12 May, 2019

Against Human Sexual Selection

The opening scene of 'A Catch of Shadows' 1998 production of '
A Midsummer Night's Dream' 

(image source)

I would my father look'd
but with my eyes.
Rather your eyes must
with his judgment look.
A Midsummer's Night Dream

William Buckner has published a small but superb essay over at Quillette under the title "A Girl's Place in the World." By my reading, Buckner is the best essayist Quillette has. In each piece he writes, Buckner draws on a few dozen ethnographies and comparative studies in evolutionary anthropology to survey a question of interest—in this case, male violence against and dominance of  women over the long course of human history.

The basic take-away from Buckner's essay is that  male dominance is not a product of the agricultural revolution. It is near omnipresent in foraging societies, and is upheld in such societies mostly through violence. Concubinage, mass rape, and domestic violence were continuations and exaggerations of the sort of behavior seen in other primate and simple hunter-gatherer societies. Only in modernity has male violence receded. Only in modernity have the females of our species have been given the opportunity to achieve rough parity with the males.

Now all of this is interesting, but it is ancillary to the main thrust of this post. Because Buckner summarizes much of the relevant evidence in one essay, I am going to take the opportunity his essay provides to grouse about one of my bug-bears: the inapplicability of sexual selection theory to human evolution.

I need to be more specific. Not all sexual-selection theory is bunk. I have fewer objections to the theories as applied to male preferences. I have more trouble with theories that try to explain female mate preferences and male phenotypes (for the uninitiated: that means something close to "things that women are 'naturally' attracted to, and by extension, behaviors or traits that have been selected for in the present male population") through the frame of sexual selection. This is the stock and trade of evo-psych. Sillier, more grotesque versions of these theories often trickle down into the arguments you read on pick-up artist and MRA boards. But be they scientific or far less so, all such theories run aground on the same shoals: the model they posit for female mate selection does not reflect how human mate selection actually worked for most of human history.


One of the problems I have with most accounts of human sexual selection starts here. The phrase 'mate choice' presupposes that mates are the ones doing the choosing. In most species this framework works out most of the time, but in humans it hits a snag. Humans are not frictionless, autonomous mate calculators on two legs. They live embedded in a social organization that has immense control over everything they do—including who they mate. We call these organizations families.

In American society the norm is for both daughter and son to leave the homes of their childhood and create a new household upon marriage. Both men and women choose their partner freely. This style of marriage and home-building has a long history. It stretches back to England and Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages.[1]  (As the world modernizes, more and more of it looks like America). But this is not how most of the world has worked for most of its history. For most of human history, marriage was an arrangement between families, not individuals. Married children were generally expected to live with one of the families from which they sprung. Parents and grandparents had a veto of matches they did not like, and usually had the authority force a match the principals did not like, especially if the principal in question was a woman.

It turns out this was not only true for agrarian societies, but hunter-gatherer societies as well. We return to Buckner:
In his work examining ethnographic evidence from 190 hunter-gatherer societies, evolutionary psychologist Menlaos Apostolou notes the prevalence of arranged marriages, writing that across these societies “the institution of marriage is regulated by parents and close kin. Parents are able to influence the mating decisions of both sons and daughters, but stronger control is exercised with regard to daughters; male parents have more say in selecting in-laws than their female counterparts.” As anthropologist Janice Stockard writes of !Kung hunter-gatherer populations in southern Africa, “Traditionally in the !Kung San, marriage is a relationship among a husband and wife and the wife’s father and is at the outset firmly based on compatibility between the two men.” 
Apostolou further reports that female age at first marriage tends to be at the onset of puberty or earlier across the vast majority of the societies in his sample, and notes that these “Arranged marriages usually take the form of parents or close kin “giving away” their female relatives after negotiations with the male or his relatives. As such, males are allowed much more autonomy to exercise mate choice than females.” Anthropologist Lewis Binford’s 2001 volume Constructing Frames of Reference includes data on age at marriage across nearly 200 hunter-gatherer societies, and across these societies the average age at first marriage is recorded as 14 for girls, and 21 for boys. [2]

This is a problem for sexual-selection theories of male behavior. If the girls were not choosing their matches, what selection pressures on male traits could there be? Perhaps instead of speaking of the psychology of sexual selection, we should be speaking of the psychology of parental selection instead.


The second issue I have with human sexual-selection theory is more straightforward. Rape, plunder, slavery, and coerced marriages fill the annals of human history. The victims of these crimes—women—did not choose to be so victimized.

Once again, this is a facet of human life that precedes written history:
Similarly, the common pattern of warfare across small-scale societies is that while opposing adult male warriors tend be killed, women and children are often captured and incorporated into the group. I have previously discussed the widespread evidence of wife capture found across hunter-gatherer societies all over the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. 
Anthropologist John J. Honigmann discusses an example among the Kaska foragers of British Columbia, writing that, “Women and children formed the bulk of the prisoners. Mostly the children were killed during the homeward journey… Women captives became wives who initially had to be carefully watched or tied lest they seek to escape.” 
...These patterns are further reflected in genetic data. In his 2016 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich discusses the phenomenon of sex-asymmetric population mixture during human history, noting that “the common thread is that males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.” And, as Reich makes clear, these patterns were often the result of highly coercive pairings enforced by men, in contexts where women had limited ability to exercise choice. [3]
Whether a woman wanted to have sex with a man was often irrelevant. Whether she wanted to be paired with him for years of her life was irrelevant. In the world of flesh no Puck arrives in nick of time to grant history's many Hermias the attentions of the men they most desired. A woman's refusal only went so far. She could be stolen and forced into servitude; her family could be killed and she raped; or she could be married off and left defenseless against sexual assault by her partner. If things came to blows, it was the man who would be choosing the circumstances of reproduction, not the woman.

Any evolutionary narrative of sex-based traits must take these realities into account before I will take it seriously. Occasionally I see that sort of work out there, but it is few and far between. [4] In the lingo of the discipline, parent-offspring competition and violent intersexual competition are quite real. The psychologist who doesn't work them into his or her theories is not trying hard enough.

I can forgive them for the omission. The majority of scientists who developed theories of sexual selection came from societies calmer and more equitable than the human norm. In their world women have the freedom to reject or accept who they will. Most have never had to worry about the possibility their daughter might be stolen from their homes. They live with the expectation that both their daughters and their sons will choose their mates with little regard of what their parents think of them.

But this story is not the human story. Had Darwin invented his grand theory in another world, one where the science of evolution developed in some land where humans married and mated as most humans have, I doubt theories of sexual preference would have the allure they now do. These theories match the intuitions of our age. Sometimes those intuitions are WIERDER than we realize.

If you enjoyed this post on psychology and evolutionary anthropology, you might also find the posts "Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously,""Psychology Makes the Strategist," and "The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Readerof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] The classic statement of this is Emmanuel Todd, Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems. trans. David Garroch. (New York: Blackwell Publishing). 1989. See also Craig Willy, "Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary, "craigjwilly.info (7 July 2013).

[2] William Buckner, "A Girl's Place in the World," Quillette (9 May 2019).

[3] ibid.

