Zheng Yongnian (郑永年) on How to Address Western Public Opinion on China: Facts, Science and Reason

[from Pekingology at the Center for China and Globalization (CCG)]

“Be open, open, and more open,” especially to businesses, investors, media, universities, and research institutions. And tit-for-tat doesn’t work, the professor says.

by Zichen Wang, Shuyuan Han, and Li Huiyan

Professor Zheng Yongnian (郑永年), the Founding Director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, on January 28 published an article on how China should address Western public opinion on China. His advice is in the last part of the article, and below is a translation.

(Emphasis by Pekingnology.)

First, we need to understand how such narratives are formed. Historically, China held a bias due to its self-isolation and limited knowledge of the West. Despite losing the two Opium Wars, Chinese intellectuals at that time still saw Westerners as uncivilized. It was not until China was defeated by Japan, a neighboring country once considered as China’s student, that they realized their ignorance and a need for reform. Before China’s Reform and Opening up, Chinese people barely knew anything about the West. They always assumed Westerners were in deep distress, repeating the same lack of understanding of the West.

Similarly, the West’s uncertainty and fear towards China’s rise stem from a lack of understanding and even fear of the country, and their ingrained ideology would lead to misconceptions.

China is the world’s second-largest economy. The externalities and influence of its economy on the West are obvious. Upon joining the WTO, some Chinese people also felt unsettled by the externalities of the West. Some said, “the wolf is coming.” Now it is the West that is experiencing such worries.

It is crucial to recognize the significant impact of the Western hypocritical narratives against China, even if they are based on ideology rather than facts. We must also acknowledge that ideology-based public opinion from the West can exert a powerful influence on their policies toward China.

Historically, the West tended to demonize others while presenting themselves as morally superior, which enabled them to apply Social Darwinism to international politics easily and thus legitimizing conflicts and even wars with other nations. Given the Soviet Union’s failure in the ideological arena during the Cold War, we should by no means ignore any ideology-based public opinion toward China from the West.

Second, to make rational responses to the Western ideology-based criticisms, we should draw lessons from the history of the world economy, such as the lessons of the Soviet Union, as well as our practices, such as the rhetorical battle with the West in the past few years. Coming up with an externally-facing public opinion based on a different ideology is not the most effective in addressing public opinion attacks based on an ideology. Empirically, tit-for-tat is ineffective and can worsen the situation. Again, the failure of the Soviet Union is a prime example, as its battle with a Western ideology failed. When faced with China-demonizing based on ideology from the West, we need to do the simplest thing, namely resorting to facts, science, and reason.

Third, and most importantly, China needs to prioritize its sustainable development, which ultimately benefits the country itself. It is important to recognize that the foundation of the government’s governance lies in its citizens, not Western praise. The support from its people is crucial for both the nation’s longevity and stability., China’s sustainable development also benefits the world economy by boosting its growth. As mentioned above, China has been the largest contributor to the growth of the world economy since it joined the WTO.

It is crucial to prioritize the building of a knowledge system based on China’s practical experiences. Regarding global soft power, we need a knowledge system based on our experiences rather than a certain ideology. While there has been a proposal for an autonomous knowledge system, continuous effort is still required.

Fourth, given the substantial externalities of our economy, we must further communicate and coordinate with other countries on economic policies, regardless of their respective sizes. Our duty is to fulfill the responsibility as a major player in the international community, which also benefits China.

After the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, China promised not to devalue its currency, and that commitment became an international public good in Asia. Similarly, after the global financial crisis from 2007 to 2008, China made similar contributions. As China re-opens its economy after the pandemic, it is important not only to take note of the hypocritical comments from certain quarters in the Western world but also to recognize the positive evaluations and high expectations from many international organizations.

