Other People’s Thoughts, XII

Other People’s Thoughts is a section of the China Heritage site featured in our Journal. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations made by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors.

Pierre remarked that the modest volume of quotations recorded over his reading life was ‘idiosyncratically complied for the amusement of idle readers’ (see Simon Leys, Other People’s Thoughts, 2007). Our aim is similar: to amuse our readers (idle or otherwise), as is our modus operandi: to build up an idiosyncratic compendium, one that reflects the interests of The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology and its coterie.

In collecting this material, and by adding to it over time (this is the eighth instalment in the series), we accord also with a Chinese literary practice in which quotations — sometimes called yǔlù 語錄, literally ‘recorded sayings’ — have a particular history, and a powerful resonance.

The character ‘record’ 記 in the hand of Mi Fei 米芾, or ‘Madman Mi’ 米癲 of the Song. Source: 好事家貼.

The most famous collection of recorded sayings is The Analects 論語, compiled by disciples of Confucius. Then there is the timeless 5000-words of Laozi’s The Tao and the Power 道德經, as well as the Chan/Zen 禪宗 tradition of what in English are known by the Japanese term kōan 公案 — anecdotes or statements aimed at goading an individual towards enlightenment — that date from the Tang dynasty. Modern imitations range from the political bon mots of Mao Zedong to excerpts from the prolix prose of Xi Jinping’s tireless speech writers, as well as published snippets from arm-chair philosophers and motivational speakers.

Other People’s Thoughts also finds inspiration in the ‘poetry talks’ 詩話, ‘casual jottings’ 筆記 and ‘marginalia’ 眉批 of China’s literary tradition.

— Geremie R. Barmé,
Editor, China Heritage
29 July 2018

Other People’s Thoughts Index

Other People’s Thoughts, XII

Dry-cleaner’s Receipt
‘Some stains can be removed only by the destruction of the material itself.’ (Bohumil Hrabal)

The Good Life
What is a good life? What is its opposite? These are questions to which no two men will give the same answers. In these our cowardly times, we deny the grandeur of the Universal, and assert and glorify our local Bigotries, and so we cannot agree on much. In these our degenerate times, men bent on nothing but vainglory and personal gain — hollow, bombastic men for whom nothing is off-limits if it advances their petty cause — will claim to be great leaders and benefactors, acting in the common good, and calling all who oppose them liars, envious, little people, stupid people, stiffs, and, in a precise reversal of the truth, dishonest and corrupt. We are so divided, so hostile to one another, so driven by sanctimony and scorn, so lost in cynicism, that we call our pomposity idealism, so disenchanted with our rulers, so willing to jeer at the institutions of our state, that the very word goodness has been emptied of meaning and needs, perhaps, to be set aside for a time, like all the other poisoned words, spirituality, for example, final solution, for example, and (at least when applied to skyscrapers and fried potatoes) freedom. (Salman Rushdie, The Golden House, 2017, p.7)

Numbers, the most boring of all the shapes. (Titus Andromedon)

Open the Box, Joe!
A hulking black granite sarcophagus has been unearthed in Alexandria, Egypt, much to the titillation of archaeologists, who no doubt hope that, upon prying open this mystery box presumed to be from around 323 B.C., a plague will be unleashed upon the globe, asphyxiating any individual with a net worth above $4 million. You get fire and brimstone! And you get fire and brimstone! And you get fire and brimstone! (Jason Arias, Fresh HellThe Baffler, 13 July 2018) 

A Farewell to the Vanities of the World

Farewell, ye gilded follies, pleasing troubles!
Farewell, ye honoured rags, ye glorious bubbles!
Fame’s but a hollow echo; gold, pure clay;
Honour, the darling but of one short day,
Beauty — th’ eye’s idol — but a damasked skin;
State, but a golden prison to live in
And torture free-born minds; embroidered trains,
But pageants for proud swelling veins;
And blood allied to greatness, is alone
Inherited, not purchased, nor our own:
Fame, honour, beauty, state, train, blood, and birth
Are but the fading blossoms of the earth. (Sir Walter Raleigh, 1554?–1618)

The Weak on the Strong
Strongman politics are ascendant, suddenly, whereby elections and some pretense of democracy are maintained—the form of it—but those in power seek to undermine every institution or norm that gives democracy meaning. (Barack Obama, The Nelson Mandela Lecture, 17 July 2018)

Sage vs. Tyrant

而桀為天子能亂天下。 (韩非子)

History Lessons
When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, we’ll find out whether we have learned from history. [Wenn die Generation die den Krieg überlebt hat nicht mehr da ist, wird sich zeigen ob wir aus der Geschichte gelernt haben.] (Angela Merkel, 20 July 2018)

The Logical Song

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they’d be singing so happily,
Joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.