[4] An excellent example is David Puts, "Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans," Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 31, Issue 3 (May 2010) pp. 157-175

08 May, 2019

The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road

Image Source

It is not luxury and pomp that make a king a king. It is when his orders are never disobeyed that he has entered a title such as yours.
Mudrarakshasa 3.99 [c. 300 AD]

The always excellent Stella Zhang directed me to a newish paper by political scientists Lee Jones and Zeng Jinhan on the domestic politics of China's Belt and Road. Long term readers will remember that I am bearish on Xi's grand dream. Here is how I described the central problems with the scheme for Foreign Policy:
There is also a gap between how BRI projects are supposed to be chosen and how they actually have been selected. Xi and other party leaders have characterized BRI investment in Eurasia as following along defined “economic corridors” that would directly connect China to markets and peoples in other parts of the continent. By these means the party hopes to channel capital into areas where it will have the largest long-term benefit and will make cumulative infrastructure improvements possible.
This has not happened: one analysis of 173 BRI projects concluded that with the exception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) “there appears to be no significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity… [suggesting that] interest groups within and outside China are skewing President Xi’s signature foreign policy vision.” 
This skew is an inevitable result of China’s internal political system. BRI projects are not centrally directed. Instead, lower state bodies like provincial and regional governments have been tasked with developing their own BRI projects. The officials in charge of these projects have no incentive to approve financially sound investments: by the time any given project materializes, they will have been transferred elsewhere. BRI projects are shaped first and foremost by the political incentives their planners face in China: There is no better way to signal one’s loyalty to Xi than by laboring for his favored foreign-policy initiative. From this perspective, the most important criteria for a project is how easily the BRI label can be slapped on to it..... 
The problems China has had with the BRI stem from contradictions inherent in the ends party leaders envision for the initiative and the means they have supplied to reach them. BRI projects are chosen through a decentralized project-management system and then funded through concessional loans offered primarily by PRC policy banks. This is a recipe for cost escalation and corruption. In countries like Cambodia, a one-party state ruled by autocrats, this state of affairs is viable, for there is little chance that leaders will be held accountable for lining their pockets (or, more rarely, the coffers of their local communities) at the entire nation’s expense. But most BRI countries are not Cambodia. In democracies this way of doing things is simply not sustainable, and in most BRI countries it is only so long before an angry opposition eager to pin their opponents with malfeasance comes to power, armed with the evidence of misplaced or exploitative projects. [1]
The key points to take away from my account is that the failures of the BRI seem to factor back to a few central points: first, that project selection is mostly driven by the priorities of folks working in SOEs, provincial governments, and a plethora of different policy banks. The central government in Beijing has difficulty directing their efforts. Secondly, that these people do not have a good understanding of the countries in which they are investing, and face little incentive to gain this understanding. This leads to the sort of corruption and 'predatory' funding that has given BRI its poisonous reputation in countries long exposed to it.

Jones and Zeng agree with this general picture, but provide a far more detailed account of what is happening 'behind the scenes' when BRI projects are chosen and funded. The process they describe is not unique to the Belt and Road. It starts as Communist high leadership paints bold words in the sky:
Foreign-policy steering happens through several important mechanisms. The first is top leaders’ major speeches, which are usually kept vague to accommodate diverse interests and agendas. Rather than ‘carefully-worked out grand strategies’, they are typically ‘platitudes, slogans, catchphrases, and generalities’, offering ‘atmospheric guidance’ that others must then interpret and implement. Examples include: Deng’s tao guang yang hui, whose meaning is ‘debateable’; Hu’s ‘harmonious world’ – ‘more of a narrative than a grand strategy’; and Xi’s ‘new type of great power relations.’ As discussed below, Xi’s vague 2013 remarks on the ‘silk road economic belt’ (SREB) and ‘maritime silk road’ (MSR) exemplify this tendency. [2]
But bold words are not policy. The Party often has difficulty transforming grand visions into detailed policy proposals. This is sometimes quite intentional—in a closed system like the People's Republic, it may be better to have politicos arguing over how to make the Core's vision possible, instead of whether the Core's vision is worth making possible in the first place. 

The down-side to this approach is obvious: everybody and anybody with an institutional axe to grind or a quick buck to make will take this opportunity to turn the Party's newest slogan into a vehicle for advancing their personal or institutional interests:
These steering mechanisms elicit diverse responses from subordinate actors. To survive and thrive, officials must at least appear to be enthusiastic implementers of central directives. Hence, they typically rush sycophantically to embrace leaders’ vague slogans, creating the misleading appearance of a tightly-controlled, top-down governmental machine. However, they may simultaneously manoeuvre to serve their own sectional  interests and agendas, rather than simply implementing a detailed grand strategy imposed from above. First, they may influence emerging policy plans. Because top leaders generally rely on disaggregated bureaucracies, party-state think-tanks and universities to develop their vague slogans into policies,  other  actors  can  often  insert  their  own  interests  into  evolving  policy  platforms. Remarkably, this occurs even with respect to China’s core interests, which were left to academics, think tanks and bureaucracies to define, prompting them to identify their concerns as core interests to acquire more power and resources. 
Actors can also lobby through LSGs, the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, the National People’s Congress (NPC), sectoral ministries, policy banks and state-linked policy institutes. In some cases, top leaders’ slogans themselves emerge from this bottom-up advocacy – as was the case with BRI itself (see below). 
Secondly, actors interpret leaders’ slogans, and subsequent policy platforms, in ways amenable  to  their  particular  interests,  sometimes  skewing implementation significantly.  Interpretation often follows leaders’ speeches immediately, before they are even developed into vague policy outlines, with unfavorable elements facing ‘resistance’ and ‘distortion.’ Finally,  actors  can  even  ignore  central  guidelines.  Although  CCP  controls  minimize  open  defiance, there are many documented instances of agencies taking action overseas without approval,  or  violating  national  laws  and  policies  to  pursue  their  particular  interests.  This includes SOEs, local governments, and the security forces. [4]
This was seen on full display with the roll out of the Belt and Road, with macro-economists of various stripes, military strategists, think tankers, and financial reformers all rushing out studies showing how the Belt and Road justified their pet policy preferences. This is a useful reminder from Zeng and Jones. I also think this is correct frame to understand the sort of material covered in reports like this one by Joel Wuthnow, which details debates held in China about the security implications of the Belt and Road. Many of the reports included are less useful for understanding the actual 'strategic' or 'military' rationale of the Belt and Road than the Chinese nat/sec establishment's desire to claim ownership of the initiative.

