatus”) by using the left hand to pressure the area between the scrotum and the anus would nourish the ni-huan spot in the brain through the dorsal column of the spine, creating the Elixer of Life and consequently greatly increase the chance of a long life or even accomplish immortality. Strangely, this theory did not change much over time, although it seems easy enough to falsify. And although China became decidedly more prudish among the late Ming and the Qing, reminiscences of it exist in Chinese culture even today.
In between the Taoist fireworks, the author gives all sorts of details about (family) life among the scholarly classes throughout the various dynasties before the Qing. The book covers the hierarchy of wives and concubines (“a husband is heaven and cannot be shirked”, after all), the emphasis on a woman’s modesty, as well as expenses in upper class brothels and the quality of erotic paintings and novels, and the relationship with Tantrism.
Somewhat out of the blue, Van Gulik finishes his monograph with a paragraph on the resilience of Chinese people and their culture. Overseas policy makers may take note that its fundamental principles are static. The Chinese are utterly capable of renewal (or even temporary outside dominance), but it is always self renewal, "because of their supreme confidence in the strength of their blood and their number, and their conviction that in the end they will always conquer the conquerors, both in the material and spiritual field."
In general, the book is stronger on description than an interpretation, but in this case I did not find that a disadvantage (it also pays only limited attention to other sexual orientations than plain vanilla hetero sexuality, claiming that there was not much else). If your Latin is not as it probably should be, make sure you get a translated version, or the 2002 edition, where “all Latin has for the first time been translated into unambiguous English, thus making the full text widely available to an academic audience”. The era of polyglots like Van Gulik, who knew Dutch, Malay, Javanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Latin, Greek, French, German, English, Russian, Sanskrit, Blackfoot Indian, Tibetan, and Japanese, is clearly over.(less)