And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.
There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.

Now watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical,
Liberal, fanatical, criminal.
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re
Acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable!

At night, when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
But please tell me who I am.

Roger Hodgson, 1979 [recommended by Scot Barmé]

The Appointment
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the market-place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra. (W. Somerset Maugham, Sheppey, 1933)

About the movie business I learned, for one thing, that when a person with money says to you, ‘I love this project. I love it. So creative, so original, there is nothing like it out there. I am going to back you one thousand per cent, to the fullest of my ability, total support, one thousand and one per cent, this is genius,’ what he is saying, translated into English, is ‘hello’. (Salman Rushdie, The Golden House, 2017, p.301)

Questions & Answers
The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything… . The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place. (Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting)

Lin Zhao on Mao Zedong
The Chairman of Your Honorable Central Committee is possessed of a terrifyingly cold and vindictive Soul! It is one made up of the avarice of the ambitious man delirious with his desire to possess ‘This Land So Rich in Beauty’. It is coupled to a exaggerated hubris that ‘Vies With Very Heaven to Compete in Stature’ and a willful self-approval that models itself on the thought of being like a ‘Tiger Crouching, a Dragon Curling, Outshining all Past Glories’, reflecting a self-image of a ‘Sacred Land of Six Hundred Million All Extolling Today’s [Sage Emperor] Shun and Yao’. His contempt is boundless as he stuffs his writings with talk of Asses; Flies and Mosquitoes feature in his poems, and so on and so forth. He would look on with callous indifference as half the world dies. I doubt that there is anything resembling Feeling or Humanity in that Black Soul. 貴中央委員會主席具有著一個極其可怕的冷酷而刻毒的靈魂!在這個羨「江山如此多嬌」的野心家的貪婪,「欲與天公試比高」的不自量的狂妄,「龍蟠虎踞今勝昔」的自鳴得意,「六億神州頌舜堯」的自我吹噓,以至屁股入文蒼蠅入詩的輕浮,死掉世界人口一半的殘忍等等而外,我懷疑它還會有任何人情與人性的存在。(林昭眼中的毛澤東, Lin Zhao, d.1968, writing to People’s Daily from gaol. Trans. G.R. Barmé; the quotations are famous lines from Mao’s poems. See also Jie Li, Red Prison Files)