Fifth, we must be open, open, and more open. Despite China’s efforts, there remains a persistent ideological camp in the West that views China through an ideological lens, a situation made worse by the past three years of the pandemic. The pandemic was so severe that it hindered travel across borders; as a result, some Western media and scholars tend to assess China through ideology since they couldn’t come here to see the facts with their own eyes.

The assessment of China through a uniform ideological lens appears to have strengthened the original Western ideological camp. However, the United States and the West have more than one ideology, and not all people believe in the prevailing ideology in the public opinion sphere. China’s openness provides a “seeing is believing” opportunity for different groups in the West. China should increase its openness to Western groups, including businesses, investors, media, universities, and research institutions. The changes in their understanding could render those ideological-based public opinions less effective.

Movies As Universities: The Case of So Ends Our Night

So Ends Our Night is a riveting and moving 1941 movie version of Erich Remarque’s classic novel Flotsam (English, GermanLiebe deinen Nächsten).

You may remember Remarque as the author of the international best-seller All Quiet on the Western Front, a big success in movie theatres of that time. Thomas Mann generally is considered the premier German writer of the twentieth century, and while that’s true in terms of prestige perhaps, Remarque is a more gripping German author.

Flotsam tells a great story about stateless refugees during the Nazi nightmare circa 1937. (One should immediately sense the resonance in our time with the millions of political and climate refugees, exiles, fugitives, and victim peoples like the Rohingya of Myanmar and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, China, experiencing cultural genocide. We might extend this list to the Tutsis of Rwanda in 1994, the European Jews of World War II, and the Armenians of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire massacres. One could add the Chinese in Indonesia who experienced a genocidal pogrom in 1965. (Think of the movie, The Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson.)

The movie So Ends Our Night, based on Remarque’s great work Flotsam, shows Fredric March and Glenn Ford playing supremely harried stateless refugees, hounded all through Europe, in a nightmare of life “without a country,” passport, visa, citizenship.

Glenn Ford is only half-Aryan and is in danger of being murdered by the Nazi crazies. Fredric March is not racially endangered, but as an opponent of Hitler’s regime and a dissenter could be murdered for that treason. Both are in a “having no passport” hell.

Between minutes 23 and 24 of this movie, March explains to Glenn Ford’s 19-year-old on the run like he is:

“Individuals or nations, it’s all the same, as long as they’re safe and comfortable they don’t give a hoot about what happens to anybody else.

There’s the misery of the world.

That’s why progress is so slow and things slip back so fast.”

With some reflection, you’ll probably see the deep point March makes about global history and “the way of the world” plainly expressed without camouflaging the truth.

You can learn quite a bit if you ponder this movie conversation, with both refugees sitting under a tree, harried and distressed, in a nightmarish emergency.

Thus, So Ends Our Night can be a movie-as-university for you and feed your meta intelligence.

Precursors of Trumpism in American Culture: The Great Gatsby

Donald Trump’s brand of “nativist populism” is prefigured very clearly in the 1925 classic American novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the subject of several film adaptations. The anxiety in the Trump movement is called “The Great Replacement” (i.e., white people supplanted by minoritiesAmerican non-whites will “link up” with Mexicans and Chinese, stealing the place, property and role of white people). It has never occurred to these people that most of the world’s population is non-white. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, represents this anxiety.

He links these fears to the anxiety that “the sun is getting hotter.” (That is, he’s being threatened cosmically too, not only by racial demography.) His fears are not of “climate change,” based on something rational, but obsessive and maniacal “threat assessments.” They mirror the “irrational clusters of threats” of Trump and his voters, who “want to be paid in advance forever for their being white, Christian and American.” They demand “racial tenure.” This Tom Buchanan syndrome may be considered a type of “globalization backlash.”

Tom Buchanan lays it out in the novel:

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?…Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or those other races will have control of things…The idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see?”

(The Great Gatsby, Chapter 1)

“…Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have marriage between black and white.”

Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.

“We’re all white here,” murmured Jordan.

Angry as I was, as we all were, I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth. The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.

