Other People’s Thoughts, XXIII

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 compiled 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 that reflects our interests and disposition.

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
20 May 2021


More Other People’s Thoughts:

Other People’s Thoughts XXIII


Updating Giza

We live in a world that rewards conformists and scolds radicals. Your job is to be radical, even with the understanding that this will make you unpopular. Your job, in other words, is to question everything—and I mean everything. Consider the pyramids of Giza. On the one hand, they’re one of the wonders of the ancient world. On the other, barriers to entry for Egyptian pyramid construction have come down drastically since the twenty-sixth century BCE. If people in Egypt were to build the pyramids today, we’d look at them and say, “Cool?” They wouldn’t be impressive. But give me a human genomics pattern search engine that can generate predictive analytics modeling infectious disease growth through sub-Saharan Africa to help optimize ad targeting for end-of-life wearables, then yeah, okay, Egyptians: now we can talk.

Aaron Timms, March 2021


Never underestimate the booberie of the booboisie.

— H.L. Mencken, 1922


The American People, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day.”

— Mencken, ‘On Being an America’, 1922


Dear future generations:

Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.

— Kurt Vonnegut

Boris Johnson’s modus operandi

Still, onwards and control+alt+delete.

John Crace, 6 May 2021

Biden Schmiden

Don’t be fooled by Joe Biden. He knows his infrastructure and education bills have as much chance at becoming law as the $15-dollar minimum wage or the $2,000 stimulus checks he promised us as a candidate. He knows his American Jobs Plan will never create “millions of good paying jobs – jobs Americans can raise their families on” any more than NAFTA, which he supported, would, as was also promised, create millions of good paying jobs. His mantra of “buy American” is worthless. He knows the vast majority of our consumer electronics, apparel, furniture and industrial supplies are made in China by workers who earn an average of one or two dollars an hour and lack unions and basic labor rights. He knows his call to lower deductibles and prescription drug costs in the Affordable Care Act will never be permitted by the corporations that profit from health care. He knows the corporate donors that fund the Democratic Party will ensure their lobbyists will continue to write the laws that guarantee they pay little or no taxes. He knows the corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to the climate crisis will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants. His promises of reform have no more weight than those peddled by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who Biden slavishly served and who also promised social equality while betraying working men and women

Chris Hedges, 3 May 2021

Emmanuel ‘at-the-same-time’ Macron

Mr. Macron is a centrist, but one most concerned for now by the need to head off the appeal of the extreme right. “One loves Napoleon because his life has the allure of the possible, because it is an invitation to take risks,” he said. He continued: “His life was an epiphany of freedom. Eagle and ogre, Napoleon could be at once the soul of the world and the demon of Europe.”

— Pascal Buckner

The Death of Napoleon, at 200

“Why the obsession? Because with Napoleon, the Gallic cockerel became an imperial eagle. Now it’s just a tired old hen on its bell tower.” …

François-René de Chateaubriand, the 19th-century French writer and diplomat, observed of Napoleon that, “Living, he failed the world. Dead, he conquered it.”

The reason may be Napoleon’s hard-earned realism, as expressed on St. Helena to his secretary, Emmanuel de Las Cases.

“Revolution is one of the greatest ills with which the heavens can afflict the earth,” Napoleon told his aide. “It is the scourge of the generation that makes it; any gains it procures cannot offset the distress it spreads through life. It enriches the poor, who are not satisfied; it impoverishes the rich, who will never forget it. It overturns everything, makes everyone unhappy, and procures happiness for nobody.”

— from Roger Cohen, ‘France Battles Over Whether to Cancel or Celebrate Napoleon’
5 May 2021


‘There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe … but not for us.’

— Franz Kafka

Love & Hope

And then there’s the matter of hope. If your hope for the future depends on a wildly optimistic scenario, what will you do ten years from now, when the scenario becomes unworkable even in theory? Give up on the planet entirely? To borrow from the advice of financial planners, I might suggest a more balanced portfolio of hopes, some of them longer-term, most of them shorter. It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.

— Jonathan Franzen, ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?’, 2018

And the winner is? 

The I.P.C.C.—which has in any case been guilty, in the past, of massaging scientific data to produce more politically palatable predictions—suggests that it’s still possible to keep global mean temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees. But to even have a chance of hitting that figure, every country in the world would have to entirely remake its infrastructure and economy in the next ten years. Maybe Sweden can ji become a net carbon non-emitter by 2030. But people in France are rioting over a minor gasoline tax, people in Trump America are in love with their pickup trucks, and let’s not even talk about China and India and Africa, where yet another huge new coal-fired power plant comes on line every day. To me, it’s an instance of the dark comedy of climate change that anyone can seriously imagine that the world will happily renounce the lifestyle benefits of economic growth. The game is over. Petro-consumerism won.