But no class of people have been more successful in appropriating the initiative for their own ends than the provincial governments and their lackeys:
The most important influencers, though, were state-linked economic interests and provincial governments. The real impetus for expanding infrastructure programmes through OBOR was the long-term fallout from the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. China rode out the crisis only through a US$586 billion stimulus package, mostly involving local government borrowing to finance infrastructure projects. By the early 2010s, the stimulus was spent and many local governments were virtually bankrupt. Overcapacity exceeded 30% in the iron, steel, glass, cement, aluminium and power generation industries. Many SOEs faced a major profitability crisis, with returns on domestic infrastructure turning negative. Meanwhile, Chinese banks faced their own over-accumulation crisis, with US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and dwindling domestic lending prospects. For these interests, OBOR represented an opportunity to internationalise their domestic surplus capacity. Unsurprisingly, these politico-economic actors lobbied furiously to influence the translation of Xi’s slogans into concrete policy, in order to grab part of the spoils.  
Only 14 provinces were invited to the NDRC’s initial OBOR symposium in December 2013, indicating a relatively tight circle of beneficiaries. Excluded provinces, however, quickly lobbied for inclusion, through  forums  like the NPC. Provincial  universities  and  think  tanks  were  encouraged to demonstrate locales’ historical links to the ancient silk road – generating the aforementioned publications boom. Local media were also enlisted, leading to a profusion of stories mentioning OBOR, from 543 in 2014 to 5935 in 2015, with coverage in virtually every provincial outlet. For example, Shaanxi and Henan provinces waged an intense public battle over which of them contained the start of the historical silk road Competition over the MSR’s ‘starting point’ was even fiercer, with rival claims from Fujian, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Guangxi. Provinces with weaker claims invented ‘starting points’ linked to geographical locations or commodities, like porcelain or tea, then even squabbled over these. Shandong and Hebei, for example, both claimed that their cities, Qingdao and Huanghua, were the ‘northern starting point.’ [5]
But in the scramble to land deals, provincial governments often worked at cross-purposes from each other. Jones and Zeng include several examples to this effect, but I found the following story to be particularly humorous:
In 2013, Guangxi and affiliated business interests agreed  with  Malaysia’s Pahang state  government  to  upgrade  Kuantan  port,  including  by  developing a cross-country railway, road links and a US$3.4 billion industrial park. Guangxi subsequently leveraged  BRI  to  expand  its  involvement.  However,  in  September  2015, Guangdong province  signed  a  rival  agreement  with  Malaysia’s  Malacca  state,  including  a  US$4.6 billion industrial park and a US$10 billion port upgrade. 
There is little economic rationale for developing two world-class ports on the Malay Peninsula. These projects reflect not a coherent master plan but  rather competitive, sub-national  dynamics in both countries.  Moreover, these micro-level dynamics clearly do not–indeed, cannot–add up to a coherent, macro-level network of infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, statistical analysis reveals no correlation between Vision and Actions [the official policy document guiding the BRI] six ‘corridors’ and projects on the ground, suggesting that the plan is failing even to guide investment activity in a broad sense. [6]
They also include several examples of provincial governments simply re-branding existing proposals to get them passed under the 'Belt and Road' label:
Moreover,  some  provinces  had  clearly  ‘uploaded’  their  pre-existing/preferred  projects  into Vision and Actions. For example, Vision and Actions instructed Guangxi to develop the Beibu Gulf Economic Zone–which Guangxi itself initiated in 2006 under GWD. Similarly, Yunnan was tasked to develop the Greater Mekong Subregion–a grouping initiated by the Asian Development Bank in 1992 and subsequently the major focus for Yunnan’s GWD activities. Vision and Actions also incorporated the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) ‘corridor’ into BRI, which Yunnan initiated in 1998.  As  one  MFA-linked  scholar notes,  Vision and Actions is  less  a  ‘top-level  design’  than  a  collation  of  provincial wish-lists, with top leaders telling provincial leaders: ‘if you have a scheme or plan, give it to us, and we will put it into the basket.[7]
These are not the only examples of this practice that Jones and Lee discuss (I mention a few others in my essay for Foreign Policy as well). But you do not need to browse a detailed list of each and every one of these projects to grasp their central problem: with the provinces, SOEs, and policy banks acting as the driving force behind individual BRI schemes, Beijing has immense difficulty using these projects for geopolitical ends. In their interviews with officials in Beijing, Jones and Zeng found this sentiment expressed again and again:
Officials in the Ministry for Public Security’s think tank concede [that] the ‘different departments and agencies involved in foreign aid’ have created ‘chaos and disorder,’ permitting ‘bad conduct by Chinese companies. Different departments are ... following their own interest, not following our national interest of getting better relations. They only think about making money for themselves or interest groups’ 
....As [another] policymaker concedes, governance is BRI’s ‘biggest difficulty’: ‘there is no unified department  to  manage  [it].’  Responsibility  is  instead  spread  across  diverse  party-state  agencies including, in addition to the aforementioned financing agencies: the MoF, which influences  financial  disbursements;  the  NDRC,  which  regulates  large-scale  infrastructure  projects;  MOFCOM,  which  regulates  ODF,  investment  and–with  the  State-owned  Assets  Supervision and Administration Commission and various functional ministries–SOEs; and the relatively weak MFA, which struggles to promote wider foreign-policy goals. 
In practice, one frustrated MFA-linked scholar complains: the ‘MFA should be the hub for everything, but it is not.’ The economic agencies dominate and ‘provincial  SOEs  have their own projects ...It makes the MFA really embarrassed.’ [8]
At this point one is tempted to ask: how do we square all of this with Xi Jinping's centralization drive? Is not Secretary Xi the most powerful man to rule China since Deng and Mao? Why can't he put things in order?

Zeng and Jones have an answer for this as well:
It is more accurate  to  say  that  Xi  has  made  unusually  strong  use  of  [existing] coordinating  mechanisms,  particularly  those  relating  to  cadre  discipline  and  ideological  control. While this has elicited widespread public displays of loyalty, it does not necessarily guarantee strong control over policy outputs. This is not least because Xi’s policy frameworks remain as vague as those of his predecessors. For example, at a 2013 diplomatic work conference, Xi used the vague slogan fenfa youwei, usually translated as ‘striving for achievement.’ Other party-state actors have interpreted this as meaning anything from totally disregarding other countries’  interests to a modest increase in proactivity. Competing maritime agencies exploited this vaguenes to intensify their activities in  the  South China Sea, generating clashes with neighbouring countries. To rein them in, Xi created a new China Coastguard, but by March 2018 the merger of maritime agencies remained incomplete, with continued coordination  problems, resulting in the coastguard’s reallocation  to  the Central Military Commission and the abolition of its previous overseer, the State Oceanic Administration. 
...This constant institutional reshuffling – six years after he took power–-implies that Xi has not yet surmounted China’s formidable coordination challenges. Indeed, his new coordinating bodies also ‘need coordination;’ Naughton suggests that their proliferation has only made decision-making ‘more  erratic,’  with  ‘yawning  gaps’ between  policy  intent  and  implementation.  Indeed,  many of Xi’s signature policies encounter routine noncompliance. 
...Vision and Action translated Xi’s slogans into a ‘plan’, but this remains extremely loose, with others explicitly invited to ‘draw up implementation plans and roadmaps for advancing the BRI’ and ‘work out plans and measures for regional  cooperation’.  This  enables  dozens  of  agencies  to  interpret  and  implement  BRI  according to their sectional interests, not a centrally-defined strategy. Xi’s ideological control has strengthened,  since  to  gain  resources  and  policy  support  all  of  these  interests  must  present their agendas as ways to implement his fabulous schema. But this certainly does not translate into detailed control of BRI outputs. [9]
Reading this, one is reminded of the constant failure central organs have had in their attempts to force provincial, city, and county governments to reign in spending and wean themselves off of Local Government Financing Vehicles. As Andrew Batson put it in a recent blog post, "The Belt and Road is really the expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy to the rest of the world." His explanation is worth quoting in full:
Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.

In Belt and Road projects, foreign countries simply take the place of Chinese local governments in this model (those who detect a neo-imperial vibe around the Belt and Road are, in this sense, onto something). Even the players are the same. In the 1990s, China Development Bank helped invent the local-government financing vehicle structure that underpinned the massive domestic infrastructure boom. Now, China Development Bank is one of the biggest lenders for overseas construction projects.

Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective–they are the whole point. [10]
What to make of all this?

I am still comfortable with my earlier declaration that (from China's perspective) the Belt and Road has been "one big mistake." Many investments have been poorly chosen; the greatest beneficiaries are SOEs and local government officials who profit—financially and politically—from BRI projects but do not have to deal with the political and diplomatic blowback created when opposition parties in BRI countries take power and begin to investigate deals made by their opponents. For this reason I am far less concerned with BRI's global reach than many other observers. I simply don't think this is going to bring the PRC the sort of political returns Xi Jinping was hoping for when he first laid out his grand vision of a continent spanning infrastructure regime.