(The Great Gatsby, Chapter 7)

The Brexit phenomenon in the United Kingdom is not identical but does overlap (i.e., the “left behind” people in England want “historical ethnic-national tenure” and a kind of re-segregation).

Countries and Deep Patternings: China

China’s High-Level Equilibrium Trap as a Concept

The Pattern of the Chinese Past
Mark Elvin
Paperback: 348 pages
Publisher: Stanford University Press; 1st edition (June 1, 1973)

The 1973 classic work in Sinology, Mark Elvin’s The Pattern of the Chinese Past gives the student an “exemplum” in the kind of scholarship that might be called “pattern-seeking.” Without such attempts, all of history becomes formless and shapeless and an endless parade of “routs and rallies,” and “crimes and follies and misfortunes” (in Edward Gibbon’s catchphrase).

Professor Elvin renders Chinese history through an economic perspective instead of using the common dynastic classification by attempting to answer three questions:

  1. What contributed to the continuity of the Chinese empire?
  2. Why was the Chinese economy the most advanced in the world from the Song dynasty (960-1279) up until the latter half of the Qing dynasty (mid-1800s)?
  3. Why did China fail to maintain her technological advantage after the mid-fourteenth century while advancing economically?

In the first section of the book, the author elucidates the staying power of the Chinese empire was due to the following factors. The economics of defense in relation to the size of empire and the power of its neighbors never became an extreme burden that it rendered the state impotent for any consecutively long period of time. It was always able to reformulate itself after a short disunity or rule by a foreign power of the whole, which only happened twice within a two thousand year period (Mongol and Manchu rule). Two other factors that contributed to the continuity of the Chinese state include a relatively isolated existence from the rest of the Eurasian landmass and the important placed on cultural unity, beginning with the first emperor’s destruction of local records in order to quell local loyalties (pp. 21-22). Both of these factors had been built up over time through a revolution in communication and transportation.

The second section of the book analyses the causes of the economic revolution that occurred between the 8th and 12th centuries and the technological growth that accompanied it. The transformation of agriculture, especially in the south, was the major impetus that fueled the economic growth of this period. This revolution in agriculture had four aspects.

  1. The preparation of soil became more effective as a result of improved or new tools and the extensive use of manure and lime as fertilizer.
  2. Seed improvements allowed for double cropping.
  3. Improvements in hydraulic techniques and irrigation networks.
  4. Specialization in crops other than basic food grains (p.118).

Improvements in transportation and communications were almost as important as agriculture in growing the economy. Water transport saw big gains and led to the golden age of geographic studies and cartography, with envoys traveling as far away as Africa. Money and credit matured during this time helping to expand the economy. Paper money made its first appearance in 1024. Improvements in science, medicine, and technology also occurred during this period. However, despite all these advancements, “this period was the climax and also the end of many preceding centuries of scientific and technical progress” (p. 179). Although the Chinese economy continued to advance from the 14th century on, albeit on a smaller scale, it was not accompanied by improvements in technology.

The last section deals with this phenomenon, describing the distinctive characteristics of this late traditional period (1300-1800), and then proceeding to point out why technological advancements did not keep pace with the growth in the economy. This period sees a rise of small market towns in the sixteenth century and a decline in contact with the non-Chinese world around the middle of the fifteenth century. Also, by the eighteenth century serfdom disappeared, aiding population growth, which had reached 400 million by the mid-1800s. Elvin interestingly points out that the highly sophisticated metaphysics that evaded Chinese intellectual thought during the Ming and Qing dynasties negated any deep scientific inquiry (p. 233). In the attempt to explain the lack of technological advancement, Elvin disputes a number of conventional explanations. Contrary to popular belief, there was enough capital during this period to finance simple technological advances, also there was minimal political obstacles to economic growth.

