24 July, 2017

Learning From Old China

Last week's posting ("Everything is Worse in China") caught the attention of Rod Dreher, who reblogged it with comments over at the American Conservative. I sent him an e-mail in response introducing a few Chinese thinkers who might be relevant to the traditionalist cause, especially in its Benedict Option version. As he has published the correspondence for his readers, it makes sense to repost it here as well:

I am the fellow who wrote the “everything is worse in China” post you linked to the other day. Thank you for sharing it with your readers.

I obviously think there is a great deal in the Chinese literary and philosophical tradition that fits the present moment. But I think there are some special barriers that make it difficult for Americans to delve into them. Imagine if you had to introduce Dante to a Chinese audience. This audience knows nothing about the background of the book. They can’t find Rome on a map, and haven’t read a Christian flavored book in their life. At best they have some highly stereotyped ideas about what Western civilization is all about. So can this audience just read Inferno straight through? Or do they need to read the Gospels first? The Gospels and Virgil? The Gospels, Virgil, and Augustine? Dante’s Divine Comedy is not just a “great book”—it is a commentary on all the great books that came before. Great works are always like this. It is part of what makes them great.

This is just as true in China as elsewhere. The Chinese canon, like the Western canon, is a conversation. Coming to a conversation mid-stream is at best disorienting. At worst you can leave with a errant sense of what the conversation was actually about. My dilemma is finding the best place for newcomers to first jump in.

One of the places I usually suggest conservative thinkers start, especially conservative thinkers whose past exposure to ancient China thought came in a new-age guise, is with Xunzi. Xunzi was a self proclaimed Confucian who lived a few centuries before Christ. In the West we kind of have this fortune-cookie vision of Confucians: we see them as a bunch of old, secluded sages spitting out epigrams and coining pithy little proverbs. That might be justified for Confucius; we don’t have anything more sustained from him on record. But by the time Xunzi rolls onto the scene a few centuries later the game has changed. Xunzi’s preferred form was the treatise. In English these are usually 8-15 pages long, each an incisive attempt to ponder through the sorrows of mankind. Sorrows there were: Xunzi lived at the tale end of a terrible, vicious age, where China was divided between dueling leviathans engaged in constant, devastating war. These wars sucked up villages, towns, and peoples, with a bureaucratic efficiency the West wouldn’t see until the 1700’s. It was a terrifying, dispiriting time to be alive. My guess is that few of his contemporaries would have thought twice about one of Xunzi’s most famous pronouncements: “Human nature is evil.”

That is where Xunzi starts. Thankfully it isn’t where he ends—he sets himself the task of figuring out how humanity can pull itself out of the mess he sees all around him. The answer he comes up with is extraordinary: ritual. Personal and communal rituals are what, he claims, make us more humane. Ritual is the path away from blindly following our animal instinct; ritual is what raises humans above the beasts. Within a few essays he develops an entire theory or ritual and its relationship to character building, slowly crafting the case that ritual is the training ground of righteousness and joy.

Xunzi had never heard of a Christian liturgy, of course, but each time I read his work I come away with the conviction that Xunzi explains its purpose better than most Christians ever do.

The really inspiring thing about Xunzi, however, is that you can tell how deeply personal this entire project is to him. Whether he is talking about ritual or kingship or music or education or any of the hundred things he turns his mind to, the feeling is the same. Xunzi is a man who has stared into the abyss of human cruelty, and is fighting with all of his might to not let that overwhelm his humanity. He sees the world for what it is. He doesn’t believe in the utopian fairy tales of the Daoists, nor the warm-fuzzy feeling based theories of Confucianism’s more optimistic strains. But he insists to the end that humanity is salvageable. The next generation of philosophers—according to some traditions, Xunzi’s own students—would turn totalitarian. That is not an exaggeration. This is what scholars in the field have called them: “the world’s first totalitarians.” Those theorists worshiped state power for its own sake, happily relegating human life to the maw of the leviathan. Xunzi sees the possibilities of that path, he knows its seductive logic. But he refuses. He stubbornly insists on seeing the world through the lens of human virtue, that politics and ethics must be focused on individual acts of goodness and virtue, despite–no, because of–the bloodshed and terror of his day.