— Jonathan Franzen, ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?’, 2018

At Eighty

‘At eighty things do not occur; they recur.’

— Alan Bennett

Old Dog, Same Tricks

‘A prominent white nationalist has begun posting manifestoes online. Oh, I’m sorry, that was the sub-headline. The headline was, “Donald Trump Launches New Blog.” That’s right, disgraced former fast-food spokesman Donald Trump has launched a website called From the Desk of Donald J. Trump. Though a more accurate name would be, From the Brain Fog of Long-Haul Covid. I don’t understand why the Republican Party is still betting their entire future on Trump. He turns 75 next month. It’s like getting your family an old dog and saying, “Hey kids, invest all your emotions in this.”

— Colin Jost, ‘Weekend Update’, SNL, 8 May 2021

China & Oz

China’s new assertiveness under President Xi Jinping is a given. China makes no secret of its ambition to match the United States as a global player, to carve out its own strategic space in the Western Pacific, and to become a regional hegemon to which all its neighbours pay deference. But Beijing also fully understands, and wants to avoid, the catastrophic horror and misery its people would suffer in any major modern war. And there is no evidence — South China Sea waters and some border nibbles apart — that it has any desire to acquire outright any other sovereign state’s territory. Of course, states must prepare for possible war based on potential adversaries’ capabilities, not their known or assumed intent. For the West to take that further, and prematurely assume Chinese intent to be generally malign, risks being dangerously self-fulfilling.

Gareth Evans, 9 May 2021

Three New Commandments

‘I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: Thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.’

Yehuda Bauer, address to the Bundestag, 21 January 1998

The Eyes Have It

‘An S.S. man told a Jewish woman that he would spare her life if she guessed which of his two eyes was of glass and which one was live. Without hesitating, the woman pointed at one of the eyes and said: “This is the glass eye.” “Correct,” said the S.S. man, “but how did you find out?” Answered the woman, “Because it looked more human than the other.”

‘Have we learnt anything? People seldom learn from history, and the history of the Nazi regime constitutes no exception. We have failed, as well, to understand the general context. In our schools we still teach, for example, about Napoleon and about how he won the battle of Austerlitz. Did he win it all on his own? Maybe somebody assisted him in this? A few thousand soldiers maybe? And, what happened to the families of the fallen soldiers, to the wounded on all sides, to the villagers whose villages had been destroyed, to the women who had been raped, to the goods and possessions that had been looted? We are still teaching about the generals, about the politicians and about the philosophers. We are avoiding the recognition of the dark side of history – the mass murders, the agony, the suffering that is screaming into our faces from all of history. We do not hear the wailing of Clio. We still fail to grasp that we will never be able to fight against our tendency toward reciprocal annihilation if we do not study it and teach it and if we do not face the fact that humans are the only mammals that are capable of annihilating their own kind.’

Yehuda Bauer, address to the Bundestag, 1998


‘What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?’

— Lin Yutang

Gaza, then & now

An old man in Gaza held a placard that read: “You take my water, burn my olive trees, destroy my house, take my job, steal my land, imprison my father, kill my mother, bombard my country, starve us all, humiliate us all, but I am to blame: I shot a rocket back.”

Noam Chomsky, 4 December 2012


The story of the guano islands may seem trivial. After all, how important could a few dozen uninhabited islands be? Yet the guano craze of the nineteenth century left three legacies, all of which would shape the fate of the Greater United States.

The first was legal. The Guano Islands Act, the Supreme Court’s ruling, and President Harrison’s backing of that ruling collectively established that the borders of the United States needn’t be confined to the continent. In 1889–90, when the Navassa controversy was in the news, this was a minor concern. But in the decades to come, it would be the foundation for the United States’ entire overseas empire.

The second legacy was strategic. The same features that made the islands attractive rookeries for seabirds made them, decades later, desirable sites for airfields. The pointillist empire that the United States built after the Second World War would rely in part on those nineteenth-century guano claims.

The third and most immediate legacy was agricultural. In all, speculators scraped some four hundred thousand tons of rock guano off of U.S. appurtenances. That fell short of speculators’ wildest hopes, but it was nevertheless a significant haul.

Guano didn’t solve the soil exhaustion crisis, but combined with Chilean sodium nitrates, which companies started selling later in the century, it held it at bay. Mined fertilizers kept industrial agriculture sustainable long enough for scientists to devise a more permanent solution: manufacturing fertilizer from the unreactive N2 in the atmosphere.

The breakthrough came in 1909, when Fritz Haber, a German-Jewish chemist, developed a technique for synthesizing ammonia, a nitrogen compound. By 1914, the experimental technique had become industrially viable, and in that year Haber’s method, called the Haber–Bosch process, yielded as much reactive nitrogen as the entire Peruvian guano trade. The difference was that Haber–Bosch, unlike guano mining, was infinitely expandable. It also didn’t require scouring the seas for uninhabited islands.