In short, Elvin believes “that in late traditional China economic forces developed in such a way as to make profitable invention more and more difficult. With falling surplus in agriculture, and so falling per capita income and per capita demand, with cheapening labor but increasingly expensive resources and capital, with farming and transport technologies so good that no simple improvements could be made, rational strategy for peasants and merchants alike tended in the direction not so much of labor-saving machinery as of economizing on resources and fixed capital. Huge but nearly static markets created no bottlenecks in the production system that might have prompted creativity” (p. 314). This condition is what he terms as a “high-level equilibrium trap.” The term “trap” to describe the condition of late imperial China’s technological advancement in relation to the economy is similar to Escape from Predicament, Thomas Metzger’s analysis of the “predicament” that confronted Chinese intellectual thought from the Song through to the end of the Qing dynasty. Both explanations have at their core the idea of late imperial China not being able to generate real sustainable progress internally, stating that it was the Chinese response to the Western threat in the mid to late 1800s that finally brought the needed change.

Some Historical Notes on the Three Quests of China: Dignity, Stability, Understanding

Dignity Quest

In “The Philosopher,” a chapter in the 1922 travel book On a Chinese Screen, W. Somerset Maugham comments, “He was the greatest authority in China on Confucian learning.”

The philosopher mentioned above tells Maugham: 

“I took the Ph.D. in Berlin, you know,” he said.  “And afterwards I studied in Oxford.   …  But his study of Western philosophy had only served in the end to satisfy him that wisdom after all was to be found within the limits of the Confucian canon.  He accepted its philosophy with conviction.  If Confucianism gained so firm a hold on the Chinese it is because it explained and expressed them as no other system of thought could do.  He loathed the modern cry for individualism.  For him society was the unit, and the family the foundation of society.  He upheld the old China and the old school, monarchy, and the rigid canon of Confucius.  He grew violent and bitter as he spoke of the students fresh from foreign universities, who with sacrilegious hands tore down the oldest civilization in the world. ”

“But you, do you know what you are doing?” he exclaimed. “What is the reason for which you deem yourselves our betters? Have you excelled us in arts or letters? Have our thinkers been less profound than yours? Has our civilization been less elaborate, less complicated, less refined than yours? Why, when you lived in caves and clothed yourselves with skins we were a cultured people. Do you know that we tried an experiment which is unique in the history of the world? We sought to rule this great country not by force, but by wisdom. And for centuries we succeeded. Then why does the white man despise the yellow? Shall I tell you? Because he has invented the machine gun. That is your superiority. We are a defenseless horde and you can blow us into eternity. You have shattered the dream of our philosophers that the world could be governed by the power of law and order. And now you are teaching our young men your secret. You have thrust your hideous inventions upon us. Do you not know that we have a genius for mechanics? Do you not know that there are in this country four hundred millions of the most practical and industrious people in the world? Do you think it will take us long to learn? And what will become of your superiority when the yellow man can make as good guns as the white and fire them as straight? You have appealed to the machine gun and by the machine gun shall you be judged.”

Stability Quest

  1. The decade of the 1850s gives a most revealing picture of the Chinese sense of things falling apart.  The Taiping Rebellion, convulsed China in the 1850s. It was a utopian movement which wants to go backwards and forwards at the same time and arrive at a historical paradise.

  2. From 1859-1860, the Second Opium War racks China. The British extract more concessions from the Chinese by the Treaty of Tientsin, a tremendous new humiliation for the Chinese. As part of Britishshock and awe” of that time the Summer Palace in Beijing is burned down.

  3. In Chinese society, to add to this misery, there is a tremendous conflict in China between the Hakka (客家, “Guest People”) with the Punti (本地, “Native/Original People”) called the HakkaPunti conflict, and is referred to in the movie The Hawaiians, based on the James Michener novel.

  4. All of this Chinese turmoil and national weakness is itself taking place in a global context that is threatening. Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships” sail into Edo Bay (now Tokyo Bay) in 1853, to dictate terms to the Japanese which amount to “trade or die” (an Americanshock and awe”).

