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.

Education and Wittgenstein “Language Games”

It is instructive for a student to get a grip on the whole question of “language games” à la Wittgenstein, who says that these “games” (i.e., ambiguities) are central to thinking in general and thinking about philosophy in particular.

Let’s make up our own example and step back from the meaning of the preposition “in.”

The comb is in my back pocket has nothing to do with the “in” of “he’s in a good mood” or “he’s in a hurry” or “he’s in a jam or pickle” or “he’s in trouble.” Furthermore, in modern deterministic neuroscience language, a good mood is a footnote to brain and blood chemicals so that means that a good mood is in you via chemicals and not you in it.

Does the word “jam” here mean difficulty or somehow the condiment called jam? You don’t know and can never without more information (i.e., meaningful context).

Imagine we take a time machine and are standing in front of the home of Charles Dickens in London in his time say in the 1840s. They say he’s working on a new novel called Oliver Twist.

Someone says: a novel by Dickens is a kind of “fictional universe.” Shall we say that because Dickens is in his home (at home) in London (though in London is itself confusing since London as a city is not like a pocket to a comb or wallet) his fictional universe is “in” the universe which might be a multiverse according to current cosmological speculations? That’s not what we mean. The fictional universe of Dickens is a shared cultural abstraction involving his stories, characters, people absorbing his tales, his mind and our mind, books and discussions. A fictional universe is as “weird” as the other universe. The preposition “in” does not begin to capture what’s going on which is socio-cultural and not “physicalistic.”

We begin to intuit that everyday language which we use and handle as the most obvious thing in the world in constant use, is completely confusing once you look at it more clearly.

Einstein’s friend at Princeton, Kurt Gödel, looked into language as a logical phenomenon and concluded that it’s entirely puzzling that two people could actually speak and understand one another given the ambiguities and open-endedness of language.

A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven. Wittgenstein argued that a word or even a sentence has meaning only as a result of the “rule” of the “game” being played. Depending on the context, for example, the utterance “Water!” could be an order, the answer to a question, or some other form of communication.

In his work, Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly referred to the concept of language-games. Wittgenstein rejected the idea that language is somehow separate and corresponding to reality, and he argued that concepts do not need clarity for meaning. Wittgenstein used the term “language-game” to designate forms of language simpler than the entirety of a language itself, “consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven” and connected by family resemblance (German: Familienähnlichkeit).

The concept was intended “to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life,” which gives language its meaning.

Wittgenstein develops this discussion of games into the key notion of a “language-game.”

Gödel saw that language has deep built-in ambiguities which were as puzzling as math and logic ones:

Gödel’s (died in 1978) incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modeling basic arithmetic. These results, published by Kurt Gödel in 1931, are important both in mathematical logic and in the philosophy of mathematics.

Take any simple sentence: say, “men now count.”

Without a human context of meaning, how would you ever decide if this means count in the sense of numeracy (one apple, two apples, etc.) or something entirely from another domain (i.e. males got the vote in a certain country and now “count” in that sense).

When you say, “count me in” or count me out,” how does that make any sense without idiomatic language exposure?

If you look at all the meanings of “count” in the dictionary and how many set phrases or idioms involve the word “count,” you will immediately get the sense that without a human “life-world” (to use a Husserl phrase), you could never be sure of any message or sentence at all involving such a fecund word.

One task of real education is to put these difficulties on the student’s plate and not avoid them.

Linguistics as such is not what’s at issue but rather a “meta-intelligent” sense of language, written or spoken as highly mysterious with or without the research into vocal cords, language genes (FOXP2, say) or auditory science and the study of palates or glottal stops and fricatives, grammars and syntax.

Seeing this promotes deep education (i.e., where understanding touches holism in an enchanting way).

Essay 93: Education and the Movies: The Issue of Political Irrationality

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a movie masterpiece that is enormously educational not for the particular details of the story but for the phenomenon of politics as an outlet for personal problems: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a 1969 British drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. Directed by Ronald Neame, it stars Maggie Smith in the title role as an unrestrained teacher at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh.

Maggie Smith (whom you know from Downton Abbey as the aggressive matriarch) plays a romantically naive schoolteacher at a girl’s school in Scotland, 1930s. She has a “big time” crush on a handsome gym teacher whom she discovers in bed with one of the young girls—“Sandy” and has a kind of nervous breakdown or better, “image of the whole correctness of the world” breakdown.

The teacher sees newsreels of Mussolini in Italy and begins to think of him as a “romantic savior and ‘world-cleaner’ who will clean up the illegitimate situation at her girls’s school in Edinburgh and salvage her dignity and place and prestige and sense of how the world should be. On the one hand Miss Brodie talks about the girls of the school as ‘la crème de la crème’ but how does that comport with ‘Sandy’ and the male gym teacher sharing their beds with each other? The ‘cognitive dissonance’ (incompatibility) in Miss Brodie’s mind is causing her to break down and flee into fantasy land (i.e., Mussolini will restore the romantic world to the way it’s supposed to be). She goes deeper and deeper into this nutty vision of salvation and romantic re-balancing and at the end of the movie, ‘Sandy’ senses that she’s coming unglued and is borderline bonkers. Thus the title ‘the prime of’ can be thought of as ironical or sardonic since the teacher Miss Brodie is flipping out and ‘maps’ her romantic frustrations” onto Mussolini. This is what makes politics so dangerous (i.e., it serves as a “Rorschach test” for people’s inner irrationalities and yearnings and they “see” what they need to see).

Harold Lasswell (died in 1978) spent his life exploring politics and people’s private lives, order, sense of things, grievances, in such books as Psychopathology and Politics.  If you watch the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie you will see how people use politics as a “screen” on which they project their emotions, grievances, hurts, humiliations, hysteria, anger.

Harold Dwight Lasswell (February 13, 1902 – December 18, 1978) was a leading American political scientist and communications theorist. He was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, and he was a professor of law at Yale University. He served as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of the American Society of International Law and of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

He has been described as a “one-man university” whose “competence in, and contributions to, anthropology, communications, economics, law, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and sociology are enough to make him a political scientist in the model of classical Greece.”

Table of Contents for Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics Book

I. Life-Histories and Political Science
II. The Psychopathological Approach
III. A New Technique of Thinking
IV. The Criteria of Political Types
V. Theories of Personality Development
VI. Political Agitators
VII. Political Agitators—Continued
VIII. Political Administrators
IX. Political Convictions
X. The Politics of Prevention
XI. The Prolonged Interview and Its Objectification
XII. The Personality System and Its Substitutive Reactions
XIII. The State as a Manifold of Events
Afterthoughts—Thirty Years Later
Appendix A. Select Bibliography
Appendix B. Question List on Political Practices

(2016 reprint of 1930 edition. Full facsimile of the original edition.)

First published in 1930, this classic study of personality types remains vital for the understanding of contemporary public figures. Lasswell’s pioneering application of the concepts of clinical psychology to the understanding of power brokers in politics, business, and even the church offers insights into the careers of leaders as diverse as Adolf Hitler and, arguably to more recent figures such as Richard Nixon, Donald Trump and the Clintons.

Movies should be your off-campus alternate university. You should ask yourself does this movie and Lasswell’s notions of psychopathology in politics help me understand authoritarian leaders today and such bizarre phenomena as half-dead prisoners in Stalin’s gulags bursting into tears in March 1953 when they learned of his death. Why sob over the death of the man who’s murdering you and tormenting you and your family?