China

Even bad sources have good uses

My writing on China has slowed to a crawl because I've been so busy reading new books.  Some are excellent, while others have been questionable.

The situation is not quite as bad as researching the Spanish Civil War, where a uniform scholarly bias exists that has only recently been challenged.

With China, the situation is more complex.  The crimes of Communism are undeniable, which makes it difficult to shower the Peoples' Republic with the same sort of soft-focus fan service rendered to the Second Spanish Republic.

The language barrier is also difficult, particularly with two translation schemes.  What this does is make it much easier for modern pro-CCP scholars to obscure unpleasant facts since the English renderings of most of the place-names have been changed.

Still, I'm reaching a point where I'm getting quite good at detecting the presence of revisionist propaganda, which is particularly important as my account has now reached the modern era.

Just as the bombing of Guernica has served as a useful litmus test on a source's reliability regarding the Spanish Civil War, the treatment of China's brutal imperialist history has provided a useful guide to gauging a source's reliability in other areas.

As a sidenote, I still don't have a title.  I'm sure one will come to me...eventually.


My mini-China film festival

To focus my thoughts on the China book project, for the last several weeks I've been watching Chinese-centric films.

I started with Curse of the Golden Flower, which is supposedly set in the Tang Dynasty.   I have to admit that when I first watched it, I found it a bit odd but the themes now make a lot more sense to me - both in terms of its ending and also the time in which it was set.

Jumping ahead in history, the next film in the sequence was 55 Days in Peking, which is about the Boxer Rebellion and stars Charleton Heston as, well, himself.  I suppose it's biased against the Boxers, but then again, they were trying to kill all the diplomats and their families which was not very nice.

Props to Flora Robeson as the Empress Dowager.  Ah, for the days when people were allowed to play folks from other races and cultures.  I'm old enough to remember when our betters told us that race was only skin deep, not the defining human characteristic.

After that, I watched The Last Emperor, Super-Long Director's Cut Edition.  Whew!  This should have been a miniseries.  I get why the guy wanted all the extra footage added in, but he should have also included an intermission.  Ah, for the days when data compression required two disks for a movie of this length. 

The big takeaway for me was how deeply weird late Imperial China was and Henry Puyi was also a bit off. 

For a change of pace, we jumped to the 1920s for The Sand Pebbles, a movie that got Steve McQueen and Best Actor nomination.  It's a good film, well done, and covers the forgotten topic of US gunboats sailing around in China.  Hard to believe that Candace Bergen was once mild-mannered and sweet rather than middle-aged and caustic.

Closing out my journey was Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, which is set in Hong Kong as the Chinese Civil War comes to a close.  It's a fascinating snap-shot of Hong Kong before it was entirely paved over with skyscrapers and run by the Chi-Coms.  Jennifer Jones does a great job of being a half-Chinese doctor (or as she insists, "Eurasian").  William Holden plays his usual lecherous self.  Funny how that guy so often ended up portraying a writer on the take.

Anyway, I think the "off duty" attention paid to China kept me motivated to hit my goal of 40,000 words by the end of March.  I am definitely over the hump on this book.  Going forward, the sources are more plentiful, clearer and the lessons of military operations become far more clear. 

I've set a very ambitious goal of having 60,000 words by the end of April and a draft done by the end of May, so we'll see how that goes.


Is the peace movement extinct?

My decision to tune out the news for a few weeks has been a fruitful one.  Instead of fuming over various "hot takes" or arguing in comment sections, my China project has been moving at its fastest pace since December.  At this point, it's a given that it will be longer than Long Live Death, but even if it equals my longest book, I'm at least halfway there.

All of which is to say that I haven't tuned out the news entirely, and one thing I've noticed is the complete absence of any kind of peace movement.  With the exception of the Catholic Church and other religious leaders, everyone seems to be demanding that the combat become fiercer and bloodier. 

I've never seen anything like it.

All my life there have been vocal and high-profile politicians and activists whose response to any form of violence has been to call for immediate cease-fires and negotiations.  Again, I'm not following this closely, but even my cursory glances would have noticed something.  Where are the streets-filling "peace marches?" 

