Other People’s Thoughts, XIV

Other People’s Thoughts is a section in the Journal of the China Heritage site. It is inspired by a compilation of quotations put together by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), one of our Ancestors, during his reading life.

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.

Pierre remarked that the resulting modest volume of quotations 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 compilation, 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, 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 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, dating 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, and 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
28 September 2018

Other People’s Thoughts Index

Other People’s Thoughts, XIV


The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. (William Gibson, 1992)

People learn from history so they can repeat it. (The Editor)


State of the Nation 國情

Your Greatness is nothing more than hype;
Your Glory is boastful propaganda;
Your Correctness is approved by hand-picked delegates;
Your Harmony is achieved by ‘Stability Maintenance’;
Your Good Fortune is a tale told by reporters;
Your Might stems from emotional onanism;
Your Economy is propped up by selling off the farm;
Your Development demands forced relocations;
Your Education consists of brainwashing;
Your Media is a labour of deception;
Your Reforms are naught but endless meetings;
Your History is a work of distortion and rewriting;
Your Confidence is only possible because of censorship.

(trans. G.R. Barmé)



For True Heroes … 數風流人物

Into Oblivion

Here forgive me
When you come kindly visiting, as both
Our daughters do, for you three built the start
Of this tomb when you helped me weed my books
And then arrange the ones left, walls of colour
The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.
Rich shelves of them, these lustrous codices,
Are the first walls I see now in the morning
After the trek downstairs, though when I walk
On further, painfully, I see much more —
Boats in the windows, treasures on the terrace,
As if I weren’t just Pharaoh’s tomb designer
But the living god in the departure lounge
Surrounded by his glistering aftermath —
Yet everything began in these few thousand
Pages of print and plates. Books are the anchors
Left by the ships that rot away. The mud
The anchors lie in is one’s recollection
Of what life was, and never, late or soon,
Will be again.

(Clive James, The story of a mind heading into oblivion, 1 September 2018)

Destination Wedding

There’s no grand declaration of love, just the slow, oddly touching realisation that sometimes, the person who hates the same things as you just might be the person you hate the least. (Destination Wedding, a review)


Totalitarianism cultivates monsters, and monstrous crimes, but most of its subjects merely experience the insidiousness of its power, its ability to draw everybody into its all-encompassing orbit and turn victims into the victimizers of others, making everybody, save for a very rare few, complicit in at least some minor way. (Dimiter Kenarov, Was the Philosopher Julia Kristeva a Cold War Collaborator?, The New Yorker, 5 September 2018)


The thing about autocracies, or budding autocracies, is that they present citizens with only bad choices. (Masha Gessen, The Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed and the Trumpian Corruption of Language and the Media)

The Village Voice RIP

The Voice — and New York — was a beacon for misfits, and I was one of them. The internet flattened ‘alternative culture’ — first Napster, and now Spotify, allowed obscure music to bypass the critics; Netflix and Amazon made experimental film accessible without your needing to read about it in a Hoberman review. The Voice was once a lodestar to freaks and geeks everywhere. Now the lodestar is both nowhere and everywhere. (Tricia Romano, New York Times, 5 September 2018)

Chinese Art of the Deal

Following the publication of this year’s Gaokao results a group of students were speculating about what university gave you the best chance of becoming a billionaire? Yale or Harvard said one; another suggested Peking University or Tsinghua; someone else swore by Waseda and Oxford. 高考分數出來了,幾個學生討論讀哪幾所大學才有可能成為億萬富翁,有說耶魯、哈佛,有說北大、清華,有說早稻田、劍橋!

‘The Party School!’, shouted a beggar sitting nearby. 身後一個乞丐大聲說道:「黨校。」

Everyone agreed; the beggar was on the money. 眾人嘆服,深感智不如丐。

Party Schools are superior in a number of ways: 1. School terms are short; 2. They offer good degrees (most graduates are awarded research diplomas); 3. There are minimal fees (they are practically free); 4. They provide idyllic surrounds (conditions for study are relaxed and you get to enjoy yourself even while you’re supposed to be at school); 5. They produce good results (no matter how much, or how little, you study, graduation is assured); 6. They promise a bright future (promotions are fast-tracked, and even if you do end up in jail, conditions there are even better than civilian hotels). 中國幾乎所有能貪幾億以上的,都讀過黨校!黨校幾大優點:一、學期短;二、學歷高(常常是研究生學歷);三、學費少(基本免費);四、環境好(學習輕鬆,邊學邊玩);五、成績好(不管你學不學,只要進去了都能畢業);六、前程好(升遷快,即使坐牢也勝過別人住賓館). (Recorded in Lee Yee, Observing and Reacting 觀察與感受, Apple Daily, 6 September 2018. Translated by G.R. Barmé)


