I really wanted to share this comment from Hanfeizi (presumably not the Legalist philosopher who has been dead for over 2000 years) that was written in response to my book review of Ralph Townsend’s Ways That Are Dark.
I have highlighted in bold and underlined my favourite parts.
Thanks for turning me on to this extremely enjoyable book. Lovecraftian indeed.
There were two things I found fascinating about it in particular:
-I actually didn’t find it all that racist, to be honest. Townsend seems to go out of his way to try to explain how things became the way they are in China and among the Chinese without invoking some notion of racial inferiority (in fact, at one point he speaks quite favorably of California Chinese, which suggested that there’s nothing wrong with the racial stock of the people). What was even more interesting was that he doesn’t even really seem to think that there’s anything wrong with China’s memetic stock- while some authors, like Lu Xun and Bo Yang, want to lay China’s ills at the feet of it’s sages, he points out that their ethics and teachings aren’t terribly different, in their actual content, from various western counterparts. I think if he lived today, he’d see that everything he saw could pretty much be explained by game theory and the social psychology of overpopulation; perhaps he should have re-read Thomas Malthus, who intimated the problems that would arise in a civilization that was too successful. Indeed, that was the real problem, that a better reading of Chinese history would have brought out- the system they stumbled upon worked well enough for them to choke on it. Visiting China in 1932 and 1933, he was seeing a civilization at it’s utter nadir- and coming from one that wasn’t far off from it’s peak. That’s going to generate startling contrasts.
-The book made me, inadvertently, much more sympathetic to the Communist Party. If Townsend’s account can be entirely believed (and I’m not quite sure that it can, though I had few quibbles with it other than that his understanding of Chinese history seemed pretty superficial and cliche, and thoroughly enjoyed his skewering of the KMT), then the achievements of the CCP during the Mao years were nothing short of miraculous. The massive improvements in literacy, sanitation, eradication of drugs, and just the unification and institution building that were completed look quite impressive next to his picture of China as an absolute, chaotic basketcase. It also throws out the whole narrative about Mao’s Cultural Revolution being such a horrific disaster for China- there wasn’t much left to save at that point. And it wasn’t really any worse than any average decade in China in the 20th century before 1950– but that certainly isn’t saying much.
There’s a recent work of popular Asian history, “The China Mirage” by James Bradley (which I highly recommend), which covers some of the same territory- especially as regards the power that missionaries had over our China policies. I definitely enjoyed his skewering of the missionary mindset.
Being a hardened cynic for all my life, I guess China didn’t really disappoint me in any idealistic respects; my six years at least got me a lovely wife, an MBA, some publishing credits and lots of fond memories. But equally, I’d never go back to live (unless I could work remotely as a trader); I always tell young folks who want to move to China to help them in their careers conquering the investment banking or management consulting worlds to STAY FAR, FAR AWAY. If you want to go for a few years to avoid reality back home, go ahead (particularly these days, reality is overrated anyway). If you’re just really curious and don’t have any particular ambitions to do anything beyond teaching and writing, and caught the China bug, go right ahead. But anyone with either a career or missionary drive should stay home.
If I could do it all over again, I’d have moved to Singapore and started a financial career instead.
Hanfeizi wins the coveted “Commenter of the Month” award. Considering how few comments this blog generates, he didn’t really have much competition.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy my book Party Members – a dark comic fantasy that exposes the corrupt underbelly of modern China.