In a single stroke, Haber had opened the floodgates for the virtually unlimited growth of human life. The Malthusian logic was repealed. Soil exhaustion ceased to be an existential threat; you could just add more chemicals. Without Haber–Bosch, the earth could sustain, at present rates of consumption, only about 2.4 billion people. That is well under half of today’s population.

By inventing ammonia synthesis, Fritz Haber became arguably the single most consequential organism on the planet. The toll on his personal life, however, was heavy. His wife, Clara, was herself a promising German-Jewish chemist, indeed the first woman ever to receive a doctorate from the University of Breslau. Local women had crowded there to see her get her degree—“seldom has the awarding of a doctorate been attended by so many,” reported the newspaper. But after her marriage, Clara had abandoned her research and become a hausfrau, dedicating her life to supporting Fritz.

It was a Picture of Dorian Gray marriage: the more Fritz flourished, the more Clara withered. Just as her husband was honing his invention, Clara wrote an anguished letter to her former scientific mentor: “What Fritz has gained in these last eight years, that—and even more—I have lost, and what is left of me fills with the deepest dissatisfaction.”

Fritz had gained quite a lot. His invention won him the directorship of a new institute in Berlin and a central place within the German scientific establishment (a position he used to promote the career of a gifted young Jewish physicist named Albert Einstein). When World War I erupted, Haber volunteered his services. He suggested that the ammonia now pouring out of German fertilizer plants could be repurposed as explosives to bolster Germany’s dwindling munitions supplies. Since the war had cut Germany off from imported nitrates, this was an essential contribution. The president of the American Chemical Society calculated that Germany would have lost the war by early 1916 had Haber not replenished its stocks of nitrate explosives.

Nor did Haber stop there. He assembled a supergroup of German scientists, four of whom, like he, would go on to win Nobel Prizes. Overseeing their efforts, he introduced his second great invention: poison gas.

Not only did Haber invent it, he personally supervised its debut in 1915, releasing four hundred thousand tons of chlorine gas upwind of some Algerian troops at the Battle of Ypres. In a delicious historical irony, the man who saved the world from starvation was also the father of weapons of mass destruction.

For this, Haber won still more honors: a military commission, the Iron Cross, and an audience with the emperor. The only one who didn’t appear to be celebrating was Clara. Right after gassing the Algerians at Ypres, Fritz returned home for a quick visit. What transpired between husband and wife during that visit is lost to history, but after Fritz went to sleep, Clara went into the garden with his service revolver and shot herself in the heart. The next day, Fritz returned to the front.

There is great interest in Clara today, especially in Germany, where she is celebrated as a martyr to science. No note from Clara survives, and Fritz refused to speak about the subject, so it is impossible to say with certainty why she killed herself. Surely, she had many reasons. But the timing of her suicide and some of the testimony from those who knew her have led many to interpret it as a protest of her husband’s invention.

If it was, it was a prescient act. After the war, Fritz continued his work, and his institute developed a promising insecticide called Zyklon A. In slightly modified form, under the name Zyklon B, it would be deployed on Fritz and Clara’s fellow Jews, though this time not on the battlefield, but in gas chambers. Clara’s relatives were among those who died in the camps.

Luckily, not all of them perished. Although Clara’s married name was Haber, she is today known by her maiden name, the name under which she defended her dissertation: Clara Immerwahr.

Her cousin Max was my great-grandfather.

— Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire:
a short history of the Greater United States
, 2019, pp.63-65

The Airport Aristocrat

You may be an emerald coronet five-million-miler—and still you have to let some guy from the TSA go through your luggage in the middle of a glorified shopping mall. When you stop to think about it, the architectural pretentiousness of that glorified mall only amplifies the feeling of frustration and alienation: trying to board an overcrowded bus outside a space-age folly that would be more appropriate in Vegas; queuing up in the freezing cold on the curb of a building by Eero Saarinen; finding almost no amenities flight-side in a brutalist marvel designed in the days before terrorism; looking for a place to rest in a long line of chairs, each one staring at the wall in an endless, windowless hallway that turns out to be in the wrong concourse altogether.

— Thomas Frank, ‘Meet the DYKWIAs’, 2014


To be a new immigrant is to be trapped in a disgusting-food museum, confused by the unfamiliar and unsettled by the familiar-looking. The firm, crumbly white blocks that you mistake for tofu are called feta. The vanilla icing that tastes spoiled is served on top of potatoes and is called sour cream. At a certain point, the trickery of food starts to become mundane. Disgusting foods become regulars in the cafeteria, and at the dinner table.

— Jiayang Fan, ‘Yuck!’, 17 May 2021

Carbone, Miami

Trying to get a reservation was “like trying to find a needle in a haystack, if that needle was made of ice and the hay was on fire,” the Infatuation noted, in a listicle titled “Where to Go When You Can’t Get Into Carbone.”