For twenty months, Washington has been asking, Is this the crisis? Is this finally the constitutional confrontation we have been waiting for? The Trump Presidency, to those closely watching it, and to many of those participating in it, has always seemed unsustainable. And yet it has gone on, and will keep going on, until and unless something seismic happens in our politics — and our Congress — to change it. We don’t need to wonder when the crisis will hit; it already has. Every day since January 20, 2017, has been the crisis. (Susan B. Glasser, Crazytown: a Bob Woodward Book, an Anonymous New York Times Op-Ed, and a Growing Crisis for the Trump Presidency, The New Yorker, 7 September 2018)

Ghachar Ghochar

Had Vincent taken on a grand name and grown a long shimmering beard, he’d have thousands of people falling at his feet. How different are the words those exalted beings from his? Words, after all, are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered. If you think about it, even those held to be gods incarnate seldom speak of profound things. It’s their day-to-day utterances that are imbued with sublime meanings. And who’s to say the gods cannot take the form of a waiter when they choose to visit us? (Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar, trans. Srinath Perur, Penguin, 2017)

Yoda Effect

The cadence comes from the dialect of the shtetl and the Pale of Settlement, where Jews developed an especially expressive language to describe especially terrible circumstances. In New York, Yiddish-isms mixed with neighborhood lingo, creating a patois. Some of those phrases made it into the American lexicon, where they live forever.

The people are gone, but their words remain: klutz, kvel, mensch. And it was not just the words but the structure of the sentences, which were inverted, tuned for pontificating. Scholars call it the ‘Yoda effect’ — the wizened Muppet was an old rebbe, teaching the ancient wisdom.

‘In most varieties of American English, a predicate can’t be placed in front of the subject,’ Dan Nosowitz wrote on the website Atlas Obscura. ‘Think of a simple phrase like “I want pizza”. But in Yiddish, that order is sometimes swapped: “Pizza I want”.’

Or consider my Grandma Esther, born in Poland, moved to New York, then to what she called ‘the true promised land of the Jews’, North Miami Beach, where she lived in a condo complex named the Three Seasons — because there is no winter in the land of milk and honey. You could never tell if she was trying to be funny, or if it was just the Yoda effect. When her second husband, Izzy, died a year into the marriage, she told it this way: ‘Izzy was doing a dish. I was in the bathroom. A crash I heard. I thought Izzy dropped a dish, but, when I came out, I saw that what Izzy had dropped was dead.’ (Rich Cohen, ‘Where Does Rabbi Voice Come From?’, 8 September 2018)

A Tradition

Showing respect and love for ancient emperors is insulting to all those tragic souls who died as a result of warfare and conflict, due to injustices and because of starvation. If the devotees of autocracy in my circle of friends are offended by this, just blacklist me. 對古代帝王尊重、熱愛,是對所有戰死、鬥死、冤死、餓死靈魂的侮辱,如果我的這句話導致朋友圈中崇拜者的不快,請把我拉黑。

Enthusiasm for emperors and autocracy is the most obdurate stain on this nation; it is something that constantly reinforces the Dark Heart of our country. Faced with the Fans of Tyranny I feel powerless and forlorn. That’s because even with the passage of time we will not see them eliminated; the truth will never be able to educate them to think differently; they will never accept historical fact; and, education will not resolve it. Because of them, one hopes for justice in vain, one can only pray for forbearance. 帝王粉是這個國家最頑固的污跡,是這個國家黑心的永久添加劑。面對他們,我感到深深的無助與悲涼,因為他們,時間淘汰不了,真相教育不了,歷史接受不了,教育解決不了。因為他們,我不敢奢望正義,只能祈禱仁慈。

They are a scab on human civilisation that can never be smoothed over; they are a living refutation of all the true values of humankind. 他們是人類文明史上永遠無法磨平的傷痕,是人類文明價值的絕佳反襯。

The Rivers and Mountains have been there from the very start; it is ridiculous to talk about them being ‘conquered’. To all the descendants of the Emperors, Kings, Generals and Ministers: just shut up! We don’t need to hear you claim: ‘Our fathers conquered the Rivers and Mountains [and we have a right to rule over them still]’. Let me tell you something: there’s no mountain or river that was conquered by your father’s generation; from the time heaven and earth were created by Pangu, the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Kunlun Mountains and Mount Tai… they have have all existed. Your ancestors were merely brigands who occupied the mountains by force and that’s why you can live in luxury. What’s there to be proud of? 江山自古以來就在那裡擺著,不需要誰來打:帝王將相的後人中有的人,請閉上你的嘴,不要一開口就是「我們父輩打下的江山」。告訴你,沒有哪座山哪條河是你們父輩打下來的,自從盤古開天地,就有了長江黃河崑崙泰山。你們的父輩只是佔山為王的強盜,讓你們坐享榮華,你自豪什麼?

