AN EYE ON CHINA¹
Thomas Russell Wingate
October, November 2011
In 1996 I gave myself a unique present for my forty-ninth birthday: a self-selected Chinese name. This page is my first use of it outside my house.
Brigham Young University was hosting a traveling exhibit called IMPERIAL TOMBS OF CHINA. There, in Provo, I touched the Great Wall.
Calligraphers were available. For $4.25 I became (on rice paper)
Sh Yue Ying Fa ● Poet Loves Cherry Blossoms
In The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity (2003) William C. Hannas gets to the heart of the matter. I offer only two quotations from this indispensable resource.
The term “brain drain” is not fully appreciated. The drain is not from one country to another... The real drain is the loss of creativity that stays at home but is not employed properly. And that is a worldwide waste.
George Sansom, who can hardly be accused of not knowing Japanese, wrote: “One hesitates for an epithet to describe a system of writing which is so complex that it needs the aid of another system to explain it. There is no doubt that it provides for some a fascinating field of study, but as a practical instrument it is surely without inferiors.”
Hannas agrees with me that East Asian societies are constrictive and therefore keen to suppress what Westerners consider an exuberant creativity. He astutely suggests that East Asian governments would rather see their best minds “go West, young man” than stay at home and cause trouble. This cannot be openly admitted, but who needs words?
In 1989 a ten-meter Goddess of Democracy was defiantly erected in Beijing. All the world knew which “mighty woman with a torch” she was meant to resemble and which country was being praised. All the world knew what it meant when she was destroyed by the Communists. Replicas outside China are plentiful and honored.
I felt major culture shock when I learned that Chinese thinkers never developed the syllogism.
Chinese intellectual history was both a treat and a disappointment. (Among their philosophers, my favorite was Xun Zi.) I especially enjoyed proving that all of the major elements of Marxism-Leninism were current among Chinese thinkers prior to 200 B.C. (Some day I shall publish that paper. My insights were original.)
I ended up agreeing with Hu Shih: “China has nothing worth preserving. If she has anything it will preserve itself. You foreigners who tell China that she has something worth preserving are doing a disservice for you are only adding to our pride. We must make a clean sweep and adopt Western culture and outlook.”
Why only one clean sweep?
When you don’t think in syllogisms, when you don’t have an alphabet, when you don’t have symbols that match how you speak, what do you rely on?
You would rather have bad explanations than none.²
We all know the bicolored circular symbol of yin and yang, those inseparable tensions which whelm and rewhelm all that we are, all that we know. As the symbol suggests, each surrounds but can never consume the other.
Chinese culture has had millennia to curve this out.
Noon = full yang
Sunset = yang turning to yin
Midnight = full yin
Sunrise = yin turning to yang
South and summer = full yang
West and autumn = yang turning to yin
North and winter = full yin
East and spring = yin turning to yang
Poetic? Deliciously so. Scientific? Not by any standard.
In June 2012 I came upon a stunning piece of chinoiserie. One look, and I had to have it.
Seven dollars: highly affordable.
Dragons are emblems of happiness, prosperity, and good fortune. This one is seven inches long and five inches high. He is cheerful and oh-so-scaly, with a horn on top and plenty of teeth.
I discovered his most amazing quality after I purchased him from an unsuspecting seller.
Draco felix nitoris glows green in the dark.
● Dictionary Latin: “happy dragon with healthy glow,
elegance (of style), dignity (of character).”
I have named him Penny Wise.
He was courteously proclaimed the mascot of my honorable, efficient, and generous source of office products.³
Authentic Chinese proverb: “The lack of one penny can worry to death even the bravest of heroes.”
Boastful predictions about China are in fashion everywhere. “Panda lovers” and “dragon slayers” should not fail to read with attention Why China Will Never Rule the World: Travels in the Two Chinas by Troy Parfitt (2012), a beautifully written narrative and a deft corrective.
1 See Brain Drain 13, 16, Bits of Translation 14, and Bookscape
on website. For Chinese thinkers, see Wikipedia.
2 See Attention Span 5 on website. “Either-or” is more yang than
yin—or is it?
3 See Links on website.