I don't think a single interventionist has been denounced as a war monger or had their office occupied by protestors. 

Did all those people change their minds?  Is violence now the answer?

I'd love to talk with someone who carried a "no blood for oil" sign and find out what they think.

 


Giving up the news for Lent

I hadn't planning on giving up following the news for Lent, but I think I will.

There's so much nonsense going on in the world, it seems like a waste of time to try to follow along. 

Maybe it's not a formal vow, but I can think of three reasons to stop following the news:

1. It's usually wrong.  Time was people got fired for getting stuff wrong.  Not so much these days.  So long as the lie agrees with the narrative, people are fine.

2. There's nothing I can do about it but worry.  Whatever happens in the wider world is going to happen with or without me.  Better to focus on my family and community than wring my hands about events on other continents.

3. Every word I read about world events is a word I could be reading in support of my book project.  I've gathered a lot of sources, and if I'm going to keep this thing on track, I need to focus on my research.

Again, this wasn't something that really occurred to me until Monday.  I had been making good progress on my China book and it was then that I realized I couldn't write more until I dug into all these books I've bought.  That sealed the deal:  less posting, less news, more research which leads to more writing.

I really want to have at least a rough draft by May.  I think if I cut out the time-wasters, I can do it.


On the brink of Lent 2022

With Ash Wednesday coming up, I've been thinking about how to approach Lent this year.

Normally I give up things - usually sinful stuff, but also something I enjoy to remind myself of Our Lord's sacrifices.

However, Lent also calls for additional acts of charity, things we do for others, and so I want to participate in that as well.

In fact, I don't think I'm going to give anything up (other than what is required of all Catholics).  Instead, I think I will try to do more, pray more, give more.

I'm also going to try to push hard to finish my book.  That may not sound like much of a Lenten sacrifice, but it means that I'm going to limit other activities.  When the weather finally breaks, I know I will want to go outside and enjoy it.  Now is the prefect time to drive forward and finish the first draft.

 


Back to China!

I've gotten back to work on my China book, boosted by some excellent finds at Curious Books (and it's satellite site, The Archives).

I think the various loose threads were getting to me and the fact that the Sui and Tang dynasties are pretty straightforward in their rise and fall is helpful.

I'm also resolved to just plowing forward at this point and accept that there are gaps that will be filled later.  New books will pop up or I'll get a question and have to go back and find out more about it.

And yes, I've already found instances where my initial take was exactly wrong.

Looking ahead, I know the 20th Century is going to be pretty complex, so I'm doing sidebar reading on that area already. 

I'm still hoping to have most of a draft ready by spring, but things have moved so unevenly, I'm not sure if any timeline I can come up with is viable.


A little vacation from China

Writing the last chapter of my book was a real chore.  The period between the fall of the Han Dynasty and the reunification of China under the Sui and then the Tang is pretty complex, and I was moving at a crawl.

I've finally finished and feel the need to get away from it for a few days.

I found Long Live Death very easy to write, but I was also dealing with a much narrower topic.  China's history is a lot broader, and trying to be focused takes a lot more effort.  Not only that, there's the language and name difficulties.

I'm also working on the index as I go which is slowing my down now, but should save me time on the back end because I won't have to go back through the manuscript to build it from scratch.

My timeline for completion is slipping a bit as a result, but since I don't have a firm deadline, it's somewhat irrelevant.  I was hoping to have the draft done by March, but that was when I thought I'd have 20,000 pages by the end of 2021.  I'm still 5,000 pages short of that goal.  I'm thinking April-May might be more realistic.


Christmas with Confucius

The pace of my writing has slowed to a crawl.  The reason is that I'm doing a lot of research and want to get things sorted about before I press forward.

Specifically, I've been digging into Chinese religion and philosophy because I think these are vital reasons for the historically poor performance of their military.  Faith can inspire otherwise mediocre troops to incredible feats of heroism.

Conversely, massive armies can simply collapse if they lose confidence in their cause.

I just finished the Analects of Confucius, which I found quite interesting.  This collection of short sayings is part of the foundation of Chinese culture.  The book is relatively short, somewhat repetitive, and is essentially a set of short vignettes or one sentence statements about moral problems, what constitutes virtue and how the world should work.