So Xunzi is a great starting point for an intellectual journey into the Chinese tradition. He is a traveling companion worthy of just about any discussion or topic. Eric Hutton’s translation is accessible to just about anyone. Some other thinkers might be more ideally suited for the Benedict Option, though. Many Chinese poets come to mind here. But poetry is hard. Poetry never seems to translate well unless it is narrative poetry, which Chinese poetry almost never is. (David Young cleverly gets around this by setting a selection of Du Fu autobiographical poems chronologically, allowing the poet to tell the story of his own life). On top of this, Chinese poets are very self-referential. They quote and allude to each other constantly—they are quite aware that great works are part of a conversation, and so design half of their poems to be direct responses to various poems that came before. 
But they are so relevant to the BenOp project.

I mentioned three poets in the original post: Tao Qian, Li Bat and Du Fu. Tao Qian is the spiritual grandfather of all the famous nature poets in China. But how he gets there is interesting. Tao Qian was born into a prominent family involved in national affairs. His grandfather had been a major political figure; service in the bureaucracy was just what was expected for folks like him. So he joins it. He spend thirteen years career climbing. But then he breaks. Society is too vain, the monarch unworthy, bureaucratic politics too soul crushing. So he unpacks his entire family out to the boonies and restarts life there as a poor farmer. He struggles to make ends meet, and he writes about that. He is a drunkard, and he writes about that. He is enchanted with small town life, and he writes about that. He wanders the hills and forest, and he writes about that. And occasionally he even writes about the pressure he feels to compare himself to the success of his ancestors, or friends once known. It is all very poignant stuff, and it has been enormously popular in China ever since, no matter how far away the contemporary ethos may be from its spirit.

This whole tradition of scholars fleeing from official society as a protest against its evils has tremendous relevance for BenOp Christians. I suspect that few who reviewed your book have really come to terms with the kind of sacrifices your choices will cost you. There will come a point where you must choose success in the world or banishment outside it. Tao Qian chose banishment and a clear conscience—but along with that choice came isolation and poverty. I don’t think many of the people who wrote nice reviews of your book are really prepared for that choice. Folks like Tao Qian can make those choices a little bit easier.

Du Fu’s poetry has the opposite effect. There is a lot of escapism in Chinese literature. Escape into wine, into rural retreats, into monasteries, into history reading. Du Fu refused to do it. He lived through another era of chaos—the An Lushan rebellion, described in some historical gazetteers as the most violently destructive war in human history before the 30 Years War. Du Fu was a bit like Shakespeare, in that his poetry covers the entire scope of human society: everything from the beggars, soldiers, and farmers grinding away in poverty to the emperor and his consorts are taken as subjects of his art. Du Fu spends the first half of his life in Chang’an, imperial capital of the Tang Dynasty, then center of the known world. The whole time he seeks patronage from the emperor and accolades from the literati’s leading lights. Then the war comes crashing down and rips society apart. Du Fu is actually kept in the city under siege and occupation for more than a year, separated from his wife and children. When he finally escapes he writes a beautiful poem about the pain of seeing your children grown tall in your absence that any veteran would appreciate. Then he must begin his wanderings—years spent wandering from one part of China to the next, first as a refugee of war, later as a loyal minor official trying to make it back to the emperor’s court-in-exile. On one of these tiresome journeys through the mountains of China he writes the following poem:


“Imperiled, I flee to a new province
All my forced effort ends with bitter exhaustion
Spirit wounded, wandering in mountain deeps.
Yet my sorrow dissolves before an ancient cliff-side temple.

Charming: its pure, verdant moss .

Vulnerable: its wintry, bamboo clusters.
Streams twist and turn through the mountains
Raindrops drip and hang on the pines.

Melting mists obscure the morning light

The rising day hides, then lets forth its rays
In that half-light scarlet tiles flash
Doors and windows gleam, and are seen distinct. 
I lean on my staff, the next stage forgotten
When I emerge from my dreams, it is already noon.
Then faintly, a distant cuckoo’s cry–
Up this small path, I do not dare to go.