  5. In 1857-1858, India convulses with the Indian Mutiny, which has been described as the opening chapter of the Indian Independence Movement. The Indian Mutiny, also known as the Sepoy Mutiny, was put down with shocking brutality. The Chinese watching the event, feel rage about the insouciant attitude of Westerners towards non-Western people.(A recent masterpiece Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker shows you the same insouciant attitude in the Bengal Famine of the 1940s and with Churchill’s dismissive comments about the human misery.) The Chinese who were studying news reports coming out of India suddenly learnt that control of India in 1858 was transferred permanently from the East India Company to the Crown, showing that the British could change the rules of the game at will.

  6. In the 19th century Chinese and Japanese thinkers came up with two definitive slogans, which they used to orient themselves.

    Slogan One

    “Western Technology, Eastern Ethics.” What is the balance point between West and the East? Xi Jinping (习近平) is also trying to find a balance. How American must a Chinese Silicon Valley have to be?

    Slogan Two

    “Rich Country, Strong Army.” How fast could China become a rich country with a strong army, without provoking a global backlash—think Chinese leaders since Mao.

  7. Certain opaque and chaotic phenomena in Chinese history haunt the Chinese mind. Mao was reading Chinese historians all his life to try to understand these phenomena. Chinese schoolboys are trying to understand the rebellion called the An Lu-Shan (安禄山) of 755-763, which takes place in the middle of the Tang Dynasty and plunges China into chaos. Leaders, scholars and schoolchildren of China want to decipher the events of this very classic rebellion in Chinese history and to understand what they are always trying to understand: how things go bad. An Lu-Shan was of Turkish and Sogdian origins, which created another kind of nervousness: turmoil in China coming from non-Chinese ethnic groups. Chinese brutality toward both the Tibetans and the Muslims within China echo these anxieties. This classical rebellion is interpreted by Chinese as the beginning of the end of the Tang Dynasty, the first Chinese Golden Age. China’s preoccupation with stability comes from its insecurity about national turmoil such as the An Lu-Shan Rebellion case, which could merge with foreign threats creating a nightmare for China.

  8. China was conquered by the Mongols who created the Yuan Dynasty circa 1300 A.D. China was conquered by the Manchus from 1644-1911. The Japanese assaulted China in the 1930s. Europeans colonized and broke China into pieces in the 19th century. The ultimate symbol of China’s defeat was the two Opium Wars—1839 and 1859—by the British. The tremendous humiliation suffered by the Chinese is masterfully conveyed by Arthur Waley’s classic book, The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes.

Quest to Understand

China and Charles Darwin, by James Pusey, captures the perplexity of the Western intellectual impact on China in the last few lines of the book. “But Charles Darwin honestly entered those mixtures in Chinese heads and made them different. So his influence was real. Chinese of course confused Darwin’s ideas and were confused by them, and of course they got confused in Chinese directions, but small wonder. Every people has gotten confused. For the fact of the matter is, when all is said and done, that no one knows what to make of evolution.”

Many Western ideas and philosophies are troubling and destabilizing for the Chinese such as, individualism before society and family; marriage based on romantic love alone; a society based on innovate-or-die.

The Chinese quest for such modes of stability has a perennial quality.

Is the Concept of “People-Class” Illuminating?

Abram Leon was a tragic Belgian/Polish Jewish sociologist who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944. He fused the concept of people (e.g., the French people, or the Japanese people) with the concept of class (e.g. “the working class”) to make a hybridized concept of peopleclass.

Can we say that the Rwandan genocide in 1994, say, was the murder of a peopleclass (i.e., the Tutsi)?

Were the Armenian victims in 1915 an analogous phenomenon for the Ottoman Empire?

One immediately thinks of the Jews of Europe in WWII and the Chinese in 1965 Indonesia. (Think of the movie, The Year of Living Dangerously with Mel Gibson, which gives some “atmospherics” for this time in Indonesia.)