Three Cautionary Hopes
Xu Zhangrun 許章潤

translated by Geremie R. Barmé

  1. The Party Nobility: Elite privileges for retired high-level cadres should be eliminated. The system of the present ‘dynasty’ 國朝 allows for the state to provide inclusive retirement-to-grave care for high-level cadres according to a standard that is far and away above that allowed to the average citizen. These cadres retain the privileges they enjoyed during their careers, including health care and access to luxury resorts for rest and holidays. Everyone is aware of the extraordinary burden and financial cost this places on the people; the details are never released for fear of sparking public outrage. This system continues the kinds of prerogative given to the Imperial Zhu Family Lineage during the Ming dynasty [founded by Zhu Yuanzhang in 1368CE] and the emoluments permitted to the families of the Eight Banners [exclusive Manchu military and administrative groups that contributed to the founding and rule of the Qing dynasty in 1644; the privileges continued until the end of the dynasty in January 1912]. This is not merely a betrayal of the self-advertised ‘revolutionary spirit’ [of the Communist Party], it is also in breach of modern standards of civic life. What’s all that talk of ‘the remnants of feudalism’? This is a perfect example of it! People are outraged but powerless to do anything about it; it is one of the main reasons people hold the system itself in utter contempt. On one side of the hospital, Commoners face the challenge of gaining admission for treatment, while everyone knows grand suites are reserved on the other side for the care of high-level cadres. People despise you for it. Every iota of this bottled up anger may, at some unexpected moment, explode with thunderous fury. 取消退休高幹的權貴特權。國朝體制,高幹生養病死全賴國庫,而享受超國民待遇。原有生活待遇、醫療標準與度假休養諸項,耗費巨量民脂民膏,大家耳聞目睹,而至今不敢公佈,正說明見不得人。此種體制,承繼的是朱姓子民、八旗子弟的奉養傳統,既違忤曾經自詡之革命精神,更不符現代公民立國原則。若說什麼「封建殘餘」,此為典型。國民痛恨不已,可毫無辦法,遂成制度招恨之一大毒瘤。這邊廂普通人民住院難,那邊廂高幹病房巍哉峨兮,隔離於一般病區,讓多少百姓看在眼裡恨在心裡,而每一絲仇恨都可能在某個時刻於心田中成長為驚天雷暴。
  2. Special Needs Provisioning: Eliminate the system of Special Needs Provisioning. Starting in Yan’an some seventy years ago, this system continued unimpeded even during times of mass famine and deprivation. It continues even now as the Countless Masses are ever increasingly concerned about [the quality of and access to] dairy products for their babies and the hygiene and safety of their everyday foodstuffs. The Special Needs Provisioning system allows the high-level Party nobility access to a vast range of speciality products beyond the dreams of the average person. Apart from a few totalitarian polities, there is no other country that does this like China. The luxury afforded these people is only outdone by the shamelessness of their indulgence. Of course, inequalities exist in all societies and disparities in ability and wealth are natural, but they are a result not due to the fact that the ideal playing field imagined by our citizens does not include a level starting point; that doesn’t even take into account the outrage of allowing a small group of Party grandees to be continuously supplied from the coffers of the state. As long as this system and ‘No 34’ [originally ‘Number 34 Provisions Store’ in Beijing, a restricted-access shop established as deprivations created by the socialist planned economy became more acute and Party privileges more jealously guarded; the term later came to indicate regulations covering special access to necessities and luxury goods for the nomenklatura] remain unchecked, real food safety in China will never be realised; no side will really be assured of its long-term security. 取消特供制度。七十多年里,其實早從延安時期就已開始,無論是在國民飢寒交迫的年代里,還是此刻億萬百姓為嬰兒奶品、日常食品安全而提心弔膽之際,特供制度供養著這個號稱人民政權的高層權貴,提供著一般人做夢都不敢想象的諸種特權,除開幾個極權政體之外,舉世找不出第二家,可謂豪奢之至,而無恥之尤。社會恆有差等,賢愚貧富實為自然,但那是結果,而非抹煞起點平等的公民理想,更非公然利用國庫供養少數權貴。此制一日不除,「第34號」依舊,中國食品安全就一日沒有保障,兩方同樣無任何真正的安全可言。(See ‘Providing for the Leadership 特供茶’ in Barmé, More Saliva than Tea 口水多過茶, China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 29, March 2012)
  3. The New Personality Cult: An emergency brake must be applied to the Personality Cult. Who would have thought that, after four decades of the Open Door and Reform, our Sacred Land would once more witness a Personality Cult? The Party media is going to great lengths to create a new Idol, and in the process it is offering up to the world an image of China as Modern Totalitarianism. Portraits of the Leader are hoisted on high throughout the Land, as though possessed of some Spiritual Mana. This only adds to all the absurdity. And then, on top of that, the speeches of That Official, formerly things that were merely to be recorded by secretaries in a pro forma bureaucratic manner, are now carefully collected in finely bound editions, printed in vast quantities and handed out free throughout the world. The profligate waste of paper alone is enough to make you shake your head in disbelief. All of this reflects the low IQ of the Concerned Official and his craving for fame. More importantly, we need to ask how a vast country like China, one that was previously so ruinously served by a Personality Cult, simply has no resistance to this new cult, and this includes those droves of ‘Theoreticians’ and ‘Researchers’. In fact, they are outdoing themselves with their sickeningly slavish behaviour. It’s as though hundreds of millions of Chinese are oblivious; people tolerate the New Cult and allow it unfettered freedom; they are powerless in the face of all those arse-kissing bureaucrats. It goes to show that China’s Enlightenment is far from over. Every generation must champion rationalism in public affairs painstakingly making a way to the future. Moreover, the New Cult is evidence that China faces a long struggle before it can claim to be a modern, secular and rational nation-state.「個人崇拜」亟需趕緊剎車。改革開放四十年,沒想到神州大地再度興起領袖個人崇拜。黨媒造神無以復加,儼然一副前現代極權國家的景象。而領袖像重現神州,高高掛起,彷彿神靈,平添詭異。再者,官員講話,本為秘書手筆,不過等因奉此,居然匯編刊行,精裝亮相,全球免費贈送,徒耗紙張,令人噴飯。此間不僅需要反思為何當事人如此弱智而好名,更需要檢討為何曾經遭遇此種戕害的偌大國家,包括她的芸芸「理論家」「研究者」,居然對此毫無抵抗力,卻不乏舔癰吸疽之徒。而億萬人猶如虛無,竟然容忍其大行其道,奈何不了那幾個馬屁精大員,正說明所謂啓蒙是一個未竟事業,需要每一代人在公共事務上公開運用自己的理性,方能如履如臨而砥礪前行。而且,它更加說明中國尚未完全進入現代世俗理性的常態國家境界,而有待接續奮鬥矣。(These are three of Xu’s ‘Eight Hopes’. For the full list, along with the author’s ‘Eight Fears’, see Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘Fearful for the Present, Hopeful for the Future’ 我們當下的恐懼與期待, 天則觀點, 24 July 2018)