[Forgive me if the translation is poorly rendered, I don’t have much time to devote to the task today].
To understand the poem you need to know that the phrase “cuckoo” is a homophone for “come home!” The cuckoo is also associated with Sichuan in Chinese thought, and that was Du Fu’s eventual destination. So here we have the story of a soft court mandarin being forced from home in his old age, transversing forgotten mountain paths, with his young family (Du Fu married late) to reach safety. And then he sees the monastery! A beautiful place of peace and serenity, something so clearly lacking in Du Fu’s own life. If this were the normal Buddhist poem this would be the moment where Du Fu declares he will stay the night there, perhaps the life there, intoning on his escape from the “net of dust” that has trapped the rest of mankind. Du Fu is tempted-oh, he is sorely tempted. But then he hear’s the cuckoo call “Come Home!” and he sees the temple for what it is: a temptation. He has a duty (‘dharma’) to his family, and a duty to help rebuild his county. He does not dare to travel up the path to the monastery for fear that if he does he won’t ever be able to come back and continue his journey.

Who among us cannot sympathize with him? Is this not a beautiful expression of a dilemma so many of us must feel—the desire to retreat from the world, and a duty to make the world a better place? Du Fu realized that continuing the journey was the right thing for him to do. His role is to live in the world. The question he must then wrestle with is whether he can live in the world without being trod down by it.

Well that is enough for today. I hope this e-mail has given you glimpse of what Chinese philosophy and literature offers conservatives in America today. There is so much more that could be said (and I have written about some of these themes as they are expressed by other great works in the Chinese tradition before-see here and here), but it is not possible to fit an entire’s civilization’s corpus into one e-mail, so I will not try!
The sinologists among my readers will recognize that I use the version of "Mirror of Dharma Temple" that ends with the line 不敢取, not the one that ends with 不復取。I am not experienced enough with old Song documents to say which of the variants is correct, but I find the version here (where Du Fu says he does not dare to go up the path) to be the emotionally poignant of the two.

19 July, 2017

Everything is Worse in China

One of the benefits of living in China is a certain sense of perspective.

China exists outside of the Anglophone culture wars. It would not be accurate to say the Chinese don't have an opinion or even a stake in American cultural crusades. They do. But our fights are not their fights, and even when they squabble over parallel issues it is on very different terms, terms quite divorced from those that led Anglophone politics to its current trajectory.

My time here has thus given me a rare vantage point to judge many of the claims made over the course of these campaigns. In few places is this sort of outside perspective more useful than when judging the claims of an American jeremiad. Jeremiading is a fine art. Its practitioners hail from lands both left and right, but my sympathies lie with the cultural traditionalists. You know the type. In America they find little but a shallow husk. For some it is the husk of a nation once great; for others it is the decaying remains of Western civilization itself. Few of these gloom-filled minds deny that wonders have marked their days on this earth. It is not that advances do not happen. It is just that each celebrated advance masks hundreds of more quiet destructions. These laments for worlds gone by are poignant; the best are truly beautiful.  The best of the best, however, do not just lament. Every one of their portraits of the past is a depiction of a futureor more properly, a way of living worth devoting a future to.

I have read a few of these books in 2017. The best of these (both for its lyricism and for the demands it places on the intellect) is Anthony Esolen's newest book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. This blog is not the place for a full review. I plan to write a proper review for it and a few of the other recently published books of this type for a less personal publication than the Scholar's Stage. Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the booka thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile to virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.

Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy,  suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China. 

Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen  urban hubs? That problem is worse in China. 

 Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?

These too are all worse in China.

Only on one item from Esolen's catalogue of decline can American society plausibly be described as more self-destructive than China's. China has not hopped headlong down the rabbit's hole of gender-bending. The Chinese have thus far proved impervious to this nonsense. But it would not be meet to conclude from this that Chinese society's treatment of sex is healthier than the West's. In far too many ways the opposite is true. Urban Chinese society is just as sex-obsessed as America's, and in many realms (say, advertising) far less shameless about it. Prostitution is ubiquitous. For men over 30, visiting prostitutes is socially acceptable. In many situations these visits are not just acceptable, but expected. Many a boss believes he can't trust his underlings until they have spent some time sinning together. No one blinks an eye at professional mistresses; a wealthy Chinese man is expected to keep up one of these "Little 3rds" and carouse about with karaoke bar hostesses and banquet call-girls. The worst of that culture has (thankfully) been cut down by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive, but there is no evidence that government campaigns have had any effect on pornography abuse. As the standard joke goes whenever some Chinese millennial wants to mock government weakness: "They've been at the anti-porn campaign for ten years now, but none of you have had any problem getting your hands dirty!"