Is the Abram Leon notion of a peopleclass helpful in understanding these modern genocidal phenomena as an ensemble?

Meta intelligence is defined as working towards a “Composite Understanding of Education,” as you see in the masthead for this site.

Is peopleclass such a composite?

Essay 115: Novels as Another University: Joseph Conrad

One can say that the first wave of imperial “neocons” was not the group that got the U.S. into the Iraq War (2003) but the group described by Warren Zimmerman in his classic book on the rise of the American Empire from the 1890s onwards:

First Great Triumph

How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power.

By Warren Zimmermann.

Illustrated. 562 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Americans like to pretend that they have no imperial past,” Warren Zimmermann tells us in First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. But they do.

The United States had been expanding its borders from the moment of its birth, though its reach had been confined to the North American continent until 1898, when American soldiers and sailors joined Cuban and Filipino rebels in a successful war against Spain. When the war was won, the United States acquired a “protectorate” in Cuba and annexed Hawaii, the Philippine Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. “In 15 weeks,” Zimmermann notes, “the United States had gained island possessions on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of its continental mass. It had put under its protection and control more than 10 million people: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Indians, Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese and the polyethnic peoples of the Philippine archipelago.”

John Hay, at the time the American ambassador to Britain, writing to his friend Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba, referred to the war against Spain as “a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that Fortune which loves the brave.” He hoped that the war’s aftermath would be concluded “with that fine good nature, which is, after all, the distinguishing trait of the American character.” More than a century later, we are still asking ourselves just how splendid that little war and its consequences really were.

Zimmermann, a career diplomat and a former United States ambassador to Yugoslavia, begins his brilliantly readable book about the war and its aftermath with biographical sketches of the five men — Alfred T. Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay and Elihu Root — who played a leading role in making “their country a world power.”

Ironically, it turns out that any reader of Joseph Conrad’s (died in 1924) famous novel Nostromo from 1904 would have encountered the “manifesto” of the American Empire, very clearly enunciated by one of the characters in the novel:

“Time itself has got to wait on the greatest country in the whole of God’s universe. We shall be giving the word for everything; industry, trade, law, journalism, art, politics and religion, from Cape Horn clear over to Smith’s Sound (i.e., Canada/Greenland), and beyond too, if anything worth taking hold of turns up at the North Pole. And then we shall have the leisure to take in hand the outlying islands and continents of the earth.

“We shall run the world’s business whether the world likes it or not. The world can’t help it—and neither can we, I guess.”

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo, Penguin Books, 2007, pages 62/63

The political stances of Conrad which seem so denunciatory of imperialism here in Nostromo seem very disrespectful of Africans in his Heart of Darkness as Chinua Achebe (Nigerian novelist, author of Things Fall Apart) and other Africans have shown and decried. Thus one sees layer upon layer of contradiction both in American empire-mongering and Conrad’s anticipation of it in his novel Nostromo.

Essay 110: Education and Famine Analysis

The great historian Élie Halévy’s (died in 1937) History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, a multi-volume classic, gives us a sense of nineteenth century famine dynamics for the 1840s, which combines failed harvests and failed incomes and failed speculations together:

“It was a ‘dearth’ (i.e., scarcity)—a crisis belonging to the old order—the last ‘dearth,’ in fact, Europe had known up to the present day (i.e., before 1937). The unsatisfactory harvest of 1845 was followed by the disastrous autumn of 1846. The potato disease was worse than it had been the year before. The cereal harvest, moderately good in 1845, was a failure not only in the United Kingdom, but in France and throughout Western Europe. In 1845, Great Britain could still purchase corn even in Ireland, while the Irish poor were starving to death. Nothing of the kind was possible at the end of 1846.

Britain could not obtain wheat from France or Germany. In short, it was no longer Ireland alone, but the whole of Western Europe that had to be saved from famine.