I am not ready, however, to declare that the Belt and Road fiasco is evidence that Xi Jinping is incapable of controlling the Party, or that the Party is incapable of long term policy. This is what Jones and Zeng argue we should take away from their research:
China’s complex, multilevel governance system still makes it extremely difficult for Beijing to pursue a coherent, consistent grand strategy. In the IR literature on China, grand strategy is frequently used to denote a long-term, coherent plan, usually aimed at countering US hegemony. Some even identify a capacity to plan and execute policy over an entire century.... In reality, the Chinese party-state’s transformation makes it very hard for China to formulate and execute grand strategy according to any of the definitions. Chinese leaders–even Xi, as shown more fully in the empirical discussion below–generally cannot generate ‘detailed grand plans,’ preferring vague slogans and ‘atmospheric guidance.’Far from priortising key interests and goals, this leaves even the definition of ‘core interests’ to others to contest and decide. Even if leaders could devise a ‘grand plan’, they would struggle to coordinate actors and resources to pursue their chosen ends....  
China’s ‘strategic vision’ is vague, its meaning determined less by top-level strategic thinkers than the actors it is ostensibly ‘guiding.’ Furthermore, the process by which ‘the principle is translated into a plan’ involves complex, multi-level bargaining, not the ‘top-level design’ that Chinese commentators and official statements frequently emphasise.  
Even then, the ‘plan’ will not necessarily substantively ‘guide’ other actors’ behaviour, because they may interpret or ignore it according to their preferences, or even influence it, such that it is they who are ‘guiding’ the plan, rather than vice-versa. Accordingly, their conduct may not even amount to a ‘long-term pattern’, failing to meet even the woolliest, ‘grand behaviour’ definition. The term grand strategy thus conveys an impression of coherence that may not–and oftentimes cannot–exist in the Chinese context. ....Rather than a ‘well thought out grand strategy’, BRI is clearly a far looser policy platform, reflecting the ongoing transformation of China’s party-state and the emergence of regulatory-style governance. 
...Our analysis challenges mainstream discussion of Chinese policymaking under Xi Jinping. Xi is widely portrayed as the ‘new Mao’, concentrating all decision-making in his own hands. As Xi’s signature foreign policy, BRI is an important test case for this perspective, with Chinese analysts particularly emphasizing his personal role and ‘wisdom’ in crafting the ‘well-designed,’ ‘top-level’ plan.... With BRI, at least, Chinese behaviour clearly does not simply express Xi’s personal vision. [11]
Jones and Zeng argue that the phrase "grand strategy" conveys a sense of coherence that cannot exist in the Chinese foreign policy making context. I agree, but would go even further: the phrase "grand strategy" conveys a sense of coherence that cannot exist in any foreign policy making context. I tend to agree with Lucas Milevski that "grand strategy" is a conceptually questionable term that does not reflect how policy is actually made, and celebrated "grand strategies" are almost always post-hoc narratives imposed by historians decades after the fact.[12]

This does not mean, however, that long-term planning is impossible, nor that the Chinese are unable to do it. It might be useful here to compare the troubled history of the Belt and Road with the modernization and centralization of the People's Liberation Army over the last two decades. Xi Jinping has taken an intimate interest in these two campaigns—and both have had stunning success. The military gains China has made in the last decade are not vanities. They are real. So are the losses various institutional factions have sustained as the command structure was streamlined and increasing emphasis has been placed on the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force.

Why has Xi Jinping been more successful in this domain than the reforming SOE financing? There are a few potential answers. The simplest is that Xi Jinping simply has better grasp of or interest in the details of military command. I believe this is plausible, and am surprised at how little analysts think about how the personalities and interests of China's central leadership might shape their priorities. A second explanation is that the stakes here are much higher: Xi has focused on consolidating and modernizing his hold on the Party's ideology, internal discipline, and defense systems because these are the levers of power. Losing control of BRI projects has much less immediate consequences.

My final guess is institutional. The People's Liberation Army is a very old institution. In many ways, Secretary Xi tamed the PLA by following tactics from the Communist playbook of the '40s and '50s. The anti-corruption campaign, crackdowns on non-sanctioned social groups (religious organizations, Uyghurs, etc.), changes in the censorship and propaganda systems, and the growth in 'united front' style campaigns both abroad and at home also fit rough patterns established in the Party's early history. The tools for managing this sort of problem are a part of the institutional and ideological heritage Xi has inherited from his fathers. This same heritage has little useful to tell him about how to reform Local Government Financing Vehicles. Nor are there any easy leverage points for reform. Removing figures like Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Zhou Yongkang was critical for his ability to ram potentially unpopular programs down the throat of the PLA. Just who do you remove to reform BRI? Which bureaucracy must be torn apart before Xi can unleash his will on China's economy? Where can he intervene without scaring markets into a recession? There is no easy answer to that question—and until there is, I expect problems like these to stick.

If you enjoyed this post on China's political economy, you might also find the posts "Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Red Capitalism" and "Bootlicking in Beijing" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, "One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake," Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).

[2] Lee Jones and Zeng Jinghan, "Understanding China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”: Beyond “Grand Strategy” to a State Transformation Analysis," Third World Quarterly (2019), p. 3.

[3] Jones and Zeng, "Understanding China's Belt and Road," p. 4.

[4] ibid., p. 8.

[5] ibid. p. 11.

[6] ibid., p. 9

[7] ibid., p. 10

[8] ibid., p. 13

[9] ibid., p. 11

[10] Andrew Batson, "The Belt and Road is About Domestic Interest Groups, Not Development," Andrew Batson's Blog (2 May 2019).

[11] Jones and Zeng, "Understanding China's Belt and Road," p. 2-3; 14.

[12] Lucas Milveski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). There is an article version of his argument out there somewhere, but I am a tad too busy to go hunt it down now.

01 May, 2019

On the Future of this Blog

A snapshot from the reader survey. This is you, folks.


I started The Scholar's Stage in 2008. n thee pages I have hosted debates on population centric counterinsurgency, ancient Chinese philosophy, antebellum American history, the ideology of the Communist Party of China, modern American culture wars, and just about everything in between. Based off of the results of last year's reader survey, these essays have a diverse readership. You are divided almost exactly between left and right, young and old, and between those who read this blog for its take on international affairs, those who read it for the posts on history, and those who read it for the posts on culture and literature. I am glad to have you all (except the Chinese nationalist who once tried to flame-spam every single post I've written; that guy is not welcome).

Many of you have had kind things to say about the little essays and research briefs I post here. Many of you have shared them enthusiastically. I am grateful for that.

But I will be honest: Writing these essays is not easy. Even the short posts here take hours of preparation. Fact checking my data, writing proper citations, drafting and redrafting paragraphs until their prose reaches an acceptable clarity and verve—well, it all takes an enormous amount of time. This frustrates me: for every essay I type out there are three or four I never have the time to write. Here are just a few of the posts I have drafted out (either in paper or merely in my thoughts), but have not finished, because I cannot justify devoting the hours needed to finishing them:

  • An argument that Vietnam will be more geopolitically and economically important than Japan by 2050
  • A detailed description, complete with PDFs and powerpoints of class materials and homework, of how I successfully taught the Iliad to a group of apathetic teenagers
  • A strong, literature-fluent critique of personality based (e.g., big 5, Haidt's moral foundations, "system justification") theories of political preference
  • A translation and analysis of a speech Xi Jinping gave that answers the question "what does 'communism' mean to China's modern communists?"
  • Observations on how the language we use to discuss evolutionary psychology distracts from evopsych's actual findings
  • A description of how warfare worked in ancient China, and how this knowledge should change how we understand the Sunzi's Art of War
  • An analysis of how culture wars are won and lost (with reference to some interesting historical examples), along with an argument that conservatives still can win over Western countries to their cause if they are willing to play a long game
  • Notes on gender norms in China, and what these norms might suggest about that country's future
  • An elegant proposal for balancing the "prepare them for work" and "help them explore the mysteries" of life aspects of a university education
  • A response to this debate with actual experiences and data from an animist culture (Cambodia)
  • A review of Cecilia Heyes' book, Cognitive Gadgets
  • A (viciously critical) review of Alex Rosenberg's book, How History Gets Things Wrong
  • A review of Andrew Yang's book, War on Normal People
  • Reflections on Shakespeare's plays (I have read all of the comedies this year, and am currently half way through the histories)

To these more or less fleshed out essays I have the germs of another two dozen in the deeper folds of my brain. But this is a fine list as it is. There is no point adding anything else to it. I will have difficulty writing even a fraction of it.

