Wednesday, February 23, 2011


China is all over the news these days. People with a somewhat longer memory than normal here still remember the events tagged by "June 4" back in 1989. We now watch China carefully as the MidEast - where China is so a-politically invested - enters the global tide of people-power. It seemed that China started it all way back when the walls came down all over Europe.

China started just about everything! But they themselves had no notion that such was the case until the West held up the mirror. Gunpowder, the compass, paper and the printed replication of authoritative texts as carved on blocks. Stele-rubbings to carry far and wide and forward those inscriptions on the landscape of Chinese antiquity. Heaven brought to earth as wen 文 which were regular and stable patterns with the human heart 心 at their center 中, or zi 字 the child in the temple of his ancestors. Literature and culture have deep roots in the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese, in ignorance of our personal God and Savior, developed a meritocratic system for selection into the ranks of government service. In the West it would take until the paroxysms of political revolution, themselves descended from a knocking away of the barrier of literacy between the folk and the lettered priesthood. And even then, only America would really confront, directly, the notion that some deserved to be closer to God than others.

Gutenberg is credited in the West with combining the fruits of the metal-casters' arts of endurance with the wine-press of the fruiterer's arts of intoxication to create a vehicle for the widespread dissemination of alphabetic words. The Word, which only recently is thought ever to have existed apart from interpretation and translation, could be rendered in the vulgar tongue. God could be brought closer to the masses, or the masses closer to God, so long as the Word could remain sanctified and sanctioned without divine hearings. Without interpretation of history or language or truth or illusion.

Along with the nobility we pushed out from their palaces, we also displaced the notion that those at society's pinnacle should behave in noble fashion. We thought we might engender a natural aristocracy, and have struggled ever since to find quasi-scientific ways to take the measure of a man. In the end, we still and always worship the marketplace, where the true measure of a man is his fame or his fortune, either of which alone or combined with the other will suffice. Even word-smithing is evaluated by the marketplace.

That is as near as we can come to some method to distribute power and authority which will encourage the best among us to the fore. Of course, it has always been an embarrassment that Jesus himself would be left behind by this method, and that so many who rise to the top show themselves concupiscent and greedy. The Chinese seem to have done, marginally, better over the years.

Recently, the Chinese have faced a much more sudden change than we went through here in the West. Yet even in the face of Western gunboats, they remained smug in their confidence about their cultural superiority, right up through the very day when their long-lived empire finally crumbled. They had to turn around their history on a dime.

In fact it was the discovery of individualism which most changed China. I have been indulging in a fairly concerted read of documentation about China's impact against Western style industrialization, at the lead of which, as in the West, was the printing press. Individualism is obsessed with personality and with personal histories of the sort which could be and was ignored except for the literati in China.

Now, with the help of Joseph Needham, the Chinese could rehabilitate some long forgotten artisans: inventors, proto-scientists and mathematicians. History was suddenly forward looking. The Word became as much a promise as an archive. Literacy had escaped the bounds of what the imperial center could sanction.

Chauvinism remains. Even as it struggles to contain the exuberance of its individualistic seekers after fame and fortune, the one thing still most constant about the Chinese people seems to be their smug certainty that they are the center of civilized humanity. So long as they can hold order in the face of chaos.

Labors are nearly complete now to rectify the Chinese collective memory. Tiananmen the massacre, or Tiananmen the public square, clean and safe and open. So recent in historic memory.Orthodox subversion of the historical record for purposes of order.

Now our own highly irresponsible political rhetoricians would have us afraid of China. These players on the registers of our emotions are the real terrorists. Perhaps we should be fearful all the time, but one still should wonder why, when our most important export after blue jeans is the individualism which they celebrate, and whose destruction, they feel, is imminent.

It's individualism that rocks the Middle East now, and not its proxy: a craving for freedom. And that's what's rocking China. Our political rhetoric can even make us angry about our anger. It can confuse us about collective comforts. Maybe we need to learn to read a little bit beneath our own surfaces.

Celebrity style and authorial cool are the things which now run the globe, and running up on Oscar, why then is it that we must be so nervous? These are American triumphs! We should and must be gloating.

I don't suppose that it could be that the titans of cool, the pinnacle occupiers in this the early 21st century, are as desperate as the Koch brothers or Steve Jobs to stay on top. Their days are numbered, sure, but there is no limit, clearly, to the desire to win. Perhaps at any cost.

If the printing press is the exemplar, avatar and enabler of industrialism, then the Internet is the same for post-industrial reality. Cause and effect must be discarded in favor of a more Foucault-esque delineation of our Grand Controlling Narratives. Text is the operator. Humanity the operand.

Single-party rule in China mocks the ascendancy of financial power; iron fist in velvet glove with the mockery of politics at home enacted by the Coke/Pepsi dance of Republican v. Democrat. It's all about the money, stupid! China's leaders also want to maintain a creative fiction of poise - to preserve a glorious constructed past in service to a still more glorious future.

And interestingly, it all comes down to a differing preference for the way the written word gets rendered. To have a name is to be famous. Alternatively, one is a "mouth," a consumer, to be counted but not to count. By the Confucian tradition, names are to be rectified (chaos ordered) and the count of written words to be contained. By the loyal heterodoxy of Taoism, the name that can be called such is not the eternal name, just as the way that can be followed is not the everlasting way.

By means of its proliferating and lavishly funded Confucius Institutes, the Chinese wish to lay claim again to their traditional written form. Long presumed a clumsy obstacle in the way of mass literacy, it also continues to  serve the purpose it always has served: to define and to unite a culture, a people and a civilization.

Here in the West we descend inexorably away from those unifying original words. We're left only with ideas, to be realized in some distant future. And so the battle is joined? Why could it not be resolved into something more in manner of a love affair, one has to wonder. Ah, but the terrorism of the Word would have to be subverted. Players would have to relinquish the cheap and easy victories of mass motivation by tweets, bumper stickers and mass-mediated sloganeering.

Names proliferate in these fallen times. Words, words and more words, all as media for money which renders power by way of fame and fortune. The party would remain poised at the intersection of conservative and liberal forces. All parties are deployments of wealth.

Yet at this moment, historically, we all do and must seek something other from fame. Something human. Something lettered. Something of character. Something more collective than individual, but at the same time something not collectively rendered. Ironically true.

Now, back to reading. I'll report back to you when I find it. Or you can report to me.

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