“The United Kingdom, France, and Germany must import Russian and American wheat, the only sources available to supply the deficit.

“In consequence the price of wheat rose from 50 shillings and 2d. on August 22 to 65 shillings and 7d. on November 18. The price of wheat rose once more. It exceeded 78 shillings in March.

“In Germany and France, where another ‘jacquerie’ seemed to have begun, hunger caused an outbreak of rioting. The same happened in Scotland and the south of England…but England suffered in common with Ireland and Continental Europe, and a drain on English gold began, to pay for the Russian and American wheat.

“Later there was a fall of 50% in four months. The corn factors (i.e., corn dealers) who for months had been gambling on a rise had no time to retrace their steps and were ruined at a single blow.” (“Commerical Failures in 1847,” Eclectic Review, December 1847)

(Élie Halévy, “Victorian Years (1841-1895),” Halévy’s History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, Volume 4, pages 191-193, Ernest Benn Ltd., 1970)

Note that in British usage, “corn” refers to all feed grains (primarily wheat), not corn (in the American sense) or maize. For example, see the Corn Laws.

We sense from Halévy’s description of the “food insecurity” of the nineteenth century in Europe, why the Revolutions of 1848 were to a large extent severe food riots and how food poverty and speculation interacted with risk and uncertainty prevailing.

This should be read and pondered in connection with Prof. Amartya Sen’s classic from 1981, Poverty and Famines, which highlights the famine of income and buying power, as opposed to famines based on outright crop failures. Pearl Buck’s classic novel, The Good Earth (1931), fits this topic set, as it analyzes in human terms the pattern of Chinese famines. It is interesting to note, parenthetically, that the movie of The Good Earth could not feature Chinese actors in lead roles due to racial craziness at the time. Stepping back, we see a world of food insecurity aggravated by the spectre of racism further poisoning social relations worldwide.

Halévy states: “It was a ‘dearth’ (i.e., scarcity)—a crisis belonging to the old order—the last ‘dearth,’ in fact, Europe had known up to the present day…”.

It would be instructive to ponder whether this really was “a crisis belonging to the old order” given the catastrophes and food crises that could come with climate change from 2019 on out. Will we have “global ‘dearths’”?

Essay 44: Towards a More Cosmopolitan Education

Harvard University Press published in 2017, Jottings under Lamplight, an anthology of Lu Xun‘s (died in 1936) essays.  Lu Xun was the father of modern Chinese literature.

One of them is “Lessons from the Movies” from 1933:

“But when I went to the movies in Shanghai, I found that I had become one of the ‘lowly Chinese.’  In the galleries above were the white people and the rich people, and downstairs sat rows of middle and lower-class ‘descendants of the Han,’ while on the screen white soldiers fought battles, white gentlemen made fortunes, white maidens got married and white heroes had adventures, all to the admiration, envy, and terror of the audience, who knew that they themselves could do none of these things.”

(“Lessons from the Movies” essay in Jottings under Lamplight, Lu Xun, edited by Eileen Cheng et al, 2017, page 271, Harvard University Press) [first published September 11, 1933].

Only white people seem to “do things” in the world and to have agency, plannable lives, rationality, historical roles, defined stories. This is of course unsustainable.

This Lu Xun essay reminds us of the classic work of the black leader and “prophet,” William E. B. Du Bois.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois:

W.E.B. Du Bois said, on the launch of his groundbreaking 1903 treatise The Souls of Black Folk, “for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”—a prescient statement. Setting out to show to the reader “the strange meaning of being black here in the dawning of the Twentieth Century,” Du Bois explains the meaning of the emancipation, and its effect, and his views on the role of “the leaders of his race.”

Thus, Lu Xun and Du Bois agree, seeing the “color-line” where non-white people seem marginalized “forever” as a global apartheid that is not sustainable.

This will give the student a more wide-angle view of world history.