When I started the Stage more than ten years ago, things were easier. I had fewer responsibilities then than I do now. Many readers have pressed me to write more, as I once did. It is now difficult to devote so much time writing essays when I could be spending a proportionate amount of time doing things that have real financial or emotional rewards (this second category would include hobbies like spending time studying languages, or training in Muay Thai). I want to make this blog a sustainable project. I might be able to do this. But I will need your help to do it.

Yep, I've created a Patreon page. I do not expect to make great money from this page—hopefully just enough to make it easier to write more often than I can now. In last year's reader survey, a fair number of you reported that you would be willing to put aside $5 a month—about the price of two cups of coffee--in recognition of the quality experience you have had reading the Scholar's Stage. You can read the Patreon page for the full details, but those willing to contribute this sum are the first tier of this blog's support. In addition to my gratitude, they will be automatically signed up in a e-mail newsletter that will update them every time a new post is published.

Those willing to contribute more will get an extra perk: once a month or so I will compose a "Notes From All Over" post that collects the most compelling essays, worthy news items, insightful studies in social/behavioral science, and most fascinating interviews and podcast episodes I encountered that month (for examples of what this looks like, see here and here). For those of you who are missing my presence on Twitter, this might be partial compensation. Most of the material I used to post on Twitter (including my brief comments on the links included) will now be put in these posts.

If you do not have spare money at the present moment, please share the posts you like as widely as possible. I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter on right hand side of this page. Many people have asked for a way to follow this blog outside of Twitter. This is it. starting in May I will send out alerts once a month or so with links to everything I have written for this blog (and other publications) inside it.

For many bloggers, monetizing content is the beginning of the end. They go full commercial. Each post takes the blog further away from its origins as the host of great, original content towards a new future as a treadmill of banal self-promotion. I commit to you that this will not be the case with the Scholar's Stage. This is about sustainability (I will admit the grim truth: writing these essays takes up so much time I actually lose money writing them) and opening up possibilities to myself and my readers that were not there before.

Consider this something of an experiment. If it works well, and a robust supporter base is established, then I will be able to spend increasingly large amounts of time writing here. I might even be able to set aside the time to set up a podcast focused on Asian military and political history, as many of my readers have urged me to do. But that sort of expansion is predicated on first making the Scholar's Stage a more sustainable enterprise.

I am glad and grateful for all you do to make this blog possible.



POST-SCRIPT: If you wish to contribute through some other method, or have fruitful ideas on how to grow the readership of the Scholar's Stage, feel free to send me an e-mail. I cannot promise I will have time to respond to everything I get, but you can be assured that I will read everything I get.

29 April, 2019

Questing for Transcendence

Sir Galahad in stained glass (1910)
From Andrew's Dune Church, Southampton, New York.

That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor!
—Victor Serge, Unforgiving Years (1947)

My life's short course has brought me to many places, bound me to sundry peoples, and urged me to varied trades. Yet out of the lands I've lived and roles I've have donned, none blaze in my memory like the two years I spent as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a shame that few who review my resume ask about that time; more interesting experiences were packed into those few mission years than in the rest of the lot combined.

 To be a missionary is to confront the uncanny. You cannot serve without sounding out the weird bottoms of the human heart. But if missionary life forces you to come full contact with mankind at its most desperate and unsettled, so too it asks you to witness mankind at its most awesome and ethereal. Guilt's blackest pit, fear's sharpest grip, rage at its bluntest, hope at its highest, love at its longest and fullestto serve as a missionary is to be thrust in the midst of the full human panorama, with all of its foulness and all of its glory. I doubt I shall ever experience anything like it again. I cannot value its worth. I learned more of humanity's crooked timbers in the two years I lived as missionary than in all the years before and all the years since.

Attempting to communicate what missionary life is like to those who have not experienced it themselves is difficult. You'll notice my opening paragraph restricted itself to broad generalities; it is hard to move past that without cheapening or trivializing the experience.

Yet there is one segment of society that seems to get it. In the years since my service, I have been surprised to find that the one group of people who consistently understands my experience are soldiers. In many ways a Mormon missionary is asked to live something like a soldier: like a soldier, missionaries go through an intense 'boot camp' experience meant to reshape their sense of self and duty; are asked to dress and act in a manner that erodes individuality; are 'deployed' in far-flung places that leave them isolated from their old friends, family members, and community; are pushed into contact with the full gamut of human personality in their new locales; live within a rigid hierarchy, follow an amazing number of arcane rules and regulations, and hold themselves to insane standards of diligence, discipline, and obedience; and spend years doing a job which is not so much a job as it is an all-encompassing way of life.

The last point is the one most salient to this essay. It is part of the reason both many ex-missionaries (known as "RMs" or "Return Missionaries" in Mormon lingo) and many veterans have such trouble adapting to life when they return to their homes. This comparison occurred to me first several years ago, when I read a Facebook comment left by a man who had served as a Marine mechanic in Afghanistan. He was commenting on an interview Sebstation Junger had done to promote his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I did not save the comment at the time, but I remember it well enough to reproduce a paraphrase here:
"I do not know if I want to live any more. I served in Afghanistan from [various dates of various deployments] and am now working as a salesman for [a prominent American company]. I despise this world I am in noweverything is so selfish and so self centered. In Afghanistan every single decision I made had a purpose; every single thing I did was for something bigger than myself. Everything I did, I did to save lives. Every deed helped accomplish our mission. Here in America no one does anything except for themselves. We work to earn a buckwhat is the point to living like this? There is not a day that goes by that I don't wish I was back in that hellhole. There what I did mattered. Here it is all meaningless."

What struck me when I read this comment was how similar his feelings were to those I had heard voiced by many return missionariesindeed, to things I had felt myself. This is by no means a universal feeling among missionaries, not even among those who live up to the standards of their call (not all missionaries do). But it is a common one. Many RMs report a sense of loss and aimlessness upon returning to "the real world." They suddenly find themselves in a society that is disgustingly self-centered, a world where there is nothing to sacrifice or plan for except one's own advancement. For the past two years there was a purpose behind everything they did, a purpose whose scope far transcended their individual concerns. They had given everything"heart, might, mind and strength"to this work, and now they are expected to go back to racking up rewards points on their credit card? How could they?

The soldier understands this question. He understands how strange and wonderful life can be when every decision is imbued with terrible meaning. Things which have no particular valence in the civilian sphere are a matter of life or death for the soldier. Mundane aspects of mundane jobs (say, those of the former vehicle mechanic) take on special meaning. A direct line can be drawn between everything he doeslaying out a sandbag, turning off a light, operating a radioand the ability of his team to accomplish their mission. Choice of food, training, and exercise before combat can make the difference between the life and death of a soldier's comrades in combat. For good or for ill, it is through small decisions like these that great things come to pass.

In this sense the life of the soldier is not really his own. His decisions ripple. His mistakes multiply. The mission demands strict attention to things that are of no consequence in normal life. So much depends on him, yet so little is for him.