All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is. Thus I chuckled at a Jr. Ganymede thread from a few months back which solemnly declared that (spiritually speaking) modern Westerners have been "born into the most difficult, challenging environment that humans have ever experienced."[1] Those who say such things view spiritual life through a narrow lens. I cannot conceive making this claim after having lived in China.

There is much that I love about China. However, I must be frank: I live in China because I am foreign, single, and young. As a foreigner I am somewhat immune to many of the pressures of the Chinese scramble for success. That will not change. But were I the father of a young child I could not stay in this country in good conscience. Degraded and disgraceful as American culture may be, it is still possible to live a life of integrity within it. It is possible to secede from the main stream of its currents and follow a different course. In China this is a hard thing to ask. Integrity always requires sacrifice.  Yet what must be sacrificed to live with integrity in America is nothing compared to what honest Chinese must sacrifice to live with integrity in their own land. Nothing. My admiration for the Chinese who do manage to keep their integrity intact despite all of this is boundless. They have succeeded in a test of character few Americans will ever face. It is not a test I would choose for my children.

If the traditionalist jeremiads are correct, such tests will become more and more common inside America, and in the future my children may face them anyway. If so, then there may be much to learn from the great men and women of modern China. Jackson Wu explicitly made this point in his review of The Benedict Option, and I am inclined to agree with him. The Chinese Christians have much to teach American Christians on how to survive in a hostile, hopelessly relativistic, non-Christian milieu. However, I would go one step further: It is not just the Chinese Christians who can prepare us for the days to come, but the Chinese who came in the ages before them.

Learning from those who passed before is nothing new in traditionalist circles, of course, but their view is sometimes so less expansive than it could be. This was particularly painful in Esolen's case. Ranging from Orwell to Homer, he peppers his book with allusions and examples from the great literature of the Western tradition. I have never seen anyone so skillfully merge literary allusion with practical analysis. He has an unmatched skill for finding just the right allusion for the moment; each clarifies his meaning instead of obscuring it. He does all of this without showing off or belittling his reader. The sad part is that he left some of the most beautiful and meaningful meditations on the themes of his book untouched. I can only guess that this was because he is not familiar with their contents.

The 21st century is not the first era Chinese have been offered a stark choice between success and virtue. If there is one theme that threads its way through the great sweep of the Chinese tradition, it is a tragic recognition that the world we live in is not designed to reward the life most worth living. It is found in the opening pages of Sima Qian's historical masterwork. It is coded into the biography of Confucius, and debated by all of his intellectual heirs. Attempts to reconcile the pressures of the world with the honest life were made by the Mohist philosophers; the attempt was proclaimed impossible by both Daoists and Legalists (though for opposite reasons). The first named poet in Chinese history is survived by one poem, a lament on this theme. Be it the rural escapes of Tao Qian,  the drunken withdrawals of Li Bai, or the stubborn realism of Du Fu, this dilemma inspired the greatest of China's poets in the millennia that followed. The great Chinese novels are obsessed with the topic: Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Outlaws of the Marsh ask if one can live righteously in ages of corruption and violence; The Scholars (and less obviously, Journey to the Westviciously satire those who try to do the same in ages of corruption and peace. The beautiful, sorrow-filled Dream of the Red Chamber embraces this tragedy as Chinese women lived it. And so on right into the modern era. At the turn of the 20th century, Lu Xun kicked off modern Chinese literature with a short story that paints Chinese social life as a choice between becoming a monster or being considered insane. These are just the most famous names of a 3,000 year tradition. To neglect it is to neglect a well of experience seemingly prepared for our day.

"To be in the world but not of the world" is a Christian injunction. However, the sacrifices this ideal demands have been contemplated most seriously by the great thinkers of the of a different tradition. They were not Christian, nor were they the heirs to the treasures of Western thought. But not only the West created treasures. For thousands of years the treasures of China's tragic tradition history gave their Chinese readers the hope and the courage to live through immense trials and persecutions. They may provide the same strength to us today, if we allow them to.


[1] Bruce Charlton, "The Haves and Have-nots," Jr.Ganymede (22 April 2017).