The history of autocracy dating back two millennia is a history of slavery! No matter how grandiose their plans may have seemed, and regardless of all that finely wrought language, all of it can be summed up very simply: conquer All Under Heaven, occupy the Throne, sleep with as many Women as possible and plunder Everything you can get your hands on. 幾千年的專制史就是一部奴役史!無論其夢想構建的多麼宏大,也無論其口號包裝的如何精美,概括起來無非就十二個字:打天下,坐金鑾,睡女人,搶財產。(Lei Yanhong 雷艷紅, a lecturer at Amoy University in Xiamen, 廈門大學雷艷紅副教授這樣說中國古代專制獨裁, December 2017. Translated by G.R. Barmé)


Chinese history really (and not merely apparently) is a history of congresses, meetings, plans, obligations, overfulfillments, conquests of new fields, new departures, demonstrations, decorations, applause, folk-dances, farewell ceremonies, arrival ceremonies, and so on; in brief, everything which can be read in official Chinese newspapers, journals, novels, or which can be seen on Chinese television, and so on. There are certain things which happen in the People’s Republic of China which do not appear in the media of mass information, education, persuasion, and entertainment. But all this represents … is an immaterial non-historic background to real Chinese history. Everything which, to an outside observer who has not passed through the school of the Chinese way of life, may seem a falsehood, demagogy, formalism, a bureaucratic comedy, propaganda, and so on, in fact represents the flesh and blood of this way of life, in fact is life itself. And everything which may seem to be bitter truth, the actual state of things, commonsense considerations, and so on, is, in fact nothing but the insignificant outer skin of the real process. (Adapted from Alexander Zinoviev, The Radiant Future, 1981; the words ‘Soviet’ and ‘Soviet Union’ in the original have been replaced with ‘Chinese’ and ‘People’s Republic of China’. — Ed.)

The Dark Net

We find ourselves today connected to vast repositories of knowledge and yet we have not learned to think. In fact, the opposite is true: that which was intended to enlighten the world in practice darkens it. The abundance of information and the plurality of worldviews now accessible to us through the internet are not producing a coherent consensus reality, but one riven by fundamentalist insistence on simplistic narratives, conspiracy theories, and post-factual politics. It is on this contradiction that the idea of a new dark age turns: an age in which the value we have placed upon knowledge is destroyed by the abundance of that profitable commodity, and in which we look about ourselves in search of new ways to understand the world. (James Bridle, ‘New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future’)

The Crucible

‘As editor of the New York Review of Books I published a theme issue about #MeToo-offenders who had not been convicted in a court of law but by social media. And now I myself am publicly pilloried.

‘They are afraid of the reactions on the campuses, where this is an inflammatory topic. Because of this, I feel forced to resign — in fact it is a capitulation to social media and university presses.’ (Ian Buruma, former editor of NYRB, 20 September 2018)

Fire the Reader!

We will never know what articles the NYRB will now spike and that will never contribute to intellectual debate. The NYRB didn’t just fire Ian Buruma, metaphorically it fired its readers, considering them unqualified to read and judge for themselves. (View from the hill, Vermont, 25 September 2018)

Madly Singing in the Mountains 山中獨吟

There is no one among men that has not a special failing;
And my failing consists in writing verses.
I have broken away from the thousand ties of life;
But this infirmity still remains behind.
Each time that I look at a fine landscape,
Each time that I meet a loved friend,
I raised my voice and recite a stanza of poetry
And marvel as though a God had crossed my path.
Ever since the day I was banished to Xunyang
Half my time I have lived among the hills.
And often, when I have finished a new poem,
Alone I climb the road to the Eastern Rock.
I lean my body on the banks of White Stone;
I pull down with my hands a green cassia branch.
My mad singing startles the valleys and hills;
The apes and birds all come to peep.
Fearing to become a laughing-stock to the world,
I choose a place that is unfrequented by men.

— Bo Juyi (trans. Arthur Waley)


— 白居易

An Intensity of Approach

From all this it must seem obvious that Dr Waley’s work cannot have been achieved merely by artistic sensibility and an assemblage of various skills, but must have been animated by some underlying principle or philosophy. To call this principle humanism is true but insufficient. It is a particular kind of humanism, which refuses to be misled by cant about literary history and social evolution — which insists on approaching any society or any work or art, whatever its time and place, with equal seriousness and alertness. This intensity of approach, if one may call it that, means that the occasional modern parallel — for example, the comparison of 3rd-century totalitarianism in Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China — seems not, as this kind of thing so often does in the case of other translators and popularizers, a cheap and shallow artifice but a poignant and illuminating truth about human behaviour… . (David Hawkes, ‘From the Chinese’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 March 1961)

Men in Charge

On Thursday, a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by two women, and who has been nominated for a position on the Supreme Court by a President accused of sexual misconduct by twenty women, will attempt to persuade eleven Republican men that he deserves that position—a position that would give him the authority to help decide, among other things, what options are available to women if they get pregnant after being sexually assaulted. What more damning demonstration of the solidification of male entitlement could we possibly get? (Jia Tolentino, Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and the Things Men Do for Other Men)

Politics Today

You think you’re in the forum when you’re really in the circus. (‘The Aesthetic’, ContraPoints)