This sounds like a burden. In some ways it is. But in other ways it is a gift. Now, and for as long as he is part of the force, even his smallest actions have a significance he could never otherwise hope for. He does not live a normal life. He lives with power and purposethat rare power and purpose given only to those whose lives are not their own. [1]

Missionaries also live for a mission. One should not overplay the similarities: missionaries do not kill, nor must they watch their brothers and sisters in arms be killed. But in the missionary's mindif he or she is a good missionary, that isthe pay offs are just as serious. Missionaries play for eternal stakes. They teach, preach, and serve in order to transform lives in this existence and save them in the next. But it is not just their teaching and preaching that matters: How they dress, what time they rise from bed, what they study in their waking hours, where they go, the words they use, the time they waste, even the thoughts they allow to creep into the back recesses of their mind, influence their capacity and their concentration. The missionary searches constantly for those open to his or her message: the decision to take a bus or to walk to an appointment suddenly takes on eternal significance. This is an extraordinary feeling. Like the soldier, the work of the missionary transcends. Missionaries live for a cause greater than themselves.

It is an exhilarating way to live.

This sort of life is not restricted to soldiers and missionaries. Terrorists obviously experience a similar sort of commitment. So do dissidents, revolutionaries, reformers, abolitionists, and so forth. What matters here is conviction and cause. If the cause is great enough, and the need for service so pressing, then many of the other thingsobedience, discipline, exhaustion, consecration, hierarchy, and separation from ordinary lifesoon follow. It is no accident that great transformations in history are sprung from groups of people living in just this way. Humanity is both at its most heroic and its most horrifying when questing for transcendence.


The desire to live for something greater than one's own selfish, immediate needs is not some byproduct of modernity. It manifests across cultures and times, emerging in every epoch and era in which we have historical records fine grained enough to leave a record of such things. Though I can offer no plausible evolutionary explanation for why living for the transcendent cause is so powerful an emotional drive, the impulse is likely as inborn as those other things humans go about questing for: power, thrill, prestige, sex, security, discovery, belonging, redemption, and love. Teasing out the ancient origins of this particular behavior quirk is beyond me. It is, however, one of the reason's I have been fascinated with Will Buckner's series of essays on hunter-gatherer mystery cults—even among hill tribes and desert foragers we see the need to identify and embody something larger than ourselves. [2]

But in these hunter-gatherer worldsindeed, in most societies—the quest for the transcendent does not usually manifest itself in grand social crusades. Constant devotion to the sacred is not sustainable. This is true in more ways than one. The most obvious: self consecration is exhausting.

I saw Mormon missionaries break under the emotional pressure this task demanded of them; sometimes, if the task demanded is painful enough, entire generations break. But breaking is not the norm. Most crusades do not crash out of existence. Instead, they dwindle. Hearts harden. Focus clouds. Limbs grow weary. Like a dimming fire burning out on its own ashes, an appetite for sacrifice indulged too long soon wisps away. The next generation enters the scene sick of grand causes, eager to get back to the bourgeoisie business of settled life.

This is a good thing. No society of perpetual questers can long persist. If they were able to devote their entire lives soldiering and sermonizing, no next generation of questers would be possible. Yes, not all questers can settle down and raise the next generation u. There will always a few of "that race of men that don't fit in;" healthy societies tend to send them off to foreign legions or cloistered priesthoods where they cannot cause too much trouble. Which is how it must be. There are strong selection pressures at work here. The societies that survive are those that channel the emotional drive for greater meaning into constructive quarters.

But that leaves these societies with a problem: how to meet this yearning for something more? How do you meet emotional needs for transcendent meaning without sacrificing the abundance of your people to an everlasting crusade? Will Wilkinson explored one possibility in an essay he wrote a few years ago on American country music. Wilkinson begins with the observation that American conservatives (i.e., the consumers of country music) tend to be low on "openess" in the Big-5 personality scale. Folks who rate high on openness are the sort attracted to novelty: world travels, new drugs, and so forth. Country music, he suggests, captures the emotional lives of a different group of people:
Emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in "One Boy, One Girl": the moment of falling in love with "the one," the wedding day, the birth one's children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life's stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I'm a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl's gun-loving father, now I'm a gun-loving father threatening my girl's teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.

My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life's most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences....

But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don't experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you're able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one's own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one's children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that "what you see is what you get," a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in "the little things" that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.[3]
If consecration for the greater cause is one way to meet the transcendent, Wilikson stumbles upon a second path. The crusader's life gains purpose by suborning his heart and soul to a cause greater than himself; the traditionalist finds the transcendent by linking her life to traditions whose reach extend far past herself. This sort of transcendence is role and ritual based: the meaning it provides ties individuals not to a social cause but a social group. By participating in these sort of rituals, the traditionalist is assured of her place and purpose in a community of meaning. In fulfilling this role she joins a procession of the centuriesor barring that, a procession that at least stretches back before her life and continues on past it. "Advancing through life's stations" (and the ritualized responsibilities that come with each) allows her to experience, for however short a time, something less contingent and selfish than the drives of every day life.[4] She joins the eternal round. By so doing she glimpses in the daily run something of eternity.

The actual form of these roles and rituals are somewhat arbitrary: they shift from one culture to another. But their goal, in many ways (one perhaps better said: one of their goalshumans so rarely act from sole motives), is to accomplish the marriage between awe and obligation G.K Chesterton called being "astonished at the world and yet at home in it:"
This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers... How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town? ...nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. [5]
Wonder and welcome. Those who join the eternal round rarely reach the emotional highs found questing for the crusader's cause. Their sacrifices are smaller, duties less demanding, and focus compromised by the drag of normal life. But these men and women can lead a normal life. The cause asks you to give up your life for something greater; the round asks you to build your life on something greater.

These are parlor sketches, briefest outlines of human paths towards meaning. Some damned psychologist is going to forward this on Twitter with fussy objections. I will hear that words like "transcendent" and "meaning" are too vague to be of any use in the behavioral sciences (though they tooor most of the lotalso feel these yearnings). I do not have much to say in response to that. Eventually some neuroscientist will come along with some clever ideas on how to measure purpose in the laboratory.

I am more concerned with those who cannot find meaning than with those who cannot measure it.

Will Wilkinson wrote that essay in 2011. Even then his description of country music was a bit behind the times. That world was changing: gone, or going, are the songs about dads changing diapers or seeing God in the birth of a child. For most of the last decade, country billboards have been dominated by trucks, dirt roads, beer, and girls in tight jeans. The time when country was the genre for those "advancing through life's stations" is over with. The music follows its listeners. These listeners have slowly left the eternal round.

Ritual communities are not intentional inventions. Often, as is the case with the communities described in Buckner's essays, they produce unsettling violence and terror. The best are more benign. The genius of strong communities is their ability to meet the need their members have for special purpose without disrupting the workings of everyday society. Rituals condense these yearnings into specific moments and roles that can be clearly, openly realized. I hope I do not wax too poetic when I describe these roles as anchors to the soul. Parental love is enough to tie parents to their children; ritual orders extend these ties outside narrow kin lines altogether.

But few are designed with that purpose in mind. Few, indeed, are designed at all. Which is why it is easier to tear rituals down than to build new ones up.

Which brings us to the troubles of the current moment. We live in a society increasingly cut off from rituals of meaning. This "increasingly" is not a new developmentwe live at the tail end of a story that began with the stripping of the altars. So little is left. So hard to find in the little that is left a connection to the transcendent.

But the drive remains. And if that drive for meaning, awe, purpose, sacrifice, and significance cannot be found in the settled rounds, it will be found elsewhere.