— Helen Rosner, ‘How to Get a Table at Carbone’, 19 May 2021


Leading congressional delegations to China in the mid-1970s, he discussed the country’s political purity with the mayor of Shanghai — “What is wrong with brainwashing?” he said the mayor told him. “We wash our hands, we wash our face. Why not brains?”

from an obituary of Lester L. Wolff, 12 May 2021

Involution 內卷

In many ways, China’s affliction of involution is no different from America’s cutthroat meritocracy. But China’s crisis is unique in the severity of its myopia and its methods of entrapment. The young high schooler, disillusioned with the monotony of school, cannot easily access subversive subcultures or explore alternative ways of living, because, increasingly, that information is deemed “vulgar” or “immoral” and banned by the government, scrubbed from the digital sphere in the name of “promoting positive energy.” The delivery driver, seeking better working conditions, can’t protest his grievances or organize his fellow workers in an independent union, because he rightly fears that he will be detained. The disillusioned office worker, instead of taking action, will more likely sink deeper into his desk chair. Involution is a new word that helps keep an old system, and those who control it, in place.

Yi-Ling Liu, 14 May 2021



— 《論語 · 季氏十》

As translated by Simon Leys:

Confucius said: “A gentleman takes care in nine circumstances:

—when looking, to see clearly;
—when listening, to hear distinctly;
—in his expression, to be amiable;
—in his attitude, to be deferential;
—in his speech, to be loyal;
—when on duty, to be respectful;
—when in doubt, to question;
—when angry, to ponder the consequences;
—when gaining an advantage, to consider if it is fair.”

— The Analects of Confucius
trans. and notes by Simon Leys
New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, p.83

Israel, July 2002

Short of forcibly expunging the Arab presence from every inch of soil currently controlled by Israel, the dilemma facing Israel today is the same as it was in June 1967, when the aging David Ben-Gurion advised his fellow countrymen against remaining in the conquered territories. A historic victory can wreak almost as much havoc as a historic defeat. In Abba Eban’s words, “T he exercise of permanent rule over a foreign nation can only be defended by an ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness that are incompatible with the ethical legacy of prophetic Judaism and classical Zionism.” The risk that Israel runs today is that for many of its most vocal defenders, Zionism has become just such an “ideology and rhetoric of self-worship and exclusiveness” and not much more. Israel’s brilliant victory of June 1967, already a classic in the annals of preemptive warfare, has borne bitter fruits for the losers and the winners alike.

— Tony Judt, New Republic, July 2002

Israel, May 2021

Israel is in breach of more than 30 U.N. Security Council resolutions. It is in breach of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention that defines collective punishment of a civilian population as a war crime. It is in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention for settling over half a million Jewish Israelis on occupied Palestinian land and for the ethnic cleansing of at least 750,000 Palestinians when the Israeli state was founded and another 300,000 after Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank were occupied following the 1967 war. Its annexation of East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights violates international law, as does its building of a security barrier in the West Bank that annexes Palestinian land into Israel. It is in violation of U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 that states that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”

Chris Hedges, 14 May 2021



— inspired by Ouyang Xiu of the Song dynasty


人不犯我 我不犯人,
人若犯我 禮讓三分,
人再犯我 斬草除根。

金星, building on Mao Zedong

Can you ducking believe this aunt?

Hauled before two select committees to answer for his Greensill lobbying role, David Cameron yesterday claimed his text to the Treasury mentioning a “rate cut” might in fact have meant to say “VAT cut”. As the former prime minister put it: “I think I’m a victim of spellcheck here.” A what now? Still, you’ll have nothing but respect for this excuse, which is basically: “I fear that I, a standup guy, have been autocorrected into a complete chancer.” And yet … on which phone software does VAT autocorrect to rate? I’m afraid I found it rather difficult to watch this section of the hearings and not think: can you ducking believe this aunt?

Marina Hyde, 14 May 2021

The American Anti-Christ

‘Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers and crooks; wasn’t American and never spoke English; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer (M 6:5); but was never anti-gay, never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never justified torture, never fought for tax cuts for the wealthiest Nazarenes, never asked a leper for copay; and was a long-haired, brown-skinned homeless community-organizing, anti-slut-shaming Middle Eastern Jew.’

John Fugelsang

Geography Lessons

‘War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.’

— Jon Stewart, 12 August 2008

Questions for Those in Power

  1. What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you use it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?”

Tony Benn


‘你說相聲必須要有教育意義,要用相聲來宣傳什麼,這是大錯而特錯,這是滅絕人性的說法。… 非得讓相聲教育人,非得每段都有教育意義,我不服知道麼,讓人受教育的形式太多了,放了相聲吧,饒了他吧。’