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.
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.
More Other People’s Thoughts:
- Other People’s Thoughts, China Heritage
Other People’s Thoughts, XXVIII
Zhou Xiaozheng on China’s ‘Four Absurdities and Eight Absences’
As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience.
Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.
— Howard Zinn, 1970
In the 1960s, a student at Harvard Law School addressed parents and alumni with these words:
“The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes! danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive.”
There was prolonged applause. When the applause died down, the student quietly told his listeners:
“These words were spoken in 1932 by Adolph Hitler.”
The collapse has been sudden, our exit too ill planned to evacuate the vulnerable Afghans who worked with us. We’re desperate for the allied nations that went to war with us to take them in on our behalf. A few thousand here, a few thousand there. I look across the New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty and wonder why we are not lifting our own lamp for those abandoned by this war. Is our new Colossus dead or will she rise to repay her debt?
— Timothy Kudo, ‘I Was a Marine in Afghanistan. We Sacrificed Lives For a Lie.’,
The New York Times, 16 August 2021
… as comforting as it would be to blame Obama and Trump, we must look inward and admit that we told our elected leaders—of both parties—that they were facing a no-win political test. If they chose to leave, they would be cowards who abandoned Afghanistan. If they chose to stay, they were warmongers intent on pursuing “forever war.” And so here we are, in the place we were destined to be: resting on 20 years of safety from another 9/11, but with Afghanistan again in the hands of the Taliban.
— Tom Nichols, ‘Afghanistan Is Your Fault:
The American public now has what it wanted’,
The Atlantic, 16 August 2021
Lessons of History
‘The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’
— Georg Hegel
Writing just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War 30 years later, George Lawrence, a veteran of the first conflict wrote, “a new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country … Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless … The disaster of the Retreat from Kabul should stand forever as a warning to the Statesmen of the future not to repeat the policies that bore such bitter fruit in 1839–42.”
— William Dalrymple, 30 August 2021
“There is a stampede, not only out of Afghanistan, but a stampede away from high prices, overpriced service from the big carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile. The average family making the switch to PureTalk.”
— Sean Hannity on his radio show, Aug. 16, 2021
“How would you like to be in Kabul today, as an American, and you can’t get to the airport? Where are you thinking your life is headed? If you’re one of those family members, I bet you’re not sleeping. … MyPillow.com. That’s where I go. I fall asleep faster, I stay asleep longer.”
— Sean Hannity on his radio show, Aug. 17, 2021
— quoted in Alexandra Petri, ‘Sean Hannity cuts to commercial’,
The Washington Post, 19 August 2021
We’re at war, America’s at the mall.
— a lieutenant colonel in Baghdad, 8 September 2006
Certainly there is something distinctive, even something odd, about the country’s history of aggression. Many of the world’s 190 or so nation states have been involved in conflict. But few small- or medium-sized powers would match Australia’s habit of fighting in countries half a world away about which they were ill informed and which could never pose any threat to the homeland. Indeed the whole world would be chaotic if it was made up of nations similarly addicted to intervening in what are, at least in part, civil wars. The big question is why we take it so much for granted? Why is it that we seem quite unable to recognize that we have a long and distinctive history of belligerence.
— Henry Reynolds, 3 September 2021
If this is where US leadership leads, who needs it? When America plays global policeman, as self-described “liberal-neocons” say it must, too many people in too many places end up screaming “I can’t breathe!” America is either woefully absent – or its domineering engagement ends in tears. The cycle repeats. Fears grow that US allies are being dragged into another “forever war”, this time with China.
— Simon Tisdall, 21 August 2021
‘When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.’
— Leonard Matlovich’s headstone at Congressional Cemetery in Washington
Words for the Wise
Applause to Nick Paumgarten, pondering Andrew Cuomo in The New Yorker, for this sentence’s climactic alliteration: “Advancing age, on its own, has never proved to be much of an impediment to oily or self-destructive behavior, especially once you mix in the prednisone of power.” (Thanks to Carol Stanton of Orlando, Fla., for nominating this.)
Big Corporation America is rarely criticized by us writers when it deals out huge advances, only when it has something to say about what or how it wants to publish. When we sign our contracts, publishing is a business. When they are broken, it’s an art.