Some wonder why our age is so full of Manichean striving. Why so eager, these crusaders? Why so many, these zealots and defenders? Why these warnings of a world on edge, of last stands and last hopes, or evil ever ascendant?

I do not wonder. The star of tradition fades. The allure of consecration must grow stronger.

If you enjoyed this post on ritual and meaning, you might also find the posts "On the American Football Game" and "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] This sometimes is confused with a mere love of excitement. Take this story from Glenn Gray:
In 1955 I talked with a Frenchwoman who had suffered cruelly during the war from lack of food and anxieties for her family, but was now living in comfortable bourgeois fashion with her husband and son. We reviewed the misadventures of those war days, and then she confessed to me with great earnestness that, despite everything, those times had been more satisfying than the present. “My life is so unutterably boring nowadays!” she cried out. “Anything is better than to have nothing at all happen day after day. You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.”

A few days later I listened to a strikingly similar report from a German friend. Overweight, and with an expensive cigar in his mouth, he spoke of our earlier days together at the close of the war, when he was shivering and hungry and harried with anxieties about keeping his wife and children from too great want. “Sometimes I think that those were happier times for us than these,” he concluded, and there was something like despair in his eyes. Neither one of these people was accustomed to such a confession; it came from both spontaneously and because I had known them in distress and in prosperity. They were not longing for the old days in sentimental nostalgia; they were confessing their disillusionment with a sterile present. Peace exposed a void in them that war’s excitement had enabled them to keep covered up.
The void was realbut was it the excitement in war, or the purpose given by war, that filled it? One cannot tell either way for sure from the comments Gray records, but I suspect the latter.

From Glenn J. Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle (UNP: Bison Books, 1971), 216-217.

[2] See William Buckner, "Notes on Nggwal," Traditions of Conflict (23 January 2019); "The Assassins Footprint," Traditions of Conflict (1 April 2019); "On Secret Cults and Male Dominance," Traditions of Conflict (18 January 2018)

[3] Will Wilkinson, "Country Music, Openness to Experience, and the Psychology of the Culture Wars," Big Think (12 February 2012). 

[4] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, reprint ed. (London: Simon and Schuster, 2016), 1-2.

[5] These features of ritual meaning were notice long ago. Here is Xunzi defending funeral rituals two hundred years before the birth of Christ:
...Thus, the way that death works is that a person dies once and then cannot get to die again. A minister’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his lord, and a son’s opportunity to express utmost regard for his parents, depend completely on this. ... Ritual takes care that fortunate and unfortunate events do not intrude upon each other. When it comes to the point where one has to place gauze on the person’s face and listen for breathing, then the loyal minister and filial son know that the person’s illness is serious indeed. Even so, they do not yet seek the items for dressing the corpse and the lying in state. They weep and are filled with fear. Even so, they do not stop in their feelings of hoping that miraculously the person will live, and they do not cease their attempts to maintain the person’s life. Only when the person has truly died do they then make and prepare the necessary items.

....Ritual cuts off what is too long and extends what is too short. It subtracts from what is excessive and adds to what is insufficient. It achieves proper form for love and respect, and it brings to perfection the beauty of carrying out yi. Thus, fine ornaments and coarse materials, music and weeping, happiness and sorrow—these things are opposites, but ritual makes use of all of them, employing them and alternating them at the appropriate times. And so, fine ornaments, music, and happiness are that by which one responds to peaceful events and by which one pays homage to good fortune. Coarse mourning garments, weeping, and sorrow are that by which one responds to threatening events and by which one pays homage to ill fortune. Thus, the way ritual makes use of fine ornaments is such as not to lead to exorbitance or indulgence. The way it makes use of coarse mourning garments is such as not to lead to infirmity or despondency. The way it makes use of music and happiness is such as not to lead to perversity or laziness. The way it makes use of weeping and sorrow is such as not to lead to dejection or self-harm.
Notice the elements of ritual behavior that Xunzi focuses on. Ritual behavior elevates inborn dispositions and feelings to a higher plane of meaning. Rituals allow the men and women who join them to act out their given roles in the communal order. Rituals alternate between stages of happiness and grief, accentuating each stage of life as they are visited.

From Xunzi 19.215-321. The translation is Eric Hutton, Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Text).

19 April, 2019

The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers

This video is a good demonstration of what Chinese teenagers (or in this case, a  Taiwanese teenager) mean when they say the 2D world is more 'meihao' than the 3D one.

I have spent a great deal of time with Chinese teenagers. When I lived in Beijing, I paid no rent: instead I lived in the homes of various Chinese families who allowed me to live with them free of charge on the condition that I help their children with English. In addition to writing, I earned a small sum through private tutoring and teaching high school seminars. My specialty were the high fliers aiming for the Ivy League. What I taught varied with the ability of the learners. With the weakest teenagers I would read The Giver, with the middling sort, reams of poetry, short stories, and Lord of the Flies, and with the highest I taught American history, war literature (Fagles' translation of the Iliad, All Quiet on the Western Front, etc.), or ethical philosophy (Epicurus, Epictetus, Peter Singer on utilitarianism, Michael Sandel on Kant, and so forth). It was an interesting experience. The "highest fliers" were usually the children of Beijing's rich and prominent. By living in their homes, teaching in their schools, and meeting with them often to customize the education of their children, I was exposed to the inner life of Beijing's high society. It fundamentally reframed how I understand China.

It also offered some smaller pleasures. The parents left me disillusioned. With very few exceptions, their priorities disappointed. My interactions with their children were far more interesting. I found great joy in trying to tease out the inner lives of Beijing's the rising generation.

Two recent pieces of mine report what I found. The first is published in the Los Angles Review of Books under the title "China's Anime and Cosplay Obsession." I don't think the title quite does justice to the role Japanese styled media plays in the life of Chinese teenagers. The best analogy I have is Harry Potter. What Harry Potter was to the young American millennial, anime, manga, and related media is to the young Chinese today. My opening gives you a taste for this:
Most people have no idea I do this,” said Wu Na, beaming, as costumed conference-goers stopped to take her picture. The 14-year-old was wearing a thin cotton cloak over a knee-length tunic. As I talked to her, a boy walked into the convention hall sporting spiked hair, a neon-purple trench coat, and a bare chest. Like the hundreds of other cosplaying teenagers in the convention hall, he was not going to allow Beijing’s frigid January temperatures to cramp his style. “I have trouble connecting with most other people at school,” Wu reflected. “But in the two-dimensional world there is a sense of community I can’t find anywhere else. My second-dimension friends mean so much more to me than my third-dimension friends do.”

Wu is just one of the hundreds of millions wrapped up in what young Chinese call the “second dimension” (二次元). The closest English parallel is the ACG, or animation-comic-gaming sector, the market’s favorite acronym for a certain class of Japanese pop culture exports: anime, manga, and the merchandise inspired by them. The two-dimensional world Chinese teenagers such as Wu Na live in includes all of these elements, but their self-styled “second dimension” extends further – and is not limited to Japanese ACG, also factoring in anime-styled cartoons drawn in Korea, China and the United States.

Chinese fans also include a wide variety of non-animated activities and productions as part of the second dimension: video games that embrace the anime aesthetic; music videos of computer generated, 2D-styled pop singers (known as Vocaloids); manga festivals; cosplay costumes and events; and web forums. As young Chinese use it, “2D” is not a genre or a type of product. It is not just something one watches or buys – it is a world one visits, lives in, and joins. It is both a culture and, in the minds of its inhabitants, a place. Fans such as Wu Na contrast their “2D life” – which takes place mostly on the internet, or at 2D/anime festivals (漫展) or conventions – with their “3D life” in the ordinary world.