Approaching it from a Catholic perspective, it seems very heavy on outward forms, and while it contains a version of the Golden Rule, this sentiment is surrounded by a lot of ethically troubling ideas.

First and foremost, it is elitist to the core, and takes for granted that rulers are just inherently better than the common people.  True, it admonishes the ruling class to care for them, makes a point about working for the good of humanity, but there's no imperative attached to this.

To put it another way, salvation (such as it is), is generated within oneself, not achieved by divine grace.  The gods are owed rituals, sacrifices and all must be done very properly with respect and formality.  If not, calamities can result.

However, there is also a notion of "destiny," which means that even noble and good people can die without warning because Heaven has decreed that fate for them.  One can never prevail against fate.

This is where fortune-telling comes into play.  This is also a large part of traditional Chinese culture, and if one can know one's destiny, it obviously is helpful (certainly where life insurance is concerned).

Honestly, it reminds me very much Calvinism, with the "gentleman scholar" assuming the role of the Elect.  The vast majority of Chinese have no hope of joining this class, and those that are privileged with literacy and leisure time are obviously chosen by fate to be above everyone else.  That is their destiny.

So it is that while Confucius urges humility and benevolence to the poor, they are also expected to obey their betters, who - just as the Calvinists believe - are singled out by Heaven with unique blessings.

This surely helped create the attitude that Europeans described as "fatalism," a sense among the Chinese elite that events were beyond their effective control.  It also helped breed a certain degree of selfishness: "I'm living properly, doing everything as the Master described, so my conscience is clear."

Next up is the Tao Te Ching, which I've read before, but I'm sure my perspective will be different.

 

 


Ssu-Ma Ch'ien as the Chinese Suetonius

To get a better understanding of China, I've been reading translations of the various literary classics.

I feel this is essential to understanding the cultural environment in which the Chinese military organizations have operated in over the centuries.

The most engaging writer I've yet found is Ssu-ma Chi'en, who essentially laid the foundation for later Chinese historians.

The stories are fascinating, with the abridgement I have focusing on biographies.  In that sense, it is very similar to Suetonius, though I'm having a devil of a time keeping all the names straight.

One of the things that has already stood out is the fact that political assassinations are viewed as fair game in ancient China.  Ssu-ma Ch'ien has a whole chapter telling the stories of people who killed leaders (or died trying to do so). 

Of course, other cultures have used targeted murder, but it's either decried as underhanded or at best a necessary evil.  It's just hard to imagine people lionizing Gavrilo Princip or John Wilkes Booth.

I've still got a long to go, but I'm enjoying it so far and looking forward to some time off where I can fully immerse myself in the topic.


Next Project: Chinese Military History

Over the past year, I've been all over the place on my next book project.  I looked at a sequel to Battle Officer Wolf, pondered writing The Vampires of Michigan: Pandemic, dabbled in doing a series of essays on spiritual warfare, and even took yet another stab (or two) at writing something in the fantasy genre.

Instead, I've settled on writing a concise, quick-moving military history of China.  I'm not sure how long it will be, but if you know me, you know it will be short.  Long books bore me.

I feel that Long Live Death was the right length for the topic and I'm very happy with it's reception.  It goes into just enough detail to make its point and inform the reader, and also points you to more detailed information in case you want it.

That's what I want to achieve with this new book.  At the moment, it's working title is "Something Something Dragon," because books about China almost always have "dragon" in the title.  You know, something like "The Dragon's Brittle Claws," because one of my themes is that Chinese military track record is uneven at best.

Hey, it took me a while to come up with Long Live Death, so no hurry.

I've not yet put together a deadline, or a projected completion date, but unlike other efforts, there is significant momentum.  I'm starting to get some good writing sessions and acquiring additional sources.  The mania is setting in.

I should note that like the Spanish Civil War, Chinese military history is another area that fascinated me in my late teens.  It was always somewhat obscure, and I found that a challenge.  At one point in college I came up with a Chinese version of Milton Bradley's Shogun game (which has been renamed a bunch, not sure what they call it now).  So a lot of my research is already floating around in my head, it's just a question of organizing it.