— Roger Rosenblatt, ‘Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder’, 16 December 1990
A Matter of Taste
Shit has its own integrity.
— Hollywood saying
For the happiness he can still give us it is difficult to know how to reward him, beyond saying that he has helped make tolerable the modern age he so abominated.
— Clive James, 1980
The Sobriety of Xu Zhangrun
With Xi Jinping and his colleagues having defined a form of nationalism and patriotic fervour so potent it intoxicates a swathe of the public, someone like Xu resembles the sole sober person at a drunken party.
— Kerry Brown, Inside Story, 19 August 2019
On the day liberal-neocon imperialism was defeated once and for all, DiEM25’s thoughts are with the women of Afghanistan. Our solidarity probably means little to them but it is what we can offer — for the time being. Hang in there sisters!
… who knows where anyone’s reputation rests now. “Everything is niche,” a wise Gen Z-er tells her father.
— Adam Gopnik, ‘Having a laugh with S.J. Perlman’, The New Yorker
Today’s pop lyricists don’t poke fun at Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because young listeners no longer recognize those names as possessing any cultural authority or prestige, if they recognize them at all. It would make as much sense to write a pop song called “Roll Over Palestrina” or “Rock Me, Hildegard von Bingen,” since all composers are equally unfamiliar to a mass audience.
… Kindle and Spotify give us a degree of access to “the best which has been thought and said” that a Medici or a Rockefeller couldn’t have bought at any price, while simultaneously reminding us that almost no one cares.
— Adam Kirsch, ‘Culture as counterculture’
New Criterion, September 2021
Becoming the Subject
My name is Ruben Blum and I’m an, yes, an historian. Soon enough, though, I guess I’ll be historical. By which I mean I’ll die and become history myself, in a rare type of transformation traditionally reserved for the purer scholars. Lawyers die and don’t become the law, doctors die and don’t turn into medicine, but biology and chemistry professors pass away and decompose into biology and chemistry, they mineralize into geology, they disperse into their science, just as surely as mathematicians become statistics. The same process holds true for us historians—in my experience, we’re the only ones in the humanities for whom this holds true—the only ones who become what we study; we age, we yellow, we go wrinkled and brittle along with our materials until our lives subside into the past, to become the very substance of time. Or maybe that’s just the Jew in me talking… Goys believe in the Word becoming Flesh, but Jews believe in the Flesh becoming Word, a more natural, rational incarnation.
— Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus, 2021, p.1
Parting of the ways
As for my father, if anything, he’s looking up at me, not down. He was ninety-eight. “A blessing,” you keep saying. “He must have been a wonderful man to have been rewarded with such a long life.” As if it worked that way, and extra years were tacked on for good behavior. All kinds of good people die young. You know who’s living a “good long life”? Dick Cheney. Henry Kissinger. Rupert Murdoch.
“He’ll always be with you” is another tiresome chestnut that I’ll be happy never to hear again. In response to it, I say, “What if I don’t want him with me? What if sixty-four years of constant criticism and belittlement was enough, and I’m actually fine with my father and me going our separate ways, him in a cooler at the funeral home and me here at the kids’ table.” He won’t be in his grave for another few days. Is that the “better place” you’ve been assuring me he’s headed to? The cemetery that people pass on their way to the airport? Perhaps a plot with a view of the Roy Rogers or that car wash that went out of business? And what, exactly, is it better than? This restaurant, clearly, but what else? This state? This country? This Earth?
— David Sedaris, ‘A Better Place’
Another of my friends dreams of chocolate, and is haunted by sensory fantasies of the taste and smell of chocolate, and occasionally talks of chocolate the way some people talk of their mistresses, but one Hershey bar would damn him and his liver, too.
— M.F.K Fisher, ‘Cravings’, September 1968
Hong Kong’s Grey Culture
Six months have gone by. The feeling stays surreal. But my impressions are not blurry at all. They are in the contrary very acute. Grey grills, grey chair, bed, floor, door. Before, besides black & white, I liked to wear grey. Thought it was elegant. I have to think this over in the future.
— Claudia Mo, from jail in Hong Kong, 31 August 2021