The size of this two-dimensional world astounds. Consumers of this culture, broadly conceived, number 270 million in China, according to a March 2017 article on Sohu (with 90 million “core users” according to newer data). A 2018 report by the Ministry of Information and Technology estimated that there were 220 million Chinese who regularly streamed “2D” content online or played web-based “2D” games (out of close to 750 million Chinese internet users). These numbers include a wide range of content, and do not distinguish between cartoons aimed at children and the Japanese-style content consumed by teenagers and young adults, but the trend is clear enough. As an industry report by Qianzhan Intelligence remarked in 2017: “The 2nd dimension used to be referred to as a ‘marginal subculture.’ Now it is simply called ‘youth culture.’”

...An impressive display of the zeal and market power of this group is the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, held each year in Hangzhou. In 2018 the festival pulled in 1.3 million attendees. (In contrast, last year’s New York Comic Con broke an American record with only 200,000 visitors.) Chinese tech giants Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and Netease have been quick to jump in on the bonanza, investing millions on IP and distribution platforms to profit from a market expected to grow to $33 billion by 2020.[1]

The big question is why does 2D culture have such an explosive appeal in this country? I suggest three possible reasons:

  • The 2D world is a colorful, wonder-filled, idyllic, and beautiful ("meihao") escape for young Chinese who have lived their entire lives cramped into a polluted and drab urban morass.
  • As the 2D world and its allusions are opaque to outsiders, the 2D world is one of the few places Chinese teenagers are sheltered from the watchful eyes of their elders.
  • The 2D world offers a sort of media experience that is hard to find on Chinese television. Chinese television, (indeed, Chinese life as a whole) is dominated by moralizing Chicken Soup for the Soul sensibilities which tells young what to think. At the other extreme, popular slapstick comedy, variety and singing programs, livestreaming, and so forth, demand no thought at all. (For those of you who have read Fahrenheit 451, it is hours and hours of Bradbury's "parlor walls.") The 2D world offers content that demands thought without demanding what viewers should think.

The second point probably deserves more space than I was able to give in the LA Review of Books. Consider, for a moment, the typical schedule of a Beijing teenager:

She will (depending on the length of her morning commute) wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. She must be in her seat by 7:45, 15 minutes before classes start. With bathroom breaks and gym class excepted, she will not leave that room until the 12:00 lunch hour and will return to the same spot after lunch is ended for another four hours of instruction. Depending on whether she has after-school tests that day, she will be released from her classroom sometime between 4:10 and 4:40. She then has one hour to get a start on her homework, eat, and travel to the evening cram school her parents have enrolled her in. Math, English, Classical Chinese—there are cram schools for every topic on the gaokao. On most days of the week she will be there studying from 6:00 to 9:00 PM (if the family has the money, she will spend another six hours at these after-school schools on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Our teenager will probably arrive home somewhere around 10:00 PM, giving her just enough time to spend two or three hours on that day’s homework before she goes to bed. Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, for six years. The strain does not abate until she has defeated—or has been defeated by—the gaokao.

This is well known, but I think the wrong aspects of this experience are emphasized. Most outsiders look at this and think: see how much pressure these Chinese kids are under. I look and think: how little privacy and independence these Chinese kids are given!

To put this another way: Teenage demands for personal space are hardly unique to China. What makes China distinctive is the difficulty its teenagers have securing this goal. Chinese family life is hemmed in narrow bounds. The urban apartments that even well-off Chinese call their homes are tiny and crowded. Few have more than two bedrooms. Teenagers are often forced to share their bedroom with a grandparent. So small was the apartment of one 16-year-old I interviewed that she slept, without apparent complaint, in the same bed as her parents for her entire first year of high school. Where can a teenager like her go, what door could she slam, when she was angry with her family? Within the walls of her home there was no escape from the parental gaze.

A Chinese teen has few better options outside her home. No middle-class Chinese teenager has a job. None have cars. The few that have boyfriends or girlfriends go about it as discreetly as possible. Apart from the odd music lesson here or there, what Americans call “extra-curricular activities” are unknown. One a recent graduate of a prestigious international high school in Beijing once explained to me the confusion she felt when she was told she would need to excel at an after-school activity to be competitive in American university admissions:

“In tenth grade our home room teacher told us that American universities cared a lot about the things we do outside of school, so from now on we would need to find time to 'cultivate a hobby.' I remember right after he left the girl sitting at my right turned to me and whispered, ‘I don’t know how to cultivate a hobby. Do you?’"

The 2D world fills some of that void up. It is mostly lived through the internet--bullet comments on Bilibili, memes created for Tieba forums, and so forth--and thus can visited at home or at school on a cell phone. And of course even when parents or teachers stop to observe what the teens are doing, they don't understand what they are seeing.

This has caused some consternation in China. That is what my second piece is about: the reaction parents, the Chinese Communist Party, and the government of Japan has had to these changes. One of my favorite interviews makes an appearance in this piece (given the delightful title, "Super Anime Youth Wars"):
But the runaway success of Japanese pop culture among China’s youth has caused confusion, shock, and anger in a country still bitter over historical grievances. Many Chinese see this as a war for the hearts of their children—one they’re losing.

This conflict is being fought out in editorial pages, boardrooms, and government bureaus. The stakes couldn’t be higher: in the short term, tens of billions of dollars; in the long term, the future of Sino-Japanese relations. Japanese diplomats hope that the millions of young Chinese in the 2D world will push for a China friendlier to Japan and its people. The Chinese Communist Party has responded by developing its own anime and manga-based propaganda program. Below all this are the parents and grandparents, aware that their children and grandchildren are submerging themselves in a subculture designed to exclude them—one generated by the same country that inflicted two decades of horror on China. Some accept this as a natural expression of youth; for many others, it’s a terrible disaster.

Zhang Jie, a successful salesman working for a Beijing-based telecommunications start-up, bluntly explained the latter perspective over dinner last summer. “Anime is a type of cultural invasion. When I think about anime—anime and American movies—the only phrase I can use to describe it is this: ‘subtle and imperceptible brainwashing.’ That is the best way to describe what is happening to my daughter’s generation.” Like most Beijing parents, Zhang belongs to the “post-1970 generation” (their teenage children are in the “post-1990” or “post-2000” generations).

Zhang’s childhood memories are dominated by scenes of poverty and frustration. But the material comforts that his daughter and her classmates take for granted are only one part of the vast generation gap: “When we were small, we did not have televisions in our home. All of our ideas about the country came from our teachers, our parents, and traditional education. How could we have had any of my daughter’s wrong ideas? Who would have taught them to us?”

The contrast between the stable and restricting media environment these parents grew up in and the ever-changing, ever-growing universe of content available to their children is at the heart of much of China’s 2D-related angst.

For many older Chinese, China’s extensive censorship doesn’t go far enough. They remember a China without glossy magazine stalls on every block, glowing ads inside subway stations, or a bewildering array of internet forums and livestreaming platforms broadcasting content created by normal people. Few of them long to return to that world, but elements of it are missed sorely. The media landscape of their youth was predictable and comprehensible. Today it is so complex that no parent can hope to even be aware of all its nooks and crannies.[2]
I encourage you to read the rest of that piece for an investigation of how the Party and the Japanese government are both trying to use anime's explosive popularity for their own ends. I am not the only one who takes an interest in the teenagers of China—entire government departments have devoted themselves to winning over their hearts and minds. Only time will be able to tell how successful their efforts have been.


[1] Tanner Greer, "China’s Anime and Cosplay Obsession," Los Angles Review of Books, 12 April 2019.

[2] Tanner Greer, "Super-Patriotic Anime Youth Wars" Foreign Policy, 23 January 2019